John Baglio

11 Apr 2019
ByAlexi Friedman

As a child, John Baglio was always tinkering, trying to find out for himself how things work. Growing up in a small town next to Utica, New York, he was usually outside, sometimes lashing things together to make a fort or scavenging for old appliances and electronics.

“Just about anything that stopped working,” Baglio says, “I would pull it apart.”

Now in his 17th year in the Middle School science department, Baglio cites his experience as a kid as the foundation for his love of science and the outdoors, and eventually a career in teaching. “I am a huge believer that you live the lesson.”

At Colgate University, where he graduated with a psychology degree, Baglio became involved with the school’s outdoor education program, starting with its wilderness training course, before rising to assistant director. “That was huge,” he says. “I cultivated my love of teaching and working with kids and groups.”

His time at the Voyageur Outward Bound School program in Minnesota also left a big impression. There, he canoed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the Superior National Forest while working with teenagers, college students, teachers, and executives. Out on the water and in the woods, his students faced a number of challenges with which they had little experience. They had to rely on each other while learning to be self-sufficient, carrying all they needed in their backpacks. Those expeditions became a vehicle for personal growth and discovery for the teens, Baglio says, and for himself. “What you stand for and how to get along with other people, and how to get your point across and how to deal with frustration and hardship — all those things were really valuable lessons.”

At ECFS, Baglio brings some of those lessons into the classroom. Many of the problem-solving skills used by his students are similar to those deployed by his former Outward Bound students and by students from a summer camp in the Berkshires he has long been part of. Besides the science content, his middle schoolers have to “figure out who gets to do what,” he says. “How do we listen to everyone and how do we deal with the inevitable conflicts that will occur? What about when something goes wrong?”

Baglio explains how he introduces any new classroom assignment. “You know what we’re going to do today?” he says, imitating his setup to kids, his voice getting louder with each word. “We’re going to play a game!” Sometimes, he simply leads with, “We are going to do something cool today!”

After that pitch, Baglio knows the pressure’s on. “You have to follow that up with something [good] with that much buildup. I try to be enthusiastic.”

Early on, Baglio introduced his Middle School physical science class to an experiment that became so successful it eventually led him to the engineering classes he now teaches. His idea? Build a mousetrap-powered car.

For the experiment, students are given some supplies and split into groups of three, tasked with harnessing the potential energy of the spring-loaded mousetrap into a self-propelled car. They have the mousetrap, four CDs for wheels — this did begin in the early 2000s, after all — balsa wood, string, and brass rods. Baglio offers basic directions and some help but tells the class they should figure it out on their own. A few weeks later, they race their handmade vehicles.

Four years ago, Baglio began leading Fieldston’s 7th- and 8th-Grade engineering program, teaching an elective course that is not graded and that students can choose instead of study hall. While eliminating the stress of a letter grade can encourage students to experiment more and test their creativity, it conversely challenges Baglio, who sets high standards for himself. If what he offers “doesn’t look fun, interesting, exciting,” he says, then he’s already lost the students. “I don’t lean on the power of grading people to get them involved.”

You know what we’re going to do today? We’re going to play a game!

In Baglio’s 7th-Grade class, students learn CAD (computer aided design) and use the software to design a dream home, as well as cardboard mechanisms and robotic animals. In 8th Grade, his students design a new invention with an embedded microcontroller they program. Baglio also teaches 6th-Grade computer science, a required course. By the end of the year, students can use coding to create games, animations, and even projects for other classes.

Teaching runs in Baglio’s family. His mother spent 28 years as an elementary school teacher near their home in Whitesboro, and his father began as a 6th-Grade science instructor before shifting careers to sales and finance.

For Baglio, teaching stuck — he got his master’s in science education from NYU — combining his loves for “experiential education and learning through doing.” He enjoys working with middle schoolers because they are “changing and growing and trying on new identities. They have burgeoning intellectual abilities but are still willing to play in a way that older kids sometimes get too cool for school.”

While the 49-year-old no longer searches for old appliances, Baglio still builds with wood. He canoes and skis, dabbles on the harmonica, and is a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, which he plays with his 16-year-old son, Alex, and friends. Baglio, who bikes to work most days, lives in Riverdale with his wife, Sarah, a learning specialist at ECFS; their 13-year-old daughter, Emily; Alex; and a Portuguese Water dog. The books on his nightstand follow his interests and recently included Teach Like a Pirate, about how to boost student engagement; 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by historian Yuval Noah Harari; and Across the Nightingale Floor, part of a historical fantasy trilogy.

At ECFS, Baglio spends about a quarter of his time maintaining and supervising the Middle School’s two green roofs. The third-floor roof — a 400-square-foot urban meadow — “is sort of a gem of the school that is looking for a killer app,” he says. For years, he has tried to bring the outdoors in. Now, he’s trying just the opposite. In an effort to incorporate the natural space, Baglio wants to get more teachers to take their students to the roof. He is encouraging science classes to use the area for plant identification and technology projects and English classes to use it as writing space. He is also collaborating with Middle School Ethics Chair Abena Koomson-Davis to install a labyrinth on campus as a meditation space.

What Baglio tries to do in his own classes, he wants to recreate on the roof. “You learn these things, but learn them by applying them,” he says, referring to the class lessons. It’s a philosophy akin to the mousetrap car experiment and his early days spent wandering outdoors. Once a student starts “caring about a project, then my job is done,” he says. “That’s when they become self-motivated learners.”