Urbana educator makes USA Today's top 20

Urbana educator makes USA Today's top 20

URBANA – Marcy Vancil's third-graders this year are pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower to explore an unknown world in her time capsule, her classroom.

Wednesday, the youngsters were really into corn, examining plants on the lawn outside Wiley School, ripping them apart, shelling out the ears. Vancil underscored the importance of the plant and the "savages" they found in the New World with a gentle reminder for her time travelers.

"Here's what you need to know about corn," she said. "If you don't have corn, you won't survive the winter."

"Is it OK to use the term 'savages' today?" she asked. "No," chorused the class solemnly.

Today, Vancil is honored by USA Today as one of the 20 members of the publication's All-USA Teacher Team honoring outstanding teaching in the nation's schools. She was nominated for the honor by Wiley Principal Joan Fortschneider.

It's the latest in a series of honors for the Urbana teacher, a third-generation teacher on both sides of her family who believes every child has the potential to love learning and every teacher can discover it.

Her students get her message without even thinking about it.

"I'm so interested I go home and look on the Internet for information," said Caitlin Elliott, who has adopted Mayflower passenger Priscilla Mullins as her persona for the year, which the class will spend immersed in 17th-century American life. "I think she's a great teacher. She's really fun, too. Sometimes we don't even realize we're learning because we're having so much fun."

"I like her teaching because I like acting," said Stephen Hopkins. "In a while we're going to Williamsburg. I think about what I'm learning and what I want to learn. I just want to learn more."

Vancil's not intimidated by increasing pressure on teachers to drill math facts and reading skills so students can score well on standardized tests. She gets her students' attention by changing their environment into a learning adventure, then working necessary skills into the theme.

Last year, her students pretended they lived in London. Past class themes have included Hawaii, Japan, China and Alaska.

"Life in a classroom is all about discovering the joy of learning," said Vancil, who started teaching in Urbana schools in 1974 and at Wiley in 1990. "My approach is to use a year exploring a theme in depth, integrating it into everything to enhance all students' background knowledge.

"It's about connections, connecting corn to the prairie to the lives of the pilgrims and Indians. It's about access for all students. Acting it out deepens their understanding."

Vancil rebelled against the family profession when she was a teen-ager but says her parents, LeRoy residents Bob and Marybelle Vancil, had laid the foundation for her future.

"They taught me to love learning, to respect all people and to be involved in the human endeavor of exploring the world with others," she said.

She gives Joliet area principal Ed Chesko, now of Delavan, Wis., credit for redirecting her views after he watched her one day helping some of her mother's students.

"He said, 'It doesn't matter what you decide to do or what field you choose, you'll always be a teacher,'" Vancil said. "I started rethinking. It's true you do a lot of different things teaching."

She said she gets to know each child's needs, designs lessons and materials focused on them and pays attention to standardized goals to measure their progress and her own effectiveness."

"It's more and more a challenge to prepare for standardized testing but it can be done," Vancil said. "But the standards don't describe everything a child needs to know. Deep learning involves skills all students need."

She was a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2003, earned an Outstanding Educator's Award from the Regional Office of Education in 1988, and was named a Disney American Teacher Honoree, a national award, in 1994.

Vancil was one of the first teachers in the area to become nationally certified, a process that takes nearly a year, and she's been a mentor for other area teachers who seek certification.

"She has a wonderful thing going," said Urbana Superintendent Gene Amberg. "She's an exemplary teacher who puts a high priority on education practices. She creates a culture of learning in her classroom that is so effective, the kids buy into her techniques."

Allie Greene, a University of Illinois education major, is Vancil's student teacher.

"This classroom's a great experience," Greene said. "We hear so much about preparing for tests. Other UI student teachers are shocked when I tell them her curriculum centers around social studies and everything fits in. They're saying all they focus on is math and reading. It's a year-long focus that gets kids so engaged."

Vancil's family includes 17-year-old Cameron Stewart, an Urbana High School student, and husband, Scott Stewart, a UI engineering professor.

As part of her award, she receives $500, and the school gets a check for $2,000. "I've spent my money three times over on electronic field trips," Vancil said. "We're still talking about the school award but we'll be spending that on technology, computers."

She wants her students to understand that they're also being honored and she cites past lessons based on Martin Luther King's speeches to make that point.

"Dr. King said we're all woven together in a garment of destiny and I can never be what I am until you are what you ought to be and you can't be what you are until I am what I ought to be," she said. "We are what we are because of all the experiences we've had and if one person is acknowledged, it's for all. "

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