October 7, 2008

His Approach Bears Fruit Lake Zurich Teacher Gets Golden Apple

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

[email protected]@dailyherald.com

When he saw the tray of red apples coming his way, Daniel Morvaji knew the moment he had been secretly hoping for had come true.

Exclaiming "Wow!" and "Thank you," Morvaji stood atop his classroom cabinets unable to contain his excitement.

The Lake Zurich Middle School North sixth-grade social studies teacher was surprised to learn Wednesday he was a recipient of the Golden Apple Award.

"Who wants an apple?" a beaming Morvaji asked, holding the tray in one hand as students gathered around him cheering and "woo- hooing."

"I'm overwhelmed," he said as students and peers enthusiastically congratulated him.

Morvaji, 36, of Lakemoor, is among 10 Illinois winners of the 2008 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching for fourth through eighth grades. He was selected from 850 teachers in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will counties who were nominated.

It's a crowning achievement for Lake Zurich Unit District 95, which never before has won a Golden Apple Award.

"This is our first," said Middle School North Principal Nate Carter. "This is not just a wonderful achievement for Dan, but an achievement for staff and the learning community. He's touched a lot of young people's lives in such a special way. The goal is to get them excited about the subject they are studying. Dan does it so well."

Golden Apple Foundation representatives said Morvaji's hands-on teaching techniques and methods of engaging the classroom earned him the award.

Whether it's rapping about Chinese dynasties or dressing like a pharaoh, Morvaji gets students to look beyond textbooks. Students help make a video yearbook of their classroom activities, create costumes, perform skits, participate in lifelike presentations and re-enact history.

"He's very creative," said Phyllis O'Connell, a past Golden Apple Award recipient who interviewed Morvaji, his students, colleagues and parents earlier in the year after he was nominated. "You can see how the students respond to him. Kids can't help but be drawn into it. He brings it alive. Most importantly, he expresses to them their own need to be responsible for what they learn."

Students attest to Morvaji's teaching methods to the point they don't feel like they're in a classroom.

"Feels more like a playground, but we're still learning," said Ashley Cobb, 12, of Lake Zurich. "It was like no shock. I knew he was going to win. He's like the favorite teacher in the whole school."

Many of his students said they find themselves learning in the most surprising ways.

"He doesn't teach how a normal teacher would," said Austin Killips, 12, of Hawthorn Woods.

Little things like renaming tests "fuzzy puppies" and calling pop quizzes "fuzzy kittens" make a world of difference for kids.

"When you hear 'fuzzy puppy,' you're not as worried about it," Austin said. "No one worries in the class about tests because of how he teaches."

Morvaji said his inspiration is his former high school social studies teacher who was the first to challenge him.

"And it's really helped me understand that kids learn in many different ways, and I've tried to infuse that idea in my classroom," he said.

Each of the 10 Golden Apple Award recipients will get a tuition- free, spring-term sabbatical at Northwestern University, a personal computer from IBM, $3,000 and membership in the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, which has inducted 220 teachers.

Award winners will be honored at a ceremony Sept. 6 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, to be aired as a one-hour, prime-time special on WTTW Channel 11.

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