Love for what she does shows in the work

Kaua‘i District Teacher of the Year shares her secrets

by Pam Woolway – The Garden Island

Evidence covers every wall and shelf of her room. It’s the dozen or more photo-collages brightening the usual pallor of a classroom. It’s the affirmation on a banner, “Better when we work together,” and the tiki man trophies lining a shelf nearest the door. But the sum of these parts pales by comparison to the light of passion emanaing from the woman — Kapa‘a Middle School chorus teacher Mary Lardizabal, Kaua‘i District Teacher of the Year.

“Teacher of the Year is not about me,” she said. “It’s about the school and the goodness we bring. It’s about my students.”

A lively bunch of sixth-graders bounce through the door to take seats in chairs forming a half-circle across the room. Lardizabal brings their attention to the fore with the chime of a piano key. Her students respond in unison, “Hippity hop, hippity hop,” their voices reaching for progressively higher notes.

She stands before the glossy black elegance of “the grand,” as she refers to it — the chorus room’s latest piano acquisition.

“The grand piano came from the Marriott,” she said.

Last year Kaua‘i Marriott held a contest among school choirs to compete for the Yamaha baby grand.

When the first round of song concludes, Lardizabal asks, “What’s your favorite song, Joshua?”

“Go team, go,” calls a boy from the back of the class. Then the group segues into its next warm-up before Lardizabal has them divide into groups.

Lardizabal was one of the teachers originating at Kapa‘a High and Intermediate who designed Kapa‘a Middle School 12 years ago. Since that time her chorus room has become an impromptu archive for the school.

“My students bring in the pictures,” she said, as she walked the length of the class to its farthest wall.

From floor to ceiling is a riot of smiling faces cut and pasted into collage posters — each represents a year of the school’s existence.

On Oct. 16 Lardizabal will join eight other teacher of the year district winners on O‘ahu for a ceremony with the Board of Education. One teacher will be selected as Hawai‘i’s 2009 State Teacher of the Year and then represent Hawai‘i in the national program.

The process began last spring when a handful of parents approached Lardizabal’s principal Nathan Aiwoui to nominate her for the honor. Among the qualifications sought was the ability to inspire love of learning in students and to be active in the community.

Love of learning may be the primary ingredient maintaining order in a room filled with 40 or so teenagers — love — and an inspired learning environment.

“We have eight learning centers,” she said.

Lardizabal calls this space her “musical classroom.” Like spokes on a wheel, eight stations fan across the room. In one corner hang ‘ukulele; another, rows of keyboards; then there’s a center for composition on computer software. Lardizabal even re-designed a Twister game as a playful way for students to learn musical notes and symbols.

She said her learning centers are not just designed for musical skill but also to teach students how to work together, as well as take part in their own learning.

“The stations change quarterly,” she said. She co-creates new stations with help from her students.

As for community involvement, Kapa‘a Middle School gets dozens of requests to perform countywide. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2007 the chorus performed 15 concerts.

“We go into the community on all requests,” said Lardizabal.

Last year eight of her students were immortalized on disc when they recorded a CD with local author Dr. Terry Carolan for his book “B is for Beach.”

One of many honors the chorus can take pride in is its seven silver and gold medals from the E. Heritage Music Festival. The most recent is a gold medal in the middle school division awarded at the festival in Anaheim earlier this year where 2,500 students were participating.

“I love what I do,” she said. “And it does reflect in the way I teach.”

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