by Alex Swanson / Apr 24, 2015
Being named Advanced Placement (AP) Teacher of the Year for the Midwest Region of the College Board is no small feat, especially for someone who originally wanted to be a radio broadcaster. Despite his original professional intentions, however, Jim Fornaciari, Ed.M. ’90 EPOL, was recently named AP Teacher of the Year.
Decades after graduating, Fornaciari still employs the lessons he learned at Illinois as a European history teacher at Glenbard West High School.
“I think I was impacted by some strong instructors while involved at Illinois,” said Fornaciari. “One of the things I think that they instilled in me … was to make strong connections with kids and find a way to develop positive relationships, not just with kids, but also with parents.”
In particular, he remembers professors Thomas McGreal, Paul Thurston, and Richard Bodine as strong mentors whose lessons continually influence his teaching style.
Fornaciari recalls a sense of camaraderie in McGreal’s class between the students as they worked to finish their graduate degrees.
“The people I was in class with … were pretty high-caliber people that had really high expectations of themselves,” said Fornaciari. “They were hungry to learn.”
Fornaciari’s professors at Illinois held him to high standards as well. Fornaciari now does the same for his students enrolled in the notoriously rigorous AP European History course.
“There were a lot of expectations, and there was quite a bit of work, but you have to do the job,” said Fornaciari about his time at Illinois. “So, I think the same thing should be said of our high school kids in AP classes to push them.”
As the former head baseball coach at Glenbard West, Fornaciari approaches pushing his AP students much like he approached training his athletes.
Kirstin Brandt, social studies department chair at Glenbard West, said Fornaciari’s coaching methods trickled down to his teaching style.
“When he stopped coaching, a lot of the coaching techniques as far as drill, and practice, and repetition really went into his classroom,” said Brandt. “He treats his students a lot how you would treat athletes.”
To that end, Fornaciari ensures that his AP Euro students have the support they need by keeping up communication with their families. He also makes it clear to the students that they are not alone when they struggle with the course.
To transform a classroom of AP students into a collaborative team, Fornaciari has designed annual classroom rituals, which include baking cookies as a reward for college acceptance letters.
“When a senior got a letter, let’s say that they got admitted to Champaign-Urbana, the sophomore would then bake cookies for them,” said Fornaciari. “It just became this kind of little ritual that became a really big deal for the kids.”
Additionally, when students walk into his classroom for the first time, they see an AP Euro Hall of Fame filled with the names of students who have already succeeded in the course.
“They see all these other kids that have climbed that mountain, and I think it’s important,” said Fornaciari.
Fornaciari’s tactics are proven by his success rate: His AP Euro students who take the AP test annually have an impressive 99 percent passing rate.
Fornaciari has also been pleased to help send a number of his AP Euro students and baseball players to Illinois.
The Education alumnus also routinely reaches out to graduates of his Euro course, asking them to offer advice to his current students. His high school students definitely value the advice that comes from Illinois students.
“Those are ones they definitely like to show off. There are a lot of kids that have been through this program who are doing great things at Illinois,” said Fornaciari.
Illini spirit runs in Fornaciari’s family. Two of his sisters and his wife, Debbie, are graduates of the University. Fornaciari stopped coaching years ago but keeps up with baseball by following the Illini.
From developing a specialized teaching style to rooting for Illini sports, Fornaciari’s immersion in the Illinois community was a necessary step in his becoming a revered educator.
“I understood that if Illinois [is] involved, it’s going to be done the right way.”