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10 Remarkable Teachers for National Teacher Day

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May 7 marks National Teacher Day, part of a weeklong celebration for educators who work tirelessly to make certain we can still function in the event the Internet happens to break. (Let’s face it: knowledge is way more impressive when you can display it without glancing at your smartphone.)

While virtually all teachers are worthy of your applause, there are a few who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Here are ten lessons from some of the most remarkable classroom leaders working today.

1. A Teacher Gone Postal

Dan Stroup, an eighth-grade Bible Studies teacher at Heritage Christian in Indianapolis, isn’t content to see his students vanish into high school and beyond without some parting words—a lot of parting words. For 30 years, Stroup has written a personalized letter to every single one of his current and former students on their respective birthdays. That’s 2800 letters per year, and it grows with each new class. Stroup spends three hours per day composing; remarkably, his correspondents say he’s able to recall specific details about their families. “I just want them to know that I knew them and that I cared,” he told CBS. Message(s) received.

2. Blind Leadership

Though hereditary glaucoma took his sight at the tender age of 3, Jim Hughes didn’t perceive that as a deterrent to his dream of teaching history in high school. Unfortunately, administrators did: After sending out more than 100 job applications, only Farmingdale High School in Farmingdale, New York responded.

It was a shot in the dark, but it worked. Because Hughes can’t rely on flashy PowerPoint presentations or generic handouts, both he and his students engage one another verbally, prompting more direct interaction than in a typical classroom. And though Hughes would find it difficult to catch anyone taking a shortcut, he needn’t worry: According to a student, his classes are far too respectful of him to ever contemplate cheating.

3. Getting a Bad Rap

A frustrated math teacher in a poorly-performing San Diego school, Alex Kajitani began imparting lessons utilizing rap and hip-hop lyrics that he would perform in front of classes. While his students were understandably horrified by the image of a middle-aged man spitting rhymes about geometry, the unorthodox approach worked: Test scores began outpacing those of other, well-financed schools in the district, and Kajitani was named California’s 2009 Teacher of the Year. He now circulates a series of “Rappin’ Mathematician” lesson plans for fellow educators.

4. and 5. Age is Just a Number

If some students respond a little better to teachers with some mileage on them, then it’s likely Agnes Zhelesnik’s class hangs on her every word: At age 99, she is considered the country’s oldest educator, imparting lessons on home economics in North Plainfield, New Jersey’s Sundance School—a career she picked up at the tender age of 81.

At the other end of the spectrum, 15 year old prodigy Adora Svitak has been guest-lecturing on writing for more than 300 schools since age 7, including a TED talk and a side gig as a blogger for The Huffington Post. She’s also written three books and can command up to $10,000 for corporate speaking gigs. Feel free to be inspired. (Or shamed.)

6. Getting Graphic

What to do with a restless group of students who would rather be playing video games than reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Dyane Smokorowski’s answer: give in to them. Smokorowski, a language arts teacher at Andover Middle School in Kansas, tasked her pupils with taking the narrative and characters of Mark Twain’s novel and adapting scenes into a series of playable games on a class website. In addition to delving deep into Twain’s work, students have to be resourceful in math, computer science, and teamwork. Smokorowski, who was named the state’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, hopes the completed site will be able to teach other children about the components of literature. If she’s right, Call of Duty: Huck Finn might not be far behind.

7. The Sound of Music

At South Carolina’s privatized Kindermusik classes, toddlers and preschoolers enrolled in the music curriculum are often attended to by Bryann Burgess, a 23 year old non-degree graduate at the University of South Carolina who was born with Down syndrome. A former assistant at the facility, Burgess worked with the school’s owner, Ally Trotter, to gain her license as a full-fledged Kindermusik instructor. In addition to teaching children, Burgess has also acted in local plays and hopes to makes music education her lifetime pursuit.

8. The Teacher Who Needs to be Walked

Baltimore’s Yorkwood Elementary has added one curious addition to their lesson plan: regular sessions with Bella, a hefty Golden Retriever/Poodle mix brought in by owner Natalie Keegan. In feeding Bella, responding to her behaviors, and seeing how she reacts, children in a special-needs class are getting valuable lessons on compassion and humanity that bleed into their social interactions.

The program, Kids 4 K9s, is being funded by billionaire George Soros in the hopes that students who might otherwise exhibit distracting or antisocial behavior will be soothed by Bella’s companionship. While the statistics for Yorkwood aren’t in just yet, research has proven it’s incredibly difficult to act tough with a giant ball of fur nestled in your lap.

9. Twitter Teachings

Hollenbeck Middle School’s Enrique Legaspi has surprised students by asking them to leave their cell phones on and available in class—the Los Angeles history teacher reads Tweets out loud during lessons, allowing shy students a voice and integrating technology that they’re likely to try and use surreptitiously anyway. Legaspi claims interaction is up, students feel less insecure about answering incorrectly, and the class is more engaged. #Guyisontosomething

10. A Teacher—and Organ Donor

Attendees recently sat through what appeared to be an otherwise unremarkable parent-teacher conference at a Mansfield, Ohio elementary school. Then Wendy Killian dropped a bombshell: the teacher was willing to see if she was an organ donor match for 8-year-old Nicole Miller, one of her students who had fallen gravely ill due to a genetic disorder that affects her lone remaining kidney. Nicole’s parents had exhausted all other avenues, and 18 other volunteers were deemed incompatible. But Killian was a match, and weeks later, both were in the operating room.

Killian’s generosity is admirable, but not entirely unexpected: A blood platelet transfusion saved the life of her own son when he was just an infant.

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Big Questions
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
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The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.

1. ALWAYS VOTE THE SAME WAY AS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW (EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE).

It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”

2. MAKE AN EFFORT TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”

3. KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF.

In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”

4. IF RECEIVING ADVICE, JUST LISTEN AND SMILE. EVEN IF IT PAINS YOU.

Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.

5. STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. AND CLOSETS. AND CUPBOARDS.

An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”

6. NEVER COHABITATE.

While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”

7. COURT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”

8. THINK OF YOUR IN-LAWS AS YOUR "IN LOVES."

Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”

9. BE THANKFUL YOU HAVE A MOTHER-IN-LAW ... OR DON'T.

Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”

10. DON'T BE PICKY WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING A WIFE; CHOOSE A MOTHER-IN-LAW INSTEAD.

By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"

11. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.

As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”

12. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MARRY AN ORPHAN.

If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”

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