2019 Advisor of Excellence Award Winner - Lenny Oppedisano
I used to tell the story of the moment I knew that I needed Big Picture, but it was actually before I ever knew Big Picture existed. I was teaching 7th grade science in the traditional Jr/Sr high school, and the students were dissecting owl pellets. I teach Biology, that’s not just something I do for kicks. We were approaching the end of a 40-minute period when one young man was just getting his technique down, meticulously picking the tiny bones and teeth from the tightly packed fur and arranging them on a paper towel. He was so into it that he didn’t hear my cues to clean up. I was watching him when the bell rang and there was a wave of disappointment and frustration that washed over his his face. He wasn’t done learning. He was just getting started.
I hated those bells because we all know that is not how the human brain works. That moment frustrated me as a teacher and it wasn’t long after that, that I visited a Big Picture school in the Bronx, and attended my first Big Bang at Bryant College in 2008. And That Fall Susan Osborn started the LaFayette Big Picture High School with me, an LTI coordinator, 15 students, and two rooms borrowed from the elementary school.
Big Picture has helped me grow in so many ways in the past 11 years (and if you are doing the math, that means I am going into the 401 year of my 3rd advisory cycle). I have basically become a Big Picture student. I can’t conceive that had I stayed in a traditional educational setting, that I would have sang Cat Steven’s Father and Son to my advisory, learned to round pen the terrifying beasts some call horses, or stand on Newport Beach and watch a student rip his cast off with his teeth after his taking his first plunge the ocean.
I did the math and I have enjoyed over 500 student exhibitions and I have learned something new from every one of them. An exhibition is presentation given by students to peers, parents, staff, and mentors. It’s an opportunity to share, explain and celebrate what students did, created and learned. I’ve also learned from hundreds of internship site visits. In the Big Picture model students are out at internships two days a week engaged in real work in their field of interest. Advisors conduct visits to check in, develop LTI projects and at times work through obstacles. But every visit is a learning experience for me because my students are training and caring for animals, building structures, welding, restoring, and renovating. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about cars, computers, music therapy, criminal justice, finances, photography and wilderness survival from my students and their mentors.
I am grateful for every one of those opportunities. But what’s most important is the benefit to students. Big Picture has been so many things to our students: a refuge, a family, a path to opportunity, proof that someone cares unconditionally, a place to take risks, a place to fail safely, and a reason to invest on themselves.
So much of that is because of the mentors that operate beyond the school walls. This model has tapped into a precious resource that not only makes learning way more interesting, but practical. I could never teach my students what hundreds of mentors have taught them. I have had students that definitely would have dropped out if not for their internships and many have gained employment at their internship sites.
Our school district borders the sovereign Onondaga Nation. When students from the Nation reach 9th grade, they can either go to the traditional high school or our Big Picture School. We have always endeavored to provide those students with an educational path that not only allowed them to maintain their culture, but supported and encouraged it. I feel strongly that the Big Picture Model serves my Native students uniquely in a number of ways. Allowing students the space and time to engage in learning by respecting different learning styles, giving the opportunity to create projects around topics that are culturally significant and abandoning a system of tests and quizzes that is punitive to students who miss school to attend ceremonies. Ceremonies with timing dictated by the seasons, the moon and nature rather than a calendar. Ceremonies that are thousands of years older than the United States of America.
And BP has been a place where all students have a voice. Not just an opinion, but a culture that honors different perspectives. Because different perspectives offer different solutions.
That is really what we need after all, isn’t it?
Now there are many things happening in the educational system that make me optimistic. But there are also things that cause great concern.
We need an environment where differences can be worked out through rational dialogue, instead of conflict. Advisory provides that space. We need a structure for young learners that encourages creativity and innovation not strict adherence to archaic methods, skills and values. Because really what we are doing is investing heavily in our most valuable resource, our students. They hold the solutions for tomorrow’s problems and will dictate the course of humanity.
And although Big Picture is not necessarily a panacea to all the worlds woes, a young person that is actively engaged in something doesn’t need to look towards substances for satisfaction, when they are challenged they grow and gain grit for the challenges ahead in life, and when they are valued by their community, they learn to better value themselves.
That is why the world needs Big Picture and the network of opportunities and support it provides for its students and families.
I am the product of the Big Picture model and the amazing professionals that I have worked with. I have been coached by Charlie Adler, Joe Bataglia, and Rachel Brian. Received professional development from Sarah Bertucci and collaborated with Jen Ghidu. I have learned from every student and staff that has visited our school from Holland, or Kenya or even New Jersey. And I have worked along side Susan Osborn and LaFayette BPs amazing staff. You have all been my mentors.
I am asked on occasion, how it is that I don’t burn out. Advisor burnout is real. My advice is to be more of a student than a teacher. Keep doing trying and doing new things. Learn with your students and from your students. In the past 11 years I have learned from and with many of you and I know that the Big Picture community is the most caring, honest, innovative and student-centered body of educators in the world. That’s is why it is so humbling to receive this distinction. I am deeply touched by this honor. The Big Picture network has shaped who I am as an educator. And if you are looking for inspiration, or more wind for your sails, look around this room. Where else can you find teachers who dance in the street. Where else can you find a room of over 500 people who are pumped about an innovative path to educating students. You inspire me and this is what fuels me. Thank you.