May 2015 Issue
April 29, 2015

Teacher of the Year lets in the light for his Latin students

Author: By Leslie Duncan Fottrell
Source: NYSUT United
Some of Mr. G's students work on language presentations during study hall. Front row, from left: Justin Putnam, Sedrik Nellis and Riley Palmer. Back row: Tyler Unislawski, teacher Charlie Giglio, Emily Ross, Bradley Mulligan and Joshua Young. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.
Caption: Some of Mr. G's students work on language presentations during study hall. Front row, from left: Justin Putnam, Sedrik Nellis and Riley Palmer. Back row: Tyler Unislawski, teacher Charlie Giglio, Emily Ross, Bradley Mulligan and Joshua Young. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

Thunderous applause fills the gymnasium. Bull horns bleat, feet stamp and the Gloversville High School cheer squad and mascot line up to create a path for him to walk through toward the dais.

Is it a rock star? A movie star? The president perhaps? Who else could cause so much commotion by merely walking into a room?

Students in the bleachers hold handmade signs aloft. The signs are big; they are colorful; they are in Latin.

Yes, in Latin.

Magna cum laude, with great praise, reads one. Per aspera ad astra, through hardship to the stars, reads another.

Latin teacher Charles Giglio (pronounced "JIH-leo") may be the 2015 New York State Teacher of the Year, but in this town he is also a rock star. The pep rally that honors him is packed with students grades 8-12, teachers, administrators, parents and politicians.

The large gym takes time for Giglio to cross, and the applause and hoots continue until "Mr. G," as most students call him, reaches the dais and raises his hands for quiet. Then he says something extraordinary: "Take out your phones right now. I've already tweeted you on my way down here."

Students exhale another burst of excited chatter as they access their Twitter accounts and see Giglio's invitation to join him in his year-long journey as teacher of the year.

It may not seem remarkable that the 2015 Teacher of the Year is tweeting his students until you consider Giglio began his teaching career in 1964, a time when the most high-tech portable device widely available to teenagers was a transistor radio — and heaven help the student caught listening to one in school.

His initiation into public education didn't go smoothly. "My first year of teaching was almost my last," Giglio says. "I had 42 students in my class. I had no idea what I was doing and thought 'What am I doing here? I have a degree in Latin and Greek and now I'm teaching fifth-graders.'"

One day a colleague came to him and offered to help. And that, he says changed his life. "She reached out to me and taught me how to teach little kids. I never forgot it. And I think that's the root of my teaching today."

Clint Wagner, president of the Gloversville Teachers Association, says Giglio's ability to connect with students was one of the reasons he deserves the title "Teacher of the Year."

"I honestly believe that students look to take his classes not just because of the way he teaches, but because of the man he is," he says.

Giglio teaches all five Latin classes for the Gloversville Enlarged School District, beginning with eighth-graders and Latin I and ending with Latin V. Students who score high enough on the year-end exam in Latin IV and V may qualify for college credit through the University at Albany.

Giglio's motto for teacher of the year is fiat lux — let there be light. He seeks to illuminate the minds of his students, not just with Latin, but in a holistic way: teaching, advising, leading and mentoring students about Latin, philosophy and life in general. He says Latin helps his students to think, reason and deduce.

Latin is no longer a conversational language; but in Giglio's class it is recited and sung every day. Music is a critical component of Giglio's classroom. "Let's have a little help from Mozart," he tells his students as he pushes the play button. "Music is very good for the gray matter, as a recent New York Times article said."

Today the students are working on "De Amicitia" by Cicero, the ancient Roman philosopher and politician. "'De Amicitia' is a beautiful treatise on friendship," says Giglio, and advises students, "Remember that in an oration the prose language had to be a little flowery and the words are not always sequential."

The students dig into dictionaries and laptop computers for help. "Latin helps with English," says Nicholas Ferrara, a sophomore. "You figure out other words more easily. It gives you a bigger vocabulary."

As they work, David Shibley circulates. He is the permanent substitute for Giglio's classes this year, hired to ensure continuity and seamless class coverage during Giglio's teacher-of-the-year duties. Shibley says Giglio's greatest strength is his "ability to communicate with the students and to teach life lessons while using Latin as a vehicle."

A wet, black nose followed by a swish of blonde fur emerges from underneath a clutch of student desks. Several hands reach out to pet Tanner as he makes his way to and under another clutch of desks. Tanner is Mr. G's yellow lab, a certified therapy dog who comes to school every other week to visit special education students during Mr. G's planning periods. Tanner also assists in Latin class, moving from desk to desk just as Mr. G does. (For more on Tanner, see blogs.nysut.org.)

Learning Latin is difficult. But Giglio thinks the return is worth it. "I believe if you are an educated person you can get any job you want. You become articulate. You can read, you can think. When I graduated from university with my degree in Latin and Greek, even though I enjoyed teaching it for a little while, I did a lot of other things."

Since 1964, Giglio has been an elementary teacher, an elementary principal, an adjunct professor, an educational administrator within the prison system and a forensic program administrator for New York state. It was from this career that Giglio had retired when he saw the want ad for a Latin teacher in Gloversville. He went full circle, returning to teach Latin to middle and high school students.

Respect is integral in his classroom. "The word respect [in Latin] means 'to take a good look at,'" says Giglio, who uses his two-hour round trip commute to think about what he wants to accomplish with his students each day. He also models the behavior he expects for his students. "How I speak to them, how I want them to speak to me and each other," even the tone of voice. "I'm very proud of my students."

His Latin students travel to the cloisters and other venues in New York City, to classical concerts in Troy, to Washington, D.C., and even to Rome. It's part of their five-year journey with Mr. G, who has used a variety of tactics, from fundraising to paying out of his pocket, so even the neediest of students can go on trips.

And even after they graduate Giglio's students keep coming back. Former students created a Latin Alumni club, which meets twice a year as Giglio's "community of learners." The club, Giglio says, is a great way for students to maintain their friendships and support system.

Cody Webber, a physics and engineering double major at Dartmouth and Skidmore colleges, is a member. "Latin really helped with my writing. It helped me find a voice both professionally and personally. If I was doing something scientifically or creatively, it helped me do both in different ways."

"Charlie Giglio is an extraordinary educator," says NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. "He was hired to phase out a Latin program in Gloversville and instead has revamped and revitalized the program by virtue of his teaching ability, his caring nature and his ability to connect with students and the community."

Giglio's mentoring goes beyond students and new teachers. "I consider him my mentor," says Gloversville High School principal Richard DeMallie, who was a first- year administrator when Giglio was hired. "I certainly benefited from his experience as a principal and as an administrator." DeMallie says Giglio was also very helpful to him through two tenure appointments and his doctoral dissertation.

DeMallie says Giglio's commitment to lifelong learning is inspiring. "In one of my evaluations I said 'Charlie you need to incorporate technology into your class.' He petitioned the business office for a laptop cart and received it and incorporated that into the curriculum."

And, of course, he tweets.

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