Inge Pisano plays rap music, stages "The Bachelor" and allows paper airplanes to be flown in class. Anything goes in the Oakton High School teacher's classroom -- as long as it's in French or German.
Cay Wiant introduces herself as not an English teacher but a travel guide. How does she give tours of rural England, the frigid Alaskan coast and steamy hot jungles from her classroom at George Mason Middle School? "Through the pages of a book!" Wiant said.
Next month, the two will be honored with The Washington Post Educational Foundation's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award. The awards go to 20 private and public school educators selected by their school districts based on nominations by principals, fellow teachers and students. The $3,000 award is named for Agnes Ernst Meyer, an educator and activist who was the wife of Eugene Meyer, a former owner and publisher of The Washington Post.
Pisano, who teaches French and German, also was named Fairfax County's teacher of the year and will represent the district in Virginia's teacher of the year competition.
She has taught at Oakton for 10 years, and students praise the innovation she brings to teaching foreign languages.
Props in Pisano's classroom include rubber chickens, squeaky toy lobsters and the infamous, dreaded potato. Any student who speaks English in her class receives the potato. The last person holding it at the end of the class must bring food in for everyone the next day. After a few weeks, as the potato rots, the desire to handle it -- and speak English -- diminishes.
"Finally, when the potato was too putrid to keep any longer, Madame Pisano took the whole class out to the parking lot to give it a proper funeral. I could not stop laughing," said Lien Kratzke, a senior. "It's those little unexpected moments that really make someone's day."
Because students learn in so many ways, Pisano said, she tries to modify her teaching to various styles. A group of students might form a human pyramid to learn conjugation, for example. Or there's the exercise she does with Chinese jump rope and French pronouns.
"I put a label of each pronoun on a kid and juxtapose all my students as if they are the pronouns and put them within the confines of the jump rope," she said. "That way they feel it, rather than think it."
Similarly, award recipient Wiant, who teaches eighth grade English at George Mason in Falls Church, integrates the offbeat into her classroom. There's no room for "oatmeal" verbs, she tells classes. Verbs must be "zippy," she instructs. Literature of the '40s is brought alive in her classroom with swing dance classes, while Shakespeare is taught with the help of theatrical swordplay.
A storyteller, Wiant has lived in Falls Church for 26 years and is active in several environmental and civic groups. She attempts to weave other disciplines into the study of English, developing a unit with a science teacher on science fiction.
"Even for a master pedagogue, teaching the second year of middle school English can be a brutal task," said Charles H. Moore, a former student. "When Mrs. Wiant is the teacher, the students talk about the books in halls between classes."