Category Archives: Stories

Teachers in the Trump Era: Your Students are Still Watching

the-abels

I’d like to introduce you to the Abels.  They are one of the four families with immigrant parents who are responsible for my family’s history in the United States of America.  Golda and Samuel sought a better life than they could have had in Eastern Europe early in the 20th century.  Their children in this picture are Bernard, my maternal grandfather Robert, and their two daughters, Lilian and Ruth.  Their third daughter, Shirley, would be born later.  Like many Ashkenazi immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving Eastern Europe was an escape from centuries of discrimination and violent riots aimed at their communities, but not an escape from hardship and prejudice.  America looked at the latest wave of immigration with similar suspicions that had met the Irish – my great grandparents talked in a strange manner, they ate unusual foods, they dressed differently, they worshiped “incorrectly,”  their loyalty to their new home was considered suspect.

Despite these impediments, they managed to thrive and build a life.  Their son Robert became a builder and an architect of industrial buildings.  Their grandchildren have served in the nation’s military, become teachers, and professionals, and today their great great grandchildren are growing up as the fourth generation of American citizens to follow them and their efforts to seek a better life.  Like all immigrant families, their story shares similarities to the stories of millions of others and, simultaneously, is uniquely their own.  America is somewhat in love with the archetype of the immigrant family coming to America, assimilating, and finding economic advancement from one generation to the next, and, to be sure, many families slot into that experience.  But no family is entirely the same and, more importantly, there are thousands of nuances to the American experience from generation to generation.

Consider:  This “Nation of Immigrants” is not made up entirely of the descendants of people who emigrated voluntarily like my family.  Some families were always here, descendants of  the first people to live on this continents and who were forced off their lands and killed in wars against them.  Other families were brought here in chains during the slave trade and faced centuries of unrelenting cruelty and discrimination.  Still other families lived on one side of a border one day and found themselves on the other side the next such as Mexican citizens living in Texas in the early 19th century.  And while many millions have emigrated voluntarily over the centuries, their reasons for doing so have been as various as the people themselves.  Many have come here as refugees to escape warfare and oppression. Others have come because of promises made by American administrations to those who helped in wars abroad. Others were seeking opportunities not possible in their homelands.  Others seeking education.  And not all of them found what they were looking for, finding instead a country that projects a message of welcome from New York harbor but too frequently offers suspicion and discrimination and violence.  While I firmly believe that the story of America can be seen in the gradual increase of the franchise over the centuries, it is also true that we have often resisted that story and told vast swaths of people they were not welcome.

Teachers and schools must consider these nuances very seriously and understand our history.  While it is mainstream today for many educators and school systems to extol the virtue of diversity and to offer welcome to students of greatly varied background, our reality and our past are quite different.  Sixty-three years after Brown vs. Board of Education, integration remains aspirational across the country rather than a reality, and efforts to integrate our schools into truly diverse communities still meet active resistance.  Further, our schools have often been instruments of enforced assimilation rather than communities of acceptance for immigrants and minorities.  The Bureaus of Indian Affairs operated a school system precisely with the goal of separating native children from their heritage and completing the “work” that the Indian Wars did not finish.  The often heard term “melting pot” to describe the immigrant experience has roots in deliberate efforts to enroll immigrants’ children into public schools in order to hasten their abandonment of the cultures they brought from their home countries.  Both African Americans and women have been systematically denied and discouraged from equal educational opportunities based upon systemic prejudices.

Into this complicated web of family history, personal identity, and institutional priorities comes the Trump administration’s “temporary” ban on immigration from 7 majority Muslim nations and upon refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.  The administration claims that these bans are necessary for the security of the nation against the threat of terrorism.  A great deal of ink has been spilled about how the order is poorly drafted without proper vetting and input from impacted agencies, about how it has unleashed chaos on travel and immigration across the world, about the ever shifting “standards” of the order that have caught up legal residents with green cards and Iraqis who risked their lives to aid American forces, about the questionable basis of the barred nations’ inclusion in the order over other nations whose citizens actually participated in terrorist attacks on the U.S., about allegations that this is a defacto ban on Muslim immigration, about the potential legal and Constitutional challenges to the order, and about whether or not the administration is overtly defying court orders issued since the executive order was signed on Friday — which just happened to be international Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Teachers, given the weight of history, have a particular challenge in this situation.  According to Pew Social Trends, roughly two thirds of American Muslim adults were born in another country, a large proportion of them are from Arab countries, and a full 8% are from Iran, also included in the ban.  This means that that a large proportion of the Muslim children in our schools have parents who were not born citizens.  Initial estimates said as many as 500,000 green card holders, legal permanent residents of the United States, were subject to being barred from entry if they traveled abroad, and while the administration now says the order does not apply to them, the situation is extremely fluid and people justifiably are unsure of their status.  We’ve seen elderly green card holders detained.  We’ve seen interpreters for American armed forces in Iraq stranded as their entry was barred.  We’ve seen an Iranian born professor at Yale University unable to reunite with his wife and child who were visiting relatives in Tehran:

Universities across the country are offering advice to their international students potentially impacted by the ban and are announcing they will refuse to share students’ immigration information with the federal government.

If you are a public school teacher, it is possible that the ban does not directly impact any students in your classroom, but the indirect impacts should be self-evident.  As educators, we are tasked with a responsibility to truly live up to the promises made to immigrant families – equal treatment, opportunity, and acceptance.  While our nation has been imperfect at fulfilling those promises as a whole, and while we have tried to shoehorn all immigrant families into simplistic narratives, individually, we can resist those injustices and make our own classrooms and schools places that strive for better.  Our nation has feared and scapegoated immigrants throughout history and yet the vast majority of us would miss the contributions to America made by our varied immigrant communities over the centuries.  Can you, as a matter of classroom community and curriculum, celebrate the contributions and cultures of past immigrant communities who were subjected to discrimination and marginalization when they arrived while looking away while even worse discrimination and marginalization is visited upon today’s immigrants?  Can you teach your students that past generations were plainly wrong to suspect immigrant communities while ignoring or – worse – supporting suspicion today?  If you profess that you would not have met my – or your own – immigrant ancestors with hostility, can you be quiet as this generation’s immigrants are subjected to worse?

If you teach in a community with immigrant families, your students are watching you to see if you truly value them.  If you teach in a community with very few immigrant families, your students are still watching you – to learn how to respond to injustice that does not directly impact them. This is a test.  Don’t fail it.

1 Comment

Filed under Activism, Drumpf, politics, racism, Social Justice, Stories

Paving The Road to Hell — And Other Gates Foundation Initiatives

Towards the end of last year, the Seattle Times provided coverage of the Gates Foundation’s report on the tenth anniversary of its global health initiative. After a decade of effort and a billion dollars invested, Bill Gates admitted that despite the investment he had been “pretty naive” about how long it would take to significantly improve public health outcomes in the developing world. Most notable was Gates’ admission that the problems in his approach were not merely ones about overcoming scientific hurdles, but rather they seriously underestimated the challenges of implementing highly technological “solutions” in countries where the majority of the population lack secure access to routine infrastructure which, in the words of Dr. David McCoy of Queen Mary University in London, are “the barriers to existing solutions.”

Both Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog and Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue have written excellent pieces on this somewhat quiet but very important admission by Bill Gates.  Greene astutely notes that Gates’ realization of his limitations does not actually lead him to understand why his approach is flawed:

Gates wants to use systems to change society, but his understanding of how humans and culture and society and communities change is faulty. It’s not surprising that Gates is naive– it’s surprising that he is always naive in the same way. It always boils down to “I really thought people would behave differently.” And although I’ve rarely seen him acknowledge it print, it also boils down to, “There were plenty of people who could have told me better, but I didn’t listen to them.”

The non-success of Grand Challenges is just like the failure of the Gates Common Core initiative. Gates did not take the time to do his homework about the pre-existing structures and systems. He did not value the expertise of people already working in the field, and so he did not consult it or listen to it. He put an unwarranted faith in his created systems, and imagined that they would prevail because everyone on the ground would be easily assimilated into the new imposed-from-outside system. He became frustrated by peoples’ insistence on seeing things through their own point-of-view rather than his. And he spent a huge amount of money attempting to impose his vision on everybody else.

This is an important observation because it shows that there is a flawed perspective rooted at the heart of the Gates Foundation, and while the man and the institution may be able to recognize failures, they are not inclined to understand why they have failed.  Anthony Cody also recognizes this observation as he lines up quotes from the central figures at the Gates Foundation that demonstrate little regard for the knowledge about teaching held by teachers and wonders if the “humility” earned in Grand Challenges project will translate to humility about the foundation’s approach to education reform.  I believe that Greene and Cody are completely on point and insightful in their observations and questions on these points, and it is important for people outside the Gates Foundation to constantly remind it that education is a complex and interconnected set of systems with knowledgeable and invested stakeholders that cannot simply be plowed over and disregarded without consequences.

A specific quote from Melinda Gates cited by Mr. Cody struck me in particular, and I believe it highlights some of the difficulties we face in enticing the Gates’ and their namesake foundation to listen.  Cody quotes Mrs. Gates from 2011:

It may surprise you–it was certainly surprising to us–but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.

This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can’t give teachers the right kind of support because there’s no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can’t evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we’re looking for. We can’t spread best practices because we can’t capture them in the first place.

Asserting that “the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching” is one of those statements most frequently made by people who do not want to have to bother with how much information there is that refutes the statement.  However, if Mrs. Gates wants to fill herself in on what the “field of education” knows about effective teaching, she could begin with the 4th edition of The Handbook of Research on Teaching.  It might even be worth her while to read the third edition, see if a full version of the second edition is available, and then finish up with the original publication from 1963.  A fifth edition was supposed to published in 2014, but it seems that the editors are taking some extra time to be careful with it.

Then, for kicks, she might want to talk to some of America’s working teachers and see if they know anything as well.

Of course, knowing this field as I do, I suspect that someone who has been working in the technocratic solutions domain for this many years will still object that the multiple 1000s of pages of research on teaching to which I have referred still won’t tell us what “effective teaching” is.  Researching education is, by necessity, working with a “soft field” where you are unlikely to find absolute answers to your questions.  What we know changes as related fields like psychology build their knowledge base, and ideas can circulate in and out of favor as what schools are expected to do evolves with societal priorities.  Most importantly, research on teaching has to consider how variable the 100,000 schools and millions of classrooms across the country are and how that variability influences the teaching that is both possible and that is needed.  We are not engineering within the parameters of Newtonian physics, and that is appropriate.

Mrs. Gates’ other assertion that “you watch them (great teachers) at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft” (but, gosh darn it, we just don’t know why they are so great!) is the kind of statement made by people who really don’t understand teaching.  Of course, there are great teachers, and, of course, you can be impressed by them fairly quickly, but to say that you KNOW someone has thoroughly “mastered the craft” in ten minutes is romantic in the style of teachers whose lives have been edited by Hollywood.  What does Mrs. Gates risk missing in her ten minute assessment?

  • The lesson that worked very well in the first period but worked far less well in the third period.
  • The day when the lesson plan was simply off base.
  • The work that teacher did outside of the classroom determining what students knew, selecting teaching and learning strategies that would help them build upon that, figuring out what would help the teacher know the students had learned.
  • ANY of the uncertainty in the previously described process and the necessity to pivot if that uncertainty disrupts the plan.
  • How the teacher self assesses and with what information.
  • The week when that teacher has sick children at home, cannot get enough sleep, and has little time to plan.
  • The week disrupted by excessive standardized testing or mandatory field tests of examinations.
  • ANYTHING, really, beyond being impressed by Razzle Dazzle without thinking about substance.

