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Monica Polanin

Since moving to Florida in 1988, Preschool teacher Monica Polanin has spent the past 35 years paving the way for the next generation of leaders. Her commitment to her students’ well-being and overall academic and social-emotional development has positively influenced countless lives and helped children ages two to four build a strong foundation for future academic success.  

Having been surrounded by a large family growing up, Polanin has always loved interacting with children, which led her to pursue a career as an educator. Her first role at NSU was a full-time Preschool substitute teacher. The following summer, she taught swimming lessons with our Camp Nova summer program and shortly after was hired as a full-time PK3 teacher. Since then, she has served as an integral member of the Preschool community.  

Outside of the classroom, Polanin continues to offer swimming lessons and enjoys walking and passing the time with her two sons and sisters.  

Q&A with Polanin:

Describe your teaching style.  

As a teacher, it is my job to give every child a love of learning, providing opportunities through cooperative play, hands-on exploration, and many provocations.  

What are some ways you instill a love of learning in your students? 

My students develop a love of learning with the help of a daily routine, a caring and loving environment, lots of hugs, and reading, reading, reading! 

So far in your career, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement?  

It would have to be the strong faith my students’ families have in my teaching and having so many families ask for me to teach the students’ younger siblings.    

How has being a teacher changed or impacted your life?  

I am a firm believer in giving back – watching my students flourish after a year of educating them keeps me going, especially knowing that I was a significant part of that growth. 

What are some words of wisdom you would share with future educators? 

Make every day special for the children. School can turn into a “bad word” for children, so we need to make them happy and excited to be here and learn!  

Micaile Smith

From leading a class of imaginary students as a child to now having 20 years of experience in the education space, Micaile Smith knew from a young age that she was called to teach. Her love for children and helping them learn was evident as she was growing up, which led her to pursue a career in teaching. As a Middle School science teacher, Smith instills a love of learning in her students by helping them connect the material to their own lives and by creating a safe and comfortable environment. This way, students are interested and motivated to learn more, apply their understandings, and give their best effort.  

Influenced by her mother who has been a role model for what it means to be supportive, loving, and hard-working, Smith leads her students every day with a smile and serves as a source of positivity, growth, and encouragement. She enjoys coming to work each day and interacting with students of all different backgrounds and personalities whose smiles and energy bring her a sense of joy. One of Smith’s greatest achievements is being able to utilize her professional developments and resources to successfully meet the ever-changing and varied needs of her students.  

Q&A with Smith:

What brought you to NSU University School? 

I love the fact that USchool is a college preparatory school that promotes student success and excellence through diverse, enriched, well-rounded, and personalized learning experiences. It is awesome to know that I can do what I love, which is teach, and do so on the campus of a thriving and successful university with great resources to help students learn and be the best they can be. I love driving through NSU’s campus to come to work as it makes me feel great pride to be part of this educational community. 

Describe your teaching style. 
My teaching style is one that promotes student driven exploration and inquiry-based learning activities. I set the stage so that my students are empowered to learn in an engaging and challenging environment where their learning experiences allow them to investigate/explore, collaborate, and think critically to make in-depth connections and find their own answers/solution. It is not just about delivering science content; it is also about helping my students develop their inquiry and problem-solving skills so that they can apply it to various aspects of their lives in promotion of their overall success. 

What makes students at NSU University School stand out from the rest? 

I love that students come to school each day happy and with positive energy. USchool has many diverse, uniquely talented, hard-working, and gifted students. My heart smiles when I observe them interacting, playing, working, and just being happy to be in school! 

When you’re not working, what do you do? Do you have a particular hobby? 
I am a runner! I love participating in running events, such as half-marathons and marathons. Running is a mainstay in my life because it helps to keep me healthy, happy, and well-balanced. 

What are some words of wisdom you would share with future educators? 
Getting to know your students' unique abilities and personalities and connecting with your students carves out a great path for success and happiness for both you and your students. 

Stefanie Ludington

Having come from a family of educators, Lower School teacher Stefani Ludington was inspired from a young age to make a difference in the lives of students. Since joining the NSU University School community 16 years ago, she has served as a powerful role model within our school and beyond. 

