Hello Louisiana, Goodbye Mr. Lantos

By LAURIE ROSENTHAL

Staff Writer

 

25 E-Lantos directsThe fifth-grade U.S. history program at Marquez Charter Elementary is legendary throughout the area, and most of the credit must go to teacher Jeff Lantos.

When my son, Dylan, had Mr. L., as he is affectionately known, I told Dylan, “It’s all downhill from here. You’ll never have another teacher like him.”

Alas, in June, after 29 years of teaching, including 22 at Marquez, Lantos will give up playing the piano in his homeroom at dispensing his entertaining and lasting approach to history.

Before becoming a teacher, Lantos attended Brown University and the American Film Institute, then wrote long profiles on the likes of Eddie Murphy and Burt Lancaster for American Film Magazine and Movieline.

In need of more steady employment, he turned to teaching.

After two years at Marquez, the musical history-based plays began. “It occurred to me it would be a better way to deliver content,” Lantos told the Palisades News.

Working with Bill Augustine, who created the music, Lantos’s first play at Marquez was Miracle in Philadelphia, about the founding of the country. That first year, it was only done with the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) kids, but it was such a success that it eventually became part of the entire fifth-grade program.

The duo created two more shows: Hello Louisiana (the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase) and Water & Power (the origins of the labor movement).

“The plays follow the curriculum and follow a linear timeline,” Lantos said.

“Also, they are thematically connected. In the first show we create the country, the second show we double the size of the country, then in the third show we change the way America works. From the farms to factories, the beginning of the labor movement. So that’s the connective tissue.”

After 20 years, Lantos is still enthusiastic about the plays, and he loves collaborating with his co-directors, fifth-grade teachers Michelle Conn (his “second wife”) and Gillian Keller.

“It’s always a surprise to see who gets bigger on stage. You never know that until they get up there,” he said. Shy and special needs kids often blossom during the productions.

Keller moved to fifth grade because of the play program. “It’s so amazing to have kids who are not always strong academically become strong in a play,” she said. “I’ve learned more history from Jeff than I did when I was growing up.”

UCLA professor Jim Stigler, who had two children go through Marquez, conducted a study around 1999-2000. The results overwhelmingly showed the benefits of learning about history the Jeff Lantos way.

“We studied the impact of Jeff’s program by testing students’ knowledge of history one year later,” Stigler said. “Many kids forget what they learn within weeks, but students who went through Jeff’s program knew far more history a year later than did graduates from 15 other comparison schools. It’s quite an astounding effect.”

Though technology use in elementary schools is popular, Lantos is not a fan.

“Elementary school is the socializing process, and if you just plop kids in front of a screen, they’re not developing interpersonal skills.

“And they’re also not using me in the best possible way. I’m not here to be a facilitator for the iPad. I’m here to lead discussions and take kids to places they hadn’t thought about before.

“Kids love to be told stories. They need narratives. I love history and I love telling stories about history. Kids always say, ‘Your stories are better than the textbook. Just keep telling them.’”

“I can’t even imagine life here at Marquez without Mr. L. because for 20 years we’ve shared a bungalow,” said Conn.

“I’m just so sad he’s leaving. He’s instrumental in the whole fifth-grade curriculum with history. No other kids learn history this way. And they never forget it.”

Lantos says that “Grab the Hand” from Water & Power was inspired by lyricist Frank Loesser’s “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls.

It’s an 11 o’clock number (the phrase was coined by Loesser), which is a “big number right before the end,” Lantos said. “I always like those numbers that bring you out of your seat right before you go home. The kids scream for more.”

There have been discussions about Friends of Marquez funding Lantos to return part-time to continue the play program as is, but a decision has not yet been finalized.

In addition to teaching, Lantos creates maps about the Revolutionary War, which are used as teaching aids and are available for sale. The first two—Washington’s Crossing and Paul Revere’s Ride—will soon be joined by the Battle of Saratoga (currently at the printer), and eventually Yorktown. He has other projects in the works.

Another Marquez tradition with Lantos is Friday football, where the fifth graders run around at the end of the day.

“It’s a good way to end the week. And exercise is always good,” he said.

Ana Shorr has been Lantos’s classroom aide for nine years, and she will also be retiring in June. Her love, admiration and respect for Lantos is palpable.

“To put it simply, Jeff is the Zen master of fifth graders,” she said.

“I love it when he throws out a controversial zinger, like the legalization of gay marriage, and the kids just start shouting out their views, arguing and challenging each other.

“Jeff is the teacher who changes a child’s life. He’s the teacher that these kids will tell their kids about.”

Though excited about his new post-Marquez life, there are many things Lantos will miss, including playing the piano in the morning during homeroom, teaching kids about the Great American Songbook and the daily exchanges he has with his students, including those about the current presidential campaigns.

A Pennsylvania native, Lantos has been married to LeeAn, a script reader for 20th Century Fox, for 31 years. They have two children, Matthew, 42, and Jaime, 39. Lantos lives in Marina del Rey, but has ridden his bike to work for the past three years.

With such a successful program, and being so beloved by the community, why would Lantos want to retire now at age 63?

“I want to exit while I’m still on top of my game,” he said. “Teaching takes a lot of physical and mental energy, and my body is telling me it’s time. I’d also like to spend more time on various writing projects while continuing to co-direct the musicals at Marquez—without all the other obligations that go with full-time teaching.

“Finally, I have to start reading all the books that I’ve ordered over the past 29 years.”

 

Lantos and students gather around the piano during homeroom at Marquez Elementary. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

 

Vintage photo of Marquez fifth-grade teachers (left to right): Gillian Keller, Jeff Lantos and Michelle Conn. Photo: Laurie Rosenthal

 

Jeff Lantos during a current rehearsal for Water and Power. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

 

Dylan Rosenthal as Benjamin Franklin in Miracle in Philadelphia. Photo: Laurie Rosenthal

 

Jeff Lantos, the ‘Miracle at Marquez.’ Photo: Bart Bartholomew

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