Henrico’s Top Teachers – Karen Nowicki

Springfield Park E.S., fifth grade
Because Karen Nowicki's parents grew up during the Depression and did not have an opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, Nowicki was showered with opportunities to take dancing and acting lessons and learn to play the piano and flute.

"I never would have guessed back then how often I would use these skills in my career," she said, describing the ways in which she has incorporated drama into her classroom, played piano to accompany the school chorus, and choreographed dance routines for field days, chorus concerts, and talent shows.

Being able to incorporate her own talents and interests into the classrooms, Nowicki believes, is one of the most interesting aspects of being a teacher. "It allows you to use all of the skills you have developed in your lifetime," she said. "It keeps the fun in teaching."

Nowicki's students and their parents can attest that Nowicki's ability to put her personal stamp on her lessons is one of her greatest assets. Former students often reminisce about Nowicki's spelling tests – made memorable and enjoyable by her inclusion of entertaining and meaningful stories about the words she called out.

"She found many chances to tell jokes and stories of her personal life," wrote one former student. "She always made her stories funny with many expressions. I laughed more in her class than in all my other elementary school classes combined." 

"She always found a way to incorporate her life stories into various tests,"echoed another student. "Everyday life as a student in Mrs. Nowickis’s class is never boring, because the days are filled with fun activities and lesson plans. She not only helped her students learn, but she made them enjoy it too. She is the best teacher I have ever had by a mile."

"When I was in Mrs. Nowicki’s class, she treated us like real people," wrote another student.  "She made us feel like our opinions mattered.  She made me want to strive to be even half as nice and funny as she is."

With two high school English teachers for parents, perhaps it was pre-ordained that Nowicki turned to teaching as a career – and has excelled at it. "I always knew I would be a teacher," Nowicki said. "[My parents] taught me that outstanding teachers are life-long learners." Wanting Nowicki and her siblings to learn as much as they could, her father bought a trailer and carted the family around to historical sites.

"We spent several summers driving across the country and back again," said Nowicki. "I learned so much from these trips, and I had a much better understanding of history because I had been to so many places."

Nowicki also admires her mother's style of teaching, and the way – to this day -- she learns all she can about a subject before teaching it. "Last year [my mother] taught a class on Edgar Allan Poe," she said, "and in order to prepare, she re-read everything he ever wrote."

Another influence on Nowicki's teaching style was her sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Barry. "We didn’t just learn from a book," Nowicki says. She recalls class assignments such as creating a star-gazing guide after studying astronomy, and creating a play about ecology in which she choreographed a dance for the show.

In the same way, Nowicki emphasizes hands-on, interactive lessons and fun activities in her classroom today – from having the students make and test solar-powered ovens, to challenging them to build toothpick bridges in groups and then compete to find the best structure.  

Nowicki also teaches a debate unit that focuses on building the children's public speaking skills, research skills, and critical thinking and culminates in a formal "Great Debate" on issues drawn from current events, performed for parents and fourth graders. A highlight of the year's writing projects is the class play – also performed for parents and fellow students -- that is entirely student-generated, from the story to the scenery and costumes.

In addition, Nowicki's classes also tend to excel in regional and statewide competitions such as the Stock Market Game and the Knowledge Master Open (KMO); this year's class won first in the state at the KMO. Another hands-on project the fifth graders are collaborating on is called “Henrico Hometown Heroes" and is an extension of a social studies unit. Students have been challenged to interview local leaders in business, government, and civic work, such as the county manager, superintendent, chief of police, CEO of the Richmond SPCA, and the commissioners of several state agencies.

From their research, the students will create a multi-media presentation about their heroes; but more importantly, says Nowicki, they will establish connections with people making a difference in their communities – and perhaps be inspired to get more involved as future leaders themselves.

After 31 years of teaching, Nowicki is proud to count many such leaders among her alumni already and notes that her former students include current and aspiring doctors, engineers, nurses, environmental scientists and teachers.

“Our first SCA president is now a lawyer," she says. "The smart little boy who loved to draw jets is now a jet fighter pilot, and the student who came into my classroom speaking very little English is now a successful businessman.

"I am so proud of the young men and women they have become. "
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February 2017
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The Henrico County Community Author Showcase, a program that connects writers and readers in the community, will begin at 7 p.m. and continue on the second Monday and every Thursday of the month at various libraries. John Deng will share his book “A Lost Boy Found: Never Give Up” at Tuckahoe Library. For details, visit http://www.henricolibrary.org/authors. Full text

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