Mrs. Gates’ comment makes the most sense to me if she is unaware of the level of work that goes into lending that impressive ten minutes substance, and if she is not especially discerning about whether or not the substance exists.  In fact, in ten minutes, it is sadly easy to be taken in by weak teaching that is buoyed by personality.  I witnessed this early in my teacher education career when I supervised a student teacher who I eventually had to counsel out of the profession.  She was an intelligent young woman, but she was not up to the task of leading a classroom even on her best day and simply could not gain student attention.  What was interesting, however, was how her struggles demonstrated the weaknesses of her cooperating teacher, a 20 year veteran who, with only ten minutes to watch her, would have impressed an outside observer.  She was a dynamic personality who kept the energy level of her class high, but when her student teacher took over the lesson plans, the thinness of the teaching was painfully obvious over time.  Visit after visit, I witnessed the same teaching approach of presentation and then practice via seat work, and it was clear that the only reason the teaching I first saw SEEMED skilled was the personal energy of the cooperating teacher.  The situation became awkward as my shy and hesitant student teacher made obvious the thin planning that went into the classroom.

Mrs Gates’ ten minute observation would have, most likely, been taken in by the Razzle Dazzle:

…and missed whether or not there was substance.  For that matter, Mrs. Gates’ ten minutes would miss a lot of genuinely great teachers simply having an inevitable bad day.

The problem here is complicated and frustrating.  Melinda Gates’ comment demonstrates first, that the Gates Foundation does not really understand (or is dismissive of) the real complexities and uncertainties involved in being a “great teacher,” and second, that the foundation thinks it can ultimately identify precisely WHAT makes their teaching “great” and distribute that throughout the teaching corps.  Instead of appreciating that research on teaching is various because teaching itself is various, the foundation’s leadership seems wedded to an idea that we need singular answers scaled throughout the entire system.

It reminds me of some of the mixed-bag innovations from the Progressive era which, contrary to popular imagination, was not all trust busting, union victories, and establishment of national parks.  Consider “scientific management” that arose from the work of Frederick Taylor and which greatly influenced how factory work was conceived.  Taylor studied work flow to determine the “best” ways for laborers to perform their tasks, and much of what he determined was useful for productivity and workers themselves.  For example, he concluded that workers needed rest periods which was not an accepted practice at the time.  However, faith in “Taylorism” rapidly overstated its ability to scale up the “best” way to do certain tasks, leading to conflicts with workers themselves, such as the famous incident at the Watertown Arsenal when one molder sparked a mass walk out in response to being timed by a stop watch.  While scientific management survives in different incarnations today, Taylorism itself was more geared towards the automation of tasks since workers were not allowed to vary how they did their work once “innovations” were put into place.

I’ve come to think that the Gates Foundation suffers from a similar problem: armed with an interesting and worthwhile question – “How can we identify and support great teaching?” – they have approached it as a technocratic matter instead of as a sociological one.  In doing so, they have vastly overestimated the strength of their tools and vastly underestimated the knowledge and the agency of what they hoped to reform.  The result is rapidly devolving into a discordant mess of overlapping perverse incentives that mistake common standards with a platform for effective teaching, treat standardized test scores as strongly indicative of teacher impact, and encourage teaching narrowly to the tested curriculum. Teachers and parents are increasingly reacting much the same way that the early 20th century workers did when told their ideas mattered less than a supervisor with a stop watch.

We’ve paved roads like this before, and the destinations were not exactly what was hoped for.

3 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, Stories, Testing

A New Year’s Resolution for Ed “Reformers” — Remember Our Future Teachers Are In The Schools You Are “Reforming”

About five years back, I got my first impression that our older child might potentially decide to become a teacher.  It was during what I thought was going to be a game of “Hungry Hungry Hippos” which took quite an unexpected turn when our child took all of the marbles, placed them neatly in the center of the game, and told the hippos that they all had to “wait for snack time.”  Over time and with more time in school, other hints have cropped up such as an almost immediate affinity for any teacher at the head of the classroom, a willingness to respect norms of classroom behavior, an almost obsessive love of certain stories and storytelling, a fascination with explaining acquired knowledge to others, giddy excitement at the opportunity to do a presentation for students in a lower grade, and a certain flair for the theatrical.  While this same child is also a bit of a homework resister and not a fan of rote tasks, I can see aspects of a “born teacher” growing up (even though these same traits could apply to other fields).

This lines up well with what we know about how individual students make the decision to become teachers.  It is not a process that begins simply with a sudden decision to teach.  Rather, it unfolds over time during the some 13,000 hours that students spend in contact with classroom teachers from Kindergarten to 12th grade, a period that Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” in his 1975 work, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.  Those who decide to teach have prolonged and substantial experiences with people practicing their chosen profession over the course of 13 years, and many potential teachers wish to teach because they, themselves, enjoyed being taught.  They found the study of subjects and school itself to be enjoyable.  While many of the ideas about what teaching actually is that are formed during this observational period are simplistic and need to be challenged both in teacher preparation and throughout the career, it remains true that school is the most active recruiter of future teachers.  If my older child does decide to become a teacher, like most others who choose the field, it will be out of a desire to share with future generations of students a love of learning and to make their school experiences enjoyable, joyous, and inspirational as well.

That is, if Governor Andrew Cuomo and Board of Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch manage to not ruin New York’s schools first.

That statement is not made even a little bit tongue in cheek because both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Tisch have made it abundantly clear in the past month that their dissatisfaction with New York teacher evaluations will not go unanswered and their likely “solution” will unleash a torrent of perverse incentives upon our schools.  Andrew Cuomo signaled his intentions to make teacher evaluations more “rigorous” just before the election with newspaper interviews and public statements.  The process was set in motion last month with a letter from Jim Malatras, director of state operations, to Dr. Tisch and outgoing New York State Education Department Commissioner Dr. John King.  The letter opens with the now familiar refrain that the new Common Core aligned state examinations are showing far too few of graduating seniors being “college ready” (even though the proficiency levels, which were set with cut scores pinned to the SAT scores of successful college freshmen, slightly exceed the percentage of New Yorkers over 25 with a bachelor’s degree), and then laments about the unacceptability of the situation.  Teacher and blogger Peter Greene nearly dissects the letter in this post, and among its many facets is a clear desire to make it far easier to get rid of teachers and to increase the number of teachers found ineffective and thus able to be removed from the classroom.

On December 29th, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill his office had originally drafted that would have given teachers a two year grace period from the new exams being used to remove them from the classroom, a move that starkly reversed his pre-election promises to give the new systems more time to be understood.  Questioned on his change of course, the governor raised the irrelevant specter of child abusers remaining in the classroom, “I understand the union’s issue; they don’t want anyone fired,” Cuomo said. “But we have teachers that have been found guilty of sexually abusing students who we can’t get out of the classroom.”  He did not explain himself with any specific cases of teachers actually found guilty of sexual abuse still teaching, nor did he explain how tying more of teachers’ evaluations to student test scores will get abusers out of schools faster, but he did join both Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown in trying to scare people into endorsing radical changes to teachers’ workplace protections.

Dr. Tisch responded to Mr. Malatras’ letter with her own set of priorities to tie far more of teachers’ evaluations directly to student progress in the state examinations and possibly eliminating local measures of teacher effectiveness altogether.  2013 New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris explains in this article what Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo appear to be proposing:

The system she wants to change is one that she created several years ago with former education commissioner John King, which was put into law by the New York Legislature and that was rushed into place by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who denied districts state aid if they did not adopt it. It became mandatory for teachers and principals to be evaluated in part by student standardized test scores.

The short version of what she wants to do now is this—double down on test scores and strip away the power of local school boards to negotiate the majority of the evaluation plan. Tisch would get rid of the locally selected measures of achievement, which now comprise 20 percent of the evaluation, and double the state test score portion, to 40 percent. She also recommends that the score ranges for the observation process be taken out of the hands of local districts, and be determined by Albany instead.

Principal Burris further notes that Dr. Tisch appears intent on ensuring that the predicted growth of students on standardized tests be the supreme measure of teacher effectiveness, suggesting that teachers found ineffective by those measures be found ineffective overall and removed from the classroom after two such ratings.  Such a system would provide no room for a principal to protect a teacher known locally as both effective and valued by the community, as Principal Burris relates in the story of a teacher from Great Neck who would fall victim to Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo.  Given the growing understanding that value added measures (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness rely upon tests not designed to detect teacher input, are highly unstable, and cannot account for teacher impact on variability among student scores, it is quite apt that Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley of Arizona State University and a leading researcher on value-added measures, described the proposal as going from “bad to idiotic.”

This aggressive move to double the value added portion of teacher evaluations and to override local measures in favor of standardized tests is bad for teachers, and it is potentially even worse for students.  By doubling the state examination’s role, eliminating locally chosen measures, and potentially overriding any consideration other than the state examination, Dr. Tisch and Governor Cuomo are proposing a system where teachers would face strong incentives to push test preparation into a central role in the curriculum.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor Schools in Washington, D.C. demonstrated the not excusable but entirely predictable results of tying people’s job security to capriciously unstable measures of their effectiveness.  Less drastic, but potentially more widely damaging for more students, is the evidence that raising the stakes on standardized tests to these extremes will result in an even narrower curriculum than under the original No Child Left Behind provisions which have already reduced time spent on non-tested content and increased teacher centered instruction.  In New York State this will be compounded by the constant gaming of state aid from the Cuomo administration that has coincided with increased demands on districts, especially struggling districts, to perform at higher levels.

It takes no powers of prognostication to see where New York schools are headed if the Governor and Chancellor get their way.

John I. Goodlad, a giant in education research in the second half of the 20th century, passed away at the age of 94 on November 29th of last year.  In his 1984 book, A Place Called School, he asked, “Boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions. … Why are our schools not places of joy?”  The Cuomo/Tisch goals for teacher evaluation are almost guaranteed to drive a huge amount of joy right out of our schools alongside art, music, civics, and health.  Teachers and students will have less room to explore, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and shared purposes for education outside of test performance will be even further diminished.

And this is where education “reformers” need to think especially carefully because it is not just the schools of today that they are impacting.  Children in Kindergarten today were born in 2009.  Several 100 thousand of them will likely be first year teachers by the year 2031-2032, and the kinds of teachers they will become will be greatly influenced by what school is like for them between now and their graduation from high school as the class of 2027.  Will their schools be places of extreme test preparation, didactic instruction, and a curriculum that is narrowed by the parameters of tests?  Will these future teachers learn that school is supposed to be emulate even a fraction of the stress and narrowness of the Chinese cram school portrayed in this recent New York Times Magazine? Will there be joy?  And if not, what kinds of future teachers will emerge from those schools to teach the generations behind them?

So, education “reformers” — a New Year’s Resolution for you just as America’s teachers are returning for the second half of the year: The next generation of teachers are currently in the schools that you are reforming. Resolve not to wipe out the joy.

2 Comments

Filed under schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

Explaining Eric Garner to My Children

Very often, I encounter people who wonder how to explain very difficult and supposedly adult matters to young children.  Readers should know that I am not an early childhood expert; mostly, I am a parent of young children whose professional work and studies for the past 21 years has significant overlap and contact with the work of experts in early childhood development.  That gives me a slight advantage, but I would not claim expertise in this subject area.  This is how my wife and I approached explaining to our very young children, Eric Garner and the problems too many of our fellow New Yorkers have with the police department.

