A student came to New Haven’s teacher of the year with a picture of lion she wanted to trace. He suggested she draw it freehand.
“This looks hard!” she said.
“Well, that’s just it,” said the teacher, Michael Pavano. “You want to challenge yourself, right?”
“I’ll try,” she said.
“Hey, do me a favor: Try to pick up that piece of paper,” Pavano said. “That piece of paper right there.”
She lifted the sheet up, and Pavano smiled. She knew what was coming next in his oft-repeated line from Star Wars: “Do or do not; there is no try.”
“Really, Mr. Pavano? I could pick it up,” she said, “but this [drawing] really, really has a lot of detail.”
Still, she sat down to work. She didn’t think she had a talent for drawing, she said, but she enjoyed doing it. “When I do get into it, I let off a lot,” she said. An hour later, she had an intricate sketch of the lion’s head, with a flowing mane that matched the original and some added improvements to the lion’s pin-prick eyes, based on a Google search her teacher suggested.
That was the scene one recent morning in Pavano’s art class in Wooster Square’s New Light High School, where each student worked on a hand-picked project — an abstract painting, graffiti stencils, a color wheel, renderings for a public campaign — in keeping with instructor Pavano’s emphasis on student-centered learning.
That individualized attention to helping students find their passions, giving them a chance to try new digital art forms and partnering with others to display their work throughout the Elm City led the school district last week to name Pavano New Haven’s Teacher of the Year for 2018. Now in his second career, after serving as a police officer, Pavano has worked in New Haven Public Schools for over a decade.
Part of his secret: While he helps students pick out their own projects, Pavano pushes them to try the unfamiliar.
“Student-centered learning: I let my students choose their projects. There’s nothing worse than being told, ‘This is what I want you to do,’” Pavano said, citing John Taylor Gatto’s essays as an influence. “Education needs to get to a point where our students are engaged because they’re doing things that they want to do
“To me, it doesn’t matter if you learn math when you’re 5 or 15, as long as by the time you graduate high school, you know how to do math,” he went on. “That’s one of the problems we run into in our educational system: We have this expectation that students should be learning this, this, this right in line. But we know that students learn differently at different times. You can’t force them to learn if they’re not ready. There’s too much back-fighting against it, and you’re wasting time instead of making gains.”
Listening in as Pavano explained this to a reporter, one of his students chimed in. “That’s the best thing he could’ve ever done,” she said, because the method allows the students to experiment without knowing all the answers their teachers do.
During the rest of Friday morning’s class, Pavano circled around the room to look over his students’ projects. He suggested Quincey Bookert, at work on his color wheel, use a different brush and then layer on the paints to build up a bold color, and he helped Roneish Murdock stick blue masking tape on her abstract work to vary the texture.
Aside from paints and pencils, Pavano has tried to integrate digital arts into the curriculum by donating products himself or soliciting donations. In his art-decked classroom, students can log into Adobe Creative Suite software to create illustrations on a donated Mac, or they can plug into a virtual reality headset to take a guided tour through famous paintings by Vincent Van Gogh or Salvador Dalí.
To keep the programs running, Pavano has to raise $350 each year to renew Adobe’s licensing, and this year, he’s looking for an extra $400 for a top-of-the-line Oculus Rift headset to run Google’s 3-D painting software, Tilt Brush.
In a departure from his his law enforcement background, Pavano now serves as the school’s coordinator for YouthStat, in which principals, teachers, cops, social workers, and parole and probation officers identify the most at-risk kids and work to keep them from landing in jail or being expelled. He’s also works as fellow for the Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven, which researches and advocates juvenile justice reform.
Three More Teachers Recognized
In addition to Pavano, three other educators were named as finalists for the award.
Chevaunne Breland, a Hillhouse High School grad who went on to study at Georgetown and Yale, returned to her alma mater to teach English. In her eight years at the front of the classroom, Breland was recognized for encouraging her students to take risks and build up their strengths, as student representative Makayla Dawkins testified at the board meeting.
Rocio Barahona, a first-grade bilingual teacher at Clinton Avenue School since 2006, has championed the development of the school’s dual language program, in which students are taught in both English and Spanish. Barahona was recognized for pushing parents, fellow teachers and her principal to support students becoming bilingual, biliterate and bicultural.
Katherine DeNaples, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Davis Street Arts & Academics School, has collaborated with other teachers on the school-wide implementation of restorative justice practices, which emphasizes making amends for wrongs over punishing the wrongdoer, as well as the Comer School Development Program, which calls for focusing not just on learning but the child’s whole development, including a knowledge of ethics, a psychological sense of self and more. DeNaples was recognized for fostering kindness and compassion in her youngsters.