April 2013 Issue
March 29, 2013

Teacher of the Year uses engaging tools to prepare students for college and careers

Author: Leslie Duncan Fottrell
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Students receive individual attention during Greg Ahlquist’s AP history classes. AP enrollment has increased 61 percent in the last seven years. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

A dry erase marker covers the white board in a flurry of lines amid hoots of delight.

"We're going to try and capture liberalism here," Greg Ahlquist promises the 12th grade students in his Advanced Placement European history class as he begins one of his famous drawings.

What emerges from the hand of the 2013 New York State Teacher of the Year is not great art. It's not even good art. It is hangman-style stick-figure art.

It's one of his most popular tools for his AP world history and AP European history classes, even though, Ahlquist readily admits, "I am not an artist."

Still, "It's hilarious and it's a great way to learn," says Douglas Pagani, 17, a senior at Webster Thomas High School in Monroe County. "Even though his artistic talent isn't amazing, his philosophical talent and intellectual talent are."

Ahlquist draws at a fast pace, eliciting from his students the names of the eclectic collection of items he draws — a mill, malted milk balls, ("That's very important," he promises of the candy), assorted stick figure people and a bunch of flowers. Then he taps the completed drawing triumphantly.

"If you have this drawing, you have all of liberalism, ladies and gentlemen!" he announces.

"No way," a voice calls out.

"Yeah!" Ahlquist says. "OK, so here come the major liberal thinkers. What did we say this was?" he asks, pointing to the mill. After the students answer, Ahlquist writes and narrates, "John Stuart Mill." The malted milk balls are labeled "Thomas Malthus"; the haloed stick figure, "Saint Simon"; the flowers, Flora Tristan. Robert Owen, David Ricardo and Karl Marx's names are written, each rooted to an item in the drawing.

The drawings are simply a hook to have students engaged in the material and a way for them to remember and to get important information and material seared onto their brains," says Ahlquist. His teaching style transcends the clever mnemonics, songs and other vehicles he uses to ensure the necessary rote memorization of history.

The methods are the catalyst to achieve the real goal — rigorous learning, in support of one of the tenets of the Common Core Standards: college and career readiness.

Back in class, Ahlquist points to the words "Karl Marx" in the liberalism drawing as he shifts the focus to go deeper into liberalism.

"In some ways, you can make a pretty good argument that Karl Marx is a utopian socialist," he says to his students. It takes only a moment and the discussion begins, and flows organically from the students and Ahlquist as they discuss economic theory, the precursors to the women's movement, and then move into Romanticism.

"Mr. Ahlquist encourages our participation in a very non-threatening way," says Pagani. "Everyone knows that he cares about each student and that he cares about the subject and that he cares about the process of learning. It's just much more exciting to be a part of."

Perhaps there is a physical component. When Ahlquist speaks he uses big sweeping motions and different voices to illustrate a point. When students speak, he is completely still, with quiet intensity focused on their comments, absorbing them before responding.

Success in an AP course can earn college credit for high school students who score high enough on the year-end exam. Ahlquist is also an adjunct instructor at SUNY Geneseo, his alma mater. The district has shown commitment to building AP student enrollment, which has increased 61 percent in seven years, with Ahlquist as an ambassador.

It's a growing trend across New York state, which is now No. 2 in the country for AP success.

Principal Glenn Widor says Ahlquist is generous with his time and expertise with not only students and their parents, but with other teachers and administrators. "When I became principal three years ago, Greg came right to my office and asked how he could help me," says Widor.

Ahlquist works collaboratively with his AP world history team and mentors new AP social studies teachers. He is also the lead teacher of the Webster Thomas AP program and serves on the Commissioner's Teacher Advisory Council where he brings the voice of practitioners to advise policymakers.

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira lauds Ahlquist's efforts. "Greg's supportive nature, innovative use of teaching methods and generosity in mentoring other teachers make him not only an outstanding teacher, but a model for ensuring New York's students are college and career ready."

"Greg is an outstanding educator," said Webster Teachers Association President Steven Turiano. "He's a wonderful human being. He exemplifies everything that we feel makes Webster a wonderful teaching district."

Ahlquist supports many important social justice projects in his spare time, and two of them involve working with the school community and the students: an annual basketball game that has raised nearly $100,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in the past 12 years; and an annual holiday food drive to stock local food pantries.

"I'm a person of faith. My faith defines and moves my passion for social justice. I look for opportunities to advocate for people who don't have a voice." As a social studies teacher, Ahlquist tries to ensure his students become not only good historians, but also productive citizens.

"Social justice has to be a part of that. So my engagement with our community is one way I can partner with students."