Great Teachers: Effingham County’s Mark Weese teaches the wonders of science

Mark Weese

Mark Weese of Effingham County Schools

I received this note from Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia: “After the post about how awful the teaching force is (based on a report by an outfit dedicated to making schools look bad), I hope there’s room for this more positive view of the profession.”

Smagorinsky has been writing a great teacher series for the Get Schooled blog. (You can find other great teacher profiles in the archives under Teachers.)

Here is his latest entry about science teacher Mark Weese of Effingham County. I have no doubts after reading this piece why Weese is a student favorite in Rincon, Ga.

By Peter Smagorinsky

When I was a kid, I had all the makings of being a good science student. My father was a pioneering meteorologist, and my mother was the first woman statistician ever hired by the Weather Bureau (now NOAA). Even though we lived quite close to Washington, D.C., we lived on a dirt road in an unincorporated area of Alexandria, Va., surrounded by woods and fields. I spent as much of my youth outside catching crawdads and chasing fireflies as I could. My parents were both New Yorkers, and my urban father turned all yard work over to me when I was about 10 years old, a dedication to which I remain committed today. I was surrounded by science, and loved it, at least as it occurred in the natural world.

But science in school was always a struggle for me. All that dynamic interaction and stimulation that I found while playing outdoors was reduced to memorization of scientific terms and facts, with the occasional dissection of a pickled frog or worm our only engagement with life itself. My understanding of science was evaluated on multiple-choice tests or other rote assessment. I hated science lessons and science classes because the coolest stuff about science had nothing to do with how we studied science in school. I therefore did quite poorly for the most part, believing that science was not only boring, but beyond my comprehension or interest.

I would really have benefited from having a great science teacher. I might have developed an earlier and richer appreciation for science in school if I’d had a teacher like Mark Weese.

Science is among the STEM disciplines—along with technology, engineering, and mathematics—that are considered essential for the United States to be competitive in the global economy. Every decade or so, the specter of an uncompetitive populace is presented to us as the inevitable outcome of what follows from “our failing schools,” a characterization I reject as a manufactured crisis that has become accepted and propagated all the way from the folks who gather at the local barbershop to the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Making STEM fields more rigorous is trumpeted as a national imperative, and lamenting the sad state of their education in schools serves as part of the rhetorical foundation on which yet newer curricula and tests are developed periodically, all designed to propel the U.S. toward global economic dominance. In that we are subject to such awakenings with remarkable frequency, from the response to Sputnik to the Reagan-era “A Nation at Risk” report to No Child Left Behind to Race To The Top, it’s hard to accept the premise that we are always behind. Yet the fear of falling behind, and the belief in another new school curriculum with batteries of assessments as our only salvation, recurs predictably and routinely.

I don’t know if Mark Weese’s science instruction will make the U.S. into a permanent dominant world economic power. But I do know that he makes science an engaging field of study for the kids in Rincon, a small town in south Effingham County that has been on the Georgia map since 1880. It’s the sort of town where they still have a Thanksgiving parade and, at Halloween, a scarecrow contest. It’s also a town where the kids learn a lot about science in school.

Even though Mark is relatively young at 28, he has been named Ebenezer Middle School and Effingham County Teacher of the Year for the work he does with the school’s seventh graders.

Like a lot of teachers, he comes from a family where at least one parent (his mother) is a teacher, and so he comes to the profession with a built-in respect for the institution of school. As he says, “The teachers that surrounded me for most of my life became mentors and presented education in a manner that inspired future learning. One teacher in particular not only encouraged me to be in front of the classroom, but also to become involved in a commitment of inspiring future leaders.”

That teacher was Mark’s biology teacher, cross country coach and Fellowship of Christian Athletes mentor Matt Johnson at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, whose “classroom of wonder” is replete with fish tanks hosting a variety of salt and freshwater life forms and includes a small-scale tropical rainforest with a live, three-foot iguana. Through Johnson’s example and encouragement, says Mark, “I realized that I was surrounded by numerous blessings and that I wanted to dedicate my life to share those blessings with others around me,  just as Coach Johnson had done for me.”

Mark speaks highly of his teacher education program at Georgia Southern University, from which he graduated after initially enrolling at UGA and being named an SEC scholar-athlete as a cross country competitor.

