TORONTO — Matthew Cooper – a 30-year-old American with a background in environmentalism and Israel programs – has taken a roundabout route to the Grade 1, 2 and 3 classroom at Toronto’s Montessori Jewish Day School, where he began teaching this year.
In addition to a BA in philosophy, he has a diploma in elementary education from the Toronto Montessori Institute.
Before moving to Toronto, his wife’s hometown, Cooper also trained as a wilderness steward with the Wilderness Education Association, and studied at the Eco-Activist Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo (inspired by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach) in Jerusalem.
He has been married to Risa Alyson Cooper (formerly Strauss), director of Shoresh Jewish Environmental Programs and founder of the Kavanah Garden on the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus, for the past year and a half. They met at the Teva Learning Center, an outdoor education centre in Connecticut.
Cooper, who was born in Indianapolis and raised in Chicago, first realized his love of the outdoors as an undergraduate studying philosophy at Southern Illinois University. Although he had been thinking of a career in academia, his school’s proximity to the Shawnee National Forest piqued his interest in the environment.
As part of his course work, he “explored lots of different religions,” and later, in Israel, he studied informally in alternative Orthodox forums.
After university, Cooper travelled extensively, and made his first foray into young adult education helping to lead Birthright Israel trips. In 2006, he worked on the Hava & Adam Ecology Farm in Modi’in, which brought in school groups. It was his first experience working with younger children, and he loved it.
His interests, including music, all converge in the classroom. “I’ve never been formally trained, but I’ve been playing guitar since high school,” he said. He often brings his guitar to school and leads the class in singing Jewish and/or environmental songs.
“I have a great song about composting,” he added. It ties in to a recent initiative – bringing a worm-composting program into his classroom.
Music, Cooper noted, is “a powerful tool to bring people together and to learn things in a fun way.”
A lesson from the teacher: “Children are given a lot of freedom here [at MJDS], and they’re being entrusted with the responsibility to make wise choices… Where the bar is set is where they ultimately come to, so it’s very important for that to be high, because each child’s potential is limitless.”