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Creativity in the Classroom is Elementary for Catherine Downey '07Ed, '08GEd

Monday, November 11, 2013

By the time Catherine Downey ’07Ed, ’08GEd was ready to enter her senior year in high school, she had already made two important decisions. She was certain that she wanted to be a teacher, and believed that going to St. John’s University would be the best way to make it happen.

“I decided to come to St. John’s because I knew that it had one of the best Education programs in the area,” she said. “I had gone to high school at St. John Villa Academy on Staten Island and took a number of bridge classes there, so I came into the University having already earned 19 college credits. Those credits gave me a head start on my degree and got me that much closer to my dream of becoming a teacher. I loved St. John’s right from the start, and earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees from The School of Education on the Staten Island campus.”

As soon as she completed her Master’s degree, Downey began teaching fifth grade at P.S. 128 in Brooklyn. Creative by nature, she quickly realized that the best way to hold her students’ interest was to get them involved in innovative classroom activities that would be both educational and fun. She frequently used pictures as visual aids when teaching content vocabulary, and on one occasion used candy to simulate the Mayan social caste structure.

“Fifth grade is a really good age,” she noted. “The students are still eager to learn at that age, and yet they have a bit of independence to them. It’s great to watch them start to find out who they are at that age. But there are also a number of challenges, and learning needs to be fun. Having a large population for whom English is not their primary language is definitely something I take into consideration when planning my lessons. The language barrier really doesn’t get in the way as long as I make sure that every student is included in every activity. If a child doesn’t completely grasp what we’re doing, that’s when I move them into small group instruction.”

Although she has only been teaching for a few years, Downey has developed a reputation for excellence among her supervisors, colleagues and the parents of her students. It was a parent who nominated her for the Big Apple Award, a city-wide teacher recognition program open to all full-time teachers in public schools across New York City. More than 2,000 teachers were nominated, and after a rigorous screening process that included recommendations from principals, letters of support from colleagues and a personal interview, she was one of only 11 teachers to receive the award.

“Great teachers are a school’s most valuable asset, and we must recognize their skills and the impact they have on our students – even beyond the classroom,” noted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “The Big Apple Award recipients exemplify the best of our New York City teaching corps – the biggest, most diverse and talented group of teachers in our nation.”

The award comes with a $3,500 classroom grant, which will provide this outstanding young teacher much needed resources to implement even more creative approaches to the education of her future students.

As is the case with many St. John’s students, Downey recognized the importance of the University’s unique mission of service during her days on campus. She was a member of the Kappa Delta Pi Education Honor Society, and took part in a number of service activities that included visits to nursing homes and painting classrooms in local schools. Now as an alumna, she sees her teaching career as a way to keep her commitment to service alive in a meaningful and lasting way.

“I believe very strongly in helping others whenever I can,” she said. “St. John’s students and alumni have made a difference in so many communities that it’s obvious how much we really believe in the Vincentian mission of the University. Teaching is a way for me to reach out and extend myself to others, not just to my students but to their parents and families as well. It offers so many opportunities to make a difference for others, and I try to take advantage of those opportunities whenever I can.”