Faculty Focus: July 2020

Math Teacher Mrs. Toni Dactilidis, who recently completed her 12th year at Fenwick, is entering her 23rd year as an educator.

What is your educational background?

TD: I was educated in the City of Steel and Stone: Joliet, Illinois. From preschool at the Little Red Schoolhouse to my Master’s Degree at the University of St. Francis, I feel so fortunate that I grew up in a diverse city with valuable lessons surrounding me at every turn. I am reminded of a beautiful quote from the Greek philosopher Diogenes that I saw every day in high school proudly displayed in the building, ‘the foundation of every state is the education of its youth.’  I love my hometown and, as I grow older, I search for ways to give back to show appreciation for all the education I received in that city. I relish all the lessons learned – from sports to dance, music to the Greek language – my education began at a very young age thanks to my mother, Mary Ann, and all the resources she found for me in Joliet.  

If you have never visited Joliet, please do! My high school alma mater, Joliet Central, is one of the most beautiful schools I have ever seen – Forever the Steelmen! I tell my students that the reason I teach high school students is because I loved my high school experience so much. Thank you to all my teachers, both in the classroom and beyond, in Joliet throughout the years! 

What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?

TD: I will begin my 23rd year of teaching in August. Next month will definitely look different than other school year beginnings; but, I am excited to connect with a new group of Friars. I started teaching young people right out of college. I have taught students from the grade school level up to the college level for the past 22 years at Gompers Junior High School to Joliet Junior College. I completed my student teaching at Joliet Catholic Academy, where I truly witnessed the power of a Catholic high school education for young people. Prior to Fenwick, I taught at Rich Central High School [Olympia Fields, IL], where I really fell in love with teaching high school students. As a novice teacher, I was surrounded by amazing mentors who supported and guided me. My students there were wonderful, strong, smart young people that worked hard toward all their goals. I loved my time at Rich Central. But my experience at JCA inspired me to teach at a Catholic institution one day; luckily, I found Fenwick in 2008 in search of an AP Statistics teacher and a crew moderator for theater productions, all of which, I had experience with at Rich Central. Needless to say, the stars aligned for me perfectly. 

As I reflect back on my 22 years in education, I think about all the wonderful mentors from whom I have learned. Anna White, the Gompers principal, comes to mind. She taught me so many great lessons on being an effective educator. She created a school climate where students felt loved and had a safe environment to learn. Ms. White showed me daily that loving your students must still involve having good structure and discipline – a priceless lesson indeed! I thoroughly believe love is the foundation of every classroom where learning and supporting each other will then fill the room. From the very beginning of the year, I show my students that I love and care for them as people with hopes, desires, dreams and ambitions. I start the year with a project no matter what the class is and incorporate our mathematical concepts into the project. My students feel loved and appreciated right from the onset because I create a supportive environment where we all feel comfortable to learn together. The ‘T-Shirt’ project is one of my favorites – come by my room during the year; I love to hang the “T-Shirts” up so we are reminded each day of the strong community we have together.

What are you currently reading for enjoyment?  

TD: Shout out to my book club – we just finished reading and then discussing Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: a beautifully written book with themes and experiences that speak to all of us in America even though the book’s setting is the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. I have wonderful colleagues at Fenwick that are dear friends and we share a passion for reading and continuing to learn and grow in all we do. We love to gather as well: community! 

I am currently reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning; I enjoy reading about history, and this book is challenging me to think so very differently from the historical stories I usually read. Next on my list is Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell; this has been on my reading list since Dr. Tracy Gau recommended it to me in January. Gladwell’s books have always been favorites of mine. 

What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?

Ms. Dactilidis likes to travel the world, too.

TD: I have so many interests and now [summer] is the time when I can really enjoy so many of them. I love being outside all year round but the summertime allows me to do that more than ever. In the summer, one will usually find me around the yard playing in the dirt. I have a big garden filled with delicious vegetables – lettuce, spinach, onions, beets, herbs, peas and beans are some of the veggies that I have enjoyed up to this point in the summer. My zucchini are close to harvest and then cucumbers will be coming in. I cannot wait for the peppers and tomatoes to start exploding as well! My husband and I start everything from seed and it is truly a labor of love to tend to a thriving garden. Each year, I become more enamored with my perennial flowers – I love the ability to transplant them and separate them to expand my garden or share with family and friends. I relish the quiet time in my veggie or flower garden in the morning as the warmth of the summer sun rises over me. It is precious quiet time that is so appreciated after a long school year. It is a time to rejuvenate mind, body and spirit. 