Our first premise from a very early age has been to be honest with our children but to seek framing that is within their actual experiences.  Cultural conservatives often seem convinced that same sex relationships and families are fully beyond the understanding of young children, but that seems far more tied to their unwillingness to call such families, well, families.  This was easy for us;  my uncle and his husband are raising three of our children’s cousins, and we traveled to Vermont for their wedding.  For several years, the apartment next door to ours was home to a gay couple raising three children.  It was simple enough to explain to our children that some families have a mommy and a daddy like ours while other families have a daddy and a daddy and others have a mommy and a mommy.  Other families may have a mommy or a daddy, and others still have grandparents, aunties and uncles helping — there are all sorts of families.  When our daughter was old enough to want to know where babies come from, we added that understanding to our explanation of families.  Not so difficult.

Explaining death was actually harder.  When our daughter was almost 4, my wife’s grandmother died.  Unsure of what our daughter could comprehend on the subject, we decided that she had to know, but that we would rely upon the wisdom of Sesame Street whose production team decided to take the death of actor Will Lee to teach children about death through the eyes of Big Bird.  In the scene, the adults have to explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper had died and that he could never come back.  They assured Big Bird that the other grown ups would still be there to take care of him, that they were lucky to have known and loved their friend, and when Big Bird demanded to know why things have to be this way, Gordon tells him “Because.”  We talked in terms very much like these to our daughter to explain to her that her great grandmother had just died.  At first, we were not sure if she had understood, but the next day, she took the large stuffed toy goose that her great grandmother had made for her when she was born and carried it with her for the next week.  She understood.

So there is a principle at work here — when faced with difficult situations and concepts that may be hard to comprehend even as adults, talk with very young children honestly and in terms they can comprehend within their own experiences.

The news of the past two weeks has provided another opportunity.  With protests against the grand jury decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases continuing, our children, now in early elementary school, have encountered another difficult to understand situation regarding justice and racial profiling.  Both my wife and I are contemplating whether planned marches this upcoming weekend are events we want to go to as a family (my wife already went to a protest at Foley Square on the second day of protests).  And on Sunday, I was walking the children home from having gotten haircuts when we saw this:

I fumbled a bit as I tried to explain why that small group of people were singing hymns as they walked up the sidewalk — and why there were 3 police cruisers tailing what was likely a group of Unitarians who had just gotten out of church as several religious leaders across New York City had pledged to do.  So we sat the four members of our family, myself, my wife, our older daughter, and younger son, around our dining room table to discuss the situation.  I did not keep a verbatim record, so this is from memory.

I began by asking my daughter if she remembered anything about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from her MLK Day class last year.  She thought for a moment, and she told us that he had fought to change bad laws and that he wanted all people to be able to sit “at the front of the bus” so he organized people to not use the buses anymore until that changed.  We told her that she was correct, and that that was the Montgomery bus boycott which was part of a whole movement to change laws that were unfair to people.

The next part of the conversation was difficult.  Our children go to public school in New York City, and they have classmates who are African American, but while we have told them about Dr. King and his work, we never framed it as an issue of racism.  To break down their “innocence” on the existence of racism was hard to do, and I was reminded of the characters of Scout and Jem from “To Kill a Mockingbird” coming to realize that they lived in an unjust society.  I’ve always liked Atticus Finch, so I jumped in.

“Honey, what we’ve never told you is why Dr. King had to do what he did.  Have you ever noticed that some people you know have darker skin and others have lighter skin?”

They both said yes.

“The laws Dr. King fought against were ones that said that if you had dark skin, you had to sit in the back of the bus, or you could not go to the same schools as other children, or go to the same hospital, or shop at the same stores.  A lot of people back then thought that people with dark skin were bad and should not be able to live with people with light skin, and they passed laws to force people to live like that.  And a lot of people came together and fought those laws and changed them, and that’s why we honor Dr. King today — because he worked so hard to make our country a more just place.”

Our daughter asked if certain classmates of hers might have skin dark enough to be treated badly by those laws.  We told her that was probably true — but then warned her she could not talk to them about it because it was up to their families to explain this to them when they think they were ready.  We also explained that people whose ancestors came from European countries were often called “white” and that people whose ancestors came from Africa were often called “black.”  Our son was perplexed by this and held up  cup of milk and said “But THIS is white!” Pointing to his own skin, he said “This is kind of peach.”  My wife very lovingly affirmed his observation, but tried to explain that was how people talked even if it wasn’t exactly accurate.

We still had to explain the march we had just seen, however.  “Even though Dr. King changed a lot, everything isn’t all better.  Last summer, there was a man named Eric Garner — you should remember his name, kids.  He was approached by some police officers because they thought he was doing something he should not have done.”  Our kids asked what that was.  “They say he was selling cigarettes on the street, and you aren’t allowed to sell cigarettes unless you are a store, and he wasn’t allowed to do that.  The police wanted to arrest him, but they were too rough with him, they used too much force, and this is very sad, kids, but Mr. Garner died even though he wasn’t fighting the police.  And a lot of people, a lot of people, think the police should not have done that, and your mommy and daddy agree with them.”

At this point, our daughter began to look very sad, but we kept explaining.

“And just this week, it was decided that the police who were there when Mr. Garner died won’t have to have a trial in court to answer for what happened to him.  And that’s made a lot of people even more upset and angry, and they have been protesting this all over the city.”  I felt like I was stumbling, but decided to explain why this case was so difficult for so many people.  “The reason why this is all related to Dr. King is that a lot of times, some police are not very nice to the people with darker skin that they meet.  In neighborhoods were a lot of black people live, some police are too rough and stop a lot of people who are just going about their day and that’s wrong.  So people are saying that those police need to change, and that it isn’t good that a lot of people feel like they cannot trust the police.  Do you remember how we’ve always told you that if you are lost or in trouble you can go into a store or up to a police officer and ask for help?  Well, you still can, but there are a lot of parents in this city and all over the country who wonder if they can because they don’t think the police will help them.  We need that to change.”

I could tell that our daughter was wondering if any friends of hers were affected by this.  Our son was dumbfounded.  He told us that “Some police officers have dark skin. How can they treat people with dark skin badly?”

My wife affirmed his observation, and she agreed with him that it “didn’t make sense.”  She also told both of them that most police “are good people who took the job because they wanted to help people, and they do help people every day. But some of them do the wrong thing and we should not let them do that, so it is important to say something when wrong things happen.”

I also told the children that it was okay for them to still trust police, and that they should trust police and listen to them.  But at the same time they had to understand that “not everyone is going to have the same experiences that you have.  You have to know that because you live in the same city and the same country as people who really do wonder when they can trust that police will protect them.  And we should all make certain that we do whatever we can so people aren’t treated badly because of their skin color.”

Our daughter agreed and said that the mayor should do something about it.  My wife agreed with her, and explained that he was trying to do something about it.  “Did you know the mayor’s wife is black, so their children have dark skin.  The mayor was talking to the city about how he and his wife have had to talk to their children about what to do if a police officer ever treats them badly, and there are a lot of other parents in the city who have the same talk with their children.  All the protesters this week are saying it shouldn’t be that way — no parents should have to have that conversation with their children.”

So our children have their blinders to racism removed, and time will tell just how much it impacts their thinking, but we cannot pretend they are innocent of it anymore.  And while it is painful as a parent to feel obligated to do so, it is far, far more painful for the 100s of 1000s of children of color in this city who grow up not knowing if they can trust the police to protect them or to persecute them…and for their parents who have to teach them the world is thus.  We discussed it with our children so that they can begin to understand the unjust differences between their expectations in life and the expectations of their schoolmates.  We discussed it because this cartoon by Ben Sargent describes those differences far too well:

still two americas

And if our children are going to ever help change that, they need to know about it.  They can understand it.  We need to know how to talk to them about it.

Which is a lesson, as a teacher educator, I need to be more active in promoting among my own students who will some day be teachers and whose practice of good stewardship will be vital for their future students.  Thinking about their own experiences, how they differ from so many of the young people in their care, and preparing to stand up for the dignity of those students inside and outside of school?  I have read many over the years who argue this is not the job of teachers, much like many argue young children cannot understand such complex issues.  Young children can — and teachers’ defense of their students is one of the most important tasks they can undertake.  It is all vital, and it is all related.

4 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, Social Justice, Stories

Asking Hard Questions of Our Privileges After the Ferguson Grand Jury

Last week, the grand jury convened by St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th of this year.  The decision, delivered after nightfall in a lengthy statement by Mr. McCulloch set off immediate, sometimes violent, protests in Ferguson, and has spawned protests in 170 cities across the country.  To many protestors, the grand jury failing to indict Officer Wilson confirmed a belief that our legal system is critically stacked against people of color in general and African American men in particular.  As the grand jury testimony and evidence has become public, a number of commentators and analysts have noted that Prosecutor McCulloch’s presentation to the grand jury, far from the normal conduct of a prosecutor seeking an indictment, appears specifically tailored to relieve Officer Wilson of any charges.  As a matter of record, I find those observations credible.

Prosecutors usually present a case to a grand jury to seek an indictment and tailor the presentation towards that result.  Prosecutor McCulloch instead declared that the case was too contentious, so he intended to present the grand jury with “all of the evidence” and allow them to sift through it on their own.  Such an intent plays well to popular prejudices towards even-handedness, but it is usually in a criminal trial, not a grand jury, where jurors get to hear “both sides” as presented by zealous advocates.  For a grand jury to be presented with “all of the evidence” absent any advocate for an indictment is extremely unusual.  Further, Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement on the grand jury decision raised serious questions about how hands off he actually was, and his apparent decision to let Officer Wilson tell his version of events to the jurors without any cross examination whatsoever characterizes Mr. McCulloch as giving the officer a friendly forum in which to tell his story.  That story, described by CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin as “fanciful and not credible”, is contrasted by many of the witness accounts, but Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement to the press only mentions one witness who has offered contradictory accounts.

A week later, it seems very likely that Prosecutor McCulloch went into the grand jury with no desire to prosecute Darren Wilson, but instead of having the courage to state publicly that he would not seek an indictment, he decided to use the grand jury process to get that result with a veneer of due process.

Prosecutor McCulloch’s conduct of the grand jury fits into a larger pattern of both policing and the criminal justice system being antagonistic to people of color, and especially in communities that are predominantly of color.  The reactions that I have seen outside of the street protests, however, are indicative of a wider spread societal problem.  In a wide variety of fora, including ones that typically host reasonable conversations, responses to reporting, analysis, and personal discussions of the troubles with Michael Brown’s death, the larger phenomena that it represents, and the conduct of the criminal justice system ranged from the shockingly hateful to the naively hopeful but ultimately unhelpful.  The hateful reactions are immediately identifiable, and they seem to take the grand jury decision  as justification for something that they have believed all along: that Michael Brown was a “thug,” that he undeniably provoked the lethal confrontation, and that, ultimately, he is solely culpable for his own death.  Such sentiments frequently arise in cases like Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s, and it is painfully clear that a segment of our population will not accept anything less than a cartoonishly angelic victim before they will concede the least ground on justifying the death of an unarmed black man.

Naively hopeful but unhelpful is a more difficult nut to crack.  These often take forms of laments that race has to “enter the conversation” at all and express wishes that we could be a “color blind” or “post-racial” society where events like Michael Brown’s death at Darren Wilson’s hands are examined without having to consider what role race and racism may have played in it.  I see this wish in New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s most recent column, where he observes that as the evidence in the Michael Brown case grew more complex that people “retreated” into racial divisions.  He front loaded his column with an assumption that America needs “color blind” politics:

Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.

