By Vallerie Malkin, Advancement & Publications Writer, Office of University Communications
An elementary school teacher at Hampden Meadows School in Barrington, R.I., Jennifer Theroux says she discovered one indispensible piece of information early on: The best way to capture the attention of her fifth graders, she says, is to make things fun.
For the past 15 years, Theroux has been using her dramatic flair to engage students in the classroom, integrating theatre, dance and music into her lesson plans as a way to balance the tremendous variety of developing minds that fill her single classroom.
“Differentiated instruction,” which centers on providing students different avenues for learning the same content, is a method that comes naturally to Theroux. “Every child learns differently,” she says, “and not every child is going to succeed at a pen and paper test.”
Theroux’s teaching style and practices have inspired so many students that the Milken Family Foundation recognized her this year with a Milken Educator Award – often noted as an educator’s equivalent of an Oscar. Citing her creativity, plus the integration of technology into all aspects of the curriculum, the Foundation recognized Voices in Common Theroux and select other elementary school teachers from across the nation at a conference in Los Angeles in April. Each of them received an award of $25,000.
“This is a very distinguished award,” says Arlene Miguel, principal of Hampden Meadows. “The fact that her children love to come to school speaks a lot to Jennifer’s qualities. They are always engaged.”
Theroux was humbled after the conference, but is still flying high. “It was absolutely spectacular,” she says. “Many of us in the teaching profession share the same challenges and struggles and hopes and efforts toward all students’ learning.”
Charlotte Diffendale, coordinator of Teacher Recognition Programs at the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says the Milken Award is unique in that there are no nominations – the teachers are unaware that their credentials are being considered.
“Educators who do exceptional work in their classrooms, schools and communities and who show extraordinary leadership potential are sought out through a complex network, and their accomplishments are synthesized through a very secret process,” she says. “It is a grand and total surprise for them and for their colleagues, family and school community when they are notified.”
Indeed, Theroux was astounded this fall when she arrived at what she thought was a routine school assembly. Instead, Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri, state education commissioner Peter McWalters and Dr. Jan Foley of the Milken Family Foundation presided over a surprise notification ceremony.
Theroux credits her success in part to the influence of the RWU theatre program and its founder, William Grandgeorge, who retired in 2007 after 38 years of service to the University. He was not only her advisor, but her mentor and close friend.
“He was like a ‘Grandpa’ figure, very paternal,” says Theroux, who was just 17 when she arrived on campus. “He believed in my idea that I could use the theater and teaching together. Teachers weren’t having kids engage in that type of learning yet as an instructional strategy… but I just looked at it as a fun way to learn.” That’s when she decided to take on education as a minor.
Theroux says that her RWU study abroad experience – in which she studied theatre, culture and architecture in England – affected her teaching style, too. “I’m a firm believer that every college student should have an opportunity to travel abroad,” she says. “This is part of what makes Roger Williams unique.”
Following her graduation from RWU in 1990, Theroux taught pre-kindergarten and instructed kids in drama, dance and art in the afternoons. She earned her master’s in elementary education from Rhode Island College in 2003 and obtained her National Board Teacher Certification in 2005. She lives in Barrington with her husband, Trent, her 15-year old daughter, Haley, and her son, Max, 10.
The burning question: What will she do with the money? For someone with Theroux’s credentials, the answer isn’t much of a surprise: “I’m using it to attend graduate school next spring.”