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

April 9, 2018

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. degree in communication and speech education and, in 1994, a Ph.D. degree in educational studies.

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

“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.

Like 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.

She visits a fourth-grade classroom in River Forest, several times a year to work with the children on juggling, something she’s previously done in other suburban Illinois 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.”