About Howard Katzoff
This video clip is from the documentary film CLASS ACT
courtesy of Studio-on-Hudson.
For over 40 years, I have been practicing the teaching craft obsessively, creatively, lyrically—making notes all along the way.
I came into the teaching profession during the era of Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and A.S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, and Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age.
I spent August, 1967— the year before I student taught— in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.
My student teaching experience began in the Spring of 1968 at Tri- Community Junior High School in Laurelton, Queens (IS 231Q). I began just after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April, and ended shortly after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June. Those three critical months in 1968 also encompassed Prague Spring, the Viet Nam War riots in Paris, the Broadway debut of Hair, and the Beatles incorporation of Apple Records with the release of the White Album.
As children of the 60’s, my generation came to practice teaching as a political activity. Our role was to “raise consciousness.”
My first teaching job was at Great Hollow Junior High School in Smithtown, Long Island. The SmithHaven Mall was under construction and the Smithtown Central School District was tripling its school population.
There was a boom on.
I was one of four new English teachers hired at Great Hollow that year.
What I had to learn about how to teach is told in the story:
In 1974, I heard about an experimental “middle school” in a district further east on Long Island. My friend, Danny, urged me to apply. He said, “Dennis Littky, the principal, is right on your wavelength.”
Most of what I’ve learned about the teaching craft was acquired at the Shoreham Wading River Middle School, 1974-85. Dedicated colleagues, enlightened administration and devoted parents combined to create a golden period in American Education.
My experience teaching in Shoreham is described in an article first published in Newsday. What we stood for as middle school teachers is made perfectly clear— and the stark contrast between then and now dramatically illustrates how American Education has lost its purpose.
If, as a child of the sixties, my role as a teacher was political, my thinking changed when I became a father. I started to practice teaching as a therapeutic activity. My role was to help my students construct and deconstruct their verbal self-expressions and give words to their inner voices.
Students in my Shoreham classes wrote from the uniqueness of their personalities, describing their experiences and expressing their opinions— as the English curriculum required. Because of the freedom and support we had to personalize what we taught, I developed writing activities using Mindfulness exercises.
This provoked students to find surprising archetypal and poetic voices within themselves— beyond the standards of the English curriculum.
After a two year hiatus from schools, I spent 13 years in Springfield, Massachusetts, teaching English, coordinating Community Service Learning, running the Chestnut Jr. High Writing Lab and, most importantly, beginning the second half of my career as a Drama teacher.
Michele Hebert and I brought Community Service Learning projects to Springfield elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.
Michele left teaching in 2004.
I tell of the changes that came into education with a vengeance in the 1990’s, and how our leaders’ obsession with numbers and data made good teachers like her leave the profession.
As an English teacher, I had learned to help my students examine their written self-expression. When I became a Drama teacher in 1991, I started learning how to get young people to extend the range of their personal self expression.
In order to teach that, I first had to extend the range of my own.
In 1996, we produced a Dramatic Arts cable TV show, city-wide— ACT OUT, SPRINGFIELD! Three episodes included interactive acting instruction for the home audience, and an enactment of Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky.
If I had begun teaching as a political activity, and had come of age with teaching as a therapeutic activity, by the end of my time in Springfield, I had come to practice teaching as a spiritual activity. I saw my role as to love my students and to work on myself.
The testament of how the Universe taught me this is given in:
I came to the New York City schools in 2000 to coordinate arts instruction in the 33 schools in District 8, with a special mandate to integrate visual and performing arts into Language Arts instruction.
The Juan Bobo Project brought stories of a Puerto Rican folk character into 17 of our schools, along with Professional Development in Drama and Puppetry to participating Language Arts teachers.
ACT OUT SPRINGFIELD! morphed into ACT IT OUT! for Bronx cable TV.
We created the Bronx Young Actors’ Guild at six middle schools, providing stage and television venues for our most gifted and talented young performers.
We created the STARRR Program (Substitute Teachers for the Arts and 3 Rs) in partnership with The Actors Fund, helping actors, musicians, dancers and other professionals in the New York City theatrical community teach their craft in our schools as substitute teachers. The program is still going strong today.
During my time in the New York City Schools, I saw the devastation that so-called “Education Reform” brought to our schools and to our kids. Ultimately, the arts became marginalized, falsified numbers and data became predominant, creative teachers became disheartened, and classroom instruction became cut and dry.
I express my feelings for these dire times for public education as a satire:
I retired from the New York City Public Schools on All Soul’s Day, 2007.