“I have now ruined rocks for you, haven’t I?”
This is a phrase Jonna Gentry admits having to repeat often to her students in Lakewood, Colo., as they realize they will never again look at mountains, beaches or anything else geological without thinking back to lessons from their ninth grade science teacher.
That would be Gentry – and it is her gift for teaching and affecting students’ lives inside and outside the classroom that has earned her this year’s AAPG Teacher of the Year Award.
Gentry teaches earth science at both the regular and honors level at Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, as well as a section of “Beginning Robotics,” which she said allows her to also see the world from an engineer’s perspective.
Formally, Gentry is being recognized for “Excellence in the Teaching of Natural Resources in the Earth Sciences,” an honor given annually by the AAPG Foundation.
She’ll receive her award – a $5,000 prize, half to her for her own personal use and half to Green Mountain High School for educational use under Gentry’s supervision – at the All-Convention Luncheon during the AAPG Annual Convention in Long Beach, Calif.
Gentry said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She even recounted a time when a hometown friend told her that she had known Gentry would be a teacher since their days together in the second grade:
“‘She was the only one who made sure that everyone saw the pictures when it was her turn to read to the class,’” Gentry recalled her friend saying about her. “‘She was teaching her dolls – and her younger brother – when she was only five years old.’”
Most would agree that being a high school teacher is challenging enough, but adding a science class to the mix would seem to be an additional hurdle.
“Most of my students willingly admit that earth sciences is not their favorite subject,” Gentry said – but she combats that by making her class as fun and relevant to their lives outside the classroom as possible.
“I hope that my love and passion for the earth sciences will draw students in and allow them to explore an area of science that many of them seem to have decided that they do not like before they even begin the school year,” she said.
“My greatest hope,” she continued, “is that students walk out of my classroom with a new filter to view their natural world through, a new excitement about the world around them and the ability to critically consider information about the changes and challenges related to the natural world.
Perhaps surprisingly, earth science “was not the subject that I had envisioned teaching when I set out to become an educator.
“Instead, I have found myself falling in love with the earth sciences over the past 13 years,” she said.
That love now infuses her approach to education.
“I believe in having as many models as available to solidify the learning of the abstract concepts found in the earth sciences,” she said.
“For example, I keep a set of rocks, minerals and oil samples for students to handle,” she said. “We review the rock cycle by rolling dice and moving from station to station, which include visual cues for each concept.”
And being in Colorado, teaching aids outside the classroom are available, too.
“We visit Dinosaur Ridge to see rocks in their natural state,” she said, calling it an opportunity “for students to talk to experts and to see rocks in their natural state.
“It is eye-opening for many students,” she said. “I have had more than one visiting student tell me that this field trip was one of the most memorable events of their freshman year in high school.”
Geology is one of the specific units that Gentry teaches during the year to her earth science students.
“We begin by reviewing what they already know about rocks and minerals and the rock cycle,” she said. “We continue the year discussing the stories that rocks tell us – these stories include the geologic history of an area, the current geologic phenomena of an area, the future development of an area, the economic usage of an area and the geology of other planets.”
She said the unit dealing with natural resources is “one of my favorite units to teach.”
The overarching question her students are to consider is: How do we as a society make the best use of the resources we have available to us with as little disruption to the environment as possible?
“Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas are looked at in the conversation about nonrenewable resources,” she said. “I begin this portion by allowing students to observe a variety of items and categorize whether any or all parts of the item came from petroleum …
“It is interesting to watch the reaction when they learn that a majority of the items that we use are derived in some way from petroleum,” she said.
Making It Fun
Gentry believes that “as young adults enter high school, some of them have lost their ability to play.”
Therefore, she has had to become good at utilizing a variety of different teaching methods to help her bring that creativity and willingness to learn out of her students.
“We often play pretend,” she said, “so they get a chance to do what scientists do, which is imagine the seemingly impossible solution to a perplexing question.”
Claiming herself as a bit of a devil’s advocate, Gentry has found that by refusing to tell her students the so-called right answer she allows them the chance to discover it for themselves.
“I usually open the floor for students to answer each others’ questions,” she said of her approach. “I try to allow them as many opportunities as possible to explore their ideas and solutions before I offer mine.”
Gentry describes her classroom as organized chaos; having procedures for everything from beginning to end, but allowing class discussions to fuel the class forward and keep it constantly busy.
Gentry says her inspiration to do her best everyday derives from her belief that her students will go on to do things she could only dream of doing.
Her proof is in the energy they bring, and the imagination they exhibit during their classroom discussions.
“I believe every student is capable of learning,” she said – but that might mean something different to each student, she added, and they might achieve this learning in different ways.
“I attempt to teach every single student whether they are passing or failing the class,” she said. “Some of them will not figure it out until later on in their high school career – or even as an adult.”
But she truly believes each one is worth her maximum effort, because all eventually will be contributing adults to our society.
These future adults’ contributions, or “creative solutions will be the necessary tools for our society to continue enjoying and improving a way of life.”