“Escape from Blackwell Island”: Teachers Host Professional Development Workshop


Nia Huff and Samantha Matays

Tuesday, Middle Division (MD) English teacher Isaac Brooks, English teacher Melissa Meléndez, history teacher Emma McFarland, and science teacher Noah Kaminsky held the first faculty-led professional developmental (PD) workshop since the start of the pandemic, titled “Escape from Blackwell Island: An Interdisciplinary Design Project.” The workshop showcased a potential class plan in which students investigate the Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island, also known as Blackwell’s Island, bridging English, history and science.

Creating an interdisciplinary project means that all subjects are correlated, McFarland said. “The idea of working together and creating a project that would involve English, history, and science would allow students to dig deeper and become more confident in the material.” This collaborative approach allows students to enrich the ways in which they build connections through their writing, she said.

Teachers can apply connections between different disciplines into their own curriculum. “The purpose of the presentation was to light a fire under our colleagues, so they would start to think outside their disciplines,” Brooks said.

MD teachers might be able to put this Interdisciplinary Design Project into practice sometime next year, Brooks said. Students will study Blackwell Island and create an exposé, a letter to the editor, or a journalistic piece to address the conditions at the asylum, Brooks said.

Different aspects of this project connect to different courses. Students write like they would in an English class, learn history by studying the Gilded Age and the journalism conventions established in the era of the Penny Press, and study the history of mental illness, what standards of care there were at the time, and how they were documented through a scientific lens, Brooks said. Overall, the project will allow students to understand how people govern social problems, he said.

As they planned the workshop, the four presenters tried to bring their disciplines together and teach using the same language, Brooks said. “We had to hash out what qualities and what language we shared about the assignment so we could both talk about it collaboratively and assess it universally,” he said. They decided to create a project based on writing because that was a throughline in all three of the subjects.

The project was based on the work of Nellie Bly, an investigative journalist from the 19th century who went undercover in the mental institution to study how it treated women, McFarland said. “We’ve worked with The New York Historical Society and they have a new curriculum called ‘Women and the American story,’” she said. This project would teach students about historical examples of advocates and show students the ways they could change the system, McFarland said.

Kaminsky, Brooks, McFarland, and Meléndez are still working on how they could practically implement the project, Brooks said. “It could happen in a History 7 class, then be researched and vetted through a Science 7 class’s lens, then written as a published newspaper article in an English 7 class,” he said.

During the presentation, the four teachers discussed their experience with interdisciplinary teaching, Brooks said. For example, both McFarland and Brooks taught a variety of disciplines in an elementary school before they came to the school, he said.

After the presentation, the presenters broke teachers into small groups to discuss their experiences with interdisciplinary teaching, Brooks said. The groups also allowed them to think about how their discipline might impact others, he said.

PD has always been a central aspect of the MD because teachers have a lot to share, MD Dean of Faculty and History teacher Eva Abbamonte said. However, monthly PD took a pause when the pandemic began.  It was hard for teachers to plan presentations and stay after school at the height of the pandemic, she said. Abbamonte looks forward to the monthly PD meetings restarting in the upcoming school year, she said.

Director of the MD Writing Center and English teacher Morgan Yarosh attended the workshop because she is always eager to learn from her co-workers, she said. “I was reminded how easy it is to connect to colleagues,” she said. During COVID, teachers weren’t able to connect easily with other teachers, so she felt this showed how accessible other teachers actually are. Yarosh was glad to learn a little bit about each of the four presenters, and felt that the workshop re-established connections, she said.

Although implementing this multi-subject approach comes with challenges, there was a lot of energy among the other teachers, which made Head of the MD Javid Khan interested in making it possible, he wrote.

MD Science teacher Walter Wagner said he shared a similar feeling after attending the workshop. “I definitely learned that other teachers really want to do this kind of thing,” he said. “To see so many people there interested in this idea gives the impression that people are interested in this kind of work even though it is logistically difficult.”