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Louis DiGirolamo ’22

1) You participated in a number of study abroad experiences while you were a student at TCNJ. Can you discuss these?
My first study abroad experience was to Peru during January of my freshman year at TCNJ. I traveled with Dr. Ann Warner-Ault from the Spanish department and this experience was what helped me determine that I wanted to study Spanish in addition to being a History and Secondary Education major. Studying abroad was something I always wanted to pursue when I was in high school. Before TCNJ, I had only ever traveled to a handful of countries in Europe so when the opportunity arose for me to explore a new continent, I was all in. While in Peru, we studied the history and civilization of the Incas as well as Peru in its contemporary history and society. We not only visited museums, chatted with locals, and ate delicious Peruvian food like lomo saltado and ceviche, but we also participated in community service activities. We visited a school in an impoverished area of Lima known as Villa Maria del Triunfo and played games and spoke with the students there. Their school house was a shack with no roof and metal walls and stray dogs would come in and out. It was the first time I ever experienced being in an area of poverty and it provided me a perspective on life that I would have never experienced if I had not gone on this trip. Another community service project we participated in was a beach cleanup where our group was able to collect 618.4 pounds of trash and waste. Our group had a blast splitting up into 3 different teams and racing to collect garbage as quickly as we could before time ran out. While I had an amazing time doing all of that, the highlight was visiting Machu Picchu and riding the Hiram Bingham train through the Inca Trail and Andes Mountains. It was a dream come true being able to check off another Wonder of the World.

My second study abroad experience was a Holocaust Memory and History tour. European History was my favorite class I took in high school and I always had an interest in studying WWII and the Holocaust, so I was super excited for this experience. The cities in the itinerary were Munich and Nuremberg, Germany, Vienna, Austria, Prague, Czechia, and Krakow, Poland. I traveled with Dr. Cynthia Paces and this trip occurred in January of my sophomore year in 2020 – right before the world shut down from Covid about a month later. We visited a number of museums with the Oskar Schindler Museum being one of my favorites. During this trip we also visited 2 different concentration/death camps: Theresienstadt (Terezin) and Auschwitz. It was on this trip that I started to think about how Europeans live among so much important history in their daily lives which helped inspire me to write an honors thesis. I was even able to use my own photographs, thoughts, and commentary on the different places we experienced in Munich and Nuremberg. While the trip was focused on the Holocaust, we immersed ourselves in the culture and other histories of the various countries we visited. The dosage of European culture even surprised us on occasion. One example of this being how we embarked on an overnight sleeper train from Prague to Krakow which was something I would have never done on my own. It was certainly a culture shock to our American comforts. Yet, we still all shared wonderful memories of drinking out of big beer steins at the Hofbrauhaus, chatting with Europeans at the bar inside our Vienna hostel, eating authentic pierogies, and visiting Prague Castle where the Defenestration of Prague took place and seeing the exact window!

2) We know you worked hard on writing your honors thesis. Can you talk about your experience with this and what it was like working closely with a faculty member on this project?

My honors thesis was titled Bavarian Monuments and Memory in Post Nazi Germany. Writing an honors thesis was something that I never thought I would have wanted to pursue, but it was one of the most fulfilling achievements I ever accomplished in my life. It was a year-long project that really pushed me to my potential as a historian. There were many late nights of searching the archives and databases for sources that would support my position as well as writing the pages. Since there were other students writing honors thesis at the same time as me, we formed a supportive cohort where we would share sources if we came across their topic, or would read a section they wanted someone to look at and provide feedback.

This project allowed me to combine my passions of traveling and European History. Much of the inspiration for this project came from my study abroad experience in Central and Eastern Europe with Dr. Paces, who also encouraged me to pursue an honors thesis. It baffled me that while I was visiting all of these monuments that were still standing from Nazi Germany, contemporary Germans were passing by them as if the edifices lacked significance. I wondered how did Germans in Bavaria, where Nazism was born, wrestle with the idea they live among reminders of their homeland serving as a perpetrator of WWII and genocide. I questioned the significance of the monuments that remained standing and whether or not they should be taken down.

I was extremely fortunate enough to work with the European History expert herself, Dr. Paces, on this project. She was always there for support in recommending books, articles, and primary sources for me to
investigate. Dr. Paces’ wealth of knowledge of European History and her own research with the concept of memory and memorialization really steered me in the right direction to forming the topics that I covered
in my thesis. Writing the thesis was not always an easy and straightforward path. I had an original plan to write strictly about Nuremberg, but eventually it evolved to include more topics from Bavaria as a whole.
The sources and documents drove the history that I was writing about. I even wrote my thesis in different sections on the different topics I covered such as Zeppelin Field, The Documentation Center, Dachau,
Triumph of the Will, and contemporary memory that I organized the “chapters” of my thesis near the due date. Dr. Paces helped me all throughout the drafting process and provided valuable feedback daily on
ways for me to improve my writing mechanics and how to analyze my sources better. My finished thesis ended up being 51 pages long.

