JDHS's Smith a finalist for Teacher of the Year

Biology, physics teacher one of five finalists in annual statewide contest

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2004

"Slope! I love it!" Jonathan Smith cries out when one of his biology students suggests the terrain's slope should be part of an environmental study for a hypothetical miniature golf course above the Gold Creek flume.

"Humidity?" another student offered during the Tuesday morning class for sophomores.

"Love it!" Smith yelled.

Smith, 37, who teaches advanced biology and physical science at Juneau-Douglas High School, is one of five finalists for Alaska Teacher of the Year, an honor bestowed by the state Department of Education.

The other finalists are Rita Davis of Palmer, Morgan Gray of Tanana, Travis Harrington of Anchorage and Ronnie Stanford of Barrow. In November, a group of parents and educators will select the winner, who will compete for National Teacher of the Year.

Last year, Smith was the Juneau School District's teacher of the year. He has been teaching for 13 years, 12 in Juneau.

Smith worked as a fisheries technician after college in Fairbanks, but found that he wanted to interact with people. If you watched him in the classroom, you'd walk away thinking he'd be wasted on a fish.

Nancy Waterman, who has helped organize the local science fair, said she occasionally visited Smith in his classroom to take care of a detail. There were always students in his room, she said, "and there's an interaction between those students and Jonathan that's contagious."

Lisa Imamura, a junior who took classes with Smith as a freshman and sophomore, said he was "very bold, very enthusiastic. It kind of is contagious. That is what made it fun."

In Tuesday's biology class, Smith paced around the long lab room, gesturing, talking fast, querying, smiling, grimacing, teasing at times. An actor could learn something from him about speaking with the body and the face.

But sometimes Smith's high standards and outgoing manner intimidate students, which he regrets, he said.

Smith asked the students in Tuesday's class to form into groups of three and talk about what an environmental study for the golf course should include.

That let them interact with other students. Socializing is part of teenage life, and Smith wants to harness that energy. He also wants to stimulate their natural curiosity.

He walked around, nudging students to be more specific. Trees? What about trees? Their diameter, their height?

When it was time to hear the students' ideas and compile a master list on the whiteboard, Smith asked them how they would gather the information they wanted.

When a boy said they should know the height of trees, Smith said, "I'm hearing trig. You got to start with some numbers to do math with it. What number do you want, to find out the height of a tree?"

A boy suggested measuring shadows, but Smith opened a drawer and pulled out what he called a "really cool" angle gun, which did look like a gun in silhouette and which measures angles.

"Crack your brains to figure out what kind of trig you have to do because I'm not inclined to tell you," Smith said.

About an hour into the 75-minute class most students were still attentive and raising their hands. Students smiled, laughed and called out ideas, although there were some yawns and gymnastic back-bending stretches.

It wasn't a lesson in which students bent over their desks and took notes. Smith didn't want to supply the list of topics for the environmental study himself. The hypothetical case and an upcoming field trip to the flume gave the students a reason to know what goes into such a study.

It's tempting to want to say to the students, "here," but that's not fun and it quickly makes for passive learners, Smith said.

"And passive learners aren't learners," he said.

Smith has had student teachers in his classroom since his third year of teaching. Jay Watts, a master's candidate two years ago in Smith's classroom, now teaches math and science at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

Watts said Smith's dedication transcended the job and became a lifestyle. Once, when Smith was cooking at home, it occurred to him how to explain enzymes.

"He talked about his grandma's applesauce recipe, and there were enzymes breaking down cell walls," Watts said.

Smith's lab is the usual collection of black tables between cabinets of orderly supplies and a row of sinks. The walls bear maps and, in places, photos of all the students in recent science fairs.

Smith has been a catalyst for what is now the Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair by requiring nearly all of his students to enter it. They ask scientists to mentor them.

The fair is organized by volunteers and sponsored by companies and the Juneau School District. The vast majority of entrants are Smith's students.

"Science is a process," Smith said. "And the best way to get students to understand science and appreciate it and like science is to get them to be scientists."

The fair's organizers bring together students, teachers, business people and professional scientists who look at the holistic benefits of project-oriented education, Waterman said.

"Jonathan was one of those teachers who perfectly paralleled that philosophy of education," she said.

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