Leonard Covello with Guido D’Agostino, The Heart is the Teacher. Afterword by Gerald Meyer

(New York: Calandra Italian American Institute, 2013)

Pedagogy of Place

Leonard Covello’s The Heart is the Teacher, originally published in 1958, is at once the autobiography of an Italian immigrant and an insightful treatise on the transformative power of community-centered education. Covello’s experiences as an immigrant child growing up in Italian Harlem, where he was nurtured by a settlement house leader, shaped his work as a teacher and educational leader.

In The Heart is the Teacher, Covello expresses his lifelong identification as an immigrant and his belief in education as “the integrating force in our democracy.” As Gerald Meyer eloquently puts it in the Afterword, “Covello did not attempt to rise above his fellow Southern Italian immigrants and their children; his intention was to rise with them.”

Although Covello doesn’t discuss his political leanings in this book, he does express his deep interest in social justice and shares his fascination with the Russian Revolution and the struggles of the Russian people. As he states, “Slavery and Lincoln and the Civil War, Mazzini and Garibaldi and the liberation of Italy. All bloodshed. Does justice begin where bloodshed leaves off, or bloodshed begin where justice leaves off? Who knows, except there has never been any great movement for the liberation of a people without bloodshed?” Perhaps it was not a coincidence that radical Congressman Vito Marcantonio was one of Covello’s students.

The Heart is the Teacher offers an honest view of what happens when a theory is put into practice. Community-centered education did not originate with Covello. It was philosopher John Dewey who first put forward the concept of education for democracy (“sharing in a common life”). Covello describes the impact of community-centered education in an urban setting, specifically, Italian Harlem. Covello’s Community Advisory Council at Benjamin Franklin High School involved residents, staff, and students. Together they created and ran neighborhood clubs, community research bureaus, recreation units, an adult school, a nursery play center, a neighborhood garden, and a community newspaper, the East Harlem News.

Covello had an alternative view of Americanization where the cultures of immigrant groups, instead of being fused in a melting-pot, would be valued in themselves. As Meyer points out, “…implicit in Covello’s work is a definition of American democracy that would include and nurture the culture of all its constituents.” Having Covello’s pedagogical perspectives in the same book as his autobiography shows how his experiences shaped his education model of cultural pluralism and service learning.

Covello’s commitment to service is remarkable. His struggles, first in his native Italy and later as an immigrant in the American public education system, are the bedrock of his philosophy and his practice. In The Heart is the Teacher, he advises us that it is our duty as citizens to contribute to the collective well-being. He viewed the Benjamin Franklin High School, which he founded in 1934, as “an educational, civic and social center.”

This belief in school as a center of the community is well illustrated in a letter written by a 1937 graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School which states, “If the only function of school in these times were to teach the ‘three Rs,’ I would say better to close them, saving time, money and effort. But the place of the school in society is far greater. I don’t have to tell you about how the inspiration of us Franklin students was fired by the thought that we would be able to participate in something bigger than ourselves.” At a time when the field of education has become consumed with testing, technique, and standards, Covello reminds us that teaching is not a measurable commodity but a constructive action.

Leonard Covello’s pedagogy and practice transcend time and place. As evidenced by the current interest in service-learning and community-centered education, his ideas are as valuable today as they were when he created Benjamin Franklin High School. The reprint of The Heart is the Teacher introduces a new generation of educators and students to Covello’s work. Moreover, it gives voice to his conviction that “the battle for a better world will be won or lost in our schools.”

Reviewed by Evelyn Rossetti-Ryan, Ed.D.
Area Cooperative Educational Services
New Haven, Connecticut

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