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Superior science teacher wins Herb Kohl Fellowship

Fellow teachers described Lori Danz as an educational powerhouse and a miracle worker. Former students said they remember her contagious joy.

Lori Danz, right, the Superior School Forest coordinator and science teacher at Superior High School, explains to students from SHS the rules of the rope web
Lori Danz, right, the Superior School Forest coordinator and science teacher at Superior High School, explains to students from SHS the rules of the rope web at the school forest in November 2021.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Ask a student about Superior High School science teacher Lori Danz and words like enthusiasm, energy, creativity and joy rise to the top, interjected with memories of chinchillas, millipedes and hands-on lessons.

Danz, who is also coordinator of the school forest in Summit, received a 2022 Herb Kohl Fellowship for her ability to inspire a love of learning in students and motivate others. It was, said those who know her, well deserved.

'Whirlwind of science'

Lori Danz, the Superior School Forest coordinator and science teacher at Superior High School, explains a team building challenge
Lori Danz, the Superior School Forest coordinator and science teacher at Superior High School, explains a team building challenge to students at the school forest in November 2021.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“She was a fantastic teacher. She was so creative and made learning and science fun for everybody, whether that was a strength of theirs or not. I would say there is no question that she made every student feel like they were the most important student in the class and was inclusive of everybody,” said Taylor Pederson, president and CEO of the Superior-Douglas County Chamber of Commerce.

He was one of her students at Central Junior High in the late 1990s.

“Such a personal, bubbly, energetic person that ... the enjoyment of her class was just contagious,” he said. “There was never a dull moment in science at Central.”

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She’s more than a great teacher, said fellow Central student Katie Heisel, now a school social worker in St. Paul.

“Lori is a phenomenal human being,” Heisel said, and “an exciting whirlwind of science.”

“I remember always looking forward to seeing her because of her big smile and accepting approach to all students,” said Laura Gapske, who had Danz for seventh grade science. “I would rush to get to science class — it might have also had something to do with the interesting critters she kept in her classroom.”

Danz’s classroom pets included giant millipedes, hedgehogs, hissing cockroaches and a chinchilla named Chase.

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Heisel remembered the chalk art drawings Danz would put up to illustrate different lessons, including one on the weather that spanned the entire classroom. The students grew brine shrimp, changed the metal in a penny and examined items from the forest — leaves, a deer shed, etc. — that Danz brought in. There was, Heisel said, never a dull moment.

“I think she really helped connect that science is a constant, and it’s right outside your door … it’s what’s happening right now,” Heisel said.

Natural educator

Fellow teachers appreciate working with Danz, who has been a champion of the school forest for more than a decade.

“Lori Danz can do anything. She really can work with any age kid, can fire up any age kid and any type of kid by using nature, and I was just kind of blown away by it,” said Andy Wolfe, a language arts teacher at Superior High School. “I just feel like she’s a bit of a miracle worker and I knew she was right for this fellowship.”

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Wolfe, who won a Herb Kohl fellowship last year, was one of two teachers at SHS who separately nominated Danz for this year’s award. The other was language arts teacher Mary Anderson-Petroske, who received a Herb Kohl fellowship in 2018. Danz, she said, is a phenomenal teacher.

“She is able to navigate relationships of all types with adults, families, kids. She understands teachable moments and grasps them and runs," Anderson-Petroske said. "She is so curious about her subject that everything, everywhere is a science room … and that curiosity makes her just such a natural teacher.”

Teaching almost passed Danz by. She learned to love the outdoors while hunting and fishing with her father, and initially planned to go into a natural resources career. But a comment by her aunt that she should consider being a teacher prompted her to change majors. She never looked back.

“The joy of teaching is when you create something, and you see students respond to it. And then you see they actually learn something from it. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Danz said.

She has taught at Central Junior High/Middle School, Superior Middle School and Superior High School. Danz was one of the key people who revitalized the school forest program in 2010, and has poured her energies into the space. As school forest coordinator, Danz helps formulate and support outdoor lessons for students of all ages.

“She makes it very accessible and easy for teachers to come out there,” said Anderson-Petroske, whose students spend a number of days at the school forest every year. “She’s just a powerhouse in regards to environmental education in our district. And there isn’t anyone she doesn’t touch from, I think pre-K even goes out there. You know, the whole district gets to be touched by her work.”

Wolfe brought his Spartan Spin students out to work with Danz this fall.

Lori Danz, front left, the Superior School Forest coordinator and science teacher at Superior High School, poses with part of Andy Wolfe and Christa Kalin’s journalism class at the school forest
Lori Danz, front left, the Superior School Forest coordinator and science teacher at Superior High School, poses with part of Andy Wolfe and Christa Kalin’s journalism class at the school forest in November 2021. The class spent the day at the school forest to work on team building activities.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“More than anything, it really is her personality and philosophy ... that anybody can learn, and they probably learn better in the woods, out in nature,” he said. “... That’s really the bedrock of what she does, and she just makes it come to life with students.”

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As a Herb Kohl fellowship recipient, Danz will receive $6,000, and SHS will receive a matching $6,000 award. Danz said she plans to invest the award in facilities improvements at the school forest.

“Truly ... where I'm lucky and the teachers in the district are lucky, is we have a district that really supports outdoor education,” Danz said. “And they gave it the chance to develop.”

She gave credit to the teachers who have put in the work to travel out to the school forest for lessons. Some have been coming since the very first year.

“That’s a really rewarding feeling to see that happening,” Danz said.

Studies show that immersing students in outdoor activities has many educational benefits.

“Just the mind and learning connection with engaging all your senses … It’s fun. It’s motivating. It’s physical. There’s just so many connections to good learning and what good education is and what you need to incorporate ... I think it just motivates teachers, it motivates students,” she said.

Those who know her say Danz also plays a part in that motivation.

"When you're near someone passionate, it rubs off," Anderson-Petroske said.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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