The 2017 Big Apple Award recipients were chosen from a pool of more than 7,800 nominations, representing a diversity of grade levels, subject areas, and each of the five New York City boroughs. In addition to continuing their outstanding work in the classroom, these model educators will also serve as Big Apple Fellows during the 2017-18 school year.
Nina Berman, Early Childhood Education Teacher, LYFE Program at Pathways to Graduation Downtown Brooklyn (79Q952)
As a Living for the Young Family through Education (LYFE) program teacher, Nina Berman understands the importance of building strong family connections to keep student parents motivated toward completing their high school education. Ms. Berman’s own personal experience balancing the demands of parenthood and her own educational goals informs her approach to and passion for her work as a LYFE early-childhood educator. In this role, she works with a classroom of 18 toddlers or infants plus their teenage parents. Ms. Berman began teaching as a paraprofessional in the LYFE program when she was 18 years old, and became a full-time classroom teacher in the program nine years ago. She working her way through college and earned her master’s degree in early childhood education during a time when she adopted her brother’s two young children and had two biological children of her own.
“No matter what curriculum I’m using or effective teaching practices I’m engaging in, none of it would matter if I didn’t get the infants and toddlers into my classroom,” Ms. Berman explains. “I realized I needed to find innovative ways to connect and engage families with the goal of increasing the attendance of both student parents and their children.” She identified an app that allowed her to interact with parents on a daily basis through social media, posting photos, quotes, and resources to keep parents engaged. The app was so successful it was adopted program-wide for use in all LYFE classrooms. Working with the DOE’s youngest students, Ms. Berman helps to build “the foundation for a love of learning and success.”
Nicole Chu, Middle School English Language Arts Teacher, The Computer School, Upper West Side (03M245)
Nicole Chu’s philosophy of teaching was greatly influenced by the teachers who encouraged her to use the power of her own voice to make a difference in her community. As an English Language Arts teacher for sixth through eighth grade, she wants to inspire her students to love reading and writing and creates ways for her students to recognize their value and importance in their community. Students share “glows and grows” after each essay that they then apply to their next writing assignment. For Socratic Seminars, students grade themselves and their peers with student-created rubrics to track their critical reading and discussion techniques. Their end-of-year “advice letters” to incoming students demonstrates their self-awareness as life-long learners. She encourage students to become their own experts so they don’t see her as the only “authority” in the room.
Ms. Chu empowers her students by expanding their learning beyond the limits of their classroom. Three years ago, Ms. Chu took the initiative to start the “all school meeting” where a rotating group of 8th grade leaders and faculty facilitators meet monthly to discuss important issues that students want to address in their school. Students create poems, speeches, or skits around topics like being true to yourself, being proactive, or Black History Month and present them to the entire school community.
Damen Davis, Sixth Grade English Language Arts Teacher, I.S. X303 Leadership & Community Service, Morris Heights (09X303)
Damen Davis takes a holistic view of teaching, informed by his own experience attending a New York City public school. “My desire to give back to New York City students stems from knowing what our students need to be successful in the world,” he explains. “Having lived in similar housing projects and communities as my kids, I am able to authentically connect with them to help meet challenges of today’s world.” Mr. Davis realized that many of his students also struggled in elementary school, with poor attendance and a history of behavioral challenges. To overcome these challenges, he focused on building meaningful relationships to help lift student confidence. Mr. Davis reaches out to school support staff, contacted his students’ elementary teachers and coaches, and met with parents at their homes and in the community. He even regularly wakes up early to knock on students’ doors to ensure they get to school on time. Mr. Davis notes, “When our most vulnerable students show up, they need to be greeted with energy and appreciation, because just getting to school might be the most difficult part of their day.
Mr. Davis is the 6th grade’s lead ELA teacher, helping to design the school’s curriculum and incorporating the Hochman writing program across grade levels. He has also created a network of middle school special education teachers throughout his district to collaborate on best practices.