Besides my yard, another favorite location of mine is Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. I enjoy hiking, biking and cross country skiing through the preserve, which is a short walk from my backyard – nature at your doorstep! 

My family jokes that I sponsor ‘Camp Toni’ at my house as well during the summer. I teach my youngest family members how to swim, explore nature and be active just as kids are meant to be! These are some of my favorite summertime endeavors. Time is the most meaningful thing we can give one another. I love that I am able to spend so much time with them during the summer. 

Continue reading “Faculty Focus: July 2020”

Fenwick’s Staying Power Is Its People, says 9-year Friar Teaching Veteran

Fellowship among fellow teachers and their students is a key factor as to why faculty members stay with the Friars.

By Laura (Dixon) Gallinari, English Teacher

In the spring of 2011, on the verge of graduation from my MFA poetry program, I applied for every high school English and Spanish opening in Chicagoland, from Waukegan to Wheaton to Orland Park. I grew up in south Oak Park, and my husband and I had just purchased a house here. On a lark, I submitted my resume to Fenwick, even though no job was posted. So, why am I here? To start with, I figured it would be cool to live seven blocks from school.

Having attended OPRF, I was minimally familiar with Fenwick, aware of it as the local Catholic school that went co-ed while I was in high school. Kathy Curtin called to set up an interview. At the time, one of my mom’s best friends, Kathy Miller, had a sister who taught at Fenwick and agreed to meet with me in the teacher cafe before my interview. So my introduction to Fenwick was coffee with the unforgettable Mariana Curtin, who charmed me with her sincerity, warmth, wisdom, humor and occasional curse words.

To my great fortune, it turned out that Fenwick did have a need for one more English teacher, in a year that saw 17 new Fenwick teachers, several of them in the English department. I walked home from the interview, not quite a mile, and when Pete Groom called to say yes, it felt like providence.

That year marked a huge transition for me. I had taught and coached for 10 years before taking a break for my MFA, but for the past three years I had been paid to attend a few classes and write poetry. I read for hours every day and wrote hundreds of poems. I played basketball every week and even watched TV. It was dreamy. Then, I graduated, moved back to Chicago, bought a house, got married, got a dog, got a new job, and — yep, got pregnant. You know, just a few small changes.

I had long been told by doctors that it might be hard for me to get pregnant or to carry a pregnancy to term due to my unusual womb that has an extra wall in the middle, like a valentine heart. So Gabriel, our wedding-night baby, came as a bit of a surprise. In August before school started, I walked over to Fenwick and found Pete Groom shooting baskets with one of his kids in the gym. I sheepishly informed him that I hoped I would need a maternity sub in March, and in the meantime I would need to back out on coaching volleyball and basketball due to the high-risk nature of the pregnancy. I was more than a little nervous to be such a ‘problem child’ right out of the gates, but Pete met the news with a resigned but affable, nodding, red-faced smile that seemed to say, ‘Ah. Of course you do.’ (You all know that look.) I then apologetically explained the situation to Trish [Grigg in Human Resources], who just smiled and said, ‘That’s what God wanted.’ Somewhere else I might have been at risk of a pink slip, but not at Fenwick.

That first year, so many people helped me to find my way — both figuratively and, indeed, literally (as in the time I was assigned to sub in, uh, Room 46??). Andy Arellano, Jerry Lordan, Mary Marcotte, and John Schoeph shepherded me through. And a quick shout-out to Rick O’Connor, too, whose camaraderie in our first year meant the world.

Mutual respect and blessings

The first and most compelling reason that I have stayed at Fenwick is the people. I both like and respect all the people I answer to, and I have never before at another school been able to say that so uniformly. And my colleagues, all of you, are amazing. Truly. I am wowed by your dedication, expertise and enthusiasm every day. If I’m having a tough time, Pete Gallo will both crack me up and pray for me. When I need to respond to a tricky email, John Schoeph will sit down and talk it through with me. Coach [Kevin] Roche sets the bar so high that he makes us all better people. Arthur [Wickiewicz] greets me with an exploding fist bump daily. Hope [(Feist) Zelmer] gives me Hope. Maria Nowicki gives me hugs and pumpkin bread. Theresa Steinmeyer tells everyone, ‘You’re my favorite and sincerely means it every, single time. When I suffered my second of three miscarriages, Brigid Esposito brought me two roses and made me feel seen. Time and again, we lift each other up.

