Westmont Magazine Cultivating an Interest in Biology
Winnie Grasser Litten ’87 rises at 4:30 a.m. to take a vigorous, four-mile walk and never slows down all day. Arriving at Oak Park High School by 8 a.m., she opens her classroom to students looking for a safe and welcoming place. In the AP and honors biology classes she teaches, she tells students they are “biological mental giants” and challenges them with innovative labs exploring DNA and genetic engineering. Using college-level textbooks, she keeps students up to date with the latest discoveries. Her dedication to her students and her effectiveness as a teacher helped her win the 2007 Ventura County Teacher of the Year award in June.
“I love my students,” she says. “I try to see the whole kid, not just the young biologist. Teaching biology is just one part of growing them up, which is much more important to me. I look down the road for the hurdles they’ll face in the future and try to prepare them. I want to give them perspective and life lessons and talk about good and bad choices as part of the learning process. Most of all, I want the kids to know that I care about them.”
The walls of her classroom testify to her interest in students; they are plastered with photos of teenagers, some dating back to 1991, her first year at Oak Park. She proudly lists former students she has inspired to become doctors, genetic engineers and science teachers. Her influence extends beyond academics, however. As students leave class at the end of the week, she hollers “No sex, no drugs, no alcohol!” The students chant along with her.
Winnie, who graduated from high school at 16, knows her students are capable of handling advanced material. But she also gives them a lot of study aids: making up songs to help them understand processes like photosynthesis, putting class notes and practice quizzes online, showing PowerPoint presentations in class and keeping in touch by e-mail. She offers a daily afternoon review session and meets individually with those who need more help.
The high-end students at Oak Park may live in an affluent area, but they still face problems at home. “Alcoholic parents, abandonment — you wouldn’t believe what can happen in well-to-do families,” Winnie says. If students cry in class or appear troubled, she finds out why and asks if she can help.
As a biology major at Westmont, Winnie did summer research with Professor Jeff Schloss. Tutoring biology students, who said they could understand material the way she explained it, encouraged her to set aside plans to go to medical school and become a teacher. “I figured I would give teaching a year and become a doctor if I didn’t like it,” she says. She thrived in the classroom and never looked back. “I’m so compulsive about my job and put in long hours,” she confesses. “I would probably be much worse as a doctor.”
Winnie lives in Camarillo, Calif., with her husband, Dean, and her two sons, 13 and 10. Making time for family activities like hiking and the boys’ athletic events is important to her. She teaches a Bible study at her church, where the whole family is involved, and she sponsors the Christian Club at the high school. “There are a lot different religious backgrounds at the school,” she says. “But the kids know I’m a Christian. I want to make a positive impact on them, have a testimony and be someone else they can trust.”