Princeton honors exceptional secondary school teachers

Princeton University will honor four exceptional New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2011 Commencement on Tuesday, May 31.

This year's honorees are Kathleen Chesmel, New Egypt High School, New Egypt; Robert Downes, Mountain Lakes High School, Mountain Lakes; Rachel Grygiel, Hoboken High School, Hoboken; and Donata Nicholas, East Orange Campus High School, East Orange.

The teachers were selected for the award from 64 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.

"What distinguishes this year's winners is their intellectual leadership among their colleagues and in their communities," said Christopher Campisano, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation. "These four outstanding teachers are among the most highly respected members of their respective faculties and administrations -- serving as role models, coaches and mentors. Their absence would be a tremendous loss to the life of each institution. They are a constant and indelible source of inspiration for their students, and they hold fast to the belief that all students can learn to high levels of understanding. They truly represent what is best in the teaching profession, and we have much to learn from their wisdom."

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected 11 finalists, each of whom was visited at work by an observer. Finalists were selected by a committee that was chaired by Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and included Campisano, 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.

Following is information about the honorees:

Kathleen Chesmel

For Kathleen Chesmel, teaching is never simply about making sure students get the right answers. Whether through her work as a celebrated science teacher at New Egypt High School, adviser for the school's drill team or choreographer for the school's annual musical productions, Chesmel approaches each task with the same goal in mind -- to teach students to think independently.

Since coming to New Egypt in 2002, Chesmel has taught both general and honors chemistry, integrated lab science and introductory forensics, approaching each course with a holistic emphasis on the importance of student inquiry, independent growth and individual transformation. Both Chesmel's peers and students alike praise the former research scientist's ability to convert seemingly impenetrable scientific topics into understandable and interesting concepts.

In nominating Chesmel for the award, New Egypt principal Tom Farrell said, "Dr. Chesmel is very open-minded and welcomes new ideas and concepts regularly. She offers students the aptitude to both learn and apply knowledge, along with an enthusiastic approach to her daily responsibilities and objectives."

Patricia Wunsch, director of bands, choirs and musicals, remarked in her nomination letter that Chesmel -- who has helped direct six musical productions and choreographed seven marching band shows -- often incorporates nontraditional methods of teaching, which include integrating the arts "into her chemistry pedagogy." Wunsch added, "Kathy creates lesson plans, review materials and assessments that allow students to integrate elements of music, fine art, theater, dance and digital media."

Chesmel's students recall the myriad projects she has designed over the years to help them learn about chemistry, ranging from making their own commercials to writing raps about polymers.

"Dr. Chesmel did not spoon-feed the answers to me," recalled New Egypt graduate Elisa Tang. "Rather, she taught me the importance of self-sufficiency and researching the answers on my own -- something that I will be expected to do in college, in the workplace and in life."

In espousing her educational philosophy, Chesmel cited her faith in the power of learning through inquiry and her goal to create "learners who can obtain and analyze the information needed to answer the 'whys' and 'hows' of life."

"I strongly believe that there is a difference between remembering a piece of knowledge and being able to use that knowledge in ways to understand new situations," Chesmel said. "To help my students really own their knowledge, I provide opportunities in the classroom for students to ask questions and create their own solutions to well-planned problems, encouraging them to move beyond 'getting the right answer.'"

Chesmel received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton in 1985 and a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991.

Robert Downes

When Robert Downes' students and colleagues describe the Mountain Lakes High School mathematics teacher, the word that comes up most often is "positive."

"Every student wants to be in Mr. Downes' class because he is one of the most positive people any of us have ever met," said Mountain Lakes principal Anne Mucci in nominating Downes for the award. "He greets every student with a cheerful smile, welcomes them into the classroom and makes that portion of the building a very happy place. The unbelievable thing about this feeling is the moment one crosses the threshold into his classroom there is an immediate seriousness of purpose that permeates the air."

It is this fusion of good nature and seriousness of scholarly purpose that has allowed Downes to garner the reputation of being able to transform difficult, sometimes dry mathematical concepts into engaging and exciting intellectual explorations. Since arriving at Mountain Lakes in 1992, Downes has not only challenged the most advanced students, he has also imbued struggling students with previously undiscovered levels of confidence.

Former Mountain Lakes student Christopher Dewing said that Downes "constantly found new ways to encourage all students despite differences in skill level," adding that "Mr. Downes taught class in a way that encouraged us to not only learn math, but to love and understand it."

In addition to teaching AP calculus, AP statistics and honors pre-calculus, Downes also serves as an adviser to the math society, helps coordinate math contests, coaches track and is a Boy Scout troop leader.

Christina Laurenzi, a Princeton sophomore and former student of Downes', recalled being intimidated by the idea of taking one of his classes, having "heard how difficult his classes were, and since math was never my strongest subject." After just two class periods, however, Laurenzi said she was at ease for the rest of the semester.

"Although he wanted his students to succeed and genuinely understand the material, he did not guide us through step by step; rather, he let us take the initiative and chart out our own ways of comprehending," said Laurenzi. "I also learned with time that beneath his somewhat demanding teaching style, Mr. Downes exuded a warmth and openness that made him accessible and very likeable."

