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How One Teaching Team Uses Harlem As Its Classroom
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Elora Tocci – March 7, 2019
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On a chilly Friday morning in February, Aaron Marcus gave his second graders a TGIF version of morning work. “Write a poem about your weekend coming up,” he instructed. “Use rhyming words, make it fun, make it flow.”

Chase and Atiyyah, two of Mr. Marcus’ second graders, looked unconvinced. “Mr. Marcus, we don’t have time for that,” they said. “We’ll make it rhyme,” they conceded, “but we’re going to write about civil rights.”

Looking around their classroom at Success Academy Harlem 5, it’s not hard to figure out where they got their inspiration. The room is filled with books, posters, and homages to black culture and history — a reflection of the neighborhood just beyond the schoolhouse walls. Students choose books from classroom library shelves labeled "The Schomburg Center," a nod to the New York Public Library’s hub for research in black culture. They read them under hand-painted signs for 116th and 125th Streets. The banner over the door — "Strivers Row" — celebrates the stretch of townhouses where so many Harlem legends lived and thrived, just two blocks south of the school.

“We call each other strivers, and each week the kids choose a striver of the week,” Mr. Marcus said. “We knew that if we wanted a classroom rooted in black culture, black excellence, and a thriving community built by and for people of color, we had to find some really concrete ways to communicate that every day."

That "we" for Mr. Marcus is a team of teachers representing every grade in the school, who worked together to supercharge both their approach to teaching history and their Black History Month curriculum. Eager to give their students a more thorough and engaging education on black history than they received growing up, teachers Chelsea Clayton, Amanda January, Shanice Sanchez, and Biiftu Aba-Jebel planned a curriculum that brought black history to life. They took their kids to field trips to Marcus Garvey Park; showed them videos about Coretta Scott King, the Underground Railroad, and Malcolm X; and even helped the students land an interview with Maya Angelou’s Harlem-based niece.

Before long, teachers across the school started to notice the impact — often in unexpected ways.

“We anticipated that the approach would help deepen students’ historical knowledge,” said Ms. January, a fellow second grade teacher at H5, “but we were blown away by how fluently students began to connect the dots between the history, their personal stories, and even current events.”  

“One student wrote a poem about how she can’t wait until she’s not judged by the color of her skin,” Mr. Marcus explained. “Another started asking questions about why so many young black men are still getting shot while they walk down the street. At snack time, we’d hear them talk about being the first black woman president, or making the sort of change that Martin Luther King Jr. did. We set out to build a culture of conquering and questioning in our classrooms. The kids have exceeded our wildest expectations.”

On February 28th, as many schools wrapped up their annual Black History programming, Mr. Marcus, Ms, January, and their colleagues were just getting started. Until the day their doors close for the summer, they will keep teaching their students about the giants on whose shoulders they stand. And in March, those lessons will place a special emphasis on women, thanks to the Women’s History Month curriculum Ms. January pioneered. “This is the work,” said Ms. January. “Setting the stage to help our students become the critical thinkers and confident, self-actualized people they’re already becoming.”

To hear more from Aaron Marcus, join us on March 21st for A Grown-Up’s Guide to Kid Identity.

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