Harlem trip’s aim is to aid ‘culturally relevant’ teaching

Susan Troller
The Capital Times

Dancing on the stage was the last thing on Madison school teacher Nancy Lanyon’s mind when she sat in the audience of the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem on amateur night. With her bad back and walking cane, the white-haired veteran teacher figured even getting out of her seat would be a stretch.

“When the MC picked me with four others from the audience, at first I didn’t even think I could do it,” Lanyon admits. But she threw down her cane and clambered up on the stage.

The audience went wild.

When it was all over and Lanyon had danced her allotted two minutes, it was clear she’d won over the hearts of the tough New York audience, say her fellow travelers and colleagues from Hawthorne Elementary. She also won her category of the amateur competition, and was mobbed with well-wishers as she left the theater.

“Even on the street, among the 16- and 17-year-old kids, she was like a celebrity. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, I just love Nancy,’” fellow teacher Emily Grams reports.

Performing at the Apollo in front of a largely African-American audience was not just a capstone experience in a trip filled with remarkable experiences for Lanyon, who is white and in her 60s. “It was probably one of the best moments of my life,” she says with a smile.

Lanyon, Grams, and fellow Hawthorne teachers Julie Olsen and Abby Miller received a grant from the national nonprofit Fund for Teachers that allowed them to travel to Harlem to learn about the art, music, poetry, literary history and drama of this hub of African-American life. They all agree that they now have a new appreciation for the richness of black culture and its profound impact on American life and culture as a whole.

For these four, plus a dozen more local educators whose travel was covered by a couple of additional grants, the experience was part of a wider effort to help them better teach in what’s known as a culturally relevant way.

“Culturally relevant practice” is a relatively new movement in education that recognizes that learning, for all of us, is related to our cultural background and what we know from our daily living. Research shows that effectively bridging the gaps between a teacher’s background and student’s experience can improve academic performance.

Andreal Davis is one of two district administrators in charge of helping to create culturally relevant practices in local classrooms. A former elementary school teacher at Lincoln, Davis, who is black, now helps colleagues recognize that different groups of children bring their different backgrounds, expectations and even communication styles to the classroom.

She says teachers sometimes need help learning to translate different ways their students learn, or what kind of interactions make sense to different groups of children.

“Communication styles for all of us can vary a great deal. It can be like the difference between listening to conventional music, or listening to jazz, where the narrative doesn’t just go in a straight line,” she explains. “If that flow is what you’re used to, it’s what you know how to follow in a conversation, or in a class.”

Given Hawthorne’s demographics – 70 percent of the students are poor, with a diverse population that includes 18 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, 32 percent black and 28 percent white – the school has respectable, rising test scores.

But the teachers there want to do even more to engage all students and help them excel. That’s what they’re hoping the trip to Harlem will help them do. “At our school, we do work really hard to try to reach all our students and I think it shows,” says Olsen. “But we can always get better.”

When the teachers return to school next fall, they will bring not just enthusiasm for Harlem’s rich culture and heritage to their racially diverse classrooms in Madison. They’ll also bring respect and new appreciation for the way that people and families communicate, interact and look out for each other, taught by example through their Harlem friends.

As teachers whose life is working with kids, they were especially impressed with the interactions they saw regularly between adults and small children in Harlem. “We saw an older gentleman walking down the street and when he passed a little boy he smiled and said, ‘Hey, little man, better tie your shoes,’” Olsen says. That kind of street conversation was common, they say, and so was routinely looking out for your neighbor.

They were also impressed with the friendliness and candor of 88-year-old Delores Leon, known throughout the community as “Doll,” whose beautiful hidden street-side garden they stumbled upon. She was eager to share stories of a lifetime spent in Harlem with her unexpected visitors.

“It was the spontaneous interactions that were so memorable,” says Grams, adding that the group felt a sense of belonging in the neighborhood, from their first day staying in a local hotel.

Lanyon tells of the time she was at a restaurant and noticed some women looking at her and whispering.

“I thought maybe they thought I wasn’t dressed up enough, and, as a white person with my sandals and my backpack on the table, I figured I did look out of place. So I got up to go and one of the women stopped me. ‘Honey, you don’t want to keep your bag on the table,’ she says. ‘Somebody will just snatch it right up,’ Here I was worried they were criticizing me and instead they were worrying about me!”

Joining the four Hawthorne colleagues who won the national grant for the trip were several other Hawthorne teachers; their principal, Beth Lehman; a teacher from Lowell Elementary teacher; as well as Davis and another district administrator. These individuals received grants from the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools and the Evjue Foundation. The groups had overlapping time in Harlem, and shared many experiences.

“One of the things about travel is that you get off the plane, and the next day you wake up in someone else’s world,” Olsen says. “That’s a powerful thing.”

Both groups of teachers stayed in Harlem. Their list of scheduled activities included seeing August Wilson’s powerful play, “Fences,” starring recent Tony Award-winning actor and actress, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. They also visited the famed Cotton Club and toured several schools, including a public school with an arts focus and a successful charter school.

They also went to jazz clubs, churches, bookstores, public and private gardens and museums. They spent time at the New York City Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and toured Harlem on foot with Harlem historian extraordinaire, Neal Shoemaker. “Our tour was supposed to take two hours. It took three and a half, and every minute was worthwhile,” Lanyon says.

For Davis, a Milwaukee native, this first trip to Harlem was especially meaningful, both personally and professionally.

When she taught fifth-graders, she often used material about American history that described the flowering of the arts in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. “I loved teaching my students about the heritage of African-American culture and the Harlem Renaissance. But being here in person and seeing everything firsthand is better than I could have imagined.”

Now she can see first hand how enthusiastic teachers become when they learn something through their own experience.

“I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say this trip has changed my life,” says Lanyon.