I am also here because I have a deep and abiding love for grading. KIDDING. NO. Like all of you, I am primarily here because of my students. Because my students are motivated, engaged, prepared, respectful and helpful, I am able to do my best work in the classroom. I can manage serious discipline issues, but here I mostly don’t have to. My students are allies in learning, and their intellectual curiosity propels us forward. With students so ready and eager to learn, I am free to show them what more is possible, to acquaint them with new ideas and engage in closer readings. Beyond their high level of academic accomplishment, my students’ decency, kindness, creativity and insight daily show me what more is possible. I’m here because Nate Jakaitis [Class of 2016] still sends me the latest cool thing he wrote in college; because Abbey Nowicki [also ’16] also sends me pumpkin bread; and because Robert Metaxatos [’17] takes the time to write me a letter by hand because he is reading Crime and Punishment and I first introduced him to Dostoevsky years ago in our Brothers Karamavoz reading group. My students are incredible people. They are incredible blessings.

Faculty and staff members read chapters of Moby-Dick at “Moby-Con” in January 2019.

I have been fortunate to teach subjects here that speak to my own intellectual passions — American literature and creative writing. And I think it’s an open secret that I sneak in 12 chapters of Moby-Dick when everyone else does two. I’m at Fenwick because six years ago my AP students were jealous of the Honors classes who got to read those 12 chapters and asked me to stay after school with them on Mondays to discuss the entire book. I’m here because every year since then, my Moby-Dick readers have recruited the next year’s crew. I’m here because when I brought our lunatic notion of Moby-Con to Pete Groom and Jerry Ruffino, they didn’t say no. They came aboard, as did dozens of you. I’m here because you tolerate (or dare I say even enjoy?) my whaling and sailing puns. It made my heart full that so many colleagues stepped up to chaperone and read at Moby-Con, that Father Peddicord was game to play Father Mapple, that Ernesto screened four film versions, that Rick O’Connor live-streamed the whole event with his Broadcasting club. Those students will never forget our marathon voyage, and I don’t know whether it would have happened at another school.

All of this adds up to true community, and people filled with genuine affection and compassion for their coworkers and students. People say teaching is a thankless job, but at least at Fenwick, I disagree. My students depart class daily with a parade of thank-yous — I mean, even in study hall! Seriously!

‘God wants me to be here’

One thing that makes Fenwick special is that we treat our work here as a vocation, a ministry. We are called to this work, and we are here to shape more than minds. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our Kairos program and the teachers and student leaders who work tirelessly to offer that spiritual experience to our students.

As a Protestant, I had no idea what to expect in coming here. Would I be out of place? How would people here treat the non-Catholic minority? Would even the statues give me the side-eye? I could not have imagined that Lucy White would ask me to speak at Kairos about the Christian Family or that Maria and Mary Beth would invite me to speak today at a Dominican spiritual retreat.

I am here because God wants me to be here. (Please write this down and look up when you have finished: I am here because — sorry, Kairos humor — but that is why I’m here.) As a religious institution, we are a community of learning and also a community of prayer. We celebrate God in our service to one another. And when you’re in need you can always be sure that Pete Gallo is not the only one praying for you.

To wrap up, I’d like to just tell a few anecdotes that speak to my time at Fenwick:

Continue reading “Fenwick’s Staying Power Is Its People, says 9-year Friar Teaching Veteran”

Fenwick Launches Engineering and Innovation Laboratory

Facility represents the ‘stem’ of flowering course offerings in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

By Mark Vruno

Science Department Co-chair Mr. Dave Kleinhans (right) works with a student on a laptop computer in the new STEM-focused facility.

Fenwick High School has ushered in its 91st academic year with a new Engineering & Innovation Laboratory. At the Open House in late September, prospective students and their families had an opportunity to see the modular classroom (Room 57), which features 25 new drafting and programming laptop computers, six 3D printers and five interactive, “smart” monitors. These technology equipment upgrades are a major part of the more than $70,000 investment in the refurbished lab space.

