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Month/Month 2005 PLUS: THE BEETHOVEN OF SURGERY l ALUMNUS CHRISTOPHER PANEK ANSWERS THE CALL OF THE WILD July/August 2008

the university of illinois at chicago

magazine

UNIVERSITY

OF

I L LI N O I S A LU M N I A S S O C IAT I O N


Perhaps because of his military training or academic background, JIM GLYNN is one demanding chemistry teacher. But his reasons for pushing students go beyond grades or placement tests. He has a greater purpose in mind

PHOTOGRAPHY BY LLOYD DEGRANE


❘ BY RACHEL FARRELL ❘


HE STUDENTS IN JIM GLYNN’S ’96 LAS, MED ’01 CHEMISTRY CLASS ARE STRESSED. In the next 30 minutes, these freshmen and sophomores at Glenbrook South High School will have to measure the density of silicon, tin and lead for a lab practical. The problem? Glynn hasn’t told them how to do the lab. It’s their job to figure that out. TO THE VERY, VERY EDGE

At one lab station, two lanky boys fumble with test tubes and silicon chunks. Their lab partner, a flushed-faced girl, scrunches her nose as she watches them. “I don’t think we’re doing this right,” she says. “Mr. Glynn, what are those things called?” He walks over to the station. “Those things? I don’t know,” he responds. “It’s long, it’s skinny. You know what it’s called,” she says, stroking her long hair nervously. “I’m sure I do, but I’m not answering that. Ask your lab partner.” “My lab partner doesn’t know either!” “Well, you have a classroom of compadres. I’m not answering that.” Glynn paces the room like a military officer, pausing momentarily to observe each group weighing pieces of tin and measuring water-filled beakers. He takes notes with a red felt-tip pen. “Remember,” Glynn loudly calls out to the class, “the assignment says ‘sig figs’ in BOLD and ITALICS.” A few students turn to look at him through their goggles.“Tick tock, tick tock,” he warns, glancing at his wristwatch. When the bell rings, almost all of the students are still working—writing furiously, comparing notes, crunching the keys of their TI-84 calculators. But this is nothing new, says 15-year-old Nikki Tolwin, a sophomore in the class. “Actually, this is probably the easiest lab we’ve done all year.”

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Glenbrook South High School is a

large, well-respected public high school in the affluent suburb of Glenview, located 20 miles northwest of Chicago. Many of its students are bright and competitive, drive luxury cars and have very involved parents. In 2005, GBS was one of only six high schools in Illinois named to the Illinois Honor Roll for its students’ performance on state exams; that same year, it was named State Champs in Varsity, Junior Varsity and Novice Policy Debate. GBS students have also won the title of Individual State Math Champs (2004), Chicago Tribune Illinois High School All-State Academic Team (2002) and Outstanding High School in America—U.S. News & World Report (1999). In 1997, as part of the First in the World Consortium (a group of 20 Chicago suburban schools that aimed to make their math and science students best in the world), GBS students scored first in international math and science testing, prompting a visit from President Bill Clinton. When Glynn joined GBS last fall, he had some big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Preston Hayes, happens to be one of GBS’s most celebrated teachers. Hayes is probably best known for developing a novel science program, Chem-Phys, in which students learn chemistry and physics simultaneously for two years at an accelerated pace. The program is exclusive to GBS. “Students have the benefit of seeing the connections

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between physics and chemistry, and learning them over a two-year period of time,” says Jeff Rylander, GBS instructional supervisor for science. After taking Chem-Phys, many students have become top performers “on ACS exams, U.S. Chemistry Olympiad semi-finalists and finalists, and [achieved] excellent AP Chemistry scores,” he adds. What makes Chem-Phys especially effective is its use of “inquiry-based learning,” a teaching method in which students independently search for answers to problems. For example, instead of doing “cookbook labs”—in which lab instructions are outlined—students participate in lab practicals such as the one Glynn assigned today. This improves their problem-solving skills. Hayes’ legacy may have put pressure on Glynn this year, but his students say he’s doing just fine. “Mr. Glynn is tough,” complains sophomore Christy Nichols. “He’s probably the toughest chemistry teacher in the school,” says Tolwin. “But he’s always there for us. I mean, if we really can’t get it, he’ll be there to help. He’s not going to say ‘tough luck.’” “He expects us to ... figure things out by ourselves,” adds Ted Kukushliev. Since the beginning of the year,“he’s been saying,‘I’m not out to get you. I’m here to help you—’” “Even though sometimes it seems like he is,” interjects Tolwin.


