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Mr. Porton’s classroom, where students are 'safe and the possibilities endless'
by Ellie Spielberg | April 28, 2011 New York Teacher issue
“I represent senior teachers, who the Department of Education thinks are mummified and collecting dust rather than educating students,” said Thomas Porton, one of only 10 winners of the 2011 Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards and the only winner from New York City.
Porton has been teaching at Monroe HS in the Soundview section of the South Bronx for 42 years.
“Every day I am as energized as I was when I first started here in 1970,” Porton says.
He’s sitting among the creative chaos in his office at the school’s Academy for Visual Arts & Design, one of five smaller schools created under the building’s massive roof in 1994.
Wearing jeans, sneakers, a long black T-shirt and a chrome keychain looped over one hip, Porton is dressed not unlike the teens who think it’s cool to hang out in his office and take his classes.
He earned his South Bronx creds not merely by default, having lived in the borough as a child and returning in 1965 to attend NYU in University Heights.
Porton earned them because he stayed put “at the height of gang wars, the heroin epidemic and the burning of what seemed like every apartment building in the borough,” said Manhattan performance artist David Gonzalez, Porton’s student in the early 1970s.
“Outside there was danger, but in Mr. Porton’s English class we were safe and the possibilities were endless,” said Gonzalez, who nominated Porton for the Kennedy/Sondheim Award.
A man before his time, this English, drama and leadership teacher was using a multimedia approach decades before it was de rigueur. These days he’s using that approach even for Regents prep, “injecting creativity into what could be a less-than-enthralling topic,” Porton says.
He’s a man of his time, totally current on pop culture and knows hip-hop inside out.
And he’s a man who has somehow eluded time, a bearded patriarch who kids see as one of their own: hip, playful, intense, spontaneous.
“I’ve learned through the years to maintain student-teacher boundaries while making those boundaries extremely comfortable for students and making myself highly approachable,” Porton says.
Approachable, and trusted.
In 1991, students asked him what they could do about the new disease killing their families and friends.
In conjunction with Montefiore Medical Center, Porton developed what is to anyone’s knowledge the oldest peer-educator high school AIDS/HIV awareness program in the country.
One of those peer educators, Yaneth, a senior, is sitting cross-legged on Porton’s office floor in front of two AIDS prevention posters she created.
She asks Porton’s opinion about the posters and they toss around some ideas, as he does later with a group of kids concerning images submitted to the yearbook committee.
“Which image is more visually interesting to you?” he asks.
Porton works on the yearbooks of two academies. He organizes poetry slams, senior activities and forays into New York’s cultural institutions and is Santa Claus for the neighborhood’s little ones.
The coordinator of student affairs for 40 years, he is now head of all high school coordinators. Porton served as UFT chapter leader from 2000 – 2009, has garnered 18 honors and awards, and is the city’s only educator in the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
“He is my Art Father,” Gonzalez wrote in his award nomination essay. “He handed me a camera and said ‘shoot.’ He handed me a pen and said ‘write.’ He handed me a ticket and said ‘go.’ He handed me permission to explore, examine, create … He opened the door to the world … always with a joyful laugh and a wink that said, ‘This is yours, all of it, see it, know it, be it.’”
“He’s a good teacher because we’re always learning new things,” said Yaneth, whose older sister was also a student of Porton’s.
Who knows how many generations of students in how many Bronx families have been under Porton’s wing? When he sits in his car outside school at 4 a.m. every morning, writing lesson plans until the doors open at 6, former students out walking their dogs often come over to give him a hug.
He has 2,000 friends on his Monroe alumni Facebook page.
“I got hundreds of congratulations from former students when I won the Kennedy Center Award, and not one word from Mayor Bloomberg, who received the notice,” says Porton. “But they’re who I care about, not the mayor.”
Now he’s standing at an historical hip-hop mural in the cafeteria, telling amazed kids that legendary Afrika Banbaataa grew up two blocks away and used to try out his stuff at Monroe HS dances.
He then moves deftly into a reggae dance step called the butterfly, swiveling one leg then the other.
“I have a great time every day,” Porton says, and evokes Dylan Thomas for his advice to fellow senior teachers:
“‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ even though that’s what the mayor wants you to do.”