“We are teaching in the lab to packed computer-science classes,” Science Dept. Co-chair Dave Kleinhans reports. In an effort to prepare students for business and STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) degrees in college, he adds, many of these courses were co-developed with a University of Illinois, student-run consulting organization. At professional-development sessions in mid-September, faculty members received training on the three-dimensional (additive-manufacturing) printers. 

Principal Peter Groom adds, “The development of our Computer Science curriculum has been a collaborative effort. We put a lot of faith in our faculty, and they really ran with it. In some cases, our teachers took existing courses and tailored them to the 21st-century world,” Mr. Groom explains. “In other cases, we started brand new courses. The opening of the new lab is just the beginning of a facilities transformation that will allow our excellent CS/Physics faculty to maximize the student experience.”

Fenwick’s Engineering & Innovation Lab “is what software labs look like at some of the companies I still communicate with in the private sector,” notes Kleinhans, who started up three software firms over two decades before embarking on a career change to become a teacher. IBM (Cognos) acquired one of his companies, but Kleinhans insists that teaching and mentoring young people bring him far more satisfaction and joy “than any bonus check for selling a company or being a CEO.”

Mr. Don Nelson (center) joined the Fenwick faculty this year to help run the computer-science segments of the new lab.

Joining the Fenwick faculty for this school year is Donald Nelson, who is “taking over a lot of our CS [computer science] classes,” according to Kleinhans. “Principal Groom made a great, strategic new hire in Nelson,” Kleinhans believes. “Don is a 30-year business person/nuclear engineer who wants to be involved with students as a second career.” Nelson, who previously has taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology and DePaul Prep, holds a B.S. in engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an M.S. in computer science engineering from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. 

Student input and involvement

“It was inspiring to watch Dave Kleinhans empower recent graduates and current Friars to be project managers for the new lab,” adds Math Teacher and alumnus Kevin Roche ’05.Kevin Brosnan ’20, Spencer Gallagher ’19 and Jack Vomacka ’18 [helped] make it all happen. They met with architects, researched the best equipment, presented to the Board and even were present for the painting and carpeting subcontractors to ensure the job got done. That was my favorite part of it all: those three gain valuable project-management experience thanks to Dave.

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Continuous Learning for Fenwick Faculty and Staff

In-house Professional Development, which began in earnest during the 2016-17 school year, helps our teachers sharpen their skill sets.

By Mark Vruno

Starting in the fall of 2016, Fenwick’s administration implemented its own Professional Development (PD) program for faculty and staff. The ongoing teacher education program is spearheaded by Assistant Principal Laura Pendleton and Digital Learning Specialist Bryan Boehm.

Ms. Laura Pendleton, Assistant Principal

“At Fenwick, through the Dominican pillar of study, we do an excellent job of instilling the value of life-long learning in our students,” says Ms. Pendleton, who also is the Orchestra Director at school. “The in-house professional development program was created out of the need to provide opportunities for our faculty to spend time in community learning new skills and sharing expertise with each other. It has grown a great deal in its first three years and, in the future, will serve to be a space for our faculty to continue to work together to model life-long learning and exhibit their own love of learning to our students.”

Mr. Bryan Boehm, Digital Learning Specialist

Mr. Boehm adds, “Fenwick students are always being challenged to learn new ways of gathering information and data. Our faculty need to have the same experiences to be our leading force in their fields and subjects. Peer-led courses have been great for teachers to learn from one another and collaborate,” he continues. “Offering new perspectives, new experiences and alternative ways to teach the material that they have so much success with over their career will only benefit the students.”

Math Teacher and sophomore football assistant coach Matt Barabasz is one of four PD faculty leaders. Last year he conducted a session about how teachers can “flip” their classrooms. This technique “allows the students to watch and learn at home, while we then use instructional time to engage in meaningful conversations and applications. This session went into detail on how I use this process within my mathematics course, when applicable,” explains Mr. Barabasz, who came to Fenwick two years ago from St. Patrick High School in Chicago.

Contemplation: Golden Apple-winning Theology Teacher and Fenwick blogger John Paulett (center) inquires about a tech topic at a March 8 break-out PD session.

