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The City Journals

Murray teachers recognized for being innovative, committed to excellence in teaching

Sep 09, 2021 10:48AM ● By Julie Slama

Murray High’s Susan Banks, showing a flame demonstration, was recognized for her excellence in teaching as the Ron and Eileen Ragsdale Chemistry Teacher of the Year. (Screenshot of video by David Vala/Murray High)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers chose to instruct in-person or remotely, but not as many did both.

McMillan Elementary’s Anastasia Athens was one of those few. At one point, she taught 24 fifth-and sixth-grade students in-person while 31 students district-wide watched her synchronously.

Athens, along with Riverview Junior High’s Gina Dansie, received the Utah Coalition for Educational Technology’s innovative teacher awards for “supporting student learning through innovative teaching practices using technology” while Murray High’s Susan Banks was recognized for her excellence in teaching as the Ron and Eileen Ragsdale Chemistry Teacher of the Year.

Athens, who also was featured on the NBC Today Show, showcased how she was able to reach students via the district’s LTE network. Students joined with her at specific times so they could participate with their peers in the same assignments and conversations in real time.

“I would have a live Zoom happening while I was teaching my lessons, so the kids who were at home could log on and watch live and ask questions,” Athens said. The lesson was also recorded so students could use it as reference or if someone missed class or were quarantined. 

Using a Hudl camera that follows the movement and voice as well, she connected a document camera to her computer that could display what was shown on a TV screen for the class as well as on the computer for students studying virtually. Her students, as all in Murray School District, had Chromebooks issued to them and used Google Classroom to stay on top of assignments.

“It took a lot of adapting and figuring out what works and what doesn’t at the beginning of the year,” she said, adding that she took it upon herself to figure which way worked best for her and her students. “I think that was intriguing since it was a bit different than maybe some of the other online teachers.”

Athens then shared what she was doing with others so they could learn from her experience and is planning to use it again this year as she teaches both methods.

“It made me realize how much teaching can and should be evolving as we grow into this world of technology and how we can access our students more,” she said. “I think for me, it was a way to better my instruction. Using technology as a support is going to be a part of my teaching, probably forever.”

Collaborating with colleagues in using technology was also key to Dansie’s recognition. 

“A lot of it just comes to being willing to share and collaborate with others because if teachers are confident with technology and we can use it effectively, that is going to help our students,” said Dansie, who has been a Driven2Teach participant and visited and learned about history first-hand along the eastern seaboard.

Dansie uses Google Docs, Forms, Classroom and Slides in her teaching and frequently has been known to share her knowledge of Canvas other with faculty. She completed the Google certification before COVID-19 hit and upon taking the exam, she can be a certified educator.

“Typically, I used Canvas a little bit and I do like to use a lot of Google tools, like Google Slides, as a way for students to share information as an individual with what they’re researching with the class. Then last year, it was really just doing that across the board and helping other teachers utilize that as well,” she said.

 Dansie, who teaches ninth-grade Advanced Placement human and world geography, as well as school success study hall courses, knows it is a way to connect with her students.

“In my AP class, I use a lot of Quizlet, which is like online flash cards for vocabulary. I also have an online textbook there,” she said, adding that she uses Flipgrid for video discussions as well as the Google Workspace (or G Suite).

It is the way of the future, Dansie said.

“It definitely is a move toward more personalized education,” she said, adding that a conflict in class schedules could result where one course can be taken online instead of in-person or could provide direct instruction online if a student is absent. “I think it’s only going to help students and that’s really what we want.”

At nearby Murray High, Banks was recognized as the outstanding high school chemistry teacher from the University of Utah’s chemistry department. Annually, the award is given to a Utah chemistry teacher who has demonstrated excellence in the teaching of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate chemistry classes and is characterized by organization, equitability and high standards.

Banks once was introduced to Ron Ragsdale, who by then had retired. Ragsdale, who taught more than 50,000 college, high school and summer school students in his career, helped establish the annual Faraday lectures that have entertained thousands of local students and families every December. He died in 2020.

“He had just finished playing racquetball,” she said. “He just wanted to meet me and see what was going on in my classroom. You could tell that he still really kind of missed having a foot in the teaching world.”

University of Utah faculty member Jeff Statler explained some of Banks’ outstanding qualities in which she was selected for the award: “Susan blends excitement, experience, open-mindedness and flexibility into a professionalism that is to be envied.”

Banks’name will be added to a plaque at the University of Utah.

“It’s a big deal in the chemistry world and the people who are already on that plaque in the [Henry] Erying Chemistry Building are seriousl teachers, people I’ve been looking up to for years. So, to be part of that group, it’s just amazing,” she said.

Banks not only teaches chemistry and honors chemistry at Murray High, but she instructs the AP chemistry lab for students along the Wasatch Front at the University of Utah, saving high schools from purchasing equipment and holding their own labs. 

Every summer, she teaches an invitation-only accelerated chemistry course to high school students at the U of U as part of the chemistry outreach program.

“We put them through eight credits of chemistry in six weeks, for five hours per day and we do what I call chemistry boot camp: go fast and furious. It’s really intense and at the same time, it’s really fun because you get to do a whole lot of chemistry that isn’t in the normal curriculum,” Banks said. “So, we’ll do nuclear chemistry and do a lot of astrophysical solar star chemistry and compound chemistry. It’s stuff that you normally don’t get to do until you’re in the upper-level chemistry classes. I think it’s a party. Honestly, it’s just fun.”

That enthusiasm and flexibility is something she is known for.

“Last year, after so many of my students were online, I really didn’t get to meet them in person, so I’m really going to double-down on making sure I get to know my students and who they are and hopefully, find something that helps them really engage and enjoy the scientific world,” Banks said. “My biggest hope is to help them enjoy learning and re-engage in school in a positive way.”