I do not think that Douthat is malicious in this wish, but I do think that his sentiment is harmful, and that, for very good reasons, the question of whether or not we can look at our politics and power systems in America and be “blind” to color is only answerable with a hearty and emphatic, “No, we cannot.”

The wish for politics and policy that are “color blind” is a wish that negates the realities of how many of our citizens live on a very routine basis.  While aspiring to visions of our society where all benefit equally is admirable and desirable, to discuss it without affirming that there are existing social and institutional barriers to how millions can enjoy both equality of opportunity and equity in what they need to thrive is to ignore any possible paths towards that future.  In other words, Douthat’s wish for a “colorblind vision of the American dream” will do little good without a color conscious discussion of what exists today.  Professor Denisha Jones of Howard University offers incredibly salient advice on this and many other issues related to discussions of race and racism that are prompted by Michael Brown’s death.  Her comments on the pitfalls of “color blindness” should be taken very serious by people who mean well, but largely do not understand:

I am not sure when it began but at some point in our history colorblindness was created as the solution for dealing with racism. Some have believed that the best way to deal with racism was to be colorblind. If we were blind to race then we would not judge people based on the color of their skin. If we were blind to race then racism would not exist. As I mentioned before I used to subscribe to this belief and remember I am black (very black). I grew up in predominantly white communities and I thought the best way to fit in was to ignore the fact that I was black. But what I learned is that being black is not something I can ignore, it’s not something others can ignore, and it’s not something we should try to ignore.

Being born or raised in America means that we are acculturated to be aware of race. Young children notice racial differences and make assumptions based on those observations. They are aware that their community might not include any people of color. They are aware that only people who look like them attend their school. They are not colorblind. And neither are most adults in society. We notice the color of someone’s skin the same way we notice their gender. And noticing color, just like noticing gender is not a bad thing. Making judgments (prejudice) about someone based on their skin color is a bad thing but simply being aware that I am black is not something we should be blind to. Because it means something to be black in America. It means that I am a member of a group that has historically been disadvantaged simply because I am black. It means that I inherit a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights simply because I am black. So to be colorblind to my blackness is not the solution, it is the problem.

Trying to look at Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown absent any consideration of race ignores the daily reality many young men of color live with in their communities where being treated as if they are legitimately suspected of criminal wrongdoing while minding their own business is a common occurrence.  The peak year for “stop and frisk” in New York City was 2011, and according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, police conducted 685,724 stops that year, 87% of those stopped were black or Latino, and 88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of even misdemeanors.  So in 2012,  NYC police stopped mostly black and Latino men 605,328 times, found absolutely no wrong doing at all, but affronted the dignity and rights of citizens obeying the law.  Combine this with the appalling consequences of our increasingly militarized police tactics, and it is clear that our policy makers have long pursued policies that needlessly exacerbate and create tensions between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.  Largely, I believe, to play upon prejudicial fears of constituents who live in communities that are safe from most violent crimes, and who believe being this “tough on crime” is needed to keep them safe.

I suspect there is another reason, also discussed by Professor Jones’ article, that is behind the call to not consider race, and it is a desire to look away from the concept of privilege and the many ways that people possess a variety of advantages that exist, or do not exist, based upon who they are rather than upon what they have done.  Professor Jones notes how defensive many become when asked to consider privilege:

It also does not mean that you cannot be privileged in one area and disadvantaged in others. You can be a rich white male but also be gay. You can be a black woman but also come from a wealthy family. And you can be a poor white person and still experience white privilege.  So when someone tells you to  “check your privilege” what they are saying is to see how your privilege might blind you to the realities of others. I can be told to check my American privilege when I assume that the American point of view is the one only correct point of view. Or I can be told to check my education privilege when I assume that others who do not think like me or not as smart as I am. And when a white person is told to check their privilege they are being asked to remember that their reality is not the reality shared by many people of color.

It can be difficult to come to terms with privilege for many reasons.  As Professor Jones explains one can mistake the idea of having privilege based on race as an attempt to negate a disadvantage based upon economics or gender.  More troubling, recognizing how one exists in a system of privileges means having to increase awareness of how one might, even inadvertently, perpetuate injustice.  I have often heard the idea of racial privilege being countered by the claim that anyone can be racist, regardless of race, and so the idea of racial privilege is not valid.

I’d like to offer a personal anecdote that, I believe, illustrates the problems with that counterpoint.  It was a few days before the Presidential election in 2008, and I was pulling into a gas station on my way to work.  I usually drive through a predominantly African American small city, and the gas station was on a main street in that town.  As I pulled up to the gas pump, I heard a loud car horn, and I looked up to see a car with an African American gentleman in the driver seat gesturing angrily at me from about 20 feet away from the pump.  Apparently, he was preparing to pull up to the pump from the opposite direction, and I had not noticed as I began to pull in. I put my car into reverse and backed out of the space to let him pull his car in and expected that would be the end of the situation. Unfortunately, the gentleman was not satisfied, and he got out of his car and continued to yell at me, making sure that I knew the “We’re getting a new President next week and we’ll take care of people like you.”  His animosity struck me as rooted in something much deeper that the assumption that I was trying to take his space at a gas pump.

Describing the encounter, I have had more than one person opine that the gentleman’s “racism” was unfortunate, but this is where the concept of privilege is salient.  His anger at me was certainly unpleasant, even unsettling.  His apparent assumption that an African American President would “take care of” people like me was problematic.  I did not like the way I felt immediately after that confrontation.  But his anger and potential animosity based upon my race did not and has not cost me anything.  There were no long term consequences to his assumptions about me.  I have been denied no professional or social advantages.  There was no personal or systemic power that gave this man’s anger any ability to do more to me than make my morning unpleasant.

I, on the other hand, have some substantial power within my professional environment.  I am a professor of education.  I am tenured.  I am a program director at my university.  In order for students at our university to become credentialed high school teachers, they have to take at least two courses that I teach.  If I have unexamined prejudices, those can potentially stand in the way of a young person and his or her chosen career because those prejudices would be backstopped by the power of my institution and validated by the state Department of Education and national accrediting bodies that recognize our programs as valid paths towards becoming a teacher.  Now I have worked hard to have the position at a university that I have, but that hard work does not negate the very troubling reality that I am in a position to keep someone from having a career – and that any prejudices that I leave unexamined and unchallenged can transform from biases to injustice.

Further, and this can be difficult to remember and to confront, despite my hard work to be where I am today, various kinds of privilege assisted me along the way, especially in school.  I am white, so I have never had to convince teachers that I am academically capable despite my race, nor have I been subject to unequal application of near zero tolerance for any rule breaking potentially as early as preschool.  I am male, so I have not had people or cultural stereotypes actively or passively discourage me from considering entire fields of study, discouragement that I actually witnessed applied to female classmates of mine in high school.  I grew up in an upper middle class suburb, so the schools I attended were adequately funded with fully maintained facilities and good class sizes, and my family’s position in the middle class means that a multitude of institutional and social barriers children in poverty face simply did not exist in my life.

None of this means that I did not work hard or genuinely achieve in school, but it does mean that I cannot credit my success solely to that work, and, more importantly, it means that as an educator, I cannot do proper justice by my students by being “color blind” or “gender blind” or “poverty blind”.  Doing so would mean ignoring the real challenges to equity and opportunity that exist in every classroom in every community in the country.  Doing so would increase the chance that I leave my own biases and prejudices unexamined and unchallenged.  Educators have a special professional and ethical obligation to recognize and to confront these issues in our own teaching and in the institutions in which we work.  Anything less is an abdication of our responsibilities.

If we learn only one thing from what we have witnessed in the Ferguson case, that would be a good start.

3 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Media, politics, schools, Social Justice, Stories

Predicting the Future in Education: How Often Are We Dead Wrong?

In September of 1981, I was beginning seventh grade in the suburbs of Boston.  Our junior high school, catching on to the growing home computing revolution, had purchased approximately 20 Tandy Corporation model 3 TRS-80s which we referred to as “TRaSh 80s”.  Our class was enrolled in a half year long computing course that aimed to teach us to program using the BASIC computer programming language developed by Dartmouth Professors John Kemeny and John Kurtz in the 1960s.  The course was intended to familiarize us with the concepts of computer programming in an economy that saw more and more computer presence in everyday life via the home computers developed in the late 1970s.  However, our teacher introduced the “need” for us to learn programming in a singular manner.  In the 1970s and 1980s, many popular media sources played on fear of Japan’s perceived economic power as an industrial and technological powerhouse and corresponding perceptions of American decline to place our nation in an almost existential competition with our ally for economic security.

So our computer teacher told us that we needed to program because “in the future, everyone will need to know how to program computers,” and he layered it with a patriotic appeal that if we did not learn to program that Japan would “take over everything.”  I won’t claim a sophisticated understanding of the global economy and politics at the age of twelve, but I immediately questioned his assessment.  As I looked at my computer screen with a five line program on it, I spoke up and announced that I did not believe him.  With my classmates looking on, I said that in the future, there would be people who knew how to program computers and people who knew how to use computers just like how most tools that we used were designed and constructed by other people.  My teacher, to his credit, did not allow himself to be baited into that argument, and we continued the class as per his plan.  I did my assignments.  I learned IF-THEN statements and FOR-NEXT loops, and built tidy little programs that made my name scroll diagonally across the screen of our TRS-80s.  Then I went home, and I buried myself in “The Hobbit”.

I have not used a computer programming language another day after the class ended, although I have probably used a computer most days since beginning college in 1987.  Some of my classmates, fascinated by the ability to make a machine do what they told it to do, pursued computer science degrees and have, indeed, spent their working lives programming.  I, like most computer users between the late 1970s and today, have been content to use programs and applications designed by others.

Despite my lack of interest in patriotic programming, computers and commercially available internet access have exploded since I was in junior high school.  In 1984, only 8% of households had a home computer; today, that number is now 83.8%, spread across a mix of desktop and handheld devices, and 74.4% of households have internet access.  These numbers vary significantly by age, income level, education level, and race, but even 56% of households with less than a high school education own computers today.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 343,700 people worked as computer programmers in 2012, and a total of 3,980,000 work in “computer and mathematical occupations,” including researchers, web developers, systems analysts, programmers, support specialists, actuaries, and statisticians.  In the 1980s, computer and data processing grew by 181.9% in employment numbers, and while growth continues, computer and mathematical occupations represent roughly 2.7% of the labor force.

And even though the majority of American workers did not learn to program computers, Japan failed to “take over” as predicted by my computer teacher.  America, in possession of a computer workforce of trained specialists, saw Gross Domestic Product grow to 16.8 trillion dollars in 2013.  In 2013, 48.7% of all patents granted were issued to developers of U.S. origin.  US share of global “triadic patents” that indicate higher value inventions has remained constant since the turn of the century at between 27-30% of global patents.  In 1992, American citizens and permanent residents earned 28,013 doctorate degrees in all fields, and that number grew to 32,927 in 2012.

All of this, even though I was less than enthusiastic about learning BASIC in 1982.

Interestingly enough, today we are seeing a new push for wider access to computer programming through the “coding for all” movement.  I certainly will not prognosticate whether or not this is truer today than in 1981, but it is not hard to imagine it being reasonably true.  63.6% of households have some form of hand held computer, and their integration into our daily lives, even our hourly lives, is far greater than the home computing pioneers probably could have imagined outside of science fiction.  Computers masquerading as cell phones are integral to an astonishing number of people, and the number of mobile app developers worldwide may be as high as 2.3 million individuals.  It is hard to turn around today without a story about a person in high school seeing a need and developing an “app for that” whether it is for reasons personal or deadly serious.

