McKnight on inspiring life-long learners

By Heidi Zemach for SCN –

Terri McKnight helps students figure out whether sea cucumbers are consumers, producers or recyclers. Heidi Zemach photo.
Terri McKnight helps students figure out whether sea cucumbers are consumers, producers or recyclers. Heidi Zemach photo.

Seward Elementary 5th grade teacher Terri McKnight has been selected as a BP Teacher of Excellence. Many Seward-El teachers have been nominated in the past, and McKnight has been nominated before, but this is the first time she actually filled out all the required paperwork, said Principal David Kingsland. Like most teachers, McKnight focuses her time on attending to her students, so things such as awards are relegated to the back burner.

McKnight is deserving of the recognition—and is the only teacher remaining at the elementary school who was there before Kingsland arrived 14 years ago. With 25 years of teaching experience, 22 in Seward and Moose Pass, she carries the school’s historical memory, and has mentored many new teachers, he said.

This Monday afternoon when we visit the students are working in groups on their science project on invertebrates. One group has chosen jellyfish, another has sea cucumbers, and so forth. Each group appears to share a laptop or two.

McKnight girlsMore than half of her 21 students are seated on large yoga balls they have purchased, and a few sometimes get to read quietly on a plush sofa in the back of the room. The balls help focus concentration while also strengthening core muscles, McKnight later explains. Black-and-white doodles, photos of wild animals, a world map, and inspirational messages on reading adorn the classroom walls. Mrs. McKnight, the queen of Zen-doodling, loves sharing her love of this popular art form with her students, and plays concentration-focusing background music when they can afford a calm moment amidst all of the required academics.


McKnight takes time to show the students photos and videos of various invertebrate species’ life-cycles on the Smart Board. In rapid-fire speech, and frequently using the scientific vocabulary they have studied, she rattles off pertinent comments and observations.  Meanwhile, she allows them to tell stories about the interesting bugs and larvae that they have personally encountered, while sharing a few gross bug stories of her own. When you can relate their learning to their own experiences, children will listen and understand more readily, McKnight says. But to really engage them, you also have to allow them to share their own stories and thoughts.

After flipping through illustrations of various graphic organizers in their science books that they may wish to use, she has each group of four rotate away from their own research project to examine plankton in various life-cycle stages with four microscopes set up around the classroom. Meanwhile she scuttles from one microscope to another, adjusting their lens and pointing out what they are seeing.

“That guy’s freaky!” says a boy, soliciting comments of agreement from others who had seen it.

Education these days is all about employing a variety of different learning styles to match the needs of each individual child, and working together in groups. Learning is also about experiencing new things, McKnight explained, pleased to be able to report that as they move more into marine invertebrates the class will get a visit from C.J. Rae an environmental educator with the Kenai Fjords National Park Service. They will also camp out overnight at Caines Head, where they hope to do some tide-pooling with another parent who works for the park service. This year the fifth grade class also traveled to Anchorage to see three music and theater performances, including the fascinating group Black Violin, at the Atwood Theater, she said. These were experiences that some students may not have otherwise had.

“I’m trying to stick with the idea that learning is fun, it’s not something you have to do. We try to foster kids who want to become life-long learners.” McKnight challenges her students to catch her mistakes, especially for things like math computations, and throws a class party when they have caught 10 mistakes. They love to catch their own teacher’s errors, so the effort keeps them involved and alert. She always makes sure to admit her own mistakes, when they catch them, and tries to figure out with the students’ help why she made them- another secret teaching-tool.

With all the standardized tests and increasing learning requirements placed on students and their teachers these days, McKnight often has to remind herself that after all, they are only 10-year-olds. “Sometimes you have to slow down, and have some fun,” she said.


One Comment

  1. Congrats Terri, you are indeed a teacher of excellence! Seward has been very lucky to have you at Seward El! Mary Tougas