3) You were a Spanish minor in addition to being a History/Secondary Education major. Can you discuss this experience and how it is helping you in your role as a classroom teacher?
When I was attending TCNJ, I knew that earning a full time/ tenure track History teacher position would be a challenge for someone fresh out of college. I wanted to make sure I provided myself with every advantage possible to make myself marketable to school districts I was applying to. After taking Italian throughout middle and high school, I made the decision to enroll in Spanish 101 to fulfill the TCNJ language requirement thinking I would just go up to Spanish 103 and be proficient enough to put it on my resume that I speak Spanish. Yet, I came to the realization that taking only 3 Spanish classes would not allow me to reach a level of fluency by any means. With the encouragement from Dr. Marimar Huguet-Jerez and Dr. Ann Warner-Ault from the Spanish department, I continued to take Spanish courses at the 200 and 300 level to earn a minor. My professors helped me with my class schedule each semester so that I would remain on course to graduate within 4 years with a double major and minor. I loved every minute of learning Spanish at TCNJ. I had many opportunities to give oral presentations on the history and culture of many Spanish speaking countries. I even had the opportunity to travel to Peru and visit Machu Picchu with Dr. Warner-Ault to study the history and civilization of the Inca and immerse myself in the Spanish language to enhance my proficiency. Picking up the Spanish minor made me a better historian, teacher, communicator, and learner.

During my first year teaching, I taught 7th grade Social Studies in Franklin Township (Somerset County). I often used my Spanish speaking abilities to communicate to families about their student’s progress in class. Having that ability to speak Spanish I gained from TCNJ allowed my students’ families to feel like they belonged and had a role in helping their students succeed. Additionally, having done my clinical experiences in Trenton and Franklin Township (Somerset County), I was able to provide translated activities for my ELL students and modify assignments for them to achieve their individualized learning goals. This helped me gain valuable experience to discuss when it came to interviewing and earning jobs.

4) Can you discuss your clinical teaching experiences and how these helped prepare you for your career in teaching?
My clinical one experience was at Hedgepeth Williams Middle School in Trenton, NJ where I taught 6th grade Social Studies and my clinical two experience was at Franklin High School in Franklin Township, NJ (Somerset County) where I taught World History and Personal Finance. The clinicals gave me diverse experiences beyond my own suburban childhood schooling with a variety of age groups. My clinical experiences allowed me to try out different teaching styles and deliveries of content. I was able to navigate what engaged students of all learning abilities. I was able to test out a variety of formative and summative assessments. I was able to make mistakes and learn from them while receiving feedback from my cooperating teachers and reflecting on how I could make the assessment or lesson better.
It also provided me with the opportunity to work with other teachers to observe and ask questions about their classes and teaching styles so that I would be able to develop my own. I would encourage any future teacher to talk to as many current teachers as possible across all content areas during their clinicals. The profession of Education is small and a lot of people know each other, so it is important to build a good reputation and network!

5) Speaking of your work as a teacher, can you talk about where you are working, how you got the job and what you are doing at your school in terms of your subject preps and extra curricular activities?
I am currently working at the place I always dreamed of working at since I was in high school – at the very same place I went to high school, Hillsborough High School. I have always admired my high school history teachers and now I get to work with them everyday. Currently, I teach 4 sections of AP United States History and 1 section of CP Economics.

Regarding my journey to getting a job at Hillsborough High School, I had a shoe in the door as I was a former student and I have substituted there between 2020 and when I began my job in Franklin in the fall of 2022. Additionally, I stayed in touch with many of my former teachers who were able to inform the administrators that I was a great applicant (of course I would eventually come to prove that). I went through a typical, standard interview process with Hillsborough’s Social Studies supervisor (my current boss- who was also new to the district and did not know me at all) where I was asked questions such as “how do you use data to make informed pedagogical decisions” and “what sets you apart from the other applicants”. After successfully answering several questions, I was then asked to do a demo lesson. I was told I was to teach the students about how the borders of the Middle East were drawn after WWI to a Freshman in-class resource World History course.

