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Meet UPrep’s Department Chairs
  • Academics
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  • Lead a Life of Learning
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Read a Q& A with UPrep department chairs and teachers (clockwise from upper right) Carrie Niebanck, Mikayla Patella-Buckley, Kayla Robertson, Christina Zembruski, Andrew Schneider, Isabelle Rio, and Jason Parker.

Meet UPrep’s Department Chairs
Department Chairs Share How UPrep Prepares Students to Lead a Life of Learning

This year, UPrep has expanded the department chair role, changing it from more of a peer-to-peer position to a supervisory role. This change was part of our strategic plan to develop talent that supports strong leadership, excellence in teaching, and organizational capacity. Department chair responsibilities include pedagogy development, observation of teachers in classrooms, and managing the department. The role also includes helping the teachers in their departments with professional development and managing the scope and sequence of the curriculum.

“Since we’ve expanded this role, the department chairs are participating in weekly workshop meetings that provide training for the role, from how to give constructive feedback and have difficult conversations to looking at case studies,” says Ed Billingslea, assistant head of school for academics. “This role evolution allows us to provide excellent educators with opportunities for their own growth and development, both for the department chairs and for the teachers they are leading in their respective departments.”

As October began, we talked with each department chair about why they love teaching in their subject area and how their department prepares students to lead a life of learning.

Carrie Niebanck, English Department chair, English teacher

Why do you love teaching English?

There is so much room for self-expression. The choices that students make about what they are interested in reading, how they hear stories, and the way they share or speak is unique to each person. I love the freedom they have to create stories in their own voices. While observing classes taught by every single department member, I keep noticing how many voices are in the room. Not all of them are verbal: some voices come through doodling and creating ideas on paper. That self-expression and insights from students makes every single day new.

How does a specific project prepare students to lead a life of learning?

In the 10th grade Humanities intensive, the students write a longform literary journalism piece that they begin working on through conducting an in-depth interview. For example, last year one group of students interviewed UPrep community members about their experience with protesting. Students are challenged to ask critical questions and to be discerning of the information from the interviews. They dig into research that relates to the interview. Then, when they write, they grapple with packaging the information and authentically representing the person they interviewed. They are learning the skills of interpreting information and being engaged through interviews and presenting information to a community. 

Jason Parker, Fine Arts Department chair, jazz teacher

Why do you love teaching jazz?

As the great Wynton Marsalis says, “Jazz music is the perfect metaphor for democracy. We improvise, which is our individual rights and freedoms. We swing, which means we are responsible to nurture the common good, with everyone in fine balance. And we play the blues, which means no matter how bad things get, we remain optimistic while still mindful of problems.” At a time when democracies around the world are facing real challenges, jazz music and jazz musicians can point the way forward. I love to help students understand that while we are studying jazz in class, we’re really learning about so much more: community, collaboration, compromise, communication. And for many of us, the study of jazz is also the study of a culture different from our own. It’s important to me that the students understand that jazz comes from the Black American experience, and while it’s an art form for and by anyone, its origins and underlying philosophies are rooted in the Black experience.

How do Fine Arts Department classes prepare students to lead a life of learning?

Art itself is a life-long endeavor. We never know it all. Practicing any art shows us so much about commitment, focus, and a real dedication to lifelong learning. And that’s the job of the artist or the art student: to continually strive to learn more and get better at our craft, and to use what we’re learning to better ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Mikayla Patella-Buckley, Science Department chair, science teacher

Why do you love teaching science?

I love teaching science because of the lightbulb moments I see when students better understand the world. The real wins happen when we are doing something in class and students see the connections beyond the walls of the school. For example, in my Organic Chemistry class, we make soap from scratch. Then they can look at a soap label and know the maker picked this fat for these reasons, or they chose that ingredient because it adds foaming ability. They learn all about soap recipe modifications and that easily translates to the world outside of class.

How does a specific project and/or class prepare students to lead a life of learning?

In 10th grade, we do a mole project that is based on the math we do in Chemistry class. The project involves either sewing or cooking. For some students, it’s the first time they have sewed or cooked from a recipe. I also appreciate the Deep Space 6 intensive that students take in 6th grade. We all have the universal human experience of looking up in the sky in wonder. We get them excited about what’s up in the sky; we talk about why the sky looks the way it does and why the moon does what it does. Science projects like these combine the joy of discovery with the empowerment of figuring out the answer by yourself. When you can link those two things up in a powerful way, that’s classroom and lifelong magic.

Isabelle Rio, Languages Department chair, French teacher

What do you love about teaching French?

It’s not so much about teaching French. It’s more about the joy of learning. I love seeing students challenge themselves. When you are learning any language and discovering any culture, you develop a better understanding of our humanity. Students are at the center of everything in our classes. I love leading them from 0 to 1, 2, and 3, seeing their progress. They gain confidence as they learn. I tell them mistakes are necessary for moving forward. I remind them that they fell a lot when they learned to walk! 

