Shining stars in the classroom

Amanda Coleman reads to students Joshua and Layla Criswell outside Gesu School in northwest Detroit. Coleman, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, was named the Catholic League’s 2017-18 elementary school teacher of the year for her imaginative integration of STEM learning in her science classrooms. Photos by Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Marian, Gesu teachers share passion for learning with students

Bloomfield Hills — Students across the Archdiocese of Detroit will be returning to classes taught by some of the most dedicated, thoughtful teachers in the area.

While teachers don’t teach for the accolades, every year, the Catholic High School League recognizes an elementary and secondary school teacher of the year with the Bishop John Quinn Awards.

In June, Amanda Coleman of Gesu School in Detroit and Rosanne Acciaioli of Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills were recognized with those awards, given during the CHSL’s annual end-of-year banquet.

Sharing world experience

Sitting at the banquet, Acciaioli was listening to the description of the person who was about to honored, and started to feel a little out of her league.

“They were talking about the recipient in the elementary school category before me (Amanda Coleman), and I was thinking, ‘Wow, what kind of person gets an award like this?’” Acciaioli told The Michigan Catholic. “I was so amazed at this person whose colleagues were saying these nice things about them, and when they said my name for the secondary teacher of the year, I was shocked.”

A third-year theology teacher at Marian High School, Acciaioli teaches class out of what used to be her senior homeroom when she was a student at the all-girls school, after previous teaching assignments at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Beverly Hills and Regina High School in Warren.

“Marian has always had a special place in my heart, and when I saw the theology position open up, I knew it would be a good move,” Acciaioli said. “Each one of the Catholic school environments and communities I’ve taught at has been an honor.”

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan in the 1970s and ‘80s, Acciaioli found a job market that wasn’t conducive for young teaching careers, so she went into nursing instead, specializing in mental health.

Her 38-year career in mental health included stops at state hospitals, working the streets to find those in need of care and working for community mental health agencies, with occasional teaching assignments at Queen of Martyrs and Regina sprinkled in.

“That experience in mental health was fabulous for me,” Acciaioli said. “In 2002, I ended up having breast cancer, and I’m blessed to be a survivor. I always wanted to go back into teaching, and decided to formalize it at that point, taking classes at Sacred Heart Major Seminary and becoming a certified catechist.”

Using her experience as a cancer survivor and working with the mentally ill, Acciaioli strives to teach her students compassion and understanding in the classroom, hallmarks of what she says makes a Marian education stand out.

“One of the things Roseanne embodies is her sense of justice and her ability to teach our students what justice means,” said Stacey Kushman, academic dean at Marian. “Her communication skills lend her to being the perfect person to go to if a student has questions or needs to talk. She teaches a course on grief and loss, not an easy subject to talk about, but she teaches it with such grace.”

Acciaioli also uses her experience inside and outside the classroom to give her students a holistic look at theology and what it means to be a daughter of God.

“The biggest lesson I want to impart to students is that they are so loved by a loving God, and because of that, we know compassion, we know justice, and we know mercy,” Acciaioli said. “Life has many twists and turns for all of us, but because God loves us, we don’t have to worry.”

Reinvention in the classroom

A couple years ago, Gesu fourth-grade teacher Amanda Coleman asked parents of her students what they would like to see in the curriculum.

More science, the parents answered, particularly more in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“That got me to evaluate my teaching,” Coleman said. “We had recently gotten a new third-grade teacher fresh out of college, and I was really inspired by her ideas. I’d been teaching for 13 years at that point, and she inspired me to get new, fresh ideas.”

Last school year was Coleman’s first incorporating “STEM Fridays” during science class, during which students work on interactive projects in one of the STEM fields, using problem-solving skills to complete hands-on experiments.

“This year, we created catapults at Halloween, using Popsicle sticks and rubber bands to try to launch Halloween candy through a hula-hoop or a target,” Coleman said. “We also used boxes and toilet paper tubes to create mazes for ping-pong balls.”

The reinvention of science classes at Gesu led Coleman’s colleagues to nominate her for teacher of the year at the Detroit parochial school, and at the June 4 banquet, she was named the Bishop John Quinn Elementary Teacher of the Year.

While STEM education can be scarce for inner-city schools, Coleman’s willingness to ask parents for additional resources and to be creative with what was available allowed her to create fun, engaging classes for Gesu students.

“It’s our duty as educators to pull in resources that our students don’t normally have access to,” Coleman said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do STEM if it wasn’t for the support of our parents.”

Coleman said the change of pace in science class has sparked the imaginations of students, who look forward to the next experiment on STEM Fridays.

“I love that ‘lightbulb moment’ when I see the expression on their faces,” Coleman said. “The first time we made a volcano, there was a group of girls who got it right away, but another group who didn’t get it at first. But they never got discouraged because it was so fun, and they’re still learning.”

Coleman’s experience with Catholic schools began early in life, growing up in Waterford and attending Our Lady of the Lakes schools thorough 12th grade. After teaching at a charter school in Pontiac, Coleman taught at St. Cecilia School in Detroit, was a long-term sub at a suburban Catholic school, then taught for a year at St. Scholastica in Detroit, before it was announced the school was closing.

“The assistant principal at St. Scholastica recommended me to Gesu, and I jumped right on it,” Coleman said. “I just love Detroit and being a Catholic school teacher in Detroit. It really takes a special person to teach in the city; you have to have a passion for it.”

Gesu principal Christa Laurin said Coleman’s willingness to try new teaching materials and expand the curriculum makes Gesu a better place to learn and teach.

“When Amanda mentioned she wanted to try STEM at Gesu, I said I was all for trying new things and moving students forward with a great experience,” Laurin said. “Gesu is unique in a lot of ways, but it is a calling to come and teach at a city school.

“Amanda has a passion for our students, a passion for collaborating with our parents,” Laurin said. “Her dedication to Catholic values — she also runs our student service project for the year — is something she is so passionate about. She’s a great role model for students and teachers. She is the kind of teacher Jesus would want us to be, and when she was named teacher of the year, we knew she was a tremendous pick.”

A previous version of this story erroneously reported Rosanne Acciaioli has bachelor's and master's degrees in education from the University of Michigan. She holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Michigan, but not in education. The Michigan Catholic regrets the error.