High school teacher honored for his unique style

Published: August 14, 2007 | 6616th good news item since 2003

On the day Jeff Peterson was to start talking about one of America’s greatest scandals, the Merrimack High social studies teacher popped a homemade cassette tape into a boom box and held a contest.

Name the songs or the artists playing on the tape, he told his students. Bonus points for identifying what the tunes have in common.

It was mix of Queen’s “Bicycle Race,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Randy Newman’s “Mr. President” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that Peterson used to introduce his class to the big topic: Watergate.

For his unique teaching ideas and many other reasons, Peterson was awarded the NoBell Prize last week. Senior members of the school’s National Honor Society selected him for the award, which was instituted years ago by an anonymous couple that wanted to reward underappreciated teachers.

To Peterson, being honored June 15 was “totally unexpected,” he said. And accepting the $6,000 prize was especially bittersweet. He’s leaving Merrimack to head up Alvirne High School’s social studies department.

That move, Peterson said, is largely to return to his home turf. He lives in Hudson, and his children will go through its school system.“I know I’m stepping into a different role, and that’s a little scary, but the important thing is to remember it’s all about the kids,” Peterson said.

And at Merrimack, he even reached out to students who weren’t in his classes, said Kellyn Freed, 18.

When she was working on a project about Alice Paul for another teacher during her junior year, Peterson lent her a tape on the feminist pioneer.

Freed testified to Peterson’s dead-on Swedish and French accents, and her classmate, Abby Brunelle, touted his John F. Kennedy impersonation.

“It makes you more apt to tune in to what he’s teaching,” Freed said. And, it seems, the accents fight Peterson’s biggest pet peeve.

“I hate it when people say history is boring,” Peterson said. “History is more bizarre and exciting than fiction could ever be.”

His love of history is rooted in family. Peterson said his grandfather drove a Model T Ford and ran a 5-and-dime store. During the Depression, his grandfather gave away merchandise without collecting any cash. Peterson’s dad fought in World War II and liberated two concentration camps.

His appreciation for those men drew him off the law school path and into the classroom.

Peterson spent two years at a parochial school in Connecticut before accepting a job at Alvirne, where he taught for eight years before transferring to Merrimack in 2003.

There, he taught mostly United States history and American government classes to juniors and seniors. He also advised several clubs, including Random Acts of Kindness, a community service group, and Students Against Drunk Driving.

Peter Petrigno, who heads Merrimack’s English department, said Peterson will be missed.

The feeling, Peterson said, is mutual, but he looks forward to playing music and scouring YouTube for innovative ideas to present to Alvirne students next year.

“I get a lot of personal satisfaction seeing kids grow and develop into thoughtful, mature people,” he said. “It’s very rewarding.”

Published in Teachers
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