At GSU he graduated cum laude, then returned for his master’s degree, which he completed in 2010. Mark is generous in crediting those who’ve helped him learn to teach, from his GSU professors to his EMS colleagues: “I’m just collecting from the best. I feel like my teaching style is just bits and pieces of the best in Effingham, and trying to put it all together.”

I have yet to see terms like “inspiring” or “passion”— another trait ascribed to Mark in letters supporting his Teacher of the Year candidacy — among the Common Core Standards or Race to the Top qualifications.

I do, however, view the quality of seeking to inspire kids to learn to be a critical trait for great teachers. His principal Amie Dickerson notes that “True educators are those individuals who recognize that teaching involves more than just facts and figures.”

Getting young people to become fascinated by science involves more than testing them on the contents of the book or having them go through the paces of the curriculum, no matter how rigorously it satisfies policymakers’ feelings of achievement. Rather, a great science education involves instilling a sense of wonder about how the natural world works, and how we should live in relation to it. It’s no wonder that Mark embraces Carl Sagan’s belief, one he shares with his students, that, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

In his teaching, Mark encourages students to draw on their familiarity with the Georgia coast and farming culture as the basis for understanding key scientific concepts. They investigate, for example, how fertilizer runoff affects marine ecosystems, putting their everyday knowledge in dialogue with scientific articles to inform discussions about how the scientific research relates to what they have learned in class.

With this potent mix of experiential and formal knowledge, his middle school students then design their own experiments to investigate the impact of fertilizer on marine ecosystems. Acting as scientists, they report their findings in letters addressed to the Environmental Protection Agency, which in turn has honored their work with a response that enables students to think of themselves as members of the scientific community with important findings to share with the world.

Like other great teachers, Mark does not confine his efforts to the classroom. He has coached track, basketball, and football, and was among the architects of instituting a running club that serves both students and teachers at Ebenezer MS. This group meets after school two to three times a week for jaunts through the parks and trails that contribute to Rincon’s natural beauty. Mark abides by running champion Steve Prefontaine’s maxim that “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

Principal Dickerson asserts that, “Through this program Mr. Weese has modeled life skills such as goal setting, which can positively impact students throughout their lives. This program has allowed many students the opportunity to experience success through his guidance and support. Mr. Weese is the teacher students love, parents want, and peers admire.”

Mark has also begun to attract wider notice through his excellence in the classroom. He was one the three life science teachers picked to write lessons for the new Common Core Georgia Performance Standards. He has presented at the conference of the Georgia Association of Curriculum and Instructional Supervisors on “Literacy Design Collaborative in Georgia Classrooms” in which he and his colleagues — including Deb Winans of EMS and Dr. Mary Lynn Huie of the Georgia DOE — described how Georgia teachers in almost 60 school districts are embedding Common Core Literacy Standards into their content-area instruction. Weese and Huie, with Weese as primary author, have also written a paper on “The Effect Algal Blooms have on Marine Ecosystems,” published by the Literacy Design Collaborative, in which they present a teaching module for other teachers to adopt.

As part of his work in the LDC, Mark worked with other science teachers to design and field test literacy-rich, project-based units that both embed the literacy standards and push students to think more critically and engage in rigorous research projects. When the LDC instructional module did not include aspects of instruction that Mark felt were necessary for high-quality science instruction, he added skills essential to scientific thinking, Making Inferences and Scientific Inquiry, to enrich students’ engagement with their projects.

His unit on Algal Bloom is now showcased on the LDC national website as a model of how the implementation of the literacy standards can promote scientific inquiry. It is also being studied by other teachers to think about how best to adapt the LDC templates to specific disciplines. By writing for publication, Mark helps other teachers reach kids and solidifies Ebenezer MS’s reputation for academic excellence.

