Princeton honors outstanding secondary school teachers

Princeton University will honor four exceptional New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2008 Commencement on Tuesday, June 3.

This year's honorees are Michelle Di Giovanni, Clinton Township Middle School, Clinton; Elsa Matos, Science Park High School, Newark; Justin Smith, Cherokee High School South, Marlton; and Sara Solberg, McNair Academic High School, Jersey City.

The teachers were selected for the award from 81 nominations from public and private schools around the state. Each teacher will receive $5,000 as well as $3,000 for his or her school library.

"This year's awardees are extraordinarily passionate about teaching, and that passion is evident in the degree to which they are willing to devote significant parts of their lives to their work way beyond the boundaries of a school day," said John Webb, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the awards. "They care about young people with a sincerity that earns their students' greatest tribute: trust and admiration."

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected 10 finalists, each of whom was visited at work by an observer. Finalists were selected by a committee chaired by Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and including Webb, two Princeton professors and two external education professionals.

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959. The University received an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program.

Michelle Di Giovanni

In just 10 years as a teacher and six in the Clinton Township School District, Michelle Di Giovanni has become an innovator in the classroom and a leader within the teaching ranks at her school.

Di Giovanni teaches seventh-grade pre-algebra at Clinton Township Middle School and previously taught math and science at Round Valley Middle School in Clinton. One of her strengths is the ability to adapt her teaching methods to the needs of her students, said Clinton principal Gerald Dalton, who nominated Di Giovanni for the award. She does so by applying a variety of styles -- visual and practical, participatory and interdisciplinary -- to reach each student.

"Michelle understands that the varied learning styles and experiences of her students mean that their program must be prescriptive, and she continually seeks new strategies with a never-say-fail attitude," Dalton said.

Di Giovanni is an alumna of Princeton's engineering school who worked in the financial services industry after graduating. Although she came to teaching through an unconventional path, her passion for learning, vision and determination "have distinguished her as a highly reflective and effective educator," Dalton said.

For example, Di Giovanni instituted math journals in her classes last year, stressing the importance of writing across the curriculum along with the accurate use of language within math.

She also collaborated with other teachers to overhaul science fair projects, so that all research and work was done at school. Although teachers had to agree to dedicate more of their own time after school to help students, the projects improved immensely, with students knowing their subjects in greater depth and being more enthusiastic about what they learned.

Grayson Halsted, a student of Di Giovanni's in science and math last year, said she made math exciting and related it to real life. With the science fair, she turned a daunting assignment into something "incredibly cool."

"When we first heard about the science fair, every kid thought it was going to be this huge, impossible task, like learning to fly … ," Halsted said. "Mrs. Di Gi made the entire process easy to manage because she broke it down into phases, as she did in math, and each phase was connected to the last one, and it all made sense when the final projects were finished."

Di Giovanni also has embraced technology, from laptops in the classroom to online lessons and grades, and she has fostered collaboration among teachers in developing the curriculum for their grade level.

"I love the process of teaching and learning," Di Giovanni said. "I enjoy the challenge that comes with dissecting a problem so that all students regardless of their level will truly understand a concept and will create a foundation from which they can continue to build and ultimately be successful in their personal learning process."

Di Giovanni received her bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Princeton in 1993 and earned a master's degree in education from Boston University in 1996.

Elsa Matos

A skilled teacher, adviser and mentor to both students and colleagues, Elsa Matos has become a role model during her seven years at Science Park High School and 17 total years in the Newark Public Schools. She also has become a warm and comforting presence to students, many of whom have complicated and difficult home lives.

Matos teaches honors geometry and Advanced Placement calculus at Science Park, but her responsibilities at the magnet school are much greater. She mentors student teachers and new teachers, is involved with innovations in the curriculum, and serves as an adviser for math clubs, math competitions and the National Honor Society, ensuring that students are in her classroom long after the last bell rings.

" … Many teachers are excellent with content, or good with children, or have the confidence of their peers, or have the experience to look at the curriculum strategically," said Argyrios Milonas, the mathematics and technology department chair at Science Park. Matos works well in all of these dimensions, he said, and combines them artfully to serve her students.

In every situation, colleagues said, Matos works diligently to find the best solution. She works with the pre-calculus teacher to ensure that students are ready for her AP calculus class, in which more than 50 percent of students get a 3 or higher out of 5 on the AP exam. She encourages students to work in groups, so that they learn to communicate and deepen their understanding, share new ideas and become curious about math and its applications.

Matos takes a holistic approach to teaching, considering students' entire educational experience her realm. In her view, her lessons and contributions should extend beyond math concepts.

"Education is not only a preparation for life -- it is also an important phase of life," she said. "Ideally a school is a model for a humane society where students learn to evaluate and reason with compassion to become enlightened participants in our democratic society.  … In any environment, but especially in an urban environment, I feel I must assist students in overcoming all obstacles they encounter to guarantee their success."

