In rural Alaska, science teacher Steven Jacquier's high school students feed alcohol to pregnant mice.
After the students see the deformed fetuses that develop, they hold clinics to spread the message in their Eskimo villages, where fetal alcohol syndrome is a major problem.
In Walnut, Calif., Suzanne Middle School teacher Alan Haskvitz had his social studies students rewrite voting instructions because they couldn't understand them. Their changes were used by Los Angeles County.
And in Newnan, Ga., seventh- and eighth-graders who have arrived at Fairmont Alternative School through the juvenile court system can experience the other side of the bench as judges, lawyers, bailiffs and jurors through a school judicial system Carmella Williams Scott created to turn criminal thinkers into critical thinkers.
For their success at unlocking student minds and making a difference in their lives, Jacquier, Haskvitz and Scott, along with 13 other individual teachers and four teaching teams, have been named to USA TODAY's All-USA Teacher First Team as representatives of all outstanding teachers.
The 20 winners were selected from 599 nominees nationwide. They will be honored Friday at USA TODAY headquarters in Arlington, Va., where they will receive trophies and $2,500 for their schools.
Twenty more nominees were named each to the Second and Third All-USA teams.
"These stellar teachers inspire their students to be the best they can be, academically. They also teach lessons of empowerment, responsibility and community," says Tom Curley, president and publisher of USA TODAY. "By honoring them, we recognize what they're doing is building a better future."
The teachers unlock minds in a variety of situations, from Jacquier, who travels to three remote Eskimo villages in western Alaska each year to teach science in 12-week modules; to Suzanne Taffet-Romano, who transforms Long Island children with autism from non-communicators to students who read and tell jokes.
Among the 20 First Team members, 10 teach elementary, two teach middle school and six teach high school. Scott teaches at an alternative middle/high school, and Taffet-Romano teaches at the Rosemary Kennedy School for students with cognitive disorders in Wantagh, N.Y.
Science of discovery
The First Team represents a diversity of outstanding teaching, but there is also a strong scientific bent. Nearly half either teach science or are noted for how well they incorporate science into the curriculum:
Myron Blosser's molecular genetics students not only design original research but also order their supplies and maintain thousands of dollars' worth of lab equipment at Harrisonburg (Va.) High. That's real science -- and real life, Blosser says.
Edna Waller led school and community efforts to establish two wetland areas and nature trails on the grounds of Magnolia Park Elementary School, bordering Gulf Islands National Seashore in Ocean Springs, Miss. The outdoor labs draw students not just into the science of the wetlands but also into the history and economics of Ocean Springs, which relies on the shrimping industry. "It makes a connection to them to real life," Waller says.
Sylvia Dee Shore trains her Clubview Elementary third-graders to monitor water quality and work on water conservation in Columbus, Ga. In five years, Shore's River Kids Network has spread to 17 schools and more than 1,000 students statewide. "They truly believe they're making a difference, and they are," Shore says.
Susan Roberts Bradburn has fourth- to sixth-graders research science exhibits to present to other classes and finds they work harder to finish their schoolwork correctly so they have more time for their mobile museum projects.
"It's like I've just found this secret," says Bradburn, who teaches at West Marion (N.C.) Elementary School.
Tina Cross has involved students in writing $179,000 worth of grants for Carver High in Columbus, Ga. "I don't think there's a student in the magnet program who hasn't been involved in a grant," says senior Phillip Moore, 17.
The process teaches students larger lessons about going after what they want, Cross says. "They know where the equipment comes from and what it takes to get it."
Four of the 20 First Team slots this year went to teams of teachers who collaborate:
In Bio/Geo, a biology/geometry course dubbed "math and science get wet and muddy," Sandra Duck Eidson and Lela Whelchel's students at West Hall High in Oakwood, Ga., teamed up to build DNA models and monitor creek water quality.
"It taught me to think about getting other people's opinions instead of just my own," says Justin Woodsmall, 17.
Craig Yager and Lise Blumenthal tap parent and grandparent volunteers, student teachers, professors and others to help teach the Fifth Grade Flock at Whittier Elementary School in Boulder, Colo.
The "Zoo School" faculty in Lincoln, Neb., encourages students to pursue their own interests and share their expertise. "We are a community of learners," science teacher Sara Leroy-Toren says.
And the four-member Tiger Team at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Cross Lanes, W.Va., builds interdisciplinary units around subjects such as the Native American experience and World War II that helps eighth-graders understand the dangers of intolerance.
"When the World War II unit is done, student behavior changes. They become more tolerant and see hate and prejudice in a different light," math teacher Karen McNeer says.
First Teamers run student-centered classrooms that foster individual and community growth in ways not found in any textbook:
Jody Solmonson introduces her fifth-graders at Bear Valley Elementary in Anchorage to Shakespeare, atomic structure and the physics of energy loss, often through activities that encourage them to forge their own way. True accomplishment is the only path to self-esteem, Solmonson says: "You can't give it. You can only earn it. You set up challenges that they can overcome."
Linda Chelman welcomes students with special needs into her
second-grade class at Jefferson Elementary in Franklin, Mass. Beyond designing activities using different talents to reinforce the same concept, she uses inclusion to build a sense of community. Twice a week, Chelman gathers her students in a circle to talk about problem-solving strategies and how to include other students.
"Students have to realize we're all different, but we're all alike," she says.
And Spanish teacher Maria Garcia-Rameau opens up the entire Latin world to students at Scarborough High in Houston, many of whom don't think beyond Mexico, says former student Brett Millican, 30. Millican credits his high school Spanish with opening the door to his Coast Guard career, in which he has served on cutters off Florida and Puerto Rico.
Such lessons don't come at the expense of core curriculum, and for the first- and second-grade teachers in particular, reading is fundamental.
Nancy Downing developed Downfeld Phonics to teach reading with sign language, lively jingles, dancing and
tactile activities. "They see it, hear it, say it, feel it," says Downing, second-grade teacher
McDermott Elementary in Little Rock. "The only thing they're not doing is tasting it, and if I could figure out a way for them to do that, I'd do it."
Michael Terrell of Gavin H. Cochran Elementary, Louisville, and Lenell Lindsey of Len Lastinger Primary School, Tifton, Ga., also bring students' families into the effort. Terrell started a literacy program, copied in five states, that provides books and magazines to families. Lindsey wrote a series of 50 "little home readers," distributed statewide, to be photocopied and sent home so children have books to read to their parents.
And from those first reading lessons, teachers guide pupils down the path to independence. Rhonda Nachamkin has her first-graders at River Eves Elementary School in Roswell, Ga., learn words by looking them up in dictionaries. "Why wait? They can look up their own information," she says. "I want them to be independent little souls."
Reported by Jenn Burleson in Marion, N.C.; Marilyn Elias in Walnut, Calif.; Rick Hampson in Wantagh, N.Y.; Guillermo X. Garcia in Houston; Kevin V. Johnson in Lincoln, Neb.; John Larrabie in Franklin, Mass.; Larry Muhammad in Louisville; Patrick O'Driscoll in Boulder, Colo.; Sid Scott in Ocean Springs, Miss.; Ben Spiess in Alaska; J.J. Thompson in Little Rock; Lee Ann Welch in Cross Lanes, W.Va.; and Tracey Wong Briggs in Georgia and Harrisonburg, Va.