Erica DeVoe, Rebecca Siddons, and Elizabeth Russillo

Each year, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation honors public high school educators who employ innovative practices to put students at the center of their learning. This year, we were excited to honor 13 exceptional educators from throughout New England. These teachers are advocating for student-centered approaches that address issues of inequities within their classrooms, schools and districts, and each received a $15,000 grant to help them continue to make an impact on the lives of New England students through student-centered learning.

To read more about the awards and the other winners, click here.

Erica DeVoe, Westerly High School, Westerly, RI

An English Language Arts (ELA) teacher and Highlander Institute FUSE fellow, Erica has transformed her classroom to be driven by student voice and choice. She has helped her district adopt a more personalized approach to teaching through technological input and general guidance.

As the chair of the ELA department, Erica has guided fellow teachers through the process of implementing new education technology and student-centered approaches. Along with two colleagues, she founded a group called the “Digital Ambassadors” which was comprised of teachers who were not technology experts but were willing to share their learning experiences and guidance with others.

“She has inspired a lot of teachers to think differently about the way that they engage their students.”

Erica plans to use the O’Toole grant to continue supporting student-centered and culturally-relevant environments in her district. Her work will provide professional development opportunities to assist other educators in implementing student-centered approaches.

Elizabeth Russillo, Smithfield High School, Smithfield, RI

When asked to describe Elizabeth Russillo, one of her colleagues responds, “[She] is a rock star. She always puts the students first.” Students in her science and engineering classes have the opportunity to use student-centered approaches to tackle challenging topics. For example, Elizabeth used multimedia tool Blendspace to create three different learning “playlists”: Bridge Development, Computer Programming, and Alternative Energy. Students had the chance to choose which topic they wanted to study and, once finished, completed an assessment aligned to state standards. In the name of making science fun and interesting, she also created a “Rube Goldberg Night,” where students built their own Rube Goldberg Machines and invited families, friends, and community members to attend.

“Students need to see how what they’re learning in the classroom is related to real life.”

Elizabeth is also a blended learning instructional coach and Highlander Institute FUSE fellow, and has helped her colleagues learn new student-centered learning strategies by organizing professional development sessions and creating a website for teachers to connect around student-centered teaching. She will use the grant to create Lighthouse Classrooms, which will serve as personalized learning models for schools across Rhode Island.

Rebecca Siddons, The MET, Providence, RI

A high school teacher and advisor at a student-centered school, Rebecca works with each of her students to design a meaningful, project-based curriculum and create individualized learning plans. Since she remains with the same group of students for the duration of their high school careers, she has the opportunity to get to know them on a deep level and is able to ensure learning experiences are tailored to each student.

“When a student is choosing the learning experiences that interest them, they can resist being put into the boxes that may be created for them by other people’s explicit or implicit biases.”

Rebecca has taken The MET’s student-centered approach to a new level. She piloted an advisory group comprised entirely of students who identify as female in order to enhance the learning experience for students who would benefit from that environment. She encourages students to engage in social action, both through instructional techniques and through partnerships with local student action groups.

Rebecca has presented on student-centered learning at several education conferences, but notes that her presentations could have been more effective and powerful if attendees had also had the opportunity to hear from students. She will use the O’Toole grant to work with her advisory to design a workshop that they can take to professional development events and conferences around the country.

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