Dakota teacher wins countywide diversity award

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published January 28, 2015

 At the Interfaith Center for Racial Justice’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Dakota High School on Jan. 19, Dakota social studies teacher Dr. Monica Eraqi gets ready to receive the 2015 “Rise Beyond the Horizon” Mel Miller Memorial Award.

At the Interfaith Center for Racial Justice’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Dakota High School on Jan. 19, Dakota social studies teacher Dr. Monica Eraqi gets ready to receive the 2015 “Rise Beyond the Horizon” Mel Miller Memorial Award.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Dr. Monica Eraqi wants students to leave her social studies classes with a greater understanding of the world and all the people living in it.

Eraqi, who is now in her ninth year of teaching at Dakota High School, is known for her efforts to bring greater cultural awareness and an international perspective to every student who enters her classroom. At Dakota, she teaches U.S. History, Economics and a course that she developed herself seven years ago: Modern Middle East.

“I feel like diversity really helps bring people together, and it’s a great way of breaking down the stereotypes that still exist in American society,” said Eraqi, 31, of Shelby Township. “Unfortunately, the only thing that kids today tend to learn about Arab-Americans is in the context of events like 9/11. I want my students to see more than that, to get the whole picture. By bringing multiculturalism to class, my goal is for them to better understand other people’s beliefs and customs.”

In that spirit of telling a more complete story, Eraqi also tries to infuse her American history lessons with elements that go beyond the typical narrative provided in high school textbooks.

“History should not just be about dead men and the wars that they fought,” she said. “Average people, women, minorities — what were they doing at the time? For me, it’s all about helping students connect with history on a personal level.”

Eraqi’s forward-thinking approach to teaching recently earned her some recognition across all of Macomb County. On Jan. 19, during the Interfaith Center for Racial Justice’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration — held at Dakota for the second straight year — Eraqi received the 2015 “Rise Beyond the Horizon” Mel Miller Memorial Award. The award, named after a former Macomb Intermediate School District (MISD) consultant, was created to recognize a K-12 teacher for “serving as an advocate for social change by bringing to the classroom extraordinary practices that help students understand, analyze and make decisions that promote positive social interactions.”

According to Judith Pritchett, chief academic officer for the MISD, Miller was a social studies consultant with the district for 22 years before he died in September 2006. He was known for being active in numerous local, state, and national organizations and committees, and for receiving many honors for his work in education. With the Mel Miller Memorial Award, each year the MISD assembles a small committee to evaluate the nominations that it receives for teachers all over the county in order to choose the most deserving winner.

“Mel was a wonderful teacher and consultant who taught a diverse array of subjects,” Pritchett explained. “What we try to do is recognize teachers who are helping their students become more well-rounded individuals, and a lot of that involves learning about different cultures and philosophies. Even if we don’t completely agree with other people’s way of doing things, we can at least try to understand where they’re coming from.”

Eraqi admitted that she had never heard of the Mel Miller Memorial Award before the MISD contacted her in December to inform her that she was this year’s winner.

“I was really shocked when I got that letter,” she recalled. “I didn’t really believe it at first — I thought there must be some sort of mistake. But it’s an amazing honor. There’s no greater honor than being recognized by your own colleagues for the work that you do.”

According to Dakota principal Paul Sibley, Eraqi was nominated for the award by a fellow social studies teacher Angela LoPiccolo. He stated that the administrative team at Dakota feels very fortunate to have Eraqi working there.

“Monica is an absolutely incredible educator,” he said. “She is the epitome of professionalism. She’s one of those teachers who students flock to, where they will take any of the courses that she teaches. Her combination of passion for social studies and passion for student success makes her quite an impressive woman. She is as deserving as anyone could possibly be for this award.”

Sibley believes that Eraqi’s international background — which involves a lifetime spent traveling to, and studying in, countries all over the world — greatly contributes to her teaching abilities.

“It’s very important for our kids to have a strong knowledge and understanding of western culture, as well as nonwestern culture,” he said, “and Monica can speak directly to a lot of those issues because she has experienced them firsthand.”

Although Eraqi was born and raised in the U.S., her father is originally from Egypt and her mother hails from Slovakia. Growing up, she would often spend her summer vacations visiting those two countries, which she said became like “second homes” to her. Along the way, she learned to speak Arabic and a little bit of Slovak, the latter of which gives her a basic understanding of other Slavic languages like Polish and Serbo-Croatian. This skill has paid dividends in the classroom, where she is able to better communicate with some of her English as a second language (ESL) students.

Eraqi holds bachelor’s degrees in history and political science, as well as a master’s degree in teaching, from Oakland University. She also has an education specialist degree in curriculum and instruction with a concentration in ESL from Wayne State University, and a doctor of education degree in curriculum and instruction with a concentration in multicultural education from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In addition, she is a national board-certified social studies teacher and has studied abroad in places like Egypt, the Czech Republic, Turkey and South Korea.

Besides her work in the classroom and time spent mentoring students of diverse backgrounds, Eraqi is a published author who has written several articles and book chapters, including one about the importance of incorporating Arab-American literature in U.S. schools. She also works with the Arab-American National Museum as a lecturer and curriculum adviser, and has given presentations on multicultural education at Western Michigan University and in Ann Arbor Public Schools.

“Last year, I actually taught for a semester at Madonna University, but I realized that I enjoy being around high school students,” she noted. “Adults are great to teach, and I enjoy doing that, but high schoolers are so much fun to be around, and they’re so passionate about so many different things. They’re what keep pulling my heart back to this place (Dakota).”

Winning the Mel Miller Memorial Award seems like proof that her heart is guiding her along the right path. Still, even though she has amassed a long and prestigious résumé at a young age, Eraqi made one thing clear: She’s not even close to being done yet.

“I sort of feel undeserving of being recognized for an award like this,” she said. “I feel like there’s just so much more that I still want to do in my career. But I’m very, very humbled by this whole experience, and I really hope I can live up to it.”