This school year one of his sessions is how to use Google Forms to facilitate parent communication. “Families are incredibly important within a student’s learning process,” Barabasz acknowledges. “Without the support of families, we as educators cannot fully unlock a student’s potential. This series went into how I communicate regularly with parents using Google Forms and how I keep the parents in the loop, on a weekly basis, on their students’ progress.”

Kudos from faculty participants

Now in its third year of customized PD, the faculty/staff sessions at Fenwick are wide ranging and run all year long on most Tuesdays and Thursdays, either at 7:30 a.m. or during lunch periods. Required to attend at least three sessions per academic year, most teachers seem to be buying into the idea. “I feel that the PD sessions are a great opportunity for a teacher to learn new ideas and strategies on how to become more effective,” says Spanish Instructor and alumnus Jim Reardon ’86. “Fenwick teachers are willing to share their time, knowledge and expertise with other faculty members. The sessions are not very long [about 25 minutes each] but allow you the opportunity to learn and develop new ideas.”

Spanish Teacher and Fenwick alumnus Jim Reardon.

Mr. Reardon add that he has taken PD sessions on Schoology, the learning-management system employed by Fenwick, as well as on EdPuzzle, which is a way to employ video technology in the classroom. “The PD sessions allow a teacher to better understand a topic, and then it is up to him or her to further develop their understanding and usage of the particular topic,” he notes.

English Department co-worker and alumna Theresa Steinmeyer ’12 attended Pendleton’s series on William Bender’s Strategies for Increasing Student Engagement as well as some sessions on ways to further incorporate technology into instruction. “As a new faculty member at Fenwick [2018], I have enjoyed these opportunities to continue growing as an educator while getting to know colleagues from other departments,” Ms. Steinmeyer says.

More than 20 PD sessions have been conducted this school year on topics such as:

  1. Schoology Refreshers – Bryan Boehm
  2. Schoology Gradebook Refreshers – Mickey Collins ’03
  3. Magnus Health System – Donna Pape (School Nurse)
  4. Apple Classroom – Tim Menich
  5. Classroom Management with Technology #1 – Alex Holmberg ’05
  6. Fall Book Club – Laura Pendleton
  7. Individual Educations Plans (IEPs) Level 1 – Grace Lilek David ’08
  8. CleverTouch Interactive Displays – Fr. Mike Winkels
  9. Tips & Tricks in Schoology #1 – Holmberg
  10. Dealing with Difficult Conversations – Pendleton
  11. Google Forms for Parent Communication – Matt Barabasz
  12. Learning Differences – Kyle Kmiecik ’00
  13. iPad Basic Maintenance / Troubleshooting – Boehm
  14. Assessment Strategies Through Schoology #1 – Holmberg
  15. IEP Level 2 – David
  16. Writing Across the Curriculum – John Schoeph ’95
  17. Pythonista for iPad & iPhone – Dave Kleinhans
  18. Tips & Tricks in Schoology #2 – Holmberg
  19. Science PD Series
  20. EdPuzzle – Brian Jerger
  21. Classroom Management with Technology #2 – Holmberg
  22. Assessment Strategies Through Schoology #2 – Holmberg
  23. iPad Basic Maintenance / Troubleshooting Level 2 – Boehm

In early April, Barabasz led a session on using “Google Forms for Class Data Collection” while Math Dept. colleague Kevin Roche ’05 is coordinating the Spring Book Club. Pendleton and Boehm then wrap up this school year with “Differentiated Instruction” and “Apple Classroom Level 2,” respectively.

PD Leader Mr. Alex Holmberg (at right, Fenwick Class of 2005) helps to “train” social studies colleague Brian Jerger.

“I try to run sessions with practical take-aways for teachers to immediately use in their classrooms, regardless of subject area or grade level,” explains fellow PD leader and Social Studies Dept. Chair Alex Holmberg ’05, who also is Fenwick’s Director of Clubs and Activities. “I’ve also tried to tailor specific PD sessions to address needs brought up from our end-of-year iPad Survey last school year. One of the positive aspects of the model of PD that we use is that it allows teachers to present on topics that they see as learning opportunities in their classrooms throughout the school year.”

