Educator honored for teaching language, confidence

Bruce Penniman, teacher of the year in 1999, attended the ceremony yesterday. Bruce Penniman, teacher of the year in 1999, attended the ceremony yesterday. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By June Q. Wu
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2010

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Takuto Kimura, 13, remembers his first day in an American classroom three years ago. He did not speak a word of English.

This fall, the Japanese native will enter the eighth grade at Amherst Regional Middle School. Today, he jokes with classmates and can discuss the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. without difficulty.

Kimura credits his developing language skills to Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero, 52, who was named the 2011 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year yesterday for her work in building the ESL program at Amherst Regional Middle School.

Mrs. Ortiz, as he calls her, fills the English as a Second Language classroom with her “amazing energy.’’

“She helped me to boost my confidence, saying I will be a doctor or an astronaut,’’ Kimura said. “Or both.’’

The first ESL teacher to be awarded this distinction, Ortiz-Marrero will be giving speeches and conducting workshops throughout the state over the next year. She will also receive $16,000 worth of smart classroom technology for her school, funding for classroom materials, and a laptop.

At yesterday’s State House ceremony, Governor Deval Patrick commended the state’s teachers for their efforts in shaping elementary and secondary education and closing the achievement gap among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“There is the sense out there that the profession is under siege,’’ Patrick said. “But teachers are not the problem — poverty is the problem.’’

Coming from a family of teachers, Ortiz-Marrero recalls as a child lining up her dolls in a makeshift classroom at her home in Puerto Rico, giving them little pieces of paper (and detention when they misbehaved).

“I loved to spend time teaching my dolls how to read and write,’’ Ortiz-Marrero said. “I feel that’s why I wanted to be a teacher.’’ After moving to the United States in 1985, Ortiz-Marrero enrolled in ESL classes so she could work toward a teaching degree.

“Teaching English is complex and takes time,’’ said Ortiz-Marrero, who has been at Amherst since 1993. “My goal is to empower students to be able to advocate for themselves, to inquire about the world.’’

Ortiz-Marrero said she allows her students to use their native languages, which range from Spanish to Portuguese to Korean, in pre-writing exercises as part of the thinking process. Peer teaching and working in small groups are also encouraged in her classroom.

“At the end of the day, I want my students to be able to have a connection with the outside world,’’ Ortiz-Marrero said. “What we learn and what we teach is relevant to life outside the classroom.’’

Ortiz-Marrero also teaches a graduate course in language literacy and culture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-founded the English Language Learners initiative of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

Other teachers honored at yesterday’s event include Kelley R. Brown of Easthampton High School, who was named the state’s history teacher of the year; Rebecca Duda of Lakeview Junior High School in Dracut; Sharon Hessney of John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury; Nancy Johnson of Hopedale Junior Senior High School; Lynn Smith of King Philip Middle School; Charles Duggan of Watertown High School; Mark Greenman of Marblehead High School; and Rosemary Rak of Taunton High School.

Marino Kimura praised Ortiz-Marrero’s work in improving her son’s language skills, adding that he is much more confident in conversing in English.

Her son said he feels relaxed and “ready to learn’’ when he is in her brightly decorated classroom.

“She just hugs everyone — big hugs,’’ he said. “It makes us feel good. We can’t be sad with her.’’

June Q. Wu can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misquoted the 2011 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero. Ortiz-Marrero said that, when she was a child, she played school with dolls.

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