Photography courtesy of Nancy Strack
Nancy Strack is a lifelong educator, activist, and beam of light in a sometimes dark world. A beloved ELA teacher in the Plattsburgh City School district for 32 years, Strack, with her students and co-teacher Debbie Favro, spearheaded a successful 2016 campaign to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in City School calendars. Since then, many schools and townships across the state and the nation have followed suit in renaming the holiday.
We sat down with Strack, who retired from teaching in 2019, to talk about finding a purpose, finding a path, and being the change you wish to see in the world.
NEW YORK MAKERS: What was your childhood like?
NANCY STRACK: I grew up in Plattsburgh, New York, the third child of four. My dad was a World War II veteran and blinded in the war. He was shot through the head in the Philippines, and the bullet severed both of his optic nerves but missed his brain. He was such a cheerful man that the hospital where he recovered kept him on for a little while to cheer up newly blind patients who were having a hard time adjusting. You wouldn’t have known he was blind -- he was able to do anything. He did small engine repair, roofing, he fixed lawnmowers and all of the bikes in the neighborhood. Because of his service, my parents were both able to stay home with us. My childhood was idyllic -- I never once heard a cross word spoken between my parents.
NYM: What led you to teaching?
NS: I became a teacher in 1987. I had graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh in 1983 with a degree in communications and thought I’d get an office job -- maybe at IBM or something like that. I just really wanted to carry a purse around, I think (laughs). Before that, I’d been a science major but had to switch because of a fainting issue. Once I graduated in 1983, I took a position selling early word processors. I didn’t really like the selling part -- it felt embarrassing and awkward -- but I discovered I really loved doing the customer training. I sold a bunch of word processors to the teachers at Northeastern Clinton, and it was so much fun teaching them and just being in the room with them. They were funny and nice, and I thought, “this is the fun part of the job!” At this point, the MST childhood degree master’s program at SUNY Plattsburgh was just beginning.
My husband, Rick [Strack], and I had just had the first of our two children and didn’t have a lot of extra money since we were just starting out together, but we decided to bite the bullet and I stopped working for a year to get my graduate degree. It’s usually a two year program, but I got it done in a year and a summer.
NYM: What was your early teaching experience like?
NS: Directly out of school, I skipped student teaching and took a job teaching kindergarten at St. John’s Academy in Plattsburgh with the first year under supervision. I had 24 kids the first year and no experience. It was a total learning curve. The very first day there was a little boy crying. I was trying to collect all of the children and say goodbye to all of the parents, and then one of my coworkers from the adjoining high school came in with the little boy. They’d found him in the hallway of the high school! Luckily I didn’t lose anyone else after that.
I stayed there for two years and then took a job teaching kindergarten at Momot Elementary School. On my first day there, I walked in and all of the teachers received me so warmly. They were the nicest, kindest people. They had made an extra set of all of the materials for me and welcomed me in so completely. It was such a wonderful, child-centered community of teachers -- lots of training through Bank Street College. It’s where I really learned how to be a teacher. It felt like having a support group -- the full “it takes a village” mentality at work.
NYM: How long were you there?
NS: I taught at Momot for 16 years. I taught kindergarten for eight years, and then, one year, the class sizes were unusual and I volunteered to start a kindergarten/first grade multi-age class. I did that for another eight years and, after that, a bunch of additional multi-age classes formed. It was great. Then, when state testing became a thing, that kind of put an end to multi-age classes, although the original kindergarten/first grade class still existed many years after I left.
After 16 years, I felt like I needed a change. I loved teaching kindergarten and felt like I’d done everything I could do. I was ready for a new challenge. A middle school teacher retired, so I put my name in for the job and moved to teaching 6th grade ELA at Stafford Middle School.
NYM: What was that transition like?
NS: They had this grant-funded program in place then where teachers would get paid to go in during the summer to plan big projects. I came to the first meeting the summer before my first year, and everyone was preparing for a big Olympic project -- an academic version of the Olympics for kids to participate in to learn about Ancient Greek history. I was terrified. There was all of this vocabulary about Ancient Greece, and I didn’t know any of that. I sat there thinking, “oh no, oh no!” I went home and ordered a bunch of books about Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome and studied so that I would know what I was doing.
