Teacher Spotlight

Marina MacDonald

Master Educator and Math Consultant

For this month’s Teacher Spotlight we choose Marina MacDonald, a master educator and math consultant.  Her innovative approach to teaching math and true passion for the subject inspires both students and colleagues alike.

For twelve years, students in all different levels of math at Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire benefited from her innovative teaching. As Coordinator of the Math Department at Souhegan, she collaborated with K-12 teachers to begin to integrate Common Core Standards into the math curriculum. She also helped seek new math programs to pilot and searched for new technology to implement concepts required to meet Common Core Standards.  MacDonald encouraged teachers to find innovative smartphone and computer applications for students to use daily in the classroom.

MacDonald loves being in the classroom with teachers and says, “A teacher needs to always be a learner. Our work should always be new.” She advises teachers to:

  • Teach with passion.
  • Stop and listen to students.
  • Teach with data that students have collected on their own.
  • Ask students to show seven various ways to come up with an answer.
  • Employ teaching strategies that capitalize on being part of the “Net Generation” and use the internet and smart phones as tools for learning.
  • Inspire students by modeling curiosity and ongoing learning.

Currently a math consultant, MacDonald helps teachers develop a curriculum that logically connects to the Common Core. MacDonald also helps teachers develop teaching strategies such as the Rule of Four.  This “requires students be able to do all problems verbally, in a data table, in graphical form, and algebraically and/or numerically,” says MacDonald.

MacDonald feels, in the words of educational philosopher Robert Hutchins, the goal of education is to “inflame their intellect” rather than to make them “expert technicians”. For example, in an ideal MacDonald classroom, students are seen bouncing a ball and developing different parabolas to create their own data.  To encourage higher order thinking, lessons have students using the data they have created or found online.  By doing so, they take charge of their own learning and can tell their teacher what they learned or show what they know.

In her role as consultant, MacDonald coaches teachers to inform students of the competency being addressed and begin units by discussing why the topic is so important and how it can be used. With this approach, teachers explore essential questions in their units rather than limiting themselves to the traditional skill-and-drill approach to instruction.

MacDonald coaches teachers to structure opportunities for students to design authentic projects, or use a web-based project with real data to demonstrate their learning. This active learning helps students become more invested in math lessons. MacDonald explains, “This form of instruction logically connects to Common Core. Math students use material and information which have much more meaning for them and the way students learn.” Teachers also connect back to broader competency work when their students report which competencies they have met, which have mistakes, and which need further work to achieve the desired learning outcome.

MacDonald’s coaching produces great returns. Steve McDonough, Math Department Head at Laconia High School, speaks to her success: “Marina’s “we can do this” mentality and wealth of content knowledge has led to a massive amount of growth in our instructional practices as a department. It has allowed her to quickly become “one of us” in a short time.”

Marina MacDonald’s finely-tuned, creative teaching methods have earned her both The Siemens Award for her teaching AP Calculus and the Milken National Educator Award. We are proud to spotlight her efforts as she works with her colleagues throughout the Northeast to create a meaningful learning environment for math students.

MacDonald can be reached for consulting at marinajmac@gmail.com.

Contributed by Jean Keegan and Nancy Kach


Chris Pirkl

English Teacher, Grade 8

For this month’s Teacher Spotlight, we choose an English Language Arts teacher in Kittery, Maine, who has successfully paired technology and word of mouth to increase reading among his students and colleagues.

Chris Pirkl isn’t the kind of teacher who lets anything get in the way of connecting his students with great literature. While some teachers shy away from using social networking and technology in their classrooms, Pirkl embraces this opportunity.

After spending a year keeping his own personal record on Goodreads.com648 books read since 2008 – Pirkl decided to create a classroom homepage. He incorporated the social media website as a vehicle for his students to break out of the “reading log” rut.

Individually, Pirkl and his students use the site to rank and post comments and quotes from books they are reading. They use the “friending” feature of the site to secure their communications and interact online through lively book discussions. Students can observe where someone is in a book and read quotes from authors. Some professional authors have memberships on this site and interact with students through Pirkl. For example, students corresponded with the author of The Truth of All Things, a book with regional appeal set in Portland, Maine.

Pirkl’s students are always reading at least two books, and they write and post no less than two book reviews to the site per trimester. This activity promotes a love of reading as they interact with one another by writing responses. He encourages students to add books to their lists based on what their friends are reading. A typical post states, “Should I read the next book in the series?” to which another student replies, “This is what I thought…” Others can also join the online conversation. Pirkl both monitors conversations and interacts with his students in these online classroom-chats.

Technology is a wonderful tool, but Pirkl’s students don’t have to go far to find the face-to-face interaction and personal connections between students and teachers.  In addition to lively discussions; their classroom library is full of individual-choice books, motivational posters, and comfortable chairs beckon once the perfect selection is made!

