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Paul Tortorella Inspires Students Through Passionate Teaching at a Youth Correctional Facility

Looking outside the classroom window at Bellesini Academy, Paul Tortorella, Instructor in English, watched his students play on the asphalt parking lot. Tortorella wrote a poem inspired by the children’s creativity and innocence.

The poem reads, “Last night I dreamed a bizarre dream / I was playing kickball in the starry, dynamic night sky / The ball was the moon… Is it not viable that in my dream I was simply a star / Not vapid, but filled with night energy.”

Tortorella took a sabbatical this past year to pursue teaching at Bellesini Academy, an all-boys school in Lawrence, Mass., and the Worcester Secure Treatment Facility treatment center in Marlboro, Mass., in the hope of expanding his teaching experience.

“I applied for a sabbatical because I wanted to teach outside campus walls, expand my field of operations and… help show people some of the things our school cares about. You can call it ‘Non Sibi,’ outreach, collaboration or even education, but what it really is [is] an interest in humanity,” wrote Tortorella in an email to The Phillipian.

Tortorella spent the fall working with Amy Conklin at Bellesini Academy, a teacher there, and her seventh and eighth grade students.

Conklin said that the students at Bellesini absorbed Tortorella’s teaching right away, latching onto his humor and his enthusiasm for literature.

Conklin wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “The students looked forward to the days [Tortorella] came in to teach. He held extremely high expectations for their learning and encouraged all students to become active participants in the classroom. The more [often] he came, the more the students were encouraged to be active readers as well as strong listeners.”

In addition to impacting students at Bellesini, Tortorella also connected with teachers.

“As a teacher, [Tortorella] has reminded me the importance of voice. At times, I find myself always planning lessons that integrate some type of technology or hands-on activity to keep the students interested and engaged, but very simply, [Tortorella] reminded me when you know and love your craft, that sometimes no gimmicks are necessary. Just a teacher and… [a] book holds a lot of power,” said Conklin.

Tortorella also spearheaded a pilot program in collaboration with Andover’s existing Writing Center, bringing Andover students to Bellesini to help the boys craft and edit their descriptive writing assignments, which included everything from writing about courage to writing a paragraph describing a famous photo or painting.

Alex Humphreys ’15, who participated in the Writing Center at Bellesini, said, “The first time I went, I worked with two sixth graders on an assignment about their courageous moment. The first kid wrote about how he had to comfort and support his family, including his mother, after his father left them, and the second kid wrote about how he had to leave his family and friends in Peru at age six so he could come to America with his dad.”

He continued, “It was hard for them to relive those events, and it was especially hard to tell someone they had never met before such personal details about their life. Gaining their trust and seeing that transition from discomfort to pride was one of the more rewarding experiences of my life.”

By the time Tortorella left Bellesini, Conklin remarked that his students had grown to be more confident writers, employing sophisticated vocabulary and developing more thoughtful ideas.

“[Tortorella’s] love of literature transcends to all students. He has left a permanent mark on them. We also have more rich literature discussions as a result of his visits,” said Conklin.

Tortorella undertook a massive change in scenery in the winter, teaching at the Worcester Secure Treatment Facility. With classes scaled down from Bellesini’s 20 to a mere six students, Tortorella learned to adapt to the high security and restrictions inside and outside of the classroom.

Tortorella said, “I was confined to the classroom, and I walked down a hall between the guards. You couldn’t talk to the kids outside the class. [You could] maybe nod to them if you saw them lined up to go into another class or if they were in the conference room talking to a guard or counselor.”

Tortorella said that evolving to this environment was integral to his experience and success as a teacher.

“Adjust or you don’t survive. It comes with experience. I was surprised a lot by all of the boys [and] how much they appreciated the attention they received. I teach because that is what I am – a teacher. I don’t think about or care about rewards. But when the kids look at you, and you know you have connected on a deep human level, that reward I’ll take,” said Tortorella.

Tortorella experienced the most freedom in the detention facility as he devised his own six-week-long curriculum after observing classes for a couple of weeks. He ultimately decided to teach Romantic Poetry.

“They loved [the subject]. They loved imagining being out of doors, in nature, and of course, there [are] many romantic poems about love and relationships. It was very moving, sad perhaps, but I could also see their spirits soar. I am getting emotional right now remembering my students there,” said Tortorella. Tortorella’s poetry program required the students to read, listen to, write and analyze a variety of different styles of poems in his signature engaging manner, incorporating technology, rap music and slam poetry to make his assignments more relatable to the students.

English Language Arts teacher Tony Nuzzetti, who spent four days per week with Tortorella in the classroom, wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “As a teacher in this facility for over 40 years, I had a personal bias that poetry and juvenile delinquents really don’t mix well… [Tortorella’s] innovative and creative techniques of infusing poetry with music, rap, slam poetry, videos and images made it all so appetizing to the students and left them hungry for more.” “He was non-threatening, flexible, open-minded, caring and truly enjoyed teaching about poetry. He never forced anything on these students and always made them feel that their contributions, however minimal, were important and worth noting,” continued Nuzzetti.

The highlight of Tortorella’s work with the Treatment Facility was the Renga, an ancient Japanese poetic form from which the haiku is derived. A collaborative poem, Tortorella’s students and the students in the English elective called “Lockdown,” taught by Thomas Kane, Instructor in English, each contributed a stanza. Students from both groups built on each other’s work, writing about themes including nature, the seasons and love.

Kane said, “They got the incarcerated students’ minds to travel outside of the facility, as they were able to produce something with their imaginations that transcended the walls. It connected them with other people they otherwise wouldn’t have connected to.”

David Gutierrez ’15, one of Kane’s students, said that the collaborative project broadened his perspective of and appreciation for the Andover community. Gutierrez said, “The most rewarding aspect of writing the poem was the ability to connect with people outside of the Andover bubble. [Tortorella’s] work is so important… Reading the poems made me realize that many of these kids had already given up on being educated. They talked about [questions like] ‘Why am I here?’ And [this] shows that there are issues within… public education and [other] communities that must be fixed.”

Tortorella’s yearlong sabbatical impacted a wide range of students, teachers and educational programs. He leaves behind a legacy of dedication and innovation in the classrooms that he visited.

Tortorella will continue his collaboration with Bellesini by expanding the Mobile Writing Center and with the Treatment Facility by establishing a more permanent pen pal program with Kane’s class.

May 29, 2015