Tag: Honors Program

Keeping all the balls in the air: Honors lauds Leslie A. Sassone with Great Professor Award


Leslie A. Sassone (left); her father, Nick Sassone; and NIU alumna Gail Gattis, a National Board Certified Teacher in River Forest, who uses Professor Sassone’s juggling curriculum.

Among the many decorations adorning
Leslie A. Sassone’s office in Graham Hall is a small photograph she snapped years ago at a Grateful Dead Furthur Festival concert.

The picture shows a woman reading a book, paying little or no attention to the music being performed in front of her by living legends of rock ’n’ roll.

Sassone laughs when she thinks about that moment. Maybe it amuses her simply because she loves music so much – she self-describes as “a peace-love-justice child of the ’60s” – or, maybe, it’s because music is how she got here.

Raised in New York, Sassone was in her early 20s and spinning the hits at a radio station on the East Coast when she decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in media systems and management. Doubting that she possessed “the voice” for a larger market, she figured a college diploma would at least provide some security for her future in broadcasting.

But something unexpected happened at Westfield State University.

“I was introduced to philosophy,” says Sassone, a professor in the NIU College of Education since 1997.

Her new passion – her intense love of “the honest interactions and connections between text and the world” – eventually led her to Purdue University, where in 1988 she earned an M.S.Ed. in Communication and Speech Education and, in 1994, a Ph.D. in Educational Studies.

Nearly 25 years after that doctorate, the powers within philosophy continue to drive her.

Leslie Sassone

Leslie Sassone

“Philosophy keeps me honest. Philosophy invites me to think through the thoughts of other people on their own terms,” she says. “Philosophy of Education is why I love working with students. It’s a reminder to me that we might stop hurting each other if we could just understand that we come from different paradigms.”

Or maybe her motivation stems from a deeply personal mission to shape current and future generations: “I was a high school dropout from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City, and those teachers I had – not one of them ever saw me,” she says. “Teachers need to see past themselves.”

Either way, her love of subject and love of teaching clearly resonates with students.

Chosen to receive the University Honors Program’s Great Professor Award for 2018, Sassone is being recognized for “contributing significantly to honors education at NIU” and “manifesting leadership, dedication and service” to the program and its students.

Despite those glowing terms, and her gratitude for the recognition, she takes it all in stride. She’s here to empower students “to know what they believe and how to communicate that.”

“What could be more valuable than helping people become literate?” she asks. “Teaching keeps me young. It keeps me up with the times. It lets me extend and visit my beliefs regularly. I’m someone who makes her job fun for herself.”

A professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, Sassone teaches courses in the area of foundations, which offers neither a major nor a minor. None of her classes are “prerequisites to anything,” she adds. “It frees me.”

She also loves to teach EPFE 201: Education as an Agent of Change, a General Education course. “I love Gen Eds,” she says. “I believe that every NIU student is a College of Education student.”

Honors classes are especially dear to her, and she is grateful for the college’s generosity in allowing her to teach those.

sassone-4Like her subject matter, her classrooms are unique.

Classes begin with a contemplative focus activity. “If it’s good enough for the K-12 public schools in Illinois to have a moment of peace to gather themselves,” Sassone says, “then it’s good enough for us.”

By the end of each class, however, the professor has exhausted herself as not a teacher but an active participant – a “co-facilitator.” She’s intertwined in the discussion, throwing herself in as fully as Parker Palmer advocated in “The Courage to Teach,” pushing students to share their viewpoints freely.

And although she does dutifully craft syllabi and tries to order books in advance, those tasks pain her. She’d rather get to know her students first, and for them to know each other, before she locks in a semester’s worth of “really difficult” readings and tests.

Then there’s the juggling.

Juggling is a hallmark of Sassone’s work over the last seven years. She uses juggling ostensibly to build classroom community through a fun activity, and to model for future teachers something inexpensive they can do in their own classrooms, but its benefits run far deeper.

Mastering the skill requires patience, practice, perseverance and persistence – all necessary skills for literacy and success in life. Juggling also addresses the K-12 Social Emotional Learning Standards, something she first realized after watching NIU students working to keep all the balls in the air.

Educators who adopt juggling to their classrooms are also engaging in the tenets of John Dewey’s “Experience and Education,” she adds, including contemplative practice, freedom of intelligence and understanding purpose. “Juggling brings all that to the forefront,” she says.


Sassone introduces Thomas E. Wartenberg, speaker at the 2013 James and Helen Merritt Distinguished Service Award Lecture in the Holmes Student Center.

She visits a fourth-grade classroom in River Forest several times a year to work with the children in juggling, something she’s previously done in other suburban school districts, including Elgin’s U-46.

But it’s the figurative balls she juggles – the nagging questions and quotes about existence, such as “To know the good is to do the good” and “Can we learn to understand?” – that truly keep her engaged in teaching. And it’s why she believes her students value her.

