This week, with the winter holidays fast approaching, it seemed that Joe Pisacano's fifth-grade class at McDonald-Davis Elementary School in Bucks County's Centennial district had abandoned education for celebration.
Thursday afternoon, Pisacano, in a bright red cap and shirt and billing himself as a "Skateboarding Santa," toted his beloved 1976 G&S board, decorated with tinsel and a tiny Christmas tree, to the ramp in the hallway outside his classroom.
To cheers and gasps from his students, he made a series of runs down the hall, smacking into a stack of gift-wrapped boxes at the bottom.
Holiday fun? Well, yes, but also a lot of learning was going on.
Pisacano's students measured the length of the hallway. As he zoomed down in different stances - standing, headfirst, feet first - they timed each trip, to find out how that would affect his velocity.
The rides also became a lesson in how potential energy (the teacher at the top of the ramp) was turned into kinetic energy as he traveled down, and about energy transfer - from him to the boxes when he hit them.
The Skateboarding Santa lesson is one of many Pisacano, 48, has crafted over more than 20 years of teaching, in an effort to bring home his educational messages in memorable and vivid ways.
In another one, he becomes "The Human Pendulum," swinging on a 12-foot rope in his classroom. His students measure what happens when they change the height, the weight, and the rope length.
When the Phillies make the playoffs, Pisacano's students tally up hits and runs at home, then bring the data into school to generate statistics. He shares his collection of baseball cards and his memories of attending a Phillies 1980 World Series game.
During the Flyers' Stanley Cup run last season, Pisacano brought in his old hockey mask and stick from his youth in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood and became a goalie in the classroom. Students took shots using a plastic puck and calculated goals-scored and goals-against percentages.
Pisacano, said school board member Mark Miller, is "totally engaged in the teaching process, and he's able to totally engage his students. My son was swept up in his class. . . . I don't think he's ever at a loss in finding a way to convey an idea to his students."
The man who became Skateboarding Santa started out as an accountant, switching to the classroom after a year as a volunteer at a school on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona fired his love of teaching. He worked at several Catholic schools, then came to McDonald-Davis - called McDonald Elementary at the time - about a dozen years ago.
Why the stunts? "The more things you do that are hands-on, that capture kids' interest, that keep them moving, keep their heads working, keep their hands moving, the more they are into school," Pisacano said.
His students echo that mantra. "It's a better way to learn than sitting at a desk and copying off the board," said Kelsey Krier. "Instead, you get a visual experience. . . . I love it."
Everyday events become indelible moments in Pisacano's hands. Each year, he drops everything when the first winter storm hits and takes his students outside, clipboards in hand, keeping absolute silence while they savor the snowfall.
Then they go back to the classroom, where they write a poem about what it would be like to be a snowflake, learning about similes, metaphors, and personification.
The ritual works its magic, he said, and when done with the first poem, "they ask 'Can I do another one?' It makes them use their senses; they will remember that forever."
The knack for turning everything into a learning experience is a special gift, said McDonald-Davis' principal, Keely Mahan, who once co-taught fifth grade with Pisacano.
"There are a million different ways to do the same thing," she said. "Instead of doing a work sheet, he has found a way to do them hands-on, and then tie it back into learning and to the real world. He really wants them to be using their senses, and engaged."
Students treasure the memories, said Elizabeth Dufner, 29, who had Pisacano as her teacher more than 15 years ago at Our Lady of Good Counsel school, in Southampton.
"He empowered us to take learning to a new level," said Dufner, who now teaches fifth grade in the Boyertown School District. One year, she said, he brought in a cow's heart to a biology class, something entirely new for students who were only used to textbook learning. "That's when I decided I wanted to stand in a classroom and make education exciting."
Dufner said she modeled many lessons after ones she had with Pisacano. She stays in touch with him.
"He had such an impact on my life - it's exciting to share my achievements with him," she said. "I know he truly cared about us. Now, he's a mentor for me."
To see Joe Pisacano in action, go to www.philly.com/santateacherEndText