Talk about prepping for a big test. “I am not exaggerating when I say I spent over 20 years preparing for eventually being on Jeopardy!” says New Jersey teacher Jason Sterlacci, who won the 2016 Teachers Tournament. “I’ve emphasized to my students the importance of following one’s dreams and how much hard work went into winning.” Sterlacci teaches sixth-grade language arts and says he approaches each topic and each assignment “from a perspective of fun and enthusiasm.” And yes, he does class Jeopardy! when reviewing for tests.

The Basics

School: Burnet Middle School, Union, New Jersey

Career Path: In college, Sterlacci studied psychology. His plan was to go into research, but “I kept coming back to working with kids,” he says.

Teaching Philosophy: “Every student has the capability to succeed well beyond his or her wildest expectations; I practice patience, tolerance, respect, and fun to bring out those capabilities.”

Cool Project

Figurative language bee: “My pride and joy for the past few years has been a figurative language bee. To emphasize the importance of using figurative language when writing creatively, I give students prompts and ask them to craft similes, metaphors, puns, and other expressions using only their brains. My students will go one at a time, spelling bee-style. They’re presented with a word or phrase and a figurative language type: for example, fast and simile. Students then have to create a simile that works—it can be as simple as ‘as fast as a cheetah,’ or something more complicated, like ‘the weekend goes by as fast as the Flash.’ It allows for creative freedom and fun, and it reinforces listening skills, since repeats are not allowed. I always notice a significant uptick in creativity with writing soon after!”

Must-Reads for the 6th Grade Experience

Crash, by Jerry Spinelli. “It touches on issues of bullying and is written in a way that really resonates with middle schoolers.”

Rules, by Cynthia Lord. “Because we have many special-needs students in our school, this is always my first book of the year.”

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier. “It’s a great memoir of the middle school experience and is stunningly accurate.”

What have you learned in working with students on writing projects?

“It’s incredibly important to recognize every child’s individual voice; as much as formatting is important to follow, students need to be given some creative license when it comes to how they express themselves.”


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Photo: Courtesy of Jeopardy! Productions