Alumnus Profile: Kevin LaMastra
This August, a small group of K through University education teachers from around the country will travel to the Dominican Republic and enter the dirt-floor homes of sugar workers in company towns called bateyes, meet with leaders of the country’s teachers union fighting for their constitutional agreement of educational funding, and hear accounts from workers who, through free trade, earn only 83 cents an hour. At the heart of this “Social Justice Tour” is one man: Graduate School of Education alumnus, Kevin LaMastra.
LaMastra first launched the tour as part of what is now the non-profit organization, Friends Beyond Borders, in an attempt to incorporate global citizenship into his pedagogy. Now, with the initiative in its seventh year, teachers continue to join LaMastra annually in learning as much as they can in the social justice issues facing the world. His students, too, prompted to address real issues facing developing countries, insisted they wanted to do more than become educated – they wanted to act.
“It is a rare, comforting moment when we as a nation recognize our common humanity with a people outside our borders,” writes LaMastra in his response to the recovery efforts of so many following Haiti’s devastating earthquake, which also impacted the neighboring communities in the Dominican Republic.
As a French language and English as a Second Language middle school teacher in the Linden, NJ, public school system for almost two decades, he recognizes the role of social justice in his classroom. He has even designed a curriculum for other teachers who wish to sew in topics of extreme poverty into their own lessons. For his work, he is currently the only teacher in the state to earn New Jersey County Teacher of the Year award.
Service learning projects and critical global issues are at the heart of LaMastra’s educational mission. During the academic year, he organizes for in-class visits from returning Peace Corps members and correspondence from active members. This opportunity allows students to learn directly from those citizens who have committed to social justice and service learning.
When the social justice exposure sparks an interest in one of his students, LaMastra fosters it. During the summer, in the midst of planning the social justice tour, the teacher and activist keeps his students connected to the pertinent issues through readings. “Many times the selections are made based on students' expressed interests,” LaMastra credits. “I am also a culturally responsive teacher; I learn about my students' lives and interests, and connect my teaching.” Through literature, blogging, and continuing the dialog, he aims to keep students engaged long enough to feel a desire to become agents of change.
LaMastra was awarded a grant from the NJEA Hipp Foundation for Educational Excellence in 2006 for Friends Beyond Borders, which helped open the social justice tour as an opportunity for teachers all across the country. Today, over 100 teachers have participated in the tour to the Dominican Republic. To learn about LaMastra’s shared initiative, or for teachers who wish to apply for a spot on the tour, visit FriendsBeyondBorders.net.