Blackboard Awards: Susie Kavanaugh She Empties the Classroom Before Filling Their Minds

| 17 Feb 2015 | 04:06

By Joanna Fantozzi When Susie Kavanaugh began teaching fifth grade at Corlears Elementary School on West 15th Street, she requested an empty classroom. When students walked in, they found a classroom devoid of all furniture and materials, save for a couch. The students had to figure out how to raise money and build the furniture for their classroom. The school liked it so much, she said, the project is now a regular part of the school's fifth grade curriculum. Kavanaugh, 31, a teacher for seven years, taught at Massachusetts private schools before coming to New York in 2010. Kavanaugh said she never thought she would become a teacher and wanted to be anything else, from a fighter pilot to president of the United States. But after graduating from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., she subbed for a year and loved it. "For me, it doesn't feel like a job. I would say the majority of my friends don't like their jobs," said Kavanaugh. "But I love my job, the kids, everything." Adrianna Diodato, 11, a student in Kavanaugh's class, nominated her because she said Kavanaugh "lets us be who we want. We are making our own Greek gods and goddesses, and if we want our goddess to have pink hair and purple eyes, we can do it." Student individuality is as much a part of Kavanaugh's classroom as technology is. At Corlears Elementary, each classroom is stocked with iPads. Kavanaugh uses them to individualize learning experiences. She might tell one student who is struggling in math to look up a particular YouTube video on fractions and give another student a math computer game with which to practice. "Just because you don't get it the first time doesn't mean you're not smart," said Kavanaugh. "I feel I'm at the forefront of where the students can bring this all with them as they approach adolescence." But for Kavanaugh, teaching fifth grade has not been without its challenges. On her first day teaching at Corlears last year, she found herself without a classroom-the brand-new fifth grade wing had been closed off because of building code violations. Thinking on her feet, Kavanaugh moved the entire class to a volunteer parent's apartment for the first week of school. This, she said, was probably one of her most memorable teaching moments, and it taught her to think on her feet. During that first week, Kavanaugh took the students on many field trips, and it was during this time that she came up with the idea of the empty classroom project. With those skills, the students have had a hand in designing multiple projects, including an ancient Greek-inspired maze and a library for a school in Haiti as part of the Wings Over Haiti relief program. The students did their own fundraising and designed furniture for the Haiti project. But for Kavanaugh, making a difference is about more than just creative projects and keeping students busy. "There's no way to not make a difference if you're giving your heart and soul," said Kavanaugh. "There are those few kids who write me a note later and say, 'If it wasn't for your class, I wouldn't be where I am now.'"