MOUNT GREENWOOD — Cassie Saunders was barely unpacked from leading a class trip to Costa Rica before she had to head to her first lacrosse team practice.
Saunders was asked to coach the freshman lacrosse team after successfully revitalizing the dance team at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School, 3737 W. 99th St. in Mount Greenwood.
The 26-year-old Spanish teacher is also among a select group of Mother McAuley staffers leading the way as the all-girls, Catholic high school implements its iPad Curriculum Integration Initiative.
All of this in just her second year of teaching. Saunders graduated in 2012 from DePaul University in Lincoln Park with a master's degree in education.
"It doesn't feel like it is a job," said Saunders, of Morgan Park.
A native of O'Fallon, Ill. near St. Louis, Saunders initially dreamed of becoming a lawyer upon enrolling in DePaul as an undergraduate. She even worked as an intern at law offices throughout the city while in school.
"I realized I didn't like poli-sci as much as I though I did," Saunders said.
It was during her undergraduate studies that Saunders began volunteering at the Instituto del Progreso Latino in Pilsen. She helped teach Spanish-speaking adults to read, write and prepare for the test to become American citizens.
This experience proved to be a revelation. Saunders changed her career path, focusing on education. She landed her first job at Mother McAuley in the fall.
McAuley "seems like a big family, which reminds me of where I grew up," Saunders said.
Saunders quickly immersed herself in her work. She started by writing a successful proposal to relaunch the Mighty Macs' competitive dance squad.
McAuley's IHSA-sanctioned dance team found its way last year and improved greatly this year, taking home two first place trophies at area competitions.
Her success with the dance squad prompted the the school's athletic director to ask her to coach the freshman lacrosse team — even though she has never played lacrosse.
She's leaning heavily on a recent McAuley graduate and lacrosse player for help with fundamentals and strategy while she focuses on managing the team and building morale.
"The freshmen and I are learning together," she said.
Saunders takes this same approach in the classroom. Her Spanish honors class is among the first to rely on iPads instead of textbooks. Next year, all freshmen and sophomores at McAuley will be required to have an iPad with them daily.
Saunders and her students have worked together to develop a curriculum that incorporates the tablet computer into their daily studies. Among their recent projects was a research assignment on Spanish-speaking countries.
Rather than a written report or a cobbled-together display on a poster board, the students used Pinterest to display the various information about each country. The suggestion to use the online bulletin board came from a student, and Saunders was quick to embrace the idea.
Saunders was also one of six chaperones to lead a group of 43 McAuley students to Costa Rica. Girls studying both Spanish and science spent spring break investigating various geographic and biological characteristics of the Central American country.
Students were forced to rely on their Spanish-speaking skills throughout their adventures, which included horseback riding along the side of a mountain and night walks through the forest, investigating various native plants, insects and nocturnal creatures.
"The girls were great. They were world travelers, through and through," she said.
When asked to explain her teaching style, Saunders said she takes a personal approach to each student, and said she also tries to avoid assigning "meaningless homework."
"I try to put myself in their shoes as much as possible," she said.