So as I said, it is possible that “coding for all” is not simply an attempt to democratize the field of app development and raise overall awareness of the devices that we have deeply integrated into our lives and that we rely upon for more and more of our daily tasks.  It is possible that this will be an important indicator for how our economy will grow over the next decades, but it is also entirely possible that, like the predictions offered to me in 1981, that it will not.  App development may very easily be a part time hobby for many and a serious professional endeavor for a few, and while long term trends could easily impact how people buy and utilize programs in much the same way that the way they consume media and entertainment have been impacted in the digital age, that does not mean that most or even a significant plurality of us are going to be coding on a regular basis.  Nor does it mean that the fate of our economic future hangs on the percentage of our population that code daily.

And this ought to be a cautionary note for today’s education reformers who insist, absent much evidence beyond the rankings of American students of international examinations, that if we do not follow their path of education reform, we will fall into national economic ruin.  Today, the catchphrase for proponents of the Common Core State Standards is that our children must be “college and career ready,” such readiness to be defined as scoring “proficient” on a Common Core aligned examination designed and delivered by publishing and testing magnate Pearson.  They betray no doubt at all that this is a need, and they are entirely certain that “college and career readiness” in 2014 is captured by the CCSS and appropriately measured by the CCSS aligned examinations.  They further insist that the network of state standards that existed before CCSS were not sufficiently aimed at “college and career readiness” and thus were heading our nation’s students towards educational and economic doom.

A bit more humility really is in order.

A detailed examination of whether or not the CCSS are aimed at “college and career readiness” is not necessary here (although I would like an explanation from CCSS enthusiasts why being able to write an entry level college English course essay to David Coleman’s satisfaction is the sine qua non of college readiness).  What is necessary is questioning the ability of any group of individuals to make such sweeping pronouncements about what the nearly 60 million American children of school age need in order to be successful in life.  Predictions of the future of society often turn out to be dead wrong or hinge upon matters that are inherently unpredictable.  Futurists of the 1960s looked at technological development and predicted a world by the year 2000 virtually disease free and full of people who enjoyed a lifestyle typified by an excess of leisure.  The advent of home computing eventually led to today’s handheld mobile devices, but few in the late 1970s could have accurately predicted the ways in which computers have become integrated in our daily routines.  Observers of the economic landscape in the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a future where America’s position as an economic power was deeply threatened by a rising Japan, and while our economic landscape today looks vastly different than in the decades before 1980, we are certainly not subsumed under Japan or any other of the purported “Asian Tiger” economies.  Simply put: predicting the future and what it will need is hard.  So hard that the most prescient people are sometimes science fiction writers.

When it comes to school, this is complicated because, despite the heavy emphasis on economic needs, we purpose universal, compulsory education to goals that are not tied to economic ends.  A healthy democracy dedicated to goals of pluralism is embedded deeply in our educational system, and schools have been on the vanguard of our expanding enfranchisement since World War II; however, those are aims not readily placed on a standardized test.  The humanistic development of individual intellectual, social, and emotional potential is deeply embedded in the beliefs of many of our nation’s teachers, but again, it is not a purpose of school that is readily testable.  Regardless, if we are asking whether or not schools today are “meeting our needs” as a society, we ought to consider them alongside whether our children are “college and career ready” — and in the early grades, perhaps we ought to consider them far more than today’s reformers allow.

So do we know the future of education and what changes are truly necessary for our children over the next several decades?

If we are being honest, no, we don’t.  And we shouldn’t take very seriously those who think they do know.

1 Comment

Filed under Common Core, schools, Stories

Wanted: A Slow Schools Movement

I invited a number of my department’s alumni back to campus this week for an informal panel discussion about our preparation program, their experiences as early career classroom teachers, and what we can do to improve the experiences of our current undergraduates.  It was a fantastic evening, largely because the young people with whom I had been impressed when they were here remain an impressive group of early career teachers.  They had many insights about knowledge, both practical and theoretical, that would have aided them even more as they began their careers, and myself and my colleagues have been similarly considering several of those ideas as we engage in our constant work of program assessment and renewal.  Beyond those ideas, however, a consistent theme seemed to emerge from our conversation:

Schools today need to slow down.

Our graduates told us of their experiences with phenomena that we know about and that we have observed in schools during field visits and from regular discussions with teachers in partner schools.  However, we have never directly experienced those changes as teachers in the classrooms effected by them.  They spoke of having to create and measure “Student Growth Outcomes” with no practice, no training in creating statistical measurements, and no release time to do analysis.  They spoke of rapid changes with little time to adapt, and they spoke about constantly shifting technology demands made upon their teaching and their record keeping/administrative tasks.  They spoke about the changing nature of the young people entering their classrooms, many of whom have grown up in a world of information that constantly streams into their hands with few opportunities to truly comprehend and analyze that information and with few adults who truly understand the technology’s strengths and pitfalls — even while they demand that teachers find ways to use them productively in the classroom.

As our alumni spoke about these issues, one overarching description of their work lives became clear to me: hurried.  It is not that teachers have ever felt entirely relaxed in the profession.  In his 1975 book, “School Teacher: A Sociological Study,” Dan Lortie (1975) notes that feeling pressed for time because of constant demands from outside of the classroom is a common complaint among teachers:

“First, we can think of time as the single most important, general resource teachers possess in their quest for productivity and psychic reward; ineffective allocations of time are costly. Second, from one perspective teaching processes are ultimately interminable; one can never strictly say that one has “finished” teaching students. At what point has one taught every student everything he might possibly learn about the curriculum?  More broadly, when can one feel that one has taught everything that any particular student should learn? The theme of concern about incompleteness ran throughout the interviews; unfortunately, it occurred in various places, making systematic collation next to impossible. Presumably teachers develop defenses against overexpectation for themselves; yet these defenses do not always seem to work. If one is inwardly pressed by a feeling of not having finished one’s work, inert time must be particularly galling.” (p. 177)

Little in the teacher education research suggests that this has changed, and quite a lot of new education policies and changes to how young people seek and consume information has layered on top of Lortie’s observations rather than replaced them.  If teachers are being required to account for the impact on students’ learning in new (and statistically questionable) ways using standards and examinations with which they have little familiarity and inadequate training and no release time, if teachers are required to utilize new tools and accounting procedures without substantial in school support, and if the students they have are used to a constant stream of unfiltered information but have never been taught discernment in the use of that information, then there is little doubt that teachers today are feeling heavily pressured and constrained in their time.

My former students’ conversation on such matters got me thinking about the “Slow Food Movement,” which began in the late 1980s to educate consumers about the benefits of food that is local, minimally processed, and diverse in both culture and biology.  As a response to the rise of fast food and factory styled agriculture, slow food emphasizes the variety of local cuisines that should be preserved and the value of food that has to be prepared and cooked rather than defrosted and heated up.  Slow food obviously takes time that fewer and fewer people believe that they have, but it also represents more knowledge about food and its preparation, and it preserves more of the inherent nutritional value in ingredients.

I want a Slow Schools Movement.

While teachers grapple with the pressures of new and unfamiliar standards whose scopes are being narrowed with the highest stakes testing in national history, it is unsurprising that the pace of everything in school is being increased.  In the history of education, it is almost always more common for duties and responsibilities to be added to what teachers are expected to do rather than to see them peeled back.  Teachers’ duties are not restricted to classroom work, but with 35 states still providing less per pupil funding than they did in 2008 and with over 324,000 jobs in K-12 education being lost, remaining teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals have even more work that they need to accomplish on a daily basis.  The number of school aged children ages 6-17 has declined slightly since 2008, from 49.9 million to 49.6 million (it is set to rise again in the near future), but with a larger proportion of people working in schools gone, each individual has more to do.  In a policy environment that provides high stakes standardized tests the power to put teachers’ jobs in the balance and with an active movement afoot to remove teachers’ workplace protections, pressures today rival those at any point since the Common School movement began in the 19th century.

How detrimental to the practices of teaching and learning.

However, the need for “slow schools” goes well beyond a simple desire to lift added and poorly thought out burdens from teachers who already had important work to do.  It goes towards fundamental aspects of what learning actually requires.  A productive school is one that hums with energy, but it is not the energy of people rushing anxiously from one obligation to another.  It is the energy of people grappling with challenging ideas and materials, working through from what they do not understand to what they do understand, and proposing and testing new hypotheses about how the world works around them.  That is a specific kind of energy that cannot happen under constant pressure to perform on command.  In order to foster it, teachers need to possess deep knowledge of their subjects and how to structure lessons that move students along in their understanding.  Jerome Bruner (1960) writes about this in “The Process of Education” where he quotes elementary mathematics teacher, David Page:

“…’When I tell mathematicians that fourth-grade students can go a long way into ‘set theory’ a few of them reply: ‘Of course.’ Most of them are startled. The latter ones are completely wrong in assuming that ‘set theory’ is intrinsically difficult. We just have to wait until the proper point of view and corresponding language for presenting it are revealed. Given particular subject matter or a particular concept, it is easy to ask trivial questions or lead the child to ask trivial questions.  It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions.  The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and can take you somewhere.  This is the big job of teachers and textbooks.’  One leads the child by the well-wrought medium questions to move rapidly through the stages of intellectual development, to a deeper understanding of mathematical, physical, and historical principles. We must know far more about the ways in which this can be done.”  (p. 40)

Of course, what Mr. Page says to Jerome Bruner is not simply a matter of finding a “trick.”  Rather, it is a complicated interplay of knowing the subject, knowing the pedagogical means of asking questions that transform children’s understanding, and of monitoring how students are developing in response to those questions, often in ways that are not precisely rapid or predictable.  Doyle (1983) explains students’ work in terms of “tasks” comprised of the products students are to produce, the operations  necessary to produce them, and the materials or models available to assist.  He further notes that tasks with the greatest learning rewards are often the most complex and difficult to establish in the classroom: “The central point is that the type of tasks which cognitive psychology suggests will have the greatest long-term consequences for improving the quality of academic work are precisely those which are the most difficult to install in classrooms.” (p. 186)

Eleanor Duckworth (1987) of Harvard University explained many of these issues eloquently in her essay collection, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas.”

“One of the teachers, Joanne Cleary, drew on the blackboard this picture of the earth in the midst of the sun’s rays and was trying to articulate her thoughts about it. Another member of the group was asking her to be more precise.  Did she mean exactly half the earth was in darkness? Did it get suddenly dark at the dividing line or was there some gray stripe? The one who was trying to articulate her thoughts grew angry, and gave up the attempt.  She said later that she knew the questions were necessary at some point, but she had not been ready to be more precise. She was struggling to make sense of a morass of observations and models, an idea was just starting to take shape, and, she said, ‘I needed time for my confusion.’

“That phrase has become a touchstone for me. There is, of course, no particular reason to build broad and deep knowledge about ramps, pendulums, or the moon.  I choose them, both in my teaching and in discussion here, to stand for any complex knowledge. Teachers are often, and understandably, impatient for the students to develop clear and adequate ideas.  But putting ideas in relationship to each other is not a simple job. It is confusing; and that confusion does take time. All of us need time for confusion if we are to build the breadth and depth that gives significance to our knowledge.” (p. 102)

Consider how important this is from the perspective of a learner.  A deep and layered understanding of complex ideas cannot be forced to happen simply through intensity, although significance and deep understanding have intensity of their own.  Students necessarily must be frustrated as they grapple with complex and unknown concepts, but they need time in order to work through that confusion, and when forced or hurried to move they not only fail to develop the desired understanding, but also they become needlessly frustrated and disengaged from the task of learning.  Taken together, Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth denote essential truisms about classrooms and learning:  1) students are capable of better and deeper understanding of more complex ideas than we often think they can; 2) the products, processes, and materials that support the development of that understanding are often highly ambiguous and complex to enact in a classroom; 3) confusion is an important part of the learning process, and learners need time and space to be where they are in their emerging understanding without being forced to move faster than they need.