“It has changed the way I manage my classroom.” – Brian Jerger

Participant and fellow Social Studies Teacher Brian Jerger adds: “The Apple Classroom presentation by Tim Menich has afforded me an easy, hands-off deterrent that has helped curb iPad abuse/distractions in class. It has changed the way I manage my classroom.”

Mr. Brian Jerger teaches U.S. History and Western Civilization at Fenwick.

Mr. Jerger, who joined Fenwick in 2017, also enjoyed Laura Pendleton’s Book Club presentation. “It provided a setting for teachers to come together and discuss the interesting methods, techniques and philosophies we all utilize in our classrooms,” he says. “In that same vein, I think the greatest benefit of the Professional Development series is it exposes the faculty to all the interesting work we are doing in the classroom that we do not normally get to see from each other. Due to all the ways in which teachers are pulled and stressed for time (and our humble natures), it is incredibly easy for us to get trapped in our own individual silos leaving us unaware of the great work our colleagues are doing. The Professional Development series pulls back that curtain, to some degree, and allows us to share some of this great work with one another.”

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Alumna Anne Smedinghoff Is a ‘Beautiful Soul’

Fellow 2005 Fenwick graduate and Math Teacher Kevin Roche reflects about his late friend and classmate’s generosity – and her lasting legacy.

By Kevin Roche ’05

The Chicago Sun-Times headline the week Fenwick alumna Ms. Smedinghoff was tragically killed in early April 2013. She was 25.

It was about the time that Anne was killed that a show called “The Newsroom” came out. Aaron Sorkin started his hit HBO show with a piercing diatribe by the star Will McAvoy, contesting, “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

I concur; polarizing viewpoints from those that refuse to find the middle ground, lackluster statistics on our health, academic performance, and mass incarceration, and embarrassing stories about our elected leaders are a few of the examples that have me nodding along with the tirade. The character played by Jeff Daniels ends his rant hopefully with, “but it can be.”

Anne is my ‘but it can be.’

Anne was killed in a terrorist attack delivering books to a local school in the Zabul Province of Afghanistan as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in 2013. She was a part of the United States’ diplomacy efforts to create lasting and sustainable peace in Afghanistan by fostering positive relationships. Anne died a martyr-like death, being killed while spreading nothing but goodness; she was delivering books to young kids.

Anne was a classmate of mine for 12 years of our young lives. From crowning The Virgin Mary her 8th-grade year to riding her bike 4,000 miles in college to raise money for cancer research, she exemplified, even before her foreign service career, what makes me so proud to be an American. Anne “stood up for what was right, she fought for moral reasons, cared for her neighbors, never beat her chest, reached for the stars, aspired to intelligence; didn’t belittle it, and was courageous,” just what Will McAvoy commended America’s past for.

Although it is the better part of a decade that we have been without Anne, I see her everywhere in my life. On one of my running routes, there is a black and white portrait of her (top and at left) along the train tracks. At St. Luke’s, I see her parents who are regulars and ministers during the Mass. Coaching girls’ cross country, the program she was a part of, I see Anne in the supportive, altruistic teammates. Walking to my parent’s house, I pass by the Anne Smedinghoff Memorial Garden at the public library. I see Anne when I talk to her teachers like Mary Beth Logas who encourages her students to understand the system in order to do the most good. I see Anne in my colleague, fellow ’05 grad, and dear friend of Anne, Crissy (Tallarico) Lilek, who exudes the same serene magnanimity that Anne did. I see Anne everywhere.

At each athletic event, during “The Star Spangled Banner,” I think of my contemporaries and former students that have selflessly dedicated themselves to serve our country. Different faces come up each time and I beam with pride knowing such wonderful people. Without fail, Anne Smedinghoff crosses my mind during, “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” I become emotional as I imagine the attack on her as she was about to donate those books, but I also see the American flag raised high over Lake and Lathrop by fire truck ladders as her family leaves with her in casket after the funeral Mass at St. Luke’s.

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Students-Turned-Teachers Help to Advance the Friars’ Mission

Why is it that such a surprisingly high number of former students return to Fenwick to teach future alumni?

