by Jacqueline Zampella
Joe Manganiello, Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Lebron James, and….Nick Ferroni? These five men are all apart of “Men’s Fitness 25 Most Fittest Men in America”, and to most people, those first four names are easily recognizable as celebrities from TV, movies, and professional sports. But the fifth, he is a true celebrity. Molding the minds of our youth not on TV, not on the big screen…but in the classroom.
I first met Nick Ferroni three years ago in New York City, at the premier of a documentary I co-produced. The movie’s concept revolved around letting go of what society says you need to do to be “successful”, and instead, tuning into your authentic self. We spoke briefly afterwards about the journey he was on, and how he uses the lessons he’s learned to help foster the youth that passes through his classroom doors. Before stepping into his current role full time, Nick was an actor on “All My Children”; a job he willingly left because his passion for helping youth over shadowed his desire for fame. In addition to teaching, he was recently named one of the “100 most influential people in America” for his commitment to education reform, as well as developing a campaign to incorporate more minority figures and groups into the high school social studies curriculum. Closer to home, he’s starting to receive recognition for his unique and innovative methodology in successfully mentoring and teaching urban high school students.
Nick is changing the playing field for teachers all over the country and in between 3rd and 4th period history classes, I got the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about his unique approach to reaching this next generation of learners.
Jackie: Why did you chose to teach high school history as opposed to pursue a career in acting?
Nick: I would have never made a great actor, because I wasn’t passionate about it, however, as a teacher I now perform six shows a day. A good teacher has to be an amazing performer, but also has to be passionate about what they teach. If a teacher is not passionate, a student will know instantly, and if a teacher is passionate; it will be infectious among his or her students.
J: How do you approach teaching history in a unique way?
N: Though I love history and feel, like many, that knowing the past is as necessary as knowing how to read or write, it tends to be a fact based course. History tends to be merely dates, figures and events, that will never change. However, my favorite history teachers made those facts, not only relevant, but personal to me and my world. I attempt to not only make it relevant and personal to my students, but to use methods that, at first, seem unrelated in every way. I am an avid supporter of the arts, and art classes, and know that the creative courses are much more pivotal to a child’s overall success and development as a human being than science and math. So, being a artistic person myself who favors creativity and thinking outside the box as the most effective method of education, I chose to find ways to bring, and nurture, a student’s creativity and understanding. From using “Family Guy,” to “The Simpsons” and even “South Park,” I prefer to use pop culture to help engage students and allow them to thrive. I have come to the realization that music is the one, and only, constant that every person regardless of race, religion or nationality, has a personal and emotional attachment to. Which is why I use contemporary music very effectively to help teach and help students understand various historical figures and events. Music is the one thing that all students understand, and I use it as often as possible to reinforce historical events and figures, and I am often amazed by the results. The information will rarely change, but it’s how it is delivered or presented that will matter most.
J: Do you think this generation needs a new way of learning?
N: The one thing I love about religion is how the messiah only returns once, however, in education we have a new messiah year after year, who claims to have the answer to education. Policy makers pass horrible and ineffective policies that never work, and when they don’t work, it is the teachers who are blamed. Learning does need to evolve with technology, but it can’t be so flooded and technology heavy, that it takes away from the basic social skills that are slowly decaying away. There needs to be a balance, and we need to create well rounded students who are capable of adapting, and not cater completely to each student. When has nature every adapted to a species?
J: Can you talk a little about one of the biggest challenges you face today as a teacher?
N: We, as a nation, have become so obsessed about test scores, and competing with China and India in math and science, that we forget that we are not only teaching a subject, but creating and nurturing human beings. My main goal, prior to even teaching history, is to make sure all my students develop self confidence and self esteem, which will matter so much more in their lives than knowing who fought the American Revolution, etc. If I am able to make a student, who is insecure and afraid, to be proud and confident than I have performed a miracle, but that would not show up on a test score. I, like many of my colleagues, will do anything for my students, and I refuse to treat them as if they are a number and not a person. My kindergarten teacher told me a few years back, when I first started teaching, that “They may never remember you taught them, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” This couldn’t be truer, since my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Martino, was such an important person in my life when I was incredibly insecure about nearly everything.
J: What do you see the future of education looking like?
N: My fear is that in the near future policy makers will eliminate all art programs in order to focus more on science and math, in order to compete with foreign nations. This will be the most catastrophic thing to ever happen to publication. If we want creative, emotionally stable and progressive thinking generations, we should increase the number of art programs and classes, and not decrease them. History reveals that science and math led to the creation of weapons of mass destruction, but it was music and artists who led to the deconstruction of those weapons. We will be a generation of emotionally unstable and uncreative people if we continue down the path we are on. We need to allow teachers to teach, and not pass policies that are impossible to meet, and then blame those who were forced to implement them when they don’t work. Education is the foundation which societies are built, and charter schools, web schools, etc., are not the future of education, but the devolution of education.
J: I know you been recognized and praised, by educators and students alike, for your inventive teaching style. How do you change the way something that might otherwise be considered unexciting, is taught?
N: I consider myself a “creationist,” where I provide my students with the facts and information, and then I have them create something or relate it to something that they are very familiar with. I’m more concerned with nurturing creativity and understanding than memorization and facts. I attempt to get my students to think for themselves rather than repeat what I teach.
J: Most high school students are lucky if they make it through school the day without getting reprimanded for texing or listening to their ipods. However, today in your classroom I noticed the use of ipads, ipods, tablets, etc for note taking and student interaction. Some teachers would argue that such technology in the classroom is distracting and takes away from the student’s ability to focus and learn. How would you counter this point?
N: Resisting technology is like trying to live an Amish lifestyle in a major city. Why punish them for having their cell phones when you can have them use them to summarize notes by tweeting, why take their headphones and ipods, when they can use them to not only be creative, but understand history at the highest level? I have students who are considered low-level learners in other classes, performing at very high academic levels in my class. Use what they know and incorporate every chance you get.