“We need to think about

taking what we do here and apply it to the community,” says Glynn. “Issues like water shortages, acid rain and global warming are not on [students’] radar. That’s why I teach the way I teach.” To Glynn, there is no bigger compliment than to be called challenging. At Lakeview High School, where he used to teach, “a lot of the kids said that I was ‘evil,’” he says, grinning like a jack-o-lantern.“Not ‘mean’; ‘evil.’ Because I’d give them these tough assignments.” His tone changes.“I’m intentionally challenging,” he says, reflecting on his approach.“I think it’s ultimately a more effective style of teaching. One of the things that I tell the kids’ parents is, ‘I’m going to push your kids to the very, very edge. And they may think that they’re falling off, but they’re just on the edge.’” Here’s how that push to the edge looks in Chem-Phys: Students learn college-level chemistry through a combination of labs and Glynn’s fast-paced, no-nonsense lectures (“I work bell-to-bell…there are no free days,”he says). Glynn gives pop quizzes on a regular basis to check whether stu-

like water shortages, acid rain and global warming are not on [students’] radar. That’s why I teach the way I teach.”

dents have absorbed the content of their homework. After each class, he assigns an average of two hours of homework, which students say is “impossible” to do without help from others in the class. In fact, during fourth period lunch every day, you can find about a dozen of them working on their Chem-Phys homework together, says sophomore Yara Shams. But perhaps most importantly, Glynn pushes Chem-Phys students to work on projects that relate to bigger global issues. This year, for example, he had students research the pros and cons of energy resources such as coal, ethanol, nuclear and alternative energies. Through these projects, Glynn wants his students to realize that their academic talents can serve a greater social purpose. “We need to think about taking what we do here and apply it to the community,” explains Glynn. “Issues

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A WALKING ENCYCLOPEDIA Glynn never intended to be a teacher.

In fact, if you had talked to him 22 years ago, a career in teaching would have been the furthest thing from his mind. Back then, in 1986, Glynn was a college student at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., where he dreamed of becoming a CIA agent. After a year at Gonzaga, Glynn decided he wanted to attend a college with a stronger political science program and transferred to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. But then he decided he needed some real-world experience. So he joined the Army. Glynn wasn’t like his fellow enlistees in the Army. Because he had studied and read

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Mr. Glynn “is probably the toughest chemistry teacher

in the school,” says sophomore Nikki Tolwin (left). “But he’s always there for us. I mean, if we really can’t get it, he’ll be there to help. He’s not going to say ‘tough luck.’” me to do,” such as providing support to certain regimes “that I wouldn’t want to support,” he explains. Uncertain of what he wanted to do with his life, Glynn returned to his hometown of Chicago and enrolled at UIC. He started taking courses in history and chemistry, which were his favorite subjects in grammar school. Eventually, with the help of his academic advisor, Glynn decided on a career in teaching. He wrapped up his bachelor’s degree, got a master’s in instructional leadership and landed a job at Lakeview High School on Chicago’s North Side. In hindsight, Glynn had been preparing for a career in academia his whole life. Born and raised in the South Side neighborhood of Beverly, he was the son of an insurance salesman and grammar school teacher, both of whom stressed reading and education. While Glynn was in grammar school, his parents bought him a 20-volume set of World Book Encyclopedia—and he read every single one, cover-to-cover.“It was sort of like Christmas every day,” he says. “You’d

about the psychology of military training, he wasn’t as easily manipulated by his drill instructors. “I knew that their intent was to break us down, make us swallow our cookies, isolate us, rebuild us,” he says. Consequently, Glynn was sometimes defiant when he received orders that didn’t seem logical. “I’d say [to my superior], ‘Can you clarify why we’re doing this? What’s the tactic here?’” Even so, Glynn did well in the Army, and was among an elite group recruited to learn cryptography and Morse code in 1988. (He remained a member of the U.S. Army Reserve’s 1st Battalion and 12th Special Forces until 1996.) After returning to George Washington University one year later, Glynn began reading and reflecting on the history of U.S. politics, and found himself at odds with some of the policies and actions of his country. He grew uncomfortable with the idea of working for the CIA. “I realized that I wouldn’t have been able to do some of the things they would have asked

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open up [the encyclopedia] and there would be something new.” Glynn also devoured sci-fi and fantasy novels, which he shared and swapped with his four best friends (two of whom are Larry and Andy Wachowski, directors/producers of “The Matrix” and “Speed Racer” films. Glynn is still close with them today). He also loved school, and bonded with several of his teachers at Christ the King: Ms. Daley, the science teacher who let him hang out after school and “fiddle with the pond water”; Mr. Drexel, the history teacher who gave him antique maps and showed old movies; and Sister Shelia, the strict Catholic nun who tutored him in advanced math and “never cracked a smile,” he recalls. When the time came for Glynn to attend high school, he was adamant about going to one that was academically rigorous. He eventually selected St. Ignatius College Prep on Chicago’s Northwest Side.“I wanted a school that focused on academics,” he says firmly. “I didn’t want one that had a football team.”


