2019 Top Teachers in Delaware
These exceptional educators are raising the bar in our state's schools.
Who are the best teachers in Delaware? Parents and students nominated educators throughout the state who inspire, challenge and nurture them. These are their stories.
Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography
Learning specialist and LEAPPS instructor; director of secondary school placement, grades 4–6
The Independence School, Newark
“I don’t teach content. I teach children how to master content.” That’s how Vita Biddle explains LEAPPS, the learning applications course she teaches to 4th, 5th and 6th graders at The Independence School in Newark. The curriculum, which is based on what Biddle calls “mind-brain education research,” introduces students to different learning techniques. “By showing them how their brains acquire knowledge and store memory, we put students in the drivers’ seats of their own education processes,” Biddle explains. For example, some students have an easier time memorizing math equations if the steps are color-coded. Other students do best with visual cues, so they draw pictures of vocabulary words. Biddle also teaches organizational strategies, like dividing a piece of paper into 24 segments to represent the 24 hours in a day, and accounting for each. “When kids see where they spend their time, they often want to reallocate some of it,” Biddle says. “That creates conversations at home with parents.” Stress management techniques are another part of LEAPPS. In addition to breathing and mindfulness strategies, Biddle teaches students to plan out assignments so they can track their progress and not feel overwhelmed. Biddle believes these lessons help students continue to succeed well beyond their school years.
Dream field trip: The functional MRI in the Language Acquisition and Brain Lab at the University in Delaware in Newark. Last year, Biddle took her students to the brain lab to learn how MRIs work. They got to see how an FMRI lights up when different parts of the brain are used. “I’d love to put each student inside the FMRI so they can see how their own brains light up,” Biddle says. “That would be inspiring.”
English Language Arts, grades 7–8
Thomas Edison Charter School, Wilmington
What does it mean to be a hero? Candace Charles-Inniss poses that question to her 8th grade students at Wilmington’s Thomas Edison Charter School. Defining heroism, and finding examples of it, takes her students from “The Odyssey” to the movie “Big Hero 6.” Charles-Inniss uses a variety of media formats because her students have reading levels that range from 3rd grade to high school. Their maturity levels also fluctuate, sometimes on a daily basis. “They are at such an interesting age,” Charles-Inniss says. “One day I’m an adult, one day I’m a kid, one day I’m in between. I’m perfectly okay with it. My students know I have a genuine love for them, even on their bad days.” She also has a genuine love for debates, which are part of her curriculum. Recently, she had her 8th graders debate the pros and cons of limiting the time kids spend on social media. One of their insights was that reducing social media use would reduce online bullying. “The kids thought that if their time was limited, kids wouldn’t waste it on bullying,” Charles-Inniss reports.
Dream field trip: Europe. Most of her students have never left Delaware, let alone been on an airplane. “Travel expands your perspective and gives you hope for the future,” Charles-Inniss says. Once in Europe, she’d have her students travel through different countries by train. “I want them to see places they have read about,” she says.
English Language Arts, grade 7
Henry B. du Pont Middle School, Hockessin
Diane Cox found a way to bring English language arts and history together—through the Titanic. However, Cox teaches English language arts, not history. “But as state testing has gained in importance, I’m having students read historical and scientific works to prepare them for informal texts,” she explains. Her students really dig the Titanic story. When Cox first introduced the story of Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of Titanic in 1985, her students peppered her with questions. “Why weren’t there enough life vests for all of the boat’s passengers? Why didn’t the ship’s navigators know there were icebergs in their path?” Cox searched for answers on the Internet and came up with 20 articles. “Using Common Core principles, I created a curriculum that fit right into their interests,” she explains. “How tickets were sold, the ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown, how the Coast Guard responds to disasters now. They couldn’t wait to read the material.” Cox had her students further research their specific areas of Titanic-related interest. They then presented their findings in a science-fair-style format. Cox’s Titanic curriculum, which showed measurable gains in reading among students through standardized test scores, won a Superstars in Education award in 2009. She still uses the program, which has been replicated in many schools throughout Delaware.
Dream field trip: Epcot. “The World Showcase allows students to visit 11 countries and learn about their various cultures,” Cox explains. They’d experience the Mars mission simulator Mission: Space and learn about different species in neighboring Animal Kingdom. Cox would have her students keep journals, documenting their activities. When they return to school, Cox would have them do a writing assignment describing what kind of Epcot attraction they’d create.
