New York City a meaningful classroom
By Michele Yokell
The 300 year-old clock is ticking as it regulates the minutes in the old Wesley Chapel on John’s Street. A chorus of Patriots and Loyalists are voicing their grievances against Mother England. The smell of Johnnycakes wafts through the air. This is not a “Hot Tub Time Machine” trip back to the pre-Revolutionary War days. It is one of many trips I have taken with my public school students.
As we face another year of drastic education budget cuts, my visionary principal made me the Ms. Frizzle of the school, using New York as an open classroom for all students. Where to go with more than 750 students — 28 at a time, class by class, grade by grade — to inspire these children to learn history, geography and social action was now my mission. One destination was Old Wesley Chapel where each fifth-grade class held an authentic town meeting in a church built before the Revolutionary War.
Another adventure involved learning how clean water was transported from Upstate New York to New York City in the 1800s. The Friends of the Croton Aqueduct took us into the weir that housed the aqueduct. Kids were fascinated to walk though the original aqueduct that carried the water from the Croton River to New York City. A third grader remarked, “It really hit me that water is a very important thing to New York, America, the Earth!”
It is amazing how many experts are living right here in New York City and eager to share their knowledge with our students. The challenge was how to incorporate these experts, historic sites, New York City landmarks and museums with the mandated Department of Education social studies curriculum. One group of experts that helped the fourth-grade students learn about Lenape Native Americans was the Park Rangers in Inwood Hill Park, located within site of Columbia University’s football fields. Students learned how to make aspirin from willow bark and diapers out of Burdock leaves just as the Native Americans did before Henry Hudson discovered Manhattan. They climbed up and explored the actual rock shelter caves where Lenapes slept all those years ago.
Introducing our younger students to the rich history of New York gave me the opportunity to work with the expert gardeners and volunteers of the newly opened Highline. Students studied the native wild flowers and trees planted along the old train tracks that run the length of the Highline. They also learned why these tracks were originally built and then abandoned. This was a visual starting off point to learning about transportation, importing and exporting, and globalization.
The impact these experiences, plus the many other places we have visited, has had on our school community has been invaluable. Creating more classroom space by opening up New York City as a classroom, finding experts outside the school and inviting parents to join us in these adventures have enabled us to continue to enrich and inspire our student’s education despite budget cuts.
This year has been an amazing journey. With persistence and vision, no matter what, this Ms. Frizzle is determined to give our students an education they deserve and will remember.
(Michele Yokell teaches in New York City and is a member of the United Federation of Teachers.)