At a Manhattan school where half the students are homeless, this teacher aims to ‘make the shame and sadness scatter’

Lou Lahana recently won the FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence. The Island School, where he teaches, receives a $100,000 award.
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

They may be children, but the students at the Island School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side are already social entrepreneurs. Inside their campus laboratory, called Makerspace, they develop art and technology to take on adult-sized challenges.

“One thing we don’t do in our Makerspace is hide from issues affecting our lives,” said Lou Lahana, who has taught at the school for 20 years and is the lab’s coordinator. 

Using high- and low-tech materials, students have sewn pillows for people who are homeless and designed t-shirts to raise disability awareness. They have recorded public service announcements about domestic abuse and filmed a documentary about Islamophobia. The goal of these projects is to “shine a light on the dark places to make the shame and sadness scatter away,”  said Lahana, this year’s winner of the FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence.

The arts-oriented FLAG Foundation gives $25,000 to the grand prize-winning teacher. Their school receives an additional $100,000.

What Lahana’s students do in the lab is not theoretical. At the PS/MS 188, the Island School, nearly half of students are homeless, and many of them live in domestic violence shelters. As a result, families have come to rely on the elementary and middle school not only to educate their children, but also as a place to do their laundry, get their meals, and connect with legal aid. The school is now ramping up its community outreach after months of coronavirus closures. 

Lahana has been teaching virtually since the spring, and he has brought Makerspace online. The Island School will use some of its prize money to build “Maker Kits,” containing paint, beads, modeling clay, and even microphones for recording music and podcasts. 

“Many of my students don’t have access to these kinds of maker tools, so this will be a huge boost to creativity, engagement, and their ability to do social activism,” he said. 

Lahana spoke recently with Chalkbeat. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

We’re living in unusual times. What does a typical school day look like for you now?

It looks very different! Rather than running my Makerspace, I am the virtual teacher for seventh grade English Language Arts and math. I come to school each morning and conference with these subject specialists — planning lessons to maximize engagement and student-centered work. At 8:30 a.m., we launch our Zoom and the fun begins! During these first few weeks, I’ve been doing my best to establish routines to give students a sense of stability and predictability — but in a fun, not boring, way. I break out my guitar each morning and freestyle a song in reaction to what the students are doing. It might be about a student eating Cap’n Crunch on camera or another whose last writing piece told the story of a roller coaster ride gone wrong. During math class — something I struggled with as a middle schooler — I make sure to express the concepts using everyday examples to get students involved by sharing their thinking on Zoom Whiteboards and engaging in small-group work using breakout rooms.

ELA comes next and, like math class, I try to inject plenty of playfulness and creativity into it. For example, our charismatic lead teacher Mr. Farley has been showing us the difference between character emotions and traits, so I worked with my daughter to record silly scenarios illustrating some of them. In one scene, I showed off “embarrassment” by not wanting to leave my room because I forgot to wear deodorant. Students used a quiz application called Kahoot! to weigh in on the emotions and traits being displayed.  Next week, they’ll be creating their own scenarios.

What led to the creation of Makerspace?

As a Teach for America corps member, I found myself randomly chosen to run a school library in the South Bronx. I quickly grew to love matching students with the resources they needed to spark and fuel their passions. A few years later, after moving to the Island School, I was asked to run the newly built Tech Café. I took the same idea of sparking and fueling students’ passions and applied it to using physical and digital materials instead of books. But I continued to be concerned with equity and social activism, so the Tech Café became our Social Action Makerspace. Here, students self-select a social issue that concerns them and use a variety of low- and high-tech tools to raise awareness and help solve the problems.

Tell us about some of your students’ most memorable creations?

Some highlights include hand-crafted soaps in the shape of fish with single-use plastic embedded in their stomachs. One of the most impactful projects was a student’s documentary about Islamophobia, in which she filmed classmates trying on hijabs to alter their perspectives. The wildest project, by far, was our edible insect stand, with the goal of combating climate change and animal cruelty. We set it up on Houston Street, near our school, and handed out chocolate covered crickets and Adobo-flavored mealworms.  All these projects can be seen on our Vimeo page.

I understand that about half of the students at the Island School do not have stable housing. How does that impact the work you do and the problems you attempt to solve in the Makerspace?

One thing we don’t do in our Makerspace is hide from issues affecting our lives.  From homelessness and drug abuse, to domestic violence and racism, we shine a light on the dark places to make the shame and sadness scatter away. In its place, we share projects with the world that show what we are fighting against and the power and beauty that emerges from standing up for what you believe in. Those projects take many forms, including: hand-sewn pillows for homeless people, jewelry for domestic violence survivors, and a middle school project designed to connect homeless people with messages of hope written by first graders.  

How have you adapted this innovative work during the pandemic?

Last March, when my Makerspace went virtual, I knew I had to figure out how to bring student voice and choice to the online classroom. My students struggle with food and housing insecurity, plus they often lack the resources to create projects. I wanted them to feel motivated to log on and engage despite these struggles. So, just as I did in the in-person Makerspace, I anchored lessons in their lived experiences with issues surrounding COVID-19 and racism. I created a menu of hands-on and digital creation options. These included poetry, podcasting, drawings, comics, collages, and song creation. The results exceeded my expectations — heartbreaking, hopeful, and brimming with creativity. 

After months of isolation — and in some cases grief and trauma — schools recently reopened, in person and virtually. Are you doing anything differently this year to account for what so many families have been through?

The Island School is quite literally a second home for many of our students and their families. We are open six days a week, offering three meals a day, washers and dryers, health services, continuing education, and much more. The pandemic limited our reach, and we are in a ramp-up state right now to quickly and effectively bring back that sense of embrace so that our families feel loved and supported by us.  As a community school, our mission has not changed, nor our sense of urgency.

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