The day members of the National Association for Biology Teachers came calling at Oak Park and River Forest High School to assess whether Marie Urbanski might be their choice for Illinois biology teacher of the year, they found members of her advanced placement class wearing T-shirts reading "Team Urbanski" across the back.
But they might just as well have come the day before winter break when an Urbanski student sang an ode to the mighty cell to the melody of a Christmas carol. Or the day class members who are part of the school's Orchesis Dance Troupe did an interpretive dance of what they had observed on a class field trip to the Volo Bog State Natural Area in McHenry County.
If this is not how you remember high school biology, you haven't been a student at OPRF since Urbanski arrived in 1974.
The national teachers group did decide to recognize Urbanski as the 2003-2004 winner of the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award (OBTA) for Illinois.
The selection committee chooses the winners based on their contributions to the profession and their students, their teaching ability and strengths, experience, inventiveness, initiative and cooperation in the school and surrounding community.
"Marie [Urbanski] has really done some remarkable things," said Ken Johnson, director of the OBTA selection committee. "In comparing Marie and the things she's done, she's as good as we've ever seen."
A quick glance at Urbanski's resume highlights some of the community, professional and scholastic accomplishments she has accumulated in her teaching career. In the early 1970s she volunteered with the Peace Corps teaching math and science in Malaysia. Later, she and a former student, by then a Peace Corp member in Mozambique, formed a biology study partnership between Oak Park and Africa. She spent time in 1989-1990 teaching biology and health education in the Philippines. She was also selected to represent OPRFHS in Japan as part of the Japanese Fulbright Memorial Fund.
Urbanski has also been nominated for a Golden Apple Award. But, she said, the OBTA honor holds more significance for her because only one is awarded in her specific field.
"It's [the OBTA is] the most rewarding recognition I could have," Urbanski said.
In winning the award, Urbanski joins the three previous OPRF winners; Joseph R. McMenamin, 1962-1963; Paul Geisert, 1967-1968; and Edwin Radatz, 1977-1978.
Lighting the fire
As a child, Urbanski attended BrookPark School in LaGrange. She said that she has always been interested in teaching. "I've never thought of myself as doing anything else. It was a place where I could excel and be creative and spread that excitement to my students."
Urbanski remembered one teacher who made an impact. During fifth grade, her teacher, Mrs. Bloom, was lecturing the students on fossils. When describing what about that lesson she remembers the most, she said, "I think it was that science could be fun. Everything was hands on."
Taking the love to her classroom
Urbanski said part of her teaching attitude is to make her biology lessons as creative as she can for her students. Each year, she takes some of her students to Volo Bog State Natural Area in McHenry County.
For the homework assignment of the field trip, which Urbanski said tends to be a lot of academic memorization in biology, she said she tried to give them more creative tasks. She suggested that the students keep a photo journal of the bog, focusing on one specific theme within the bog. She said one student did a chalk sketch of the bog.
When studying cells, Urbanski said she asked students to create an analogy and relate parts of the cell to parts of a theme park. If that was too difficult or uninviting, Urbanski offered options, like rap songs, poetry or creating travel brochures.
In an anonymous letter of recommendation for the award, one student said, "Dr. Urbanski's enthusiasm is contagious. With an enticing lab offer, we are drawn to her classroom as early as 7 a.m. to sex sea urchins from Florida or care for FAST Plants. We are excited about every lab, have study sessions during the week and discuss biology in our lunchrooms and study halls. These behaviors are due to the eagerness we share to learn and not simply 'prepare for tests.' Dr. Urbanski's passion for the study of life rubs off on all her students."
Another student said, "I've learned many things, not only the nitty gritty of bio, but perhaps a greater appreciation for life itself."
Even her own family members recognize the stark differences in her teaching style than that of what they experienced.
"I know she spends a lot of hours preparing [for class]," said her middle son, Brian, 21. "I would have liked to have her as a teacher myself."
Ultimately Marie Urbanski said, "For me, personally, it [the award] is a wonderful cap to a long career."