CRANFORD, NJ – As expected with a Teacher of the Year nomination, those recognized go above and beyond in the classroom, excel at connecting with students and deliver creative content. However, it is rare that a nomination also includes mention of performance outside of the classroom, making the individual not only a superior teacher but also a compassionate human being.
After all nominations were reviewed by a committee and state guidelines followed that include using a scoring rubric to rank criteria in a number of areas, the Orange Avenue School Teacher of the Year, Shannon Della Fortuna, was the top nominee.
Della Fortuna received two letters of nomination, one from a Cranford parent, the other from her neighbors in nearby Clark.
Della Fortuna teaches science to sixth, seventh and eighth grade students at Orange Avenue School where she has been for the past thirteen years. She admits that she didn’t always want to be a science teacher, however, she always did love the subject. “I thought I would be a pediatric dentist perhaps, but then while I was attending Rutgers and studying Biology, I volunteered at an underprivileged school and I really enjoyed teaching,” she explained.
She jokes about having always been a science nerd, “People say to me you don’t look like a science teacher, and I say what am I supposed to look like? My friends in college always wondered why I found science so fascinating and I said because everything in the world is science related, and just because science is something I enjoy doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other things.”
She’s a woman with a passion for science but also a mother of two with a third on the way, and has been a soccer, field hockey and t-ball coach, Girl Scout volunteer, PTA member and is the wife of a fellow science teacher in another school district.
Walking around Della Fortuna’s class is like a mix of a junk food cabinet and the usual things you expect to see in a science class with beakers and test tubes. Then there’s Oreo cookies and gummy worms, but not for eating. In an exercise to help students understand chromosomes, they were constructed out of gummy worms.
Her hope is to make science fun and relatable to everyone. She doesn’t use textbooks, tests, labs, or worksheets from other sources; over her tenure she has developed her own materials and methods. All of which is resonating with students and parents alike.
Meeting with a few of her students helps clarify, “She lets you learn in your own way, she is open to new ideas and we get to watch videos to help explain concepts. The labs are so fun and everyone pays attention and no one is disruptive.”
The day we visited her classroom, students were learning about magnetic vs. geographic directional points and were doing so by having a scavenger hunt to find different locations around the school by following a compass.
Another exercise the students seemed particularly excited about was something called, “elephant toothpaste”. A popular video on the web illustrates chemicals reacting, which creates a fun foamy substance. Della Fortuna explains, “My students showed me a YouTube video about this and I said let’s try it in class, so we created a safe formula that they could play with after the reaction occurred, they had a blast. They were taking video with their phones and sharing it with their friends.”
Another parent adds, “My daughter couldn’t wait to share the video at the dinner table. Now if that’s not inspiring our students then I don’t know what is.”
Della Fortuna manages to stay enthused about a subject that some may find difficult to teach or boring, but she is upbeat and excited everyday about teaching it. She adds, “I feel like I just started teaching, I love it. I know the kids don’t come in to my class at the start all excited to learn about science, but they do become fully engaged soon. I never have disciplinary issues, they all pay attention. I try to keep the methods I use authentic and creative and very hands on. Since a lot of science you can’t see to understand like atoms or osmosis for example, I have to create games or find videos to help them stay engaged.”
If she ever finds her students with eyes glazed over she tells them, “This is leading to something fantastic, I promise,” and according to her students she is always right.
Beyond the basic science curriculum Della Fortuna has a passion for the national STEM initiative (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
An excerpt from a parent who nominated Della Fortuna helps explain, “Mrs. Della Fortuna is dedicated to providing engaging and meaningful learning experiences for her students. On the forefront of current reform in science education, Mrs. Della Fortuna is passionate about STEM and seeks activities that integrate across subject areas to allow her students opportunities to reach deep understanding of fundamental concepts.”
Not required as part of her employment but just out of sheer passion, Della Fortuna began a STEM fun family night with an interested parent. The events are offered two times per year for third, fourth and fifth grade students to help introduce them to learning about STEM topics before they get to her class. “Introducing these subjects to students in more depth before they move up to the middle school is helpful in getting them enthused,” Della Fortuna added.
Some of those activities during these nights include bridge building and computer science applications. The next event is on Thursday, Feb. 11 at 7:00 pm. Della Fortuna hopes to add to this initiative and have a regular after school program, even perhaps introducing one group just for girls, focused on topics of interest such as the science of makeup.
Della Fortuna is busy enough being a rock star educator and mom, but she doesn’t stop there. Last year, a fellow Clark resident and young father, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) and wasn’t expected to survive until the end of the year. During the last few weeks of his life Della Fortuna, although she had never met the man, decided to assist his family and bring them some food during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Della Fortuna’s neighbors who nominated her for Teacher of the Year add to the story, “When Shannon showed up with the food the evening before Thanksgiving, the man’s wife informed her that her oven was broken and she had no way of warming the food on Thanksgiving Day. Without hesitation, Shannon took all the food back to her own home. On Thanksgiving Day, Shannon delivered a completely cooked and hot meal to the family that she made. She even brought all the necessary items for an ice cream sundae bar for the children.”
While the man unfortunately passed away a few weeks later, the family had one memorable last Thanksgiving with the help of a stranger.
Della Fortuna approaches science like life, with authenticity and passion. She is very much deserving of Teacher of the Year, and then some.