Art, pre-K–grade 12
Centreville Layton School, Wilmington
Ask middle school students to create a 3D self-portrait in the Cubist style, and you’ll likely get eye rolls. But Lisa Donze’s students loved the assignment. Using plaster, paint and clean recycled materials, her students created slightly skewed versions of their visages. First, students presented three different concepts for what the final piece would look like. Then, they discussed their ideas with Donze and decided which to pursue. From there, students brought their projects to completion, often encountering challenges along the way. “One of my biggest beliefs is that we don’t make mistakes in art,” Donze says. “Mistakes are puzzles to be solved. Instead of abandoning an idea and starting over, I want students to work with what’s in front of them.” That’s the format for all of her art projects, which she calls design challenges. “They are really about brainstorming, creative thinking and problem solving,” Donze explains. Once completed, students’ pieces are critiqued by their classmates. It’s an important part of the process, she believes. Learning to accept constructive criticism is necessary for art—and for life.
What she’d do with $50,000: Buy a kiln, glazes and racks for drying clay. Giving her students the opportunity to work with pottery would be a dream come true for Donze. She’d also buy easels so students wouldn’t have to hunch over tables. In fact, she’d buy a bunch of tables—drafting, hobby, craft— so they could have all the space they need to create their projects.
Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography
Spanish dual language immersion program, grade 2
South Dover Elementary School, Dover
Who says kids can only learn one language at a time? South Dover Elementary School’s Spanish immersion program begins at kindergarten. By the time the kids reach Alexis Huttie’s 2nd grade class, many are speaking and reading Spanish with proficiency, if not fluency. Huttie, a native English speaker, partners with a Spanish-speaking teacher and, together, they teach nearly 50 kids. Math, science and literacy are taught in Spanish; social studies, writing and literacy reinforcement are taught in English. Some of Huttie’s students speak only Spanish at home and learn English from her while English is the primary language of other students, including Huttie’s own children, both of whom are in the program. “They now speak Spanish better than I do,” she concedes. While they learn the language, Huttie pushes the cultural aspects of Spanish-speaking countries and their citizens. “We want our students to have empathy for people around the world and for the immigrant population in Delaware,” Huttie explains. “I don’t want them to be scared of what is new and different. I want them to respect it.”
Dream field trip: Argentina. “We’ve noticed that the kids have a desire to use their language skills with native speakers,” Huttie says. “I’d love to provide that experience for them.” She did bring Argentina to Dover, however, hosting a large Argentine-themed fiesta with food, singing and dancing. Students donned dresses and suits; some of them even did the tango.
Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography
Leland Kent Sr.
Math, grades 6–8
Great Oaks Charter School, Wilmington
Pepperoni Street sure sounds like a great place to live, especially to the students in Leland Kent Sr.’s 6th grade math class at Great Oaks Charter School in Wilmington. Kent tasked his students with making 2D or 3D geo-towns using triangles, parallelograms and other geometric shapes. While they had to adhere to a few standards—two parallel streets, two perpendicular streets—students decided which buildings to create, how big they should be and what everything should be named. Food was the most popular naming theme; music was a close second. “The idea was to understand how geometry can be applied to the real world,” Kent explains. The world is very real for Kent, who oversaw victim services and witness relocation for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office before pursuing a career in education. This previous career showed him that education can change the course of students’ lives. It’s part of the reason he teaches at Great Oaks. Every day, his students get two hours of math and English language arts tutoring. “Having 50 more minutes in each subject reinforces the concepts they learn in classrooms,” Kent says. “They are able to practice and have more at-bats. That’s how they get better.”
What he’d do with $50,000: Donate it to programs that provide educational mentoring and tutoring. Kent participates in one of them: Leading Youth Through Empowerment (LYTE). After the Great Oaks school day ends, he provides math support to LYTE scholars at Thomas Edison Charter School. Every other Saturday, Kent teaches life skills to foster children cared for by the Kind To Kids Foundation. That sounds like a lot of work, because it is. But Kent doesn’t think of it that way, he says. “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Art, all grades
Seaford High School, Seaford
Most teenagers don’t get excited about electric bills. But students in Rocco Malago’s digital media class were thrilled about the city of Seaford’s. During the 2018-2019 school year, Malago’s students designed educational materials teaching residents how to properly read—and pay—their electric bills. “When the kids saw their work in public, they were thrilled and inspired,” Malago says. That’s his goal this academic year, his first as Seaford High School’s art instructor. While Malago focuses on the principles of design—line, shape, color, form, texture, rhythm and balance—he also knows that art is an important outlet for self-expression. “A lot of teenagers have pent up feelings that they don’t know what to do with,” he says. “I tell them to put it on paper.” One of Malago’s most interesting assignments is for students to paint portraits of their favorite teachers. Using oil on canvas, students paint 18- by 24-foot portraits and present them during Teacher Appreciation Week. Many teachers display the work in their classrooms, Malago says.
What he’d do with $50,000: Create a community art center in which students’ work can be displayed. Malago believes that bringing art out of the classroom and into the world would be great for students and for the community. “It’s about recognizing and honoring creativity in a safe space,” he says. But Malago isn’t waiting for a grant or donation; he intends to find a local art gallery that will host a Seaford High School student art show.
