NEWARK – It was not your typical science lesson. The class materials were unloaded from a plastic garbage bag: gallon-size sandwich bags, each containing a balloon, penny, marble, paper plate and clear plastic cup. But the second-grade class at Holy Angels School couldn’t wait to see the magic those items would create.
The “magician” in front of the class was Renee O’Leary, who is in her second year as a volunteer at Holy Angels. O’Leary brings with her more than a half-century in the classroom; she spent 33 years as a kindergarten teacher in Delaware public schools and 17 more at Caravel Academy in Bear.
O’Leary had the students put the penny inside the balloons, which were then slightly inflated. The students got the pennies rolling on their edges around the inside of the balloons. When they stopped moving the balloons, the students noticed that the pennies continued moving for a brief period of time before falling to the bottom of the balloons.
“Whoa! That was awesome!” exclaimed Jackson McCarter, one of the second-graders.
The lesson on this day was a brief one on momentum, centrifugal force and gravity, all taught in a way that young children could understand and enjoy. That has been O’Leary’s mission and passion for more than 20 years: making science accessible for young students.
O’Leary is more than a veteran teacher giving of her time to a grateful school. She holds a doctoral degree in early childhood science curriculum and design, has written four books on the subject and travels the country presenting her curriculum to educators. She is the founder of Kids P.A.S.S., which stands for Portable, Affordable, Simple, Science.
“My work is geared toward 3-year-olds, just as an introduction, through third grade because that’s where it’s just where it’s so awesome,” O’Leary said recently at Holy Angels. “Every week that I’m here with the children, they come home with a lesson bag, and it’s theirs to keep and go over and over and over.
“It’s the best job that I ever had, and I mean that. I love the spirituality, I love the attitude, and the children.”
The feeling is mutual, said Barbara Snively, Holy Angels’ principal. “You see the children coming from her room to lunch very excited because they feel they’ve contributed something or they did something that pleased somebody. It’s her mannerisms, her connections with children. Simply put, she knows how to connect with children and praise all their efforts.”
O’Leary’s work at the school dovetails nicely with Holy Angels’ transition into a STEM school, one emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math, Snively said. The school has moved from a book-oriented program to a more interactive experience.
“We’ve increased the number of hours we’re doing science, and with Renee coming, it’s a real plus,” Snively said.
O’Leary said her work since 1991 has basically been designing STEM education, even before it was called that. One thing she tries to get across in her books is that technology is not just computers. Technology is any item that makes a job easier.
She also said teaching science to younger students is not as difficult as it seems.
“The perception is that teachers do not have the academic preparation to teach science to young children, but if they just looked a little bit it’s so easy,” she said.
Honored by Delaware
The children likely don’t know it, but their science teacher is somewhat of a celebrity in the education field. She is known internationally for her work in the classroom and in designing curriculum. O’Leary’s accolades are many.
She was Delaware’s teacher of the year in 1982 when she was teaching in the Colonial School District at Wilmington Manor Elementary School. In 1994, she was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, the only Delawarean so honored; in 1996, it was the Association for Childhood Education Hall of Fame, and two years later the Hall of Fame for Delaware Women.
She came to Holy Angels at the invitation of several teachers who attended one of her workshops at the Delaware Teacher Center while she was still at Caravel.
“They said, ‘We’d love it if you came to our school,’ and I said when I have a day off, I will come and do science with the children. And in the back of my head and my heart, I’m trying this on because in June of 2011, I finished 50 consecutive years of teaching in the state of Delaware. I was thinking, that’s enough to do this for a paycheck, I’m just going to go do it,” she said.
She has influenced the teachers as well as the students, Snively said.
“She’s a plethora of knowledge, but just even for methodology,” the principal said. “She has offered suggestions to the teachers. It’s all about positivism. She makes the teachers she works with feel very empowered. It’s a great feeling when you leave her presence or her classroom.”
O’Leary’s own teachers apparently did not see great things for their student when she was a child in Turtle Creek, Pa. Born with severe physical problems, she said she was shunned by her teachers and classmates in grade school. Her father, however, saw great things for his daughter.
“My dad was my rock. My dad just kept saying, ‘One day you’ll show them all,’” she said.
The way she was treated affected how she approached teaching.
“I thought, every kid’s going to have a happy moment,” she said. “Every kid’s going to feel good. It’s amazing how what happens to you, if properly channeled, makes you better for it. My dad, his whole focus was to take this poor, pitiful kid and make something of her.”
O’Leary came to Wilmington with her husband, Jack, a surgeon who had gotten a job at the Medical Center of Delaware. They had no children and poured their energy into their careers and community.
O’Leary is an active member of Kingswood United Methodist Church, but the Catholic faith is an important part of her life. When her husband, who was Catholic, became terminally ill with cancer, she attended Mass for him. Since his death six years ago, she has attended Mass nearly every day in his memory at St. John the Apostle Church in Newark.
She donates all of her time and the materials in her classes in her husband’s memory, and she gave Holy Angels – which is a Franciscan school – a statue of St. Francis of Assisi last year. She feels comfortable around the school and the faith.
She also volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House in Wilmington.
At St. John’s, she is a member of a dinner group for widows and widowers called the Angels, which has become a big part of her life.
“I don’t have any family,” O’Leary said. “When my husband passed away, that was the end of my family life. It’s a deep, dark hole by yourself. My husband was a doctor, and he had the kind of cancer that is a dead-end street, and he knew it. He had diagnosed it in others many times. We just came to grips with what my life would be, and I just realized it had to be of purpose.”
So she pours herself into the Angels, her volunteer work and traveling to speak about education. She is also a member of the Chapel Street Players, a theatrical troupe in Newark that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The organization has named its fundraiser after O’Leary, who performed in “Hello, Dolly!” last year and has been in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” on Chapel Street.
She declines to reveal her age – “Age is a number, and mine’s unlisted,” she jokes – but said she has no desire to stop working, which is good news for Jackson and the other youngsters at Holy Angels, and for young science students everywhere.
“I just like to be here. It’s just wonderful here. In my heart I feel good, not about me but about school. When we do a prayer at lunchtime or a prayer after school, I’m just like, this is for me,” she said.