In anticipation of the 2019 Alumni Reunion on April 4th, we spoke to the recipients of our three prestigious alumni awards. Each awardee has paved their way to success and serves as an inspiration to the John Jay community, both for current students and alumni. Their continued advocacy for justice is a testament to the education they received while at John Jay. Our first “Alumni Spotlight” is Mario Benabe ’14, a teacher in the South Bronx, who will be receiving the Outstanding Young Alumnus Award.
Who inspired you to become a teacher?
In 7th grade, back in 2002, I was blessed with having a math and science teacher who is now one of our nation’s most leading scholars, Dr. Christopher Emdin. His work on #HipHopEd, Science Genius and Reality Pedagogy is driving social justice work in classrooms every day. What he taught connected learning to our community and gave me a sense of awareness to address our society’s social contradictions. I know that when I was most lost in life, he gave me direction. I am forever thankful for him, and his family.
What do you teach and why were you drawn to this subject?
I am a STEM educator but my goal and the work that I do in this field is geared towards diversifying STEM through teaching and learning. This allows for my students and I to take an ethnomathematical approach by connecting science and math learning to our ancestral roots and knowledge systems. I am drawn to teach this subject area because it is a study that can aid us in reclaiming our indigeneity and Africanity.
“I am a STEM educator but my goal and the work that I do in this field is geared towards diversifying STEM through teaching and learning.”—Mario Benabe ’14
How did your John Jay education, help prepare you for the teaching field?
John Jay College’s Interdisciplinary Studies Program (ISP) and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program engineered many of the robust approaches to teaching and learning in my classroom today. While at John Jay, the ISP increased my desire for learning exponentially because each setting allowed for a deeper understanding of truth through an intersectional thinking process. This encouraged me to develop my skills in reading, writing, critical thinking, and speaking. The McNair program provided me mentorship under Dr. Terry Furst and a family of passionately-driven individuals that I continue to learn and grow from. The Ronald E. McNair program Associate Director, Dr. Lee offered me the tools to be able to work through my research while at the same time being there for me in moments when I needed guidance. In addition, during my time at John Jay, ISP’s Administrative Assistant and Department Secretary, Ms. Acuna provided social and emotional support during times where I felt like college was difficult and not for me. I am forever grateful for her and the support she gave me.
Can you tell me a little about Do-The-Right-Thing Pedagogy? Why did you create it and how is it implemented into your classroom?
My framework for teaching and learning is titled, Do-The-Right-Thing-Pedagogy. My responsibility as an educator is to intersect the moral passage of doing right onto the practical tools we use in our daily STEM teachings to foster a sensibility of ancestral mathematical and scientific truth. I created this framework to intersect culturally sustaining pedagogy, critical pedagogy and indigenous knowledge systems. By looking deeper into the immense complexity of the scientific brilliance of our ancestors we can inform ourselves that we belong in this field of study and we don’t have to fear math or science because it is in our blood. Recently we revived the Incas’ quipu and yupana, two mathematical tools that allow for us to calculate with a great degree of accuracy statistics, and arithmetic into the hundreds of millions by using a wooden board divided into a matrix and corn, beans and other natural material to do the calculations.
My intentions are to expand our inventory of ideas around STEM education in the profession so that it is culturally and linguistically integrated and rooted in a decolonial approach to conjure up in our students a nostalgia towards reclaiming our ancestral mathematical and scientific mind. For educational professionals this work has been far more innovative because it adds a critical layer that is missing— culture. My work in STEM education is about going back to our old ways, where we were far more restorative than destructive.
“As the founder of WFNYCS, my goal is always to make sure our educators are respected for their service, because this is a freedom project that I want teachers to lead and sustain.” —Mario Benabe ’14
What are some of your favorite moments as a teacher?
Teaching began to mean so much more when I realized that when you teach in your community there are possibilities that are so fruitful. Three years ago I was tasked with teaching my own little cousin in 9th grade. This meant the world to me because I was given the opportunity to educate a loved one. This was a blessing for me because I was constantly in front of someone who knows you and your family struggles, but yet I understood that there was a complete living symbol of the progress happening in our family related to education. I can’t express those emotions fully in words but that experience was truly my greatest gift in teaching and yet, in many ways my greatest challenge.
