Recognizing Excellence in the Field of Education:
Rebecca DiBrienza Named 2020 Teacher of the Year
By Keri A. Giannotti, Museum Educator
Since 2018, the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation has recognized one teacher from the State of New Jersey who has made valuable contributions to the study and teaching of the Vietnam War Era. The Foundation seeks to celebrate and show appreciation to our long-time network of educators that has made teaching this complex history a priority.
Rebecca DiBrienza was selected by the Teacher of the Year Committee, consisting of staff, board members, and volunteers, for her work teaching the era and for her multiple collaborations with the Foundation. “As a lifelong learner and self-professed history nerd, I’m thankful that organizations like the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation exist to keep my passion for history alive and consistently provide fresh new ideas to think about,” Rebecca said when she was informed she would be the honoree this year.
Rebecca has been an educator for 10 years and an avid music fan for 32 years. She has been able to incorporate her love of music into her Social Studies classroom at Scotch Plains Fanwood High School. Rebecca has developed a unique approach to teaching U.S. History through song, by which students in her classes learn about fundamental genres of American music, what they sound like, what inspired them, and how technology has helped music evolve. Each unit is accompanied by a playlist and a “song of the week” as a valuable primary source that relates to the content and helps convey to the students the context of a given time period. She has found that this stimulates discussion, sharpens analytical thinking skills, increases student engagement, and creates a love for the social studies.
“I feel so fortunate that I can infuse my professional life with the things I love! Music is also an excellent way to learn about the past— how people felt about the world they were living in, their opinions and struggles, their tastes, and what they taught was fun. It’s both material culture and non-material culture, so as a historian, it really helps me understand an era.”
When planning for our Special Exhibit, “Soundtrack of a Changing Nation: The Music of the Vietnam Era,” Rebecca served as a consultant in curating the exhibit and preparing educational materials to accompany it. She worked with our Museum Director Greg Waters to source artifacts from local archives, including the Bruce Springsteen Archive at Monmouth University, and writing captions. She worked with our Museum Educator to create three lesson plans that include the music of the era and various war-related topics for each level: Elementary, Middle, and High School. She viewed this as a way of mentoring other teachers and encouraging them to bring music into the classroom. She has presented at multiple conferences, including the New Jersey Council for Social Studies Annual Conferences, to share her extensive knowledge and talents. When asked what her favorite song of or related to the Vietnam Era, her response was “Born in the USA” by New Jersey Native Bruce Springsteen “because it captures the pain and the struggle of returning Veterans, and it got Americans thinking about whether or not we’re keeping our promise to them.”
Her 100-plus students tour the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial annually as a planned school field trip. Rebecca’s favorite thing about the trip is the personal touch that every Veteran Tour Guide provides. Their time and attention allow students to ask questions freely, build empathy for the challenges American servicemen experience, and gain ideas for the oral history project they conduct at the end of the year. This aligns with why Rebecca believes this era is important. In her own words “it allows students to put human faces and individual stories and experiences into the context of a larger global conflict”.
Rebecca earned her bachelor’s degree in history from Bryn Mawr College and a master’s degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2017, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study the German educational system, particularly the ways in which they commmeorate the vicitims of the Holocaust, teach students the importance of human rights, and create vocational porgrams that lead to gainful empoyment. She is an avid “teacher traveler” and has participated in multiple professional development experiences, including those with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the USS Midway.
For more information on how to register for the 20th Annual Interdisciplinary Forum, please visit http://www.njvvmf.org/event/annual-educator-forum/
The NJVVMF Teacher of the Year Committee is always looking for nominations from colleagues, administrators, and community members. If you know of a teacher that is making important contributions to the teaching of the Vietnam Era, please send their name, school district, and a little bit about why they should be nominated to Keri A. Giannotti at firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration by the committee.