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SEPTEMBER 2017

Michael Copeland

The Importance of Educational Programs Like the Learnatory



I was asked in 1988 by the world renown Political Scientist Howard Zinn, author of A Peoples History of the United States, “What would be the most important political issue in the world in the future?”

Now having been a student at many different yet prestigious institutions of learning and the son of an educator, I answered “Education.” This answer was predicated on the fact that if you want to keep a people and a country in chaos, simply mis-educate them and your work will do itself.

But, if you want to produce a thriving, vibrant, and productive society, give them all a full and equal education where all views of history are explored and analyzed and all facets and styles of learning are fostered and appreciated. The Learnatory, started in 1978 by then Ms. Debra Eileen Brown, did just this and I believe will do it again in 2017.

I came to be a student at the Learnatory because my parents believed in Ms. Brown's vision. That vision was a program that fostered pride in oneself and worked to create a well-rounded student. It gave students who struggled with “traditional” academics the opportunity to show excellence in other areas while also obtaining assistance with those “traditional” academic subjects from other students who may have been more proficient in one subject or another. Having obtained my Masters in Education, I understand the importance of peer tutoring as well as the importance of developing the whole student. Utilizing unconventional methods to tap into the potential of young minds is paramount in education today.

One example I recall was the use of the arts to assist students with reading and public speaking. At this time in history, the use of works created by African-Americans in academics was sorely missing and was a cause for much disinterest in academics by children of color. The Learnatory took a different approach. Utilizing the works of great African-American authors and poets, Ms. Brown had her students reciting the works of Langston Hughes, Phyliss Wheatley, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and many others. This helped to not only expose students to classic and important American writers, but also to train them in public speaking and presentation.

Another aspect of a Learnatory education was the hands-on approach. Having attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School, I was well-acquainted with the hands-on approach to education. This institution is where I met Ms. Brown, as she was my 7th grade teacher. At the time, she was one of the first African-American women to obtain a Master's Degree in Education from the University of Chicago and she therefore is also acquainted with the hands-on approach to education. One activity that we participated in was the publication of a magazine which we titled Doin' It Right. We did research by taking a field trip to the then largest Black advertising firm in the country, Burrell Advertising. There, we learned about style and layout, sales and marketing. Those lessons have aided me tremendously in many of my own journalistic and promotional pursuits.

The final aspect of the Learnatory that is sorely lacking in today's educational systems is a concerted concentration on those skills that are less rigid and more fluid, the arts. This includes the visual, musical, and martial arts. To that end, the Learnatory fostered arts and crafts classes, martial arts classes, and drama classes. The most memorable for me was the martial arts class with Mr. T (complete with his heavy gold chains) and the production that our class did of the iconic play, The Wiz.

I was a teacher for 11 years in the Chicago Public School System and I saw first-hand the problems that today's youth face. I am a firm believer in traditional education.  However, the need to think outside of the educational box is paramount in today's age. The inability of school systems to provide all students with the tools they need to achieve is a problem known and debated nationwide. As an educator, myself, I took many of the lessons learned at the Learnatory and applied them to the classes I taught in some of the roughest schools in the Chicago-land area. The Learnatory is an opportunity to supplement those needs and expand the horizons and experiences of those students who may not otherwise have an opportunity to achieve their fullest potential.


Michael Copeland,  Learnatory Student, 1978 - 1981