Chorus director of choral and vocal music, grades 5–12
Tower Hill School, Wilmington
Cardi B or Béla Bartók? Students in Zerrin Martin’s music programs chose Bartók—and Eric Whitacre, Pärt Uusberg and Craig Hella Johnson. Those conductors and composers of modern Western classical music are part of the pedagogy Martin teaches to Tower Hill School’s 5th through 12th graders. She also fills their ears with Middle Eastern, South African and Latin American choral music. “Even if the students don’t continue to perform music, they will be educated listeners and patrons of the arts,” Martin says. That’s part of what she calls a “holistic music education,” which includes reading music, singing and playing instruments. It goes beyond the mechanics of music to self-discipline, accountability and teamwork. “Through music, they learn compassion and empathy, two traits that are easily overlooked in our society,” Martin explains. “The arts bring a source of beauty to the world that is often dismissed, but it is vital to who we are as human beings.” Because no one is born knowing how to play an instrument or the lyrics to songs, they learn about the importance of perseverance and the acceptance of imperfection. “Students at Tower Hill have so much that they want to accomplish, and many have anxiety about getting it all done, and done perfectly,” Martin says. “When they are passionate about something and invested in it—athletics, academics, the arts—they can accomplish great things.”
Dream field trip: Music clinics with well-known conductors. “I’d wish for more opportunities to provide fulfilling creative and educational opportunities for my students,” Martin says. She’d also like her students to perform in venues outside Delaware and, perhaps, the U.S.
Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography
Special education, grades 5–6
William Henry Middle School, Dover
Somewhere in the middle of Walmart, the magnitude of the moment hit Megan Stoffa, who was there with her students. Most of them had never been inside that Walmart, or any Walmart. Stoffa’s students are 5th and 6th graders whose academic, behavioral and medical needs place them on the Delaware Assessment Alternative Track, also known as the non-diploma track. Being in Walmart was new to them. So were other activities they did that day: composing a grocery list, finding items in a store, reading a public transportation schedule and taking DART buses. “My job is to prepare them for the real world by teaching them life skills,” Stoffa explains. She also teaches math, English language arts, social studies and science. That trip to Walmart was courtesy of a grant Stoffa received to teach her students basic cooking skills. After they purchased ingredients at Walmart, they returned to William Henry Middle School and cooked a Hawaiian-themed meal for other teachers and administrators. “It was a fantastic day,” Stoffa remembers. “My kids were proud of themselves and I was proud of them.”
Dream field trip: Any beach in Delaware. “Most of my students have never been to Rehoboth or any beach,” Stoffa shares. Some are constrained by finances, others by a lack of transportation. “I would love for my kids to experience a beach and everything that Delaware has to offer.”
Physical education, all grades
William F. Cooke Elementary, Hockessin
Forget dodge ball and tag. Hula Hut soccer is the most popular game in Randall Stone’s PE classes at William F. Cooke Elementary School in Hockessin. Here’s how it works: Students divide into teams, then decide which members will be builders, defenders and attackers. Builders use hula hoops to create three A-frame huts. Defenders guard the huts while kids on offense kick soccer balls at the other team’s huts. If all three huts get knocked down at the same time, the other team gets a point, so builders hustle to reform huts that get destroyed. Stone created the game to teach his students about teamwork, problem solving, conflict resolution, communication, empathy and mindfulness. Those may sound like big concepts for little kids. “But when kids understand the rules of a game, they’ll usually be mindful not to break them so that their team doesn’t suffer,” Stone explains. “They also learn to help members on their team who are struggling, so that everyone succeeds.”
What he’d do with $50,000: Build a soccer field. Cooke Elementary doesn’t have one, so Stone’s students have to play outdoor games in the school-bus parking lot. Also on Stone’s wish list: a fleet of mountain bikes and an indoor rock wall.
Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography
Physics and engineering, all grades
Brandywine High School, Wilmington
Precision manufacturing, physical computing and digital design sound like high-tech careers, but they are components of coursework in Judson Wagner’s physics and engineering classes at Brandywine High School in Wilmington. His is a locally developed program of study in which students use engineering to solve real world problems. “We call it human-centered design process,” Wagner explains. “The end user is part of the solution.” In one lesson, the end users were elementary school students. They didn’t have access to computers to learn coding and keyboarding. So, Wagner’s students solved that problem by creating 3D laser-cut printed parts and using them to customize inexpensive Raspberry Pi computers. Wagner’s students also work with drill bits, robots and other machinery. But the premise is very human. “It’s all about problem solving, taking risks and going back to drawing board again and again until we get it right,” Wagner explains. “It’s also about having empathy for end users, understanding their challenges and using your skills to improve their lives.”
Dream field trip: Stanford School of Design. “I’d like my students to see the products that are created and interact with students at that school to understand their philosophies about collaboration and creative thinking,” Wagner says. He’d also make a pit stop at Chicago’s International Manufacturing Technology Show, the largest of its kind in North America.