In Mr. Barlow's class, noise is learning
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
SPRING HILL -- The din of Trevor Barlow's creative design class at Fox Chapel Middle School was deafening.
Students shouted excitedly at one another as they worked together on a paper structure to protect an egg from the heavy wooden slate Barlow would drop on it later. Barlow dashed from table to table, offering hints but rarely advice in this 30-minute competition.
David Bowie music blared from a boom box in the corner.
This, Barlow said, was school as it should be.
The noise signified energy to him. The chatter, collaboration. He smiled slyly as he explained that the kids were learning complex mechanics and physics, but they just didn't notice because they were too busy enjoying themselves.
"My job is to give them ideas, to fire them up," Barlow said.
Tizzy Schoelles knew from the moment she met Barlow at a teach-in in Orlando last year that he would fit perfectly at Nature Coast Technical High School, which opens in August.
"I heard him say, 'I'm a teacher of technology, and I'm here from England.' I said, 'Put him on my schedule,' " Nature Coast principal Schoelles said. "The first thing that impressed me was, the first thing he did was pull out a picture of his wife and child. He also had a killer portfolio."
During his career, Barlow, 36, had coached the European champion team in Odyssey of the Mind, winning the British title four times. He had been named England's "super teacher" in 1998, similar to a national teacher of the year.
He consistently pushed his students to perform better on required tests than children in other schools, at one point helping them double their scores in a year. He also designed jewelry for Harrods, bowls for I. Gibson and Sons, and specialty wheelchairs for Jenx, a British company.
"It was a no-brainer," Schoelles said.
Barlow, who had wanted to move to the United States from the industrial city of Sheffield for about five years, also saw the match. He had been wooed by much larger districts, including Miami-Dade and Broward, but preferred the "family friendly" environment of Spring Hill.
With the high school still a year away from opening, Schoelles found a post for Barlow at Fox Chapel, where her husband, David, is principal. She never promised Barlow a job at Nature Coast, but the likelihood was good, she told him.
Despite the desire on both sides, the district and the teacher almost never connected.
Getting a visa proved more difficult than expected, with some of the paperwork taking months, especially in the post-Sept. 11 world, Barlow said. Between legal fees, travel, moving expenses and other costs, Barlow tapped out his family's savings to make the move, also accepting a salary much lower than what he made in England.
Many colleagues in England gave up efforts to teach in the United States in the face of similar obstacles, Barlow said.
"It was a nightmare. . . . But I wouldn't change it for the world," he said, adding that it's about being happy, and not about the money. "I just wanted another challenge, to come and work in another system, to find new competitions. It gives myself and my wife a real buzz."
That verve comes from the feeling he gets when he reaches a student whom other teachers might deem unteachable. He recalled a student who obsessed over looks and makeup, and said he piqued her interest by letting her focus her efforts on graphic design for a makeup holder, purse and mock advertising campaign.
He asked one seventh-grader on Thursday to create a word search puzzle for him, using words that express the boy's interests.
"They just think it's a bit of fun, but it gives me an insight into what switches them on," Barlow said. "It makes a difference when you finally reach them. That's what it is all about."
As testament to his success, students who have completed Barlow's class still ask to come to his classroom during their open class periods. They filter in and out all day, working on projects, or just saying "hi."
Nestor Feliciano, 12, volunteered to be a classroom aide.
"He acts like one of us. He knows what we're going through," Nestor said. "He's not like your ordinary teacher, but at the same time, he teaches us."
Nestor bragged about his paper tube design that successfully protected an egg from the wood plank, and talked with a thrill about making toys, catapults and other structures in the class.
"He's just plain old fun," Nestor said.
Other students, who had just begun class with Barlow two days earlier, agreed.
"He's really funny. He tells good jokes. He tries to make the best of everything," said Caitlin Kessler, 12.
Gene Exum, 13, said the creative design class already had become his favorite. Just two days in, some kids felt comfortable enough to joke to Barlow's face that he "doesn't speak my language" because of his thick British accent.
The thrill of learning was evident as the students gathered around Barlow as he held "Woodward" (the plank) over the paper-encased "Eggward" (the egg) and they shouted a countdown to the eventual splat. They cheered the successes, and mourned when egg white oozed from the bottom.
And there wasn't a single groan when Barlow announced the next day's plan.
"Tomorrow, you get six sheets of paper," down from 10, he told the students. "Learn from your mistakes today."
Fox Chapel principal David Schoelles said the district is lucky to have Barlow, and Schoelles expects great things from him. He figured it was a matter of time before Barlow launched students into new intellectual competitions and made a major impact.
"I wish I could find a way to keep him here," he said. "But they have better toys (at the new high school)."
Barlow said he has been "on a high" ever since being officially hired three weeks ago at Nature Coast, where he will teach graphic arts and Web design. He also plans to help coach track and field, start a Destination Imagination team and sponsor the yearbook committee. (He promises something unusual and original).
"It's going to be exciting," he said. "I cannot wait to get there."
Nature Coast has about half its teachers selected. The district takes over the school building in four weeks, and classes begin in August.
-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education and politics in Hernando County. He can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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