Sunday, May 14, 2006

Students relate to Winslow teacher

Students relate to Winslow teacher

Age: 57
Residence: Gloucester Township
School: Winslow Township High School
Education: Bachelor's degree, English, St. Francis University, Loretto, Pa., 1970; master's degree, education, Rowan University, 1995.
Personal: Wife, Cathy.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Courier-Post Staff

Each class with Nick Zaccaria begins simply, with a handshake and a smile.

It's a practice he carried from his previous career in the clothing industry to his first assignment as a substitute teacher in 1994.

Now Zaccaria, an English teacher who is perhaps best known at Winslow Township High for his backstage leadership of school theater productions, uses the handshake to get things started properly.

"They're focused from the beginning, and they feel comfortable, they feel safe. And it works for me," Zaccaria said.

Zaccaria, of Gloucester Township, has crafted a successful career in education based on a love for literature, an affinity for teenagers and considerable energy that he's convinced comes from his charges.

"I'm 57, but when I'm in this building I feel like I'm 37," he said.

He is in the building quite a bit: as a teacher, chairman of the English department, technical director of the drama program and faculty adviser to the audio-visual club.

The last two roles involve Zaccaria and his students staging school shows, assemblies and plays, like The Sound of Music, performed this spring to critical acclaim by a high-school theater awards group.

"The set was absolutely brilliant," wrote the reviewer from the Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards. "Everything about it was outstanding. You literally took my breath away when you opened the curtain to the Von Trapp house."

Building a set for a theater production requires about three months' worth of Saturdays and cooperation among the student crew, said Amanda Pratt, 18, a senior who has spent four years working under "Z's" leadership.

"We're like a little family business," said Pratt, who plans to attend Richard Stockton College.

Junior Christine Adolf, 17, said she likes the way Zaccaria delegates responsibilities.

"He gives us the set plan and tells us, "Go. It's yours.' And we make it happen," she said.

In his 11th grade honors English class, Zaccaria makes learning happen so frequently that Frank Nicolosi seems surprised.

"I've never really liked English, my whole life. And this year, it's just so exciting to come to class, learning something new every day," he said. "This year is the first I started liking to read."

The hook for Nicolosi's reading habit was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, he said. Other students, given the choice recently to pick a book for an assignment, have read in large numbers The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and Wicked by Gregory Maguire.

"I think they see the relevance of the contemporary novels," Zaccaria said.

And with his help, one recent day, classes saw the connection between their generation and William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Early in the play, Polonius gives Laertes seven pieces of advice, including, in one translation to modern prose, "let your clothing be as expensive as you can afford."

Interpreted by student Reggie Adkins: "Watch how you dress. Don't stand out."

Zaccaria asked: "What is the problem with standing out?"

Lauren Brown replied: "He didn't want people to get a negative viewpoint based on how he dressed."

Mike Wood, 16, praised Zaccaria: "It's a good class. He's really down with the students, like the way he talks to them. He relates to students really well."

Reach Erik Schwartz at (856) 486-2904 or