By Mark Vruno

Presently, there are approximately 140 teachers, administrators and staff members at Fenwick High School, and 38 of them have walked the hallowed halls in Oak Park as students. Over the course of the school’s nine decades in existence, many more former pupils have returned to work and serve. “People come back to Fenwick because of the impact the school had on their lives,” believes Social Studies/History Department Chair Alex Holmberg ’05. “Whether that impact was inside or outside the classrooms, Fenwick leaves a powerful impression on everyone,” says Mr./Coach Holmberg, who triples as the school’s clubs/activities director and the defensive coordinator of the varsity football team.

Alex Holmberg ’05

“The opportunity to shape how future students approach the rest of their lives is incredibly powerful,” he notes, “and that potential draws so many people back into the building. Thinking about that opportunity to help prepare and motivate future Friars is what brought me back to Fenwick, and that thought is what motivates me to continue to help the school in whatever way I can.”

Principal Peter Groom, who has taught Friars since the 1980s, reports that many of the Fenwick graduates he has hired, he had in the classroom. “We get to know our students during their time here,” Mr. Groom explains. “We get to know their intelligence, their values, their passion and their work ethic. Typically, our graduates are also committed to our mission. When we hire people who are committed to our mission, we hire people who want to remain a part of our community for a long time. One of the keys to building a mission-based school is to have teachers who are committed and who demonstrate the aforementioned values.”

Roger Finnell ’59, a Fenwick mathematics instructor for more than five decades, concurs with fellow alumnus Holmberg:  “Many alumni teach here because they remember their experience at Fenwick as being something special and want to contribute towards continuing the traditions here,” reflects Mr. Finnell, who is Math Department Chair.

Roger Finnell in 1968.

“I knew I wanted to teach math when I started college,” shares Finnell, who also is the man behind the scenes of Black Friars Guild stage productions. “In my senior year at Loyola, after I finished student teaching at Lane Tech in Chicago, I heard about an opening at St. Ignatius, so I made an appointment for an interview. But then I thought I might as well also inquire at Fenwick. I did my Fenwick interview and was offered a position here, so, seeing this as a great opportunity, I quickly cancelled my St. Ignatius interview and the rest is history!”

Representing the Classes of 1959 to 2012

Kevin Roche ’05

Holmberg and math/computer science teacher Kevin Roche ’05 are two of thousands of Friars taught by Mr. Finnell over the past 55 years. “I think that there are a large amount of Friars returning because they had a great experience at the school, believe in what the school does, and want to be a part of ‘steering the ship’ for future generations,” chimes in Mr. Roche, who also coaches cross country. “We have Friars in different aspects of the school (operations, administration, faculty and development) who all had different experiences here yet all want to give back. I believe that this influx of alumni teachers is also a sign of our generation: millennials have a great desire to find meaning and purpose in their work. That is their highest motivator and education is a career that offers immense purpose and validation for the work through strong relationships.”

Grace Liliek ’08

Grace Lilek ’08, who is in her third year of teaching social studies at Fenwick, captures the sentiment of many of her colleagues who also are alumni: “I was inspired to pursue a career in education based on my experiences at Fenwick,” says Ms. Lilek, who also is a learning resource coordinator. “I think experience is the first reason so many of us have come back to Fenwick to teach. You will not meet two Fenwick graduates who had the exact same experience. You can be an athlete or a thespian or participate in academic competitions, and always find your niche. You can also take on all three of those roles and thrive. It is an honor to come back to Fenwick as a teacher and share these experiences with our students.” Lilek continues:

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High-Tech Education Came to Fenwick a Quarter-Century Ago

Where in the World Wide Web has “FenTech” gone and, more importantly, where is it headed? Answers can be found in the growth of the school’s Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory and CS programs.

By Mark Vruno

In 1993, could we have fathomed high-school educators teaching entire courses to teenagers on tablet computers? iPads weren’t even a tech “thing” 25 years ago, yet this past school year at Fenwick, the “Introduction to Computer Science” (CS) class was taught entirely on Apple iPads, reports Science Department Co-Chair Dave Kleinhans.

Turning Fenwick’s tech visions into realities over the past two-and-a-half decades has been made possible, in large part, by initial, generous funding from alumnus Bernard Brennan ’56, former chief executive (from 1985-96) of the Montgomery Ward department-store chain. Bernie is the younger brother of the late Edward Brennan ’51, former CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Ed and Bernie, the Brennan Bros., are a couple of Friars’ heavy-hitters:  Bernie is a member of the school’s Board of Directors as well as a 1986 Fenwick Hall of Fame inductee; Ed followed him to the school HOF in ’91.

