Dan Adler ’07 brings innovation, Yale-honed singing skills to science class
In 2012, Boston magazine published a feature story called “Lawrence, MA: City of the Damned.” It chronicled the many woes of the state’s poorest city – a mayor under investigation, a steep rise in crime, rampant drugs, and a school system that had been taken under receivership for its failing performance. It was an article that Dan Adler’s brother would email their parents back in 2013 to give them a glimpse of where their Yale-educated son would soon be teaching.
Adler ’07 was hired as part of group of “turnaround teachers” tasked with transforming one of the state’s lowest-performing middle schools to one of its highest. In order to accomplish this feat, the district had partnered with the UP Education Network, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that restarts low-performing schools. The James F. Leonard Middle School — renamed UP Academy Leonard — was a new proving ground. Adler, who had been teaching for two years in Somerville, Mass., was hired as the school’s sixth grade science teacher. Using a high level of enthusiasm and engagement, he found that all students, regardless of their background, could be inspired to learn.
Adler was one of 44 teachers surprised with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award in November at a school assembly to the cheers of students and colleagues. (It’s clear from a video of the event that he’s nothing short of stunned.) The award, from the nonprofit Milken Family Foundation, has been called the “Oscars of Teaching.” It’s an effort to shine a spotlight on classroom innovators like Adler, a teacher now in his seventh year, who is determined that his largely Dominican and Puerto Rican students get the same opportunities to be inspired in the classroom that he found at Yale. He joined other award winners for networking and discussions with state and federal officials at a forum in Washington, D.C. March 21-23.
“I’ve always loved learning,” Adler says. I have incredible memories of being engaged in the classroom.” Drawn to science, Adler double majored in history and molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, but says he took a wide range of courses in his quest to learn – including American literature, film, psychology and music.
Adler admits the idea of teaching never crossed his mind as an undergraduate. Instead, post-graduation, he took a job in management consulting, a role that left him feeling unfulfilled. Less than two years later, he participated in a year-long residency at Year Up, an organization that gives underprivileged kids the training and mentorship to find meaningful careers, and he was hooked.
The key to getting kids excited to engage in a rigorous curriculum, Adler says, is a combination of enthusiasm and support services — from a “call me at home” policy, to after-school homework support, to regular check-ins with parents. In the classroom, he says, “I try to make lessons as engaging as possible. Science is not just facts; it’s skills. We’re using microscopes, drawing models, and singing songs so we remember what the parts of the cell does.”
Adler’s singing skills — honed during his time in the Out of the Blue contemporary a cappella group at Yale — have served him well as a teacher. He’s created a series of rhyming chants that help the kids internalize science lessons in a more tangible way. “It’s called ‘total physical response,’” he says. “We use chants, rhyme, gestures, and it makes the knowledge more ‘sticky.’”
Adler and other turnaround teachers at UP Academy have found real results from their unconventional methods — bringing their Level 4 school up to a top tier Level 1 school, with graduation rates increasing across the city by 19.5 percentage points since the takeover began – up to 71.8%. The district is now being studied as a model for how to turn around struggling schools through intervention, additional resources, enrichment programs, and added career opportunities to attract top teachers.
It’s a message that may not be reflected in national conversations on public education, but it’s one Adler says he wants people to hear. “Public education can work,” says Adler. “I’m proud to work at a school that provides that proof point of what a public school can achieve in an urban setting.”
He hopes that other Yale students will be inspired to use their Ivy League education to serve classrooms in need, and says he’ll talk to any that are interested in following that path. “When I was at Yale, I didn’t know any alumni who were teachers,” Adler says. “I want students who love learning and social justice to know that this is the kind of impact you can have with your Yale education.”