December 12, 2002

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Don Nowak

Nowak selected as finalist for Ohio teacher of year

Don Nowak doesn’t like to talk about himself. Asked for an interview, he declines. When pressed to talk, he points you instead to the Web site he maintains for Mills Lawn School, where he teaches sixth grade, and pretty soon you realize you don’t need that interview after all, since the Web site shows all you need to know about Nowak — his love for Mills Lawn, his enthusiasm for teaching and his own joy in learning.

Those traits led the Southwestern Ohio Instructional Technology Association to select Nowak as a finalist for the 2003 Ohio Technology Teacher of the Year Award. Only 16 finalists were chosen statewide for the award, and the winner will be announced in January.

“Innovation is constant in Don’s teaching style,” Jackie Arnold, a former Mills Lawn teacher and current project coordinator for the Institute for Technology-Enhanced Learning at University of Dayton, wrote in her nomination letter. “After over 30 years of teaching, Don continues to strive for the best teaching methods for each and every student in his room.”

His enthusiasm for technology grew from seeing how it helps children learn, said Nowak.

“My main interest is finding the ways technology can help students do it easier and better,” he said. “It can streamline their work and gives them different ways to learn.”

For example, during a recent study of Egypt, Nowak created for his students an Internet search that focused on the question, who really owns the Rosetta Stone? Divided into French, British and Egyptian teams, students could surf to 30 Web sites to find the answers in their search in a variety of ways, including a virtual tour of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

“As the sixth-grade students begin to learn about the Rosetta Stone, they find themselves personally involved in the conflict because they each study it from the perspective of one of the parties concerned over its ownership,” Arnold said in her letter. “The ‘teams’ are on their way to learning about history intimately.”

Nowak has created other Web-based instructional materials, said Arnold, including The Great African American History Search “to enlighten his students on the achievements of some great individuals,” which won the Microsoft Encarta Lesson Contest, and a similar lesson called “Search for Great Figures of World War II.”

A self-taught Webmaster, Nowak models life-long learning for other Mills Lawn teachers, said Mills Lawn Principal Christine Hatton. For instance, Nowak has provided in-service training to his Mills Lawn colleagues on using e-mail to communicate with parents, using digital cameras as a learning tool and using electronic grade books, Hatton said.

As Webmaster of the Mills Lawn School Web site, Nowak is responsible for showing Mills Lawn off to the world, in a style both personable and professional, said Hatton, who said her sister, a Web design professional, regularly has her interns study the Mills Lawn site for its “level of professionalism.”

The site,, includes, among other things, information about a variety of the school’s recent activities, such as the recent Evening in Egypt and a trip to COSI in Columbus, plus an update on Japanese penpals. The Web site also offers the Great African American History Search as well as a quiz on microorganisms, all formatted with lively photos and artwork, plus updates on the ongoing construction project.

“I’m blown away by his expertise,” said Hatton.

Since the Web site got up and running almost two years ago, it’s received 45,000 hits from visitors and averages 500–700 hits per week, said Nowak. He said he spends 10 to 15 hours a week, outside class time, updating material. The site has won eight national and international awards, wrote Arnold. Nowak “updates material on a nearly daily basis in an attempt to keep the information current and useful to Mills Lawn students, their families, their teachers and a much wider community,” Arnold said.

While he’s enthusiastic about high tech teaching methods, Don Nowak appreciates traditional approaches as well, said Hatton, who said she especially enjoys listening to Nowak reading stories out loud to his students, which he does every day.

Whether his teaching methods are high tech or low tech, Nowak wants to do right by his students. Most important, said Hatton, is that the children know that he cares.

“The kids have a great regard for him,” she said.

—Diane Chiddister