First grade teacher Barbara Pellegrino sat in the Harold F. Scott Elementary School office on a hot September afternoon; this is the only place in the school that has air conditioning, and she was ready for a moment of relief. I'm going to"
First grade teacher Barbara Pellegrino sat in the Harold F. Scott Elementary School office on a hot September afternoon; this is the only place in the school that has air conditioning, and she was ready for a moment of relief.
“I’m going to take my shoes off,” she said with a laugh, reaching down to remove her black flats.
After 18 years in the Warwick Public Schools system (seven years at Holliman Elementary and 11 at Scott School), the native Rhode Islander and married mother of two deserves these instances of comfort. But this week, she will get an even bigger moment for herself as she heads to Washington, D.C. to accept a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).
The award is the highest honor that can be received by K-12 math and science teachers. Teachers who receive the award are those who create top-notch programs at their schools to improve student enjoyment and learning. Awardees are leaders in their schools and communities known for their extensive knowledge of the subject they teach. PAEMST comes with a hefty prize package including a signed certificate from the President of the United States, a paid trip for two to Washington, D.C. for opportunities for recognition and professional development, and $10,000 from the National Science Foundation.
“I’ve heard from other winners that sometimes you get to meet the president. So we’re keeping our fingers crossed!” she said eagerly. “But no matter what, it’s just the opportunity to go and meet other educators from across the country.”
Scott School Principal Virginia Bolano nominated Pellegrino for the award two years ago (Pellegrino explained that “the cycle is behind” for unknown reasons, so she’s just receiving the award now), and rounds of paperwork and applications ensued. Pellegrino wrote a 12-page paper about her work and had one of her lessons videotaped. The state then decided whether to pass her nomination on to the national level.
“I said to my husband, ‘here it goes!’ I sent it out into the world and whatever happens, happens,” she said of the moment she submitted the materials.
Over a year later, after more applications and updating, she found out she had won. The news came as a surprise to her.
“You don’t go through your teaching life saying ‘hey nominate me!’ Nobody is in education to get awards. We’re in it for the students, our colleagues, the schools. I don’t think anyone thinks they’ll go into education so they can get a bunch of awards,” she said. “But it certainly is nice when it does happen!”
However, those who know her seem surprised the win didn’t happen sooner. Pellegrino’s involvement in the school system runs deep. Besides being known for her effective hands-on methods of teaching in the classroom, she is a member of Warwick’s Mathematics Leadership and Mathematics Curriculum Teams, a mentor to student teachers from Rhode Island College, and a leader at the school’s Parent Teacher Association. Principal Bolano and PTA President Mary-Ann McCurry both lauded the effort she coordinated between the PTA and Texas Instruments.
Bolano said that as part of Pellegrino being recognized at the state level, Texas Instruments provided Scott School with free teacher training and the PTA purchased calculators for each classroom. Pellegrino worked with TI to create a faculty presentation and with the PTA to secure funding for the calculators, as well as deciding which calculators were appropriate for each grade level.
“It’s important to get things like [the calculators] for the kids,” says McCurry. “She keeps up with trends and technology, which speaks volumes about her.”
McCurry’s son Matthew, 7, was in Pellegrino’s class last year.
“She’s nice and very smart,” Matthew said, adding that he also liked how his former teacher always helped him with his homework.
One of Pellegrino’s best-known achievements is Scott School Math Night, an annual event started in 2010. Some teachers had found parents were not quite sure how to help their kids with math. Therefore, Pellegrino organized a team of teachers and PTA members to put on Math Night. The event was a night of fun activities and games put on to help students learn and to show parents methods of teaching used in the classroom. About 100 students and their families came each time. The event changes each year as the team learns more about each family’s needs. Pellegrino said it may become more geared towards the entire realm of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEAM) and that the school may hold the event during the day so more students can attend. Getting children as young as Pellegrino teaches to be this enthusiastic about math might seem like a difficult task, but it comes easy to her.
“You have to be excited about math yourself. Which I am,” she said with a laugh. She recalled a time when a student’s simple question, whether zero was odd or even, led to an “aha moment.”
“I just asked ‘well, what do you think it is?’” she said. She waited as the student deliberated with his classmates. They decided that because numbers follow an “odd-even” pattern, zero must be even when the pattern is flipped. However, one student pointed out that when the class made even numbers with their counting cubes, even numbers can be broken in half with two more even numbers on both sides. He then concluded zero was neither odd nor even because “you can’t break it in half” – all by applying Pellegrino’s methods of teaching to his own thinking.
“Listen to all that mathematical thinking from little first grade children!” she said, waving her arms in excitement. “I didn’t do the thinking for them, but I had provided the materials, the discussion, and had set the stage for them to think those mathematical thoughts.”
It is not just inside school, though, that Pellegrino makes a difference in her students’ lives. Joy Bianco’s daughters Bella, 15, Allie, 13, and Madison, 8, all had Pellegrino as their first grade teacher, and have only good things to say about her. While the girls best remember the lessons she taught with pumpkins, Bianco’s fondest memory of Pellegrino is when she came to watch Madison perform in a play at the Prout School – the family was touched by the gesture.
“She really goes the extra mile for students inside and outside of the classroom,” Bianco says. “She’s caring, kind, and really special.”
Even with students, parents, and administrators alike singing her praises, Pellegrino remains humble. This award is just one more way for her to keep educating herself.
“I’ve looked at the whole thing as a learning experience,” she said. “Teachers don’t just teach. We’re always the learners as well. No matter how long a career you have, you’re always trying to learn new things for the benefit of your students.”
Barbara Pellegrino (left) is honored on the first day of school by Mayor Scott Avedisian, Superintendent Philip Thornton and Director of Elementary Education Lynn Dambruch. (Warwick Beacon photo)