The reading and language lab class of seven middle-schoolers at the John Powers Center in Vernon Hills is fully engaged in the lesson at hand.
That there are lots of smiles and a desire by students to get involved is due in large measure to Abbie Currie, the teacher whose expressions and gestures provide a key to unlocking the meanings of words for the deaf and hard of hearing.
"All right. Confidence!" Currie booms, eliciting a high-five from one of the students. In today's class, they are learning various meanings of a given word and how to correctly display them in sign language.
"She's gets them excited about learning," Terri Nilson-Bugella, principal of the school operated by the Special Education District of Lake County, tells a visitor. "You can see she's very motivating because she's a good actress." Currie is expert at teaching reading and language, she adds.
Currie agrees her teaching method involves a lot of the elements of acting because is it imperative the lessons are visual. As a special-education teacher, Currie consistently lets students know they have no limits and that nothing can hold them back from achieving their dreams. She does not acknowledge the term "disability".
"We always look for the ability," she said, "that they can do anything they put their minds to."
It is for her passion, drive, dedication and extra effort that the Mundelein resident has been selected by the Daily Herald as a "Top Teacher," a designation for suburban educators who distinguish themselves in their daily duties and beyond.
"I like her teaching style. She gives the kids all the information they need to complete the task without giving them the answer -- then, they can learn," said Anita Ferrara, whose son, Nathan, is in eighth grade.
"Personally, if anything is going on with my son at school, she'll always email me and say, 'We're noticing this. Were you noticing that at home?' That's great."
About 50 students attend at John Powers Center, which houses instructional programs for the deaf and hard of hearing for SEDOL's 35 member school districts. Some of the students wear a combination of hearing aides and cochlear implants to assist in listening, but for the most part, they have severe and profound hearing loss. A total communication approach using sign language, finger spelling, lip reading, listening and speech is practiced. The rule in the building is that sign language is used at all times, as students may pick up incidental language, Nilson-Bugella explained.
"All day, everyday day when I'm talking, I'm signing," said Currie, who has been at Powers for nine years. "By having the voice with the sign, it gives them multiple avenues of support."
She is certified to teach kindergarten through high school and has been teaching writing, reading, math and language to middle school students in sixth through eight grade. Other responsibilities were added this year and in the afternoon she teaches reading and writing to fourth- and fifth-graders.
The interaction doesn't stop in the classroom, as Currie attends many sports events and performances, as well as high school graduations of former students.
"She knows how to engage kids and knows how to bring them out and get them excited about learning," Nilson-Bugella said. "She connects with each kid in a different way. They definitely feel that very positive relationship she has with each one."
Like Amy Ausdenmoore, who was in Currie's first class.
"Her patience and dedication to teaching was a blessing for my daughter, whose writing was behind at the time she started with Abbie, and improved significantly during her middle school years with Abbie's instruction," Kate Ausdenmoore of Gurnee wrote in an email. She was able to be mainstreamed in all her high school classes and now is studying journalism at the University of Missouri, she added.
"My daughter has always loved to read and write and I know that Abbie's guidance helped Amy to channel her love into something that she can pursue as a career."
Currie's rubber faced, expressive style is one of interaction and constant motion -- coaxing, quizzing and engaging the students, all of whom are at various skill levels.
The goal, she said, is to get students into a mainstream setting. John Powers students do that at the adjacent Townline Elementary and Hawthorn Middle School in Hawthorn Elementary District 73 and at Grayslake North High School.
"I really like math in this class a lot," seventh-grader Estefani Preciado tells a visitor through an interpreter, "because Miss Currie really knows how to teach me math. In math, I feel really smart." For the record, he also thinks she is "awesome and funny."
Currie grew up in Roselle and said she always wanted to be a teacher. One summer, she volunteered in her aunt's special education class in Spring Grove.
"She had two deaf students in her class," Currie said. "I got fascinated by the sign language and how they communicated. I said, `That's what I want to do.'"
Students have Currie's cellphone number and often text her with questions about homework.
"A lot of times, when the kids go home, their parents aren't fluent in sign. As far as getting help with homework, they get stuck," she said.
Because of that, she teaches sign language in the evening to students' family members, or whoever is interested, through a program she helped create.
Off duty, Currie sings in a '50s cover band called Postadelic that includes her dad and uncle.
"It's my way to let loose," she said. "Reading is my other big guilty pleasure."
At school, Currie strives for the "light bulb" moment -- sporadic milestones in a student's education when something clicks and their facial expressions and body language change.
"When they do get it, it's a huge deal for them," she said. "It's that feeling that makes me love what I do."