“I literally want to bring the world into the classroom,” says Leslie Martinez, a teacher at Manhattan’s Humanities Prep Academy, a District 79 alternative high school. “I don’t want to just teach a curriculum and read a book. I want to bring the author in. I want it to be as real as possible.”
Martinez brought “Night at the Museum” to life in her previous career, creating a wildly successful kids’ overnight program at the American Museum of Natural History. “Because of the vision I had,” Martinez said, “it became a million-dollar program.” And it exposed kids to science. They’d sleep under the whale in the Hall of Ocean Life or amid dioramas in the Hall of African Mammals. They’d meet animals brought in by wildlife educators: a black bear, a wolf, a bird of prey.
It’s all about “kids having access to experiences, whether I do it through being a teacher or being a program director at a museum or being a Girl Scout leader,” Martinez says. “That’s really what I want to do with my life — bring access to underserved children; let them see what their possibilities could be.”
That desire was ignited by a college speaker who said career choices are rooted in childhood experiences, an idea that has long been Martinez’s motivation.
Experiences, she says, “shouldn’t be just for rich people.”
In her classroom, Martinez weighs what is relevant to students and considers how to make that tangible. “I come from a culture with a lot of oral history, so if I can tell a story I always go with that.”
Born in the South Bronx, Martinez is Garifuna and spent her early years living on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. She speaks Garifuna, Spanish and English.
“It’s really important for kids to see their reflections in teachers and to see teachers of color who have had other careers and can influence them in a positive way,” the third-year teacher says.
In June, she arranged a school visit by Jacqueline Woodson, an African American writer of young adult books including “Another Brooklyn,” a selection in the student book club Martinez moderates. “I can’t imagine what my life would be if, at 15, I actually got to meet a woman of color who is a writer and I’m reading her work. That is so powerful,” Martinez marveled.
She believes her own career choices have been rooted in her inquisitiveness. “I remember as a kid sitting on the fire escape in the South Bronx just very curious about everything,” she says. “I think curiosity is what got me to this place.”
A special education teacher in a co-teaching class at Humanities, Martinez was part of the Urban Teaching Residency Program, which partners career changers with mentors. It’s been hard no longer being a manager, she says.
“I’ve learned that sometimes we have to let go of our titles, we have to let go of our expectations. What’s important is your purpose and what you’re passionate about.”