Clover High School science teacher Nick LaFave uses computer games and cell phone texting in lessons. His students study plants and wildlife in an outdoor classroom.
And LaFave, 38, recently returned from a six-week summer research expedition to the Arctic Circle, full of ideas on how he can incorporate what he has learned into his lessons.
“Research is showing that we learn by doing, that we learn by inquiry, it’s overwhelming,” said LaFave. “It’s natural to shift a teaching approach to that. I try to make it an active classroom and to limit the amount of talking I do.”
LaFave was named the Clover school district’s teacher of the year during convocation ceremonies last week. He was chosen from teachers who were named school-level teachers of the year.
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He said his own approach to teaching involves meeting students where they are — on cell phones or computer games, immersed in technology. For example, he said, one teaching tactic allows students to use cell phones to text answers that are shown on an electronic board.
“It’s incredible. They’ll answer questions all day long like that,” he said.
LaFave believes that’s where education needs to go.
“If that’s where they are, then why aren’t we there?” he said about the use of cell phones. “You don’t make the fish come to you, you go to where the fish are. It’s the same basic strategy.”
LaFave said educators need to reach students by using the technology that they have embraced. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to teach students today the same way that we were taught, or our grandparents were taught,” he said. “And basically, we still are. But these students are living in a different world than my grandparents did.”
His summer trip to the Arctic Circle fit in with LaFave’s aim to offer real-life learning experiences to his students. He participated in research on wolf spiders and their impact on the environment through PolarTREC, an educational research experience in which K-12 teachers participate in polar research with scientists as a way to improve science education. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.
LaFave, one of about 250 educators nationally who applied for about 16 research spots, joined a research project led by Duke University researcher Amanda Koltz. The team lived and worked out of a remote field station about a 10-hour drive north of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Since his return to the Carolinas about two weeks ago, LaFave said he has been adjusting to warmer temperatures, day and night cycles and the luxury of plentiful water. Alaska was in its 24-hour daylight summer during his stay, he said, and reserachers had to carefully conserve water, which was costly to transport to the research site.
After the project, he had a chance to travel around Alaska for 10 days, including an excursion that featured a dip in the frigid Arctic Ocean. But he’s glad to be back with his daughter, 3-year-old Madison, and wife, Jennifer, who teaches Spanish at Clover High School.
LaFave said he made some important connections during his trip and gained a lot of ideas for his classroom. He said students will be doing some of the same research that was done in the Arctic.
LaFave said he was able to visit with different research teams and see what they were doing. “Every group I went out with, I came back with one really good idea for what I can do with my students,” he said.
He’s also working on a master’s degree at Winthrop University. And he said he’s interested in finding better ways to connect science in the field with science in the classroom.
“How do we make this bigger?” LaFave said about the real-world science connection. “I got to talk to some of the scientists about this, and a lot of them are eager to make it bigger, too.”
He said he appreciates that the Clover school district has encouraged him to take chances in his teaching, and to try new approaches, even if those approaches don’t always succeed.
“The cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to education doesn’t work for everyone,” LaFave said. “And this is one place that has really caught on to that, and that’s one reason why I think we have students who are really engaged and happy to be here.”
And at least for now, LaFave said he doesn’t have any plans to leave.
“I’m still at the point where I really enjoy coming to work every day,” he said. “There are so few people who are lucky enough to do what they enjoy. I want to keep going with that.”
Clover’s school-level teachers of the year are: Carrie Wise, Bethany Elementary, fourth grade; Libby McMahon, Bethel Elementary, second grade; Kelly Davis, Blue Eagle Academy, middle level; Sandra Sullivan, Clover Middle, SOAR; Jane Tucker, Crowders Creek Elementary, first grade; Andy Carter, Griggs Road Elementary, third grade, Stacie Hoops, Kinard Elementary, kindergarten; Lesli Ann Howell, Larne, special education; and Cory Dover, Oakridge Middle, chorus.