“I see people – and that seems to both scare and endear the students to me,” she says. “I hope students know they’ll learn something from my experiences, and that they will appreciate and recognize that philosophy of education matters.”

Sassone (left) and her students present March 6 at the Engaged Learning, Teaching and Scholarship Conference: Celebrating High Impact Learning at NIU.

Sassone (left) and her students present March 6 at the Engaged Learning, Teaching and Scholarship Conference: Celebrating High Impact Learning at NIU.

KNPE reserves grad program spots for NIU Honors students

honor-programHonors students at NIU now can gain direct and guaranteed admission into most of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s graduate programs.

Reserved seats are available in the department’s M.S.Ed. in Kinesiology and Physical Education and M.S. in Sport Management degrees. The upcoming master’s program in Athletic Training, which involves a strict vetting process and a specific set of prerequisite courses for admission, is not part of the deal.

Although it’s assumed that students interested in careers related to fitness, human performance or sports are most likely to take advantage of the new benefit, Honors students graduating from any bachelor’s program are welcome.

Todd Gilson, director of the Honors Program, believes that this agreement and the two others like it will position his students for productive futures.

Todd Gilson

Todd Gilson

Chad McEvoy and Steve Howell reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we heard what you started with Political Science, and we’d really like to get in on that as well,” says Gilson, who also is on the faculty of KNPE.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Gilson adds. “Honors students can come to NIU, work on their University Honors requirements and know that when they want to advance their career – to take that next step – that it’s already locked in for them. The department then can get that better quality of students.”

Howell, associate professor of Sport Management and director of Graduate Studies, says that he and McEvoy, chair of the department, are eager to harness such potential.

“We thought it would be a good idea to incentivize Honors students to attract high-quality, top-notch students into our master’s programs,” Howell says.

“And this is not only to attract those highly qualified students but freshmen and sophomores who are looking ahead a couple years and seeing that automatic feed,” he adds. “More students need to look into these avenues as they want to make themselves marketable.”

NIU’s M.S.Ed. in Kinesiology and Physical Education prepares students to work in the exercise science or Physical Education-Teacher Education communities. Specialties are offered in Adapted Physical Education; Exercise Physiology and Fitness Leadership; Pedagogy and Curriculum Development; and Sport and Exercise Psychology.

The M.S. in Sport Management equips graduates for a variety of careers, including professional sports, college athletics, campus recreation and parks departments.

Chad McEvoy and Steve Howell

Chad McEvoy and Steve Howell

Honors students who pursue these degrees through the direct admissions program will become pioneers of sorts, Gilson says.

“It’s very uncommon,” he says. “We (Honors) have benchmarked 131 institutions – peer institutions to NIU, a lot of the flagship schools, directional state schools – and only two offer programs like this. I think it says that we’re thinking forward.”

Gilson also hopes that Honors students realize what an advantage the program offers.

“College degrees become harder to acquire as adult life begins, but when you’re still a student and you know how to do it, go and do it,” he adds. “This is not for your first job, but for your third job.”

Interested students are encouraged to contact their Honors advisors or the KNPE department at knpe@niu.edu.

Sports Diplomacy course scores with great timing, conversations

Paul Wright

Paul Wright

Paul Wright has no problem stirring a lively conversation.

Not only is NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education a deft moderator, but the students in his KNPE 399: Sport and Diplomacy course are Honors Program students.

They’re opinionated, they’re smart and they want to talk.

Beyond that, the topic of the day Feb. 12 is a hot one: South Korea, North Korea and the Olympics.

During that class meeting just a few days after the torch roared to life to start the winter games, the discussion of possible reunification crackles with different opinions.

Alexandra Zdunek deems the Olympic-borne olive branches between the Koreas nothing but a publicity stunt perpetrated by the North. As the TV cameras gradually disappear, she says, so will the sudden show of cordiality that stunned the world.

“I don’t think reunification would be possible under this regime,” says the senior Political Science major from Crystal Lake, who plans to become a lawyer. “As soon as North Korea gets what it wants, they will pull out.”

Others in the NIU Honors course, having just watched the Korean athletes march together under a unified flag in the opening ceremonies, aren’t so sure.

unified-flagFundamental pride of nation, one classmate says, will begin “to win out” thanks to athletes from both Koreas competing together as teammates. Inspired by that solidarity, the student says, they will “drop the small stuff and go for it.”

Gestures of unity “really match the ideals of the Olympics,” another offers, talking of countries building bridges of cultural exchange in celebration of human potential and human performance.

Maybe the recreational aspects of sports and the “safe space of competition” would give Korean athletes from both sides of the demilitarized zone a good excuse not to talk policy or politics, another suggests.

Standing aside to let the conversation flow, Wright loves it all.

“What I really like about working with this group of students is that because they are confident about putting their thoughts out there, we are getting a range of opinions,” he says. “The rightness or wrongness of their answers is inconsequential. We’re having a good, rich discussion.”