Dr. Huie writes of Mark, “Passion is a necessary component of a great teacher, but it is a component that can take many forms. Some teachers love the children, some love their content, and others love the transformative process of educating young people. Mark came to teaching because of his love for science, but like many master teachers, the source of his passion for teaching has deepened with experience. His love of science has led him to find ways to transform his students by creating classroom activities that take his students beyond scientific content and toward scientific thinking. As his students engage in scientific thinking—examining problems, proposing solutions, and testing their proposals—they go beyond merely learning science by actually experiencing science. Watching Mark’s middle school students engage in scientific inquiry—posing questions, designing experiments, and arguing about the meaning of findings—gives me faith in the future of education in Georgia. Mark’s dedication to showing his students that they can make a difference in the world by engaging in rigorous scientific thinking is a model for how great teaching can change students’ lives by leading students to perceive themselves as great thinkers with important work to do. He understands that the secret to college and career readiness begins with students taking themselves seriously as thinkers who can solve problems.”

I, too, become more confident in the future of education in Georgia when I learn of great teachers like Mark Weese, and hope that the climate surrounding our profession can shift to the point where we appreciate those who take on this important work and do so with passion, commitment, inspiration, and a love of helping kids learn how to understand and engage constructively with the world around them. Mark says that “I love it here. I never want to leave Ebenezer. I never want to leave (teaching) seventh grade. I just want to be right here.” Good for you, Mark; and even better for kids in south Effingham County.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

21 comments Add your comment

Tom

January 24th, 2013
11:09 am

THIS is the kind of teacher that we need more of if we (as a nation) are truly dedicated to giving our youth a firm STEM foundation on which to build upon as we strive to compete with the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, public (read:taxpayer) funds are basically being laundered thru Georgia’s private school tax exemption (via ’scholarships’) to schools where real science is excluded in lieu of religious dogma in the “science” classroom.

Gotta love this quote (NYT article) from the headmaster of a Christan academy in Cumming: “Not only do we teach the students that creation is the way the world was created and that God is in control and he made all things, we also teach them what the false theories of the world are, such as the Big Bang theory and Darwinism. We teach those as fallacies.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/education/scholarship-funds-meant-for-needy-benefit-private-schools.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Ya know, if you want to intellectually hobble your kids by hiding real science from them and replacing it with Bronze Age mythology (or simply by going the easier route and mixing lead paint into their oatmeal), then do it your dime….not mine.

Beverly Fraud

January 24th, 2013
11:13 am

Yet how many people with a similar skill set to Mark Weese have said, “I’ve had enough” and left?

Something tells me he does not need a bureaucratic template from Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, or any other educational “leader” to make him an effective teacher.

Beverly Fraud

January 24th, 2013
11:26 am

Gotta love this quote (NYT article) from the headmaster of a Christan academy in Cumming: “Not only do we teach the students that creation is the way the world was created and that God is in control and he made all things, we also teach them what the false theories of the world are, such as the Big Bang theory and Darwinism. We teach those as fallacies.”

Sorry @Tom to be so blunt, but I gotta call bs on you right here. You want to take potshots at this school, but you won’t acknowledge the fact that they use world renowned maps to teach ancient history.

In fact these maps are exact replicas of ancient maps which are known for their painstaking accuracy as they were created by cavemen riding pterodactyls, which allowed for state of the art aerial views, that weren’t available again until the satellite age.

So sorry Tom, criticizing the legitimacy of this school’s educational program just ain’t gonna fly. (pun not intended)

10:10 am

January 24th, 2013
11:51 am

As Peter Smagorinsky no doubt appreciated—in choosing to school his own children in private rather than public schools for some of their K-12 years—replacing mediocre teachers with good ones remains a weak point of traditional public schools.

Others therefore rightly perceive that traditional public education is failing to live up to expectations, exceptions such as that highlighted above aside. Education statistics he demeans don’t lie. And yet Smagorinsky remains firmly in the anti-reform, anti-parental choice camp.

Curious.

Just Sayin

January 24th, 2013
11:59 am

Good for this guy. There are more teachers out there like him, but nobody seems to care. I have noticed on this blog that if Maureen does something on how horrible teachers are, she gets looks like hundreds od responses and negative talk. So far this only has 3 and with my comment 4. I guess attacking is better than praising.

@Beverly Fraud about Tom…I have seen you defend this school several times. I am wondering if you have children there or have a vested interest in good press for them. Not that it matters, but I was just curious. You seem to hate all public schools. Yet will defend a private one and let me tell ya as a parent with a child that has spent time in both (both were good schools), you have to do your research cause some private aren’t any better than public ones and many of the same teachers that are disparaged in public schools move right over to the private schools and are seen as rock stars. The only difference for them is policy and administration.

