Teacher of the year tackles hot-button issues
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Mon., Jan. 14, 2013
Betsy Kowal’s senior civics class at Griswold High School is tackling a subject ripped straight from the headlines – violent crime and the death penalty. On the whiteboard, she lists the elements necessary to establish criminal intent, then asks her students whether a murder committed by a juvenile fits the criteria. Can a child under 16 fully comprehend the results of his or her actions?
She tells the story of an incident from her own childhood: she and some friends decided to imitate a scene from a Road Runner cartoon. Standing on a picnic table, as Wile E. Coyote, she and her friends tried (unsuccessfully, fortunately) to lure a girl close enough to drop a rock on her. They figured she’d spring back up, like the Road Runner. “I’ve got the act. Do I have the intent?” Kowal asks her students. “You need to have that line very closely drawn. You’ve got people’s lives in your hands when you decide these things.”
Kowal is grooming her students for their future role as potential jury members. Later, she takes an informal poll on their stances on the death penalty, a topic they will debate in class in coming weeks. The students are almost evenly split between “in favor,” “against” and “don’t have a clue.” Kowal urges her students to research the topic and formulate solid arguments for or against the issue. “If you don’t decide, I’m deciding for you,” she tells them. She plans to tackle the issue of gun control with them, too, since the subject has recently taken on new urgency.
Kowal, a 17-year veteran teacher, was named Griswold’s Teacher of the Year this fall. “She’s the ultimate educator,” said GHS Principal Dr. Mark Frizzell. He said that when he needs to get away from the bureaucracy of administration and re-connect with why education matters, he walks down the hall to sit in on her class. “She educates the whole child,” he said. “That’s the magic. She’s able to do that and to mix it with a very special relationship with her students.”
“I love her. She’s one of my favorites,” said senior Krista Colter. “She makes it fun and makes the material relatable.” Jared Picco, another senior, said that some debates have raised students’ hackles, especially one on legalizing prostitution. “That one got pretty heated,” he said. “It goes on everyone’s own moral and ethical beliefs.” But, said Colter, even when debates address hot-button topics, Kowal “has a way of controlling it so people don’t offend one another.”
The debates take up an entire 70-minute class period, and Kowal said she lets the class choose the topics. “These are issues that affect them,” she said. “They have to do the prep work,” looking up statistics, previous court cases, and what others have had to say on the subject. “I want them to understand that cloud of morality around legal issues. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s moral,” she said.
The debates also serve as a practice in civil discourse. Students “learn to walk away from somebody and agree to disagree, not take it personally,” she said.
“I never wanted to be a teacher,” Kowal admitted. She went to college because her parents expected it, earning a degree in history and political science in 1978 from Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. But after decades spent raising her family and serving at the same time as catechism teacher, Brownie Scout leader and soccer coach, “I realized, ‘I am teaching,’” she said. She went back to school to Providence College for her teaching credentials, embarking on her career in education at age 40.
Her stint as a kindergarten volunteer convinced her that primary school wasn’t for her - “God bless kindergarten teachers,” she said. Instead, she found the challenge of teaching teens much more appealing. “I liked their level of conversation, the wit, the sarcasm – I loved the sarcasm. I had a level of comfort with them because I had my own children. I wasn’t intimidated by them. I tell them like it is. You can’t do that with a 6-year-old.”
As head of the school’s history department, Kowal is also an academic leader, said Frizzell. “When Betsy speaks, you listen, because she truly has a handle on this building, on the kids, on the direction we need to go,” he said.
She believes in plenty of hands-on involvement for her students. For the last election, her students set up Facebook pages on the presidential and local candidates, and a dozen or so of the teens worked at the polls.
Kowal has been nominated for the district’s top honor in the past but never pursued the process. This year, though, she was nominated by a challenging former student who had special learning needs. “I badgered him to complete assignments,” she recalled. “But we connected. He got my sense of humor. So I had to follow up this time.”