Offbeat Academia

Summertime is over! It’s time for Pop-Tart breakfasts and school buses, for imaginary numbers and forgotten locker combinations. Reading, writing and ’rithmetic can give new meaning to “bored of education.”  Or so you thought.

Hold onto your homework. Before dangling another participle or dissecting another triangle (they have three sides, what’s the big deal?), take a look at some cool curriculum. Bay area schools have courses covering every subject from solving crime to cooking pizza. Here are just a few of the many that make the grade.


“This … is CNN.” No wait; this is UMS–Wright. And now, the headlines. Almost every school day, UMS-Wright students and faculty listen to news, sports and weather reports. But don’t look for Matt Lauer; these reporters also attend the prep school. The broadcast journalism  students practice camera techniques, writing for television and interviewing skills. They are required to produce four news segments each quarter, covering local events, national news and school features.

The young broadcasters use state-of-the-art, professional-grade equipment to learn the craft. “Our students broadcast graduation ceremonies, awards presentations and football games, ” says school spokesperson Eliza Lewis. “Events are recorded and released over the Internet. We have grandparents in the Bahamas watching grandsons play football via the Web.”

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“One UMS-Wright graduate, Ellen Goldberg (Class of ’97) currently works for KXAS-TV in Dallas now, ” says Lewis. “She is a lead reporter for their 10 p.m. broadcast and fill-in reporter for MSNBC.” Now back to Mobile.

Recently updated upper school broadcast programming class will further explore writing in electronic media. It will cover detailed script writing, segment reports, camera techniques and delivery. Stay tuned.

Lights, Camera, Fairhope!

Nine video cameras, nine specially configured computers and 28 students comprise Fairhope High School’s  new media and TV production class. If it’s digital, they do it. Class projects, according to teacher Robby Trione, include developing iPad apps, YouTube videos, electronic signs and sports scoreboard animations.

FHS also offers television production classes, progressing from TV1 to TV4. “Participants study the three P’s – preproduction, production and postproduction. (Pay attention, we may have a quiz.)

“Preproduction involves script writing and planning, ” Trione explains. “Production is shooting the written script, and postproduction involves editing, color correction, graphics and sound design.” The ultimate class goal, according to the teacher, “is to create meaning and a desired audience response.”

Edible Assignments

On Wednesdays, Joni Ojard’s students take part in “lab class” in a fully equipped kitchen. As they cook, the aroma wafts through the halls of Spanish Fort High School, drawing those who want some culinary education themselves to arrive with a knife and fork. “We often have a few visitors on Wednesdays, ” laughs the teacher. It is another day of food and nutrition class, above, where final exams are studied and eaten, which explains why the course has such a long waiting list.

“But this is not just about cooking, ” Ojard says. “It is hands-on culinary training, emphasizing good nutrition. The cooking skills also enable students to take care of themselves.” Ojard teaches all aspects of food. She believes, “Behind every good recipe is a story so we explore it.”

For example, students do not just toss a pizza. They find answers to important questions. What is the chemistry that makes dough rise? (Yeast at 100 degrees Fahrenheit.) Where was the first pizzeria? (Naples, Italy, 1835.) How many calories does pizza have? (Don’t go there.)

In fully functional classroom kitchens, teen crews are assigned roles: chef, assistant chef, cooks and more. As part of the training, students cater school events, such as the prom. Last year, more boys enrolled than girls. “Thanks to the popularity of food shows on TV and celebrity chefs, boys are more comfortable with it, ” notes Ojard. “Cooking is more mainstream now. Boys tend to be more experimental with spices and seasonings, while girls usually emphasize food appearance.” And according to the teacher, “Many students actually graduate better cooks than their parents, ” – much to the delight of Mom and Dad.

Passion for Fashion

“As ye sew, so shall ye reap.” Just ask students of Spanish Fort High School’s fashion dynamics class.

“Sewing is a lost art that is coming back, ” says Dianne Bernasconi, a teacher with 40 years experience in the craft. “Many students come in with little to no know-how on the subject. We teach design, color, shape, and then cut them lose on the sewing machines.”

They love it. More than 135 teens applied for the 70 spots open this fall. Sessions are an hour and a half, “but some students stay after class and return after school, ” Bernasconi notes. “For most, working with a sewing machine is a first-time experience. They are fascinated.”

The nine-week study encompasses more than stitching cloth. Students apply math, precise measuring and artistic expression to create wearable projects. “Sewing is a lifelong skill, ” adds Bernasconi. “You should see the incredible things they produce in class – clothes, jewelry, purses and so much more. The students take pride in the accomplishments of their finished pieces.”

