By Corinne Wnek
This is the final installment of “Teacher Feature,” a column that offers readers a look into today’s classrooms so they can see some of the innovative teaching that is going on by talented educators in our communities.
It’s really no surprise that Kevin La Mastra became a teacher because his surname literally means ‘the teacher.’ But this 18-year veteran of Linden’s Soehl Middle School does much more than teach French and English as a second language these days.
“I was asked by the district to help with the professional development of teachers in our building, so now in addition to teaching students, I also help teach adults. I love what I do and I am never bored because I love the learning process.”
An outgrowth of La Mastra’s teaching experience is a program he developed within Linden that now boasts national participation. “I was lucky to get an NJEA grant for a project to help students understand poverty and its link to social justice,” he explains. “This originated from a class lesson on immigration and trying to understanding what life was like for immigrants. Why did they come here and how are we connected?”
This project, “Friends Beyond Borders,” is about students and teachers learning different cultures. “I want the faculty and my students to become global citizens and to do this they need three things: knowledge, skills and an ethical disposition,” he states. As part of a class project stemming from a novel about poverty, the students collected backpacks and other much needed school supplies for impoverished areas of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
La Mastra brought these items down there for distribution. Soon, he was organizing teachers from all over the country who had heard about his outreach efforts through his web site. “So every summer, I take 30 teachers down to the Dominican Republic for 8 days and we meet with political, business and educational leaders to gain a better understanding of the social movements there which could impact us back home.”
“We met with a cross section of people in that society such as some who were jailed for trying to unionize a free trade zone and doctors and teachers, too,” he continues. “The idea is to see how we are the same. The parents in Haitian poverty want the same things for their children in life as the suburban New Jersey parents want for their kids. They understand that education is key.”
Students also get to go on a trip like this in August and help with supply distribution. “We sanitize it a bit because it is difficult for adults, let alone middle school kids, to see abject poverty,” says La Mastra. “But one thing is for certain: to understand failing schools, it is crucial to understand poverty.”
There aren’t enough apples on the tree for this innovative teacher.
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