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by Lydia S '15

Teacher of the Month: Ms. Linda Ellman

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I really thought that History was a good way to make people to think about all kinds of big ideas and a way to think about the world. I have a passion for History and I thought I would want to talk to young people about that. Also I think that schools are very important places for young people and adults.And I wanted to make a very humane institution for a small school like this.

Did you plan on working in an IB school?
No, this is my second school, but both times I worked originally for Bill, the old principal and so I didn’t know that much about the IB but when he first started talking about it, I thought it was a really good idea. Having an IB school that is for all, not just for the top track, which I thought was a really good idea. It’s been great watching, I’ve been here since the beginning. So I find that I’ve been very pleased at the way we’ve been able to make it work, 7 through 12.

What did you do before you were a teacher?
Well, I started [teaching] when I was pretty old, so I’ve done all kinds of things. I worked as an administrator for a History program at Hunter College, I taught adult education, I was a parent coordinate in my kids’ school, I worked as an administrator in a hospital, I worked in a women’s organization for a while, so I’ve done lots of different things and then I realized that I have this passion for History and I tried thinking about whether I wanted to teach and I became a teacher, after doing lots of different things.

What was your focus during college?
Well, to be honest with you, I definitely thought, my major was Psychology but I was much more interested in social movements and I was involved, that time the war in Vietnam was going on, and I was really active in the student movement. And before that when I was in high school I was really involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I went to college, interested in college, I was a good student but I was also really interested in the movements. So, while I had a major I was much more interested in trying to figure out how to make people think about big issues, just like I do here.

Did you take the things you learned and talked about as an activist in the things you teach as a History teacher?
Absolutely, because History is all about democracy. But one of the things we do in 11th grade with me, we work on the definition of democracy, so for me that’s an important thing to me for every human: to have their own definition of democracy and to live up to their beliefs. So I feel that there’s a very close connection between my student movement stuff and when my kids were in elementary school, I really didn’t like the school they were in, so I helped start a new public school that I thought was a better school. That’s where I was parent coordinator, so that’s how I got to see how parents and teachers in my community worked together to get a school going.

How old were your kids when you helped put the school together?
Well, I had one 1st grader and another child in the 4th grade. And particularly the 1st grader wasn’t flourishing and it wasn’t a good school, it wasn’t a bad school but it wasn’t a good school. I knew that kids need better schools and it turned out in my neighborhood, the PTA and other people, the school administration were all concerned as well, they were interested, and we worked together to lay pressure on the system and we started a school that now goes K-12. And it’s been around for 20 years.

What do you do outside of school?
Well, I like to read History books, I like to hike…

Where do you hike?
I hike mostly in the mountains of Massachusetts, that’s my most common place to go. That’s my ] favorite activity to do, hiking, but I also like kayaking. I actually own a kayak. The kayak doesn’t fit in my apartment so we have it stored up in Massachusetts.

What do you like to do with your daughters and family?
We all love hiking, my kids are in their 30s, but when they were little kids, we used to camping and hiking a lot, and visiting friends and relatives.

Do you do any mother-daughter activities today?
I am very close with my daughters, one of them is a middle school teacher, but I wasn’t a teacher when she was a little kid. And another one is an environmental scientist. But we like to have parties and cook. I have a little house but we put lots of people in it.

You’ve been teaching 11th grade for the past few years but now you’re teaching 8th grade. What are the differences of teaching high school History and 8th grade Humanities?
That’s a great question. Well I think its important to talk about the similarities, and I think that both 8th graders and 11th graders are good at thinking about important ideas. In this school, I’m always surprised how people are so good at group work and work with their group to figure out what they think, and I think both grades are good at that, the frustrating thing about 8th graders is that we can’t use as many complicated readings in the text, so you can’t get as in depth as when you read stuff that’s more complicated. So often we try to read two different things on the same topic but I think the world is a complex place and I think general, history tends to simplify things that are usually confusing. Because, when you say, this is the cause and this is the effect, when there are actually multiple things acting on each other, and it’s hard to capture that. That’s probably my biggest frustration with teaching History, is that we have to make generalizations on things that are complicated, but it’s harder to do that in 8th grade because you cant find good enough readings.

What are the biggest changes/differences in the attitudes and maturity levels of teaching 8th graders and 11th graders?
11th graders in general are much more clear that they want to do well in BSGE so they can work on their futures. But there are many 8th graders who feel that way too, there are 8th graders that aren’t serious, but I think they’re great.

Since you’ve been here since the very beginning, what was BSGE like in the early years?
It was chaotic. I mean the place itself wasn’t chaotic it’s just that there were no rituals, no routines. Oh, when will we do periodic assessments? When do we hand out report cards? What should the report card look like? What rewards were there for Seniors? What does a personal project want to look like? How should we make the periodic assessments? What should the extended essays be like? A lot of the early students often thought they were guinea pigs, they would say, “what are you doing to us?” but I think it was actually good for them. Everyone was so excited. That was contagious. Also another thing is that we all fit in the building. There was extra space. Not all the classrooms were being used. So it was really kind of relaxed, the hallways were quiet. But now getting around the halls can be really frustrating. But in the very first year we were in another school that didn’t want us, and it was very unplaesent. So coming here was very exciting. And because it was a renovated building and there were lockers, it was very exciting by the resources here. We had a lot of laptops and so now we don’t think we had quite enough, but back then we felt the resources were really wonderful.

I guess having us move to our own building added to our idea of BSGE that we’re a family.
Yeah, I think so. Kids come back because they want to tell us that they had a good experience here and that they were well prepared which really makes me happy but they also make really good friends here and that’s really good. I think it’s important that the IB has made their college lives easier, giving them more credits and helping them save money. But the thing that upsets me is that we don’t have a gym. It upsets me that when you renovate a school you don’t add a gym. There are other buildings in NYC that don’t have gyms but that wouldn’t happen in a suburban school, which really makes me mad. But there are kids who would really like more sports, and it would be good to do that, because part of IB is getting action hours, and that would make it easier. That’s the part that upsets me.

What have the biggest changes been?
The biggest changes is our confidence. We now know how to do everything. We know how to help a kid get the IB diploma, and that some where between 50% maybe a bit more always gets the diploma, we have a very high graduation rate, people stay in college because they’re well prepared, those kind of outcomes are different for me because it lets us know that we can do this. And that’s a big change because from the beginning, we didn’t know! Because most IB schools are like a top track, and we decided not to do that, sometimes we torture you, we give too much work.

What’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
There’s a Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood called Fonda, it’s a great restaurant.

What are some things you hope to accomplish or do in the near future, outside of work?
I would like to live in a society where there are no wars. That really upsets me how the United States continues to get into one war after another. And I’ve worked on that before, and I’m working on that now, trying to make a policy for the United States that there are no wars. I’m also very worried about the environment. But I also think an important thing about life is having fun. Going outdoors, going to parks, one of the things that I love about New York is that there are so many wonderful parks right in the city, you don’t have to leave the city. You guys have great parks in Queens, Brooklyn has great parks, we have this wonderful place called the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, so part of the things I like to do is be outside.

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