Curriculum includes a study of fashion design icons and features a field trip to New York City’s Garment District.

There are other perks, too. Recently, a SFHS fashion student wore a beautiful, one-of-a-kind dress to prom. Someone inquired, “Wow, where did you buy that?”  The girl answered, “Oh, it’s a designer gown – I’m the designer.”

Teenage Interns

The doctor is in – and the teenagers are too! Working with Mobile’s medical community, St. Luke’s Episcopal School students shadow health care workers. They’re discovering there’s more to medicine than “take two aspirins and call me in the morning.”

“Biomedical science class serves to introduce students to health careers, ” says instructor Angie Dixon. “They follow a variety of workers in the trade, studying them in the professional’s medical environment.” Students take what is learned in the field back to the classroom.

“Most young people think of health care as doctors and nurses, ” notes Dixon. “We introduce them to the others, like pharmacists, physical therapists and medical technicians.” Back in class, the pre-premed teens receive lessons on everything from Band-Aids to brain surgery. Students study disease and every aspect of it. They choose an illness and research cures, medicines, health effects, anything related to the sickness.” In fact, they dabble in almost everything except treating patients and writing prescriptions. After all, they aren’t doctor – yet.

Many decide to continue their studies in college. “And that’s a plus for us, ” says Dixon. “Because they realize medical schools only accept those with the best grades.”

Cracking Cases

Part of the success of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School’s forensic science class, right, is due to televised crime dramas. The good news is shows like “NCIS” have raised teenage interest in criminal justice. The bad news is “NCIS” is nothing like criminal justice.

“Coming into this, students do not realize how involved it is, ” instructor Claudia Miller says about McGill’s sleuth training. “Unlike TV, real-life murders are not solved in 60 minutes with commercial breaks.”

The process of catching the bad guys draws on biology, chemistry, physics, critical thinking, criminal law and logistics. “It’s more than fingerprint dusting, ” adds Miller. “Students must have excellent observation and interview skills.” In fact, they are trained and tested on it.

“I saw the course description and wanted to try it, ” says senior Blakely McNeely. “We work in teams to gather evidence. I’ve learned that little things can prove guilt or innocence, unlike what you see on TV.”

Fellow student Haley Hernandez agrees, “It is great hands-on training. We learn about fingerprints and the many patterns a person’s prints have. But it doesn’t stop there. We study shoe prints, too, and what to look for in a crime scene. Everything and anything can be a clue.”

The final exam requires solving a murder. The body of a “victim” is outlined on the classroom floor. Teen detectives piece together clues using simulated blood samples, fingerprints and suspect interrogations. Based on data gathered, they turn in a report.

And it’s fun. Miller, also a trained biology teacher, laughs, “It sure beats cutting a frog.”

Blooming in Daphne

Andy Jones had a busy summer because tomatoes wait for no man. At press time, the Daphne High School teacher’s students just tilled 250 of them. “I want young people to appreciate the work behind their food, ” he says. “Even if my students never have a garden or work in agriculture, at least they will know where their food comes from and how it got on the table.” Daphne High School has nine student-run greenhouses, annually producing more than 70, 000 plants as part of the horticulture classes. Teen greens are sold through two plant sales, one in spring and one in fall. But the learning is continuous.

“We study diseases, pest control, fertilizers, nutritients, and all things botanical. Whether someone wants to enter the agriculture field or not, the lessons learned are priceless, ” Jones adds. Students hone life skills, such as “how to be independent and keep money in your pockets.”

“If you can grow food, you can do anything.”

The Great Outdoors

A 500-acre classroom: talk about a room with a view. School-age children study nature at Mobile’s Environmental Studies Center by living it. Teachers and students experience the natural environment in pine forests, a 20-acre lake, hiking trails and more. You can read about raccoons, study opossums, learn barn owl first aid – and then pet these critters. Try that in a library.

A team of paid and volunteer workers runs the center, teaching the students and caring for the facilities and grounds. It takes a lot of work when  “show and tell” is all of nature’s wonders.

“We supplement lesson plans as well provide our own classes, ” notes director Desiree Bishop. “Almost every area public school visits us for field trips, including about 800 high school students.”

“For many, especially inner-city children, this may be their first forest visit, ” says Bishop. “All are surprised and delighted at what is out here.” They soon realize that in the woods, life goes on just fine without text messaging.

The center has bogs, ponds, woods, creeks and a lake waiting for discovery. All it takes is some hiking and knowing how to use a compass or GPS. Naturally, they teach that too.

Text by Emmett Burnett • photos by Elise Poché

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