Princeton to honor four secondary school teachers

Princeton University will honor four exceptional New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2012 Commencement on Tuesday, June 5.

This year's honorees are Daniel Kaplan, Matawan Regional High School, Aberdeen; Dana Maloney, Tenafly High School, Tenafly; Enzo Paterno, Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies, Edison; and Victorina Wasmuth, Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School, Jersey City.

The teachers were selected for the award from 75 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.

"The four teachers we honor with this award reflect the very finest teachers in the profession today. Combined, these outstanding teachers have nearly 75 years of classroom experience, and we have much to learn from their wisdom," said Christopher Campisano, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation. "They serve as a constant reminder that the foundation of all learning is built on the student/teacher relationship, and they hold fast to the belief that all students deserve a quality education."

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected eight finalists, each of whom was visited at work by a member of the program staff. Award winners were selected by a committee that was chaired by Dean of the College Valerie Smith and included Campisano, three members of the Princeton faculty, a school superintendent and a state education official.  

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

"By serving as role models, mentors and coaches, these remarkable teachers are an indelible source of inspiration to all current and future teachers," Campisano said.

Teachers honored this year are:

Daniel Kaplan

When classes end on Friday afternoons at Matawan Regional High School, the halls empty quickly as students and teachers begin their weekend. But the Physics Club draws a crowd to Daniel Kaplan's classroom, where students tackle projects and prepare for competitions.

Kaplan earned a doctorate in physics from Princeton in 1982, and has 25 years of experience in industry and two patents to his credit. For the past seven years, he has combined that experience with a passion for teaching to transform physics from an abstract subject to a hands-on experience for students at Matawan.

"It is easy to motivate those students who want to learn, who have the parental support and the competitive edge to place value on education," Matawan Principal Michele Ruscavage wrote in nominating Kaplan for the award. "It is the students who are unmotivated, disillusioned and have difficulty understanding the value of an education that energize Daniel to excel in his teaching strategies."

Kaplan, who earned a bachelor's degree in physics from the State University of New York at Albany in 1977, said his approach to teaching was influenced by his work in industry, where he saw that human interactions were key to successful scientific exploration.

"My approach to teaching provides my students with a number of opportunities for both individual breakthroughs and, more importantly, a chance to achieve these magical moments of a shared group success," he said.

He exposes students to a range of hands-on lab experiments, some challenging students to achieve a specific target and others that encourage them to discover important principles on their own.

Former student Asher Wasserman wrote that Kaplan's success is a product of "his dedication, his charisma and his love of teaching."

"He created an environment where the goal was not to get a grade or to memorize equations, but to learn about physics through building projects like bridges or racecars," Wasserman wrote. "This concept, that physics is something inherently fun and beautiful, is part of what has led me to study physics in college, and for this inspiration I am truly grateful."

Dana Maloney

Literature is alive and the traditional term paper is dead in Dana Maloney's classes at Tenafly High School.

After Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010, Maloney developed a unit that asked students to study fiction and nonfiction on the country, to listen to Haitian folk tales and to write cards that were translated into French and delivered to Haitian schoolchildren. The project ended with a challenge for students to find the links in the different works and to think about solutions to problems in the world.

"What distinguishes Ms. Maloney from other effective English teachers is her ability to keep making her work new and relevant to her students' lives," wrote Michael Cohen, the district's K-12 supervisor of English, in recommending Maloney for the award. "Moreover, when she develops a new unit or a new assignment for her students, it is always tied clearly to what I would identify as the ultimate goals of her teaching — namely to promote her students' ability to take independent lines of inquiry, to think critically and creatively, and to become socially responsible young men and women."

Maloney teaches classes on world literature, English composition and creative writing at Tenafly High School, where she has worked for 21 years. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Duke University in 1987 and a master's degree in English from William Paterson University in 1995.

A student's passing comment several years ago about the limits of the traditional term paper led Maloney to challenge herself — and her students — to rethink the high-school standby. The result is the "inquiry and action" project, which encourages students to study and work to address real-world problems such as global warming, racial profiling and depression in teenagers.