Sandra Fajgier, Pre-Kindergarten Teacher, The School of Journeys, Windsor Terrace (15K280)
Sandy Fajgier exemplifies best-teaching practices in early childhood instruction. Ms. Fajgier classroom is a model for other pre-kindergarten programs because of the carefully curated materials – including many handmade items – used to spark the minds and imaginations of her students. Ms. Fajgier works alongside her students through child-led studies where students are encouraged to questions, problem solve, record and act on their world. In her classroom, she says, “Every child is a protagonist, not an empty vessel waiting to be filled.”
Ms. Fajgier asks questions of the students and models for students how to ask questions of each other, while gently reminding them how to treat each other. Her feedback enabled students to ask and answer questions in full sentences, and to treat their classmates with respect. As one parent shared about Ms. Fajgier, “She is an extremely talented, dedicated teacher with an inspiring classroom that is always fresh with new inquiries and activities. She is always fully engaged with her students and knows how to collaborate with each student on an individual level by tuning into their unique skills and abilities, setting them up for success.” As a Peer Collaborative Teacher and a frequent contributor to the United Federation of Teachers paper and “Medium” blog, Ms. Fajgier regularly shares her teaching practices beyond the classroom through workshops and intervisitations.
Marisol FitzMaurice First Grade Teacher, Concourse Village Elementary School, Concourse Village (07X359)
Marisol FitzMaurice began teaching 15 years ago because she wanted to change the lives of the young students in the Bronx, where she grew up. She says, “I believe that my compassion for young children and enthusiasm for learning creates an attitude that influences my students to want to learn and become critical thinkers.” Her students can often be found sitting in a “fishbowl” formation, sharing strategies they used to solve a problem and providing feedback to one another. Each year, Ms. FitzMaurice plans multicultural celebrations and publishing parties to recognize students’ growth and engage family members.
Ms. FitzMaurice encourages her students to be active participants in their learning by fostering independence. “I believe that there has to be a reason behind what you teach and why it is important,” she explains, “in order to ensure that students take responsibility for their academic success.” Her students are involved in all facets of the learning process, from organizing books and classroom materials, to clearly articulating their assessment criteria, to providing regular verbal feedback. This gives students the foundation to take responsibility for their academic successes at an early age. Students are also responsible for reinforcing various academic strategies to their peers during independent work times.
Stephanie Flete, Fourth Grade Mathematics Teacher, Urban Scholars Community School, Morrisania (12X463)
Students in Ms. Flete’s math class engage in challenging math activities and share their problem solving skills through open dialogue with their peers. She developed a “post-it” feedback system in which students receive specific, immediate feedback on what to correct or change before their work is completed. She also introduced interactive mathematics notebooks to her school community, a tool that has helped to provide not only her students with additional support in math, but parents and guardians as well. “No matter how strong your classroom management is or how positive a classroom culture is, there is always room for growth and support,” she reflects.
Serving as a Model Teacher at her school, Stephanie Flete works tirelessly to find innovative ways to provide quality instruction for her students and to share her best practices with her school community. Ms. Flete’s classroom is regularly visited by teachers, principals and school leaders from across the city, and she frequently facilitates professional development sessions for her school district. Ms. Flete develops social-emotional supports for her students, given the high incidence of trauma and emotional issues confronting her students, one-third of whom reside in temporary housing. Ms. Flete believes, “Every teacher should have a social/emotional toolkit to address students with these needs.”
Mauricio Gonzalez, Science/Career and Technical Education- Marine Biology Teacher, Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, Governors Island (02M551)
Having dedicated the early part of his professional career to conservation research, Mauricio Gonzalez has come to understand the vital role of science to protect and restore our natural environment. As a dedicated scientist with true passion for his subject matter, he challenges his students to solve real-world problems, restore their natural heritage, and connect with today’s new economy and democratic society. As a result, students take ownership of their education and believe they can change the world.
