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New England Historic Genealogical Society (Public Domain)

5 Awe-Inspiring Teachers of Yore

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New England Historic Genealogical Society (Public Domain)

It's Teacher Appreciation Week! This is a great time to reflect on the teachers who have helped you—and are helping students of all ages right now.

To celebrate teachers, let's look back at some educators from years gone by.

1. Anne Sullivan (1866-1936)

Anne Sullivan circa 1887. Image courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind and Wikimedia Commons.

Anne Sullivan is best known as the teacher and friend of Helen Keller. But Sullivan's road to becoming Keller's teacher was extremely rough.

Sullivan grew up in abject poverty. She was one of five siblings, three of whom died as children. Sullivan's father was an alcoholic, and her mother died from TB when Sullivan was just 9 years old. As a child, Sullivan contracted trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eye, which left her nearly blind, though a series of surgeries would eventually restore some of her vision.

After spending years institutionalized in the infamously cruel Tewksbury Almshouse, Sullivan pleaded to go to school, and was admitted to Perkins School for the Blind. When she arrived, she could barely spell. By the time she graduated, she was valedictorian.

Sullivan picked up a crucial skill at the Perkins School: the manual alphabet, originally developed as a series of hand signs for the deaf to communicate the alphabet visually. For a person who can neither see nor hear, the manual alphabet can be communicated by touch (by signing into the palm of someone's hand). This would prove crucial in Sullivan's teaching method with Helen Keller.

At age 21, Sullivan arrived in Tuscumbia, Alabama to teach the young Helen Keller, who was deaf, blind, and by all accounts quite rambunctious. Keller was clearly intelligent, but lacked language. Sullivan proceeded to teach Keller, and they became lifelong friends. Here's a snippet from a letter Sullivan wrote about a breakthrough in her teaching:

...I wrote you that "mug" and "milk" had given Helen more trouble than all the rest. She confused the nouns with the verb "drink." She didn't know the word for "drink," but went through the pantomime of drinking whenever she spelled "mug" or "milk." This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for "water." When she wants to know the name of anything, she points to it and pats my hand. I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" and thought no more about it until after breakfast. Then it occurred to me that with the help of this new word I might succeed in straightening out the "milk-mug" difficulty. We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" in Helen's free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face.

Keller's progress after this moment astounded everyone. Within two years, Sullivan and Keller met with President Cleveland. Later Keller would become an author, and her autobiography was adapted into The Miracle Worker. That "miracle worker" was, of course, Anne Sullivan.

2. Jaime Escalante (1930-2010)

Jaime Escalante was born in Bolivia, the son of two teachers. He became a teacher there, but eventually emigrated in 1963 to California with his wife and son. Although he had taught math and physics in his home country, upon arriving in California he worked as a janitor, cook, and other odd jobs while he took night classes at Pasadena City College. He studied English and ultimately was awarded a scholarship to Cal State Los Angeles, where he earned teaching credentials.

In 1974, Escalante became a math teacher in Garfield High, an underperforming inner-city school in Los Angeles. When he looked at the math curriculum, he was shocked by how weak it was. But he steadily chipped away at the problem, and by 1978 began an Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus class with 14 students. Only five made it through his strict class to the test, and only two passed the AP test.

In 1980, seven of his nine AP Calc students passed the test. In 1981, it was 14 out of 15. Everything changed in 1982. Here's a snippet from The L.A. Times telling the story (emphasis added):

In 1982, [Escalante] had 18 students to prepare for the academic challenge of their young lives.

At his insistence, they studied before school, after school and on Saturdays, with Escalante as coach and cheerleader. Some of them lacked supportive parents, who needed their teenagers to work to help pay bills. Other students had to be persuaded to spend less time on the school band or in athletics. Yet all gradually formed an attachment to calculus and to "Kimo," their nickname for Escalante, inspired by Tonto's nickname for the Lone Ranger, Kemo Sabe.

Escalante was hospitalized twice in the months leading up to the AP exam. He had a heart attack while teaching night school but ignored doctors' orders to rest and was back at Garfield the next day.

Then he disappeared one weekend to have his gallbladder removed....

