Beyond Textbooks
Hall of Fame Teachers Find Success With Passion for the Unconventional

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

"Busco una mujer que me quiera, ay, como quiero yo."

("I'm looking for a woman who will love me, yeah, like I love.")

The 10th-graders in Marilyn Barrueta's Spanish 4 class weren't really looking for a woman. They were looking for subjunctive verbs in the lyrics of Carlos Ponce, a blue-eyed Puerto Rican heartthrob whose photo is taped up beside the blackboard.

Why are they subjunctive? "Since he hasn't found her yet, he doesn't know if she exists," Barrueta explained in a recent class as Ponce's music thrummed from a CD player. Then the white-haired teacher, draped in a black peasant dress embroidered with a colorful peacock, broke into a little dance step.

Barrueta's students could have predicted that her lesson on verb tenses wouldn't be dry. She has been teaching Spanish in Arlington for 48 years, and if it had gotten dry or boring, she wouldn't still be doing it. Some students take her class all four years of high school, and some are the second or even third generation of a family to take it; former students often stop in to visit.

But recently Barrueta has had some attention from outside the walls of Yorktown High School. In April, the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Emporia, Kan., chose her as one of five 2005 inductees nationwide. Two of the other inductees are also from the Washington area: Karen Crow Roark, an assistant principal and gifted-resource teacher at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, and John F. Mahoney, a math teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District.

The three come from diverse backgrounds: a southern farm girl; a draft-card burner from New Jersey; a woman who grew up in Chile and Brazil. Visits to their classrooms revealed that what they have in common is a level of involvement with their students that reaches, and teaches, beyond the textbooks.

When Yorktown held a surprise assembly last month to announce Barrueta's award, she was more flustered than pleased. News cameras and reporters invaded her classroom and hovered over the cozy jumble of piñatas, decorative weavings and posters of Spanish-speaking lands -- many of which her students have seen on trips with her.

By late April, things were back to normal. Students were putting on Spanish-language skits in which they were pestering a parent for a bigger allowance or begging a teacher for a better grade, examples of things they might actually do. Barrueta also uses discussions of Peruvian weaving, operatic arias and Eva Peron to help expand the lessons beyond gender agreement and verb endings.

An upside to all the attention is that it has reconnected her with some former students. "What's been nice about this have been the voices from the past," she said.

"I'm grateful that I've lived into the age of e-mail -- [although] I'm sure I get, 'Oh, my God, she's still alive?' " (She added that her age is "absolutely no one's business.")

A few miles away at Long Branch, Karen Crow Roark was spending her afternoon with academically advanced kindergarteners -- who can already read and do arithmetic -- whom she had plucked from regular classes to talk about more challenging subjects. What are the seven continents? How does a Venn diagram work? How many degrees do the three corners of a triangle add up to?

They all agreed that zebras have patterns, but not revolving patterns, and that they live in Africa. "I know another thing about zebras," said Sam Libberton, 6, who earlier had figured out that half of a right angle is 45 degrees. "They have different smells."

Growing up on a beef and poultry farm near Dalton, Ga., in the late 1950s, Roark used to teach her dolls. She taught in elementary schools there for 21 years before coming to Arlington two years ago. She decided to make the move after visiting her daughter here and taking to the area.

Known among Long Branch students for her long brown hair, round blue eyes, and funny way of talking (colors on a beach ball were "yella," "whaht" and "grayn"), Roark, 51, seems as thrilled by the lessons as they are.

"I just love to see how they're so excited about learning," she said. "It's just like magic, to see where they are at the beginning of the year and where they end up. They just change magically."

For the fourth- and fifth-graders, Roark has organized a stock market team that picked New York Stock Exchange stocks in which to invest a hypothetical $100,000 over 10 weeks (they earned some and lost some). She has brought in architects to talk about building bridges (the students' own bridge designs were displayed at Ballston Common Mall).

It is in some ways like what her own fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Durham, did for her. "I lived on a farm, and everything we did was just local," Roark said. "I think she just let us know that there were other things out there besides our pinpoint in the world."

In Arlington, she said, kids are more sophisticated. "In Dalton, Georgia, when I did a lesson on the Great China Wall, I was bringing it to them," she said. "Here, you might get a couple of students who have lived in China, so we can get the students' perspectives on it."

In John Mahoney's classroom off Georgia Avenue in the District, juniors in the International Baccalaureate program met in groups last week to talk about binomial probability. Darting among them, the teacher with the shock of gray hair and the neatly trimmed beard got on one knee beside a student's desk. "Miriam, what's the opposite of more than two?" he asked.

A boy beside her started to blurt out the answer, but Mahoney quieted him. "You're right, but I want Miriam to answer," he said, and pressed her until she did. Answer: Two or less.

Mahoney, 57, a Quaker who always wears math-related ties (one navy tie displayed a constellation of terms such as "matrix," "quantum theory" and "the R{+2} value") came to Banneker four years ago after teaching at Sidwell Friends School for 24 years. He liked Banneker in part because it is named for an 18th-century free black man from Maryland who was an anti-slavery activist and an accomplished mathematician. He also liked the school's serious academic tilt and the idea that his presence might make a difference.

Anna Liebowitz, 18, says it has. "There are things about this school that are really aggravating and hard to get through, and he's one of the ones who helped me get through," she said, adding that he is the one who advised her to apply to Princeton University, where she will enroll next year.

"One thing that's so, so obvious about him is how much he cares about all of us."

Mahoney, who protested the Vietnam War by burning his draft cards in front of FBI agents, is not afraid to voice prickly opinions. When the Hall of Fame selection was announced, he used the assembly to blast the city and federal governments for underfunding D.C. schools.

He also does not hide his emotions. His eyes welled up as he recalled his time in graduate school, teaching math for the first time, to Vietnam veterans and to women returning to school after raising families -- many of whom were "terrified of math."

"All I had to do," he said, "is teach humanely."

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