Even though I have recently criticized the Common Core State Standards in the English Language Arts for being too narrow in their reading perspectives, I would like to use an example from them to illustrate this point.  This is taken from the sixth grade writing standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.a
Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.b
Support claim(s) with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.c
Use words, phrases, and clauses to clarify the relationships among claim(s) and reasons.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.d
Establish and maintain a formal style.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.e
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the argument presented.

From Doyle’s perspective, these quoted standards denote tasks that are both high in ambiguity and high in risk (p. 183) if taken seriously.  Sixth graders are required to perform a complex series of cognitive moves in order to write arguments that are organized, supported with evidence, follow a logical order of argumentation including a conclusion, and use formal language and syntax to enhance readers’ understanding of their argument.  For accomplished college level writers, this is probably a task that appears simple, but the simplicity is entirely the product of its familiarity to those same writers.  For sixth graders, this is a complex set of cognitive moves that requires significant modeling and experimentation as well as a wealth of preexisting knowledge about how to write coherently and connectedly and an ability to adjust argument and tone depending upon the purposes for writing and the author’s sense of her or his audience.

More important than these skills, however, is that in order to accomplish what is envisioned in the standard, students will need the time and the safety to fail, possibly often.  Writing is a messy and often nonlinear endeavor, and even the most accomplished of authors revise often, change direction, and even throw out entire ideas and start over again.  For a student in the classroom open recognition of imperfect performance is often overshadowed by a fear of the consequences such imperfection often provokes.  Teachers who genuinely want their students to write in this way have to create conditions where students are willing to risk that their imperfections will be a source of improvement rather than of punishment, and students will need time to understand themselves as writers and to develop not merely the forms of analytic writing, but also an inwardly critical eye.

And this is where the increasingly hurried pace of schools and teachers’ work is more than a concern for how teachers measure their job satisfaction; it becomes a threat to children actually learning.  It is not that we have merely adopted new, complicated standards that have been pushed into classrooms far too quickly and with questionable materials for classroom use, but also it is that by tying teachers’ promotion and job retention to student performance on standardized tests that, at best, can only approximate student learning (and then only when they are well-designed), we have incentivized teaching to those tests as literal make or break decision for teachers and schools.  Teachers are most heavily pushed in the current policy environment to focus on those student skills that prepare them for performance in multiple choice, timed examinations.  Students learning to process confusion and teachers promoting classrooms where students can risk failure so that they build genuine understanding over time?  Today’s concepts of teacher accountability can make teaching for powerful and transformative purposes a career ending decision.

Consider the process by which teachers in New Jersey are held accountable for “Student Growth Outcomes” (SGOs) in addition to student annual progress in standardized exams via Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs).  SGPs are related to value-added measures of teacher effectiveness which use predicted gains on student test scores as a measure of how well teachers are teaching.  The SGO process is supposedly a professional research investigation that every teacher in New Jersey must accomplish each year by examining what students know at the beginning of the year, making predictions about student growth after a year of instruction, designing instruction to promote that growth, and then demonstrating the students’ actual growth in the classroom.  SGOs are set every year by every teacher working with an administrator and submitted to the state for verification.  While layered with external accountability, the concept had potential to help teachers see their work as a process of continuous improvement in the “teacher as researcher” mode of professionalism.

In practice, this is, charitably, far more dicey.  New Jersey insists that SGOs must be clearly measurable, so qualitative investigations are out of the question.  However, teachers are not, by trade, quantitative measurement experts, and the instructions issued the state department of education strike me as highly questionable.  Consider the following selection from page 16 of the DOE handbook:

Setting the Standard for “Full Attainment” of the Student Growth Objective
In order to develop a scoring guide based on how well you meet your SGO, determine the following:
a) a target score on the final assessment that indicates considerable learning;
b) the number of students that could reasonably meet this mark;
c) the percentage of students in the course that this represents; and
d) a 10-15 percent range around this number.
For example, you and your evaluator may decide that 80% on a challenging assessment indicates considerable learning. Based on an initial evaluation of the 65 students in your course, your evaluator agrees with the assessment that about 50 of them could reasonably make this score at the end of the year. This is 77 percent of the students. You make 70-84 percent the range around this number. This means that if between 45 and 55 of students (70-84 percent of them) score at least 80% on the final assessment, you would have fully met the objective. This is shown in Figure 4 on page 16.
Setting Other Standards of Attainment
Once a range is established for “full attainment,” subtracting 10-15 percent from the lower range of “full attainment” will produce the “partial attainment” category. Any number below this range is the “insufficient attainment” category. Above the high end of the “full attainment” range is the “exceptional attainment” range.

The problem here is that there is absolutely no indication upon what teachers will determine what represents “considerable learning” and what percentage of students can be expected to meet this target other than a cursory examination of an early year assessment. Such determinations would have to be fairly complex statistical exercises if done with any recognition of the complexity of predicting individual student outcomes, and, in fact, give the very questionable reliability of VAMs and SGPs, we should question the SGO exercise being based upon similar assumptions.  Worse, the state handbook encourages setting of ranges that are entirely arbitrary, probably favoring a neat reporting of the data rather than a valid one.  Upon what basis are predicted ranges of student performance set in 10-15 percent intervals?  What individual and group characteristics make those ranges plausible?  If the state requires ranges of performance in 10-15 percent intervals, what happens in classrooms where initial student performance falls into different ranges?

I asked these questions at a training session on SGOs last Spring, and the answer was a wan smile.  Unsurprisingly, some reports from implementation suggest that the enterprise is time consuming and confusing.  Consider this account by teacher Douglas McGuirk of Dumont High School sent in a letter to Diane Ravitch of New York University:

The next day, the SGO was rejected, and my supervisor told me that all SGOs had been done incorrectly and that our staff would need training. We held a department meeting to review SGO policies. We then held an after school training session to discuss the writing of SGOs. I attended both of these. After two weeks of writing and rewriting my SGO, complete with all of the Core Curriculum Content Standards pasted from the web site, I finally had an acceptable SGO. I managed to accomplish absolutely no lesson planning during this period of time. I graded no papers. I am a veteran teacher with nine years in the profession. I understand how to manage my workload, overcome setbacks, and complete my responsibilities. In short, I am a professional who maintains a diligent work ethic.

But nothing could prepare me for the amount of time I had just spent on a new part of my job that basically exists so that I can continue to prove that I should be entitled to do the other parts of my job. After I completed my SGO, my principal told our staff to make sure we save all of the data, paperwork, and student work relating to our SGO, just in case people from the State want to review the integrity of the data. Seriously? This is the most egregious assumption that there is an infinite amount of time.

How different this is from more empowering visions of teachers researching their own practice.  Many proposals have been made over the years to have teachers treat their classrooms as ongoing research projects, and, indeed, the best teachers already do this informally by making ongoing assessments of what their students are learning and consistently adjusting instruction based upon what they need.  However, critical components of seeing teachers as researchers are things entirely absent from the SGO process: 1) authentic teacher interest in what is being studied; 2) time, space, and resources.  Consider how Eleanor Duckworth (1987) describes her conclusions about working with teachers researching their teaching:

“I am not proposing that schoolteachers single-handedly become published researchers in the development of human learning.  Rather, I am proposing that teaching, understood as engaging learners in phenomena and working to understand the sense they are making, might be the sine qua non of such research.

“This kind of research would be a teacher in the sense of caring about a part of the world and how it works enough to want to make it accessible to others; he or she would have to be fascinated by the questions of how to engage people in it and how people make sense of it; would have time and resources to pursue these questions to the depth of his or her interest, to write what he or she learned, and to contribute to the theoretical and pedagogical discussions on the nature and development of human learning.

“And then, I wonder – why should this be a separate research profession?  There is no reason I can think of not to rearrange the resources available to education so that this description defines the job of a public school teacher.  So this essay ends with a romance.  But then, it began with a passion.” (pp. 199-200)

Imagine policy and administrators at every level of the system actually facilitating a vision of teaching like this instead of placing roadblocks to thoughtfulness, contemplation, experimentation, and craft at nearly every juncture.  Such roadblocks not only prevent teachers from the careful work of improving their teaching, but also they stand in the way of students having time to truly get deep with their content and skills.  Hurried teachers do not genuinely improve their teaching, and hurried students do not genuinely deepen their understanding.

I want Slow Schools.

References:

Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Doyle, W. (1983). Academic work. Review of Educational Research, 53, 159-199.

Duckworth, E. (1987). The Having of wonderful ideas: and other essays on teaching and learning. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

3 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Data, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching

Dear Common Core English Standards: Can we talk?

Back in 1993, when I had barely been teaching in my own high school English classroom for a month, I had an epiphany.  I looked around my classroom of ninth graders and realized, consciously, that they were not all going to become high school English teachers.  As epiphanies go, I admit that does not sound exceptional, but it was actually foundational for the rest of my career in education.  The reason for this was that I simultaneously realized that I was teaching English because of the lifelong qualitative relationship that I had with reading and writing in English.  My father probably read “Oscar the Otter” to me every night for a month when I was four.  As a young reader, I often wondered if I would ever have a friend as cool as Encyclopedia Brown’s sidekick, Sally Kimball.  Later, I was positive that I found a lifelong friend in Charles Wallace Murray, and my copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” and  “A Wind in the Door” were shortly falling apart from their spines.  Bilbo Baggins’ fate trading riddles in the dark is still a matter of tense anticipation, and what I remember most about a bout of chickenpox was that it gave me an opportunity to read all three existing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books in one afternoon.  Why was I a high school English teacher?  Because of the transformative power of reading to develop relationships over distance and centuries, to teach about cultures and ideals, to illuminate human nature, to amuse and to challenge.  I am a better person because of books, and I wanted students to discover similar experiences and to build skills that would allow them to both read and to write powerfully.

That most of my students would not seek the same path did not mean that they were incapable of such reading and writing, but it did mean that I could not ignore that they had their own reasons for being where they were, and that I had to allow them to find reasons for reading and writing that mattered to them.  In other words: You cannot be an English teacher and aim your instruction at the students who most remind you of yourself.

Common Core English Standards, you really need to learn that lesson.

I have read the standards, many times.  I have introduced them in foundations classes.  I am now working with teacher candidates in an English language arts methods class with the standards used for planning.  In this class, candidates not only are learning classroom methods for teaching English, but also they are learning the theoretical basis for adolescent literacy.  I have told them that if they squeeze the standards really hard and shake them a lot, it is possible to get something other than close textual reading out of them.

Common Core English Standards, you are making me a liar.

It is not that the Common Core English Standards do not describe aspects of reading and interpretation.  It is that they describe them from a single literary perspective, and then they backwards engineer them from high school all the way down to Kindergarten.  But don’t take my word on it, let’s look at the Reading Literature Standards themselves.

The Reading Literature Standards are laid out by what they call “College and Career Readiness” anchor standards that are iterated in each grade level.  Those ten anchor standards are organized in groups by Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Text Complexity.  For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to select one standard under each of these groups to present at different levels.