January’s out-of-nowhere goodwill between the Koreas came as “a welcome surprise,” he says. He had developed the curriculum months earlier.

“That was serendipitous. We had no idea what was about to start brewing,” Wright says, “but this course is a natural extension of what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. It’s sort of a progression in my scholarship. I have a solid grounding in, and a long history of, using sport for positive youth development.”

Students in Wright’s class come from several majors – none in the College of Education – that include Accountancy, Electrical Engineering, History, Marketing and Political Science.

Their textbook, the newly published “Case Studies in Sport Diplomacy,” includes a chapter Wright wrote on his three-year (2013-16) project in Belize. It also examines similar work in Brazil, Central America, China, Haiti, Iran, New Zealand, Russia, South Sudan and, appropriately, Korea.

Class sessions are filled with history lessons.

o-ringsLaying the groundwork to make sense of the current Korean situation began with a look 5,000 years in the past, tracing through the “Three Kingdoms” period of Korean history and centuries of interference or rule from China and Japan. The time of Japanese Colonial Rule, from 1910 to 1945, ended with World War II.

Wright then outlines the events that precipitated the Korean War and the various stages of its aftermath, including the three-decade struggle over communism and democracy and the decade of “co-existence” following the 1987 end of the Cold War.

Engagement began to improve in 1998, stopping in 2008 as North Korea found its footing and started to grow in power as it no longer found itself desperate for cooperation or help.

A decade later, the North is driven to acquire, keep and assert power – military, economic and political – while the South adheres to democracy and positive relations with other countries.

The Olympics have made ripples in the past, Wright says, but none like 2018, which “seems on track to be a vastly different story.”

Unification was planned for the 1960 games in Rome, for example, but the North abandoned those talks when the International Olympic Committee recognized both countries. When Seoul hosted the games in 1988, North Korea boycotted.

Despite those misses, he adds, a certain set of statistics reveals an interesting picture.

case-studiesEighty-five percent of the 55 socio-cultural exchanges between the Koreas between 1971 and 2017 involved sports. This includes unified teams for the 1990 Beijing Asian Games and the 1991 FIFA World Cup in Portugal.

“I am a lover of history, and I feel comfortable talking about those issues and my own curiosities and interests,” Wright says. “In much of the work I do with education, curriculum and schooling – that is my field – there are many things you can’t understand without first understanding the historical context: What shaped our school system? What was going on at the time?”

Building on the Olympics, he asked provocative questions during the games.

Do you think North Korean athletes will try to defect? If so, how do you think North Korea will go after them? What kind of “welcome home” will North Korean athletes receive if they fail to medal? How does the presence U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s sister play into all of this?

He’s also assigned students to watch sport-related movies, report to the class on what they saw and give the films a rating of “gold thumb, silver thumb or bronze thumb.”

“I try to mix things up a bit, have some fun,” Wright says. “We’re lucky to have several more weeks in this class to follow up on the Olympics: After all he bluster and all the drama is done regarding North and South Korea, what do we see sticking? Does the momentum fade and die? Does it take on new life?”

Students are gaining ideas of how the notion of diplomacy through sports can empower their future careers.

Maria Fracassi, a senior with a major in Marketing, calls Wright’s course “interesting.”

football-fansAlthough she considers herself a “mediocre sports fan – I watch when it’s exciting,” she knows that capitalizing on the universal affinity for sports can help to build the business relationships that she will depend on as a marketer.

“I never thought much about how sports can unify people,” Fracassi says. “I enjoy the conversations.”

Zakyrah Harris, a junior studying Political Science and Philosophy, enrolled in Wright’s class because of her interest in the Colin Kaepernick-led NFL protests.

Before Kaepernick and his followers began kneeling during the national anthem, Harris says, she believed that sports always brought fans together. Now she’s surprised to learn that sports can cause military conflict, such as the “Hundred Hour War” between Honduras and El Salvador “over something as small as a soccer game.”

“Dr. Wright is an amazing professor. He makes each class interesting,” she says. “He shows you how sports can bridge gaps and how different countries are able to come together politically or completely destroy each other.”

Zdunek agrees.

“He is really good at getting us engaged, especially when we’re all different majors,” she says. “He is very knowledgeable, and he wants to understand how we can use sport to better each other’s lives. That is such a big care for him.”

Wright is enjoying the class as much as his students.

“They’re really bringing in their different disciplines, and it’s fun to see what they’re being trained in. They’re talking about social issues around race, such as Brown v. Board of Education. They’re seeing connections to other courses they’re in that aren’t normally in our conversation about sport,” he says.

“I’m really pushing them to see behind every one of these stories and case studies we look at, to understand the motivation of the people we’re talking about, to connect the dots, to see what’s driving them,” he adds. “If you understand those things in the background, you can practice critical thinking and look behind the obvious. I’m sure they can apply that in every one of their different disciplines going forward.”