Meet Joe Nappi: Facing History Educator and New Jersey State Teacher of the Year | Facing History & Ourselves
Portrait of Joe Nappi

Meet Joe Nappi: Facing History Educator and New Jersey State Teacher of the Year

Award-winning teacher Joe Nappi talks about his unlikely journey into teaching and the Facing History workshop that changed the course of his career.

Facing History is so proud of our award-winning teachers. We know that educators face enormous obstacles, including an increase in teacher turnover, political pressure, and the learning gaps that persist in our education system. Yet, despite the many challenges, Facing History works with a growing number of teachers whose out-of-the-box thinking and resolve to make a difference in the world brings new light and energy into classrooms. 

This month we’re delighted to recognize another of our award-winning teachers, Joe Nappi. Joe, who teaches US History and a class called Holocaust, Genocide, and Modern Humanity at Monmouth Regional High School, is beloved by students and colleagues alike. In addition to serving as advisor to the school’s Key Club and a co-advisor of the Student Council, Joe holds an impressive list of accolades that includes the Ida and Jeff Margolis Award for excellence in MultiCultural Education, Monmouth Regional Teacher of the Year, and the Dr. Frank Kaplowitz Outstanding Human Rights Educator of the Year Award from Kean University. 

Joe was recently named the 2023 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. He spent some time with us to talk about his unlikely journey into teaching, classroom moments that bring him joy, and how 15 years ago a Facing History workshop changed the course of his career for the better.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

Honestly, I kind of fell into teaching. It wasn't something that I was inspired to do. I was a hot mess through most of high school. I hated it. I didn't want to be there. I didn't feel like I had a place where I connected with other people. I was definitely lost. 

I came from a family that didn't have a ton of money. I was very interested in chasing a paycheck. I saw college as a way to kind of break out of poverty, so I went into computer science. It was around the year 2000, so that was the thing to do if you wanted to make some money. But I couldn’t stand sitting in front of a computer. I was miserable.  And then September 11th happened and it really changed everything for me. I had two close family friends who died in the towers. It was very rough emotionally for me and my family. It really makes you think about what's important in life and what is it that you really want to do with it. Again, I was totally lost. I knew I didn't want to continue with computer science, but I didn't know what I wanted to do.

My girlfriend at the time suggested teaching to me, and I laughed at her immediately. I think my response to her was “Why on earth would I want to do that? I hated school, why would I want to force myself to go back there?” And she said something to me that changed my whole view on everything. She said, “If you're in charge, it's your classroom. You can make it whatever you want.” It had never occurred to me that that school didn't have to be exactly the same thing that I had sat through—that it could be something different. That really got me thinking about it.

So I enrolled into liberal arts at Ocean County College, got my degree, went off to Rowan University, and I absolutely loved it. As soon as I got an opportunity to get in the classroom and start interacting with kids, I absolutely loved it and I've just been running with it ever since.

It’s also been kind of weird because I run into a lot of people that haven't seen me since high school and are now reading about me in the paper. Imagine, I’m the kid that got kicked out of school and now I’m teacher of the year. The power of education can really change someone.

What is your favorite thing about teaching?

When I walk in at the beginning of the year, I'm always excited because I know that I'm going to meet a bunch of people who see the world completely differently than I do. We may have certain similarities and certain differences out there, but everybody has such a unique experience. For me, I'm excited about what they're going to teach me. I know that seems kind of counterintuitive, but one of the greatest things about this job is getting to be a lifelong learner. Especially when it comes to hearing other people's experiences; there's always some inspiration that I can take out of that, some way that I had never thought about reaching kids, and flipping that in the classroom is something that I truly look forward to every day.

Tell me about your first experience with Facing History.

I actually hadn't heard anything about Facing History when I first got into teaching. I had a coworker, Janice Kroposky, who at one time was the head of the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University. And she said, “You're coming to this summer workshop with me.” I told her I had to work during the summer so I couldn’t come to a summer workshop, but she insisted.

It was a week-long seminar, Holocaust and Human Behavior, and that workshop really just changed my entire view on what I could do in my classroom. It gave me all these things that I didn’t even know I was looking for. It gave me what I needed to change the experience that I had in high school—identifying what my students need, understanding who they are, helping them see their place in the world, and helping them understand that they can make a difference and that their participation does matter. All of that kind of came full circle there. I give a lot of credit to David Schwartz and Peter Nelson, who ran that workshop, because they really got me thinking. 

