Holy Family Graduate and Alumni Association Board Member Meghan Rakus ’19, M’22 Hatches Award-Winning Lesson; Grows Love of Learning
At 11 p.m. on a spring evening in 2023, the teacher app on Meghan Rakus’ (’19, M’22) phone started receiving messages. “The chicks are hatching!” Parents of the Holy Family University graduate’s first-grade students at Saint Mary Interparochial School (SMIPS), a 2023 and 2016 National Blue-Ribbon School of Excellence located in the historic district of Philadelphia, were reaching out with the same excitement as their six-year-old children. Thanks to a livestream set up as a way to engage families, parents were able to share in the school’s annual egg hatching science lesson, which Rakus has bolstered over the last five years. The lesson, in fact, recently earned the Northeast Philadelphia native recognition as one of five “outstanding teachers honored for their innovation, creativity, and commitment to the students they serve” by FACTS, a Nelnet school management company. Rakus’ distinction, from among more than 100 applicants nationwide, included a $5,000 honorarium, a $1,000 donation to SMIPS, and a free trip to the Elevate 2024 conference in Atlanta, Ga., in June 2024, where she will present her innovative concept to the FACTS community.
Every year, farmers from Quiver Farm Projects in Pennsburg, Pa., visit Philadelphia area-classrooms with roosters and hens and a dozen eggs so that students can receive a hands-on lesson on the lifecycle of a chicken and learn about caring for their eggs (turning them three times a day), watching them hatch, and nurturing the newborn chicks before returning them to the farm. The two-week process is always a highly anticipated event.
“Of course, when I inherited the egg-hatching project as a new first-grade teacher, it was during COVID,” Rakus recalled. “I was concerned that the students would not be able to see the eggs and observe the normal hatching process in-person so I tried to get innovative. I told my always-supportive principal (Jayda Pugliese ’09, M’14, who is completing her doctorate degree at Holy Family) that I wanted to livestream the hatching, and she immediately secured a webcam. I have kept the livestream in the project every year since. I have also incorporated a virtual reality component through an app called ‘merge,” that allows my students to compare chicken eggs to blue jay eggs, snake eggs, fish eggs. They can make comparisons and pick their favorites. It is now a full immersion experience for them.”
The lesson also has allowed Rakus to foster important conversations with kids when an egg doesn’t hatch or doesn’t survive. It also gives students a sense of responsibility of caring for the chicks.
“Watching my students holding a chick on the first day where they are trying to throw it across the room, and I am saying ‘No, no, no, no, no! You’ve got to be super careful’ to the last day, when they are holding it and taking care of it, is so cool,” Rakus said. “Watching my students mature and grow over the two-week period, when the chick goes from looking like a little alien to a fluff ball, is so great.”
And fun! Because Miss Rakus’ magical class is all about fun, one that her students run into at 7:30 a.m. and begrudgingly depart from at 3 p.m. She has her students name the chicks and invite their “big buddies” in eighth-grade to join in. In 2023, the chicks were named after current Phillies’ players as a nod to Rakus’ diehard devotion to the Fightin’ Phils. The starting lineup included “MVPeep Harper,” “Bohm with a Beak,” “Schwarbs,” “Silly Billy Stott” and “Phillies Phan Trea.” She will use some of her $5,000 prize to purchase a partial 2024 Phillies’ season-ticket plan and to plan a trip with several co-workers to see the team play in London in June. Her students have already started a countdown to opening day.
As the school’s only first-grade teacher charged with the instruction and development of that many students, and with no classroom assistant, you might think that Meghan Rakus would want to, say, fly the coop. Nothing could be further from the truth. She attributes her time at Holy Family with giving her the skills to so capably handle her craft.
“I wanted to be a teacher since I can remember,” she said. “I always heard growing up that Holy Family was the place to go if you wanted to be a good teacher. I remember being in 7th grade, and I knew I would be going to Holy Family because that’s where the good teachers go. I remember not knowing where I wanted to go to high school, but knowing that I wanted to go to Holy Family for college. I was proven right immediately. I was in the first class of the Honors program at Holy Family, and when they offered me the opportunity to be in the Honors program, it was like someone saying, ‘You have the potential to do a lot in your life.’ I think that was the first time that I really heard or felt that. That really opened up a lot of doors for me. I had professors like Fr. Mark Hunt, who was so passionate about what he was teaching. And because of that, I want my students to know that I love what I’m teaching. I had professors like Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Agnew who brought such a sense of peace and calmness to the classroom, and they had such a caring way about them. I wanted to take that, and I wanted to show my students that I cared. I had other professors, like Dr. Kim Heuschkel, who brought a sense of humor to her teaching, and so I wanted to emulate that. They all helped me to expand my horizons. They placed me in schools in Philadelphia and gave me a variety of experiences. They taught me how to do observations, to learn valuable techniques for classroom management, how to teach students to read. They taught me about the importance of research so I am now better equipped in researching for IEPs, keeping up with best practices and what studies are showing, and applying it in my classroom. They said, ‘Now it is your turn.’ It was cool to have those same professors, that I had taken bits of, right there supporting me. Winning this award and sharing the good news with my former professors was a full-circle moment for me. I was honored to tell them that the little 18-year-old that you gave a shot to, did what you told her to do. I credit Holy Family 100-percent with the reason why I am teacher today, because I saw all of them be amazing teachers.”
Rakus also recognizes her good fortune in landing at Saint Mary’s, a high-achieving small school with a big heart whose core message is treat everyone with a kind, caring spirit and in a way that God intended.
“Even though our neighborhood is lovely, we all know you can witness hardships when you are living in Philadelphia,” Rakus said. ‘We encourage our students to put their faith in God and each other, knowing that there is always going to be someone who is looking out for them. Letting our students know that when something goes wrong, we have something to lean on.
“When you are dealing with what you are dealing with and feeling like these lives are on your shoulders, it’s a lot of pressure and a lot of in-take,” she continued. “You are taking in all these emotions, and six-year-olds have a lot of them. It’s a lot of bonding. I see some of my grade partners more than I see my family. I tell them everything about me. No one gets it except them. St. Mary’s has given me something that I know isn’t out there in every school and every school community. That’s why I am so attached to St. Mary’s. Sure, there are times when I feel burnt out or overwhelmed. The piece of advice I have received and hold on to was from the eighth-grade teacher at my school, Judy Crossan-Sanicky, who has been here for 40 years. ‘At the end of the day, you go into your classroom, close the door, and serve your students’.”