❘ ONE TOUGH TEACHER ❘ DRAW LINES AND FIGHT Before joining GBS, Glynn taught

at Lakeview High School for nine years. Nine long years, if you ask him. Problems with the administration, huge turnover among faculty, lack of resources and “bureaucratic insanities” all made it difficult for him to do his job, he explains. His other challenges were typical of many Chicago Public Schools—poor attendance, classroom violence, absent parents and unengaged students. And yet, Glynn didn’t just get by at Lakeview. He thrived. Along with teaching regular and honors Chemistry and Biology, he initiated and taught Advanced Placement Environmental Science. As Lakeview’s science director, he redesigned the Math, Science and Technology Academy’s four-year math and science honors curriculum. He also served as a Chemistry Course Team Leader and convinced Lakeview administration to adopt ChemCom (Chemistry in the Community), the American Chemical Society curriculum that emphasizes chemistry’s impact on society. He restructured the school’s Academic Decathlon preparatory class and took its team from 54th place (out of 55 schools) to 11th place within three years. In addition, he coordinated the school’s science fair, served as a National Honors Society Advisor and mentored student teachers in the Golden Apple Teacher’s Education Program. When funding problems arose, Glynn would “draw lines and fight,” he says. For instance, when he was refused funding for Academic Decathlon materials, Glynn went directly to the principal’s office and made his case in person. After the principal refused his request a second time, “I just sat,” says Glynn. “And after 10 or 15 minutes of these awkward pauses, and him saying, ‘no,’ he finally knew that I was not going to give up.” Glynn got the funding he needed. At Lakeview, students loved him. So many transferred into his chemistry class that, at one point, he had 50 percent more students than the school’s other chemistry

teacher. He was also trusted for help with personal problems, such as the time a teenage girl confessed to him that her boyfriend was beating her (Glynn took her to the school counselor). Another student once told him, “‘Hey, Mr. Glynn, you should Google yourself. You’re on somebody’s Facebook,’” says Glynn. He did, and found his name next to the words “my hero” on a student’s Web site. “Only she misspelled ‘hero,’ like ‘h-e-r-o-e,’ which killed me,” Glynn says, groaning. Glynn’s chemistry lessons at Lakeview didn’t only focus on formulas or periodic tables. Through an Oppenheimer Family Foundation Teacher Incentive Grant, Glynn taught students about the problem of lead toxicity in Chicago’s poor, black and Latino neighborhoods. He bought leadtesting kits and had students sample their homes. “One girl, her name was Marisol, came in with this nice ornamental bowl,”

had them tested for lead poisoning. Four students had lead levels high enough to warrant chelation therapy at the Illinois Department of Health. THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD At GBS, Glynn’s challenges are the

opposite of those at Lakeview. Although his students are driven, the school has plenty of resources and the administration is well-run, he has trouble getting students to see the bigger picture when it comes to chemistry. GBS students are less concerned with real-world issues and more concerned with getting straight A’s. Glynn is trying to change that by leading GBS’s Project Earth club, initiating a new school-wide recycling program and talking to his students about social issues. He tries to convince them that chemistry has a purpose that’s bigger than themselves, bigger than their elite high school.

“I tell them, ‘The reason why we started ChemPhys is not so you can get into MIT, but because we need to do something with chemistry,’” says Glynn. “‘It’s a tool.’” “I tell them, ‘The reason why we started Chem-Phys is not so you can get into MIT, but because we need to do something with chemistry,’” he says. “‘It’s a tool. You are going to be making the decisions that affect other peoples’ lives. There’s a certain resUIC ponsibility that comes with that.’”

recalls Glynn. “And she says, ‘Mr. Glynn, I tested this, and it was positive for lead.’ So I said, ‘What do you use this for?’ And she said, ‘We serve dinner out of this every night.’” After several other students reported that their homes tested positive, Glynn took the group to a local health center and

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Feature: One Tough Teacher  

Teacher Jim Glynn has his reasons for pushing students to the edge.

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