RCB

January 24th, 2013
12:10 pm

Lucky students—he sounds like a great teacher!

Prof

January 24th, 2013
12:11 pm

@ Just Sayin. As to Beverly Fraud’s comments, don’t you recognize satire when you see it? Or maybe yours at 11:59 am is satire on charter school supporters?

Mary Elizabeth

January 24th, 2013
12:19 pm

I wish to compliment Mark Weese on his achievements, and on his well-earned recognition, through this article and through his local awards, as an outstanding teacher. The following excerpts from the article especially appeal to me because they demonstrate that Mark combines the precise with the creative in his teaching. Instilling curiosity and self-confidence are hallmarks of a great teacher, imo.
==============================================

- “Getting young people to become fascinated by science involves more than testing them on the contents of the book or having them go through the paces of the curriculum. . . Rather, a great science education involves instilling a sense of wonder about how the natural world works, and how we should live in relation to it. It’s no wonder that Mark embraces Carl Sagan’s belief, one he shares with his students, that, ‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.’ ”

- “Watching Mark’s middle school students engage in scientific inquiry—posing questions, designing experiments, and arguing about the meaning of findings—gives me faith in the future of education in Georgia. Mark’s dedication to showing his students that they can make a difference in the world by engaging in rigorous scientific thinking is a model for how great teaching can change students’ lives by leading students to perceive themselves as great thinkers with important work to do. He understands that the secret to college and career readiness begins with students taking themselves seriously as thinkers who can solve problems.”

Smoke Rise Mom

January 24th, 2013
12:44 pm

It’s always refreshing to hear about a great teacher. But, Georgia State University is the real GSU.

Beverly Fraud

January 24th, 2013
12:58 pm

@ Just Sayin. As to Beverly Fraud’s comments, don’t you recognize satire when you see it?

Satire? That’s not satire, Prof, that’s legitimate science!

Satire?

Amanda Brinks

January 24th, 2013
1:26 pm

I love a good story about a good teacher — but the premise that because we have some good Georgia teachers means that all or evem ,most Georgia teachers are good — is flat out wrong.
I also hate that the series highlighting good teachers actually has an agenda — to disprove that we have some really bad and incompetent teachers in our ranks.
I know we have bad teachers. I work with them everyday.
Kudos to Peter and I am hoping he inspires other good men to become good teachers — but — Georgia schools and teachers need major improvement.

jarvis

January 24th, 2013
1:40 pm

Good job Mark!

Jim McMahan

January 24th, 2013
1:50 pm

That is the type of instruction that is needed!
Great Job Mark!

Michael Moore

January 24th, 2013
2:25 pm

Peter has provided a valuable service to the profession by producing these positive narratives. In the district I taught in I knew a Mark Weese in every school. Actually, I knew many like him. We had far more great teachers and only a very few (maybe three) in my building that had about 30 teachers. Still, I am always caught short when I read the comments in this blog and realize the negativity toward teachers is always ever present. I suppose it is much easier to paint a target on a teacher than it is in just about any other profession. I doubt IRS professionals receive this much criticism.

Peter Smagorinsky

January 24th, 2013
3:59 pm

It’s beyond me how anyone can take praise of outstanding teachers as ignoring the fact that there are also bad teachers. The presence of bad teachers in the profession is something I’ve addressed in Maureen’s blog in the past.

As for 10:10, why are such a coward that you can’t take responsibility for your condescending opinions by signing your name to them? Actually I would love to reform schools, but probably not in the same way you would.

Georgia coach

January 24th, 2013
6:02 pm

Well said, Peter !

English Teacher

January 24th, 2013
7:37 pm

@Amanda Brinks: Wow, really? All this article is about is recognizing excellent teaching – how you took that to mean it’s also meant to ignore or negate bad teaching is silly.

10:10 am

January 25th, 2013
10:28 am

@ Amanda Brinks

Indeed, the feel-good nature of this write-up on an undoubtedly popular and photogenic Georgia teacher … is designed to distract readers from depressingly well-documented failures of traditional public education in Georgia.

And also to laud the education establishment (of which the author is part) in a most self-serving way.

Readers will note that absolutely no objective data is offered to back up the suggestion that Mark’s students are actually learning more than others. Surely some exists?

