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In her element: 'Nerdy' teacher helps students learn that science is cool

Mehdi

Teacher of the Year Ann Marie Mehdi tries to instill her love for science in the students she teaches at South Central High School. “I want my kids to have a job one day, and right now if they say they don’t like science, they may be struggling because a lot of those STEM jobs are where everything’s going.”

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Kim Grizzart

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Ann Marie Mehdi doesn’t really care if she stands out as a nerd at South Central High School.

She’s not embarrassed by the fact that she’s a fan of “Harry Potter” or ashamed to say that she thinks math is fun or worried what people would think about her watching science videos on YouTube. Being considered cool has never been her goal.

“I’ve always sort of been a nerdy kid,” Mehdi said. “I’m OK with that. I embrace that.

“I don’t necessarily know if being nerdy is a bad thing,” she said. “But I think it matters to be who you are in the classroom.”

That’s especially true when you’re the teacher.

For Medhi, an East Carolina University graduate, being herself might mean standing on the lab counter to point to the periodic table, teaching thermodynamics by making ice cream or nicknaming argon “the element of the Pirates,” and telling students to pronounce the purple noble gas “ARR! Gon.”

These are the kinds of classroom procedures that got Medhi being named Teacher of the Year in her third year at South Central. This spring, in her sixth year in the classroom, the 28-year-old was named Pitt County Teacher of the Year.

“She’s a real go-getter,” said fellow science educator Karen Gammon, who serves as instructional coach at South Central. “She’s just a bright spot in the school.

“She has great ideas,” Gammon said. “She just really works hard to try and make school better for everyone.”

A Roxboro native, Medhi practically grew up at school. Her mother, Holly Blalock, taught math at Northern Middle School in Person County since before Medhi was born. Medhi recalls feeling so at home there that instead of putting her books in a locker as her classmates did, she kept hers in her mother’s room, stopping by to retrieve them between classes.

“I think I spent most of my summers in her room with her, helping her get her stuff ready,” she said.

Before she finished middle school, Medhi had her first chance to teach on her own. An eighth-grade history project required that she prepare a lesson for the rest of the class. The presentation wowed her teacher, so much so that she asked Medhi if she had ever considered becoming an educator.

“I was like, ‘No. why would I want to be a teacher?’” Medhi said, laughing. “‘Why would I want to do that? It’s too much work and nobody appreciates it.’”

Medhi had learned from watching her mother and her aunt, Ellen Hefner, a high school chemistry teacher, that teaching was not a job where she could expect to be off work by 3:30 p.m. There were early morning duties, late afternoon meetings and nights and weekends spent preparing lessons and grading papers.

As much as Blalock has loved teaching — she is entering her 30th year with no immediate plans for retirement — she had honestly hoped for something different, and a bit more lucrative, for her daughter.

“I wanted her to do something that she loved, but I thought she was following in my footsteps,” Blalock said. “I know how hard I’ve worked. It’s a lot of time you don’t get paid for.”

But once Mehdi had joined the high school marching band, it seemed she had also fallen into step with the idea of becoming a teacher, and she would not be dissuaded.

“If every day was fun and jolly, everybody would do this job,” she said. “It is a very challenging job. I knew that, and I accepted that challenge.”

She came to ECU in 2009 on North Carolina Teaching Fellows scholarship with plans to become a music educator. While she earned a spot with the Marching Pirates, Mehdi could not seem to find her place in music education. Still wanting to teach, she began experimenting with other areas of study, including history and math. But science turned out to be where she was in her element.

“By the time I got to my second semester of science courses, I really felt like this is challenging coursework,” she said. “I’m excited about challenging myself to learn this and to learn more. That’s part of the reason I wanted to be a teacher anyway is because I get really bored when things are easy.

“I feel like science is a culmination of all the subjects,” Mehdi said. “I get to teach math every day but I’m teaching math in a way that explains how the universe works. … It’s just fun. It’s hands on. It’s challenging in a good way.”

But getting students to be excited about science can be a different kind of challenge. Mehdi believes so much depends on how the subject is presented in the lower grades.

“When I was in elementary school, I had like one day of science,” she said, incredulously. “So I didn’t really know anything about science.

“In middle school, unfortunately what sometimes happens is, you’ll end up with a history teacher who ends up having to teach science,” Mehdi said. “A lot of times, kids aren’t really doing science. They’re watching videos and opening up a textbook and answering questions and doing math problems on the board. They’re not actively taking things and mixing them together to see what happens.”

One challenge to a more active approach to teaching science is that materials can be expensive. Mehdi recalls that when she began her career in the Triad area, she bought supplies for experiments herself, often mixing together items that she picked up from the grocery store.

She remembers some of her co-workers questioned whether or not it was wise for her to incorporate lab activities into her classroom, which consisted of mostly low-performing students.

“They said, ‘You’re going to do labs with those kids?’” Mehdi recalled. “I didn’t really like the way they said it. I (said) ‘Why wouldn’t I?’”

After coming to South Central, Mehdi, whose students have been shown to regularly exceed expectations on their end-of-course and end-of-grade tests, joined the core assistance team. Here, she acts as an adviser of sorts to other science teachers, sharing ideas for creating interactive assignments that help spark students’ interest in science.

“There is a sense of controlled chaos (in a lab),” Mehdi said. “I let my kids use fire. They need to learn.”

In fact, the flame test lab, in which a flame turns different colors to indicate specific elements in a material being tested, tends to be one of the students’ favorites.

Still, not every experiment is a success. Medhi recalls thinking students would be excited about an lab using M&Ms, but instead they ended up throwing candy around the room.

“It was awful,” she said. “I remember they walked out of the room and I just sat down and I started crying.”

But a few minutes later, she set aside the emotion and took a scientific approach to the problem, asking herself why the experiment failed and what she could learn from it.

She determined that the candy was not the problem; the assignment had been too easy, leaving students idle before the end of class.

Mehdi concluded that the solution was to challenge her students more. The next time she brought candy into the lab, the result was quite different.

“Instead of seeing things as failures, you’re not failing; you’re learning,” Mehdi said. “I’m still learning ...I learn a lot every single day.

“The best thing we can do as teachers is to continually learn,” she said. “I teach because I love to learn, and I want other people to love to learn. But if I stop learning, I’m doing a disservice to those kids. I’m not going to reach that goal that I have to really help my kids.”

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or call 252-329-9578.

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