Teachers making a difference

As budget constraints force Oregon school districts to shorten school years, increase class sizes and reduce offerings, many families turn to private schools to meet their children’s needs, both scholastic and spiritual. From preschool through college, the teachers profiled here have found a home where they make a difference in students’ lives.

Esther Fischer, Maayan Torah Day School

Esther Fischer has been teaching at Maayan Torah since the day school opened three years ago. The school now serves students in preschool through middle school. Having taught in varied settings for 15 years, Fischer says she has never had a class where her degree in special education has not been useful. “Even in regular education, I’ve always had children with special needs in my classroom … kids who need a little extra help. It’s about redirecting them towards their strength.”

At Maayan Torah, she says her prekindergarten students benefit from the school’s emphasis on being supportive and helping children grow in a positive way. She enjoys the school’s supportive atmosphere for both students and staff. “It’s professional, yet warm. We work collaboratively.”

Fischer believes that her job as a teacher “is to show the children how they impact the world and give them a positive self-image with continuing successes through the day.” “Preschool is a crucial age,” she says. “Children who have time to play with teachers guiding them, work on imagination and critical thinking skills that help them in future years. If it’s just about the ABCs and numbers, they don’t have the opportunity to really build their critical thinking and imagination.” Fischer says the preschoolers do learn letters and numbers, but they also have experiences that create children “who are writing beautiful essays” in later years. One of Fischer’s favorite projects this year was the class’s creation of a Hanukkah book. The book features photos of students looking for a hidden jar of oil and descriptions of where they are looking, such as under the sofa or on the table. The students’ language skills also develop, because after they find the jug of oil, they have to describe where it is without pointing. “They are learning about prepositions and the Hanukkah story,” she says of the project. “We take what they learn and try to make it come alive.” She says students enjoy seeing themselves in the book’s pictures, and the simple, repetitive language enables all of the students to “read” the book.

Chaya Rivkin, Maimonides Jewish Day School

Chaya Rivkin has been teaching for 16 years and has been the rebbetzin of Chabad Hillsboro for the past seven years. At Maimonides Jewish Day School she teaches Hebrew and Judaic studies in second to fourth grade. For parents who cannot afford or choose not to send their children to a Jewish day school through middle school, Rivkin says she thinks even one or two years in the elementary years can have lasting impact on children. “This is not a one-year experience,” she says. “They are skills they will live with for life.”

“The skills we focus on in Hebrew and Chumash are skills that can be applied in English,” she says. Decoding skills and techniques students learn to decipher unfamiliar words are applicable in either language, and the critical thinking skills they develop in Torah study can be applied to all subjects. She says she was attracted to teach at Maimonides because “here what is taught is what is lived. … Torah is a book of lessons for us to live. Every day students are here they learn another lesson for their daily life.” For instance she says children learn how to treat guests from studying how Abraham welcomed guests to his tent. “These lessons will be part of them and be part of their life,” she says. “Kids feel I’m not just coming in to teach them about the holiday, I love it and I live it,” she says. “So they love it and it will become part of them.”

Her favorite project is a daily assignment. “At the end of every day, I ask them to apply what was learned to their life. Every day they learn something new,” she says. She then asks each student to look at the lesson and “apply it to yourself.” “At Maimonides, students get a solid foundation that becomes part of them,” she says. She saw proof of that recently in her role as the rebbetzin in Hillsboro. When she saw a young man at a holiday party saying the blessing before eating, she asked him about his background. Though he went to Maimonides for only two years as a child, “at age 26 it is still very much a part of him.”

Elana Cohn-Rozansky, Portland Jewish Academy

Elana Cohn-Rozansky began teaching in 1988 and has taught off and on in a variety of settings and subjects. She has taught high school English in public schools and served as the middle school Midrasha coordinator at Congregation Beth Israel for 10 years. She began teaching at Portland Jewish Academy in 2002 as a substitute. She says teaching at PJA is “the best of both worlds.” “We have curious students who I know love to learn, and that makes it a joy to teach them,” she says, adding that her outstanding colleagues and the school’s supportive administration make her job a pleasure. “For me personally it is a great combination of my secular and religious school work.”

This year Ms. C-R, as she is known by her students, is the service learning coordinator for PJA, where she is also in her fourth year of teaching sixth-grade humanities. In her service-learning role she coordinates school-wide projects such as donation drives. She serves as a resource for kindergarten through middle school teachers seeking hands-on projects, including many that take advantage of the school’s partnership with Cedar Sinai Park to give students intergenerational experiences. She also teaches one quarter of the eighth-grade Capstone class to help each student develop a service project that ignites his or her passion. Students in the class then spend another quarter writing papers about that project and a third quarter developing a drash that connects their work to Jewish values. “I’m proud of the work I do getting kids involved in the community,” says Ms. C-R.

In her sixth-grade humanities class, she tries to engender an enthusiasm for learning within her students. She says she thinks the imaginative biography she has her class write each year helps students understand how what they do now impacts their future. “They look back on the truth of their first decade and then imagine how their second and third decades will play out,” she explains. “I think it’s the first time they think about their future and how decisions they make now affect their future. I think it resonates with them beyond their years here.”

