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When Teaching Goes Viral: “Do You Know This Child?”

One Sunday evening in November a friend who had seen a Success Academy scholar featured on the popular “Humans of New York” photoblog texted me. “Do you know this child?” my friend wanted to know.

The blog features street portraits and interviews of everyday New Yorkers and has millions of followers on social media. I took one look at the photograph on Facebook and instantly recognized the child.

How could I forget the smile of the scholar who was only six years old when he entered my second-grade classroom last year?

The photographer behind the “Humans of New York” blog had managed to capture that same smile that lit up many of my days last year. Not only that, but the interview also seemed to give the world a little insight into Ibrahima’s brilliance.

From Humans of New York:

“I want to build a bridge.”

“How do you build a bridge?”

“If you want to build a bridge it’s going to take a long time and it might be hard because your employees might not be as interested in building the bridge as you are. You have to think about what kind of bridge you want to make. One type of bridge is a suspension bridge and another type of bridge is an arch bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge is a suspension bridge and it was built by John Roebling and his family and that’s all I remember from second grade. And the bridge has to be strong because the water can rise and push up the bridge. I’d maybe like to build a bridge in Wisconsin because there are a lot of people in Wisconsin who might not have bridges but I don’t really know where Wisconsin is.”

Throughout the Brooklyn Bridge project-based learning unit, a hallmark of Success Academy schools, our scholars learned so much about the Brooklyn Bridge, its complicated history and its intricate design. While the other scholars in my class were rapidly gaining knowledge about bridges, Ibrahima seemed to be doing something more: he was falling in love with these structures. He raised his hand after a shared reading about the opening day of the bridge and asked, “Do you think the view of the fireworks was better from the Brooklyn or the Manhattan Tower?”

As we wrapped up the bridge unit, Ibrahima still seemed drawn to the book bins full of bridge books. This is where his passion flourished. His curiosity led him to ask questions that even I had to do more research to answer. With every field study that took us in and around the city, his voice was always the first to call out, “Look, a suspension bridge!” or, “Wow, the supports on that beam bridge are so strong!”

After his interview on the “Humans of New York” blog went viral, Ibrahima received an unexpected invitation to meet a civil engineer at Arup, a global engineering firm. Noel Vivar, the engineer, was eager to teach Ibrahima more about the design and construction of bridges and other structures after hearing about him from friends who had seen the photoblog.

The two met at his office in lower Manhattan on December 4th and I heard that, at one point, the engineer tested Ibrahima’s knowledge of bridges with a quiz. Ibrahima responded to the challenge with typical aplomb. He correctly identified every type of bridge that he was shown and used evidence to support his answers.

When I saw Ibrahima the next day, he was brimming with confidence.

I also know that his parents, who moved to New York from Guinea in West Africa so that their children would have a better life, were extremely proud of their son.

As a teacher, I dream that my students will walk out of my classroom with the tools to contribute to society and the belief that, with hard work and perseverance, any goal can be accomplished. That Sunday evening when I read the “Human of New York” interview with Ibrahima, my eyes filled with tears. You always think that students are learning, but to know that the information you’re teaching them is helping to shape their dreams is something else. It’s a feeling like no other.


Ibrahima, Noel, and Mariatou (Ibrahima’s sister) at Arup


Written by Jennifer Todd December 11, 2014

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