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Years ago, when one of Rosanne Ponchick's (above) students asked her, "How much does a million look like?" the 2nd grade teacher didn't have an answer. So she had her pupils start collecting and counting tea tags to help them visualize large numbers. Nine years later, Ponchick and her students at Longfellow School in Teaneck, N.J., have passed the half-million mark, and tea dominates the curriculum. Her students identify where the tea tags have come from and then locate the countries on a map. They research the Boston Tea Party, read tea-classics like Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, count and weigh the tea tags, and write thank-you notes to all who send tags. Rare finds go into an album of "Terrific Types of Tea Tags.'' For her efforts, Ponchick recently won a $1,000 Business Week award for innovative teaching.

Roll Over Bon Jovi

The 4th graders at East Elementary School in Spearfish, S.D., were skeptical when teacher Cheryl Theisz (above) told them to put away their textbooks and start composing an opera. But earlier this school year, the Black Hills Classy Kids Opera Company made its debut. The arias for the opera, titled Friends, were written by the students, who also designed the sets, created the lighting, and handled publicity and ticket sales. Students say that Theisz had to force them to go out for recess, they were so excited about the project. Theisz came up with the idea after attending a 10-day workshop for teachers, sponsored by New York City's Metropolitan Opera Guild, on ways to meld opera production and classroom learning.

Based On A True Story

Bill Cain (right) believes Americans prefer not to look at the dark side of society. So the teacher-turned-playwright is somewhat surprised by the crowds flocking to his first play, Stand-Up Tragedy, a disturbing but often funny depiction of life in a Catholic boys' school on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In it, an idealistic white teacher tries to reach a quiet, artistic Hispanic student struggling with a nightmarish home life. Cain, who kept diaries during his four years as a language arts teacher at New York City's Nativity Mission School, says most of the play is based on real experiences. It has played to full houses in Los Angeles; Hartford, Conn.; and Washington, D.C.; Cain is negotiating to bring the work to New York or somewhere on the West Coast. Despite the play's success, Cain is torn by a desire to return to the classroom. "Writing and working on the play,'' he says, "feels far less valuable than teaching.''

--Daniel Gursky and Lisa Wolcott

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