It’s 2:45pm on Friday afternoon, which can mean only one thing in Carline Samson’s 2nd Grade class at Ethical Culture: Soul Train time. Samson fires up Kool & the Gang’s classic, “Celebration,” and the students form two parallel lines as the music starts. They start swaying their hips and tapping their toes, and as the song kicks into gear, students hop two-by-two down the lines, dancing their hearts out. The dance moves increase in complexity as the kids get into the groove: the running man, a few shockingly good attempts at the worm, tandem cartwheels. Samson joins in, shimmying down the line, holding hands with a student. Everyone sings along, and everyone dances with abandon.
“Anyone who knows me, they’ll definitely have to say: ‘She loves to dance,’” Samson laughs. “It’s my passion.” She dances outside the classroom whenever she gets the chance — in Zumba workout classes, when she’s out clubbing with friends, with her husband whenever she can convince him, at home mimicking a music video, and even in her car. “I’m going to call myself a natural-born dancer because I just love it so much. It makes me happy.”
Beyond the personal passion for movement, Samson brings dance into the classroom to give the kids an outlet for creativity and joy. “I'm really, really finicky and pushy about our class work time,” she says, which is all the more reason to let loose on a Friday.
2nd Grade was a pivotal year for Samson as a child, and it influences much of her teaching philosophy today. Born in Haiti and raised by her grandmother, Samson moved to New York City when she was seven to join her mother, who had immigrated when Samson was a baby. Separated from her grandmother and in a foreign country with a mother she’d spent little time with, Samson felt completely lost. “I wasn’t happy at all,” she says. She spoke virtually no English — only the French she learned in school and the Creole she spoke at home. She was mistakenly placed in a Spanish-English bilingual class in her first American school, PS 75, on the Upper West Side. It was clearly the wrong placement — the students were older than Samson, and the bilingual education in two languages she didn’t speak confused her even more. Samson’s mother demanded her daughter be switched into a mainstream class, and that’s when Samson met Mrs. Freeman, the teacher who would have the biggest impact on her life.
Mrs. Freeman made an extra effort to connect with Samson and realized she spoke French. Another boy in her class also spoke French, so Mrs. Freeman paired them together, giving Samson a lifeline. He read with Samson and translated for her. “I remember just starting to feel a little more comfortable because I had someone to talk to. That’s when everything started to become easier,” she says. The effort Mrs. Freeman put into reaching Samson is something that Samson tries to emulate with each of her students. “I try to reach my students — not just with academics. It’s making sure to really connect with them, to help them grow in a holistic way. It’s looking out for the whole child, because [Mrs. Freeman] did that with me.”
After her pivotal year in 2nd Grade, Samson settled into life in America, absorbing American culture and language from watching TV (especially The Electric Company) with her grandmother, who eventually joined Samson in New York. In middle school — a Catholic, co-ed school that felt familiar to her because she met a few other students who shared her culture — Samson made friends with other Haitian girls, some of whom she’s still extremely close with today. “We had similar experiences and our parents were living fairly similar lives,” she says. “We ate the same food when we went to each other’s houses.”
But Samson felt the need to conceal her Haitian identity in the early 80’s, as the AIDS crisis dominated the news. She says news coverage falsely portrayed all Haitians as AIDS carriers. “I just remember feeling like I can’t let people know that I’m Haitian. They’ll just think that I’m sick because those images were on the television all the time.”
It wasn’t until Samson started at the College of New Rochelle that she reclaimed pride in her Haitian identity. As a political science major intending to become a lawyer, Samson took classes that often dealt with immigration. One time a classmate referenced the supposed public health danger of Haitians, and something snapped in Samson. “I just became so angry. I said, ‘I’m a Haitian, I was born there, I’ve never been exposed to what you’re talking about. This is not the life of a typical Haitian.’” It was a total turnaround from hiding her Haitian roots. “It was the first time ever not feeling scared, not being fearful to be exposed, and it felt good. There just became a way of me embracing the culture and just really accepting: this is me. This is who I am. And this is my life.”
Similarly, Samson encourages her students to embrace their own varied identities. At eight years old, the students are starting to ask challenging questions about race and gender, and Samson approaches those issues head-on. “It's something that I do with a passion, and it's something that I'm intentional about,” she says. In class, they read books exposing them to multiple cultures (right now, they’re reading In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord), host guests who explain their own cultural experiences, and even talk about complex subjects like race as a social construct. “I see their faces, and I think, ‘Okay, it’s percolating,’” she says.
Much of Samson’s educational style was influenced by her graduate studies at Bank Street, where she ended up after two years in Teach for America. Bank Street offered instruction in progressive education that challenged the rote memorization of test-driven schooling. “I loved listening to how teaching could be different. I was really enjoying the ideology, and I wanted to do it.” At the time, Samson was teaching 2nd Grade in a public school in New York City, which didn’t allow her the freedom to try new approaches. She found PS 20 in the Bronx’s District 10, which was modeled after Bank Street, and applied right away. She got the job, and “it was like heaven.” But after two years, the school decided to change its approach with more of a focus on test prep — exactly the opposite of Samson’s philosophy. By 1999, she knew it was time for a change, and she found Ethical Culture, which lined up with her educational approach and values. She taught 4th Grade for seven years, moved to 1st Grade for 11 years, and now is in her second year as a 2nd Grade teacher.
I try to reach my students — not just with academics. It’s making sure to really connect with them, to help them grow in a holistic way.
In her two decades at ECFS, Samson has had the unique vantage point of different leadership positions: she served as the Ethical Culture Faculty Representative on the Board of Trustees for six years, including a year spent working on the school’s strategic plan, and as the Faculty Council Chair. “The fact that I’ve been allowed to change grades so I don’t feel stuck — I’m growing as a professional person. I’ve had opportunities to grow as an adult. This is a place where I’ve been able to flourish.”
Samson finds joy in seeing similar changes in her students, who grow more aware of the world around them as the year progresses and they mature. And the students come into their own, finding confidence and poise over the school year. That growth is on full display on Friday afternoons as the students dance their way down the Soul Train line. At the beginning of the year, the kids felt self-conscious about dancing, but today, they beg to dance for longer, even as they run up against school dismissal time and a weekend ahead. Students move with confidence, with passion, and without any concern for who’s watching them. They’re just owning this moment of exhilaration, giving themselves time to prioritize their own happiness and the happiness of those around them. As the music plays, they’re dancing closer to who they’ll eventually become — standing a bit taller with every beat.