July-August 2012
June 28, 2012

Middle school English teacher helps students cut through complexities

Author: Greg Munno
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Students and Maturo-Grasso, left, watch their rockets soar over Syracuse. Photo by Lauren Long.

Syracuse middle school teacher Gwendolyn Maturo-Grasso makes it her mission to expose her students to as many different experiences as possible, and she's determined to work with the neediest students.

"For me, it's all about getting my students focused on and ready for college," she said.

And that's particularly important for her Lincoln Middle School students because so many, if they could attain a college degree, would be blazing a new trail within their families. More than 70 percent of the school qualifies for free or reduced lunch; nearly two-thirds of the students are underrepresented and under-served.

Maturo-Grasso is a master teacher for SECME, a consortium that encourages students in underrepresented groups to pursue education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and co-leads the middle school's STEM Club.

As educator-in-residence at Syracuse University's L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Sciences, she serves on the boards of the Technology Alliance of Central New York and the New York State STEM Collaborative. This summer she co-chairs the STEM Institute, an intensive conference co-sponsored by NYSUT.

A commendable resume, especially for an English teacher.

"There are a couple of things that are really unusual about Gwen," said former Syracuse City School District Superintendent Dan Lowengard. "For one, she prefers middle school students and can match their energy and passion," he said. "For another, she has embraced and manifested a truly deep connection between English and the sciences. She uses literacy as a basis for helping students understand complex scientific problems, and she uses technology as a way to get them excited about reading and writing."

Maturo-Grasso has taken to writing STEM as STE2M, adding English to the popular acronym to underscore the importance of literacy in understanding complex problems, as well as its role in fostering the collaboration needed to solve them.

She partners with fellow Syracuse Teachers Association member Dave Cali, a Lincoln Middle School technology teacher, in leading the STEM Club. Sessions are held at 7 a.m., so students interested in sports can still participate. Despite the early time, about 25-30 students come daily, and that number has jumped this year to as many as 50 pupils a day, the most ever.

The club hosts rocket competitions and soapbox derbies to encourage collaboration, teamwork and the motivation competition encourages. "It's not exactly in the effective education playbook, but I find that nothing focuses my students and gets them excited like competition," Maturo-Grasso said. Her student teams are known for cheering all the other teams in a competition.

She also models the collaboration she expects of her students and often says that without her planning team of teachers, especially Bill Ottman, Eduardo Rodriguez and Suzanne DeTore, her work would not be as rich and successful.

Maturo-Grasso has convinced groups like the Technology Alliance of Central New York to start the Junior Cafe Scientifique, and to give her tickets to the group's annual dinner and other events, which she then gives to students.

"To give students a chance to put on nice clothes, go to a formal dinner and sit next to educated, successful technology professionals is just one more way for me to help put them in the mind-set that they will go to college," Maturo-Grasso said.

She persuaded Jay Henderson, an assistant professor at Syracuse University's Department of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering, to partner with her in designing an upper-level bio-engineering course, where college students prepare teaching modules for middle school pupils. Maturo-Grasso helped the college students conceptualize the hands-on demonstrations that make complex scientific concepts accessible to middle school students. The college students then tried out the lesson plans on Maturo-Grasso's pupils, a scenario that benefited both groups of students.

"The ability to transfer complex information to a less-advanced audience is a key skill for my students as they make presentations for funding, work in cross-disciplinary teams and seek to overcome real problems in their communities," said Henderson. "Gwen was able to make that real for them by giving us access to her students." And on the flip side, Maturo-Grasso sees great value in her pupils learning directly from the undergrads.

Although Maturo-Grasso's passion lies with helping disadvantaged students, her programs do attract students from more affluent backgrounds. Shirley Wong, for instance, a parent of two Liverpool Central School District children, brings her 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to the Junior Cafe each month. "Each program opens their eyes in a new way," Wong said, after sitting through a Junior Cafe program on submarines presented by a U.S. Navy veteran and Lockheed Martin engineer.

After the event, her son, Stephen, asked the presenter what happens to the hydrogen sailors extract from water in order to create the oxygen they need to breathe. Stephen thought that if he could find a use for the hydrogen, it might make the system more efficient and allow the sub to stay submerged longer.

"Those are exactly the types of connections I like to see students make," Maturo-Grasso said.

Indeed, it's making connections that drive many of Maturo-Grasso's accomplishments, said former Lincoln principal Dean DeSantis.

"I can't even begin to estimate how much extra time she puts in to help students," DeSantis said. "It's far more than being here for them for STEM Club at 7. It's the work she does connecting with the broader community to bring resources here we wouldn't otherwise have. She's able to get the kids involved in all these hands-on competitions — rockets, soapbox races, cardboard boats and mousetrap cars."

"At a time when we are trying to promote interest in STEM subjects and careers, this is the type of work that needs to be replicated," NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said. "Programs like this get students excited about science and technology."

In May, SECME named Maturo-Grasso its Teacher of the Year, giving her a check for $5,000. She plans to add it to money she received from the Syracuse Education Foundation to buy more iPads for her classroom.