NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi drew on his 34 years of classroom teaching experience Dec. 9 to make connections between the triumphant life of Robert F. Kennedy; the re-naming of New York City's Triborough Bridge after the former U.S. attorney general and senator from New York; and RFK's lifelong commitment to justice and equality for all.
Following remarks and an introduction by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Iannuzzi helped nearly 30 11th graders in Lisa Byhemy's U.S. government class at Robert F. Kennedy Community High School in Queens to see how a strong leader can bridge the gaps among people and fight social injustice. Iannuzzi was joined as a "guest teacher" by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten - who also heads the United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's largest local - and Kerry Kennedy, RFK's daughter and leader of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
In the same way the Triborough Bridge connects three of New York's diverse boroughs, Iannuzzi said, Robert Kennedy helped the nation make the connection between the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the social injustices faced by the poor and by African Americans in the 1960s.
"To fight injustice, you need a leader. You need a champion," Iannuzzi told the class. "Robert F. Kennedy was that leader. He was that champion. He was that bridge. He drew connections so people didn't follow the wrong path."
The event, which drew reporters from radio, television and the New York City tabloids, marked the official unveiling of lesson plans developed by NYSUT and the RFK Center, in partnership with Gov. David Paterson and the State Education Department. Classroom teachers, including Byhemy, worked over the summer with former colleagues of RFK to write the lesson plans tied to the fourth-, eighth- and 11th-grade social studies standards. The lesson plans – called "Speak Up, Speak Out" – have been distributed to some 20,000 teachers, principals and superintendents throughout the state.
In her remarks, Kerry Kennedy thanked NYSUT for its work bringing her father's life and legacy to a new generation of teachers and students. "I am very grateful," she said.
While Iannuzzi, Kennedy and others found the 11th-graders very receptive to learning about RFK's work to integrate the South and ensure African-Americans could exercise their right to vote, the day's lesson merely re-enforced the "best practice" in social justice already in place at RFK Community High School.
Byhemy - an active UFT member - noted each student is required to perform 200 hours of community service each year, collecting food for the needy, running blood drives and volunteering to help the poor and elderly. By the time they graduate, members of Byhemy's junior class will have contributed 25,000 hours working for social justice in their community.