She Makes Learning a Ride, Not a Drag

Patricia Herr, here with students Robert Cardona, 13, and Shirley Borja, 14, is this year's winner of the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award.
Patricia Herr, here with students Robert Cardona, 13, and Shirley Borja, 14, is this year's winner of the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

When one of Patricia Herr's eighth-grade science classes at Smart's Mill Middle School was having trouble grasping physics, she gave the students a copy of the state's learning standards and asked them what would help them better understand the material.

Their response: Have the class design and build an amusement park ride.

So Herr got school administrators to approve the idea, then wrote a proposal for a grant. In nine weeks, the students had built an electric-powered roller-coaster small enough to fit into her classroom -- and the concepts of motion, force and electricity no longer seemed so foreign to them.

That unconventional approach and dedication to her students earned Herr this year's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award for Loudoun County. The award is given by The Washington Post, and the winner is selected by a committee of Loudoun teachers and school administrators.

Teachers and students who nominated Herr lauded her originality and her ability to connect with students of all skill levels.

"Each year, Pat takes under her wing the toughest kids, the neediest kids, and makes them her own," wrote Bridget Beichler, assistant principal at Smart's Mill, in a nomination letter.

As a science teacher, Herr has to explain complex concepts that often are perceived as dry, but she is always looking for innovative ways to bring those ideas to life, according to those who nominated her. In 2003, Herr wrote a book on how teachers can use everyday objects to inspire learning. She also recently completed a program for science teachers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

"She has developed many creative ways to encourage her students to explore science and to hone their talents," wrote the dean of Smart's Mill, Kate Splendore, in her nomination letter. "She is constantly exploring new ideas and challenging herself as well as her students to think outside the box."

Herr, 55, grew up in Maryland and graduated from Frostburg State University in 1975. She received a master's degree in education from Marymount University and a certificate in technology education from George Mason University. Herr taught fifth grade for 15 years, at Ashburn Elementary and then at Ball's Bluff Elementary, before coming to Smart's Mill in Leesburg in 2004.

Herr's colleagues said she is involved in every aspect of her students' lives. She regularly attends student concerts, award assemblies and other school events. Former students often stop by her classroom to chat and catch up, said Eric Stewart, Smart's Mill's principal.

"In some cases, when told her classes were taking midterms or final exams, they were willing to wait until she was available," Stewart said of the former students. "That's a remarkable tribute to a teacher in any building."

Some students said they go to Herr with personal problems and talk to her as often as they can. Zach Gordon, a former student, said he expects to see Herr at his high school graduation.

"Ms. Herr is more than just a teacher," Gordon wrote in a letter nominating her for the award, "she is more like a second mother to me."

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