“I think the basic idea of what I’m trying to do — the whole center of my approach — is motivation. I try to get my students to go from being passive observers to active participants. This is the common thread from my classes of students with special needs straight up to my graduate level classes: They’re all very motivated and very focused.”
Dr. David Lazerson, more commonly known to his students as Dr. Laz, is an accomplished teacher and musician who has been innovating in education for more than 30 years. He holds a Bachelor’s in Divinity, a Master’s in Learning & Behavioral Disorders and a PhD in Educational Research & Evaluation. Dr. Laz has worked in public and private education both as a teacher and as an administrator and has taught young, special needs students all the way up to graduate level arts and education courses. Dr. Laz uses both assistive technology and the expressive arts with his students who have profound special needs and, in 2008, he was one of five teachers to be inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
Dr. Laz has made significant contributions to promoting tolerance and dissolving racial barriers. Shortly after the Crown Heights race riots in 1991, then Mayor of New York City David Dinkins appointed him liaison between the Hassidic community and the African American community in the neighborhood. Additionally, Dr. Laz is one of the founders of Project CURE, a racial harmony group that has become a force for positive change regarding racism and stereotypes. CURE has won the Mother Hale award, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fulfilling the Dream award, the NY Foundation Peace award and the John Lindsay award.
In addition to his political activism, Dr. Laz is an active musician who has toured the world performing music that advocates peace, social justice and positive change. Also, the Showtime original movie Crown Heights (based on Dr. Laz’s book about the race riots, Sharing Turf) used several original songs by his band, Dr. Laz & The CURE. Combining his passion for music and education, Dr. Laz works with children suffering from Down syndrome and autism, using music to enrich their learning. He is currently studying how to use humor and hands-on music in teaching students with special needs. His innovative approach has drawn the attention of The New York Times, the Journal of Learning Disabilities, the Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Disorders, NBC and CNN. Dr. Lazs' latest project, the H.E.ARTS Project focuses on “Empowering Individuals with Special Needs Through the Expressive Arts”.
On Becoming a Teacher
Like all great educators, Dr. Laz cites the influence of a teacher on his own decision to work in education. Reflecting on his time earning his Master’s at Buffalo State College, Dr. Laz recalls the lessons imparted on him by a Dr. Bernie Yarmac: “I had to take a statistics course in education and psychological evaluation, and a lot of people are intimidated by that class. But [Dr. Yarmac] taught the course in such a motivational way. He got me so interested in the class and so focused that I actually found a mistake in the textbook! We sent it to the publisher and they acknowledge us in the next edition. In high school, I was never into math, but he was so creative that I really enjoyed it.”
It was Dr. Yarmac’s ability to capture the interest of his students in even an esoteric subject that inspired Dr. Laz to become a teacher. “I thought that, if you can teach an education evaluation and assessment course in a way that’s motivational and creative, then there’s no excuse for any other subject. You can teach any class in a creative way. He was a very big role model for me. I think he was a real inspirational factor in my own teaching career.”
Drawing on Dr. Yarmac’s influence, Dr. Laz sought to bring creativity and engagement to the classroom. “I think the basic idea of what I'm trying to do --- the whole center of my approach --- is motivation. I try to get my students to go from being passive observers to active participants. This is the common thread from my classes of students with special needs straight up to my graduate level classes: They’re all very motivated and very focused.”
In more ways than just bringing his music into the classroom, Dr. Laz believes in mixing things up with students, particularly with those who have special needs. “I think motivation in the classroom is just something that people respond better to. Teachers who just talk and write on the board while their kids sit quietly and take notes aren’t really helping kids with special needs. We end up losing a lot of kids that way. On the other hand, I have all these wildly crazy things in my classroom and at the Quest Center where I work with kids and young adults who have special needs, and this helps them participate more.”
On the role of music in the classroom, Dr. Laz remembers the important role that music played for him growing up, when he learned how to play the drums, and how he hoped to share that impact with his students. “I’m still using those skills, and I just felt like they did so much for me. What was also interesting was I actually started to do better in school once I learned how to play. Through music I was really able to learn how to focus more and learn better, and I just saw all these amazing benefits. And of course there's so much math involved with music that I started to do better with my math.
“Music also changed my perception of myself --- it was a great boost for my self-esteem. So that’s how I decided to use music with my students. I ran an alternative high school program for six years for students who were really turned off of learning. They’d had it really rough, and they’d been kicked out of a lot of different schools. So in my school, music was a big component. They either had to learn an instrument or how to run the sound system. Some of these skills they could use once they left my program, and one student actually went on to build his own studio.”
“There was this one student back in Buffalo. He was about 12 years old, and he said to me, ‘I bet I can name all of the elements in the periodic table." Of course, I said, ‘No way,’ and he asked how much I wanted to bet. I said to him, ‘I'll feel bad taking your money, so I'm going to bet you only $20 --- but if you were rich, I'd bet $50,000.’ Well, it's a good thing I didn't bet $50,000 because he named every element in the periodic table. There was this song by Tom Lehrer who was a math teacher and an awesome musician back in the ‘60s at Harvard. He came up with a song that went through the periodic table, and this kid memorized it! It’s just mind boggling. That’s why I tell teachers now that you can teach anything with music; it’s an educational goldmine.”