Hoboken teacher honored at Princeton

Princeton honors exceptional secondary school teachers

Princeton University honored 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.

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.”

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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.”
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Congrats, Ms. Grygiel!

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