Get to Know Teacher Laura Leopardo – from Her Youth on the South Side of Chicago to 20 Years in the BFS First Grade . . . with Stops at the Post Office Along the Way
by Laura Leopardo, as told to Anita Bushell
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Roseland, which at that time was home to immigrant blue collar workers from all over Europe and their generational offspring. My father emigrated to Chicago from Sicily with his family when he was nine years old. He never received an education and didn’t even make it to the 8th grade. He had to work and make money for his family and worked as a barber his entire life. My mother, of Austrian descent, was a stay-at-home mom. Chicago was, and still is, very segregated. Unfortunately, due to the shameful history of racial tensions and white flight on the South Side, my family relocated to the suburbs, south of Chicago, when I was in high school.
I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and did some teaching, initially, before changing careers. After a Master’s Degree in Art History, I eventually found myself working at the Leo Castelli Gallery in Manhattan. I first became aware of a Friends school while working there. One of the directors sent her children to Friends Seminary, in Manhattan. Hearing her speak so lovingly about the school and its philosophy, I was curious to investigate Brooklyn Friends when it was time for my son to attend preschool. My husband and I looked at other neighboring public and independent Brooklyn schools, as well, but fell completely in love with Brooklyn Friends, after touring the school with Sara Soll. We only applied to Brooklyn Friends and luckily our son was accepted.
A year later, when I left the art world to return to teaching, I toured the neighboring schools once again to investigate where I would feel most comfortable, philosophically, teaching. Once again, Brooklyn Friends stood out, and I started working in first grade in the 1999-2000 school year. First grade to me is a magical year. The students really start their journey of becoming readers, writers/authors and mathematicians. They are full of wonder, joy and are motivated to do well.
How the Post Office Study Became a Springboard for Animal Rights Activism
Another point of learning that has been consistent during my 20 years in first grade is the Post Office study. This had been the spring Social Studies unit when I came to Brooklyn Friends. The Neighborhood study is our Fall unit and the Post Office is the spring unit, since it is one of the institutions that has a vital role in the functioning of a community or neighborhood.
The students are more proficient writers in the spring, which enables them to write letters more independently, so it makes sense skill-wise.After the children learn about the different Post Office jobs and their functions, they each are assigned a job of their choice and they open their own Lower School-wide, student-run post office.
The post office is open for a total of six days with the three first grade classrooms taking responsible running it for two days at a time. Students in other grades are equally excited when remembering their experiences in First Grade and enjoy writing letters to their friends and teachers as well. A flurry of letter writing ensues and over the course of the run, the First-Grade Post Office processes approximately 3,000 letters in six days!
A very appealing element of the Post Office unit is how we’ve integrated it across other curricular areas, beyond simply Social Studies. For example, literacy – through reading and writing; math – by counting, collecting money, categorizing and sorting; technology – by designing the stamps on ipads and printing them to sell; and most recently – through the lens of Service Learning.
Being an active animal activist outside of school, I had come to understand the importance of animal welfare from a moral and ethical standpoint, as well as how essential it is for our environment and health. This led the other first grade teachers and I to recognize that it would be particularly age-appropriate to incorporate some letter writing focused on humane education and animal rights, since children love animals.
Humane education promotes respect, empathy and compassion in positive relationships with both animals and people and the environment, so it seemed like a logical place for the students to extend their learning in this area and be able to then take action. It also fosters children’s social and emotional learning. Teaching about kindness to animals awakens empathy that can then help children with interpersonal relationships, while it additionally helps them identify as agents of change leading to a more positive future.”
“Dear Governor Northam” – An Exercise in Proactive Activism
by Anita Bushell
Last spring, the “young activists” in Laura’s class took pencil to paper to defend Asha, an elephant in captivity at Virginia’s Natural Bridge Zoo. Asha, according to first grade writer Maya, “lives in too small of a pen. She is forced to give over 10,000 rides a year. She is in the hot sun with no shade. She is in the cold in the winter.”
Maya’s letter, along with those of her classmates, was mailed to the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam. In their individual letters, the first graders asked Governor Northam to release Asha to an accredited elephant sanctuary. In a cover letter, Laura outlined the work of the students and focused on the fact that Asha was taken from her family when she was just two years old and has been denied the company of another elephant for decades. “This is a cruel sentence for an animal who requires contact with her own species,” she wrote. “It now understood to be inhumane to force Asha, or any elephant, to live a captive and solitary life.”
“Through letter writing, students realize that they don’t have to be passive learners. They can be proactive young activists in hopes of having their voices heard in effecting change, especially regarding current events related to humane education and animal rights causes.”
This wasn’t the first time first graders became activists through letter writing. After reading the book, Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James, (and others) the children learn how to write letters in the style of Emily, the little girl in the story who wrote letters to her science teacher, Mr. Blueberry. In the final stage of their letter-writing process they compose letters to leaders who can support the student’s vision for change.
Most recently – in addition to writing to Governor Northam – BFS first graders wrote letters to Rolf Paegert, Chief Operating Officer of the Miami Seaquarium, in support of releasing Lolita, an orca whale, from captivity. Through the years, the first grade has had several points of contact with New York City Council Member Stephen Levin, who represents the district in which BFS is located. The children wrote to him about Inky, a female pygmy sperm whale that was found stranded on the New Jersey coast with plastic debris in her stomach. Students urged Council Member Levin to support Intro 0829-2018, a bill banning the sale of plastic water bottles in New York City parks and beaches. Two years ago, Laura and her students also reached out to Council Member Levin, urging him to press for the passage of Int. 1233, which bans wild animals in circuses.