The Bronx Borough President appointed you to the Community Education Council for Community School District 9. How did this role shape the way you viewed education and the school system?
Educational justice is what love and policy looks like in public and we have yet to provide an education to children that is capable of saving humanity but there is still hope because children are the future. My role beyond reviewing and evaluating my district’s instructional programs is to be a parent advocate. For me, engaging with parents and community members around issues of education is far more grounding than the work of evaluation. I work on leading culturally responsive educational workshops for parents so that they can see the importance of having this live out in their child’s classroom. Seeing parents organize and begin to advocate for their children and public schools is important because parents are creating the conditions for the direction of their child’s education.
You recently founded Wildflower New York Charter School. Can you tell me a little bit more about the school, and why you decided to create it?
Wildflower New York Charter School (WFNYCS) is a pre-K to 5th grade program that offers a neighborhood-nested, child-centered, culturally and linguistically diverse public Montessori program. Currently, there is no public Montessori program in New York State, so I felt it was the right thing to do. Our school would be situated in shopfront settings that are small, neighborhood friendly embedded locations. Basically, we are reimagining a neighborhood bodega as a one-room classroom, with several classrooms spread out in the community. This for me is a community restorative approach, since our sites will sit in street-facing, light-filled spaces on walkable streets where community members will be able to see the daily work of children. This will increase the presence of children and families in the community, as they walk to and from school. Dr. Montessori wrote that schools should be aesthetically engulfing and culturally enriching for children who deserve nothing less. Following him, we are going to rely on public playgrounds, gardens and other civic spaces that would otherwise be on-site in larger institutions. We want the child development process to happen within the child’s community and not in a building.
Something unique about WFNYCS is that we removed the role of a principal indefinitely. All of our neighborhood nested shopfront schools will have two lead teachers who will handle all facets of their school of approximately 14-24 children. Often when teachers become administrators they are forced to leave the classroom so our school fuses the two roles. As an educator I have seen how hierarchies can prevent teacher empowerment. The only way to make this experience more meaningful for teachers is to create a school that gives them full autonomy and decision making responsibilities. By providing full trust to our teachers and letting them make decisions, it reduces the chances of them leaving. As the founder of WFNYCS, my goal is always to make sure our educators are respected for their service, because this is a freedom project that I want teachers to lead and sustain.
“I teach because it is my greatest form of protest against injustice.”—Mario Benabe ’14
As you know, John Jay is a College focused on justice, how does teaching play a role in pushing the needle forward on justice issues?
I teach because it is my greatest form of protest against injustice and for me the work of social justice requires us to understand that organized people will always defeat organized power. Youth are well aware of society’s social contradictions and the injustices against them. In my classroom our students undergo a learning experience that requires support from leading organizers in New York City. We bring in senior activist from Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, Rise and Resist, New York Immigration Coalition and other local groups to inform our students on all the ways they can effectively organize to create change. For three consecutive years, our students organized a youth march for police reform.
Recently they acquired a bill sponsor from New York State Assembly Member Nathalia Fernandez for the Andrew Kearse Act, a set of legislation that my student designed to address police injustice. We also engage in culturally sustaining project based learning experiences that increase our capacity for social change. Every year our students host a “Dream” exhibit at Bronx Museums where students share their expressions on radical hope and resistance. They use art, media, writing, poetry, AR tech, and other student design thinking products to express a fundamental question, is the American Dream a nightmare? All of this takes place in a Science and Math classroom guided through the principle of justice.
During the Alumni Reunion, you will be receiving the Outstanding Young Alumnus Award. What does this award mean to you?
Receiving an honor from one’s alma mater is one of the highest honors an educator can receive. I am thankful for everyone in the John Jay community who guided me to this very point. This award means everything to me as it is a signpost of humility.
What advice can you give to other John Jay students, who might be considering becoming a teacher?
I would tell them that we need them. A teacher affects eternity. We can never tell where our influence stops. Think about your descendants, what type of world would you want them to develop in? Let that motivation guide you to make a change in the world; education helps with this change because teaching kids is teaching the future.