How does a specific course prepare students to lead a life of learning?

I created a social justice-focused class called French V—Ma Voix (my voice). Students in this course learn about social justice movements in the Francophone world; there are 29 countries where French is the official language. It’s important that we as global citizens work to have a better understanding of societal issues playing out around the world. In this course, students learn about issues involving equity, the notion of privilege and the Maslow pyramid, immigration, gender, the LGBTQ+ community, and Black heritage focusing on members of the Négritude movement in the 1930s against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation. I want the students to understand that these are our problems—we are all in this world together.

Kayla Robertson, PE Department chair, PE teacher

Why do you love teaching P.E.?

I love sharing my passion for learning and movement, but I also enjoy that P.E. is a class where students bring a curiosity to learn with a playful attitude. I enjoy seeing students explore new topics, challenge themselves, and build friendships with each other through movement. They grow in their confidence, and it’s exciting to see students connect class experiences with their own personal stories.

How does a specific course prepare students to lead a life of learning?

In 6th Grade P.E. classes, students are introduced to the foundation of their learning experience at UPrep. The classroom is focused on all the domains of learning using a “Know, Show, Grow” model: cognitive, which includes what they know as they build their understanding and knowledge; psychomotor, includes what they show in their motor-skill development; and affective, which includes how they grow and develop their character. In each class, the learning objectives are focused on all three domains to create a meaningful P.E. experience. For example, when students learn how to throw a shotput, that includes acquiring the knowledge of the technique and the component of skill-related fitness, power. Throughout the lesson, they also develop their character through acts of respect by safely using and sharing the equipment, as well as helping give positive peer feedback. As they practice embodying their learning of this complex skill, the students are given a progression of steps to practice that start very close to the target. After they practice a step, they step further away from the target to learn the next step in the sequence. The students eventually learn the final step of the complex technique when they are the furthest away from the target. Through this process, they recognize how far they have come and that they are able to successfully throw the shotput because of the skills they have learned.

As the year continues, they begin to understand that learning the skills is a step-by-step process that includes growing and strengthening their minds and body as well as their community. Students show how they lead a life of learning when they transfer their experiences from the classroom into their daily lives. The 6th graders recently gave me an example connecting agility, one of the skill-related fitness components they learned about, to their school life: “You need agility and reaction time to dodge people through the hallways, especially Upper School students.”

Andrew Schneider, History Department Chair, history teacher

Why do you love teaching history?

I love the opportunities that teaching history provides for pushing students to be critical thinkers, to challenge their preexisting assumptions, and to develop greater empathy as they broaden their perspectives. Also, at a very fundamental level, I simply love the storytelling aspect of history. 

How does a specific project prepare students to lead a life of learning? 

Two projects across the 6th to 12th grade spectrum come to mind. 

During the second semester of 6th grade Geography, students dive into the world of the United Nations with a structured simulation of the Suez Crisis of 1956. Students take on the role of a Security Council member (or one of the nations directly involved in the quagmire) and draft and attempt to pass specific resolutions to help solve a real-life international crisis. This project provides a safe environment for students to thoughtfully debate with each other as they critically engage with a complicated historical crisis, which are essential skills for lifelong learners. 

Lastly, in 12th grade (when most students choose to take Civics), students participate in a mock House of Representatives project. Working from the perspective of a member of Congress representing the interests of a specific state and political party, students draft bills and advocate for the passage of their bill both in committee and a legislative session of the House. This is a valuable project because it thrusts students into the exciting—and often frustrating—world of the legislative process right as they are reaching voting age. 

Christina Zembruski, Math Department chair, math teacher

Why do you love teaching math?

I love the ah-ha moments, when a concept finally clicks, and a student feels successful. I especially appreciate this moment when it happens with a student who is struggling or hasn’t traditionally been successful with math. I love it when they find success or enjoyment while working on a problem. I also really love working with students who love challenges. They will tell you, ‘Please don’t tell me the answer, I want to take it home,’ and they come back the next day with the answer.

How does a specific project prepare students to lead a life of learning?

For a Geometry class construction project, students are given an image made up of circles, hexagons, and triangles. They need to break the image into components and create a list of instructions using geometric terms lead someone through creating the image with a compass and a straightedge. Through this project, students learn how to break down a final product into its elements. We use this skill every day: We encounter something, and we have to take a step or two back to break it into components and figure it out. It also helps students learn a sense of logic and order: You have to tell someone to draw a line before you have them draw an angle. Leading a life of learning includes problem solving—whether it’s solving a math problem, understanding a vocabulary term, or building an IKEA desk.

Headshot photograph of University Prep writer and editor, Nancy Alton

By Writer/Editor Nancy Schatz Alton


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