Anatomy of a lesson

In science class, award-winning New Dorp teacher turns students into investigators

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Theresa Dunlap Kutza has taught science at at Staten Island’s New Dorp High School for the past 13 years.

After class one recent afternoon at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, health and science teacher Theresa Dunlap Kutza was comically busy.

Buzzing around her room in a festive red sweater, the former nurse collected permission slips for an upcoming class trip to view a live surgery, thanked some students for creating the holiday decorations she’d asked for (photos of famous scientists in Santa hats), and fielded a reporter’s questions about the award she won this month for exceptional science teaching.

“I feel like I got an award for doing something I love!” said Kutza, who has taught at New Dorp for the past 13 years.

When Kutza first moved to the classroom after 17 years working in hospitals, she applied her nurse’s efficiency to teaching, making sure to cover the entire textbook each year. But over time, she realized that to absorb the material, students really have to do something with it.

So now, Kutza, who was one of seven city educators this year to win a $5,000 Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics, has her freshmen handle real oysters and debate the best way to contain Ebola. In her neuroscience class, students study meditation and hypothetical zombie brains. And in anatomy and physiology, Kutza asks them to solve actual medical mysteries.

“She takes everything beyond the classroom,” said Principal Deirdre DeAngelis, adding that faculty and students alike celebrated when Kutza won the award this month, which also brings $2,500 to each winner’s school. “Everyone felt like, ‘You deserve it.’”

Chalkbeat stopped by Kutza’s college-level anatomy and physiology class last week, where students played the part of doctors trying to diagnose a woman’s illness based on a case study Kutza found in a magazine. Below are the highlights from the lesson, which came after a unit on cells.

10:28 a.m. Not one to waste time, Kutza started class promptly at the bell, asking students to describe in their notebooks different kinds of membranes.

That was followed by a brief discussion, where Kutza reminded students of the distinction between serous and mucous membranes.

Kutza helps student Nicole Blake-Ramsay during an anatomy and physiology class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Kutza helps student Nicole Blake-Ramsay during an anatomy and physiology class.

“If you were to miniaturize yourself and walk along the mucus membrane,” she said, noting its porousness, “you’d be able to get outside of the body.”

10:41 a.m. Now they were ready to meet the sick woman in the case study. After Kutza reminded the students to take detailed notes like doctors do, she read them the story.

The middle-aged woman had lost consciousness in a department store bathroom, surrounded by a pool of bloody diarrhea, Kutza read. Paramedics found her heart racing and her blood pressure dangerously low. Later, it was determined that her blood had lost its ability to clot.

10:46 a.m. The students’ first task was to list clues they had heard. They noted that the woman took antidepressants and had been in good health before the incident, except for one time when she’d suffered similar symptoms.

They also ventured some possible causes. One boy suggested that she might have too few platelets, the cells that stop bleeding, while another said she could suffer from hemophilia, a disorder that keeps blood from clotting.

Kutza then asked them to decide what tests to order or referrals to make.

“You’re the doctor,” she told the students. “What are you going to do?”

10:50 a.m. The students conferred with one another, then recommended ordering a blood count, a colonoscopy, and an investigation into the woman’s

Kutza had her students try to solve a medical mystery that she found in a magazine.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Kutza had her students try to solve a medical mystery that she found in a magazine.

medication, in case it caused any relevant side effects.

They were on the right track. The doctor in the story had, in fact, conducted a colonoscopy, Kutza read, and it turned out that the woman’s medication was part of the problem. Now, Kutza told the students, it was finally time to diagnose the cause of the medical scare.

11:04 a.m. Before class, Kutza had cautioned a visitor that the students might not be able to solve the mystery. Now, she told the class that anyone who did would get extra credit on an upcoming test. She asked the students to deliberate, but within 10 seconds a girl raised her hand.

“It could be a problem with the mast cells,” the girl said, referring to certain white blood cells that produce chemicals that can cause low blood pressure and also stop blood from clotting. Another girl added, “She might have an excessive amount of mast cells.”

They were exactly right: The woman suffered from a rare disease in which the body has too many of those cells, and certain medications can trigger the cells to cause the symptoms the woman experienced. The two girls and the boy who had flagged the antidepressants all received extra credit.

“I’m really proud of you guys,” Kutza said. “That was good.”

After class, junior Noah Putney, who plans to study medicine, said case studies like that remind him why he should care about cells and membranes.

“You get to see how what you’re learning can actually apply to what you’re going to do in the future,” he said.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.