Animated teacher makes earth science come alive

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Stacey Kaplan-Vila is not the type of teacher who works from a textbook and recites her lecture in a monotonous drone.

But she expects results from her students.

Kaplan-Vila, an earth science teacher at Queens Vocational and Technical HS in Long Island City, is all over the classroom when she teaches, not merely using “chalk and talk.” She jumps on desks, walks around encouraging student participation and even dresses up in costumes for different lessons.

“I might teach a little differently, but I want to get the students to think,” said the Queens Village resident who lives in Bell Park Manor Terrace co-ops. “I want them to back up their answers and prove their hypothesis. My aim has been to educate people.”

Kaplan-Vila, who teaches four classes and one lab, said the active teaching approach she uses works amazingly well in the vocational and technical high school because the students learn better when they can participate in the lesson.

“There are different ways to learn the material,” said Kaplan-Vila, a small bundle of energy with long brown hair who talks like many New Yorkers — using her hands to emphasize a point. “Some people learn by hearing, some by taking notes and some by doing.”

Even though her methods — having the whole class dress up as aliens when learning about the sun, writing a rap about the concepts of density, or playing “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” with earth science questions — are different, they work.

On average, she said, 87 percent of her class passes the New York State Regent Earth Science Exam.

“The students love to be in the class,” she said. “Everyday is different and I will do anything that gets students to learn.

“You have to participate in my class or you can’t pass,” she said. “I don’t always use the textbook. You have to pay attention. If you fall asleep in my class, you are in trouble. You’ll have a bad day.”

Kaplan-Vila, who has been teaching for the past five years — two years at the Queens vocational high school, one year in Harlem and two years in the South Bronx, never planned to be a teacher. After getting master’s degrees in public policy and in union labor relations, Vila started working as a political consultant.

She worked on a number of political campaigns, including one for former U.S. Sen. Alphonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and U.S. Rep Steve Israel (D-Long Island).

“It was my true love,” she said. “You can do something to help someone. It was exciting and I loved having a due date.”

But after 15 years of constantly working on campaigns and pregnant with her son Zachary, now 5, Kaplan-Vila took the advice of one of her friends. She signed on to be a teacher with the expectation of spending more time with her child.

Her first job in the South Bronx was a tough gig. “It was a different world,” she said. Originally, she was teaching social studies, but when the assistant principal asked her to take over the earth science class, she jumped at the opportunity. Kaplan-Vila said earth science had been a hobby of hers since she was a child and she knew she could teach the class.

She moved to the Queens Vocational and Technical HS two years ago to make it easier to take care of her son.

Kaplan-Vila’s method of teaching is as much for her as it is for the students. She is a small ball of continuous energy that cannot sit still and forcing her to stand at a blackboard would be impossible.

She said she loves to run around the classroom dragging people into the circle. And says her antics are as exciting for the students as they are for her.

But since the World Trade Center attacks her students have been having trouble concentrating, Kaplan-Vila said, and many do not think they will alive by the end of the year.

Even though this year has been more stressful for her students because of the assault, her aim is to educate her teen charges.

“It is about learning,” she said. “My goal is not to fail them, but to teach and encourage them so they can go on.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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