On one wall of Dani Cardia’s 5th Grade classroom is a giant map of the world. The students love to stand in front of it and challenge each other to pick out unfamiliar places. On another wall hang portraits of the allies, activists, and upstanders they study every month, including Dolores Huerta, Frederick Douglass, disability activist Ed Roberts, and Black Lives Matter founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. And then there are the outlines of bodies hung around the perimeter of the room.
The bodies belong to the students — but instead of grim imagery, these outlines are completely life-affirming. At the beginning of a human rights unit, students laid down on butcher paper and traced their outlines. Then they filled in the bodies with collages of what they think it means to be human: What do we need? What do we enjoy? What is special about being human? Cardia recalls: “It was such a range, from the most ridiculous, totally 5th grade-appropriate stuff to the heavy, heady, thoughtful, deep, and introspective, kind of existential things.” The students included everything from dogs, cereal, and Twix bars to community, diversity, and education. When they studied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they looked back at their collages and saw some of those same rights included.
Cardia’s teaching style encourages students to muddle through tough questions about dignity, respect, and humanity — and a testament to the critical transitions students go through in the 5th Grade. “They’re pretty mature intellectually for young children. It’s one of the first years that they’re not so literal, so black and white, good and bad,” she says with unbridled enthusiasm. “They can really grapple with nuance and they want to understand more complicated concepts. They’re also less narcissistic than younger children. They can think outside of themselves and take on perspectives other than their own. It’s really exciting.”
Cardia grew up in New York City’s West Village with an older sister, their stay-at-home-mom, and a dad who worked as a waiter in the Italian restaurant that had been in her family for 50 years. Sometimes, Cardia and her sister would spend afternoons at the restaurant, visiting their dad and doing homework. Cardia always felt like she had an “unconditional support network” — loving parents who bolstered her through a meandering path to her current position at Fieldston.
Cardia attended a tiny Episcopal school from Pre-K to 8th Grade, where there were never more than 20 kids in the entire grade. She loved the small community, and her Kindergarten best friend is still her closest friend today. She was fanatical about music, especially the grunge bands her mother raised her on, like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Pixies. She wrote to her favorite musicians with her mom’s encouragement: She “was definitely a proponent of if you like someone, write to them and let them know why you like them, and find out more about how they do what they do.” She heard back from one of her favorite bands, The Wannabees, and they exchanged a few letters about writing music. She hand-delivered a letter to J.K. Rowling at a book signing and got a letter back. “That was the most exciting one,” Cardia laughs.
When she arrived at Fieldston in the 9th Grade, she encountered not only “a much bigger pond,” but also a more diverse student body. In addition, students were expected to practice autonomy and self-direction in their studies. She gravitated towards English classes, filling her electives with literature courses, including one that focused on poetry in relation to visual art. Students read works like Anne Carson’s experimental novel in verse Autobiography of Red and examined prints crafted in response to John Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” “It was a pretty spectacular class,” Cardia says.
Everything changed junior year. It was 2005 and Hurricane Katrina had decimated New Orleans over the summer. Cardia was no stranger to a crisis: She lived in downtown Manhattan during 9/11, and saw firsthand the aid work that followed the attack. By the time Katrina hit, Cardia was innately aware of how inequity impacted outcomes for victims of disasters. “The combination of my personal experience with a traumatic experience in my city plus a growing understanding of my own privilege” propelled Cardia to volunteer for a four-day service trip to New Orleans, painting schools and cleaning up residue from the storm. The students took tours of various service projects around the city, including a community arts center with a garden that used refuse from the storm for projects like gray water systems. It was there that Cardia first heard the term “permaculture” — a holistic and technical approach to agricultural design — and she was “completely enamored and fascinated by the idea of creating self-sustaining systems.”
When she returned from the trip, she delved deeper into permaculture and applied for a permaculture apprenticeship at a farm in Cottage Grove, Oregon. She set out for the Pacific Northwest the summer before senior year. She gardened every day, slept outdoors, cooked meals on a wood burning stove, and bathed in outdoor solar shower. “It was bliss. I loved every second of it,” she smiles.
