Kelli Jo Berryhill, the bubbly Lincoln Honors Biology teacher of 14 years is known by her freshman students for her kind personality and engaging lab-based teaching style. Berryhill, like any good science teacher, describes grotesque images of huge-eyed bugs and bacteria-infected feet with a sense of vivacity and a smile. The peony enthusiast and self-proclaimed ¨wannabe farmer¨ expressed her love for her tiny dog Ediza (named after the California lake), her solo backpacking expeditions, and the unique gratification that comes from home improvement projects and building things with her tools during our conversation. However, Berryhill spoke with the most passion when describing her love for teaching and teaching biology at Lincoln specifically.
Since her first day at Lincoln Berryhill has been a consistent proponent for learning through doing. Her students know this well whether it’s growing and monitoring duckweed, observing roach legs, or dissecting a rat. Berryhill´s devotion to igniting a fascination for the natural world in her students originates from her childhood filled with exploration and wonder in her first backyard; the Michigan Forest.
Long before she was a teacher, Berryhill was just a child playing in the woods of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Alongside her brother and neighborhood kids, the tight-knit crew concocted vivid worlds with a backdrop of beautiful trees, streams, and their families’ expansive fields.
Berryhill remembered one adventure in particular, ¨There was this tree that toppled over and the root system was totally exposed. We would climb on it like, ´This is our fort!’ We made a flag and we dug a huge hole and created a well.¨
She continued that a few years ago, ¨My dad was out hunting and he totally fell into our well…Fortunately he didn’t get hurt.¨
Berryhill’s father was pivotal in encouraging her love for nature: teaching her how to manage her own land from a young age. ¨My dad had a tractor and he rototilled a little plot for me. He let me plant everything. I would see them flower and set fruit and then I got to harvest. Watching the whole process is really cool.¨ Said Berryhill.
As a teen, Berryhill worked at community greenhouses. Her infatuation for agriculture continued to blossom and she set her gaze on horticulture: planning to own greenhouses in adulthood. It was around this time Berryhill also took AP Biology. The course and its teacher were a turning point in her life. Her instructor´s engaging hands-on approach to the class deeply inspired her.
¨My wheels started to turn at that point and I was like, I wonder if I can do what she’s doing?¨ Recounted Berryhill.
After senior year, Berryhill packed her belongings and started her journey through higher education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She marveled at the new open-minded city. Berryhill completed her master´s degree at Michigan State University and earned a teaching certificate. Over the next few years, she taught in three Michigan school districts.
At age 26, the new teacher dropped everything and took the long flight to California. While the pull to go home was strong at times, Berryhill ultimately stayed because of the people. Her first interview was at a public performing arts high school in the Rose Garden: Lincoln. Greeted by upbeat students she was instantly attracted to the warm and accepting school climate.
Berryhill feels with certainty that every student at their core wants to do their best. A teacher’s job is simply finding a way to engage this desire to learn.
¨You have to find a way to make them feel connected to what they’re doing. So I don’t think I can do microscopes every day but at least there’s something, a little glimmer of hope.¨ Berryhill said.
Perhaps this glimmer of hope is community. She stated with finality that after staring at a computer screen for a year and a half students just ¨Need to get up out of their seats. You need to talk to each other. You guys have to feel connected to each other, then you feel connected to the school. I feel like if you don’t feel connected to something you are less apt to engage with it.¨