Under Mr. Gonzalez’s direction students are given relevant, real world environmental problems to solve independently and are taught to ask probing questions and research before making decisions. This hands on learning approach is especially engaging as student gain independence and confidence. They are engaged in projects that matter to them: protecting and improving the rivers of New York. To gain valuable career readiness skills, Mr. Gonzalez helps to secure internships for students with numerous organizations and research institutions. Last year alone, his students worked over 1,200 hours. They have been awarded grants to study long term water quality trends in the Upper New York Bay for the EPA, the effects of various construction materials on the biodiversity of the Harlem River for CIVITAS Citizens, and the effects of ecologically friendly concrete for the ECOncrete Company based out of Israel. Students have also received the Gates Millennium Scholarship for their work on restoring eel grass to the New York Harbor.
Michelle Jennings, Middle School Science Teacher, Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy, East Flatbush (18K763)
Michelle Jennings became a teacher to foster a love science and guide students to find their passions. As a first-generation Haitian-American, she understands the doors that a good education can open for her students. Her current student population and community are of Caribbean and African-American descent, with some students the first in their families to go to school in America. Preparing her students academically for high school will provide students the skills that they will need to succeed in the 21st century, changing their lives and the lives of their families forever.
Ms. Jennings has demonstrated that she is truly engaged in her school community to have a positive impact on the lives of her students. She serves as a mentor teacher, has been selected to be an Urban Advantage Lead Teacher, and was recently selected as one of five teachers to win the 2017 "Excellence In Education Award" presented at UN Headquarters during the annual CTAUN conference. “My goal is to impact 5,000 students before my teaching career ends,” she says. “I want everyone to know that I was here and I made a difference. I want my students to be able to pass their learning forward.”
Gregg Kwarta, Fifth Grade Teacher, P.S. 232 The Lindenwood School, Lindenwood (27Q232)
“A teacher’s true success is not measured by how children grow in the classroom, but by how you affect their growth outside the classroom and their values and actions.” That philosophy guides Gregg Kwarta in both his teaching practices and his dedication to his students. Before the school year begins, Mr. Kwarta sends summer “welcome” postcards to his new students. During the school year, his “TEAM 504” monthly newsletters highlight every student in his classroom, making them feel special and essential. Mr. Kwarta’s classroom reflects the continuous balance of academic expectations and the social and emotional support he provides to each of his students. “It is not enough to tell students that there is a correlation between effort and success, they must experience it.” Students trust that Mr. Kwarta will provide them with every opportunity to be successful. As one student put it, “Mr. Kwarta never gives up on me. He keeps pushing me until I get it.”
Recognizing the impact student attendance was having on his students’ academic performance, Mr. Kwarta set out to address the issue of student lateness and attendance head on by first understanding the root cause. He improved punctuality and attendance by organizing class walking groups and even offering to walk students to school. He changed his morning subject schedule so students who were late would not miss a lesson for the same subject every day. Parents embrace Mr. Kwarta’s philosophy and value his feedback, support, and recommendations for their children.
Jae Lee, High School Foreign Language-Korean Teacher, Bayside High School, Bayside (26Q495)
Jae Lee teaches Korean language to Korean heritage and non-heritage students at Bayside High School in Queens, where he has worked for the past 13 years. Out of 130 students in his classes, 94 students are non-heritage students with varied linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. As an immigrant and a learner of English, Mr. Lee understands the challenges students face learning a new language and he strives to make it accessible to all students. He believes that any student can learn with the right kind of instructional and emotional support, which has served him well navigating his students’ wide range of language proficiency. Mr. Lee also connects his students to experiential learning opportunities through his role as a Work Based Learning Coordinator.
To engage students who might otherwise initially lack interest in learning Korean, Mr. Lee has also stablished multiple partnerships and Korean cultural events that are now integral to the Bayside High School community. This includes partnerships with Korean community organizations, such as the Korean Education Center, which provided a grant to help fund his multi-media classroom and student laptops; the Korean consulate, which finances students' yearly trips to Korea; and the Korean Writers Association, whose members participate in monthly book talks with students. He also created the Bayside Lunar New Year celebration. Mr. Lee dedicates himself to demonstrating that Korean culture can be beneficial and fun to learn.