This lesson was held the week right before I was going to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, so I was listening to Taylor Swift music to prepare myself for the concert but then the lyrics to “Anti-Hero” kept rolling over in my head “It’s me, Hi! I’m the problem, it’s me. At tea time, everybody agrees”. I then thought to myself that Great Britain played a big role in dictating the Middle East’s borders (through the Treaty of Versailles, Balfour Declaration, and Sykes-Picot Agreement) so they were “the problem”. France, the Ottoman Empire, Arab States, and an Israeli State were also part of the whole situation in figuring out the Middle East’s borders post WWI. Therefore, I found 4 more Taylor Swift lyrics from four different songs that matched their sentiment and perspective. Each song lyric was then written on separate post-it chart paper and students had to move around the room and figure out which nation/state matched the right perspective by placing a sticky note on the chart with which country they think the lyric belonged to. Students were also given handouts with key information that helped guide them with their decision making which they had to examine. The answers were not clear cut, but during the debrief, students then had to back up as to why they determined a certain state belonged to the lyric they chose. When designing the lesson, I knew I wanted the students to be active and move around the classroom. I wanted to make it relevant to their lives as teenagers so that there would be full engagement in learning about a topic that they may not find interesting otherwise. Students were also engaged because they were encouraged to collaborate with their groupings to figure out which nation/state belonged to the song lyric by examining the documents I provided them. These groupings were randomly generated by the color sticky notes they were given upon entering the classroom. Students were then asked to complete an exit ticket to help them understand that their objective was met.

The following Tuesday (after attending the Eras Tour) I received a phone call offering me the job and I have been reunited with my former high school ever since and I know I am in a place and in a job that I want to be in for a very long time. Since “coming home”, I have been able to get involved by working ticketing for sporting events and chaperoning school dances. I am hoping to start up a History Club and bring a chapter of National History Day to HHS.

6) It seems like you are traveling a lot. Can you talk about these experiences and how these inform your work as a teacher? Can you also talk about your decision to take the Rwanda study
abroad trip that TCNJ is offering?
I love traveling. One reason I wanted to become a history teacher was so that I could share my enthusiasm for seeing the world, its people, and cultures with future generations of learners. In high school I was
fortunate enough to go on two EF Educational Tours to Europe during the summers after my junior and senior years of high school. I hope to bring my own students on these wonderful experiences. Those trips from high school made me want to continue traveling to all corners of the world. So far I have been to 23 different countries and will have traveled to 28 different countries after this summer of 2024. Some of my favorite countries I have been to include Japan, Egypt, and Spain. I have self funded every single one of the trips I have been on since I was 16 by working part time. Since my very first international trip in 2017, it has become a goal of mine to visit at least one new country each year and so far I have kept my own promise.

I consider my travels to be my own form of professional development. I seize any opportunity that allows me to include anecdotes, stories, or my own photographs from my own trips in the classroom. Currently, I teach AP United States History and when I was teaching about D-Day, I told the story of how the Allied Forces landed in Normandy through my own photos I took on my travels. I had students look at images from 1944 side by side to images of my images from my trip in 2018. I noticed that my students were highly engaged and were excited to learn about history knowing that their teacher had been to the place they were learning about. I even brought in my own Normandy sand that I collected from Omaha Beach to help bring the history alive for my students. Even when I taught 7th grade Social Studies in Franklin, I was able to use my photos to show the different sites I traveled to in Egypt when we learned about the Ancient Egyptians. I hope to one day teach World History in my current district so that I am able to include even more of my stories and photos for my students to examine. While I have visited the African continent before through Egypt and Morocco, I have never visited Sub-Saharan Africa. It has always been a dream of mine to go on a safari as well. When I found out TCNJ was offering a study tour for alumni, my interest was definitely piqued… but when I found out that Dr. Paces was one of the professors running the trip, I knew I had to book the trip! Rwanda was also always a place I have been curious about since my freshman year of high school. Up until then, the only genocide I had ever really known about was the Holocaust and I thought that was the only time ever when people were murdered for being “different” in human history. I remember sitting in my own World History class and watching the film Hotel Rwanda and being mortified, yet fascinated by how the events of a genocide developed years after Europe’s Holocaust. I studied much about the Holocaust and Germany’s memory, and reckoning of their role in WWII for my honors thesis. With this trip to Rwanda, it will allow me to reflect on my craft as a historian to understand how Rwanda reckons their past from 30 years ago and how they are moving forward as a country just as I have examined Germany. I look forward to speaking with both perpetrators and victims of the Rwandan Genocide and share their stories with my own students when I return. As more and more Holocaust survivors pass, the only pieces left of them will be their memory and what monuments and memorials were erected in their honor, but with Rwanda, this is a fairly recent genocide so I am also quite curious to see first hand how their people are preserving the memory of their victims as each generation progresses.

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