by Chris Killian
Dave Meek’s students have a saying for the learning atmosphere he creates in his classroom. They call it “Meek Magic.”
A bell rings, signaling the start of Meek’s noon AP Biology class at Marble Hill School for International Studies, an inner-city high school in the Bronx, New York. His students, fresh from taking the AP test the day before, arrange their desks in a circle so they are facing one another.
Today is a reflection on a year of preparing for the test, of hard work and lessons learned, of triumphs and failures. The students, a mix of sophomores, juniors and seniors, talk about how they should have studied more, how surprised they are at how much they learned. They offer advice when Meek, 30, asks them what they’d tell to future AP Biology students.
“Don’t sleep,” says one student. “Everything that Mr. Meek has to say is important.”
Some are of Hispanic ethnicity, their English tinged with a Spanish accent. A few girls are Muslim, their heads covered in multi-colored scarves. Others are of Bengali, African, and Middle East descent. They are a kaleidoscope of colors and heritage, a manifestation of the best ideals of America, that inclusiveness and celebration of our individual uniqueness also provides an opportunity to see that when we work together, we achieve more.
“We are a team,” says one girl.
In many ways, Meek, a 2002 graduate of Kalamazoo College, who focused his academic work in biology, African studies, and a pre-med emphasis, was groomed for years to take the job he has at Marble Hill, where he’s taught for six years.
The school, located in the massive John F. Kennedy High School, just north of Manhattan across Spuyten Duyvil Creek, is an example of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push for specialized learning environments located inside larger schools.
Here, to accent the school’s emphasis on international study and multi-culturalism, it’s mandated that at least 50 percent of students be English language learners. Many students, some of them literally having just arrived in the United States, can say just a few English phrases, like “Hello,” “How are you?” and “My name is.”
Yet it’s the responsibility of teachers at Marble Hill to get these students ready to pass state required standardized tests by the end of their freshman year, Meek said.
His study abroad experience at “K” took him to Kenya. He remembers walking through the slums of Nairobi, seeing the poverty and the suffering of many. Upon graduation, he entered the Peace Corps, and was sent to Tanzania for a two-year stint, splitting his time between teaching and public health administration and education.
It was there that his passion for teaching began to blossom. At the time, Meek was still thinking that he would enter medical school upon returning to the United States. But he found that he was able to make a significant impact in his classroom. He saw that educating students about things as simple as washing one’s hands or using a condom could yield big, positive results in his students’ futures.
“I thought to myself that maybe this was the road I was supposed to be on,” Meek said. “Maybe I was supposed to be a teacher.”
After the Peace Corps, he enrolled in the organization’s Teaching Fellows Program at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where Peace Corps Volunteers returned from assignment receive three-months of intensive training and subsequent placement in a New York City public school. Fellows must make a minimum three-year commitment to teaching.
Meek sits in a science lab, strewn with lab equipment and random pieces of furniture. The smell of formaldehyde hangs thick in the air. He talks about how “K’s” emphasis on students having a world-view and embracing challenges and other cultures led him to his position at such a diverse school.
“Most everyone goes on study abroad,” he said. “It’s part of the program, part of the plan. Everyone is going somewhere. There is an expectation that you will embrace change and other ways of living.”
In many ways, Meek’s experience at “K”
"There is an expectation you will embrace change and other ways of living."and in the Peace Corps is paying off in his school and classroom.
He was recently selected as one of 13 educators across the country to be named a Champion of Change through a White House program that acknowledges teachers who are winning the future for their students, schools, and communities. Meek traveled to Washington, D.C., in April to meet with top Obama Administration officials to discuss ways to improve education and increase communication between policy makers and teachers on the front lines.
“It was a great, great experience,” Meek said.
Marble Hill consistently ranks as one of the top high schools in the New York City school system, based on the commitment Meek, and the other staff members, show to their students. It has one of the highest concentrations of returned Peace Corps volunteers teaching in its classrooms of any school in the nation.
But it all comes down to the students, and that’s where Meek’s focus is – always.
The AP biology class is nearing its end, and things are getting a little emotional.
It becomes obvious that Meek wasn’t just preparing these students for the AP test, or for an in-class exam. He was also helping to shape their sense of themselves, pushing them to be lifelong learners, believing in their ability to succeed and never – ever – giving up on them.
“You are one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” said one girl, crying, to Meek. “I’ve never experienced the kind of relationship with a teacher like I’ve had with you.”
The other students agree with her. Meek, they all say, gets the best out of you because he believes in you.
“Stop it, guys, or I’m going to cry, too,” says Meek, wiping a tear from his eye.
“I don’t want to forget this class. I want to take this class – the feeling that we’ve had here – and put it into other classes. But I never, ever, want to forget it.”
Based on the effect he has had on his students—and their effect on him, he likely never will.