For a trio of teachers at The Nora School in Silver Spring, teaching means action. They’re turning the old saying on its head, because they not only teach, they also do.
Scott Madden loves getting out to meet his neighbors, so when five families could not come by to pick up textbooks, he delivered them. “It was like the census all over again – but a much shorter day,” he said, recalling his recent stint working for the US Census when, in DC’s Dog Days of August, he went from house to house, knocking on people’s doors. “I had a lot of great conversations,” he said. “It’s all about human contact, those interactions.”
He stresses this to his students in US History, as well as in his American Studies and Street Law classes, where they are currently reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Almost American Girl, an illustrated novel of a Korean’s immigration story. “I feel like I am learning something of value that I can apply to my life and toward understanding the lives of others,” said Zen Miller, a senior. “Many friends tell me that they wish their school assigned readings like this because it’s about things they want to learn but don’t otherwise have time to.”
Scott has walked his students across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and was instrumental in bringing Nora students as one of the first student groups to Cuba in 2016. Several students tagged along when he voted in 2016. These experiences inspire his students and spur his volunteer work on the Census and at the polls in the recent election. “Since I am always teaching this stuff, it seemed to be even more important.”
Developing civic citizenship gives students insight into the power of change. According to new Head of School Mara Nicastro, “Black Lives Matter, Climate Change and the Pandemic are developing a newfound sense of activism in young people.” At The Nora School, students bring and discover these passions and practice how to affect change. “Teachers at Nora push the edges of a college preparatory curriculum into the revolutionary. Our teachers not only build these skills in their students, but also model them in their lives.”
Just a few classrooms away from Scott, Christina Mullen teaches Future Issues and Global Communications. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, she helps students first envision the kind of society they would like to see, then identify the concrete steps it would take to get there. “We’ve moved past the discussion of how maybe we need a total revolution,” she said with a smile. “Now we talk about how to end crimes of necessity. How do we create a world where everyone gets what they need?’
Her World Communications class, despite the title, focuses less on nation-to-nation relationships and more on local communities around the world. “Recent events have allowed us to get past defending against negative stereotypes of some of the cultures and really begin to understand the nuances” of societies with which the students may not be acquainted. “My time in the Peace Corps helps me guide the students in looking at different cultures with curiosity, trying to move away from an ethnocentric lens as much as possible.
“I try to move us all from being reactive to being active. The students have a chance to expand their imaginations and find some faith in the adult world.”
Over in math class, by far the most common question among ninth graders, according to their teacher Nisaa Abdus-Sabur, is “When are we ever going to use this?”
“So I show them,” she says. “Early and often.” One of the first projects in the Algebra I class is to pick a career, then research what they can expect to be paid now and in the future. The students build spreadsheets of costs, starting with a common dream of adolescents – their own apartment.
“It’s eye-opening for them, to be sure,” she says. After adding in for food, clothing, transportation, entertainment – all the other usual budgetary items of adult life – she throws at them what she calls a “life happens moment:” a sudden medical cost or major car repair. Despite a few groans, the students appreciate that this is one small step toward taking control of their lives. “I’m glad we get to do something that’s helpful in the real world,” says Solomon, a ninth grader.
“The kids here have a voice,” Nisaa added. Giving their students the support and opportunity to find their voices while modeling how to use them – this drives the staff at The Nora School.