"In the 21st century, the possibilities for extending reading and writing beyond the limits of the printed book or student paper change the way we teach and learn," Maloney said. "Literature can enable and empower us to read the world — and act in the world."

Perhaps the most commonly utilized word in Ms. Maloney’s vocabulary is “more,” wrote student Maxwell Klausner.

"In every situation of critical thinking and creative drafting, she pushes her students never to settle for average, but rather to exceed satisfactory effort and reach our highest levels of ability," Klausner wrote.

Enzo Paterno

Enzo Paterno was one of the architects of Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies, where 150 students take challenging engineering-technology courses for four years, in addition to other rigorous classes.

Paterno developed an electronics and computer engineering technologies curriculum that includes lectures on engineering theory and concepts, along with lab experiments, hands-on activities and projects. Paterno taps his industry experience, 10 years in the classroom and a high-energy teaching style to help prepare students for today's global workplace.

"Enzo treats his students as young engineering professionals," wrote Paul Munz, who was principal at the school, in nominating Paterno for the award. "Students are constantly challenged to think critically and to apply all of the academic and technological tools they have at their disposal to solve real-world practical problems."

The capstone of the four-year engineering curriculum is a senior project that challenges students to conceptualize and create a new product. The project simulates industry practices by including design reviews, seminars, progress reports and a detailed engineering notebook. 

"This project was carefully designed by Mr. Paterno to help students think independently, learn skills of analysis and make real-world decisions on products based on cost and efficiency," wrote Saswathi Natta, a graduate of the school who is now a junior electrical engineering major at Princeton.

Recent projects have included a security system that unlocks using a personal identification number coupled with a pressure-sensitive device activated by foot, and an electronic medical interface that wirelessly transfers heartbeat, lung function and temperature information from a patient to a remote doctor's cell phone.

Paterno said he is driven by the need to prepare students for the future.

"Students need to differentiate themselves in order to compete effectively in today's world environment," Paterno said. "Mastering problem-solving skills provides one of those differentiators that will give our students a better chance to achieve their academic and career goals."

Paterno earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Polytechnic University (now Polytechnic Institute of New York University) in 1984 and a master's degree in the discipline from Polytechnic in 1987.

Victorina Wasmuth

Math is much more than numbers and variables in Victorina Wasmuth's classroom at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City.

"She begins her A.P. (Advanced Placement) calculus classes by declaring that calculus is the study of change," McNair Principal Edward Slattery wrote in a nomination letter. "She understands math as a language that explains how reason works if you have the patience to go step by step, that math is a way the brain makes sense of the world."

Wasmuth's teaching career spans 30 years, and for the past 17 she has been helping students at McNair use math to make sense of the world. Along with teaching calculus and algebra, Wasmuth advises the National Honor Society, helps guide the admissions process at the magnet school and created the Epsilon Club, where students tutor their peers in math.

Mixing pinpoint preparation with a well-honed sense of students' comprehension, Wasmuth keeps trying new approaches until her students are on track. Math, she wrote, is not a spectator sport.

"I expect my students to engage in discussions, blackboard work, guided lectures, solving word problems, hands-on activities, using technology, cooperative work and class presentations," Wasmuth wrote.

Among the results: Last year, all 22 of her students who took the A.P. calculus exam earned a 5, the test's top score.

"Through her example and instruction, we learn to approach problems with a balance of logic and creativity," wrote student Jennifer Tang. "We learn that while every problem might not have a direct answer, every question has something to teach us."

McNair English teacher Holly Smith wrote that the lessons of Wasmuth's success are no secret.

"You must work hard. You must care about the work you are doing. You must trust those you work alongside," Smith wrote. "You must do your work with integrity (and) accountability, and always make it a reflection of yourself and your personal best."

Wasmuth earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education from the University of the Philippines in 1971 and 1976, respectively, and a certification in mathematics from St. Peter's College in 1991.