Thinking on the outside

“Square. A square is a type of rectangle.” Using spelling words, Zak Carey inspires new ideas for his 4th grade students to ponder. So far the class has questioned authority, untangled a beaded curtain, and gone on trips to foreign lands. “Unwise. I often act in unwise ways.” He says the latter like he’s speaking of himself. His students appreciate that, and want to impress him. They want him to notice the brilliance in their work, which…he does.
Zak has been teaching at the Day school for nine years, one year longer than his eldest daughter Quin has been attending. Cassidy, his other daughter is in second grade. He is quick to point out that it is not The Children’s Center anymore (the hippie school it was in the 70’s where he spent his formative educational years). “We ask the kids to think outside the box — but in order to do that, they need to know what’s inside the box. A lot of what happens here is within a very traditional school model.” The Woodstock Day School, now a Nursery-12 establishment still runs on the principles of its former incarnation, offering children the opportunity to expand creatively with a little more emphasis on curriculum studies. He is committed to his work, the children and the gift that is education.
“I hope to develop an honest relationship with each child in each class. Balancing student agency with clear expectations and high standards of achieving those goals — giving them some ownership of their learning. They need to trust me to present them with excellent learning opportunities, and I need to trust them to take on some of the learning for themselves. In guiding that process, I am able to give them what they need as 4th graders for developing a lifelong love of learning. That is what teaching is about for me — encouraging them to develop their own ideas about the work that they are doing and to take that and look even deeper.”
Zak’s first school experience was in 1972 when the commune he lived on left Riverby (out in Wittenberg) on a road schooling expedition in a converted van. A book was written about the trip called, On The Bus. He later landed at the Children’s Center, then from Woodstock Elementary to Onteora and on to Oakwood Boarding School in Poughkeepsie, SUNY Purchase as a film student (where he met his wife Sandy), and then completed his masters in all six elementary school subjects at the College of St. Rose in Albany. His experience in just about every school setting has given him a well rounded scope on education.
“One of the most important things I focus on is the interconnectivity of the academic disciplines. Learning does not fit into the strict confines of one vacuum; it is much more of an integrative process than that. If we think about writing as separate from Social Studies, and Social Studies as separate from literature, ignore Math’s own literacy and so on…then to a certain degree we are lost.”
Zak’s early days of travel gave him just a tad of wanderlust, but in the end, he came back. He and his wife Sandy married in ‘95, and after some time it occurred to them that every place they considered living was compared to the beauty of the Catskills. Overlook Mountain sets a high bar, and nothing quite reached it.
“We got married, left Los Angeles in a 1976 VW beetle, with a broken starter. We are still glad we landed back in Woodstock.”
Zak brings his loves to work with him every day. He makes art, film, and his time as a ski instructor comes in handy on the WDS Ski team.
“I’ve worked in a variety of jobs, bike messenger, cook, arts magazine editor…I built my own house. But I never found the right profession until I started teaching. Now I have an opportunity to work with the next generation of children in my community, whom I care about on a very root and base level. These are people, who even if I don’t know them, I know of them. It’s pretty close, and I like it that way.”

The goal is inspiration
Xhosa Frazier is a first year teacher at the Woodstock Day School who brings a refreshing quality to 8th grade English. He is a poet. You can hear it in his diction, you can feel it in his enjoyment of the words as he reads them. One is left wondering if his students have any idea what they are being given in this class. Though he has made inspiration a goal in his approach, it comes naturally.
“In reflecting back on my experience, I am reminded how bad my education was. A constant systematic breakdown of the kids; as though my teachers set out to establish a top-down level of authority. It is important for me that the kids feel confident in themselves. I try to find a balance between encouragement and criticism — inspiring them to challenge themselves, while feeling confident in their ability. The limitations that teachers put on you can be debilitating — if students feel confident writing they will become stronger writers.”
After being in Zak’s class, one can’t help but notice that the older kids are considerably more misbehaved than the younger kids. And to that, Xhosa makes an interesting observation, “When they are younger, they’re showing off for the teacher’s approval, and when they get older they’re looking for the approval of their peers.” This is clearly evident — what is even more evident is the efforts he is making to give his students the room to be who they are and learn as they go.
“I like that they are spontaneous and crazy, they’re teenagers. You have to kind of go with it and be understanding about where they are in their lives; it’s not easy trying to figure yourself out and where you stand in the big picture. I remember having a hard time going through those changes myself.”
Xhosa’s family has owned property in the area since the 40’s. His mother, Ann, was teaching in Albany, so his early time in Woodstock was reserved for the summers and holidays. In search of diversity, his mother had to change districts so that he and his brother Fanon would not be the only children of color in their school. He went on to graduate from Albany High in 1993.
A poet since age twelve, it was natural that Xhosa immersed himself in the poetry circuit upon reaching Manhattan after school, reading in Coffee houses from Harlem to the Lower East Side. For a while working with a friend to promote readings in an “unused” bar, bringing life to the venue once a month. After transferring from City College to finish his English Literature degree at SUNY New Paltz Xhosa met J.J. Blickstein and the crew from Hunger Magazine in which some of his work was published, and more importantly, lifelong friends and colleagues were made. “I still write every day. I have almost 25 years of poems. As a first year teacher, I have time to write, but not enough time to read in public.”
He appreciates the creative potential in the kids he spends his time with. “I find working with the kids to be creatively inspiring. We as adults can get into ruts, kids are much more spontaneous. They shake out the cobwebs a little bit.”
Even with an African American President — as the dictation of mainstream media thins out the culture in our society — the prominent voice from Black America is coming from the Hip Hop community and our children are listening. The Woodstock Day School should be proud to boast a teacher like Xhosa Frazier, who brings the richness of a vast culture to his job of coaxing fresh new perspectives in literature from thirteen-year-old kids.
“The constant corralling of the super smart takes a lot of effort. I think you get more out of them when you have mutual respect. As a first year teacher here, I am looking for balance. It is a tricky thing channeling that energy — they sometimes see me as a friend more than a teacher — but academically, they are really aggressive when they do share their work.”
If there is any need for validation that his methods are working, his students leave the room, completely engaged in a conversation inspired by the book they are reading and the question Xhosa has left them with.
After teaching Special Ed, one-on-one in isolated classrooms with emotionally challenged youth, at BOCES in Coxackie, substituting at Onteora was unfulfilling and stagnant. “It felt like a waste to be in a classroom and not teaching. It was uninspiring.”
Someone like Xhosa could actually change the course of a child’s life, and I wonder who inspired him — not only to write, but also to teach. His father, Earnest Frazier, a prominent artist, introduced him to Dostoyevsky when he was twelve. “He had bookshelves filled with classic literature, poetry and art books; Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings…I remember when I was finally old enough, he let me touch them. My mother was a teacher. But even more importantly I had a real one on one educational relationship with her mother. She would turn me onto writings and then we’d discuss them. My grandmother inspired me to teach.”
In a different school, both classes might be twice the size with less room for honest natural interaction. Xhosa and Zak’s gathering of the minds of these children is impressive, subtly calling their students to look deeper and find their own answers. Giving them perspectives they might not ever come across without such loving and ambitious teachers. When an individual is treated as such, and called to intimate accountability, it’s harder to slip through the cracks.

