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Deer Creek teacher wins World Affairs Council award


Maria Copelan teaches English language development using unique subject matter

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - A FAVORITE TEACHER - Maria Copelan teaches subjects such as science or social justice with English lessons imbedded in them plus she uses toys and video clips to make learning fun.Maria Copelan was recently named the World Affairs Council's Oregon Global Teacher of the Year, and after a visit to her classroom at Deer Creek Elementary, it's easy to understand why.

Copelan teaches English language development to students in kindergarten through fifth grade - the program used to be called English language learners or ELL - and she has 80 students this year, including those just beginning to learn English and advanced speakers.

"I have my students for 30 minutes each day, grouped by grade level, and since I have some of the same ones year after year, they would be bored if I taught the same way over and over," Copelan said. "It's quite a juggling act. This year I am teaching science content with English imbedded in it. For example, to teach Newton's laws of motion, I have the kids race Hot Wheels cars down a steep slope to understand acceleration and gravity. Last week we studied cause and effect.

"It's very basic, but understanding the laws of science makes learning English way more interesting. Last year the content was social justice and included such issues as racism. We discussed talking instead of fighting to resolve issues. I also used a Super Heroes theme."

Copelan sometimes uses clips from the television show, "America's Funniest Home Videos," asking students to guess the outcome, such as when a man trips over a ball, he falls.

In addition to teaching writing, "we sing math songs every period," Copelan said. "And I teach idioms, like 'in the blink of an eye.'"

Copelan, who has a bachelor of art degree in English literature from San Diego State University and a master's degree from Portland State University, said she was surprised she won the global teacher award, which was based on the curriculum she taught last year, "but it is a nice award."

Copelan added, "I appreciate being recognized by an outside organization - it validates what I do."

She thinks one reason she was on the organization's radar is because every six weeks from January to June, she goes to the World Affairs Council's offices in downtown Portland and checks out "culture boxes."

"I've been doing this for five years, and there are several large boxes for each culture containing lesson plans, artifacts, DVDs, CDs and more," Copelan said. "I tend to do Mexico toward the end of April. Last year we had a big dance production. A mom taught all my students three dances, and several of us sewed boleros and full skirts.

"I find someone from a country first and then check out the boxes for that country, so it is easy for them to make a presentation. They don't have to do anything - just add water. We do an all-school assembly and set up a 'museum' for the kids to visit. We don't have a lot of diversity in Oregon and at this school, so this program is a good way for students to be exposed to other cultures."

Copelan said she would get bored teaching English in a conventional way. "I don't want kids to learn off a worksheet," she said. "I have boxes of toys to use when I'm teaching words and concepts."

Every spring students in the ELD program across the state are given the English Language Proficiency Assessment and must score a 5 or repeat the class for another year, according to Copelan.

The program and testing are the result of a Supreme Court decision in 1974 that mandated schools must provide classes that teach English.

"I have an ongoing relationship with the kids who don't pass and are with me for another year," said Copelan, who learned Spanish as a second language but doesn't speak the other languages her students speak, such as Farsi.

She has taught 12 of the last 24 years, taking off a dozen years to raise her own kids; this is her third year at Deer Creek, and prior to that, she taught for three years at C.F. Tigard Elementary.

"When I was a kid, I never went home after school - I stayed to help the teachers," Copelan said.

"It's good job and a good life. I love my kids, and I get nervous at assessment time."

In fact, her classes have proven to be so popular that some kids tell her they plan to fail the state test so they can stay in her class another year.

"To sweeten the deal, I tell them that if they pass, I will take them to Oaks' Park for half a day," Copelan said.

She obviously is doing something right: "Last year, my whole fifth-grade passed the state test and scored at the same rate as the other kids on the benchmarks," Copelan said.