The UI alumna wanted to treat her second-grade class to a Broadway show, and she knew exactly where to turn for help.
Jennifer Quinn had several memorable experiences during her days as a public-school student in Spencer, Iowa, but she never got the chance to see a show on Broadway—understandable given the 1,300 miles separating the northwest Iowa town and the bright lights of New York City.
Now Quinn, a University of Iowa alumna who teaches at a charter school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., is a relative hop, skip, and a jump away from the famed theater district. Yet her second-grade students seemed no more likely to see a Broadway production, albeit for economic reasons rather than geographic.
So Quinn, a champion of the arts in education, decided she would do something about that. Her plan? Take her 29 students to a Father’s Day matinee of The Lion King on her dime—or rather, $61.50 per ticket.
Her idea spread to friends, relatives, and coworkers, and soon her story made its way into the Iowa media. Before long, Iowans reading about her plan heaped praise—and donations—in Quinn’s direction. This gave her enough money to buy tickets for her students and the students in the other second-grade class at Leadership Prep Charter School, and to set up a fund for future classes to use for Broadway excursions.
“I did not anticipate this level of support, but I was not shocked when I read all of the heartfelt letters and saw the selfless donations from Iowans,” Quinn says. “Many of the letters I read were from former teachers, parents of teachers, children of immigrants, farmers—people who wrote about their own struggles, their own dreams, and their own life realizations.
“I feel very blessed that so many people felt connected to the work that I am doing, and that they wanted to be a part of it all,” she adds. “I’ve never been more proud to be an Iowan than I am now.”
So how was the show?
“The trip was wonderful,” Quinn reports. “Many of the parents lined the sidewalks to see us off. The students were a bit sleepy from traveling, but as soon as the music started they sat up straight, leaned towards the edge of their seats, and quietly whispered their ‘wows.’ Afterwards, we got to meet some of the actors.”
The next day, the tired and excited students reflected on their favorite parts of the show. “One girl wrote that seeing this show taught her to always believe in her dreams,” Quinn says.
The Brooklyn students crossed paths with Quinn through a stroke of serendipity, as education was not Quinn’s first calling. Her focus at the University was journalism and mass communication and women’s studies, and she worked in the corporate world for a short while before she made a change to pursue her commitment to social responsibility—something fostered during her years at Iowa.
“I started researching different types of social justice work in the United States, and I realized that every issue I care deeply about has a connection to education,” Quinn says. “Once I realized the horrible gap in education that exists among social classes in our country, I knew that I had to become a teacher and do my part to reverse the past and present failures in our public educational system.”
Teach for America, the national corps of recent college graduates and professionals who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools, placed Quinn at Leadership Prep, one of the two elementary schools in the Uncommon Schools system. Her room is known as The University of Iowa—every classroom at the school is named after the college or university that the teacher attended.
“By the time the students finish sixth grade, they feel like they’ve ‘attended’ seven different colleges; it’s a wonderful way of exposing them to the world’s possibilities,” Quinn says.
The Bed-Stuy placement was a blessing, Quinn says. She had no trepidation about teaching there, noting that the neighborhood unfairly “gets a bad rap, and people unfamiliar to the neighborhood assume that it isn’t safe.” She admires the sense of community found in the neighborhood.
She found her footing as a teacher slowly but surely during her first year. She has encountered elements typical of many classrooms—wide-ranging behavioral needs, varied academic demands, and time-management challenges. And she has discovered every teacher’s moment of joy: when a child who has been struggling finally looks up and smiles excitedly.
And while Quinn is educating youngsters who yearn to be veterinarians, doctors, paleontologists, or teachers (“or the next basketball star or the next Hannah Montana,” Quinn says with a smile), she is learning lessons of her own.
“This job has taught me that we are all capable of doing and being way more than we realize,” she says, “and it’s always best to have generosity of spirit, because most people in this world generally do want to do good things with themselves and with their lives.”
Dozens of students with Lion King ticket stubs can attest to that.
By Christopher Clair; photo by Rachel Zucker.
June 29, 2009