In Shalonda Holt's biology classroom at Centennial High School, desks are not configured in a traditional arrangement of tidy rows pointed at the whiteboard. Instead, they are grouped into clusters that face every which way.
That's because Holt doesn't lecture — at least not during class time.
"Once or twice a week, there's a video — a PowerPoint with my voice, basically, doing a lesson — and they have to watch it for homework," she said. "And there's a question they have to respond to, and space for them to ask me any questions."
Her implementation of this innovative flipped classroom model, in which students are introduced to new material outside of class, is just one of the reasons that Holt stands out as a teacher, said Centennial High Principal Claire Hafets. She advocated for Holt's selection as the 2016 Howard County Teacher of the Year, which was announced Feb. 11.
"I feel I am the most fortunate principal, because of her vision, creativity and natural ability to connect with students," Hafets said.
Holt was one of 10 candidates for the honor, and as the winner will serve as the county's nominee for the Washington Post Teacher of the Year and the Maryland State Teacher of the Year awards.
In Holt's flipped classroom, students watch video lectures before coming into class and fill out note sheets and answer online prompt questions that give Holt a sense of who understands the material and who might need additional support.
This allows students to move at their own pace.
"They can pause the video, they can go back and rewatch it," Holt said. If students have to miss class, or if there are snow days, they don't have to miss instruction.
Just as importantly, she said, the video lectures free up time in class for one-to-one interaction with students and for discussion, labs, group work and games.
"We play jeopardy, classroom feud," said Holt, who received her education degree from University of Maryland Baltimore County. "It's more interactive. It's a break away from your typical class."
A couple of weeks ago, Holt, 32, rapped for her students, changing the lyrics of the song "Show Stopper" by Danity Kane to teach a lesson on the cell cycle.
"My rap name is Londi," she added.
The performance motivated her students in their projects related to cell cycles because they didn't want to be outshone by their teacher, Holt said.
"She plans fun activities for us that help us understand the stuff we need to learn," said one of her students, sophomore Maria Wariz. "We recently did projects on the cell cycle and we had to write a poem, rap or children's book about it. My group wrote a poem and it helped us to remember the different terms."
Holt, who has taught at Centennial for nine years, said that when she used to lecture, her students often asked, when they entered the classroom, "Ms. Holt, are we taking notes today?"
Once or twice a week she would answer yes, she said, and her students would sigh in response.
"After going through five classes each day, that's basically what they're doing in most of their classes," Holt said of note taking.
Then, about three years ago, Holt was searching for a teaching video on YouTube and found one about flipped classrooms, an educational concept that has picked up steam in recent years as an alternative to traditional lecture-based methods of teaching. Holt was attracted to the idea because it offered her the chance to use class time for activities other than lectures and note-taking.
In a flipped classroom, students are first exposed to new material outside of class (for Holt's students, via lecture videos) while class time is then employed in the "harder work" of helping students to assimilate the new knowledge, according to a paper by Cynthia J. Brame, the assistant director of Vanderbilt University's teaching center.
"This model contrasts from the traditional model in which 'first exposure' occurs via lecture in class, with students assimilating knowledge through homework; thus the term 'flipped classroom,'" Brame writes.
In Holt's hands, the flipped classroom has been "phenomenal" for students, Hafets said.
"I would receive emails from parents saying, this is finally the type of teaching style that worked for their children," she said.
Holt has run a professional development learning day on flipped classrooms for interested teachers at Centennial, and another teacher in her department has started to use the method.
"It takes an incredible amount of time to create those video lessons," Hafets continued. "I think Shalonda spent the whole summer of 2013 creating them."
Switching to the new teaching method was scary, Holt said, because it felt like "letting go."
"It's basically in the students' hands," she said about learning new material, adding that she can't see herself going back to using more traditional methods.
Aside from the benefits for students, the flipped classroom allows Holt to have more interaction with students, which she said is her favorite part of teaching.
"You never know what you're going to get," she said. "Although you're doing the same lesson, what the students bring to it is just so amazing."
Holt initially majored in biology because she was planning to become a doctor, but a few major life events during her sophomore year of college caused her to reevaluate her decision and accept teaching as her true calling; during summers growing up, she had played school instead of house, and pretended her neighbors and cousins were her students.
"I love learning, and teaching gives me the opportunity to learn all the time," said Holt, who now lives with her husband in Ellicott City. "For me, yes, I'm the teacher of the class, but I don't see myself as the sole possessor of knowledge. I can learn just as much from the students as I can bring to them."
When Holt was growing up in Calvert County, her mother stressed the importance of education often, she said, because she wanted Holt to break free from her circumstances. Her mom was 17 when she got pregnant, Holt said, and no one knew that she was pregnant until she gave birth to Holt in a bathroom.
"Teenage pregnancy: so often that's a cycle," Holt said. "I broke that cycle."
As a mentor for African-American female students in Centennial's chapter of the Delta Scholars program, Holt sometimes tells this personal story to students, she said.
"I guess I had things stacked against me, but that just motivated me more," she said. "I tell my mentees that you don't have to allow things to stop you from reaching your goals."