The backbone
Slipping through the cracks is something Leith Rogovin, knows plenty about. He came to the area in his teens, having made a monumental choice; the streets — or his life. Now, as an adult, the youth and their direction forward is his M.O. and most of his fortitude comes from knowing what he saved himself from.
His job description is very difficult to pinpoint. Leith is: Pat Reily, Mr. Fix-it, Florence Nightingale and Dr. Phil all rolled into one. It is pretty amazing how much he is willing — and asked — to do. The smile on his face never leaves, held there by his commitment to humor, grace and the students.
Lieth grew up in a household filled with drugs and the people who used them. But for a few visits to Woodstock, and some extra special trips to The School Of The New Moon, his childhood was pretty dark.
“I came face to face with death five times before I was five years old. And no one was willing to be accountable. When you recognize you are safer on the streets of Harlem than you are at home, it’s time to take self worth into consideration, your life into your own hands and make some changes.”
By 10th grade, it was his responsibility to save his own life; Lieth looked into his options and chose to leave New York City. “Crack came around. Instead of taking a hit — I enrolled myself in Oakwood Boarding School. There, I went from a street-corner perspective to a global perspective.” Later, in his adult life, he has worked hard to take his younger sister from those same familial circumstances and give her a better life. He has done just that; and she lives with him when not at Oakwood.
Upon meeting his mentor, Brigadier Jerry, the musician/artist put out his hand, and said, “Hold it. That is flesh and bone. Everything that passes through me, passes through you. Don’t put me higher just because I make the music.” Leith has stayed true to this teaching and to the music, his meditation, which keeps him centered.
As the Community Service Director, Lieth helps his students understand a less privileged experience first hand. He is also senior advisor, administrative assistant to the Upper School and to Jim Handlin, the Head of School, and not at all above washing windows, or rearranging an office to suit a colleague. “Whatever you have to do to pull your weight. You can’t say, ‘that’s not my role’ and still be part of a team. It just doesn’t work like that.”
From what I can see, Lieth is the unofficial backbone of this school. He knows every student — loves every child — and his commitment is to all of them. Ask him though, to “Save a kid,” support a teacher, or help a parent and you will find that they are all equally, his priority. “I feel fortunate, at the day school I get to be myself every day.”++

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There are 5 comments

  1. Desiree O'Clair

    Three fine men are profiled in this piece, and we are lucky to have them sharing their gifts in our community. My life, and the lives of my children, are enriched beyond belief by Leith Rogovin. Leith is not just the backbone; he is also the soul and the heartbeat. Leith is the love.

  2. Rayann

    I was so blessed to have the opportunity to spend a few months in Zaks 4th grade class… I miss it terrible. Zak is an amazing person and teacher and the kids are so very lucky to have him. His learning techniques are indeed out of the box but let me tell you those kids get it and they get it right on! Even myself as an adult learned an amazing amount in my short time that I some how missed when I was in the 4th grade! The whole time I was with them all I could think of is how I wished I went to that school and how I wish my 4th grader was in this class. Kudos To Zak and the fellas

  3. Cherie Hanson-Rodriguez

    Three outstanding role models and exemplary men. Despite all the “hats” mentioned worn by Zak, one was missed: Stand-in Ultimate Frisbee Coach, where he has worked with student coaches to build a solid,values-based team comprised of any child who wants to play. In one year Xhosa has earned the title of my son’s favorite teacher and Leith is the heartbeat of whatever he touches. I love that my son observes the choices and work of these men every day.

  4. Erica Blumenfeld

    I think this article captures some of whats best about this school. It is so obvious that these men love the children that they are working with. They have been great role models for my children and I thank them all!

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