After that, Janice and I got involved with a pilot program that Facing History was running where they provided us with class sets of Holocaust and Human Behavior in exchange for us teaching a one month program on the Holocaust and participating in an impact study. That got me a whole class set of books and an excuse to extend my lessons on the Holocaust. David Schwartz came in and mentored me in the classroom and worked with me on how to implement Facing History's approach and how to revamp my classroom around that. From then on, in every class that I've had, I've found ways to work your materials in and to show up at different workshops. We're doing a discussion on race in America in my US History I class and I’m using the starter activity from your Reconstruction unit. There's little pieces that I borrowed from all over the place that are woven through my teaching.

How has Facing History influenced your teaching?

I've had a lot of luck here in being able to write curriculum. The class I teach through Kane University, which is the one that gets the most attention, is Holocaust, Genocide, and Modern Humanity. I got to write that curriculum and the curriculum is modeled after the Facing History approach. It starts with the unit on identity and belonging within American society, and then we go through this journey of individual case studies looking at different genocidal activities. The class ends with students implementing a project I called Be the Change. Be the Change asks students to  find an issue that they feel passionate about in the world and then choosing to participate—getting involved and seeing where they can make positive changes. So again, there's definitely variances here and there, but behind it there are a lot of tie-ins back to that workshop I took 15 years ago.

If you had to select one Facing History resource, what would you recommend to other teachers?

There are a lot of strategies that I love, but I think in terms of usefulness, the one that gets the most play for me and that I would recommend to other teachers is definitely the resource about handling difficult conversations in the classroom. I think that's so good. We were just having a conversation earlier this week about Israel and Hamas and how to approach that in the classroom. We're a very diverse district and we have students who are seeing this from a lot of different perspectives. How do you open that up? For a lot of teachers, it's easier just to not open that up, but you're really missing tremendous learning opportunities by doing that. So having that background in difficult conversations and how you can do that in the classroom—even something easy like the approach with head, heart, conscience—gets students thinking about different perspectives. And it’s also tying in that social-emotional learning piece, which I think a lot of teachers conventionally don't think about. I think all that is so valuable.

What impact do you think that Facing History lessons or approaches have had on your students?

They make them think, and it pushes them toward empathy. This is something that I try to strive for in my classroom. We start the year talking about perspectives and I do a hokey little thing where they're looking at a textbook from different angles and I intentionally choose a book that's different colors from four angles. I show them that we could sit here and scream at each other about seeing orange or seeing blue, or we could try to wrap our heads around the idea that we're all looking at the same thing from a different perspective.

I feel very strongly—and I think Facing History and I agree on this—that one of the greatest resources in a class is the students and their ability to share their perspectives on the world. I think there are so many avenues within Facing History to use those valuable resources, to get their perspectives, and to get kids talking so that it's not just the gray-haired guy laying some knowledge on you. You can hear the way that other people are experiencing the world.

How do you see your students connecting lessons of the past to our present day?

That's another great joy of teaching, right? When you have those aha moments where a student takes something that we've been talking about in the past and applies it to what's happening right now in the future. I go back to that slogan that Facing History uses a lot. We sometimes overcomplicate things when looking at history, but I really think this slogan is beneficial for kids to stop and reflect on: people make choices, and choices make history.

Ultimately, the historic individuals we’re talking about were facing all sorts of different pressures and influences the same way that we are, and they had to make choices that had an impact on somebody else. All of our actions or inactions have an impact on those around us. Stopping to think about that historically is a great opportunity for you to prepare yourself in your own way for opportunities where you could choose to take action. You could choose to speak up. You could choose to use your agency for something positive.

What advice do you have for educators who feel burned out or disheartened by the challenges related to teaching certain topics?

You're not alone. Everybody struggles with this and I would just say it's a process. I struggle sometimes with leaving my own biases at the door. I don’t want to sell kids on my opinion. I want to hear their opinions, but sometimes it’s hard to do that—especially when you're dealing with those passionate, fraught discussions. But, in order to grow, you have to be slightly uncomfortable—not terribly uncomfortable, but slightly uncomfortable. So step outside of your comfort zone. I don't know where I would be right now if I didn't take that workshop 15 years ago, but probably not sitting here as state teacher of the year, that's for sure. It changed my view on what was possible in my classroom. So again, be slightly uncomfortable. It's good for you. It's good for your kids. It’s good for everybody. That's where growth happens.

I think that one thing that's really important is finding a community of like-minded people to support you. That's something that I found through Facing History by networking with other educators and being able to say, “How are you doing with this?” I have a really strong group of colleagues I can go to to talk about these issues. Even if it's just to have a whine session because you felt upset, it's important to have somebody there to support you.

The other thing I would say is that we're all human. I think it's important for kids to know that we all have struggles in life. I might look very collected when I'm standing in front of the classroom, but trust me, I'm a mess and so is everybody else. I think that sort of knowledge is good for everybody to hear.