Streams

Summer Brings Pleasure of Learning Back to Some Teachers

Monday, July 23, 2012 - 10:58 AM

In an elegant conference room of the New York Public Library, 14 city teachers listened intently to the music of the saxophone player Ornette Coleman.

As they considered the jagged sounds of Mr. Coleman's jazz saxophone, their teacher, Adam Shatz, urged them to describe what they were hearing.

"Remember what I was saying earlier about the cry?" Mr. Shatz asked. "This is, I think, a beautiful example of the cry in jazz."

The seven men and seven women are schoolteachers any other season of the year. This summer they are enrolled in a one-week course on Black Bohemia, studying the poetry, art and jazz of the Lower East Side in the 1950s and '60s. While teachers have the freedom to use their long summer break any way they choose, many of them spend at least some of their weeks off learning and reinvigorating themselves.

Carla Cherry, who teaches English at Innovation Diploma Plus High School in Manhattan, weighed in on the Coleman piece, titled "Lonely Woman":

"There was a mournful music coming from the saxophone against the backdrop of this, like, sultry music, and I could hear almost hear this woman calling out, 'I’m lonely, I’m lonely, can’t you understand?'"

Mr. Shatz, a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, then recalled a story about how Mr. Coleman was deeply offended by the way women lusted after jazz musicians.

"I mean Ornette was someone who in the '60s had actually considered getting castrated," he told the teachers to awkward laughs. "He’s a very peculiar man."

It was an example of how the conversation can go anywhere at the library’s Cullman Center Institute for Teachers. The center's weeklong seminars encourage the lively discussion typical of a graduate school seminar, but without any of the agony. The program’s dean, Sam Swope, said the idea was to treat teachers as both professionals and intellectuals.

"We believe that they need to be inspired with content-rich material," he said. "Not pedagogy, not classroom management skills — which are also important — but they also need this intellectual restimulation so they can go back into their classrooms fired up and wanting to give their students the same experience they’re having here."

In addition to jazz, the teachers in the Black Bohemia course learned about the colorful paintings of Bob Thompson and studied early works by the writer LeRoi Jones – before he changed his name to Amiri Baraka. He was a young man living in Greenwich Village when poets and jazz musicians had a creative dialogue. The teachers read Mr. Jones's poem "Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note," and explored how "Cuba Libre," his essay about visiting Cuba in 1959, shaped his transformation from downtown beat poet into a radical.

Joanna Dolgin, who teaches high school sociology at East Side Community School in Manhattan, said Mr. Jones was forced to confront his role as artist, as an American and an observer during the state-sponsored visit to see Cuba's new post-revolutionary government.

Alex Pajares, who teaches history at the Multicultural High School in Brooklyn, agreed Mr. Jones was challenged by the trip.

"It seems to me he’s in a situation that for a while he’s the poet, right?" he said. "He’s the artist. 'My art is apolitical.' And he's put in a situation where they're telling him art cannot be apolitical, art is political."

A nine-year veteran teacher and a former United States Marine, Mr. Pajares said he thought Mr. Jones's essay about Cuba could be an effective way of reaching his students: "A lot of my kids are looking for purpose."

The library program is but one of many studying opportunities for teachers. Others include Fulbright programs and those offered by the New York City teachers' union center.

Amber Joseph, who’s in her fourth year at East Side Community School, said even young teachers craved the chance to learn more about subjects that can excite them and their students. Ms. Joseph, a former New York City Teaching Fellow, wants to bring the neighborhood connection to her Lower East Side students.

"I thought it would be really exciting to take this class and expose myself to people that have lived around the corner from where my school is," she said.

The teachers acknowledged not everything they learned about Black Bohemia would find its way into their lessons. One thought Mr. Coleman's jazz might be a little too far out there, though another could envision playing it as background music while her students write. At a time when teachers and students are feeling so much pressure from standardized tests, Aisha Haynes, an English teacher at the Academy of Urban Planning in Brooklyn, said it was energizing to spend a week learning about black artists.

"Sometimes you need to be reminded why you started," she said. "This is the reason that I started. It can be fun and refreshing to students."

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