I met Roberta Rabinoff in 1964 after she returned from serving in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in a rural school. She entered the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, a federally funded program located in a nearly all-Black high school taught by a largely Black staff in Washngton, D.C..
The program sought to attract smart, committed college graduates–Rabinoff was valedictorian of her graduating class at Denver University–to train them to develop curriculum materials, new ways of teaching, and to work in the community after school. She and other interns taught two classes of English a day, met afterwards with a master teacher of English and also took Howard University seminars after school to earn a Master’s degree by the end of the school year. After a year, they met all the certification requirements to teach in the Washington, D.C. Schools.
My job in the program was to supervise four history interns, also Returned Peace corps Volunteers, who taught two classes a day, as I did. Rabinoff and I often discussed how the 11th grade American Literature course she taught and the U.S. History course I taught overlapped so we decided to teach jointly an American Studies course for one semester. We taught about the American Revolution incorporating fiction, poetry, oratory of the day with the events typically studied on the run-up to the split from Great Britain, the eight year war with the mother country, and establishing a new government.
Up to that point in my career–I had taught seven years in a Cleveland high school–I had never teamed with another teacher. I found the experience a lot of hard work, learned how to collaborate, and found that our tandem teaching engaged the class in ways that I had not anticipated or seen before. Team teaching was an experience that whetted my appetite for more of it and did so both later in both high school and university classes.
Journalist Dana Goldstein interviewed Rabinoff–now married to Jack Kaplan–about her experiences in the program. According to Goldstein:
The Cardozo Project received federal funding, which meant the interns had their own mimeograph machine and other school supplies veterans often lacked. Interns were young, inexperienced, and mostly white, while Cardozo’s veterans were generally middle-aged and black. Some of the biggest clashes were over the curriculum. In the Peace Corps, Roberta Kaplan had taught African American literature at a private school in Sierra Leone. But when she tried to bring some of the same material to Cardozo, including Black Boy, Invisible Man, and the poems of Langston Hughes, she heard pushback from long-standing members of the English department, who saw a young white teacher assigning black students a second-rate reading list-these works were not yet highly regarded. “They wanted to make sure the kids were exposed to the same classic literature white kids were,” Kaplan told me, works like My Antonia, Willa Cather’s novel about white pioneers in Nebraska. “Even To Kill a Mockingbird was not considered a classic then!”
Rabinoff decided to stay on as a fulltime English teacher at Cardozo and did so for nine years also sponsoring the annual yearbook called the Purple Wave.
Background and Career
Roberta grew up in Denver. She was valedictorian of her South High School graduating class in 1954. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver, graduating valedictorian and also voted Outstanding Woman of her class. She volunteered for the Peace Corps’s first group of volunteers serving two years in Sierra Leone 1962-1964. After working as a reporter for a Honolulu newspaper, she entered the Cardozo Project, became a certified teacher, and stayed at the high school for nearly a decade where she also served as yearbook advisor.
After Cardozo, she freelanced writing and editing for various organizations in the D.C.
Kaplan remained active in Returned Peace Corps activities. One of her former secondary school students in Sierra Leone, Ibrahim Conteh, had become Deputy Chief of Mission for the Sierra Leone Embassy and when he came to D.C., for a Peace Corps event, he asked the staff to locate his English teacher, Roberta Rabinoff. Their reunion marked the first time they had seen each other since Rabinoff’s tour of duty 47 years ago. “I bow to you. I am very grateful. God bless you,” said Conteh as he introduced his former teacher to the audience.”
As the formal ceremonies gave way to informal conversation, Conteh and Rabinoff-Kaplan returned to their days together at the Magburaka Government Secondary School for Boys in theTonkolili District of Sierra Leone. She received updates on the lives of many school officials and students. Conteh recalled when his teacher read out loud one of his particularly good essays and how “the class went wild!” Rabinoff-Kaplan said “it was a most amazing coincidence that he would remember my name and that I would be in DC.”
Teacher and writer
Rabinoff-Kaplan was a teacher I respected and admired. She loved literature and communicated that passion to her students over the years. She listened to what students said and developed close relationships with those students who saw writing fiction or non-fiction as a way of expressing deep emotions. She drew out students rather than poured in content. Her work as yearbook adviser drew her closer to seniors who she had two or three times in English classes. And they responded with both affection and continued contact after they completed college and entered careers. Her love of literature continued as our life paths diverged. Whenever I came to D.C., I had dinner with her and her husband often regaling each other with Cardozo stories. The fact is I miss her since she died over a year ago.
My journal for years 1963-1967
Washington post obituary at:
Western Montana RPCV News, June 2010, p. 4 at: http://wmrpcv.com/uploads/3/4/2/0/34200782/610news.pdf