I signed up for Learning Leaders this year at my son’s school. It’s a volunteer program in which adults (primarily parents) offer classroom-based support in literacy, writing and math. I found out about the program through an email from the parent coordinator at PS 58, where Jack just completed kindergarten. Having gone freelance a couple year’s ago, this was precisely the kind of thing I was looking to do now that my time was my own.
The clincher for me was the documented research that said children of parents who are Learning Leaders fare better in school. The connection was clear to me; a parent in the trenches has specificity and relevance to offer his or her child. But what happened to me was even better, and more specific.
The one rule for Learning Leaders is that you can be assigned to any class in the school except your own child’s. The parent coordinator put me in the first-grade integrated co-teaching (ICT) class last year. I couldn’t have been luckier. There’s one ICT class per grade, and Jack will always be in it. Thanks to this placement I got a sneak peak of Jack’s next school year: the curriculum, the teachers, the expectations. I felt like a fly on the wall of my son’s future.
Here’s a little background for those of you unfamiliar with ICT. Jack has an IEP (individual education plan) that specifies his placement in an inclusion classroom, which New York refers to as ICT. Forty percent of the children in the classroom have IEP's in which the child receives some sort of therapy be it physical, occupational, or speech.
The curriculum is general education but the class has two teachers, one of which is specially trained in special education. Last year, Jack’s kindergarten in ICT went swimmingly. His teachers were wonderful, his therapists were great and he got along with most or all of his classmates. In a few weeks Jack will begin his first-grade ICT class. The intersection of Learning Leaders and special education in my life was karmic.
Arriving on my first day as a Learning Leader in the first-grade ICT class, I met the two teachers: Gina Fitzpatrick and Mary Leopoldi.
“Are you in way related to Leopoldi of ?” I asked Mary, referring to the much-loved stuffed-to-the-gills hardware store in Park Slope.
“Of course,” she exclaimed. “I’m married to him.”
Knowing there are two brothers who run the neighborhood shop their father started 45 years ago, I asked which one’s her husband.
“The handsome one,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. I knew right away that this was going to be a fun year.
After a few months of working with them, I finally introduced Jack to Gina and Mary. He’d been asking me for weeks, as he couldn’t wait to meet the real, live, Mrs. Leopoldi. We’ve been going to Leopoldi’s since we bought our house in 2004. The chain hardware store Lowe’s is not much further a walk from our home, but we prefer Leopoldi’s.
A commenter on the local real estate and renovation site Brownstoner wrote that he considers it “an act of disloyalty to go to Lowe's for anything other than a light fixture or mill product without trying Leopoldi's first,” and I couldn’t agree more. We go there almost weekly and Jack is no stranger to the mustachioed Brothers Leopoldi.
Upon meeting Jack the first thing Mary did was whisper something in his ear. Then she taught him the secret Leopoldi handshake. I asked him later what she said and told me it was a secret. She was better than I thought.
For the two hours I spent there every Wednesday afternoon, much of it was in absorption mode. I admired the way Mary would say, “Don’t you know you’re the most important kid in the world?” as a way of getting the child to not tattle on a classmate. She would tell her kids that they were the smartest class in all of PS 58, especially when they were misbehaving or being lazy. Mary has this knack for the uplift. Gina, her partner in crime, is equally as clever and crafty and the way they played off one another, I just assumed they’d been tag-team-teaching for years.
Not so. “This is our first year together,” Gina told me when asked. I was amazed. They were like an old show biz duo—Lucy & Ethel, Laverne & Shirley, Cagney & Lacey (am I dating myself here?). So I was thrilled to hear that they would be the dynamic duo once again for the first-grade ICT class. Not only did I know and like his teachers, but Jack also knows and likes his teachers. That takes a lot of new school-year anxiety out of the equation.
One day last spring I walked in at my usual time and Gina asked me if I could do a lesson on poetry. Normally I just take one or several students aside to help with specific issues, so this was certainly a departure. But I liked the idea and was up to the task. “Sure,” I said. “What do you have in mind?”
“Anything, whatever you want,” she said. “We know you’re a writer and would just love it if you did something with the kids during our poetry segment.”
Thinking fast, I picked Haiku. It was simple, straightforward and most importantly short. “When do you want me to do it?” I asked.
“Now,” she said with a wink.
I didn’t have time to panic. The curtain was up, the stage lights were on and 25 first-graders’ eyes were on me.
Together we wrote two Haikus. Both about rain, as that’s what it was doing outside and I was grateful for the inspirational pitter-patter on the windows just beyond. The kids had a blast, debating words and syllables and which direction the snapshot of a storyline should go. They embraced the five/seven/five syllable structure and rose to the challenge of being economical with their words. It was a group effort and I felt like a million bucks. I think they did too.
My entire year as a Learning Leader was eye opening and gratifying and best of all I now know what’s in store for Jack this year, both curriculum-wise and teacher-wise. I feel very lucky. I plan on doing the program again this year and will request placement in the second-grade CTT class. I hope the teachers are as terrific a team as Fitz and Leo (what I call them for short in my head), but with the quality of teachers and staff I’ve encountered in Jack’s first year there, I suspect they will be.
Can’t wait to see what’s on the next year’s agenda, and what sort of secret handshake they may impart.