A Brooklyn junior high school teacher's controversial teaching method _ dazzling social studies classes while on roller blades _ has school officials reeling. They have ordered him off the skates. But Mike Levine, a 24-year veteran teacher and part-time coach whose students have referred to him as "Roller Teacher" and "Legs Levine," has vowed to fight the system. On his roller blades for the past four years, Levine has animated students and athletes, and assisted school administrators with voluntary hallway patrols.
After a co-worker of Levine mentioned his unique teaching approach in a Brooklyn College education class, Bess Reynolds, superintendent of the school district, received a complaint and investigated. In April, Reynolds ordered Levine off his skates.
Although the teacher no longer zaps through the hallways, Levine refuses to give up his blades as a teaching technique that he describes as "something creative that works."
"I'm one of the few teachers that have the children captivated and motivated," said the compact and muscular Levine, who, at 46, zips around his classroom in a shiny black pair of what technically are known as "in-line skates" _ skates with the four wheels in a single row. "My classroom is a kingdom unto itself. We get smart and have fun."
But Reynolds on Friday maintained that the district directive was in effect. "If he's on skates, I'm upset," the superintendent said. "It's a very dangerous situation. There have been so many reported accidents about people using blades. If he were in the gym, maybe I could understand it better. . . . But in the classroom, I do not condone it."
While liability was a concern, Reynolds said it was not her overriding concern. The overriding factor, she said, was doing what was educationally sound.
Some students and school administrators attest to the skates' ability to make Levine's five social studies classes the highlight of many a student's day.
"The skates make school fun, and it helps me learn more," said Webster J. Whitfield, 12. "He keeps us kids alive."
When Levine found out about Reynolds' orders he polled 150 students. "When I took the skates off, the kids asked "Why? Why?' " said Levine, whose students say he is popular not only for his unorthodox teaching style but also for his caring and compassionate nature. "They wanted to march down to the district office to protest."
Instead, the students delivered 250 letters denouncing the action and a petition with 500 signatures against the directive to principal Meish Levitan.
"I felt terrible" about the directive, Levitan said, recalling a meeting he had with several students shortly after Levine was reprimanded. "The kids were upset by this. They said, "Why did you do it? How could you do such a thing?' And when I read the letters, that choked me up. It chokes me up now."
French teacher Marie Hendriksen called Reynolds' orders ridiculous and stupid. "With the skates, the kids are happy _ and they don't hurt anyone," she said.
With his tortoise-shell glasses perched atop his head, Levine recently glided up and down the aisles during a geography lesson on Africa _ despite his broken toe. The 17 heads attentively followed him around the room.
Levine also referees and coaches an after-school basketball program on the blades. The program is part of Say Yes to Success, a volunteer sports organization that last year involved 6,000 New York youths in sports activities.
He took up in-line skating seven years ago, using them for his three-mile journey to school. Their classroom debut, however, occurred by accident four years ago.
"I just forgot to take them off one day and class started," Levine said. "I liked it and the kids liked it. I have to motivate them and maintain interest, and roller blades help, without a doubt."
Levitan said he must enforce Reynolds' orders. "It was a strong directive," he said.
Levine said he is considering filing a grievance. "I'm not going to lay down on this."