During mid-winter break, PS 8 (Brooklyn) teachers Melissa Browning, third grade, Noelle Gentile, drama teacher; Brandie Hayes, third grade; and Angie Nelson, fourth grade, went to New Orleans and helped build a home for Habitat for Humanity. They are shown on the Teacher Page homepage with the proud new homeowner, she’s on the left.
What led you to spend your midwinter break working for Habitat for Humanity?
NG: We are living in a complicated time. For a long time, I was unsure of what my role was, how I could make a difference. Recently I have been inspired by President Obama's message of service. President Obama has reminded us that our actions no matter how small do make a difference. After visiting New Orleans and seeing the devastation that still exists in the ninth ward, I wished I had gone earlier and I will hopefully go again!
MB: Noelle came to me with the idea. It seemed like a great way to give back and do something different.
BH: It was Noelle's idea. I had wanted to do this for a long time and when she ran the idea past me I was really excited about it.
What did you tell your students about what you did?
MB: I created a slide show and showed them pictures of both the work we did and the destruction that still exists in New Orleans three and a half years later. It was important for them to learn about volunteering, but also what brought us to New Orleans in the first place. They got a real sense of what life has been like down there and the injustices that have occurred since.
NG: We discussed the reasons New Orleans, almost four years after Hurricane Katrina, has still not been properly rebuilt. We also discussed the concept of volunteering and extending yourself to take care of those in our community and beyond.
BH: I told my students that I went and explained what Habitat for Humanity is. I explained that Habitat is so important in New Orleans because there is still so much devastation after Hurricane Katrina. About half of the class knew a bit about Hurricane Katrina and when I explained the flooding and the devastation (the blocks of bulldozed and abandoned houses, littered empty lots and a scattering of rebuilt houses) the kids were shocked. Some of them were asking about whether it was related to global warming, since they know what extreme weather is an effect of global warming. Ms. Browning made a short slideshow, which I shared with my kids, and they got to see us working on the house and also a bit of the community in the background.
What do you do to encourage your students to participate in social action activities either as a school project or in their personal lives?
NG: As a drama teacher, I strive to embed social action into my units of study, to not only engage students but to empower them through the arts. I want my students to leave my class understanding that there are many ways to bring about positive social change in the world and the arts are among them. I aim to give my students a platform to share their personal stories and their concerns for the larger social issues.
BH: Since the beginning of the year I have tried to build a strong sense of community. I started with building a classroom community in which the kids would be aware of, concerned about, connected with, and responsible for themselves and their classmates. As the year progressed, I expanded that sense of community to the environment. We began the year with a Class Community Pledge to reduce, reuse, and recycle paper since we use so much paper in our class and managing our paper usage is something that we could actually have control over.
Within a couple of months the curriculum began to naturally support the development of community. Our unit on non-fiction animals tapped into the class' love and concern about animals. One of the students created her own group called "Dog Patrol" to educate people about how to save stray dogs and encourage them to take action. I allowed her time to describe her group and celebrated that initiative in class. The other students were eager to be recruited.
I try to use current events to relate to issues that we have discussed or that are important to the idea of class and/or environmental community. For example, when the plane landed in the Hudson River due to a collision with birds I bought in the newspaper articles in which people expressed a desire to kill the birds so that planes could be safe. The kids were outraged. It launched us into a week-long study of the policies that the FAA uses to avoid such collisions and right before the break we wrote a class letter to a research biologist who informs the FAA's policy.
AN: We discuss environmental issues in our classroom, as well as current events. I recently worked with a group of students who researched global warming and wrote persuasive letters to President Obama, which we mailed to the President.
What is your favorite teaching moment?
AN: The one in which I get to see my kids mature and become kinder and more accountable individuals.
NG: Last year during a fourth grade drama class, students were sharing their frustration with the verdict in the Sean Bell case. The emotion in the room was intense, so I suggested they express their frustration and sorrow through poetry. As we began preparing for a Poetry Slam, I told the students they could choose any poem that they had written to share. Two students chose to combine their Sean Bell poems and collaborate on a performance. The two young men worked together to create a powerful and mature piece. When it came time to share, parents, teachers and students were gathered in the room, as the two students began to share one student became emotional and unable to speak. His partner, helped calm him down and they delivered the one of most powerful performances I have ever seen. Everyone was blown away by the performance, because it was authentic, the students were invested and connected to their work and brought awareness to an important issue. My hope is that the students remember that experience and continue to use theater, art, and writing to create positive change in the world.
What is your favorite book?
MB: “Granny Torrelli Makes Soup” by Sharon Creech. Not well-known, but an incredibly heart-warming story about friendship, family, and loyalty. Also incredibly funny!
NG: At the moment—“Harry Potter”—I can't help it! I resisted it for so long, but now I want to live at Hogwarts!
BH: Some of my favorite books are “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster, “Tale of Desperaux” by Kate Dicamillo, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. I love fantasy books.
AN: This is hard, but I would have to say "The Namesake" by Jhumpha Lahiri.
What is your favorite lesson?
BH: I don't have a favorite lesson but some of my favorite units are our reading and writing unit studying traditional Native American life (I love teaching the kids about the Native American love and respect for nature and their ability to live without the material goods that we feel we can't live without) , Mystery Book Clubs (the kids and I love the excitement of trying to figure out the mystery and speculating the whole way through the book), and our social action unit (I love that each student takes action about a topic that is of interest to them).
NG: The unplanned lesson—when my students lead me.
MB: I love the segue between our Native Americans unit and our environment unit. We talk about NYC past, present and future and the kids always have this "Ah-ha" moment when they realize that if we lived closer to the land, our planet wouldn't be in the danger that it is in today. They start to look at their own lives and realize that much of what they do each day is harmful to the earth. Then they look to make changes.
AN: The one that sparks a lot of discussion, debate and critical thinking.
Tell us a few words about your own favorite teacher.
BH: My sixth grade teacher's name was Mr. Kennedy. He was a huge man who commanded respect (with his size and his attitude), but he was amazing at connecting with us. He was not the typical adult who acted like he was never a child.
NG: A college professor who taught me that knowledge about what is happening in our world doesn't have to lead to apathy and if it happens to lead to anger, that's alright because in many cases anger creates action. He also taught me that knowledge without action is unacceptable.
MB: My European history teacher in high school. He always used modern-day problems to help us understand historical issues (e.g., subletting an apartment was used to help explain colonization).
AN: She was patient, calm and supportive. She saw more in me then I could even see in myself.
What is the best quotation you’ve heard from a student?
BH: Ms. Hayes, why do you make school so fun?
MB: After visiting the Guggenheim, a student said, "What is happening to me? I used to be such a goofball and now my brain is filled with ideas. Ideas are coming at me all the time. My mind is on fire!"
AN: Sometimes life takes us in a direction we don't want to go, sometimes we should just go with it and not fight it (believe it or not this is almost a word for word direct quote!).