Two years ago in geometry class, Raymon Azcona told Matos that he hated math. After a year of her persistent efforts, he left the course with an A and a "new zeal for math."

"With Mrs. Matos, learning has become what it is supposed to be: an adventure, where teacher and students journey through rough concepts together," said Azcona, currently a student in Matos' AP calculus class.

Matos received a bachelor's degree with honors in mathematics and computer science from St. John's University in 1987.

Justin Smith

Justin Smith's vitality, enthusiasm for learning and ability to connect with his students have made him beloved and widely respected after five years at Cherokee High School South in Marlton.

Smith's schedule consists of five sophomore English courses of all levels, including honors, as well as a course in beginner's German. But he also advises the National Honor Society, soccer team and chess club; tutors students for state standardized tests and the SAT; mentors new teachers; and helps the school analyze and shape its curriculum, including adding its first interdisciplinary unit, an English and history class on Frederick Douglass.

Last year, Smith also won teacher of the year honors from his school, district and county.

"He is a champion for all of his students and a standard for all his peers to emulate," said Cherokee assistant principal Ronald Parker. "No one in the history of our school has had a stronger, more positive influence on our students both in the classroom and out."

In Smith's classroom, students have danced to the rhythm of poetic meter, acted out plays and read poetry aloud next to a (faux) fireplace. For former student Matthew Mende, Smith's renaming of his last-period English class to "English club" created a new, relaxed atmosphere, encouraging students to enjoy and contribute to each day's lesson.

Smith's popularity may be based on how much he challenges his students. Kelly Hughes, an honors student, received her first B in Smith's class and found herself changed by Smith's insistence that students provide holistic, well-rounded analyses of literature.

"My mind was no longer a memory source of facts and numbers, but was sparked in curiosity and determination at this new challenge Mr. Smith had presented me. … As a teacher and a listener, Mr. Smith helped me achieve confidence and power in my opinion," Hughes said.

His biggest accomplishments over his 12 years of teaching, Smith said, are his successes in reaching students who have been bullied, depressed or otherwise dealt a difficult set of circumstances, and helping them stay and thrive in school.

In the classroom, Smith focuses on teaching students to generalize their knowledge and skills, to teach them how to learn and explore on their own.

"My students learn that they are always reading situations, people, movies, commercials, in addition to regular texts," Smith said. "They learn to see hidden connections between texts and people, past and present."

Smith earned a bachelor's degree in literary studies from Williams College in 1996, as well as a master's degree in Germanics and teacher certification from the University of Oregon in 1998 and 2001, respectively. He also received a master of fine arts in poetry from Warren Wilson College in 2000 and is working toward a doctoral degree in education at Wilmington University.

Sara Solberg

Sara Solberg's wholehearted, all-day-and-night dedication to teaching has touched her students and colleagues throughout her 17-year teaching career and seven years at McNair Academic High School.

Solberg currently teaches mythology, Shakespeare, French and communication arts at McNair, a magnet school in Jersey City rated one of the best schools in the nation. She also coaches the Academic Decathalon, the Scholastic Bowl team, the Shakespeare student ensemble and the National Vocabulary team.

What bleeds into her school activities are her other passions: from music to cooking, from performances in New York to the annual National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee, from informal weekend field trips with students' families to events hosted in her home. Her resume includes a summer as a fleet cab driver and a stint as a bilingual crossword puzzle maker.

"Sara's style is full immersion," said Donald Delo, the English department coordinator at McNair. "She makes the line between public and private disappear. Students see that learning is not a job or a pastime, but a way of life."
In addition, Solberg has battled cancer twice over the last several years, and even while absent she videotaped lessons, came to school to instruct a substitute teacher, graded papers from home, kept in touch with students via e-mail and kept all six of her courses on track, Delo said.

Of all her talents, Solberg's personal interest in her students has made the biggest impression. Former student Miriam Haier was a sophomore in Solberg's "Shakespeare's Master Works" when she mentioned she had an interest in teaching, and Solberg allowed her to present a lesson on "The Merchant of Venice."

"I will never forget how affirming it was to see my brilliant teacher who I so loved and respected sit down in the back of her own classroom and listen to me. She even took notes," Haier said. "Sara respected me as a capable, independent thinker, so I became one."

To sum up her philosophy of both life and teaching, Solberg relates some advice from her jazz piano teacher.

"One day when I came to the lesson having worked hard on one tune, he wanted me to learn a new tune. I didn't think I could handle a new challenge," she said. "He said, 'Just add it. Just add it to everything else you're doing.' He was right. There was room for a new challenge. There is always room."

Solberg earned a bachelor's degree in history from Barnard College in 1972, a master's degree in French and Romance philology from Columbia University in 1974 and a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia in 1978.