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Inspired teaching engages community college students

David Cooper's students tell him he teaches as though he’s on a game show: He paces across the classroom. He recites poetry. He asks questions, tells stories and generally exhibits a passion and energy that captivates—and is difficult to contain.

“I have to teach on my feet,” says Cooper, co-president of the Kentucky Faculty/Staff Alliance, AFT Local 1360, and professor of English and African-American history at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Ky. He recently received the 2011 Acorn Award from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education for “excellence and commitment to students” in Kentucky’s public colleges and universities.

David Cooper photo ©Christina Freitag

David Cooper with students. Photo ©Christina Freitag.

“David represents the best of our faculty,” says colleague Anne Kearney, who team-taught history and American literature with him. “Whether he is teaching the use of the apostrophe or encouraging students to write poetry, the success of his students is always uppermost.”

Cooper, who has been at Jefferson Community and Technical College for 28 years, has always wanted to be a college teacher. “I love to learn, I love to teach, and I love to interact with students,” he says. “That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I don’t think of what I do as work.”

Teaching African-American studies is especially rewarding, as Cooper’s own history includes activism and a commitment to justice. His firsthand involvement in the black power movement brings course material to life, but Cooper also taps more current references; he is just as likely to reference rapper Nicki Minaj as he is to quote Langston Hughes or, as he once did for a civil rights presentation, act out the part of Thurgood Marshall.

Offering this sort of fare at a community college is particularly gratifying, says Cooper, where a diverse student body allows him to reach all kinds of students. “This is democracy at work,” he says. And, for a man who grew up in a poor Louisville neighborhood with parents from the Jim Crow South, that’s especially meaningful.

“For me, education has been the key that has opened so many doors and taken me to places beyond my wildest dreams,” he told an audience at the Acorn Award ceremony. One of those dreams has been to go to Paris: With the $5,000 Acorn honorarium, he plans to do exactly that.

More important, Cooper’s dream is to continue to educate. “Far too many of our young people in both urban ghettos and rural ghettos have their talents wasted,” he said, then quoted Thomas Gray: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” Cooper’s aim is to waste no talent, and continue to nurture his students.