June 2011 Issue
May 20, 2011

First Person: 'An education they deserve'

Author: Michele Yokell
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Michele Yokell, shown in a photo with students visiting Wesley Chapel, is a member of United Federation of Teachers.

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 Johnny cakes wafts through the air. This is not a "Hot Tub Time Machine" trip back to the Pre-Revolutionary 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 in New York City, my visionary principal made me the Ms. Frizzle (a fictional character who arranges school field trips) 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 Wesley Chapel, where each fifth-grade class held an authentic town meeting in the 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 through the original aqueduct that carried 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 are eager to share their knowledge with our students. The challenge was how to incorporate these experts, historic sites, and New York City landmarks and museums with the mandated Department of Education social studies curriculum.

One group of experts who helped fourth-grade students learn about Lenape Native Americans was the park rangers in Inwood Hill Park. 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 "Mannahatta."

Introducing our younger students to New York's rich history has also allowed me to work with the expert gardeners and volunteers of the High Line public park. Students studied the native wild flowers and trees planted along the old train tracks that run the length of the historic, raised platform park. They also learned why the tracks were originally built and then abandoned. This was a visual starting off point to learning about transportation, importing and exporting and globalization.

These experiences have had an invaluable impact on our school community. Opening up New York City as a classroom, finding experts outside the school and inviting parents to join us in these adventures enable 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.