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History as a Contact Sport

West Springfield teacher Ron Maggiano receives one of 45 Disney Teacher Awards nationwide.

As Ron Maggiano remembers it, he was wracking his brain thinking of ways to make the Reformation come alive for his Advanced Placement European History class at West Springfield High. There was Martin Luther, there were indulgences and Wittenburg, but nothing seemed to work.

"I just couldn’t find anything I thought would hook the kids," said Maggiano. "So I sat down with my guitar and wrote ‘The Ballad of Martin Luther.’ It’s great fun, and you get the kids singing along on the chorus."

Maggiano has strived to incorporate unorthodox methods into his classroom instruction in the 11 years he has taught history at West Springfield.

For those creative efforts, Maggiano has been awarded a Disney Teacher Award, one of 45 honors bestowed nationwide on an annual basis. The award honors creativity, innovation and the ability to inspire, and Maggiano agrees that his guitar playing isn’t something every teacher brings into the classroom.

"It’s a talent that I have that is a little unusual, I guess," he said. "It’s just another piece of chalk. It’s like a PowerPoint presentation. Whatever you can use to hook the kids into history, I think you go for it."

ONE OF the outreaches of the company’s "DisneyHand" program, the Disney Teacher Awards focus on those teachers whose methods make them "heroes" to their students, much like those heroes in Disney’s movies.

"Disney was founded on creativity, and we feel it is vital in helping children learn in ways that both engage and challenge them," said Terry Wick, vice president of Disney Worldwide Outreach, sponsor of the awards. "Creative teachers … open up new worlds to students through their creativity and passion for learning."

A teacher in Arizona and California before moving to Virginia, Maggiano said he was deeply influenced by reading the book "A Night to Remember" about the sinking of the Titanic in high school. He picked it up and couldn’t put down history ever since.

"That was the book that made me love history. I’m pretty enthusiastic about it, and I think that comes through," he said. Maggiano’s mantra in each of his three American history and two AP European history classes is the same — "history is a contact sport." That philosophy has resulted in an emphasis on projects that take unexpected approaches to traditional subjects, like having students publish a newspaper on the French Revolution, and field trips to explore first-hand sites such as Manassas National Battlefield.

"Ron's a fabulous teacher," said Dr. David Smith, West Springfield High principal. "He's a scholar in his field, he relates well to kids, and he's deeply involved in training other teachers. He's an outstanding teacher, and I'm delighted to see that he's received this national recognition."

Maggiano said he draws inspiration from his own historical journeys, like the trip he took to Great Britain a few years back to work alongside historians and archaeologists uncovering the truth about legendary figure King Arthur.

"That was just a hoot, and I think it was that experience that really taught me how important it is to make contact with the sources, and to get on the ground where it happened. Really, all history is local history somewhere, to somebody," he said.

FOR WINNING the award, Maggiano received a $10,000 honorarium, another $5,000 award for West Springfield, and a pair of teaching-related trips to Walt Disney World. In June, he and his wife Laurie will spend a week at Disney Land in California for "fun and celebration," according to Disney. At that ceremony, four Outstanding Teachers and one Disney Teacher of the Year will be chosen. In October, Maggiano will spend six days at Walt Disney World in Florida for a professional development seminar, where he will collaborate with other award-winning teachers on refining technique and methods. For Maggiano, who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in history from George Mason University, the award is another chance to pass on the love for history as a contact sport.

"I enjoy working with other teachers and sharing what I do and what I know with others, because somebody shared it with me once upon a time," he said.