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The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is a program offered at both the Cal State San Bernardino and the University of California-Riverside campuses in Palm Desert. Osher offers noncredit courses targeting the 50-plus population “interested in learning for the pure joy of it” at more than 100 universities in all 50 states.

Osher instructors include college professors and experienced professionals, and subjects cover a wide range of subjects, from movie-making to blogging to financial planning to philosophy. But not just anyone can join the Osher faculty; some prospective teachers “audition” with a one-day presentation, to determine whether a proposed course will meet Osher’s standards.

That is how I met Vinny Stoppia.

Vinny is the author of The Austrian Woman, aka Marie Antoinette, Queen of Versailles. Most of us know little about the infamous French queen beyond, “Let them eat cake!” Stoppia has culminated a lifetime obsession with this fascinating woman in his well-researched and enjoyably readable book. He had a tryout with Osher in front of a packed house.

How does a guy born and raised in Queens, N.Y., end up obsessed with Marie Antoinette?

“My parents weren’t readers, but when I was 8, I got a library card,” he said. “I read every book in the children’s section, and at 10, they let me browse through the adult section. I became focused on history and got interested in George Washington and the American Revolution. I found lots of references to a ‘Citizen Genet,’ the brother of the French queen’s lady-in-waiting, who came to the U.S. to try to influence America’s policy toward France. I wanted to know more about him, and no matter what I read, particularly about the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette’s name kept surfacing.

“I became an admirer of her,” said Stoppia, “when I read that when the odds were stacked against her, her response was, ‘I’m going to go forward.’ I found that so inspiring. I made a vow at 19 that I would one day write a book about her that would alter people’s perceptions of her.

“Everyone thinks of her as the pre-incarnation of the infamous Leona Helmsley of New York—self-absorbed, insular, thinking only about herself. But when she had to, she stepped up to the plate.”

Stoppia majored in French literature at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, because he had decided he wanted to read Marie Antoinette’s letters in their original French.

“I had always wanted to be a teacher, and I received two fellowships which would have taken me toward a Ph.D., but I was No. 30 in the draft lottery (during the Vietnam War),” he said. “I decided to apply for conscientious-objector status. I knew French really well, so I thought of going to Canada, but I made it past the draft board and then had to do two years of service in lieu of going into the military. Just as I was about to be assigned to a mental hospital, the United Nations took me instead.”

Stoppia wound up spending 23 years with the UN, specializing in meeting services and in keeping delegates happy. “I met all of the big world political figures from the 1970s to the 1990s,” he said.

While in New York, Stoppia worked as a volunteer with HIV/AIDS patients. “They didn’t even call it AIDS then,” he remembers. “It was a terrible experience to watch men die. People were so afraid to go near them. They even wanted us to suit up like astronauts before we went into someone’s room. I remember Easter of 1985, and one man who knew he was close to death, crying out, ‘Please, help me.’ I had to clean him up, and I remember thinking, ‘This is a privilege, a parting gift I can give to him.’ I’ve learned that not living with blinders on makes life much more interesting. There are so many stories.”

Stoppia came out to his own family at 28. “I knew it was going to be difficult. When they found out, they wanted to sell the house and move. They never got to 100 percent acceptance.

“My mom taught me about service and knowing how to get what you need, how to survive. My relationship with my dad was rocky; he always wanted to ‘toughen me up.’ I never cried as a kid; I had to ‘be a man.’ But I once had a flashback to when he was giving me a bath at about age 4, and he caressed me; I had forgotten he could be nurturing. One of my regrets in life is that I wasn’t present enough to speak with my father about his impending death, to help him on his final journey.”

Stoppia came to Palm Springs in 1993, and loves it. He has volunteered as a docent at the Palm Springs Art Museum for 17 years, teaches Spanish classes, and has given time to a local hospice.

“I got sick with AIDS after I got here, and decided, ‘This isn’t going to kill me. There’s still something important that I have to do,’” he said.

After attempting to write about Marie Antoinette during every decade of his life, Stoppia finally hit his stride and completed the book in three years. The amount of research he has done is evident—not only via the gossipy insider stories from behind palace walls that he can tell, but also via amazing photographs illustrating his presentation.

I thought Stoppia might have been a frustrated standup comic based on his flamboyant sense of humor and his ability to connect with those crowded into the auditorium, but he said he perfected his audience-friendly style in his many years of leading museum tours. “It was when I realized that those skills are what I should be bringing to my writing that the book finally just rolled out.” His take-away message: “To strive, to seek, and not to yield.”

Stoppia’s “audition” to teach the Osher course about Marie Antoinette was successful, and he is on their schedule for the upcoming season. He will show that the French queen is about much more than eating cake.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Higher-education degrees are increasingly based on what you can do rather than how long you sit in a classroom, so it is pertinent to ask how technology is affecting K-12 education.