Michelle Lee, Fifth Grade Dual-Language Teacher, P.S. 163 Flushing Heights, Kew Gardens Hills (25Q163)
A New York City teacher for 11 years, Michelle Lee is a bilingual teacher in a Mandarin/English dual language program. Ms. Lee faced the challenge of shaping a Chinese language curriculum that is aligned with the English curriculum. She set to bridge the gap, writing her own Chinese dual language literacy curriculum and developing Chinese Language Arts performance tasks for the Office of Periodic Assessment to design Common Core-aligned Chinese assessments for grades three through five with rubrics and scoring guide. By creating content-based lessons that address real-life situations, both English Language Learners and Chinese Language Learners learn a new language in a meaningful way.
“Many of my students are newcomers to the United States,” Ms. Lee shares. “Students learn best in a positive and warm environment, so I want them to feel safe and comfortable in my classroom, and understand that everyone needs to be respected.” Ms. Lee is the lead teacher at PS163Q and a senior mentor for new teachers. She is a distinguished Queens College professor for Dual Language and has been invited to speak at a national conference regarding her curricular work. Ms. Lee also started a spelling bee contest for PS163Q, where students were encouraged and inspired to take on challenges to expand their vocabulary.
Amie Robinson, Special Education Visual Arts Teacher, P.S. K077, Park Slope (75K077)
Amie Robinson became an art teacher because she found art to be the easiest way to express herself and communicate with others. For the past 13 years, starting as a NYC Teaching Fellow, Ms. Robinson’s visual arts instruction has given students with diverse learning and communication needs a way to express themselves and tap their creativity while gaining independence and self-confidence. She says, “It’s really important to have vehicles for students to express themselves and grow as artists.” Ms. Robinson’s art curriculum has had a positive impact on the school because it connects the entire school community. Students create artistic pieces stemming from their areas of interest, and see their work displayed and showcased. A recent logo design contest displayed student work in the hallways at PS K077; the school community was invited to vote and dialogue with students about their designs.
Her students have won borough and citywide awards in the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition numerous times, and have had their artwork exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn and Queens art museums, Brooklyn Public Library, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Ms. Robinson observes that her challenging assignments turn “I can’t” into “I can,” and sees those accomplishments translate into further academic and personal success.
Mike Rosario, Seventh and Eighth Grade Physical Education Teacher, P.S. 279 Captain Manuel Rivera, Jr., Fordham Heights (10X279)
Mike Rosario instills a love of movement in his students that he hopes they will carry with them throughout their lives. Mr. Rosario’s dedication over his twenty years of teaching at P.S. 279 goes beyond the classroom, and is evident in his commitment to the wellness of his students. In short, his teaching does not end when students exit the gymnasium. “To me, teaching physical education is more than what many consider ‘gym class,’”, he explains. “I take pride in being able to teach the whole child and give them skills that can help them be successful throughout their lives.” He teaches his students to be respectful of self and others, as well as to be cooperative both inside and outside of his class.
Students are motivated to exercise and be fit under Mr. Rosario’s direction, with over 60% of his students participating in his fitness and athletic programs that take place both before and after school. His impact on the school community is evident in the awards and accolades displayed throughout the halls that recognize the achievements of students and the teams that Mr. Rosario has coached. Many of these students go on to play high school sports and then attend college.
Raya Sam, Sixth Grade Mathematics ICT Teacher, Hamilton Grange Middle School, Hamilton Heights (06M209)
Raya Sam came to the United States in the first grade as a refugee from Cambodia. Ms. Sam’s experience with a caring teacher who helped her adjust to her new home inspired her to become a teacher. She has now been teaching in the DOE for 13 years, including at Hamilton Grange Middle School since it opened three years ago. In addition to teaching and facilitating IEP meetings across the school, Ms. Sam founded and coaches the school’s cheerleading team, and edits their annual yearbook and school newspaper. She uses these opportunities to teach life skills such as fundraising, time management, prioritization, and responsibility, as well as developing students’ writing and creativity.