Mark Weese

January 25th, 2013
3:12 pm

Peter,
The article turned out great. I appreciate the recognition and faith in today’s public educators. There are many out there that are good at what they do, and love doing it. Its hard to overcome the publicized negativity and the continuous blows and changes at the state and federal level that make teaching an even harder profession (budget cuts, furlough days, job cuts, etc). It definitely is not a clock in and clock out job. Planning, grading, and maintain a professional image even when you are not at school, make teaching so much more than an occupation. Its a way of life, and although some teachers struggle with the balance, we must keep faith in the cause and purpose of public education. Thank you for your voice Peter, and I thank those that still recognize the positive.

I am an advocate of public education, although I respect those that may not have the same faith in the system as I do. I think that it is important to note that students are receiving so much more than just learning a set curriculum when they go to school. Fostering curiosity, wonder, and questioning the world around the students is a huge part of a remarkable education. Becoming a mentor of life and character helps students become a successful citizens in today’s society. Teaching skills necessary for maintaining healthy living and being able to make strong opinions and educated choices is the purpose. What a big responsibility for today’s educators huh? Taking on this challenge is a huge commitment, and I applaud all educators, both public and private.

As far as documentation… how do you document the success of a child’s education? By his or her salary when they graduate? Test scores on a multiple choice standardized test? What college they attended? Whether they choose to go to college?

But if you want to put a number on the students I have taught… the small, rural, southern town of Rincon, Georgia. My students ranked in the top 10% of all Georgia students, both public and private.

Assessment of learning is no doubt a huge debate in the educational institutes. Believe me, I have sat through numerous meetings discussing changes made in student assessments and achievement. I know I will sit through many more, and I will make the appropriate changes when needed, as I have been. But I will always strive to be the teacher that my students will always remember, not just for the curriculum I taught, but because of the positive impact I had on their character and who they became.

10:10 am

January 25th, 2013
4:38 pm

“As far as documentation… how do you document the success of a child’s education? By his or her salary when they graduate? Test scores on a multiple choice standardized test? What college they attended? Whether they choose to go to college?”

Hi Mark, and congratulations on being a popular and apparently committed teacher. Could you give details on what you mean by “my students ranked in the top ten percent?” And how does the yardstick you’re using show you to compare favorably with other seventh grade science teachers in your building or district who are teaching a similar student demographic?

I hate to ask such questions, but after 4-5 decades of failure and empty hype from the education establishment—parents and taxpayers can be excused for having doubts.

Lori Middleton Nesbit

January 25th, 2013
7:28 pm

This article comes as no surprise but in fact just exemplifies the amazing character and spirit of a true teacher. Mr. Weese was my daughters Science teacher. Elizabeth looked forward to class every day and to no limit was even more excited to come home and tell me various sorted, crazy and even gross things that she had learned on any given day. I learned about the skeleton he hangs proudly in his room and some of the differences between he and wife akin to Jack Sprat. Mostly what I learned paled in comparison to what my daughter has learned. To become excited about Science. That it can be fun. That the want to learn can be made in all the difference in how the information is presented, and when you’re excited about what you’re doing it’s undeniably infectious. Mr. Weese cares about these students and not just inside the classroom. What Mr. Weese couldn’t know is that in a postcard sent by him to my daughter telling her how much of a joy he thought it was to have her in his class, that the postcard came on day where she felt not so important. Just a bad day. That postcard still hangs proudly in her room on her message board and while the board itself is cluttered, the postcard is centered and unobstructed for anyone to see. My daily routine consists of opening the blinds after my children have left for the day. When I exit my daughters room my eye always drifts to the message board where the postcard is and I am reminded that someone else cares for my child while I am not with her. It’s a comfort. Just yesterday I posted a thank you to the teachers in my children’s lives which came on the heels of another teacher going out of their way to make my son feel valued and appreciated. These little gestures of kindness which no doubt seem so small by the giver, are as big as the heavens to their recipients and have a long lingering impact. We have been through a lot my kids and I, and I am humbled as I know that God in his own way has put the right people in my children’s lives. My children call them teachers, but I call them God’s Grace and know that it is privilege to do so. Congrats Mr. Weese and Thank You for teaching so much more than Science.