A creative writer at heart, Dana Nelson knows the value of good editing and thoughtful revision. It’s something she’s done not only on paper, but in practice for the past 11 years of her career as a Humanities teacher at Leaders, a NYC Outward Bound School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
The ability to deftly shift to better meet the needs of the students in its community is something that Leaders has always done well, says Dana.
“Leaders is a living organism,” she says. “It’s not an institution where you can only operate within the bounds of what has already existed. You’re encouraged to make connections with students, use your imagination and think about what could be better — and do it.”
Since Leaders joined the New York Performance Standards Consortium, Dana has been instrumental in helping to shape the school’s Performance-Based Assessments (PBATs), building out authentic and rigorous learning experiences for students. In her 12th grade humanities course, students are both challenged and supported to critically analyze literature through the lens of a social justice issue that they care about — anything from domestic violence, to the gender and racial wage gap, to over-policing communities of color.
“We are consistently impressed with the Socratic seminars that Dana runs in her 12th grade humanities class,” wrote Leaders Principal Tom Mullen and Assistant Principal Rachel Madris, in their Gaynor McCown Award nomination. “They are incredibly inspiring to watch as students debate each other respectfully, challenge each other’s ideas, and engage with literary topics relevant to their everyday lives.”
Having the freedom to create meaningful learning experiences for her students is part of what Dana says she enjoys most about her work. Prior to the pandemic, students in her poetry elective class partnered with teaching artists from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and had the chance to perform their original work on stage at the BAM cafe.
“Students said that having a way to creatively express themselves in writing helped them process personal challenges and trauma,” added Tom and Rachel.
Another critical part of Dana’s work at Leaders has been the development of the Peer Mediation program, coinciding with the school’s shift to using restorative justice measures rather than a top-down disciplinary structure.
“In my second year at Leaders, I noticed quite a bit of conflict and no real authentic way for students to help each other solve those conflicts,” said Dana. “Together with my colleagues — including former Gaynor McCown Award Winner Kevin Mears — we’ve built up this program over the past 10 years that has really allowed students to take ownership of the community. It’s been great for students in conflict to have a non-punitive way to work that conflict out.”
“Ms. Nelson helped me get along with others and learn to effectively communicate with them. If it wasn’t for her, I would’ve been in her class sitting quietly alone, but instead, I learned to express myself and develop friendships,” said Coby, a 2021 graduate of Leaders. “The reason why Ms. Nelson is a great teacher and a wonderful Crew Leader is because she never gave up on any of us even when we were at our darkest moments.”
The feeling is mutual. When Dana faced her own dark moment in 2020 after being diagnosed with cancer, she says the Leaders community rallied around her to show their love.
“I had a huge amount of help from my co-teachers,” said Dana, crediting her colleagues with the support she needed to continue planning thoughtful and engaging lessons while she was going through treatment. “It really brings home how important it is to have such strong, meaningful relationships with the people you work with and the people you serve.”
After being virtual for a year and a half — through the birth of her son, her cancer treatment and the pandemic — reconnecting with students in person and seeing her seniors graduate this past June was an especially proud and poignant moment for Dana.
“I want to make sure we protect this incredible, truly diverse community that we have at Leaders,” she said. “I hope we can continue to be the environment that we hope the rest of the world becomes for our students, and for our kids, and for each other.”
Congratulations to all of the 2022 Gaynor McCown Award nominees:
- Emily Hollyday, West End Secondary School
- Amanda Leake Lewis, Launch
- Chrissy Prince, Brooklyn Collaborative
- Simone Sylvester and Kristen Tomanocy, MELS