Retirement: Marshall Cohen

By Josh Hahn and Anthony Parker
Published: June 2010

Faculty Focus: Marshall Cohen
By Josh Hahn (1995)

It is difficult to pick one stand-out teacher in a school like South, but history teacher Marshall Cohen’s excellent relations with students and ability to present sometimes bland curricula in a palatable manner have stood out throughout his twenty-three years.

Cohen grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, before moving to Washington D.C. at age thirteen. He thinks of this change to be very much like the changes students at South experience when they move from one part of the country to another. His adjustment, however, was more difficult since he was an only child, and with divorced parents.

After graduating from high school, Cohen attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he majored in government. He attended graduate school at Brandeis University where he got a fellowship and began doctoral studies.

When Cohen began at Oberlin he wanted to go to law school because of the attraction of social service in the mid-to-late 1960s.

“This was the Kennedy administration, a rather idealistic period in American history. I think a lot of young people were greatly influenced by this, Cohen said.

While studying the importance of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam, Cohen began to change his belief “of what was possible to do with the law.

He saw problems that dealt less with interpreting the law and more with changing it. From this new perspective grew an interest in political science, nourished by his mentor, political theorist J.D. Lewis.The war in Vietnam was raging; now Cohen knew that he wanted to be a high school teacher.

“It was important to have an influence on kids because by college it was sometimes too late, they were already enmeshed in the system and the rat race, and going out and making a living, Cohen said. “I thought high school kids were in a younger stage in their development and more open to questions, critical questions of justice and equality and equity and the real issues in society, he added.

Cohen began working as a student teacher at Newton South in 1971-72, and was subsequently offered a job by History Department head Wayne Altree. Cohen at first turned down Altree’s offer, but accepted after passing his oral exams. Over summers and vacations, Cohen completed his dissertation, and was awarded his PhD from Brandeis in 1976.One of Cohen’s favorite aspects of South are his colleagues. “I think they’re good folks, strong academically, committed, professional, nice people, he said.

Yet Cohen has become disappointed at the decline of parental interest in their children’s education. “I think that many parents, because their lives are harder and busier, have less time and energy to give to their children, and I believe that that has made the school’s task more difficult and it has made the lives of the children less rich, Cohen said.

To Cohen, a parent’s care for their child’s work is invaluable. “No matter how good a staff is, and no matter how committed professional educators are, no one can take the place of the parents, he said.

Cohen feels that their is a lot of pressure from the parents put on their children, and would like to see the parents “reducing the amount of pressure on the kids to achieve, and increasing the amount of time they spend with their kids to encourage intellectual ideas.

Cohen regrets the absence of Parent’s Night due to [the current] job action, but went on to say that he was not “castigating the union and is a strong supporter of the Newton Teachers Association (NTA).

Cohen would like to see interdisciplinary courses added to the curriculum, specifically history and literature. He strongly believes in cluster groups and team-teaching for he feels they provide a “more strongly integrated experience than the average class.

Cohen previously team-taught in the early eighties, but difficult scheduling resulted in the collapse of the program. He remembered that class as having had a “dramatic and beneficial effect [on the students].With or without team-teaching, students still have positive feelings for Mr. Cohen’s teaching.

“Mr. Cohen is a good teacher, and makes class fun, freshman Khoung Nguyen said.

“He’s a pretty straight-forward teacher, and his style makes learning not too boring, freshman Derek Chau agreed.

A current South history teacher also benefited from Cohen’s pedagogy.

“It’s strange [being a colleague of my former teacher] but also very comfortable. I still think of him as my teacher in many ways, continuing to learn from him how to teach, Marcia Okun said.

Outside South, Cohen enjoys music of all kinds, especially bluegrass and jazz. He has both a stamp and coin collection, and enjoys cooking, playing with his computer, coaching Newton Girls soccer and traveling.

Cohen stressed his interpretation of learning. “Some things are more worthwhile than others, some things are better qualitatively than others, and that’s partly what academic life is about.

Teacher remembers his mentor: an interview
By Anthony Parker

Marshall Cohen was mentoring me as a young teacher before I knew he was. It was a good experience.

He advised and counseled me on every aspect of the teaching profession, whether it was curriculum, class management, school culture, families that he knew, lessons that he had learned.

Judgment does not come immediately; the price of experience can be high. As a new teacher, as a young minority teacher, Marshall made sure I was well protected.

I remember my first evaluation, he made sure I lived to fight another day, that I would return the next year and that whatever mistakes I had made would be understood so I could become a better teacher.

As a former journalist and someone interested in ideas, we talked about books and serious thought. To what purpose?

To make me a well-rounded thinker; and, if I am a better thinker then I am a better teacher.

But lofty ideas, how do you translate them into the classroom? Not water down but translate.

* * * *

I remember so clearly there came this moment with him, he said, Anthony, it is time to spread your wings, and you should be team teaching with Special Education.

Marshall introduced me to Steve Smith, and it was clear Marshall had really thought about this, how Steve and I would mesh together.

I had been teaching AP American History and Curriculum I history, he knew I was ready for a broader experience and different kinds of challenges.

* * * *

With Marshall as a model, I learned to take risks, though never as risky as him and his guitar, and, the way he dressed with often-apparent casualness. Yet he was always thinking two steps ahead; there seemed to me no situation that ever threw him.

One time I was working with a youngster in J-Block, Marshall walked in, told me, Anthony, you are really becoming a teacher. He was on the other side of the room but he was following every word and gesture. Marshall was paying attention, he was always paying attention and to things large as well as small.

We talked about race a good deal; he was more liberal than I was.

He was more easy-going on those matters than I was, and what I mean is, he operated on the idea that we are all equal, whereas my position was you had to be twice as good to be equal.

Some of my black students probably preferred Marshall as a teacher; he seemed more relaxed about the classroom than I. He was certainly strong on women’s issues, I remember us dealing with this youngster about a gender incident in the classroom.

Marshall and I spoke with this youngster, he made it very clear that certain behavior would come to an end, immediately.

* * * *

Marshall wasn’t alone in his attention to detail. The entire History department was on it’€I think of Cary Holmes but also Ed Jackson and Alan Chaney.

They made sure as a younger teacher I had all the tools I might need to get off the ground and, also, to develop my own style, as an individual.

None were shy about pointing you to significant materials’€certain articles to read, books to know, historians to appreciate, like Richard Hofstadter, for example.

Those mini-biographies of his taught a generation how to see things differently. Good advice was given on everything.

If I was giving essay questions Marshall would ask, What is it you want them to understand? Do you really need to do this, or that?

My first interview with him, Marshall was characteristically impressed with the books that meant a good deal to me.

There is a River, Vincent Harding, David Levering Lewis’ early biography of Martin Luther King and books on Langston Hughes.

My interest was in the American presidency, what I was trying to do with kids at Dorchester High. John Hope Franklin, I had known him as a journalist, Franklin interested Marshall as well.

I was never afraid to show Marshall what I was doing; I showed him papers, tests, and quizzes.

He was in the classroom all the time and available to me, whether formally observing or just passing through. In fact, the first several years we shared a classroom.

* * * *

What did he bring as a department chair?

A balance of intellectual curiosity, selecting people who could contribute other things to the department and to the school.

He understood the centrality of the classroom but understood that school was more than the classroom.

And at the end of the day, Marshall understood kids; he showed a keen sense of their limitations as well as strengths, and how to play to each aspect, so as to move each youngster to a higher level.

The History department is losing a good history teacher, and also strong advocate for diversity and creativity.

The school is also losing perspective, historical knowledge, and bridge between the Old and the New.

– Anthony A. Parker is the principal of Weston High School.

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