From the grade 11-12 Reading Literature Standards:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

Range of Reading and Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

If you have graduated from a 4 year liberal arts college or university, odds are good that this sounds familiar regardless of your major.  The selected standards in Reading Literature represent a description of the close textual reading you were required to do as part of your introductory English coursework, possibly taught by an enthusiast of the New Criticism school of literary analysis from the mid-twentieth century.  For college bound students, this is not off the mark as far as a portion of their work with literature is concerned.  However, reading the entirety of the reading literature standards demonstrates that close textual reading is pretty much ALL that they contain.  Each of the anchor standard descriptors reiterates the anchors’ focus on the text — to the exclusion of the reader.

As mentioned, these standards then move down to Kindergarten, largely describing simpler tasks for less experienced readers.  From 6th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7: Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

From 3rd grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5: Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7: Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

From Kindergarten:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.5: Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.7: With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.10: Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.

So what is wrong with this?  It represents a very specific purpose of reading literature, a purpose that does not serve the reasons why all children read, not even all children destined to become college English majors, and it is backwards engineered to grade levels when students cannot be expected to have full fluency.  What Common Core does is take reading literature and purpose it entirely to close textual reading, which is a tool of literary criticism, especially for the New Criticism school of analysis.  In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader.

This stands in stark opposition to Reader Response criticism where the role of the reader in creating meaning not only cannot be set aside, but also is absolutely essential for the words on the page to have any meaning whatsoever.  Louise Rosenblatt informed this school of thought by demonstrating that the process of reading is best understood as a transaction between the text and the individual readers who approach the task of reading it:

The transaction involving a reader and a printed text thus can be viewed as an event occurring at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader. The transaction will involve not only the past experience but also the present state and present interests or preoccupations of the reader. It stresses the possibility that printed marks on a page will become different linguistic symbols by virtue of transactions with different readers….

Does not the transactional point of view suggest that we should pay more attention to the experiential framework of any reading transaction? Is it not extraordinary that major social upheavals seem to have been required to disclose the fact that schools have consistently attempted to teach reading without looking at the language and life experience, the cognitive habits, that the child brought to the text? And should not this same concern be brought to bear on more than the problem of the language or dialect that the child brings? Should not a similar concern for reading as an event in a particular cultural and life situation be recognized as pertinent to all reading, for all children at all phases of their development as readers, from the simplest to the most sophisti­cated levels? (pp. 15-16)

Reader Response does not deny that there is a text with a structure that readers must encounter in order to make meaning, but it also recognizes the robust and essential elements brought by each individual reader in the meaning making process.  Instead of the text containing a single meaning to be derived by close textual analysis, the text is brought to many different meanings because of the histories, cultures, dispositions and experiences of the multitude of readers who transact with that text.

At this point, some advocates of the Common Core standards may protest that the Reading Literature standards are not trying to shoehorn all readers into New Criticism, and that with the tools of close textual reading, students and teachers could possibly engage in any number of reading experiences incorporating social, cultural, historical, psychological and personal knowledge.  To some degree, it is upon this that I have been hanging my promise to my own students that you can shake a social reading out of the CCSS if you just shake hard enough.  The problem is that I am not really convinced of that myself.  To begin with, even when the standards suggest some form of reading that is connected to something other than the text, it circles right back to close textual analysis. From the third grade standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

Looking at these, I get somewhat hopeful.  RL3.2 states that students will recall some rich literature such as fables, folktales and myths which could become a great basis for comparing current and past societies, understanding the concept of a the heroic figure and how it relates to the child’s life.  But the standard quickly segues right back to picking out “key details in the text” in service of determining “the central message, lesson, or moral.” (emphasis added) Similarly, RL3.3 begins with some hope that students might develop personal relationships with the characters in the story and use those character traits to better understand themselves.  Then the standard immediately purposes their understanding to “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.”  In Common Core, all literary roads lead to close textual analysis.  The reader is a bit player.

This shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise.  After all, one of the key players in the creation of the English Language Arts standards is David Coleman, current president of the College Board, philosophy graduate from Yale and Rhodes Scholar in English literature at Oxford University.  He is, plainly, a man of great intelligence and of sincere interest in the classical liberal arts.  What he is not, however, is a person with even the slightest credentials in literacy acquisition, elementary literacy or adolescent literacy.  As a student of classical philosophy and literature, he is no doubt quite familiar with literary criticism, but to infuse common standards in the English Language Arts with tools for literary criticism to the exclusion of all other ways to interact with texts all the way down to Kindergarten is a thoroughly strangled view of the role literature plays in the classroom.  This seems entirely unproblematic to Mr. Coleman, and while I have not read his thesis from Oxford, I have little reason to doubt that he is an enthusiast of New Criticism and other formalist schools of thought.  When presenting on the Common Core standards, Mr. Coleman derided what he described as a heavy emphasis on personal writing in most school curricula, thus:

When you add together the structure of the standards with the heavy testing regimen that have been tied to them and actual career consequences for teachers tied to those exams that were simultaneously put in place with the adoption of the CCSS, I find it hard to believe that very many teachers, on their own, are going to be able to use these standards to promote children’s love of literature from any social or experiential angle.  There is also extremely limited room for states to maneuver around the standards, as Mercedes Schneider reminds us here because the Memorandum of Understanding that states signed before adopting the CCSS only allows 15% of states standards to differ

If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.

Did anyone have anything better for children before Common Core?  That’s difficult to answer because while states have been held to progress in examinations since the No Child Left Behind act of 2001, this is the first time that nearly nationwide assessments are going to be aligned with a single set of standards.  However, it is possible to speak about how states with standards different from Common Core did on nationally administered assessments prior to this endeavor.  For example, Massachusetts has long been recognized as a high performing state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  In 2009, when Common Core was still twinkling in its authors’ eyes, Massachusetts’ 4th grade NAEP reading scores were higher than any other state in the nation.  At the time, Massachusetts was still using its own English Language Arts framework, adopted in 2001.  I would like to draw attention to Standard 9: Making Connections:

Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.
By including supplementary reading selections that provide relevant historical and artistic background, teachers deepen students’ understanding of individual literary works and broaden their capacity to connect literature to other manifestations of the creative impulse.

The standard is then extrapolated forward, requiring that students examine works as related to the life and experiences of the author and in relationship to key concepts, ideas and controversies that existed in the society that produced the work itself.  Examinations such as these are fruitful grounds for personal experiences and comparisons of current society and events as well.  This is similar to principles articulated by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA) in the standards for the English Language Arts that they released in the 1990s.  Standards 1-3, in particular, articulate a broad vision of what reading is for and how readers go about doing it:

  1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Neither of these documents rules out close textual reading, nor do they dismiss the need for students to develop skills in creating sophisticated analyses using the tools of text.  Common Core, however, provides no explicit space for any other kind of reading or analysis, and it appears entirely uninformed by any framework of reading as a process that includes the reader in any capacity other than as faithful seeker of the text’s internally constructed meaning.  Readers who want to understand society and history via the text?  Readers who want to explore their own humanity across space and time with characters who live and breathe after centuries?  Readers who want to enjoy the feelings of a work of art without picking it apart into its component parts?

People don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

63 Comments

Filed under Common Core, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching, Testing

New York Times Ignored Teacher Input on Eva Moskowitz

The September 7th New York Times Magazine ran a story by Daniel Bergner called “The Battle for New York Schools: Eva Moskowitz vs. Mayor Bill de Blasio”.  Bergner’s piece reads as an astonishing piece of hagiography to appear in the paper of record, ignoring any substantive argument about Ms. Moskowitz’s schools and repeating without critique her organization’s point of view.  Mr. Bergner did make note that he had spoken to critics of Ms. Moskowitz’s approach, notably Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University whose input he represents thusly:

When I talked with her, Ravitch indicted the hedge-fund titans and business moguls — including Kenneth Langone, a founder of Home Depot, and the Walton family of Walmart — who put their weight behind promising charter schools, leading their boards and lending political clout. “When they call themselves reformers,” she says, “it’s something I gag on.” What these philanthropists are all about, Ravitch says, is making themselves feel good while using charters as a halfway step in a covert effort to pull the country toward the privatization of education. For charter opponents, liberalism is in jeopardy. And from this perspective, Moskowitz, with her results and her readiness to trumpet them, poses the greatest risk.

Knowing something of Dr. Ravitch’s criticisms of charters schools generally and of Ms. Moskowitz specifically, this struck me as an odd and likely incomplete representation of her input.  Sure enough, several days after publication, Dr. Ravitch responded in her own blog at some length. According to Dr. Ravitch, her conversation with Mr. Bergner was not represented in the published article:

I spent a lot of time on the phone with the author, Daniel Bergner. When he asked why I was critical of Moskowitz, I said that what she does to get high test scores is not a model for public education or even for other charters. The high scores of her students is due to intensive test prep and attrition. She gets her initial group of students by holding a lottery, which in itself is a selection process because the least functional families don’t apply. She enrolls small proportions of students with disabilities and English language learners as compared to the neighborhood public school. And as time goes by, many students leave.

The only Success Academy school that has fully grown to grades 3-8 tested 116 3rd graders but only 32 8th graders. Three other Success Academy schools have grown to 6th grade. One tested 121 3rd graders but only 55 6th graders, another 106 3rd graders but only 68 6th graders, and the last 83 3rd graders but only 54 6th graders. Why the shrinking student body? When students left the school, they were not replaced by other incoming students. When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test.

She goes on to note that in addition to the phenomenon of selective attrition, she also discussed high rates of teacher attrition at network schools, but that Mr. Bergner argued with her instead of interviewing her.  Dr. Ravitch also notes that Mr. Bergner used different language than she did when discussing the issues with him, and all of her points about selective attrition were either ignored or glossed over with talking points that reflect Success Academy’s standard public statements.

While Dr. Ravitch has a platform to illuminate the distressing puffery that made it to the New York Times magazine posing as a multi-sided examination of a contentious public issue, a reader would be hard pressed to know that Mr. Bergner actually spoke to public school teachers who work in fully public schools that are co-located with Success Academy schools.  The sole hint of input is presented here:

That attitude (Moskowitz’s)  infuriates many teachers at regular schools. When I spoke with a handful, they used words like “metastasize” and “venal” to describe Success Academy’s proliferation. That Moskowitz’s wealthy board members choose to highly reward her track record — her salary and bonus for the 2012-13 school year totaled $567,500 — only adds to the union’s fury.

What is astonishing about that brief mention focused entirely upon a few potential epithets and alleged jealousy of Ms. Moskowitz’s salray is that Mr. Bergner DID speak with teachers who work in co-locations with Success Academy schools.  In fact, he spoke at length and clearly decided to disregard their input almost entirely. I am fortunate to know one of those teachers through local teacher advocacy groups, and she agreed to inform me about her discussions with Mr. Bergner and to share what it is like to be a teacher at a school where Ms. Moskowitz has claimed classroom space for her students.  Her name is Ms. Mindy Rosier, and she is a teacher at P.S. 811, the Mickey Mantle School, a special needs school within P.S. 149 in District 75.  They have been co-located with Success Academy since 2006, and this Spring, she and her colleagues found themselves in the center of the storm when Mayor de Blasio decided to not allow three previously agreed upon co-locations for Success Academy expansions.  The resulting highly public battle resulted in a 6 million dollar ad campaign accusing the mayor of throwing Success Academy students out of their schools, all funded by Ms. Moskowitz’s Wall Street supporters, and it culminated in Governor Andrew Cuomo helping coordinate a pro-Moskowitz rally in Albany that resulted in the city of New York being bound by the state budget to provide co-locations or pay rent for all charter schools.