Paul Martone, Northwest Academy

High school teacher Paul Martone says he believes that making a difference in students’ lives “begins with an appreciation for the difference the students make in my life.” A teacher for nearly 14 years, Martone has spent the past 5½ years at Northwest Academy, an independent middle school and high school in Portland. He teaches senior level English/humanities and senior thesis, as well as creative writing for 9th to 12th grade. One project Martone especially enjoys is the high school’s Visiting Writers Series, which attracts diverse and talented authors to Northwest Academy from every region of the country. For the project, which was launched two years ago, English/humanities teachers read and discuss the visiting authors’ books with the students in advance of each reading. In October Nashville-based poet Marcus Jackson, whose poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Writer’s Almanac and Harvard Review, visited the school. December’s visitor was fiction writer Sarah Gerkensmeyer, a graduate of the MFA program at Cornell University whose debut short story collection won the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

“Our primary goal is to create impactful literary experiences and foster lifelong reading habits,” says Martone. “Students are encouraged to read each visiting author’s book without the burden of quizzes or tests. It’s a thrill to read and discuss a new set of books each year, and then hear the students pose thought-provoking questions to the visiting authors.” Martone says that students are a primary source of inspiration for the faculty at NW Academy, which is why he loves teaching there. “Every teacher and administrator in our community is committed to inspiring students to discover their intellectual and artistic voices in a creative and supportive atmosphere,” he says. “Their observations, questions and insights shape our daily experiences. As an individual participant in the school’s community, I’m also inspired by my colleagues’ devotion to their disciplines, grades 6-12. The school’s administrators, a creative-minded set of innovators and visionaries, have attracted exceptional teachers in every discipline.”

Laurie LePore, Riverdale High School

Riverdale High School science teacher Laurie LePore has made a big impact on her students and the world with her H20 For Life class. RHS is a small public high school, which also enrolls students from outside the small school district. Riverdale’s clean water warriors were invited to the November International Water Conference hosted by Congressman Earl Blumenauer at Portland’s Mercy Corps Center. The H20 for Life class was one of the groups highlighted as water experts, along with Conservation International, Engineers Without Borders, Living Water International, Medical Teams International, Green Empowerment, CARE, ONE.org, Water Africa, Portland State University’s SWEET Lab and Oregon State University. Blumenauer presented LePore with the International Water Leader of the Year award. LePore has influenced many students (future water leaders) in remarkable ways. Following are some student comments about LePore and the class:

• “H2O for Life is a class that is comprised of students who are aware of the global water crisis and are willing to go above and beyond normal class expectations to educate and inspire change in the community while fundraising money for the building of wells, water purification systems and bathrooms in areas of need. … At the end of this year, eight schools
from Africa, the Philippines and India will have new access to water thanks to the H2O class and Mrs. LePore’s dedication.”

• “Being in Ms. LePore’s water class reaffirms the most incredible thing that any youth can believe: that they can make a difference. … Ms. LePore teaches students that from the classroom in Riverdale High School, working in a group of 25 people, they are powerful and their actions have meaning. Knowing that as a teenager gives them hope and creates a feeling of limitless possibilities.”

• “Mrs. LePore is admired because she has dedicated so much of her own time and effort to help this cause. She inspires us not only with her enthusiasm for helping other people gain access to clean water, but also with her encouragement of our individual interests. Being an altruistic, passionate, and motivating educator and mentor, Mrs. LePore serves as a role model for many students.”

Professor Ann Delehanty, Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, Reed College

Reed College Professor Ann Delehanty says she is energized by the students she teaches in Reed College’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. Delehanty joined Reed’s faculty immediately after earning her Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley in 2000. A professor of French and humanities at Reed since then, Delehanty began teaching in the MALS program in 2011. MALS attracts students interested in the “pursuit of wisdom” rather than specialized knowledge. MALS students range in age from the mid-20s to retirement age, and most work full or part time.

“The MALS students amaze me with their ability to bring so much energy to the classroom, even after working a full day at their day jobs,” says Delehanty. “They truly understand the value of learning for learning’s sake, and they want to get the most of each minute of class discussion. Students like this energize a teacher.” She recently taught “Truth and Representation in Early Modern Europe,” which reflects the broad-based subject material presented in MALS. MALS allows professors to truly interact with students, says Delehanty.

“Classroom discussions are at the heart of the MALS experience,” she says. “As the teacher, my role is to facilitate the discussions with key promptings and then let the students take over. They don’t ever take the classroom for granted – they know that if everyone puts work into the conversation, it can be the locus of transformative discussions and collective refinement of great ideas. The classroom becomes a place where one has the ultimate luxury of bouncing ideas off of one another, trying out different interpretations of the text and maybe even getting new perspectives on some of the really big questions.”

Delehanty says she thinks she makes a difference in MALS students’ lives because she listens. “I hope that I can be someone who truly listens to what the students have to say,” she says. “It is rare nowadays to have the time and opportunity to really listen, react and respond to what other people say. The MALS classroom is a place where, I hope, all the students get a chance to hear and be heard.”

MALS student Neil Ramiller thinks Delehanty succeeds in that quest. “As an exemplary practitioner of Reed’s conference method of instruction, Professor Delehanty showed us all how we can, by putting our minds together, always find one more important question to ask about any work of literature, history, art or philosophy. Moreover, time and again she helped us to understand that thinking more deeply about difficult questions is not just hard (and satisfying!) work, it can also be the occasion for camaraderie, humor and personal insight.”

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