Teacher of the Year: DeJulio gives green light to student activism
Jennifer DeJulio’s proudest moment of the year came watching her students organize a memorial walkout for the victims of a school shooting that occurred on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“I said, ‘OK, let’s all meet in my room after school one day,’” said DeJulio, a social studies teacher at Ridgefield High School and the district’s Teacher of the Year.
“[I said] let’s talk security logistics, and let’s talk moving 1,900 people. … They were in charge of it [from there]. … It was just really great that I got to be the one that helped them get it together.”
DeJulio, who also serves as the school’s student government adviser, said she was honored by the district’s award.
Shortly after the award was announced on May 10, DeJulio said, a former student messaged her on Facebook to congratulate her — and to let her know she had been inspired to also pursue a career as a high school teacher.
“She said, ‘Thank you so much for sparking my love of history,’” DeJulio recalled. “There has been a lot of excitement, but that little moment really touched me.”
Winding her way through the halls that led back to her classroom last Friday, May 11, DeJulio stopped to chat with a group of sophomore students busy drawing historical timelines on shower curtains for another class.
“I do think the point of teaching U.S. history is to make our students engaged citizens, whatever way that is to them,” she told The Press. “So the fact that so many of my young students are getting involved in political marches and political movements … all of that I feel like that is just the fruit of the labor of teaching them about, you know, why George Washington became the president.”
In January, DeJulio ran into a group of her students on her way to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington.
“I was in Grand Central, I had just gotten off the train and I was going for the subway, and I heard ‘Miss DeJulio!’ and I turned around and there were two of my students,” she said.
She also attended the March on Washington in January 2017 — a collection of photographs is pinned to the wall beside her desk.
“I have my voter card up there,” DeJulio said, gesturing at her “voter report card,” which tracks her participation in elections, tacked on the wall.
“I like to keep that up there because I voted in every single election since I turned 18, and I like to tell the kids that.”
DeJulio’s lessons often involve comedy as a way to keep students engaged.
“That’s just the philosophy of my class — I want you to want to be here,” DeJulio said. “If you’re happy and comfortable, then you’re going to learn. If you’re not, then no one’s paying attention to the results of the compromise of 1850.
“I feel like I laugh every day,” she added. “If you can’t laugh at some of the terrible things, then it would be too depressing.”
Dackerie Bowes, a junior, said DeJulio eschews the typical uniform of a high school teacher — buttoned shirt, heels and a skirt — in favor of T-shirts bearing history puns, something that helps students feel at ease.
Her classroom is also decorated in a mash-up of history and pop-culture references.
A life-size cutout of Ron Swanson, the loudly libertarian Parks and Recreation director played by Nick Offerman on the TV show Parks and Recreation, stands next to her desk, near photographs of Abraham Lincoln — “Babe-raham Lincoln,” a T-shirt on the wall calls him. A campaign poster to re-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt hangs just below the ceiling.
“Her class requires little memorization of facts; you simply just remember the way she told the stories,” Bowes said.
DeJulio creates “an undeniably rare comfort zone for teens,” she added.
Hip-hop and history
DeJulio said she tries to link lessons about the past to current events.
Students in her American Studies class recently talked about the music video for This Is America,” by hip-hop artist Childish Gambino. The song contrasts themes of pain and joy in African American life in the United States — punctured by sudden, uncomfortable scenes of violence.
Her love of 1990s hip-hop and Broadway musicals once helped draw a quiet student out of his shell, she recalled, after she started using a 2009 performance by the creator of the runaway hip-hop musical Hamilton in her history class.
“There was this one quiet boy — his name was Philip — who was so into it, he learned the whole rap and then performed it for the class,” DeJulio said. “It was like … ‘You never talk, and then you enjoyed this so much that you rapped in front of the whole class.’”
Her teaching style has drawn the praise of the district’s top official.
“What has impressed me about Ms. DeJulio is her deep understanding of the needs of the students at RHS,” said acting Superintendent Dr. Robert Miller.
“She has taken the time to learn, understand, and develop a strong relationship with RHS students. This has transcended her classroom through the work she does with RHS student government.”
In her time off, DeJulio said, she travels to historic sites in the United States, where she uses Instagram to show her students where she’s been.
She teaches three classes this year: Intro to Sociology, AP U.S. History, and American Studies — a double-period class she shares with English teacher Andrew Maccabe.
In her nomination for the award, the district said the 12-year veteran of the Ridgefield public school system “instills in her students the ability to create history.”
“She is someone who always focuses her work on the students to promote their engagement,” said Board of Education Chairwoman Fran Walton. “She has a warm and vibrant manner that builds community in her classroom.”
A Danbury native, DeJulio attended Immaculate High School and the University of Connecticut.
She said she was inspired to teach by her grandmother, who rejected the role of a 1950s housewife to follow a career in real estate before eventually owning an agency.
“The first day of real estate school, they asked her to write down a goal for herself, and she wrote down the goal to one day own a Cadillac, because she saw that as a sign that she made it,” DeJulio said. “When I was applying to college, she got the Cadillac. So she’s the lady I look up to.”