Early on in his career, fourth-grade teacher Billy Fong took a different approach to the unit on the Iroquois, Lenape and New York’s other indigenous nations.

Yes, he would teach the history and contributions of those peoples. But because most of his students were Latinx, he would also cover the Carib, Taino and Arawak nations of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico — “a curriculum my students could relate to.”

Billy Fong

Billy Fong (M.A. ’11) (Photo Courtesy of Billy Fong) 

Despite looming standardized tests, Fong took time to create a research-based mock trial of Christopher Columbus. One group of students defended the actions Columbus took when he made landfall in the Caribbean islands, while another argued for the rights of indigenous Caribbean civilizations.

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Fong, who received the 2018 Empire State Excellence in Teaching Award, credits Central Park East II’s leadership for supporting him, and TC mentors such as Celia Oyler for encouraging him to think creatively. And when he asks former students their fondest memory of his class, the response never varies. “It’s the mock trials,” Fong says, grinning. “It’s always the mock trials.”