...Escalante's calculus students took their exam in May under the watchful eye of the school's head counselor. The results, released over the summer, were stunning: All 18 of his students passed, with seven earning the highest score....

The Educational Testing Service didn't believe the result, accusing 14 students of cheating. Of those 14, 12 retook the test...and passed again. After that, Escalante's AP Calculus class became legendary, and only four high schools in the country had more students taking and passing AP Calc than Garfield High. He won a series of awards for his work.

Escalante's story was dramatized in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. He continued teaching for decades in various schools (including a stint in Bolivia), and passed away in 2010 at the age of 79.

3. Socrates (469-399 BCE)

Socrates is a teacher we know only through his students and some contemporaries. Although Socrates didn't leave behind writings of his own, he is one of the most widely written-about philosophers, and is often regarded as the father of Western Philosophy.

The best-known student of Socrates was Plato, who wrote extensively about Socrates. Socrates used what is now called the Socratic method, a form of discussion based on asking and answering questions, forming hypotheses, and eliminating hypotheses that contain contradictions. This logical progression is one progenitor of the scientific method.

Socrates stirred things up in Athens at a time of political unrest, making enemies by praising the rival state of Sparta. Andrew Irvine wrote in Socrates on Trial:

"During a time of war and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that in a democracy the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city—even during times of war—is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth."

Ultimately Socrates was put on trial in part for corrupting the youth of Athens. (That "corruption" was due to his question-and-answer dialogues with apparently everyone he met, including youth—who seemed particularly taken by his style of argument, and emulated it.) He was sentenced to death by drinking a poisonous hemlock potion.

4. Joe Clark (1938-)

In 1982, Joe Clark became the principal of Eastside High School. Eastside was a failing school in Paterson, New Jersey, and it was rough. The New York Times noted that Eastside had once been called a "caldron of terror and violence."

Clark turned the school around using a rather intense method of discipline he had picked up as an Army drill instructor. Clark patrolled the hallways with a baseball bat and a bullhorn, shouting at kids who misbehaved. He restored order, throwing out hundreds of students who misbehaved, and SAT scores improved substantially. (Whether this is the result of better education or simply removing the worst students is a matter of some debate.)

Clark's story inspired the 1989 film Lean on Me. He resigned in 1990, and is now an author and speaker.

5. Frederika "Friedl" Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944)

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis studied and taught art at the Weimar Bauhaus in Germany, working in textiles, printmaking, and typography, among other forms. When the Nazis rose to power, Dicker-Braindeis and her husband Pavel were deported to the Terezin "model" ghetto. The ghetto was used in propaganda films, portrayed as a model community with a rich cultural output; in reality it began as just another concentration camp.

But because so many artists, musicians, scientists, writers, and educators were imprisoned at Terezin, it actually did become a cultural haven for a time. Dicker-Brandeis had brought art supplies with her to the ghetto, and proceeded to teach art to over 600 children there. She taught them painting, collage, paper weaving, drawing—you name it.

But Dicker-Brandeis was not just teaching art; she was performing what we now recognize as art therapy seen through a Bauhaus lens. An article from Yad Vashem explains a bit of how it worked (emphasis added):

...[H]er lessons were not designed merely to teach her students technique. Rather, these different techniques became the means through which she taught her young students to dig below the facile to the deep well-spring of their feelings and emotions, and from that intimate place, to create. Through this intuitive method, a drawing of a flower vase on a windowsill, or the portrait of a child, would become something truly absorbed, deeply felt, sublime. It would reflect the child’s inner feelings—a window into their soul. In a lecture she gave in the ghetto in 1943 to explain her teaching methods, she declared that her purpose was not to train the children as artists, but rather to "unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy to stimulate fantasy and imagination and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe, [and] endure" by helping children choose and elaborate their own forms.

On October 6, 1944, Dicker-Brandeis and dozens of her students were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

After her death, more than 5,000 drawings made by her Terezin students were located and preserved. Many are now in the Jewish Museum in Prague. Her own work is harder to find, as she often destroyed it, did not sign it, or simply gave it away to friends. (You can see some work online.) More than one hundred of her own works from Terezin were discovered in the 1980s and are now at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

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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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