Calling a Legend
Once, science teacher Alice Davis’s students thought about buying her a “take-a-number” dispenser to accommodate the long line waiting to see her after class. Generations of OPCs credit her with instilling their love of science. And when the school revealed recently that she had won national recognition for excellence in teaching, the announcement called her a “legend.” But Davis never meant to become a teacher.
In fact, when her mother “made” her go to a meeting of Future Teachers of America, she was “so embarrassed. I thought it was the nerdiest thing in the world.” She never saw teaching as her calling. In fact, she came to teaching through a side door many years later at an age some might call late in life for such a career move. But from today’s vantage point, the story of Alice Davis’s path to becoming a teaching exemplar has destiny written all over it.
When affection and nostalgia creep in, alumni and students alike will use a word like “legend.” However, at the heart of Alice Davis’s reputation are extraordinary results rather than mere sentiment. Davis teaches one of the toughest courses taught in any high school: AP Chemistry. While teaching the identical curriculum presented by thousands of other AP Chemistry teachers, Davis’s students uniformly earn the highest scores on the national test’s 5-point scale. Not just her top students, but the majority of her students. Such consistent success earned Davis her recent national honor as one of only 18 teachers to win the 2004-2005 Siemens Award for Advanced Placement, a commendation given annually by the global engineering and electronics company. A full-page ad in USA Today congratulated Davis and the other teachers.
Davis attributes her success to iconoclastic methods: She teaches without tests and without grades. Rather than testing students, she gives them take-home assignments on which they can use any resource materials they want, except another person. She grades these assignments through comments and a point system that shows students how far they are from a correct and complete answer. “Students come to my classes only understanding grades as a measure of success. They think an A is excellent. Not necessarily,” she said. Davis sees many smart students who have perfected the art of answering questions in a single word. “But there is no probing. What is dynamic and thrilling for me is when they get to be thinkers. When they understand that thinking isn’t a ‘Me Jane, you Tarzan’ response but a thoughtful logical process.” No matter what the subject is, she believes one of the important dynamics of teaching is to demonstrate thinking. “You do that by rolling into cul de sacs, making a mistake, coming back out, and heading off in another direction.”
Because students need practice at making these mental forays, take-home assignments and essays are as rewriteable as a student wishes. “You just keep doing it again and again until you get it right,” said Princeton sophomore Ashley Soloff OPC ’03. “It was the hardest class I’ve taken by far, but you come out of the class and you know chemistry.”
Davis’s students ask her if she ever gets bored teaching the same thing over and over again. “Absolutely not,” she says. Davis finds that so many things happen in the classroom of paramount interest to her: How do students learn abstract things? How do they get excitement out of math in the same way that they would get excitement out of music or literature? She says the teaching dynamic in her classroom is “constantly pulsing” as she tries to figure out what will work for her students – what analogy, what Socratic series of questions will get them to the “ah-ha, I get it” moment. “One of the most exciting things is to be teaching something like quantum mechanics where there is nothing palpable and the thoughts are all very counterintuitive and to have them see the logic of it. Then the most important thing for them to do is to speak about it, because they can’t own it if they don’t talk about it.” In her seminar-style lab-classroom you will hear her asking students to speak to her as a fellow scientist. “What’s the energy term? Put a term in here so we can talk to each other,” she tells them. And at another juncture when students casually call out conflicting possibilities, Davis replies, “This is not voting. We don’t vote for nature.”
Davis said her students often suggest that she write a book about how to teach science. Ironically, before she had ever stepped foot into a classroom, that is exactly what she did. After starting her professional life as a chemist, Davis stayed home to raise her children. When it came time to reenter the workforce, Davis said, “like a lot of women who stay home with their young children, I had lost my confidence. But I figured I still knew the alphabet, so I got a job filing for a man writing college textbooks.”
It didn’t take long before her new boss figured out he had a good thing in Alice Davis. Pretty soon Davis was correcting his manuscripts, and then she had her own textbook to write. However, after the book was complete and ready to be published, the publisher introduced her to the professor who would have his name on the book instead of hers. “Who’s going to buy a textbook by Alice Davis, housewife?” the executives asked her. Refusing to abdicate her authorship of the book, Davis earned a fellowship at Temple University’s School of Education that would give her the credential she needed. She requested that the fellowship be research-based rather than teaching-based because she had never taught. Even so, Davis was informed the day before Temple classes began that she would be teaching elementary science methods to college seniors. “Here I was, teaching future teachers how to teach, and I’d never done it myself. It was a farce.” A farce directed by destiny, because eventually Davis’s classroom experience at Temple led her to want to teach students she could know by name, rather than the droves who enrolled in her Temple science classes. That’s when Wilbert Braxton hired her to teach science in Lower School.
It’s a mystery why Davis avoided the classroom for so long. What makes her such a great teacher is that she and her students have something in common: curiosity. “To teach, you have to start with what the young person brings you,” Davis said. “That’s curiosity, and that’s a wonderful place to begin.” With the lower schoolers, Davis used to come in and say, “Good morning, scientists. Well, then I had them, and we’d have wonderful discussions.”
When Davis moved to Upper School, she thought, “Hmm, I know advanced chemistry, but all those things I did in Lower School, is that going to work with these big guys?” The school was all boys then. Because “teenagers have to be cool,” she said, the worst thing for them is to show they’re curious. Davis gets them to risk their cool by earning their trust. She shows that she respects them, saying right off, “I believe you” when they give her a rationale for an assignment extension. But, she is also playful, squirting water at them from the lab spigot. Mostly, she’s in it with them, “trying out all these experiments I want to try.” Adam Koppel OPC ’87, who went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physics and an M.D./Ph.D. recalled, “the most memorable part of learning with Davis was her contagious excitement for the material she was teaching.” From her “comical explanations of entropy to a 6-year-old, to her elegant description of quantum energy states to a 16-year-old, she is single handedly responsible for unearthing the passion that I have for exploring nature,” he said. That suits Davis. “The real give-back,” she said, is “when they show you their enthusiasm and curiosity.”
So, when Alice Davis’s students ask, “Why don’t you write a book?” she says, “Because you wouldn’t be there. If you were there, I could write anything. I write it here in the classroom.” Beyond believing her students, Alice Davis believes in her students with a scientific sense of wonder, ever alert for the “moments in class when a student will ask a question that is stunning,” a question that takes Davis and the whole class “to a new place, or provides us with a new and fresh vision.” Davis says this is an ability that is the sole province of the young. “The rest of us tend to be firmly boxed into viewpoints, so we have a very difficult time thinking differently. As a result, we nod to each other in agreement about most things – sometimes very important things that only the young can see in a different light.” But one has the sense this isn’t true of Davis – that, in fact, she comes to class each day eyes wide open, ready to see in stunning new ways. It’s the stuff of legends.
Written by Andrea Jarrell, this story first appeared in Penn Charter magazine.
Alice Davis died of cancer in April 2015. She was 83.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggested donations to the Alice M. Davis Scholarship Fund.