SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- Since 2018, the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation has recognized one teacher in the state who has made valuable contributions to the teaching of the Vietnam War Era. 

Rebecca DiBrienza, a social studies teacher at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, has been selected as the Foundation's Teacher of the Year for her work teaching the era and for her multiple collaborations with the Foundation.

“As a lifelong learner and self-professed history nerd, I’m thankful that organizations like the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation exist to keep my passion for history alive and consistently provide fresh new ideas to think about,” DiBrienza said.

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DiBrienza has been an educator for 10 years and an avid music fan for 32 years. She has been able to incorporate her love of music into her social studies classroom at SPFHS and has developed a unique approach to teaching U.S. History through song.

Students in her classes learn about fundamental genres of American music, what they sound like, what inspired them, and how technology has helped music evolve. Each unit is accompanied by a playlist and a “song of the week” as a valuable primary source that relates to the content and helps convey to the students the context of a given time period. She has found that this stimulates discussion, sharpens analytical thinking skills, increases student engagement, and creates a love for the social studies. 

“I feel so fortunate that I can infuse my professional life with the things I love," DiBrienza says. "Music is also an excellent way to learn about the past— how people felt about the world they were living in, their opinions and struggles, their tastes, and what they taught was fun. It’s both material culture and non-material culture, so as a historian, it really helps me understand an era.”

DiBrienza served as a consultant to curate the NJVVMF Museum exhibit, Soundtrack of a Changing Nation: The Music of the Vietnam Era, and prepare educational materials to accompany it. She worked with Museum Director Greg Waters to source artifacts from local archives, including the Bruce Springsteen Archive at Monmouth University. She also created lesson plans that include the music of the era and various war-related topics for elementary, middle school, and high school students. DiBrienza viewed it as a way of mentoring other teachers and encouraging them to bring music into the classroom.

When asked what her favorite song of or related to the Vietnam Era, her response was “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen “because it captures the pain and the struggle of returning veterans, and it got Americans thinking about whether or not we’re keeping our promise to them.”

Each year, DiBrienza brings 100-plus students to tour the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial as a school field trip. Her favorite thing about the trip is the personal touch that every veteran tour guide provides. Their time and attention allow students to ask questions freely, build empathy for the challenges American servicemen experience. The experience helps students gain ideas for the oral history project they conduct at the end of the year.

"It allows students to put human faces and individual stories and experiences into the context of a larger global conflict,” DiBrienza explains.

Rebecca DiBrienza earned her bachelor’s degree in history from Bryn Mawr College and a master’s degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2017, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study the German educational system, particularly the ways in which they commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, teach students the importance of human rights, and create vocational programs that lead to gainful employment. She is an avid “teacher traveler” and has participated in multiple professional development experiences, including with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the USS Midway. 

The New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation offers a meaningful and engaging experience that recognizes the sacrifices, courage and valor of Vietnam Veterans and that encourages and fosters a thorough understanding of the Vietnam Era including the political, historical, social, cultural, and military aspects which affected the U.S., and especially New Jersey.

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