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. 

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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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CLASSROOM LEADERSHIP

At Fenwick, six top-level administrators also (still) teach. Here’s why.

By Mark Vruno

What sets Fenwick apart from other high schools in the Chicago area and surrounding suburbs? Four differentiating aspects of the school come to mind:

  1. The seven Dominican priests and brothers present daily in the building is one major distinction.

  2. There also are eight PhD-degreed leaders among the Friars’ faculty and administration. 

  3. Another impressive statistic is that more than one-quarter of the teachers working at Fenwick also are alumni

  4. And yet another differentiator that makes Fenwick special is that six administrators also teach courses to students.

This last point of differentiation is akin to the difference at universities and colleges where actual professors teach under-graduate classes (as opposed to those taught by teaching assistants enrolled in graduate school). The six Fenwick administrators in the classroom are (from left in the above photo):

  • ​ Director of Scheduling & Student Data Mickey Collins ’03 – Accelerated Anatomy
  • Assistant Principal Laura Pendleton – Orchestra Director
  • Principal Peter Groom – Foreign Policy (History)
  • President Fr. Richard Peddicord, O.P., PhD – Dominican Spirituality (Theology)
  • Assistant Principal Eleanor Comiskey ’06 – Algebra
  • Student Services/Enrollment Director James Quaid, PhD – Advanced Placement U.S. History

Peter Groom

Every weekday afternoon for 45 minutes, you won’t find Fenwick President Fr. Richard Peddicord, O.P. in his office or on the phone. Instead, he’s in a classroom teaching Theology (Dominican Spiritualty) to senior students. Principal Peter Groom, who teaches History (Foreign Policy), has said that teaching and interacting with students in the classroom is the highlight of his work day. What is it that they enjoy about the teaching portion of their day-to-day responsibilities?

Mickey Collins

“Teaching is a way for me to be connected to the students on a personal level,” explains alumnus Michael “Mickey” Collins ’03, who teaches a science course in Accelerated Anatomy when he’s not overseeing the scheduling and data of Fenwick students. “I spend most of my time seeing names, test scores, course requests and schedules of students, but not as much face-to-face [time] with those students,” Mr. Collins adds.

“I think the fact that our administrators still teach keeps them more connected than most administrators at other schools.” – Assistant Principal/Orchestra Director Laura Pendleton

Assistant Principal Laura Pendleton notes, “The unique thing about being an education administrator is that none of us chose this profession. We all chose to be teachers first and then ended up in administration for a variety of reasons and circumstances. To be able to work in administration and continue to teach, which was my first passion, is a gift,” says Ms. Pendleton, who also is Fenwick’s Orchestra Director. “It takes you back to your early career, and I enjoy having the time working with the students vs. the adults. They keep you close to the pulse of the school.”

Why They Teach

“I think the fact that our administrators still teach keeps them more connected than most administrators at other schools,” Pendleton continues. “Also, most days teaching my class is a stress reliever!

Laura Pendleton

“It is important for school leaders to stay connected with the student body because,” she says, “first and foremost, we are here for them. I can imagine that if you are not in front of students every day you might start to get a little disconnected. Teaching my own class is very beneficial for me when supervising teachers. Being in their classroom becomes more than just an isolated event and more of a collaboration: I’m also in a classroom with these students every day; I have the same issues. It gives us a very up-to-date understanding of what our teachers are going through. We have a unique student body here at Fenwick, and it’s important to know their needs specifically.”

Dr. James Quaid, former Fenwick Principal and current Director of Student Services & Enrollment, returned to Fenwick this school year.  “I began my career as a teacher and always loved working with students as a teacher, coach and/or moderator,” Dr. Quaid shares. “Administrative work involves planning and finding ways to help students, teachers and parents/guardians. It also involves a lot of reaction to issues in which people are frustrated or upset. When I am in a classroom, I get to work in a very positive environment and enjoy watching students learn and grow. If you plan, communicate and react properly, there really are not that many negative things that happen. For one period each day I can just enjoy the experience.”

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