Mike Pisani’s classroom at Hilltop Child Development Center is filled with childhood wonder.
On the wall hangs a traffic light that Pisani pulled out of a trash bin and he wired back to life. There’s a lawn mower that has been brought in for repair and a good-sized wooden playhouse in the corner.
From the ceiling hang student crafted miniature hot air balloons, the vessels that will live in the student’s imagination the entire year as they go on a pretend journey around the world. Along the walls are ancient Greek inspired paper mache jars, a didgeridoo and mosaic art created by students.
On an afternoon during spring break, three boys leaned over a chess board pondering the next move, a girl sat in a pillow-filled claw-foot bathtub reading a book and a group of girls dipped candles into melted wax.
In such an environment, it’s no wonder that Virgie Alexander’s grandchildren turn down time at her house so they can attend Pisani’s after-school program.
“He makes it a place where they want to be,” said Virgie Alexander, whose two grandchild loved Pisani’s after-school program. “My grandson would rather go to Hilltop because he says ‘we are doing such and such’ and he doesn’t want to miss it.”
Since 1995 Pisani has been the lead teacher for Hilltop’s Jayhawk Room. It’s a job that requires Pisani to juggle the interest and intellectual levels of first through fifth graders for several hours everyday after school and all day during the summer.
“Every day is different. Every day is fun. It’s just a great job to have,” Pisani said.
For Alexander, what makes Pisani’s classroom so exceptional is that it is basically a one-room school house. Older students are asked to be leaders and helpers for the younger ones as they all learn together.
To keep student’s interested year after year, Pisani will devise an imaginary trip. Some years, the class travels through space. Other times it’s driving an RV across the United States or a sailing ship adventure. He has even devised a machine to travel back in time.
Those trips intertwine woodworking, cooking, sewing, social studies, science and history lessons.
“We try to teach some of the things that can’t be taught in elementary schools anymore,” Pisani said.
When not leading around the world adventures, Pisani does maintenance work at Hilltop and drives a van that picks up the students from their schools.
Pisani never planned to get into childhood education. He attended Hilltop as a child while his mother worked toward a master degree in early childhood education.
As a KU student looking for work, Pisani heard about a part-time aide position at Hilltop. He’d work with kids in the past as a soccer coach and volunteered at childcare summer programs.
He applied for the job and never left. In 1993, Pisani became the assistant teacher in the Jayhawk Room and took over as the lead teacher in 1995.
Pisani earned a degree from KU in anthropology, which didn’t offer much training in child care, but did provide plenty of ideas on ways to ignite the imagination of elementary school children.
This year, the class is on the Jules Verne-inspired “Around the World in 80 Days” adventure. Each week, the class travels to a new place.
A few weeks ago, the class visited Asia, where they learned how to make sushi, Japanese fans, Nepalese prayer flags and models of Chinese terracotta warriors. Before spring break they went to Australia, where they crafted didgeridoos and bullroares. Pisani was in the process of planning a journey to the Pacific Islands, where students would learned about the Easter Islands, South Pacific food and how to make ships in a bottle.
Pisani spends a good deal of time watching educational shows on the History Channel or National Geographic, which inspire many of the projects he introduces in the classroom.
“I would say the most fun part is that I get to take part in all the activities,” Pisani said. “I don’t have any kids myself, so it is sort of like having kids.”
Having different themes each year helps Pisani make sure he keeps the class fresh. Until this year, the after-school program was opened to first- through sixth-graders.
“It is kind of hard with a class of first- through (sixth-) graders, you can’t repeat anything for six years. You have to have six year’s worth of activities,” he said.
Pat Pisani, who is the executive director at Hilltop, said her son’s creativity isn’t just limited to the classroom. He figured out how to sew together a wool Civil War uniform without instructions and once carved a Jayhawk out of stone over his lunch break. He built an impressive garden and outdoor living space in the back of his home and refurbishes antique furniture.
“He is very artistic and creative in many different ways,” Pat Pisani said and noted he spent his early childhood taking things apart.
Pat Pisani said her son has an “innate sense” of the challenges facing school-aged children.
“They are all going through all sorts of changes and emotional things and peer issues. He has a pretty good handle on how to help them and a good relationship with all of them,” she said.
Pisani said he is often asked how he keeps a room of nearly 30 school-aged children so calm. It can be a challenge.
“We try in the Jayhawk Room to head off problems before they get started,” Pisani said. “Staff are trained on how to handle bullying. If we see someone start to get picked on we jump in and stop it.”
Over the years, Pisani said he gets to know the students’ pets, baby sitters, grandparents and sometimes he remembers the days of their soccer games better than the parents do.
“You get to know everything about them,” Pisani said.
If students’ ask, he’ll go to their sporting games and school performances. And, the requests don’t stop when the students leave Hilltop. Former students invite Pisani to their orchestra performances and high school graduation parties. Many still keep in touch with Pisani and some have returned to Hilltop as volunteers, aides and even teachers.
On Pisani’s walls are dozens of school pictures from his current and former students. He knows where many of them have gone to college, if they’ve gotten married and what they do now.
“It’s kind of nice to hear how they have grown up and turned out,” he said.
For Pisani one of the hardest parts of the job is the good-byes at the end of year. Often times, Pisani’s students will have been in the class for all five years and families have children who have been in the after school program for more than a decade.
“Usually the last day of the summer session or spring semester are really rough on them. They get pretty emotional,” Pat Pisani said of the students. “We have parents in the hallway in tears when it is time to leave Hilltop.”