The Greater Ridgewood Youth Council
The GRYC is a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that focuses on education, counseling, truancy prevention, job preparation and employment opportunities.
“So the week before 9/11 I found myself in a fourth grade classroom…in Ridgewood Queens…for the first time…with 32 kids in my class.”
Rob Monahan, Director of Education at the Greater Ridgewood Youth Council, is our very first Educator in Action. We plan to make this a regular feature on our site, highlighting educators who are bringing effective hands-on learning to their students. Do you know an Educator in Action who we should meet? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tinkerers at PS/IS 128 in New York.
Rob, thank you so much for meeting with us. Can you start by sharing your path to becoming an educator? What led you to make education such a big part of your life?
You know, I never took a single education course in college. I was a biology guy, an anthropology guy. I started taking higher level anthropology classes where we’d go in the field and actually study bones and doing more than just sit down and listen to a lecture. I loved that sort of learning so much more than the traditional stuff, which was all I had been exposed to since I was in kindergarten. But education wasn’t really on the map for me, until a sort of chance event. I just happened to come across the NYC Teaching Fellows program – I saw an ad on the subway actually…
You’re telling me that an ad on the subway changed your life?
Yep, I saw an ad on the subway. But you have to understand the context. I was 1st in my class, working towards a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, with a 4.0 GPA when my best friend died from cancer. As a 4-time cancer survivor myself, I decided to drop out of the program and started working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
I was working at the hospital when I saw this ad for the NYC Teaching Fellows program. My friend dreamt of becoming a guidance counselor for kids, and I think that’s why I was triggered by that subway ad to become a teacher. I went home and checked it out and it just spoke to me. It said even if you have zero experience in teaching and you didn’t major in education, but you have a skill or a deep interest in something that you want to share with kids, sign up with us.
So, I signed up with them. I just made the deadline and they accepted me the next day. I had to give six days notice at the hospital, which I still feel bad about, but I felt like it was something I just had to do. We went into an intensive training program for the summer and then they just plopped us in the classroom in September. You know, just like that. There was this massive teacher shortage back then and so the week before 9/11, I found myself in a fourth grade classroom…in Ridgewood Queens…for the first time…with 32 kids in my class. So, yeah, that’s what started my journey.
Wow Rob, I had no idea. What school was it?
This was PS88 in New York City, in Queens.
How did it go?
Well, luckily there was another guy, also a fellow, who was about my age in the same school and teaching the same grade, so we kind of leaned on each other a lot. And we had a mentor named Diane Marzec who would come in and coach us. I’ll never forget the day she started explaining the concept of the progression of concrete learning leading to abstract learning, you know? I had never been exposed to education theory before. Even just the concept of using manipulatives for learning math – I had never done it when I was a kid. I was a victim of the drill and kill strategy in my elementary school and I was starting to understand that I knew nothing about education, like really nothing. I realized that the Masters program I went through didn’t really give me much more insight, so I kind of started figuring things out for myself.
“The argument is over. The hands-on approach is the way to go.”
After two years in a fourth grade classroom I switched schools. I got an offer to be a science teacher at a school called PS239, which was a brand new school. So I would be one of the founding teachers and that was exciting to me. But that was challenging, too, because in my third year teaching I was suddenly teaching 500+ kids a week, from different age groups and with no foundation. I was trying to come up with all these lessons, trying different things. I did that for 13 years and over that time I realized that the hands-on approach is…well, the argument over. The hands-on approach is the way to go and I don’t think anyone even debates that anymore. So we wound up doing a lot of hands-on and open-ended stuff in that classroom for science, and the results were obvious. If you look at the state testing for that school over the course of five years, we went from a 59% pass rate to an 88% pass rate. That’s a Title One school with over 90% poverty.
Three-Wheeler at PS/IS 128. Built for speed.
Wow. How did you move into your current role at the GRYC?
After many years in the classroom, I came to the Greater Ridgewood Youth Council, where I had actually been a camper when I was five years old. The agency is now in its 37th year and we have programs in over 30 schools in Queens. We deliver educational services, but I like to call them kid-friendly services. We want to give kids an enrichment offering after school that is educational but is not the overly structured, closed learning system that they get during the day in most cases.
And what are your goals for the kids who participate in your programs?
Our programs are all funded through the city or the state, so we have requirements that we have to meet and our programs include arts, recreation, literacy, STEM and leadership, and we try to infuse each of these into the other as much as possible. But I would say our No. 1 goal, and this goes to the top of our organization, is that we want the kids to have fun. But we are also trying to create 21st century thinkers. I guess at the crux of it all is the progression from critical thinking skills straight up through the executive functioning skills. We’re trying to bring kids through that progression.
“We just had them open the boxes and they were off!”
How does the Electric Motors Catalyst fit into what you do?
I first saw it when my son got one as a Christmas present. Immediately after opening, I said to my wife, “This is different. This is different from other things I’ve seen.” So we started using it right away. We did a professional development session with it, with representatives from 10 of our sites. PDs can be hard, but this was probably the simplest PD I’ve ever done. We just had them open the boxes and they were off! Everything is so intuitive. I think the key to a successful Tinkering activity is to keep it as simple as possible. I told our staff, “Even if it’s against your instincts, you need to step back. You need to let the kids explore.” We called it ‘unhindered exploration’. This way, the preparation for the team was just to have the Tinkering experience themselves. The Tinkering becomes the planning.
And the Catalyst is intuitive enough that in some cases we did not train the staff in advance at all. For example, last year when we had our Tournament of Champions and our Brain Games competition, I literally just sent out an email saying, “This is Tinkering Labs. This is what it’s about.” And then we took kits to different schools and just dropped them off. We didn’t even do a training. The kids just experimented with it for a few weeks and then they came to the Brain Games and competed in the building contest.
Rob, thank you for taking time to talk today and for being such a Tinkering champion.
Of course, my pleasure. Thank you for creating the Catalyst, it has been an amazing tool for us and our kids. We’re rolling it out to a whole new set of sites now, so you’ll be hearing from me!