A peek inside Fenwick’s Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory, which officially was dedicated on February 28, 1993.

Twenty-five years ago, the younger Brennan and his family made a major leadership donation to create the Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory, which was dedicated in early 1993. Students at the time, as well as members of the Fenwick Mothers’ Club, also contributed financially to the lab’s creation. Now 80 years old, Bernie Brennan’s blue-sky vision of “computerization projects” today partly resides in the virtual “Cloud,” of course. But keep in mind that, in early 1993, while email may have been a mainstream form of communication at most corporations, the Internet was a fledgling technology. Ever so slowly, companies were beginning to launch new, online branding devices called “websites.” The dot-com bubble (1997-2001) was still a few years off.

For Fenwick’s new Brennan Computer Lab, initial purchases in the mid-1990s included hardware, such as AST Bravo workstations and Netstore SCSI CD-ROM subsystems (used for information retrieval long before web browsers and cloud computing became popular), as well as software, electrical upgrades and accessories, including printers and furniture. The lab was designed to be used by the Math and Science Departments as well as the Library and the English Department. Tech-hungry teachers welcomed the new writing-lab segment, which featured desktop publishing systems for the Blackfriars Yearbook, The Wick student newspaper and staff newsletters.

Bernie Brennan’s 1956 yearbook portrait.

“It was clear to me that we were moving into the technology world at that point in time, and I wanted Fenwick to be in the leadership position,” Mr. Brennan reflected recently. “Ironically, I have been heavily involved in the technology sector for the past 20 years! It is easy to give back to Fenwick and our Dominican friends as they have done so much for the Brennan family. Fenwick’s focus on intellectual curiosity, discipline and uncompromising ethics is a beacon for us all.”

“Fenwick’s focus on intellectual curiosity, discipline and uncompromising ethics is a beacon for us all.” -Bernie Brennan ’56

New Millennium’s Web of Tech

Freshman math students in Mr. Andrew Thompson’s class, using their iPads (2017 photo).

It is interesting to note that each of Fenwick’s 1,152 incoming students this fall will have an iPad in her or his backpack. (Members of the outgoing Class of 2018 are the first Friars to have had tablet computers in their collective possession all four years.) With improved anti-cheating security measures in place, some high schools in Illinois already have adopted online final exams. Fenwick teachers have administered online quizzes and tests via their students’ iPads, but most educators in the building are proceeding with caution on that electronic front.

Since 2000, Fenwick has had a Technology Services Department in place that today is staffed by four full-time employees. These high-tech staff members manage the school’s more than 400 computer systems and a highly secure Wi-Fi network as well as some 30 switches and 122 access points — not to mention the telephone and email systems and 92 copy machines/printers! Associate Tech Director Fr. Mike Winkels, O.P. also feeds content to a total of six electronic bulletin boards displayed in the cafeteria, outside the library and elsewhere throughout the school.

Fenwick Technology Director Ernesto Nieto

Fenwick’s students, faculty and staff alike often take this tech group’s behind-the-scenes work for granted. Even those of us old enough to remember slow modems and non-connectivity have come to expect our 21st-century, networked, electronic devices to work – “magically” — with no glitches. “We do a lot of things that people probably don’t think about,” says Director of Technology Services Ernesto Nieto, who came to Fenwick in ’01 by way of St. Ignatius College Prep, the Dominican Conference Center, the Shrine of St. Jude and DePaul University.

Continue reading “High-Tech Education Came to Fenwick a Quarter-Century Ago”

Faculty Focus: Meet Science Teacher and Alumnus Kevin Roche

Science Teacher Kevin Roche is the subject of our monthly series focusing on Fenwick’s fabulous, award-winning faculty.

What is your educational background?

After graduating Fenwick, I attended U of I to get my degree in civil engineering. I also minored in Spanish there. I also am about to get [fingers crossed!!] my Masters in the Art of Teaching Math from Dominican University in May.

What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?

I was a technology consultant for Accenture (a consulting and professional services firm). My main role over those two years was working with electric utilities to better engage customers with their usage information. We designed and implemented online portals and in-home devices that would update in near real time so customers would see how their actions impact their energy. We also worked on the social science side to better motivate customers to save on their energy usage.

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