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The power of words

Manhattan high school students bring ‘people’s history’ to life
New York Teacher

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“I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy; that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power.”

Those words were written in November 1970 by the late historian Howard Zinn. They were spoken with conviction at Lincoln Center on May 17 of this year by Nikaury Roman at the culmination of the Voices of a People’s History project in her AP government class at Maxine Greene HS for Imaginative Inquiry in Manhattan.

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“Even though they are speaking somebody else’s words, it’s really their own voice, and there’s nothing more powerful. The kids really get to own it,” said Jeffrey Ellis-Lee, the teacher who shepherds students through the two-year undertaking.

The Brooklyn-born Zinn wrote more than 20 books, including the best-selling “A People’s History of the United States,” which chronicles America’s story from the perspective of minorities, the working poor, immigrants, rebels and dissenters, who waged grassroots battles for things like a fair wage, child-labor laws, women’s rights and racial equality.

With writer Anthony Arnove, Zinn later compiled a sourcebook — “Voices of a People’s History of the United States” — of speeches, articles, essays, poetry and songs by those whose stories are told in his influential classic. That grew into an organization that invites students nationwide to investigate and perform its material to advance social justice.

As students give expression to these voices, they learn history matters and they are part of it.

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The project begins in Ellis-Lee’s AP U.S. history class, where 11th-graders do a research paper. In 12th-grade AP government, they choose a public policy that is part of their research. “They examine that policy through the different aspects of government we study and that leads them to a [related] piece from Voices,” he says.

Ellis-Lee admits government processes can be boring. “The only way to get into it and understand it is to make it personal.” When students “make that personal connection to a policy and then follow it through the whole government process, they understand and can really be a functional citizen,” he says.

Graduates who participated in the program have become student government leaders in college and changed their majors to political science, says Ellis-Lee.

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One of his students with immigrant parents presented a piece at Lincoln Center about the construction industry and the Mexican immigrants who labor in it. Abe Diallo “wanted some levity” so he spoke Charlie Chaplin’s words because “it made me feel happy. There’s still hope for the future, there’s still good in the world.”

“It was more than just a classroom project,” said Roman, who spoke Zinn’s words. “It was a platform to voice what we have to say. Often we’re told we’re too young, we’re too naïve, we don’t know what’s going on. But I do know what’s going on.”

Ellis-Lee, a Big Apple Award semifinalist and an educator for 25 years, called the program a gift. “That’s what everybody wants to teach for; to see the end result when all the hard work comes together. A lot of times teachers don’t get to see that whole journey.”

The collaboration between the Upper West Side school, Lincoln Center and the program is in its fourth year. Throughout senior year, the students work with Ellis-Lee, Arnove and two coaches who help them choose a piece, hone their delivery and edit their presentations. They create vision boards to help clarify their focus.

Ellis-Lee’s students, said Arnove, “have developed a bond even before we start working with them. He’s created an environment where they are extremely collaborative and can really explore new ideas and take risks.”

Fellow teacher Aram Rivera attended the performance. He said Ellis-Lee “always inspires the kids and he inspires other teachers with his hard work.”

Students called Ellis-Lee a motivator and an activist who gave them facts but “never pushed his beliefs or opinions” on them. He did, said one, push us “to be the change we want to see.”

“He is completely dedicated to his students and their success,” said Chapter Leader Jenny Levy, and through the Voices program, said teacher Laura Madera, the students “partake in the lessons of social justice that Martin Luther King preached and lived” while attending classes on the city’s educational campus that bears King’s name.

Students said they learned to open up, to speak out and to stand up for themselves and others. Some learned to overcome their shyness. Joaquin Rentas learned consistency “because over two years you have to keep up with every single little thing.”

After the performance, Rentas said he felt “lifted.”

“We all cried together. We worked so hard for this one day and for it to be perfect was great.”

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