In 1995, Dave Levin launched the first KIPP NYC 5th grade classroom in the South Bronx. Today, our 11 KIPP NYC schools serve 4,607 students from K-12 and our KIPP Through College team supports 1,104 alumni. Nationally, there are 183 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving nearly 70,000 students. While Dave Levin no longer teaches in that fifth grade classroom in the Bronx, he plays a pivotal role in the leadership and direction of the KIPP network.
Marlene Salazar, a KIPP NYC alum and current KIPP employee, sat down with Dave to discuss where KIPP has been and his vision for the next generation.
Marlene: In a recent speech, you quoted Martin Luther King, Jr…
…How does this quote inspire you or embody the work you do?
Dave: I love that quote. I think all good teachers embody Dr. King’s quote. They understand that good classrooms are neither joyful nor rigorous alone, but a synthesis of joy and rigor. They understand that good classroom management isn’t just warm or demanding, but it is a synthesis of warm and demanding. Good teachers know their work isn’t just about helping a kid be a smart 4th or 8th grader; it’s about who that kid is when they’re 25 or 28. At our best, this is what we have always strived for.
Marlene: I love the Franklin Roosevelt quote: “We cannot always build a future for our youth, but we can always build our youth for the future.” Do you feel that KIPP is building a youth for the future?
Dave: I mean, yes, you are proof of that. You know, it’s funny, people talk about the skills people need for the future as if those skills are remarkably different than some of the skills people have always needed. I think in one aspect, it is true. With science and engineering, there’s a set of skills that are different. But literacy skills are not going to change. We need our students to be really good at critical thinking and writing. I mean that’s the same stuff we were working on in the 1990s. That’s the same stuff people are going to be working on 20 years from now. And I think this is where the character work matters so much because being optimistic, grateful and gritty, having self-control and social intelligence, those were important a thousand years ago and they’re always going to be important. So I think it’s a both/and – we’ve always been preparing kids for the future and we’re constantly getting better.
Marlene: What are your goals and expectations for the future of KIPP?
Dave: Every year we should be better. Every set of five years we should be better. More kids should be graduating from college and be able to pursue careers and lives of their own making. That’s what it has always been about – choice-filled lives. We have 70,000 kids across the country, 5,000 kids here in New York. We should say to these 5,000 kids, you should have choices. That’s our goal for the future – to make sure kids have choices – same as the past. Character and academics for college and life.
Marlene: When I was a little KIPPster, a lot of the learning was taught through song. We had a song for everything, and it was a huge part of joy in the classroom. Due to changes in curriculum and other factors, do you still see as much joy as before? Do you think we need to push for more joy in the classroom?
Dave: I am pushing people to sing, but you didn’t learn everything through song. You had songs, and you sang a lot. But it was the appetizer to the main meal. It was the hook. We didn’t sing to multiply, you sung to remind yourself of the times table. Again, it is the synthesis; we synthesize the singing with the higher-level thinking. If you just focus on the singing, people are going to say, “Well that’s just low level memorization.” Basics skills are needed. You have to be fluent in some skills to do higher order skills. Being fluent in your times tables is not in opposition to being able to understand what 3×2 means. We were able to synthesize that effectively with you guys. And we were taught to synthesize that by Harriett Ball.
There are folks who view that in a narrow lens and can say “no you don’t want to sing all day.” But the absence of things that kids like is painful. Kids like to sing and kids like games and competitions. You guys loved when we had stopwatches and we would compete for who could sing their times table the fastest. There were all types of random stuff, but it just made it fun. That’s important because if you’re going to do the rigorous heavy thinking, it also has to be joyful. I do think at times, people can lose that balance if they are not careful. So for me, it is completely critical. I mean my 7 and 5 year olds are singing their times tables. It’s part of making it fun.
Marlene: In the last month, what has been your best day at work?
Dave: Today. Any day I get to interact with you guys, the alums, makes me happy. At heart, I am a teacher. I don’t have a classroom anymore and my only interaction is through you guys. It makes me happy seeing all of the alums, whether they are back at KIPP, working elsewhere, or even just seeing the struggles of what it means to grow up.