A recent symposium, “Literacy Summit 4,” held at Cal State San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus, brought together four teachers showcasing their efforts to incorporate computer-based learning into their lesson plans.

The east valley’s Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) has made the news based on its ambitious goal of providing 18,000 iPads to its students. Katherine Quintana, who teaches at Coral Mountain Academy in Coachella, has already begun using the iPads under the CVUSD pilot program. Quintana has co-produced a short video documenting the project’s use by 120 teachers in CVUSD classrooms.

“The capabilities are endless,” says Quintana. “Students are empowered to find their own answers to questions. It’s instantaneous, spontaneous and exciting—a change-based learning model that supports critical-thinking skills where students can confront real-world problems, and teachers can more easily track student proficiencies.”

Apps such as Brain Pop provide students with instant feedback on their progress using animated lessons in science, social studies, English, math, engineering, health, art, and music. Google Earth lets students see the world they’re studying. Educreations enables students to create their own presentations and work collaboratively on projects.

Quintana says, “For the most part, it has been hugely positive. I’m not a real techie person—I was pretty much ‘old school.’ But this was a great opportunity to just jump into the pilot program and realize that we have kids capable of teaching their teachers and each other. It really helps teachers be better teachers.”

But what about local schools that do not have the same broad policy of incorporating technology by providing iPads to all students?

Karen Foerch taught fifth-grade last year in the west-valley Palm Springs Unified School District. She is now a technology specialist, teaching other teachers how to use technology in their classrooms.

“The classroom-management apps are particularly valuable,” Foerch says, “whether to track student performance and be able to provide instant feedback for students and parents, or to be able to contact parents directly so that they can manage students’ homework assignments and deadlines.”

Foerch found the use of technology actually improved the attention span of students with attention-deficit issues. “The technology approach to presenting material fits right in with how many students think,” she says. “That’s how their brains work.”

Applications like Class Dojo help teachers manage their classrooms, including tracking behaviors so that students and parents can access results without having to wait for formal teacher/parent conferences. Grade Cam gives teachers the ability to streamline time-consuming test-scoring and grade-reporting. Remind 101 lets teachers text students and parents en masse with updates on assignments and homework.

Foerch maintains, “It’s all about saving time and giving teachers more time to teach.”

Another app Foerch recommends to teachers is iBrainstorm, which lets students capture ideas instantly, organize them and share them with other students to collaborate on projects. “Using applications like this allows students to manage their own time,” Foerch says.

Then there’s Science 360, which immerses students in critical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) skills and enables them to research materials that enhance their classroom learning.

Foerch uses apps like Dragon Dictation, helping students convert speech into text for improvements in writing and reading skills. It’s particularly helpful for students who are English-language learners.

Other helpful apps include Quizlet, which lets students create their own flash cards to facilitate studying, and Bluster, used by fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to expand vocabulary skills.

Teachers Wende Hamann and Kelly Fitchpatrick teach humanities, language arts and social studies at Palm Desert Charter Middle School.

“The kids aren’t intimidated by all this,” says Hamann. “We need to learn the culture and how to implement these programs in our classrooms.”

Apps available via Google allow teachers to simplify grading and track assignments in student folders that are then accessible by parents. “Kids are learning, and we’re learning,” says Hamann. “A computer-based curriculum also allows us to teach what it means to be a good ‘digital citizen’ so that students realize that what they do on-line will be seen by others.”

Flipping the classroom,” based on the Khan Academy approach, is another innovation in K-12 education. Students watch videos of their teacher’s presentation of lessons as homework, and then classroom time is focused on research, problem-solving and group work. Students can more easily go back and review something to better understand the material, rather than missing an important concept in a traditional lecture format.

In a flipped classroom—increasingly being incorporated in schools across the country—the teacher is seen less as “the sage on the stage” and more as the “guide on the side.”

The world of education is changing rapidly. With more than 20,000 apps applicable to K-12 education already available, finding the right ones for a particular teacher and classroom can be a daunting prospect. Teacher websites, such as Teachers Pay Teachers, allow teachers to share information with other educators across the country. Many apps are free or available at very low cost, and according to the four teachers at “Literacy Summit 4,” they are well worth the effort.

Pat Fredericks, a member of Cal State University Associates, a CSUSB-PD support group, said in her opening remarks at the symposium, “There is a demonstrated need for these programs in the Coachella Valley. Applied technology helps promote technological literacy as well as program development.”

CSUSB-PD has opened the Porter Resource Room on the third floor of the Indian Wells Building, providing resources for history and social studies for kindergarten through sixth-grade, all aligned to the recently adopted core-curriculum standards.

If you haven’t visited a classroom recently, stop bemoaning the state of American education—and find out for yourself how technology is changing the ability of teachers to teach and students to learn.

Published in Know Your Neighbors