By Dennis Dagounis, 2021-22 Union County Teacher of the Year, Roselle Park High School
Before the pandemic, my wife and I enjoyed traveling, and we plan to continue our adventures when it is safe. I find sharing my experiences and unique insights into various cultures a great way for me to foster a bond with my students. I have walked on the Great Wall of China, sat at the foot of the Great Pyramids of Giza, experienced a traditional meal with the Kayan Tribe of Northern Thailand and fished piranha out of the Amazon River. I have also visited many national parks throughout the United States and Canada, all of which provide me with a different perspective when teaching my environmental and biology classes.
Dennis and wife, Danielle, at Lake Moraine
Growing up, my father always spoke fondly of his world travels and interactions with other cultures. My father was in the Greek Navy, and later was a captain of a cargo ship. These experiences allowed him to travel the world. He would tell me stories about when he traveled to Hong Kong, “missed the ship” and needed to stay there for a month learning about their culture, cuisine and history.
The author’s father in the Greek Navy; he later rose to the rank of captain, but not before memorably missing the boat on one occasion.
Growing up, my family did not do any international traveling and I knew this was something I wanted to do. I also knew I didn’t want to be “that” teacher that said, “turn to page 394 in the book and let’s take a look at a picture of a tiger or shield volcano.” I wanted to be able to share my personal travel experiences, interactions and pictures with my students, giving them a more in-depth experience than any picture in a book could provide.
Early in my career, I had two colleagues who showed me this was possible, Mark Shoengold and Bob Guellnitz. These two helped me to combine my love of travel and learning about other cultures with teaching. They were constantly sharing their travel experiences with their students. They showed me how they brought their experiences into the classroom, which, in turn, helped me develop authentic lessons incorporating my travels to help my students connect with the content. They were great role models who laid the foundation for a key aspect of my pedagogical style.
I always try to create projects for my students that allow them to incorporate their country of origin or heritage into their assessments. My students at Roselle Park High School are a wonderful, 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. This is something that should be celebrated.
Dennis in Thailand
A couple of 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 movie, the characters discover the lost city of Atlantis; however, they make a claim in the movie that plate tectonic activity and soil erosion is causing the island to sink. In class, the students determine if there is any 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 in the movie. He stated, “the statues looked too new for the island to be as old as described.” The beauty of having the students do open-ended research and inquiry learning is they are the ones who can lead our class discussions and discovery. This provided me an opportunity to incorporate a new student to Roselle Park from Egypt into the class discussion. I showed some of my pictures from Egypt, and we discussed erosion, acid rain, pollution and made a connection between climate and weathering. The students observed that these ancient artifacts, which are over 5000 years old, still appear in good shape. This created new paths in our learning discussions not previously on my lesson plan. More importantly, this provided my new student a connection with the content, with myself and with his peers while providing my other students with a global perspective.
Dennis in Egypt
Ironically, as my students were doing their research, they came across an ancient city that sank off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt; Heracleion. To my surprise, my new student not only came from Egypt but from Alexandria. He was so proud and happy to be able to show us pictures of some of the artifacts that were recovered from this island that he personally took and he was able to provide the class a first-hand description of this lost city. We were able to take his knowledge, the information my students had researched about soil erosion, plate tectonics and apply this real-world situation to our project on “Journey 2: Mysterious Island.” This provided all my students with a unique opportunity and experience, provided this young man with an opportunity to interact with his new peers, made him feel safe, accepted and included and broadened the horizons of his fellow classmates.
My travels have helped me foster relationships with students that I never thought were possible. I have been able to share experiences and learn and understand various cultural customs through my travels and our classroom 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 arrives at school, having a friendly face greet them with “hello” in their native language can go a long way toward making them feel welcome and accepted.
Dennis Dagounis is the 2021-22 Union County Teacher of the Year. Learn more about Dagounis and the other NJ County Teachers of the Year and watch their video interviews.