Reflecting on his 24 years of teaching, Downes said he has always strived to not only instill in students a love of math, but a sense of how their education in his classroom will extend beyond the academic setting of school and into the world beyond.

Said Downes, "I strive to create an environment where all students can maximize their potential, to address any fears or misconceptions they may have, and to provide them with an experience that will enable them to think critically and become better problem solvers."

Downes received his bachelor's degree in mathematics from Moravian College in 1986, earned his master's degree from California State University-Long Beach in 1991 and has pursued doctoral studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Rachel Grygiel

Teaching in an urban school district, Rachel Grygiel faces challenges that go above and beyond getting students to perform well on tests -- and the Hoboken High School social studies teacher has exceeded expectations.

"In essence, Ms. Grygiel does more with less," Daniel Loughran, Hoboken's supervisor of curriculum and instruction, said. "The respect and admiration she has garnered from students, along with her colleagues and the community at large, comes as a direct result of Ms. Grygiel's insistence that students work hard and that they live up to their potential. A student in Ms. Grygiel's class is always challenged to be his or her best."

Hoboken senior Francis Howitt said Grygiel pushes students with academic rigor as well as entertaining lesson plans and assignments, such as one that involved making interactive family trees that had each student exploring his or her ancestry.

"Ms. Grygiel is a very rare teacher. She understands what needs to be done to excite students about their work," said Howitt. "She always seems to find new ways to implement her lesson plans through fun and interesting activities."

One example of such an activity is Grygiel's "Veteran's Project," in which students are assigned to interview World War II veterans who live in Hoboken, edit the interview footage and then send the mini-documentaries to the Library of Congress.

"It's one thing to read in textbooks what happens during war, but to hear the stories that these veterans told with raw emotions truly touched the hearts of everyone involved," recalled former student Samantha Rotondi. "Ms. Grygiel teaches more than history; she teaches life lessons that will never be forgotten. She teaches you how to become a better person."

Since joining the Hoboken faculty in 2001, Grygiel has excelled at teaching U.S. history and International Baccalaureate history of the Americas, and also has become involved with several initiatives designed to better the school and its surrounding community. For example, she helped establish the International Baccalaureate program at Hoboken and has included the school in an exchange program in which journalists from Europe visit to see what life is like for American high school students.

Grygiel also is coach of the girls' soccer team, adviser for the Hoboken High School Excellence Awards, adviser for the Harvard Model Congress Club, and co-founder and adviser of the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings outreach program at the school.

"Over my 10 years of being an educator, I have learned that the best lessons are the ones that the kids lead," said Grygiel, who earned her bachelor's degree in history from Georgetown University in 1998 and her master's degree in administration and supervision from St. Peter's College in 2005.

"Whether it's a writing assignment, video documentary or group discussion, you have to put the power in their hands," she said. "Some days I accomplish this by feigning ignorance; other days it is done genuinely by sharing my curiosity, while on others it is done by learning right alongside my students in order to hook them. And there's nothing quite like the energy of a classroom when the students are running the program."

Donata Nicholas

Teaching high school chemistry and physics comes ready-made with its own unique challenges. When those challenges are combined with supporting an underserved population, it takes a teacher like Donata Nicholas of East Orange Campus High School to overcome them.

"What I believe to be her truly invaluable contribution to the science department is her desire to create bridges that connect our school community and the world science community," said Asha Parayanthal, chair of the school's science department.

"She truly believes that our students deserve the best, most challenging comprehensive science program that can be offered," Parayanthal added. "Ms. Nichols works tirelessly to understand her students' strengths and weaknesses and to build connections with them that will allow her to challenge them to acquire the skills they need to not only be successful in the classroom but in life."

Nicholas joined the East Orange faculty in 2003, focusing her teaching skills on both honors and college prep courses in chemistry and physics. In nominating Nicholas for the award, fellow East Orange teacher David Mwangi said that on more than one occasion he has "been moved by her success in engaging the students and the excellent relationship she has cultivated with them," adding that Nicholas "is so selfless that she meets with struggling students after school hours for tutoring and extra help. I have seen firsthand the way her students respect and hold her in high regard."

Nicholas has also taken significant steps toward broadening the scientific education experience at East Orange. For example, she initiated the Advanced Placement chemistry program at the high school during her first full year of teaching. Also, during the 2009-10 school year, Nicholas initiated a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) seminar series in which local scientists discussed their research.

To enhance her knowledge of new and innovative content areas and teaching strategies, Nicholas recently participated in two New Jersey teaching development programs, including one focused on using robotics in medicine.

Erika Clerjuste, a senior at East Orange, said, "As a young adult preparing to enroll in college next year, I realize that the best teachers are not the ones who accept you as you are, but the ones who accept you for what they believe you can be. Ms. Nicholas is by far the most patient and encouraging teacher I have come across during my high school career."

Nicholas, who received her bachelor's degree from the University of Delaware in 1986 and her master's degree in teaching from Montclair State University in 2009, said, "What makes me a successful teacher beyond my high level of engagement and concern for the East Orange community is my constant acquiring of new skills and knowledge. I am a learning teacher."