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Interview with David Silberberg

David Silberberg has taught history and social studies at Satellite Academy, an alternative high school in New York City, for the past 17 years. He started his career teaching English and social studies in Ghana, West Africa.

1. When did you start teaching and where have you taught?

My first teaching job was actually in Ghana, West Africa, where I landed a job (not through the Peace Corps) after completing my Master’s degree in African History in 1972. I taught English and social studies in a private secondary school in a small town called Nkawkaw, in the forest halfway between the capital Accra and Kumasi, the second largest city of Ghana. Since then, I have taught in the New York City Public Schools, first at Tilden High School in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and for the past 17 years at a small alternative high school (one of the first in the city) called Satellite Academy, located in midtown Manhattan.

I consider myself very lucky to have found the teaching niche that I have at Satellite Academy, a small and intimate school where the students are provided with a very personalized, attentive, and dynamic curriculum and program. The school provides alternatives to the “high stakes testing system” that exists in New York state. Our school incorporates group, project, and portfolio work into the classroom, yielding more interesting results than a standardized Regent’s exam might. Alternative programs in NYC have “saved” many a student (and teacher) from complete frustration, tedium, or “burn out” in a much larger, more traditional setting.

2. What are your favorite courses to teach?

I have taught a great variety of global and U.S. courses ranging from “Colonial America” and “Afro-American Studies” to “Comparative World Religions” and “Middle Eastern Studies.” Some of the favorite courses included the ones that I got to team teach. Two teachers in the room are preferable for many reasons. Favorite courses were courses on “Law and Drama” and “Ethnic America, ” both were team taught with English teachers.

3. What are the biggest themes that you try to convey? How do you organize your survey course?

I teach a class on “Major Topics in U.S. History” and have students grapple with major themes from the colonial period (issues of independence and revolution) through the period of slavery (issues of racism, economic exploitation) through issues of immigration. A special focus was immigration to NYC and my students conducted interviews and took photos. I am currently teaching Middle East Studies and couldn’t have found a more timely topic. My students are full of bewilderment and questions about the current [post-September 11] situation. In general, I try to relate the lessons of history to today’s realities.

4. What are the most effective assignments that you use in the U.S. survey course?

I like to get students to think critically about the world around them, about issues that they will have to face in their lives currently and after high school.

I like project work involving oral histories, neighborhood histories, “family stories.” Students do research on topics that make sense to them. They produce interesting projects, sometimes art-based, video-based, or just really effective written presentations.

5. What is your most memorable teaching experience?

Co-teaching a class on the Civil Rights movement, called “Eyes on the Prize.” We recreated the town of Money, Mississippi, with a “Freedom Bus” arriving in town and “Freedom Riders” visiting local shops and schools. The activity culminated in a town meeting. The students adopted roles as bus riders or bus drivers, shopkeepers, including a local barber shop, local restaurant with a waitress, a pastor and a teacher. I helped facilitate the entire role play.

Interview conducted by Katja Hering; completed in June 2002.