That’s when I joined the Voyager Team and met Debbie Favro, who became my teaching partner for the next 14 years. We have a similar quality standard and both know that when kids feel like they’re smart, that makes them want to learn.
We worked really hard together to make it cool and fun to be smart in our classroom. We tried to make it the cool thing for kids to know what they were doing. And it was successful.
It feels good to know things. Everyone likes that feeling. And when you can give kids that feeling, they’ll come back for it on their own.
NYM: What were some of your favorite projects?
NS: We did the Olympics. We did a yearly poetry unit where the kids memorized a Shakespeare sonnet. We did a cave art project where we set up a tarp in the hallway with chairs covered in grey blankets with a fake fire inside from American Eagle. We would say “wouldn’t it be fun if...” and then we’d make it happen. I dressed up as a high priestess and mummified a plastic skeleton with Debbie as my assistant. The kids were so in, running in the door to see what was going on. And we did a yearly Celebration of Time project that started out as a little skit in the cafeteria and, by the last year we did it, was a full on two-hour production in the auditorium with 70 kids in costumes and lighting, speeches, programs, and an audience.
And then there was the Columbus project.
NYM: Tell me about that.
NS: I wanted to teach persuasive writing, and Debbie wanted to teach a unit on Columbus so we put together stations for the kids to go through with information and primary sources -- Columbus’s journals, excerpts from world history books, and a sword-making station...because it’s gonna cheer everybody up to have a sword. We showed both sides [what the history books say and what was recorded in Columbus' own diaries so that students could decide for themselves if Columbus was a hero or not]. They had checklists and a packet and the task was, ultimately, to write a report and make a presentation. After going through the stations and getting an overview on Columbus, the kids were like “this is not good!”
We showed the kids a little video that mentioned that Seattle had renamed Columbus Day to honor Indigenous People, and a boy in the class said, “Why don’t we do that?”
We put together an adorable presentation for the school board with the kids dressed up in fake Christopher Columbus outfits, and the board tabled the issue. They asked for more information. So we organized after-school meetings to do research. At the second presentation, there was a suggestion from a board member to ask the local Native people for their blessing.
A friend connected us to the assistant US attorney Betsy Horsman who was the liaison to the St. Regis tribe. She met with us and gave us lots of information and answered questions.
After that, we invited the St. Regis Mohawk tribe to our classroom. The chiefs came and brought a 12-year-old boy, the same age as the kids. The chief spoke; the kids spoke. The kids made a big flag to give to them, and then the boy stood up and recited a long and beautiful oration. We had 80 kids in the room, and it was pure silence. Then, he answered questions from the kids. It was a beautiful moment of people coming together. We had one student formally ask if they would accept the honor of the renaming of the day, and the chief accepted.
After that, the school board still had to make the final vote.
We did our final presentation for the board, and the kids all did their parts. We had about 45 kids there. They knew everything. They answered questions; they were ready for counterarguments.
The board voted that night, and we were there when it announced the results -- it was nine o’clock or something. And they voted yes to change it.
I think the whole project came out of the philosophy of giving kids enough information to get them started, and then let them find out the truth for themselves.
NYM: What do you think about the time we’re living in now?
NS: Has there ever been a time like this? Not in recent memory. There’s a lot of bad and, if you look at the bad, you can drown in the bad. But there’s also a lot of good. There’s a lot of change and hope and people coming together. The classic Mr. Roger’s quote, “look for the helpers” is true. That man had wisdom. There are so many little moments of people helping and supporting and understanding each other and saying “help me understand.” I think that matters. And those little things add up. The bad things can add up, too, but you can’t give them undue attention. Focus on what’s good and where we’re going and the world you want to build.
I feel like it may be akin to Arab Spring where we’ve reached a point where we’ve been gathering in this spot for a long time, and now we’re all moving forward -- as one whole group.
As long as people stick together and don’t get stuck in minutiae, I don’t think anything can stop it.And, if all else fails, just watch The West Wing and pretend it’s real. And then sometimes watch The Property Brothers.