Students in Ms. Sam’s classroom learn how to explain their thought processes on paper using mathematical reasoning, and then build on that by learning to edit their peers’ responses. “I allow kids to make mistakes and share out what happened,” she explains. “They need to learn how to avoid being scared of those mistakes.” Last year, her seventh grade students’ proficiency on the state math exam nearly doubled from their previous year. Ms. Sam’s principal observes, “Students enter her classroom with purpose and pride, because they know that she will demand their full attention and effort during all 90 minutes.”
Ryuma Tanaka, English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher, I.S. 145 Joseph Pulitzer, Jackson Heights (30Q145)
Ryuma Tanaka can personally relate to his culturally and linguistically diverse student population, which represents 15 different countries from four different continents. As the son of an immigrant single mother, Mr. Tanaka connects his own experiences of being bilingual and bicultural with those of his immigrant students, many of whom are new to the United States. Mr. Tanaka works to empower his students while appreciating the experiences that may affect them socially, emotionally and academically. He reinforces to his ELLs students that they are not "English deficient", but are becoming bilingual, and will be twice as valuable in college and job markets once they master English.
He creates these student bonds by learning about their native cultures and languages. Mr. Tanaka spent the past three summers as a Fulbright scholar traveling to Punjab, Bangladesh, Calcutta, and Costa Rica to take language classes in Punjabi, Bengali, and Spanish. His students' faces light up when he speaks their native tongues. His ability to speak conversational Spanish has enabled him to develop stronger relationships with parents, and lower the anxiety of newcomers. “When students feel that their teacher cares about their culture and language, then a trusting relationship can be built with them,” Mr. Tanaka explains. "This bond is the foundation of my students' ability to become active learners who are responsible for their academic success.”
Alberto Toro, Middle School Instrumental Music Teacher, I.S. 007 Elias Bernstein, Staten Island (31R007)
Alberto Toro knows the power of music education in shaping his students’ love of music and the positive impact it can have on their overall learning. Mr. Toro cites his high school band director as a major influence in his decision to become a teacher because that early instruction not only taught Mr. Toro how to read and play music, but he also learned about culture, history, integrity and character. “I always strive to create a classroom environment where my students freely express themselves musically and verbally,” he says. Most of the students who come to Mr. Toro’s classroom for the first time have limited knowledge of music or performance experience. After a few months, their level of listening, discipline, and performance ability increases. As students grow in the classroom so too does their sense of partnership, confidence and soulfulness–skills they incorporate into their everyday lives.
The school’s ensemble program under the Mr. Toro’s direction has had a positive impact on the school and local community. The school band was selected to perform for the last three years in the Staten Island Borough Arts Festival and they have performed during and assisted at events for Cancer Survivors and Lifestyles for the Disabled. The jazz ensemble received seven consecutive Gold Medal Awards at the annual NYSSMA Adjudication Festival in NYC. Many of Mr. Toro’s students go on to attend specialized performing arts schools, and others have gone even further to pursue careers in music education and performance.
Ashley Wilson, Kindergarten Teacher, Success Academy Charter School – Harlem 3, East Harlem (84M385)
No moment is wasted in Ashley Wilson’s classroom. In the morning meeting, students share about themselves and their lives to help create a supportive community. Ms. Wilson takes opportunities to model positive behaviors such as how to respond when someone is struggling. “By showing my students that I care about who they are inside and outside of the classroom, I am able to develop the trust necessary for students to take academic risks,” she says. That risk-taking includes being transparent and honest about each student’s individual goals and progress, so the class can collectively take time to celebrate everyone’s growth.
Ms. Wilson has been teaching at Success Academy Charter School – Harlem 3 for the past four years, and previously taught in Baltimore City. During the past three years, when she taught third grade, between 96 and 100 percent of her students annually passed the NYS Math Exam. Ms. Wilson studies student work after each lesson to determine individual progress, and then differentiates the next day’s activities to support those who need to address gaps. She also providing extension activities for students who have already mastered the content. Ms. Wilson invites families into her classroom to shadow her so they can maintain the same language at home when parents are helping their children. According to her principal, “Ms. Wilson believes that every student can achieve great things and is passionate about pushing students each day.”