Alwin Jones

25 Jun 2019
ByJulia Sonenshein, Assistant Director of Communications, Marketing

“I'm using literature to help students be better than the people of my generation. I want them to be better teachers than I am. I want them to do better art than I did. I want them to be better husbands, fathers, all of that,” Alwin Jones says, sitting in his classroom after his Harlem Renaissance class. He’s more reserved now than he was an hour ago when he captivated the room through an electrifying conversation about one of Claude McKay’s sonnets. After class, he quietly jokes and smiles, often recalling funny comments made by students during class.

Jones is in his sixth year as an English teacher in the Upper School, teaching Introduction to American Literature along with a slew of electives like African American Literature, Sacred Texts, the Harlem Renaissance, and Creative Writing.

Using literature to craft more considerate human beings is a cornerstone of Jones’ class, where he works to make his students not only better writers but more insightful critical thinkers. “I try to make sure the students are not thinking about me and what I like by the end of the class. They’re just thinking about their ideas.”

“I'm using literature to help students be better than the people of my generation.”

Earlier that morning, students file into Jones’ Harlem Renaissance class, looking out the window at an unexpected flurry of snow. They fill the desks, arranged in an oval, and Jones settles into his seat. Before his bag hits the ground, he launches into a vertiginous conversation that both challenges and delights the students. He clearly has a flair for performance: he peppers his lecture with jokes, takes beats for dramatic effect, and alters the timbre of his voice. He shifts between cutting asides dripping with social satire (the students laugh, nod along, and take furious notes) and speaking softly about Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” He riles up the class, raising his voice as they raise theirs. The energy mounts, and then he expertly reels them back in. The hour passes in moments.

Rather than assign final essays or hold exams in his elective classes, Jones allows students an open-ended final project that simply answers the question: “What have I learned?” The back wall of the classroom is adorned with a wide variety of final projects: dioramas — including a mini-museum — a stained glass painting depicting women of the Bible instead of the men traditionally shown in that format, illustrations, and even a shoe designed for a class session on hip hop.

Jones was born in a small town in Guyana, where he went to a primary school located on a former Dutch plantation. He attended classes in what was called “The Big House” and an annex where slaves likely slept. The school was named for the slave owner’s two daughters, who reportedly haunted the coast. Jones excelled in math and showed an early inclination towards teaching. “I had a wall in the house and if you passed by you had to sit and listen to me teach the lesson I learned in school.” He also had a “keen sense of music.” He would make up his own calypso songs using old bottles and sticks, singing lyrics about the people passing by his house.

At 11, Jones tested into an elite boarding school called Presidents College, which far outpaced the schools in his remote town. School was rigorous — classes went from 8am to 4pm, followed by sports, dinner, study hall, and then bed. When he was 12, his mother joined his stepfather and moved to Brooklyn, and a year later sent for him, hoping that he’d have more opportunity in the United States than back home in Guyana.

Brooklyn gave Jones his first brush with education inequity. His transcript was handwritten with whited out mistakes, and the school administrator accused him of doctoring his grades. The school placed Jones in a remedial class until a Guyanese teacher realized that Jones had gone to a top school in the Caribbean. He spoke up on Jones’ behalf, and it was an early “lesson about being an advocate” for people who’ve been excluded. Placed in the right class, Jones excelled.

In high school, he found a life-changing mentor, Dr. Frank N. Mickens. “I fell in love with my principal” — a larger than life man with a preacher’s voice who acted as a father figure to Jones. Jones worked as a student assistant to the principal, doing administrative work around his office for most of his high school career.

After high school, Jones landed at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, where he entered as an engineering major. Tufts was a change; it was his “first encounter with white people en masse.” He was often the only person of color in the room, and it was another lesson on education inequity and who is invited into educational spaces, especially for a future New York City teacher. 

He discovered his community at poetry readings. Having always secretly written a mix of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, he decided for the first time to get involved with a writing community. He joined Tufts’ black magazine as an editorial assistant and participated in poetry readings. “Our voice would speak back” against campus racism, he says. “This voice came out of me on the mic that I didn't know was there and that people responded to. That was my awakening in terms of arts,” he says. Jones quickly left engineering, double majoring in Religion and English and minoring in Africana Studies. Tufts “allowed me to explore parts of myself and reinvent myself in a way that has paid dividends to me as a teacher and just as a person interacting with other human beings.” His final degree project was a sprawling, two-hour performance of a book he wrote and published called Black Trinity, produced with a cast of actors, musicians, and dancers.

After graduating from Tufts in 2002, Jones returned to Brooklyn. His high school principal, his hero and father figure, invited him back to teach English and creative writing. Barely 22, Jones was “125 pounds, 5’11, and it was not a good situation to get authority, initially.” Jones had to find creative ways to relate to his students and earn their respect — sometimes playing the strict teacher with a regimented syllabus and sometimes playing basketball to reach a kid who never participated. He also made inroads to connect with the students academically, adding texts to the curriculum that featured black and brown characters — characters who reflected the readers in his classroom. “I thought that was super-important because no one really did that with me when I was in school,” he says.

A year later, Jones headed to the University of Virginia to get his Ph.D in English literature and language. Jones was one of two persons of color in his graduate cohort. He served as a graduate instructor at the University of Virginia, and he says that post helped him learn how to create courses and to communicate with students whose experiences vastly differed from his own, especially on the subject of race.

Ph.D in hand, Jones moved back to New York, where he began a teaching job at Sarah Lawrence College, leading courses in African American, African, and Caribbean Literature. The experience fostered his intellectual and artistic growth. “It was wondrous,” he says. His students exposed him to new ways of thought just as he did to them, especially around areas of gender and sexuality. “I think that was one of my greatest and most valuable lessons there,” he says.

At Sarah Lawrence, Jones embarked on an ambitious project: an album of his poetry set to music. Jones had been teaching spoken word, challenging his students — whom he called his “brilliant collaborators” — to share their work with wider audiences. A student pushed Jones to do the same, and the album “What Is? Love” was born, made with two students and a chef in the Sarah Lawrence cafeteria. They recorded parts of the album in his office, and “if you listen carefully, you’ll hear chairs dragging” in the cafeteria upstairs. The album drew from Jones’ entire artistic past, from banging out Calypso tunes on bottles to his thesis project at Tufts. It’s a source of immense pride.

“I’d always had my eye on Fieldston,” Jones says, and after four years at Sarah Lawrence, a position opened up for an English teacher with a background in Caribbean and African American Literature. “Fieldston is probably the only place that could have stolen me.”

For Jones, the level of engagement didn’t change with the transition to teaching high school students. “The students are just as intellectually curious here. I think you get to ask similar questions — it’s the equivalent of teaching first-year studies at Sarah Lawrence in terms of quality of thought.”

But there are marked differences: Jones prefers the slower, “more probing pace” of high school instruction, where he can spend more time with a text, diving into its nuance without the breakneck speed of a college syllabus. Students at ECFS haven’t taken on the performance stance of adulthood that Jones saw in his college students and aren’t jaded about learning. “They’re unafraid to say if they’re wowed by a lesson. We do something and they go ‘Ahhh! Oh my god! That was so amazing! I’m gonna tell my mom! And now I like literature!’” Plus, there’s an element of joy. The students are “more prone to laughing. They’re still silly.”

“I see this space and what we do here as a sacred space,” he says, and he fosters that community with authenticity and humor. “We build a kind of camaraderie. It's like a group of friends talking about books and serious ideas.”