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For West Harlem Science Teachers, the City is the Classroom

By Gustavo Solis | March 23, 2015 5:43pm
 John Russell, a teacher at Columbia Secondary, won the prestigious award at the National Science Teachers Association Conference earlier this month.
Earth Science Teacher Award
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WEST HARLEM — A couple of science teachers at Columbia Secondary School are finding unique ways of teaching their students about the ecosystem that makes up our concrete jungle.

“As much as possible, you have to connect with the city in some way,” said John Russell, 32, who teaches middle school Earth Science and twelfth grade Geography. “We take a topographic map and look at it for Broadway. Broadway goes downhill at 125th Street and back up. That’s why the 1 train is aboveground and goes back underground again. [The track] is staying in the same elevation.”

Russell, who was recently recognized as one of the best earth science teachers in the country by the American Geosciences Institute, has his students examine the topography of their neighborhoods the same way.

Doing so makes them curious about the way their neighborhoods are set up. It may answer questions like, why is there an elevator at the Inwood subway stop, the teacher said.

Russell, and other teachers at Columbia Secondary, located at West 123rd Street and Morningside Avenue, also takes his students across the street to Morningside Park.

“I think that my professional philosophy as an earth science teacher is to open up the classroom as much as possible,” he said. "Morningside Park has these beautiful grooves in the rocks that are perfect demonstrations from the last ice age.”

While Russell has his students look at rocks, Diana Lennon prefers to have hers look at birds.

Lennon, 42, who teaches biology to freshmen and AP Environmental Science to juniors and seniors, had her students examine pigeons at the park.  

“The students had to take time watch the flock, observe the behavior of the pigeons,” Lennon said. “Part of it was to start to realize that there are these different color morphs of pigeons. There are pigeons all over the world but you see red, black, white and brown. Why is there this variation if they are all the same species?”

In March, Lennon gave two presentations about her work at the National Science Teachers Association Conference in Chicago. One of the presentations was about the pigeon project at Morningside Park, she said.

Lennon and Russell are both members of Math For America, a nonprofit organization that brings teachers together and helps them develop new curriculums.

It was with the help of this program, by exchanging ideas with other teachers, that they developed their creative ideas, Russell said.

“Oftentimes, for better or for worse, teachers are on an island,” he said. “This gives you a chance to bounce off ideas or find out about something great that you can also do.”

That sort of cooperation lets teachers know about different trends in teaching. It turns out Russell and Lennon aren’t the only teachers taking learning outside the classroom, Lennon said.

“There is this movement of instead of no child left behind, it is no child left inside,” she said.