JAMESTOWN – Charlene Tuttle moves among the short desks in her science class at the K-4th grade school on Melrose Avenue, encouraging and guiding her charges with cheerful positive reinforcement.
To get their attention, she says, “Face me; body towards me. You’ll be sharing [the materials]. Thanks, kids, for listening!”
Later she says “Nice job!” when one responds correctly to a question.
The students are contemplating the four components of soil and will break into small groups to carry out experiments and record their findings in workbooks. During the week they will be tested in the physical, earth and life sciences. During the school year their inquiries included an autumn study of monarch butterfly migrations, for which they corresponded with a school in New Mexico, and an early spring seal watch.
Later, she insists she doesn’t even realize she’s producing the stream of peppy feedback; the subtle cheerleading method that produces a high energy level and inspires learning is second nature.
“They’re much more engaged,” she says of the youngsters’ enthusiasm which leads to a deeper understanding of what they’re studying.
“It’s their class,” she says of the 20 fourth graders, adding that she sees herself as the facilitator whose job is to stimulate participation.
Charlene grew up in Newport and graduated from Rogers High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in French with a minor in education and obtained a teaching degree in California.
She will be honored in Washington, D.C. next week as one of five southern New England educators – two from Rhode Island; the other is math teacher Beverlee Powell of Warwick – receiving the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Last night Tuttle and Powell were recognized in a State House ceremony; there will be a dinner May 25 at the Aldrich Mansion in Warwick for all the nominees.
Nominated by a fellow teacher, Charlene had to complete a long application and submit a 40-45 minute video of the class in action. There was a questionnaire about content and student comprehension of the material.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” she says of her selection. “I’m still on Cloud 9.”
She confesses to being “very excited” by the prospect of meeting President Obama who plans to pose for photos with the winners. Recipients will also tour the White House and attend four days of seminars.
Charlene will have an entourage of well-wishers in attendance at the awards ceremony including her mom, Marguerite Blanchard and her husband; Charlene’s husband, Lawrence Cohen; and her brother and his kids who live in the D.C. area.
The award carries a $10,000 prize from the National Science Foundation. In fact, Charlene learned she’d won via an e-mail notifying her that the money is taxable.
When the news broke, she began receiving calls and cards from former associates and people she hasn’t seen in years. “When I heard from my old middle school teacher, I cried. I realized that people are proud [of the achievement.]”
She is no novice when it comes to honors. Two years ago Charlene received the Amgen State Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. The West Greenwich-based bio tech and pharmaceuticals giant gave $5,000 to her and $5,000 to the school.
“I’ve always been interested in the sciences,” she reflects. “I used to get in trouble for asking so many questions; now I get paid for it. I like to keep learning myself, staying current.”
Charlene was a teacher-in-residence at the University of Rhode Island, working with scientists and researchers. “I was finding out about the world. I’m fascinated by all things.”
She’s so attuned to what is needed to create a lively classroom environment that URI employs her to teach science methods for education majors. “I have them write autobiographies [of their own learning experiences],” she explains. “Some say that, at some point, they got turned off to science” because of too much lecturing and too little hands-on study.
She also teaches in the summer at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford where she is a consultant. It is worth noting that Charlene never got a degree in science although she has taken courses throughout her career.
She tells a familiar tale of how she wound up returning to Rhode Island from teaching in California: “I returned home for the summer and here I am, 18 years later.”
Her resume includes teaching stints in Central Falls and Providence; as a substitute, she served in 13 different districts in a single year. She’s been in Jamestown for 14 years.
The national award, she says, “validates all the hard work. Kids are using science vocabulary for what they’re seeing in the world. It tells me ‘you’re doing something right here.’”