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'It's like Cracking a Code,' Fifth-Grade Teacher Says of Challenging Job

By Alisa Hauser | November 25, 2013 6:31am
 Heather Reed in the classroom.
Heather Reed, 5th Grade Pritzker School Teacher
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WICKER PARK —  Kneeling on the floor while submerging an aluminum can into a pot of boiling water with 26 fifth grade students surrounding her — some spastically shooting up their hands to share their theories on what they think will happen next — Miss Reed is in her zone.

Though it took a few tries for the atmospheric pressure demonstration to work, Heather Reed remained unfazed as her young scientists, some of whom she assigned tasks like going to the water fountain in the hallway to procure more water, remained enthralled.

Finally, when the aluminum can shrank after being put into cold water, the students were sent back to their desks to write about what they'd just observed in "301," their homeroom classroom at Pritzker Elementary School, 2008 W. Schiller St. in Wicker Park.

Earlier, the room crackled with energy as Reed began the lesson by explaining, "We're talking about water boiling, molecules freaking out they have so much energy, the molecules are separating from each other!"

The enthusiastic and theatrical introduction caused Reed to stretch and wave her arms as the students imitated their teacher while sitting in their desks, some calling out "Dance like molecules!"

The only person in the room who wasn't 9 or 10 years old was James Roberson, a special education teacher's assistant who provides extra support to a few of the students in Reed's gifted classroom.

"She has a lot of ingenuity and will stick with the class, keep their attention," Roberson said of Reed, calling her lessons, "innovative and fun to watch."

For Reed, explaining what could be complicated concepts like gravity and pressure in a way that different learners can grasp is like "cracking a code," she said after the class was dismissed.

"I'm really excited about and figuring out how to explain it, almost always in many different ways for the many different kinds of thinkers I encounter," Reed said.

Originally from Holland, Mich., Reed, who studied elementary education at DePaul University, said she "always knew" she wanted to be a teacher and credits her own elementary school instructors as inspirations, as well as a family friend who taught English as a second language. 

 Heather Reed is in her eighth year of teaching at Pritzker School in Wicker Park.
Heather Reed is in her eighth year of teaching at Pritzker School in Wicker Park.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

The family friend, Reed said, instilled in her one general thought about her own future: "I wanted to do something helpful."

Now in her eighth year of teaching at Pritzker School, Reed said her approach to teaching "relies heavily on making learning authentic to my students" because "if a topic doesn't matter to them, or they can't find something interesting in it, they're not very likely to understand or remember it."

Parent Angela Serrano, whose son Elijah is in Reed's class, said Reed "really poses some difficult questions for kids to make them think" and that "she thinks outside the box." 

In addition to teaching science, which Reed calls her "true love," the 31-year-old teacher also provides instruction in reading, writing and Social Studies to her fifth grade homeroom students as well as science to the school's sixth graders.

No matter which subjects she's teaching, Reed, who also has been coaching seventh- and eighth-grade volleyball at the school for the past five years, said she uses "optimism and energy to approach the day."

"I recognize that my outlook on the day sets the tone for my classroom," she said.

Perhaps that optimism helped 10-year-old Elijah Serrano to, as he put it, "like Social Studies for the first time."

Having recently been assigned to research events related to the B.C. era, the boy said the experience was "not normal, not like a worksheet — you do your own research."

Reed's impact on on the Pritzker community doesn't end in the classroom. For the past three years, she has served as the school's coordinator of Girls on the Run, a program that promotes healthy eating and fitness habits and culminates in a 5K run.

"I feel like being physically active as a kid and engaging in team activities was hugely important in bolstering my self confidence, helping me learn to overcome struggles, learning to be cooperative, and in building community.

"I think for girls especially the importance of all those things can't be overstated," Reed said.