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Rick Shaughnessy | Retired Executive, Middle school volunteer & Editor, More Odes to Common Things

Rick Shaughnessy was a newspaper reporter and corporate marketing executive. In retirement, he serves as a 7th grade classroom volunteer at a school for homeless youth. He is editor of the annual More Odes to Common Things, which will publish its sixth volume of student poems this year. It was wonderful to connect with him for this interview!

What’s an urgent issue facing education?

Overemphasis on testing, standardized or otherwise. I understand the need to document progress and benchmark students, classes, and schools, but I really want students just to love to learn. I want them to learn to pursue learning independently for the sheer joy of expanding their bases of knowledge. Teaching to a series of standardized tests sometimes means forgoing uncharted adventures that could be great learning and life experiences.

Rick Shaughnessy, newspaper reporter, Twin Falls ID 1983
Rick Shaughnessy, newspaper reporter, Twin Falls ID 1983

I know this is all too easy for me to say. I am a classroom volunteer, not a teacher responsible for moving 20 economically disadvantaged and mostly underperforming students to the next grade level. I am fortunate to work with a teacher who recognizes that sometimes education happens when you veer off course. She has allowed me to try things with her students that have no place in the official curriculum. As a result, some of our seventh graders achieve a bit of proficiency in photography and others in sailing.

Every one of them enters eighth grade as a published poet.

What is one thing that a student taught you?

Every student teaches me patience. We all have good days and bad days. Students who are or have been homeless can swing wildly between emotional highs and lows. They may be affected by deep traumas and histories of abuse and parental incarceration. For these students, not every day will be conducive to learning, but they still need safe harbor. They can’t be sent home when often there is no home. So, on a bad day, one homeless student has the potential to disrupt the educational experiences of the other 20 students in the class.

Because of their histories of homelessness, most of the students I work with have significant gaps in their educational backgrounds. Some have missed years of schooling. Some still only show up half of the time. Even the highest achieving students in my middle school class are missing core math and language skills. Most have limited understanding of elementary science. But they all have innate intelligence and the keen intellectual curiosity of early adolescents. They have an awareness of where they reside within society and most want something better than their immediate circumstances. They know they must work to get there. Sometimes they are motivated to do that and other times they are not. I try to make the bad days better, but I live for the good days when learning happens, and I have learned to be patient.

Jenny reads Ode to Sun 2021
Jenny reads Ode to Sun 2021

Share one teaching strategy that worked.

If something can be made visual, make it visual. For students with weak foundations in core skills the innate intelligence that I mentioned earlier seems to achieve more if it can be stimulated visually. Performing math aided by manipulatives, number lines, scatter plots and the like seems to lead to better results than rote memorization of tables and processes. Incorporating photographs or illustrations into English composition may result in richer anecdotes, narratives, plots, and themes. Likewise, social studies seem to benefit from incorporating video news and documentary as source material.

Monarch Turkey Project 2020
Monarch Turkey Project 2020

What drives you to give back?

Pure selfishness. It makes me feel good to volunteer and contribute to causes that I think are important. I have been fortunate to achieve a high level of comfort and security in life. My wife and I eat and drink well. We sail, ski, socialize, and travel. I love all those things, but nothing makes me feel as good as when I see the look of triumph on the face of a student who has unlocked the meaning of a poem or mastered the ability to isolate and solve for a variable in math.

Monarch School Trip
Monarch School Trip

What is one thing that inspires you?

One person who inspires me is Ms. Sally Duran Lopez, the teacher I have worked with for the last six years. If you were to think hard about the best background and character traits for a teacher of disadvantaged and homeless youth in Southern California, you would probably come up with a profile that bears a strong resemblance to Sally’s. She is the child of immigrants from Mexico, a laborer father and a mother who makes and sells tamales from home. At 13, Sally became pregnant and as a single teenage mother, raised her child. She struggled financially, emotionally, and academically. Still, she became the first person in her family to attend a university, receiving both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She married and had four more children. She has been teaching at Monarch School for 12 years. I don’t know how she manages to do so much. As someone who has experienced poverty, discrimination, housing insecurity, and teen pregnancy firsthand, Sally intimately understands the traumas, challenges, temptations, and long odds her students face. She is patient and somehow manages to be both nurturing and demanding of her students who leave seventh grade much better prepared for life and learning. She is my hero.

About the book of student poems, More Odes to Common Things:

Copies of the book are given to the contributing poets, their families, and to people who attend the book launch parties. The Monarch School Project, the non-profit entity joined at the hip to the actual public school, gives copies to donors. If you are interested in purchasing a copy, make a small donation via this link and request a book!


1000 Spotlights: Why We Give reflects our mission of giving back, to mentor and to inspire those around us. Through a series of interview questions, we explore intrinsic motivations behind why we give, and talk with those inclined to make a difference in the lives of others. If you are involved in charitable activities, volunteer and paid academic engagements or in community service, we want to talk to you.

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