Brian Milara’s social studies classroom at Newark’s Arts High School honors Black history with inspirational quotes – Lift Every Voice – and portraits of influential African Americans adorning the walls. But the decor has nothing to do with February’s celebration of Black culture and history.
“I had some students ask, ‘So are we doing anything special for Black History Month?’ I told them, ‘The work we do isn’t determined by the calendar. We’re doing what we always do in this class.’”
Framing lessons from an anti-racist lens, says Milara ’19, ’22 MAT. “Black history is a part of everything we study, as is Latino history, as is women’s history, as is Asian American history.”
Milara is an alumnus of the Newark Teacher Project, which – along with the Urban Teacher Residency – prepares teachers with a passion for social justice to teach in urban schools. The programs are part of Montclair’s Transformative Education Network (known by its acronym TEN), which recruits, graduates and mentors teachers who want to make a positive change.
Milara shares a passion typical of Montclair graduates now teaching in Newark’s schools. “I became a teacher because I wanted something different from what I saw as a student,” he says.
“It’s no secret. I’m a white man in America and the story of history that I got is one where I could very easily see myself reflected. But I’m also a white man in America who went to school in a community where most of my classmates did not look like me. So when you get a version of history that is Christopher Columbus did this, and George Washington did that, and then let’s go through every single president and every war that was started, are you really getting a version of history that is reflective of our communities, of the majority of the young people in America?
“I wanted to be that teacher who put stories of communities of color, of women, of LGBTQ+ people at the front and center of the narrative,” Milara says.
Aicha Hamlin ’19, ’20 MAT also wants to be that teacher. “I’m able to incorporate into the day-to-day, real-life situations that are happening in our world and having the students make a personal connection to it,” says Hamlin, who teaches students with mild learning disabilities at George Washington Carver Elementary School.
“Part of the reason we started the Newark Teacher Project is to support and develop racially conscious teachers like Brian and Aicha,” says Bree Picower, co-director of TEN. “We are always looking for teachers, particularly teachers of color, who are aware of their own racial identity, are committed to racial justice and are dedicated to infusing their curriculum with the history and resilience of communities of color.”
As part of their preparation, teachers who rise up through the Newark Teacher Project attend summer workshops to understand the distinct neighborhoods and connect with Montclair’s partners in the city, including the community-based organizations dedicated to improving the schools. The collaboration allows teachers to develop lesson and unit plans based on the students’ neighborhoods, experiences and identities.
Typical of the work, future teachers in both TEN programs are currently developing lessons based on the books of Renée Watson, author, educator and community activist. Watson’s poetry and fiction explores themes of home, identity, and the intersections of race, class and gender. These ideas will be further explored with students from Newark and Orange when Watson joins them on March 2 for a seminar as part of the TEN’s Critical Urban Education speaker series.
The Newark Teacher Project is now recruiting teacher education students for next year’s cohort. The application deadline is March 15. “I can’t stress enough how life changing of an experience it’s going to be,” Milara says.
Hamlin agrees. In the quiet hour before school begins, she mindfully prepares for her day ahead. “I put jazz music on or chill with hip-hop beats. I meditate. I’ve been into reading lately, so I read a little something. I have my tea,” Hamlin says.
“The Newark Teacher Project molded me into having a different way of thinking. It taught me patience. It taught me grace.”
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren.