Mark J Peterson Golden Apple photo ccexpress

Mark J. Peterson of Algonquin has been teaching for 14 years, the past eight at Rockford’s Auburn High School. Peterson, who previously taught “only English classes,” felt that students were struggling with comprehension, literacy and English proficiency. Most of his students read five years below grade level, don’t live in two-parent homes, have behavior issues, have learning disabilities, are in low-income families, not native English speakers and may have been born in a different country or grown up in refugee camps. Peterson knew they needed help from someone with literacy expertise. Being not just committed to his students, but also to his craft, he obtained a master’s degree in Literacy, becoming a reading specialist. He later took graduate ESL classes, earning an ESL endorsement. But something was still missing to really reach students where they are. “My students are from an urban environment that I didn’t fully grasp. The challenges of an urban emergent population are unique.” Peterson was accepted to Rockford University’s Urban Education Master’s program. “The power to lead other teachers to improve their practices and systems through the lens of social justice and equity was a pivotal moment in my education. Becoming an advocate and an ally for my marginalized students has been intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding for student and teacher.” Since becoming a teacher, Peterson has also become a parent to two children, adding another layer to his self-evaluation: “would this be good enough for my son or my daughter”? Peterson goes to great lengths to connect to diverse students and their families. Principal Jenny Keffer wrote, “Mark is a counselor, teacher, mentor and leader. He has a deep understanding of human relationships, which makes it easy for him to connect with both staff and students. He has a work ethic that is unparalleled.” Sometimes Peterson’s students’ families are hard to reach, often because of their discomfort with the language. He says he has worked with translators, but “my biggest success in this realm of education has been one on one interactions and soccer. It is not uncommon at one of our soccer games to hear players and parents speaking Spanish, Swahili, Arabic and English simultaneously. Meeting parents at soccer games is a fun and nonthreatening way to forge relationships.” He also visits their family-owned businesses. Last year, he fasted for the month of Ramadan (no food or water during daylight). And he “advocated for a respectful prayer space; until then, some students were praying in stairwells for the Holy Month of Ramadan.” A longtime classroom observer wrote, “I think he is making a difference with unconventional techniques to reach an ‘at risk’ population.” Many observers got to see one such technique: he brought in a bag of garbage from his “new neighbor.” By going through the bag, students learned about inferences. Since everyone can relate to tossing out garbage, all students were invested and engaged in the investigatory exercise. Another observer said, “The kids are comfortable participating in this environment and that is the most fundamental element of instruction.” He added, “If the students were to model Mr. Peterson’s style of engaging potential points of conflict as exhibited in class, they would be very well-served by that choice.” Take it from one of Peterson’s students, who nominated him: “He has always helped the students who don't understand fully the English language and he always has helped the students with any homework. He has even been there for his students’ games when some parents could not. In my opinion, he deserves the nomination for all his good deeds toward his students.”