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Indiana's Middle School Geography Educator of the Year talks teaching in the pandemic (
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Indiana's Middle School Geography Educator of the Year talks teaching in the pandemic (

GRIFFITH — In a year where education has completely changed, one of Indiana’s top teachers is still figuring it out.

Merv Barenie, a seventh-grade teacher at Griffith Middle School, is teaching this year with about two-thirds of his students in his classroom with the other third learning remotely.

Griffith Public Schools, like many of its neighboring districts, has navigated a mix of in-person and remote learning options during the coronavirus pandemic, in some weeks experiencing full building closures as the pandemic continues.

For Barenie — an educator inspired by William Wirt’s work-study-play model of teaching — the 2020-21 school year has been “pretty tough.”

His typical style of teaching is characterized by project-based learning, small group work and interactive projects.

That’s now been replaced with limitations on class trips, 6 feet of distance, and the occasional student out on quarantine.

“Each year is different for me as an educator and what we do with the students goes with the dynamic of each class of students,” Barenie said. “I look at their strengths and the interest of the students, but this year has been tough.”

Barenie — who was recently named 2020 Indiana Middle School Geography Educator of the Year— took a nontraditional path into teaching.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in museum studies, Barenie worked at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis for a couple years before returning to the Region to work in schools and earn his teaching certification at Calumet College of St. Joseph.

Before the pandemic, Barenie would encourage his students to compete in the state’s annual Geographic Bee. In 2018, Barenie’s student Jonathon Elliot won, qualifying him for the 30th National Geographic Bee sponsored by the National Geography Society and opening up new windows of teaching opportunities for Barenie.

Through the national bee, the Griffith teacher said he learned of the National Geographic Educator Certification — a prestigious, three-month professional development program providing ongoing networking opportunities and teaching resources to its cohorts.

Barenie is just one of two in the state to complete the National Geographic Educator Certification, said Kathy Kozenski, executive director of the Geography Educators’ Network of Indiana, which awarded Barenie his 2020 teacher of the year title.

“That, to me, expresses how much dedication Merv has to education, especially for someone who came about it indirectly,” Kozenski said.

Before the pandemic, Barenie was working with Bharath Ganesh Babu of Valparaiso University’s Department of Geography & Meteorology to create the Region’s first Northwest Indiana Geo-Education Group.

Although plans for that have slowed as teachers shift focus to changing instructional styles during the pandemic, Barenie is embracing the opportunity to incorporate pandemic-related events in his classes.

In his courses’ typical study of China, for example, Barenie said he has been able to weave in discussion of the cultural differences in mask-wearing and how geography played a role in COVID-19’s spread in the pandemic’s earliest days.

The teacher said he’s also been able to emphasize the global aspect of the pandemic through his geography classes, showing students how their actions are just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

“I’m actually impressed with how seriously students take mask wearing and social distancing overall,” Barenie said. “The message I think will come out of this is that we worked together to solve this problem.”

Where to find COVID-19 data in schools:

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