by Andrea Crowl
This article appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Texoma Living!.
Summer vacation is over. School has started. Nikki Bitzer is back in the classroom. Life is good, really good. For this Sherman teacher, nothing sounds so sweet as the bell signaling the start of another class.
“I don’t use textbooks.”
It sounds like a student’s educational dream, but not like a recipe for success. Yet, one teacher without textbooks has been propelling students to a 100% pass rate on the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test for the last three years. Stop by Fairview Elementary in Sherman on any school day, and you might find Bitzer’s third-grade students chipping golf balls, playing Twister, or outside on the concrete with sidewalk chalk. It looks like play, but the result is serious learning.
“I was probably an ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) child before there was such a diagnosis,” said Bitzer. The traditional classroom was a struggle for me.” Her difficulties as a student with a non-traditional learning style confirmed to Bitzer that effective teaching requires providing more experiences than seeing and hearing. Activities, smells, and textures create indelible memories, and she is committed to providing an environment for her students that includes all those elements.
Early in her career, Bitzer found herself in a summer- school program for struggling seventh-and-eighth- grade math students. The administration questioned her unorthodox methods and encouraged her to use the approved curriculum. Her approach prevailed with a simple explanation: “If these kids have not gotten the concepts from six or seven years of textbooks, what makes us think that they will get them this time?”
Bitzer spent the summer on the tennis court with students, working their way from percentage-land to division-land. At the end of the course, she asked the students to fill out an evaluation of her performance. She asked them to assign a number grade and back it up with an explanation. When she read such comments as “I did it!” and “I finally understand,” Bitzer knew that she would never teach any other way.
This innovative teacher has twenty-six years experience, and she has taught every age level from kindergarten to college, with the exception of fifth grade.
She attributes her success to understanding the needs of her students and support from administration. Fairview Elementary gets high marks in that area. “My administration is great. They allow me to be creative.”
About her own struggles with traditional teaching methods she is emphatic. “I was not stupid! The traditional methods of learning just didn’t work for me. We need to teach to the different learning styles. Teachers get in a rut doing the same things over and over. We have to realize that we are fighting electronics. To compete with Nintendo and computers, we have to step it up and make it fun.”
Every year, her first few weeks of school are spent getting to know the students in her new third-grade class and identifying strengths and weaknesses. After that, her teaching targets the objectives that need work.
When the science class studies force and motion, it is time for golf. Bitzer places targets at different distances around the room, and the kids tee off. To send the ball to far targets, they have to exert greater force. It is a lesson they won’t forget.
Bitzer teaches math with a Twister mat. All the circles have different numbers, and students give their answers by placing hands and feet on the correct numbers. A student has to know the material and think fast to be competitive.
Bitzer is determined to present the lesson in as many different ways as it takes to reach her students.“ I can tell by the look in their eyes if they are not getting it. I will try another avenue. I’ll go through a different door, or a window, or even the chimney if I have to,” she said.
When her class had trouble using information about the distance between river camps to figure out the length of the river, Bitzer took to the river. Well, she took them outside to the sidewalk where they drew a river and the camps with chalk on the concrete. Problem solved, lesson learned.
When she heard a conference speaker suggest that “we teach students to read, and then we use boring textbooks to teach them to hate it,” Bitzer vowed to turn out students who love to read. Her students are allowed to pick their own reading material: a classic, a comic book, or anything of interest to the child is acceptable. The important thing is that they are reading.
They choose novels to read together as a class. Even the students who were less than enthusiastic about the choice in the beginning are soon begging to read “one more chapter.”
As the standardized test (TAKS) time nears, the students take mini practice tests. The class monitors its success rate with a bar graph. Rather than record individual scores, the graph plots the average for the entire class. The group works together to raise the average. When they are successful, they celebrate. “It is a school, so we have to try to keep the noise level down. We have quiet victory chants or do a victory march around the school,” Bitzer said.
With all the fun and games, one might wonder how she addresses the individual needs of each student. Two times a year she has an event she calls “sack lunch portfolio review.” Her students keep all their completed work organized in a portfolio. On review day, they invite their parents to bring a special lunch and take a look at the work. Together, student and parents set goals that the student will work to attain. The student, the parents and the teacher draw up a contract and sign it.
Bitzer said she enjoys a challenge and loves change. When visiting teachers watch her work, they often ask if she plans to repeat the lesson next year. “Then they interrupt themselves with ‘of course not. You never do the same thing twice’.”
There is however, one event that has become a tradition for her, the Mother’s Day Author’s Tea. Children create invitations for their mothers inviting them to the tea. The fathers help with the food: finger sandwiches, chocolate-covered strawberries, flavored teas and the like. All the kids wear black pants or skirts and white shirts. Mrs. Bitzer ties red scarves around their waists so that each looks the proper waiter.
As each mother arrives, she is introduced, seated and given a menu. Rather than food choices, the tri-fold menu consists of her child’s three best writing samples laminated into a keepsake. The entertainment is brief, so that students can spend time presenting their work to their own parents. It is a special time, and the visiting parents are spared a prolonged session of listening to other people’s children reading their work. Bitzer explains why the event has become a tradition and why she avoids sending home another “I love Mom” gift that sits on a shelf. “My goal,” she said, “is to create a memory.”
Bitzer’s intuition appears on target, her commitment beyond question, but teaching is not the culmination of a long-held dream. When asked if she had always wanted to be a teacher, her surprising answer was, “Oh, gosh no!”
Though she had struggled through the public school system, Bitzer attended college, where she drifted through a wide range of subjects without finding a comfortable niche. She refers to herself during that time as, “a jack of all trades and master of none.”
During her junior year, her adviser recommended an “Introduction to Teaching” course. As part of the course, Bitzer was required to present a lesson to students of a local third-grade class. Her idea was a frog-themed math game. The frog hopped by 2s, and then by 3s to illustrate the concept of multiplication. The kids learned the lesson and had fun doing it. She remembers thinking to herself as she was leaving, “Okay, this is what I want to do.”
And done it she has with results that place her at the top of her field. After the 2007-08 school year, she was named Teacher of the Year for Fairview Elementary and Teacher of the Year for the entire Sherman school district.
Bitzer is happiest while disguising learning as play, so she hates Fridays and summer vacation. To continue teaching, even while the kids are away, she has developed a blog for teachers, www.teachertidbitz.com. She describes it with the same enthusiasm that infects her teaching, “It is FREE and I am not selling anything. I just want to have a way to connect with teachers in this area and let them share ideas and teaching strategies, or just have a safe place to “talk teacher.”
Update: Nikki Bitzer has retired from teaching and now operates an educational consulting company.