She loved the Oregon farm so much that going back to New York City life — and school — didn’t appeal to her. She wrote a letter to a trusted Fieldston teacher saying she wanted to stay. He wrote back, urging her to finish high school and give herself options for the future. She listened, and got on a plane. By the time she returned to Fieldston, she’d shaved her head, figured out she was gay, and was “ready to fully invest in as much as I could of these ideas of sustainability while being in the city.” It was a challenge: “My senior year was a lot of me trying to navigate how to live in New York City but still feel like I was somewhat in control of my habits, what I was consuming, what I was producing, and what I was wasting.” She became a vegetarian (an experience killing a chicken while in Oregon made a lasting, queasy impression), she swore off plastic water bottles, started taking shorter showers, and tried to maintain her commitment to gardening in a community space.
Cardia knew she wanted to head west again, and chose Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She loved being somewhere that was “made for being outside,” and felt that any experiences she missed growing up in New York City were satisfied in Portland. She considered majoring in environmental sciences but found the coursework too lab-intensive. She’d been taking art electives and decided to pursue studio art as her major. She focused on printmaking and bookmaking, eventually using the open source electronics platform Arduino and coding to craft handmade books with technological components — like a traditional leather-bound codex with a light sensor that would trigger projections onto the book every time you turned the page.
After college, Cardia moved to Marfa, Texas, a town of 2000 known for its arts community. She got a job as a docent at artist Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, living on the grounds and leading tours of the museum’s twelve permanent installations. She noticed that some visitors brought kids — kids who struggled to engage with the challenging, minimalist pieces in the collection. She created educational resources to help children connect to the art, like a book with scavenger hunts, exercises in color, and spaces where kids could sketch the pieces they saw. From there, she moved into the museum’s education program, her first experience teaching. After about a year and a half, she decided to pursue teaching more fully by earning a degree in museum education from Bank Street College of Education.
Despite its lack of outdoor space and connection to nature, Cardia returned to New York City. It helped that her family was still there. (Today, Cardia lives in the same building as her older sister, five blocks from their childhood home). Besides, she concedes, the city has an undeniable pull: “There’s no other city. It's the only city. I'm very pretentious about being a New Yorker when it comes down to it,” she laughs.
She worked service jobs like waitressing and making coffee while she went to school, and after graduating in 2015, she joined Fieldston as an assistant teacher in the 3rd Grade. She moved into her current role in 2016.
Cardia’s own education was “definitely very white- and Western-centric,” she says matter-of-factly. Her 5th Grade curriculum is just the opposite, exposing students at a critical time in their development to a variety of different cultures, lived experiences, and histories. While students learn fractions and what makes a paragraph, 5th Grade especially focuses on human rights through the lens of climate change. They study how human rights are being impacted by changes in climate and “what we as individuals can do to support rights when and where they’re being denied.” The class then moves into a unit on the Civil Rights movement, followed by a culture study based on the largest immigrant and refugee populations in New York. “I studied Greek mythology in 5th Grade, so this is a little different,” Cardia says.
Cardia’s all-time favorite book is science fantasy novel The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, which deals with both climate change and race, two foundational topics in her classroom. The book “handles a lot of complicated, heart-wrenching issues in a really thoughtful, beautiful way,” she gushes — much in the way that difficult issues are dealt with for a 5th Grade audience. Learning about these concepts leads to challenging, honest classroom discussions, and “it gets difficult. [The students] feel frustrated by how unfair things have been and continue to be.”
Cardia tries to remind students that this is their world: “They're the future and they're going to inherit this world and make it in their own vision.” What’s more is that the history they’re learning isn’t removed from their experience. “They’ll say, ‘Well, in segregation times,’ or ‘back then,” and I have to remind them that New York City is still the most segregated public school system. And that’s why we’re learning these things. It’s not a back then thing. We need to know about back then because it affects today.” Cardia also tries to make sense of the hopelessness that comes from talking about subjects that are “really scary, sad, and true,” by reminding students that “they have power.” The students are “very righteous” and have little tolerance for inequity, and Cardia says “harnessing that and having them own their responsibility and their power in changing [that inequity] is hugely important to me as a teacher.”