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Cottonwood Teacher Has Right Chemistry for Huntsman

Jun 29, 2016 09:04AM ● Published by Bryan Scott

Cottonwood High chemistry teacher Dennis Hummer was awarded the Huntsman Excellence in Teaching Award. He has taught at the school for 28 years. —Granite School District

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com

Cottonwood Heights

Towering over students at six feet seven inches tall, chemistry teacher Dennis Hummer could be intimidating as he questions students’ theories in his deep voice. But parent Jane Metcalf said the Cottonwood High educator is “a remarkable teacher who is one of all the students’ favorites.” 

“He’s really very approachable and wants to help his students succeed, going much beyond what a typical teacher may do,” Metcalf said.

For that reason, she coordinated the efforts to nominate him for the Huntsman Excellence in Teaching Award, which on April 20 he learned he’d receive after being interrupted in his class by Karen Huntsman and other guests.

“I didn’t recognize Karen Huntsman right away, so I went over to introduce myself and saw Assistant Superintendent Alan Parrish and then my wife, two of my sons, my mom, and I became a little embarrassed,” Hummer said. “I couldn’t help thinking of all the other deserving colleagues. And I was quite surprised because my wife isn’t the best at keeping secrets, but she did quite well with this one.”

Hummer later received $10,000 and a crystal obelisk on May 13 at a dinner where he and 10 other recipients were recognized. However, the day they surprised Hummer, Huntsman shared with the class and guests the reasons why he was selected for the award.

 “She said very kind things about me, probably made me sound better than I am,” he said. “In every high school, there are dozens of teachers who are hard-working and deserving and cherish the kind notes they receive from students thanking them. I’m just lucky I had some wonderful parents who recommended me for this award.”

 Metcalf said that is typical of Hummer to downplay his accomplishments.

 His teaching career came about in 1988 when he was hired out of college, but as he said, it was the right choice.

 “I had a three-and-one-month-old son who was born premature in Billings and we had to decide right away where to move him. Salt Lake City was the best option, so we life-flighted him and accepted the position all at once. It’s been great to be part of a wonderful program,” he said.

Metcalf said that as his son, who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind, came to school, he’d often arrive early to magnify the homework so his son could see it. He’d also read the textbook out loud to record, so his son could listen to the material in an era before another way was provided for students with disabilities.

“He would do that with many students; he visited a student with spinal injuries in the hospital, gave a student extra help while the student was having cancer treatments, motivating many of our refugee students who barely speak English to learn and succeed. Many of these students now are studying science and medicine thanks to his encouragement,” she said.

Hummer said that in 28 years of teaching, there have been changes at Cottonwood.

“It’s like a mini United Nations here as you walk through the halls. We certainly have more diversity, which makes our student body more interesting. We learn life stories from those who are refugees, just learning English. We slow the learning process for them, but we also offer Advanced Placement chemistry for those who have spent a couple years learning and are ready for hard work,” he said.

Throughout his teaching, he includes lots of demonstrations and introduces humor in his class.

“I try to keep things fun and tie it into what they’re learning,” he said.

With his honors chemistry class, he created a flip class, where he created 187 lectures for students to watch at home. He also created a manual that students can refer to, often updating it to match the changing core curriculum or textbooks. Class time is for review, questions and homework.

“I’ve learned that many parents aren’t versed in chemistry, so it was hard for them to help their students at home. By flipping the class, we have a 90- to 95-percent completion rate, and even some parents join the students in watching videos. One comment I’ve received is, ‘You’re the last voice I hear before I fall asleep at night,’ as the parent hears the video her child is watching,” he said.

Metcalf said that the videos are more than lectures.

“He makes them really exciting and has fun with colorful flames and bubbly solutions,” she said.

 Parrish, who was Hummer’s principal at Cottonwood and at one time coached the boys basketball team to state championships alongside of him, said that much of the video lecture production and lab manual writing has been on the teacher’s own time.

“Students’ work has just skyrocketed under this format and when they need him, he’s still there,” Parrish said. “He goes beyond the typical classroom and helps his students make connections with colleges and furthering their education. He’s an outstanding teacher who just happens to be great in chemistry, too.”

Hummer also has been involved in the AP lab program at the University of Utah, allowing students to perform laboratory work there, freeing up class time at Cottonwood and helping them get college credit. This opportunity is open to other high school students.

“He is really well-known in the science education field and everyone knows him and appreciates what he has done for students,” Metcalf said, adding that he received the Ron Ragsdale University of Utah High School Teacher of the Year Award last year.

Hummer said that he received wonderful support from long-time senior faculty member Dick Smith, who took him under his wing and gave him pointers in teaching.

“I was a little disappointed when I started since I have a major in biology and a minor in chemistry [from Rocky Mountain College] and Cottonwood wanted me to teach chemistry. However, once I realized the vigorous program Cottonwood had under [the 36 years of]s Dick Smith, I was impressed with the high standards he set here,” he said.

Now Principal Terri Roylance said Hummer is the success of the program.

“Mr. Hummer is the backbone of our chemistry department, teaching core, honors and AP levels, comprising seven classes with a typical student load of 210,” she said. “He is a leader in his field and a mentor to our young science teachers.” 

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