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5 Terrific Teachers

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YouTube / TED

Teachers are heroes. Without teachers, I wouldn't be able to read, write, or bring you this list of wonderful people. Read on.

1. Kathy Pitt, Fifth Grade Teacher

Kathy Pitt figured out a simple way to find out which students in her fifth grade class were struggling, being ostracized, being bullied, or generally needed more of her attention. Every Friday, Pitt asks her students to nominate one of their peers whom they think is “an exceptional classmate.” The nominations, along with answers to a few similar questions, are submitted privately to her on notecards.

Pitt then identifies the students who receive the fewest nominations, or who themselves are unwilling or unable to nominate others. It’s a simple indicator of issues that aren’t always visible to the teacher when she's standing at the front of the class. She says she has been using the technique “Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine.” A mother of a student in Pitt's class brought national attention to Pitt when she blogged about the practice earlier this year.

Pitt teaches in Naples, Florida. You can see photos of her classroom in a gallery from the Naples Daily News.

2. Kent Knappenberger, Music Teacher

Kent Knappenberger is the winner of the 2014 Music Educator Award, presented by The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation. Judges received thousands of nominations, but Knappenberger stood out -- and not just for his amazing beard. He said, "I think it's my job to try to approach children in a way that I can try to find something musical in them. And sometimes in the kid you think shouldn't have some musical gifting, if you start looking -- wow! It's there! And amazing things happen."

Knappenberger, known as "Mr. K." to his students, also runs a farm with his wife. Of the farm, he said, "I think I went through a midlife crisis a couple of years ago and said 'I need to have a cow.'" In addition to having a cow, he and his wife have nine kids, eight of whom are adopted.

If you know a music teacher who deserves recognition, you can nominate him or her online.

3. John Masterson, Social Studies Teacher

In January, John Masterson convinced a boy who brought a shotgun into his New Mexico school to put it down. The 12-year-old shooter had already injured two students in a crowded gym when Masterson intervened.

NBC News reported:

[Masterson] was facing away from the shooter, and the shooter away from him, when the first shot was fired. The teacher thought it was a firecracker, [Gov. Susana Martinez] said.

The teacher wheeled around and saw the young man fire more shots before he pointed the gun at Masterson, she said. The teacher talked to him and urged him to put the gun down.

The shooter put the gun down and raised his hands, and Masterson put him up against a wall, the governor said. Just then, an off-duty state police officer arrived — he was dropping his own son off at the school — and they contained the student.

“I'm still the same person,” Masterson said in one interview. “I just had something happen. An event that happened and I don't feel like it changed me.” In addition to teaching Social Studies, Masterson also coaches soccer and track in Roswell, New Mexico.

4. Dr. Rita Pierson, Teacher

Dr. Rita Pierson was a teacher her entire adult life, teaching elementary school, junior high, special ed, and more. Her parents were educators, her grandparents were educators, and Pierson herself began teaching in 1972, so she has some experience in the field. Last year she wrote for The Huffington Post:

“Teachers don't make a lot of money. They are usually not deemed worthy of news coverage unless there is a scandal or a strike. Most of the time, their major accomplishments are shared only with colleagues and family members and not the media. The celebration is often cut short by some catastrophe the next day. Yet, in spite of the highs and lows, I cannot think of another profession that brings both joy and challenge on a daily basis.”

Pierson is on this list not because of a scandal, a strike, or a catastrophe -- but because she was an inspiring, dedicated teacher. She spent four decades in the classroom, and in 2012 she gave the TED Talk above, which has been viewed more than 2.7 million times. She passed away in 2013.

5. Taylor Mali, English Teacher/Slam Poet

"I make parents see their children for who they are, and who they can be," says Taylor Mali in his performance of "What Teachers Make," a poem about his teaching career in New York City. Have a look:

After nine years teaching, Mali is now a full-time poet, speaker, and author. He's all over YouTube, and he has apparently inspired a lot of people to teach. From his website:

[Mali's] 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society.

Here's one more nice performance by Mali, set in kinetic typography:

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Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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This Russian Kindergarten Looks Just Like a Castle
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YouTube

A group of lucky kindergarteners in Russia don’t have to wear poufy dresses or plastic crowns to pretend they’re royalty. As Atlas Obscura reports, all they have to do is go to school.

In a rural area of Russia's Leninsky District sits a massive, pastel-colored schoolhouse that was built to resemble Germany's famed Neuschwanstein Castle. It has turrets and gingerbread-like moldings—and instead of a moat, the school offers its 150 students multiple playgrounds, a soccer field, a garden, and playhouses.

Tuition is 21,800 rubles (about $360) a month, but the Russian government subsidizes it to make it less expensive for parents. As for the curriculum: it’s designed to promote social optimism, and each month’s lesson plan is themed. (September, for example, will be career-focused.)

Take a video tour of the school below, or learn more on the school’s website.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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