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Acting up for a cause

Multiple personalities serve a good purpose in this classroom. Mrs. B also freely gives hugs and believes that every child can learn.

[Times photo: Mike Pease]
The Wacky Wizard, also known as Shaw special-ed teacher Bonnie Bresnyan, helps Marcus Lattany, 6, fine the United States on a globe recently.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002


NORTH TAMPA -- Hillsborough County school officials got a heck of a deal when they hired special-education teacher Bonnie Bresnyan.

"The School Board got 12 for the price of one when they got me," said Bresnyan, who spends much of her day dressing up in costumes and morphing into different characters for her students.

Bresnyan, who was fresh from a midmorning session as "The Wacky Wizard" when she spoke, is a finalist for Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year. She teaches mentally handicapped students in kindergarten, first and second grade at Shaw Elementary.

To connect with her students, Bresnyan uses a dozen personalities to flesh out the lessons. There's Rhoda, the roving reader, and the Mad Hatter, who also leads reading lessons. There's Big Top Lady. The Wacky Wizard does many things, but is especially good at helping children find places on the globe. "Oooh, the magic wand is looking for someone else," Bresnyan said, her British accent trilling like a character in a Harry Potter story. After the map lesson, the Wacky Wizard made her magical exit.

"Okay," Bresnyan said, "the Wacky Wizard has to go now. Mrs. B. needs to come back."

With that, Bresnyan's dozen students dutifully put their heads on their desks, closed their eyes tight, and pretended not to know what was going on as the teacher got out of costume behind a bookshelf.

"Who was your visitor today?" Bresnyan asked, back in the role of comfortable Mrs. B.

"The lizard!" a little boy replied, to the delight of his classmates.

"The kids enjoy the characters," Bresnyan said after class. "If I'm Mrs. B. too long, they'll say, "Is the Wacky Wizard coming today?' "

Bresnyan said the different characters are her way of keeping the students' attention while teaching basic lessons.

"I like theater and this gets them hooked," she said.

A native of San Antonio, Texas, Bresnyan has been teaching for 16 years, the last two at Shaw. For her, "special education" is indeed special.

"These kids really want to learn," Bresnyan said. "It just takes them so long. You really have to admire their courage and determination. Every child can learn. Now what they learn is a different thing. My kids won't know algebra and trigonometry, but one day they will be able to balance their checkbooks."

Bresnyan teaches in some ways that books and chalkboards can't convey. She offers lessons in caring and consideration. She says "thank you" to the children many times each day. She rewards them with gentle, heartfelt hugs.

"You do that with lots of touching," Bresnyan said. "They need to know that there's some warmth there."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 226-3464 or at mabe@sptimes.com.

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