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Mr. Dones vs. the Big Action: Fordham Alumnus Uses Wrestling to Engage Bronx Middle Schoolers

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Math teacher Pedro Dones stood in front of a whiteboard in his basement, marker in hand, dressed as his alter ego, wrestler “The Big Action.”

On this day, the Big Action’s challenge wasn’t in the ring—it was in a virtual classroom.

“The Big Action—he back. Today we’re going to find the area of a triangle—you know a triangle, like a pyramid, like the ones in Dubai [where]I wrestled Jose,” Dones said in character, referring to one of his wrestling storylines. “Now the formula is where you need to start.”

Ever since New York City public schools were forced to transition to online learning in mid-March due the COVID-19 pandemic, Dones, a 2006 graduate of Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, has been trying to think of new ways to reach his students from M.S. 363 in the Bronx. One of those ways is by creating a YouTube channel to share brief math lessons, each video around three to four minutes long.

“I know if a kid clicks on a link and watches for three minutes and can pause here and there—he gets to see me, he gets to hear my voice,” Dones said. “At the very least I still want to be a daily presence for them.”

He said he keeps the videos brief in part because it allows students with limited resources to have access to the lessons.

“Not every kid has a good phone,” he said. “If I’m asking a kid that has poor internet, that has 3G—now I put this expectation on him that he has to sign in every day at a certain time, on top of everything he’s going through, that’s not cool. Even asking them to watch an 18-minute YouTube video—that takes a lot of bandwidth and data. Not everyone has that.”

Another way he has been working to keep students engaged is by having the Big Action take over a few lessons here and there.

“When I’m teaching math as the Big Action, I’m teaching math—it’s funny, it’s silly, it’s a performance. But I also want [the students]to see what I’m doing and go, ‘This dude is really putting effort into it, so I’m going to put effort into it too,’” he said.

It’s this type of creative effort that has helped make Dones a finalist for a New York City Big Apple Teaching Award, an annual citywide recognition program that honors about 20 teachers who “inspire students, model great teaching, [and]enrich their school communities,” according to the New York City Department of Education.

“It doesn’t feel real—I am incredibly humbled,” he said.

Dones said when Angelo Ledda, the principal of M.S. 363, congratulated him on getting this far in the process, Dones emphasized that the recognition wasn’t just for him.

“I said, ‘This is a school award. I came to you broken, and you gave me a chance to reinvent myself and you let me be me. You trusted me,’” he said.

A Path Less Traveled

Dones, a Bronx native, wasn’t always sure he wanted to be a teacher. He was working for Verizon around 2000 when he decided to enroll at Fordham and pursue a degree in communication and media studies.

“When I graduated, it was weird, because I took six years [to earn my degree]and then I was done and I was at the phone company and I was making good money, [but]I was like, ‘OK, well, now what?’” he recalled.

One of his friends suggested that he look into getting his teacher certification. He became a substitute teacher, filling in at districts across New York City, and applied to the New York City Teaching Fellows program. His first application was rejected.

“They ask you why you want to be a teacher and I don’t remember what I said, and I think that’s very symbolic because at the time I didn’t know,” Dones said.

But after learning more about the kids through substitute teaching, he began to realize that he could work with them and help them, both as a teacher and as someone they might look up to.

“I never thought that I would love working with kids so much in my borough—the kids were just great,” he said. “After doing it for a year and half—seeing what I had seen, seeing things my kids, my students were going through, [I thought], ‘I can do this.’ That’s when I really was like, ‘This is what I have to do.’ And I haven’t looked back since.”

The Big Action in the Classroom

Even before Dones got into teaching, he was working on becoming a professional wrestler. His wrestling persona is an homage to his coach, former pro wrestler John Rodriguez (AKA Johnny Rodz), who also taught him lessons about teaching.

“He has this really thick accent, and he would tell you these stories and they didn’t make sense in the moment,” Dones said with a laugh. “He would always go, ‘Oh, I could tell you, but you don’t know. I’m like, ‘What does that mean? If I don’t know, just tell me and I’ll know.’ Then [he’d] say something like, ‘But if I tell you, you know even less.’”

Dones said that response didn’t make sense to him until he started teaching.

“Sometimes kids just want the answer, and if I give you the answer, you’re going to know even less because now you think you know when you did no work for it,” he said.

Dones said the combination of teaching and wrestling has also helped him feel more comfortable being himself, both in front of his students and fellow teachers, even if some of his colleagues don’t always agree with his methods.

“A few years ago, I had a co-teacher who said one time, ‘Well, the kids like you because you dress like them and you talk like them,’ and I said, ‘The kids like me because I am them—I have a nose ring, I’m covered in tattoos, I grew up in the Bronx. … This isn’t a fake thing.’”

Dones said he tries to use his ability to connect with students to give them an example of someone who worked hard and found a career he loves. He even uses his clothing—wearing a suit and tie Monday through Thursday, and dressing down for “get fresh Fridays”—to make a point.

“The kids always ask, ‘Why do you dress like you’re going to a business?’ And [I say], ‘’Cause you guys are my business, you’re my stocks, and I’m going to help you grow,’” he said.

Continuing to Reach Out

While Dones doesn’t know what September might bring—a full return to classroom teaching, continued online instruction, or some combination of the two—he said he’s been looking at additional software and tools to try and reach his students, whether in person or online.

As he prepares for the fall, he’s looking into ways to tailor his instruction for different students based on their interests and motivations, even if they can’t always be in the same room.

“Everyone talks about using a carrot [to motivate students]—you should use a carrot, but remember, everyone has a different flavor,” he said. “Every kid has theirs.”

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