Ludington kickstarted her career at USchool as a teacher assistant for third grade, kindergarten, and our BRIDGES program. She then transitioned to teaching junior kindergarten for four years and later moved into her current position as a first grade teacher where she has dedicated the past 10 years to transforming the lives of her students by ensuring they receive the best learning experience possible. 

Ludington’s supportive and nurturing approach to teaching continues to bring out the best in our students and have a lasting impact on their academic achievement. By understanding and appreciating their differences, she establishes positive connections with each individual learner. Ludington fuels their passion for learning by challenging them to think deeper and encouraging them to ask questions, explore, and seek answers. 

Q&A with Ludington:

What are some ways you instill a love of learning in your students? 
My students are important, unique, and very curious. Meeting their individual needs and providing them with a supportive, nurturing and caring environment is my number one priority. I want my classroom to be a joyful, peaceful, and inviting place where everyone knows that they belong. 

What is your favorite thing about NSU University School? 
NSU University School is a special place where everyone is celebrated and collaboration is encouraged. I know how blessed I am to enjoy coming to work each day. I love watching my students grow and seeing their little faces light up when they figure out something new and have those "aha" moments. Administration and the families are so supportive and encouraging, and I am grateful for that. I am also fortunate to work on a wonderful team and to have amazing and talented colleagues and friends here at USchool. 

What moment at NSU University School stands out as the most memorable? 

Teaching remotely in the spring of 2020 was challenging not just for the students, but for the teachers as well. I missed being in the classroom with my kids. My families were so wonderful and organized a little surprise drive by parade. It was just what we all needed to feel connected once again. Seeing their little, smiling faces after such a long stretch was the absolute best! 

When you’re not working, what do you do? Do you have a particular hobby? 

I love spending time with my family. I enjoy being active, reading, and traveling. 

What are some words of wisdom you would share with future educators? 

Love what you do and remind your students how important and valuable they are. You will have some tough days, but it makes the good ones even better! 

Dr. Rafael Arechabaleta

Entering his 22nd year of teaching at NSU University School, Upper School Physics and Calculus Teacher Dr. Rafael Arechabaleta is no stranger to the USchool community. Drawn by the uniqueness of our school, Dr. Arechabaleta joined the USchool team early in his teaching career shortly after moving to the United States from Cuba. He has made significant contributions to our school over the years and has had a lasting impact in the lives of his students through his instructional approach and sense of humor, helping create a comfortable learning environment.  

Throughout his career, Dr. Arechabaleta has been recognized as an exceptional educator, earning numerous awards honoring him for his commitment to students. He was selected as the recipient of Northwestern University’s Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award, the University of Chicago’s Outstanding Educator Award, and the MIT Inspirational Teacher Award. 

Q&A with Dr. Arechabaleta:

What led you to pursue a career in teaching?  

I believe education provides students the latitude to form their own opinions – to challenge themselves and society. Having been educated in Cuba under a communist regime where free thought was discouraged and educational resources were limited, I truly appreciate educational freedom and strive to provide my students the opportunity to design their own curriculum. My first teaching opportunity arose at Guantanamo Bay where I volunteered to teach fellow refugees real-world skills to prepare them for a more prosperous life in the United States. Since then, my passion for education has burgeoned. My unique heritage and life experiences have cultivated my educational pedagogy and skillset. I view the educational field as one of the noblest professions in the world, and I am fortunate to be teaching physics and calculus at different levels in the U.S. despite my strong Cuban-Russian accent.   

Describe your teaching style.  

Each student is a unique individual who needs a passionate teacher to develop a safe, nurturing, and stimulating environment in which the student can grow individually. My passion is to help students meet their highest potential in the areas of science and math while also ensuring they develop essential social skills. I believe that my experiences as a student helped mold me into the educator I am today.  

What do you enjoy most about your work?  

The students, faculty, administrators, and families here at USchool are what I enjoy most. Coming to a new country and finding a family in the workplace is a blessing.  

What moment at NSU University School stands out as the most memorable?  

My most memorable moments over the past 22 years include graduation ceremonies, the day I was hired to teach here, and the recognition I received by former headmaster Dr. Jerome Chermak and current Head of School Dr. William Kopas. I’ll also always remember one of Dr. Chermak’s commencement addresses where he spoke about my life experiences in the presence of my sister and wife who were in attendance.  

What are some words of wisdom you would share with future educators?  