Reading is truly contagious at Shapleigh Middle School! After Pirkl began modeling himself as a reader by letting everyone know the three to four books he is currently reading… other teachers followed suit! Photocopied enlargements of the covers of books that each teacher is reading can be seen hanging on classroom doors throughout the school. Covers from books students have read also decorate the walls and serve as an invitation of what others can read next.

Marilyn Woodside, Kittery’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, believes Pirkl’s “…enthusiastic promotion of reading and writing is exactly what the students need”. She says,In short, Chris is a well-respected teacher who makes reading ‘cool’, while reminding his students that there is a book just waiting to be read and enjoyed!”

We are proud to spotlight the achievements of Chris Pirkl and his colleagues for modeling and promoting literacy at Shapleigh Middle School, in Kittery, Maine.

Contributed by Jean Keegan and Nancy Kach


Rebecca Ledger

Grade 2

For October’s Teacher Spotlight we choose a teacher, and a district, with a proven routine for getting the students’ school year off to a great start!

Rebecca Ledger’s preparations for the first day of school started last June when she and her second grade team members met with the first grade teachers from across RSU 4. Together, they discussed what the outgoing first grade students had mastered and what they had not yet mastered. They identified the increased level of intensity needed for skills that had been achieved, and what gaps in learning needed to be filled in.  As a team, the teachers took that information, along with alignment information from two sets of curriculum standards, and ran with it! Before long, Ledger and her team had tailored their student-centric, Core Curriculum for 2012-2013 to their incoming group of second graders. Each instructor left for summer “vacation” with the full knowledge of what they would be teaching the next year and why.

Ledger’s Grade Two Professional Learning Group (PLG) gathered again in August to review their 2012-2013 Core Curriculum and isolate their learning targets for the first month of school. All six of RSU 4’s second grade teachers designed and shared the same expectations and targets. “That our Core is consistent is the best part,” Ledger says. Something as simple as having all of the second grade teachers share the same curriculum information with parents at the open house: “This is what you can expect your kids to learn in second grade this year across the districts,” Ledger says. Individual teachers then have complete freedom to teach the specified content and skills based on the individual learning styles of their students, a wide variety of resources, and their own teaching styles.

The positive results RSU 4’s PLGs have on student learning are undeniable.  Assistant Superintendent Cathy McCue explains, “Research tells us that when students understand what the learning target is in their own words, they excel.  Not only do all of the teachers know what it is that they want students to learn and how they will assess the learning, so do the students!”

Her new students are still adjusting to their classroom, when Ledger starts to creatively teach her students to tell time: her PLG’s first learning target. She makes certain that her students retain what they learned last year and provides intervention in the form of extra review for the four students who have forgotten the skill. Soon, all her students are telling time to the half- and quarter-hour. Having met the common expectation, Ledger is then free to challenge her new students to extend their knowledge by telling time in minutes, and by applying their skills to various scenarios, such as figuring out how long they had slept the previous night.

So what’s next after “telling time”? There are many options, but Ledger’s PLG helps her “stay on track.” The team comes together regarding a predetermined topic, for one-hour before school, every Wednesday.  Since the teachers are in two separate buildings, they resourcefully opt to eliminate drive time and connect online using Skype. During every meeting the teachers share resources and ideas for teaching the designated topic(s) from RSU 4’s 2012-2013 Core Curriculum, and collectively determine a developmentally appropriate assessment. During a recent meeting, Ledger observes that students had a difficult time “…drawing hands on a clock to indicate a quarter-hour.” Although her students could tell time by reading the hands of the clock, they lack the fine motor skills to draw them precisely.  That kind of insight is then incorporated as the PLG strives to assemble valid common assessments for informal and formal progress monitoring.

According to McCue, “Feedback from teachers has been that the time in PLG spent on learning targets and assessment data has been the most valuable professional learning that they do.”

We are proud to spotlight the efforts being made by Rebecca Ledger, her PLG, and the leadership team of RSU 4 for building the necessary structure to establish and nurture a student-centric curriculum.

Contributed by Jean Keegan

Cheryl Berman

World Language Teacher, Grades K-6

Cheryl Berman broadened her instructional palette at the Louvre, when she immersed herself in a two-week Rutgers University graduate course in Paris, France. Berman, a Foreign Language in Elementary School teacher, used the experience to develop a comprehensive lesson plan that enriched her students’ understanding of French and foreign language.

“Our assignment for the program was to select a theme, studying between one and three paintings, and to analyze these paintings with what we had learned from our teachers and our personal research, then write a paper on how we would incorporate this work into our classrooms.

I educated my students on social class, living quarters and it’s decor, clothing, toys, food, textures, emotions and facial expressions. I brought back menus, advertising pamphlets, newspapers, maps, metro passes and a host of other authentic French materials to share with my students.

Since this program, I have also created a Spanish version and use it in my Spanish classes as well. I am still incorporating bits and pieces into my classroom all the time. The students at the Maude H. Trefethen Elementary School in New Castle, New Hampshire benefitted from my experience at the Louvre.”
– Cheryl Berman