By Dennis Dagounis, Union County 2021-22 Teacher of the Year, Roselle Park High School
Before the pandemic, my wife and I loved to travel, and we plan to continue our adventures safely. I find that sharing my unique experiences and knowledge of various cultures is a great way for me to foster a connection with my students. I walked on the Great Wall of China, sat at the foot of the Great Pyramids of Giza, tasted a traditional meal with the Kayan tribe of northern Thailand and fished piranhas in the river Amazon. I have also visited many national parks across the United States and Canada, all of which provide me with a different perspective when teaching my environmental and biology classes.
Growing up, my father always spoke fondly of his travels around the world and his interactions with other cultures. My father was in the Greek Navy, and later he was a freighter captain. These experiences allowed him to travel the world. He would tell me stories about his trip to Hong Kong, “missed the ship” and had to stay there for a month to learn about their culture, cuisine and history.
Growing up, my family didn’t travel internationally and I knew that was something I wanted to do. I also knew that I didn’t want to be “that” teacher who said, “turn to page 394 of the book and let’s look at a picture of a tiger or a shield volcano.” I wanted to be able to share my personal travel experiences, interactions, and photos with my students, giving them a deeper experience than any picture in a book could provide.
Early in my career, I had two colleagues who showed me it was possible, Mark Shoengold and Bob Guellnitz. These two helped me combine my love of travel and learning about other cultures with teaching. They constantly shared their travel experiences with their students. They showed me how they brought their experiences to the classroom, which, in turn, helped me develop authentic lessons that incorporated my travels to help my students connect with the content. They are great models that laid the foundation for a key aspect of my teaching style.
I always try to create projects for my students that allow them to incorporate their home country or heritage into their assessments. My students at Roselle Park High School are a wonderful and diverse group of students. Families from all over the world find their way to Roselle Park. We have students from Russia, China, Egypt, Albania, India, South America, Central America and the list goes on. It is something that should be celebrated.
A few years ago, I was doing a project on plate tectonics and erosion. The project was based on a series of quotes from the movie “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”. In the film, the characters discover the lost city of Atlantis; however, they claim in the film that plate tectonic activity and soil erosion are sinking the island. In class, students determine if there is scientific validity to these statements through a problem-based learning activity.
While the students were researching, one student made an observation based on the artifacts from the film. He said: “The statues looked too new for the island to be as old as described.” The beauty of having students doing open research and inquiry-based learning is that they are the ones who can lead our discussions and discoveries in the classroom. This gave me the opportunity to incorporate a new student from Roselle Park from Egypt into the class discussion. I showed some of my photos from Egypt, and we discussed erosion, acid rain, pollution and made the connection between climate and weather. The students observed that these ancient artifacts, over 5,000 years old, still appear to be in good condition. It created new avenues in our learning discussions that weren’t previously on my lesson plan. Most importantly, it provided my new student with a connection to the content, to myself, and to his peers while providing my other students with a global perspective.
Ironically, while my students were doing their research, they came across an ancient city that sank off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt; Heracleion. To my great surprise, my new student came not only from Egypt but from Alexandria. He was so proud and happy to be able to show us pictures of some of the artifacts recovered from this island that he personally took and he was able to provide the class with a first hand description of this lost city. We were able to take his knowledge, the information my students had been looking for on soil erosion, plate tectonics, and apply that real-life situation to our project on “Journey 2: Mysterious Island.” It provided all of my students with a unique opportunity and experience, gave this young man the opportunity to interact with his new peers, made him feel safe, accepted and included, and broadened the horizons of his classmates.
My travels have helped me make connections with students that I never thought possible. I was able to share experiences and learn and understand various cultural customs through my travels and our class discussions. If you have the ability and the desire, traveling can open up many different experiences for you and your students. When a new student from another country comes to school, having a friendly face to greet them with a “hello” in their native language can go a long way to making them feel welcome and accepted.
Dennis Dagounis is Union County’s 2021-22 Teacher of the Year. Learn more about Dagounis and other NJ County Teachers of the Year and watch their video interviews.