Work hard. Everyone is smart in different ways. Enjoy and appreciate what you have, especially the opportunity to receive a good education.  

Butterfly Garden and Vivarium

Written by: NSU University School Sophomore Enoch Wong

Completing work in a classroom is a common and traditional mode of learning, but Lower School science teacher Michele Garren at NSU University School (USchool) utilizes the school’s Lichtenfeld Family Butterfly Garden and Vivarium to help educate her students in a hands-on way about butterflies and the plants that attract them. The garden itself was designed and planted by senior Duncan Jurman and is now maintained by Upper School students. The purpose of the garden is to provide hands-on learning experiences for students. This mode of learning has enhanced students’ interest in environmental science. Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Ms. Garren and talk about how she uses the garden to enhance student learning.

Q&A with Ms. Michele Garren: 

What inspired you to utilize the garden as part of your curriculum?   

Well, I like how the garden is such a beautiful, natural space, and I think that it's important that kids be exposed to nature. Children are innate scientists. They want to find out about the world, they want to explore nature, and they want to touch things. The garden has a lot of beautiful, flowering plants that attract butterflies. This allows students to learn about the life cycle of a butterfly in an interactive way that is different from reading about the process from a textbook.  

Another thing is that students can see real examples of the different phases of the life cycle of different butterfly species. They can find all the parts of the life cycle - eggs, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly - right in that small space. For them to be able to see and experience nature hands-on, with tools such as magnifying glasses, is highly interesting. The opportunity for adventure that the garden allows kids to have is hard to pass up.

How have you used the garden in your teaching curriculum?  

The third grade is currently learning about the life cycle of butterflies, so it fits right into their curriculum. For other grades, I just want students to encounter and better understand nature, like how plants grow from seeds, and experience the full life cycle of a plant. I also want them to understand the big picture, learning that the habitat has to have certain conditions for a butterfly to survive.

How has the garden been helpful to you and your students?   

It has been helpful on a lot of different levels. First of all, it's just good for kids to get out of the classroom and spend time outside. It's incredibly valuable for them to ask all sorts of questions and explore in a natural, safe space. They bring up things that I wouldn't even think to talk with them about. When visiting the butterfly area, they say things like, “Oh my! I have never seen this flower before,” or “What's this?” or “Look! There are three butterflies!” Interacting with natural environments allows children to learn by doing and investigate their ideas.

It also gives them something to look forward to that's a little different by providing them with a mini field trip, and the plant and butterfly development is something that they can follow. For instance, one group mentioned how they were impressed by the large flowers as they followed the flowering process of the garden’s pipevine plants.

Do you think your students enjoy learning in the garden?   

They definitely do enjoy learning through trips to the garden. When I tell my students that we are going to the garden, they get really excited. Some students also take the initiative to ask me for related environmental activities that they can do at home, such as planting vegetables and flowers that will attract butterflies. Students are very enthusiastic to learn more about nature, and the garden is successful in feeding their thirst for such knowledge.

Filled with dozens of butterfly and plant species, the Lichtenfeld Family Butterfly Garden and Vivarium has not only been useful in educating Ms. Garren’s students about the life cycle of butterflies and plants but most importantly, fostering their interest in and passion for learning about living creatures. The author Anthony J. D’ Angelo once said, “Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” Indeed, passion in learning is what drives us to seek more knowledge, just as Ms. Garren’s students are now being motivated to ask for more gardening activities upon visiting the garden and vivarium. I am sure that this curiosity that the garden has awakened in these students will motivate them to continue to discover more about nature.

About Ms. Michele Garren

Michele Garren is a Lower School teacher who is in her fifth year working at NSU University School. She runs the Innovation Lab, which integrates STEM into the Lower School curriculum, such as robotics, coding, electronics, and engineering. Garren attended college at Chatham University where she majored in mathematics, minored in chemistry, and pursued a pre-med path.

About the Lichtenfeld Family Butterfly Garden and Vivarium

The Lichtenfeld Family Butterfly Garden and Vivarium was designed and planted back in 2018 by senior Duncan Jurman alongside Upper School science teacher Ms. Chana Goodman. Since its inception, more than 1,500 butterflies have been raised and released from the vivarium, which is now maintained by Upper School students. The garden and vivarium serve as a hands-on educational resource and nature-based classroom for students of all ages.

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