In Thomas Dennison's class at Havre de Grace Elementary School, students learn to tap into their most powerful resource: their imaginations. They learn about the Revolutionary War by reenacting the battle of Lexington and Concord with water balloons in the school's backyard. It's not uncommon to find Dennison's fifth-graders outside learning about rockets or collaborating with other classes for massive math-oriented scavenger hunts. Inside the classroom, Dennison has high expectations for both learning and conduct. Students greet visitors at the door with a handshake. Small groups debate and analyze the day's reading while others solve problems on chalkboard-covered tabletops, as Dennison floats among groups as a facilitator.
Dennison has taught several grades at the Title I pre-K-5 school, and many of his students have battled learning disabilities, poverty, and other challenges. But that only motivates Dennison more to provide them with the passion, confidence and tools they need to overcome obstacles, become tomorrow's problem-solvers, and succeed in school and in life. And succeed they do: Last year, Dennison's class scored in the proficient or advanced range on Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) assessments, and 95% reached that level on tests used to measure math gains. Havre de Grace Elementary ranks in the top 1% for reading and 10% for math among Maryland's Title I schools. Dennison, though, looks for additional measures of success in his students: persistence, curiosity, compassion, creativity, sense of wonder, motivation, leadership and courage.
When Dennison visited the Ron Clark Academy to learn about creating a culture of student engagement, he returned to Havre de Grace energized. He became a contributing founder of the school's Houses Initiative, which split the school community into smaller groups to make it feel more like a family. Dennison leads one of the houses and develops curriculum, provides professional development, mentors students, and plans schoolwide celebrations, including a celebrity-themed event on the first day of school, when he hired a news crew and interviewed each student who walked down the red carpet that led to the school's front doors.
Dennison believes in transformation and welcomes students with behavior problems into his class; he puts them in the front row and turns them into leaders who believe in themselves and put their best foot forward. He creates an atmosphere of celebration in his class, playing music during transitions or to build students' excitement. All day long, students high-five, clap, and bang drums when classmates offer correct answers, showing their appreciation for each other and recognizing their peers' successes.
Teachers and administrators from around the state have visited Dennison's classroom, and the emphasis he has placed on student engagement has motivated colleagues and improved both students' behavior and their achievement. Dennison serves as the fifth-grade level chair, mentors interns from nearby universities, and sits on the school's Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) team. His background in educational technology led to his role as Havre de Grace's unofficial go-to techie; he helped the school create a second computer lab and integrate Promethean boards, ActivInspire, iPods and other tools into classrooms.
A fixture in the Havre de Grace community, Dennison, who has four children of his own, goes to students' sporting events, sees them at the park, and attends church with them. He visits each student's home at the beginning of the year and holds homework help nights for both students and parents. He works with his church to make sure students' physical needs are met and never misses the opportunity to praise students and remind them that they are unique, special and a gift to the world. Parents often ask to have their children placed in Dennison's class, and because he has taught multiple grades, he has had many students more than once. Former students have described Dennison as the teacher who changed their lives.
Dennison earned a Bachelor of Education in early childhood in 2002 and a Master of Education in computer technology in 2003 from Ohio University.
Press release: Revolutionary War Balloon Battles and Math Scavenger Hunts: Havre de Grace Fifth-Grade Teacher Thomas Dennison Earns $25,000 Milken Educator Award
"[I hope my students remember] that moments, good or bad, don't define you. Every day you have a chance to do great things by serving..." (read more)
Master of Educational Technology