2014 Distinguished Teachers Awardees Honored at Princeton University's 267th Commencement

Christa Cordes
East Side High School
At East Side High School in Newark's Ironbound neighborhood, nearly 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and one in five has limited English proficiency. But there are no excuses in the English classes of teacher Christa Cordes. "Yes, her class is difficult. And that's a good thing, especially in a district where students are sometimes allowed to slip through the cracks. There is no slipping in Christa's class," fellow East Side English teacher Carina Rodrigues wrote in a nomination letter. "I have found that her students generally want to succeed because they want to live up to her expectations of them. They don't want to let her down." Cordes, who has been at East Side for 14 years, teaches honors English to freshmen, English III to juniors and Advanced Placement literature to seniors. In the classroom, she links great works to current issues and introduces students to literature that informs their own life experiences. "I am armed against apathy with a crew of characters who emerge from the greatest stories ever told to inspire my students to make good decisions that will have beneficial consequences," Cordes wrote in a personal statement. "This is the joy that I have as a profession." Outside of class, she welcomes students to get extra help during her lunch break or after school. She advises the National Honor Society and helped establish the Sisterhood Club, which was designed to build camaraderie among female students. Austin Verissimo, who was in Cordes' class as a freshman, said the most important thing about Cordes is that she believes in her students. "She would drill into our heads that we, her students, were not meant to fit the typical stereotype of Newark," Verissimo wrote in a nomination letter. "She told us that we were not going to be failures, and that we were not stupid. She saw something in us that not that many other people, other teachers, and even other parents could see. "She knew that we have the potential to do anything we want to do and be just as good as students that attend 'better' schools than East Side."
Luke Dre
Pingry School
"Luke De is a scientist and researcher who fell in love with teaching," Denise Brown-Allen, Upper School director at The Pingry School, wrote in a letter nominating De for the award. De practically grew up in the lab where his father was a Ph.D. student and his mother worked, dazzled by the environment. In an early experiment, he scrambled around on the floor with a ruler, trying to determine if shoes actually strike the ground as people walk. He's done research at Rockefeller University and the University of Cincinnati Genome Research Institute. For the past seven years, De has brought his passion for science and research to The Pingry School, where he teaches biology, honors biology and independent research. Students use state-of-the-art lab equipment he helped procure in lab areas he helped construct. He emphasizes a project-based, student-centered approach. "One example is his curriculum for Honors Biology, "Mechanisms of Cancer," fellow science teacher David Maxwell wrote. "Students explore all honors material — cell cycle, mitosis, meiosis, the genetic basis of inheritance, and so on — through the prism of cancer … . Students learn how to think critically about scientific claims, how to teach others about science, and how to work in groups to solve real-life problems." Members of his Independent Research Team conduct scientific research that has helped students make scientific advances and even secure publications in peer-reviewed journals. "With his help, motivation and guidance, I was able to secure a summer internship at a university where I worked on developing a therapy for metastic prostate cancer," wrote student Abhiram Karuppur. Outside of class, dozens of students gather before school once a week for the Journal Club, reading and discussing scientific publications. Project 80, which De established, works to involve 80 percent of Pingry School students in some aspect of science outside the traditional classroom environment. "I cannot make my students into 5-year-olds who run around labs amazed by glassware," De wrote in a personal statement. "In order to amaze them I expose them to actual literature, to real disease, and to novel science. I tell my students that I trust them with real problems in the world. When they see real science, its intricacies and its power, they too become amazed."
Daniel Foerg-Spittel
Tenefly Middle School
Eighth-graders frequently hear that they need to prepare for the future, so their voices can be heard and their ideas appreciated — later. Foerg-Spittel, who teaches language arts to eighth-graders at Tenafly Middle School, has a different view. "Though it is true that young teens will need to be able to read, write, speak and listen well to ensure future success in high school, college and beyond, they need to sharpen those skills now because they have ideas and concerns and beliefs now. They have voices that must be heard now," Foerg-Spittel wrote in a personal statement. To that end, Foerg-Spittel created the I-Search Project, in which his students choose a topic that interests them and then do research, interview experts, create an outline, write a bibliography and present their work at a conference-style poster session. Topics have ranged from prehistoric sharks to cardiac surgery and how to succeed on the television show "Survivor." For student Jacqueline Dragon, her project on the importance of sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation spurred an interest in medicine that has set her on a path toward medical school. "When Mr. Foerg-Spittel allowed me to explore the topic that interested me, assisted me with finding sources… and prepared me for writing the paper with the vocabulary and grammar he was teaching me in class, he allowed me to discover my passion for science," Dragon wrote in a letter supporting Foerg-Spittel's nomination. Foerg-Spittel, who has spent 27 years in the classroom, has been a teacher at Tenafly Middle School for 18 years. He is the adviser of Limelight, the school literary magazine, and serves on the School Climate–Leadership Committee, which is designed to improve leadership at all levels within the school. Students, fellow teachers and administrators alike come to him for help and advice. "Dan understands that education is not about getting kids to do what you want them to do, but something far deeper," colleague Michele Brisson wrote. "It is about awakening and engaging students and sparking in them a level of investment, responsibility and pride in becoming their own agents of change."
Lily Lee
Northern Valley Regional High School
When Lee first told her Chinese language students at Northern Valley Regional High School about the challenges she faced during the Cultural Revolution in China, they asked if she was angry about the closing of schools. She started to yell out, "Yes!" but hesitated. "Those years of limited education made me appreciate learning and free thought so much more," Lee wrote in a personal statement. "In fact, it was those difficult times that made me realize that I wanted to become a teacher. I came to understand that education is a privilege, and I wanted to be the person to share such a gift." For the past six years, Lee has shared that gift with students at Northern Valley, where she created a program that now offers four years of Chinese language and Advanced Placement Chinese. "Mrs. Lee has single-handedly developed the Chinese program with a focus on providing students with the tools to communicate in Chinese in a culturally appropriate manner," Jim Buoye, world language supervisor for the school district, wrote in a letter supporting her nomination. Beyond the classroom, Lee created the Chinese Club, which has hundreds of members. "She keeps the activities rolling throughout the year with films, Chinese cooking classes, calligraphy lessons and even renting authentic Chinese Zodiac costumes for the students to wear," wrote Arya Safa, an English as a Second Language teacher at the school. Still, for high school freshmen, beginning to study Chinese can be intimidating. So Lee hands each student a red envelope containing a nominal amount of Chinese money. "This honor is usually reserved for close friends and family, so by giving the envelopes to us, Mrs. Lee brought us in as her close family, and promised to guide us through our time in high school, both in and out of the classroom," wrote student Curt Polack. "Receiving this gift on the first day of school made me feel accepted and helped fuel my class's passion for the Chinese language and culture."