Ms. Rosier was kind enough to answer my questions about what she thinks people in NYC need to know about the consequences of charter school co-locations awarded to Success Academy.  Much of this was what she told Mr. Bergner in a 45 minute long conversation whose content never made it to the New York Times Magazine:

Can you explain the school where you work?  Who are your students and what is the mission of your school?  

My school is PS811 at PS149. We are an additional site to the Mickey Mantle School family and we are also a part of District 75. My school site serves over 100 children with autism, learning disabilities, emotional and psychiatric disorders in a low income area in Harlem. Harlem Gems also have some rooms in our building. We all get along really well, with the exception of Success Academy.

The following is our mission statement;

The core values of P811M are articulated and expressed by a family of dedicated professionals committed to educating the whole child with integrity, compassion and respect. Our collective community effectively implements instructional practices geared to the individualized achievement of students’ social, emotional and academic goals. Each child’s individual assessment data informs this instruction. It is our goal to lead students towards maximum independence. With this independence, disabilities are turned into abilities.”

How did the co-location with Success Academy happen?  Were there discussions with parents and faculty/staff?  Do you know how it was decided to co-locate at your school?

Our site opened the same time as Success Academy began. It is my understanding that at that time, space for all was agreed upon. They had a certain amount of classes on one floor in one side of the building. I was hired at that school during the same time, so I am unaware of any other previous discussions with faculty/staff and parents. I don’t think anyone had a problem with that co-location then, but then again we had no idea what was to come.

How did the co-location process work?  Did you have any input into how the building would be divided between your school and Success Academy? 

At first, everything was fine. Then, over the next several years, they have requested more and more space from us. Up until last year, I did not know what the process was. I know our teachers did not have a say in this, and I really don’t know what the involvement of my admins were. I do know that just for one year, our former Chapter Leader (who now works for the UFT division for District 75 schools) was able to prevent more expansion on her part. Overall, we lost two floors that included classrooms, our library, our music room, our art room, our science room, and as a matter of making up one classroom, we lost our technology room as well. P.S.149 was so nice and offered us some available rooms at that time. Since, Success Academy has also expanded on their side and they lost an entire floor. So by last year, we had NO free space and P.S.149 was and is crunched for space as well.

Do the schools ever share any parts of the facilities?  If yes, how does that work out most of the time?  If not, do you know why?

We are NOT allowed on their floors. However, they always go through our hallways. Because of overcrowding and for safety reasons, they were told not to walk through a certain hallway during our dismissal times. My understanding was that they were not too happy about it and I have observed this still happening a couple of times over the years. All schools share the auditorium. In order to reserve time, coordination needs to be done. When Success Academy is using the auditorium, it is usually closed off to all others. Since our building is of a decent size, many of us cut through the back of the auditorium to the other exit to get to the P.S 149 side. (We have 3 classes on their second floor as well as a speech room and a resolution room.) So many times, when SA puts on a show or an event, it is very loud! There are two sets of doors that lead to the auditorium from our hallway. We have several rooms including classrooms close by. They have no problem keeping those doors open, disturbing our classrooms and other rooms. My office happens to be near there as well. So many times I have gotten up to close those two sets of doors. Sometimes I got looks doing so, but I didn’t care. We were all being disturbed. Noise levels do not have to be that loud. Even with the two doors shut, you still can here them. We just make do, like every other time. We do share the lunch room. In the mornings, SA has their breakfast first and then we do. There is another lunchroom on the P.S.149 side and also because of scheduling, their lunch begins around 10:40. On our side it is 11:30. Whether or not lunch staff starts on time, we have to be out of there just shy of 12. Our standardized students then have recess for a half hour, and then our alternative students have the next half hour. On Wednesdays, Success Academy has early dismissal. They are supposed to come out at 12:30. They exit through our playground. For the most part, they are already lined up to leave as we are heading back in from recess. There have been some occasions where at least one of their classes had come out really early. It was about 12:15 and my assigned class were in the middle of a kickball game. I yelled out several times to that teacher to please hold off, it is still our time. I know I was loud (that’s the Brooklyn in me) so I am pretty confident she heard me but chose to ignore me. My students LOVE recess and when they saw they had to end the game early they got upset very quickly and behaviors escalated. Me and one other para(professional) were trying our best to calm them down. There was another para who had gone inside earlier with another student because of a separate issue. When I saw that para come out, I yelled to him to get help which he did. This was a 4th grade class of about 12 who are all emotionally disturbed and learning disabled.  It was such a difficult situation. Some students had to be separated because their anger looked like it was going to lead to some fights. My lunch was next period, and I immediately informed my Assistant Principal. In front of me, she called their principal. I also had to write up several incident reports.

Now back to our lunchroom….our lunchroom is also our gym. Right after breakfast, it is cleaned up and the tables are folded and pushed to the sides. We have access to this space all mornings. Now the afternoon is a different story.  SA uses the the lunchroom in the afternoons. If P.S.149’s gym is available, they have been nice enough to let us share it. Otherwise adapted phys ed is done in the classrooms. Our gym teacher is wonderful and he has been great adapting to this situation. However, these are kids, kids with special needs, and they need to run a bit.

What changes have you seen in your work and your students’ educations since co-locating with Success Academy?  What do you think accounts for that?

We have done our best over the years to make sure that our students’ education has not been compromised in  any way. However, our students as well as those in P.S.149 have picked up on the fact that we are all treated differently from them by them.  Their teachers sometimes very obviously, have always looked down at our students even us teachers. I have tried to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are new teachers and they may just not understand what our students are going through. However, that is no excuse to give us looks or ignore us for simply saying “good morning.” There have also been some times where as I was passing, some of the kids have said “hi” to me. I love all children and without even realizing it I always acknowledge their presence even if it just a smile. I remember one time in particular those kids seemed so happy that I made their eye gaze, so I quickly said “hi” to them and slowly kept on walking by. A few of them said “hi” back and proudly told me how old they were. I would have loved to engage with them but they are not our students. Their teacher snapped at them to be quiet and to stand correctly on line. I felt so bad and I did look back. I didn’t want anyone in trouble for me simply saying “hi.”

Could you explain any changes to the environment/culture/feeling of the building during that time?  What do you think accounts for that?

There is definitely and us vs. them feeling in the air. I’ve been told that they have shiny clean floors, new doors, fancy bathrooms, etc. Meanwhile, we have teachers who have bought mops and even a vacuum cleaner to clean their rooms for they feel what is done is not efficient enough. Near our entrance, we have an adult bathroom. It is for staff and our parents. Success Academy parents as well have used it. For many months that bathroom went out of order. Honestly, I am not even sure it is fixed yet, but after all this time, I really hope so. So we would have to either use the closet of a bathroom in the staff lunch area or use one of the kids’ bathroom when it is not in use. You and I know that had that been an SA bathroom, it would have been fixed by the next day. SA also throws out tons of new or practically new materials often. At first, some of their teachers would sneak us some materials thinking we could benefit from it. They stopped out of fear. With all the great stuff that they have thrown out, they got angry when they found out that teachers from P.S.149 and I believe some of our teachers too would go through the piles and take what we could use. Well, now they only throw out their garbage shortly before pick up so that no one could get at it. Nice, right?

We have all seen them get Fresh Direct deliveries. Our kids too. Our students have a general feeling that SA students are special based on how they walk around and how they are personally treated either by looks or sometimes comments. Our students may be special needs, but they understand to a point that feeling of us vs. them. We do not at all refer to things that way at all.

It truly is sad. We are a school with teachers, other staff, and students. We are all supposed to be here for a reason. It is beyond me that this has been such a battle.

This past year teachers and other faculty were very angry. Once I heard about SA’s plan to take over last September, that’s when I started to get involved. Enough was enough. In October, I attended a hearing in my school building, I went to that Panel for Education Policy (PEP) in Brooklyn a week later, and subsequent to that, I have been a part of rallies and press conferences, etc. as I have detailed in my email. All of what happened at my school has led to my educational activism. I have read so much over the years. The more and more I read, the angrier I got. The Alliance For Quality Education has done so much for our school in order to save it and for that I am very thankfully to them and I still maintain a very good relationship with them. I was introduced to MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) in late April, and I now sit on its Steering Committee, committed to do right by our teachers and students. Instead of just being angry as I have been for so long, I finally did something about it by being proactive. I do have to say, since my activism began, I have made tons of new like-minded friend and I am grateful of that too.

Why do you think Eva Moskowitz and Mayor Bloomberg agreed to further expansion of Success Academy in your building?  What would you say to them about that if you could?

Oh, boy! I believe they are friends and that they run in same circles. They did not care, never did. When we went to that PEP in October, about putting through those charter locations, it was like nothing I have ever seen before. It was my first one. The room was packed with teachers from so many different schools. There were parents, students, and various community leaders including Letitia James and Noah Gotbaum. People were ANGRY. So many plead their case for two minutes at the mic, some with heart wrenching stories, and all the while the panel was very busy playing on their phones, looking bored and disinterested. It was disgusting. You could hear so many people yelling, “Get off your phones!” I did not speak at this PEP ,but a dear coworker did.  I hadn’t found my voice just yet at that time. She tried to give an impassioned speech and when they did not even look at her, she called them out on it and was STILL ignored. It sure seemed to us that the fix was in. Money and power talks and all else suffers.

How could you be so heartless? How can you say you are for all children when you have thought nothing about our community’s most vulnerable children, just willing to toss them aside like trash? A population that you refuse to educate and have sent as cast-offs our way? Knowing our building did NOT have any free space, why did you purposely choose to expand here? Why were parents lied to? Why did you perpetuate lies in the media and to the general public?  These are just some of the questions I would ask her (Eva Moskowitz) based solely on what she tried to do to my school. Trust me, there are so many more that we all have been asking her for a long time.

On the Families 4 Excellent Schools’ page on Facebook, I have gone back and forth with many, and most of those were parents. They had no clue as to what the truth was. So instead of them doing their homework, it was easier to call me a liar, a racist, clueless myself, etc., etc. I didn’t go on there to bash Success Academy. I went on there to inform them of the truth that was completely hidden to them and the general public.  After a while, I just had to stop. It was like beating my head against the wall. Moskowitz seems to be this cult-like figure to parents and they adore her. I have even heard her be called a savior!

As for Bloomberg, I used to like him, but that obviously changed.  Apparently, he came to our building several times to visit SA but never us. We never said “boo.” However when Farina came to our school for a quick walk through to see our space situation during this whole debacle, it became front page news in the NY Daily News with Farina’s big picture and bold letters SNUBBED.  Something to that affect, I don’t remember exactly. SA was pissed that even though she had a specific purpose for her visit to us, she did not go to visit them. She “snubbed” them and that made the front page! Honestly, I think I would simply ask him, “Why did you put money, politics, and power over the welfare of our beautiful special needs children?”

What do you think about the presentation of your concerns in the New York Times article that ran in the September 7th magazine?  Is there anything you think the reporter ought to explain to you and your fellow teachers?

I was beyond angry. I have no problem taking time out to talk about concerns I have, and on those things that I am passionate. I spent a considerable amount giving very specific facts, and they were all ignored. Other teachers were ignored. Parents were ignored. We all gave verifiable facts, but that did not matter. I personally feel that a good reporter should report both sides of the story. Way too many reporters and various mass media outlets have failed us, our school. our students, their parents, and the general public. I want to know why he blatantly ignored all of us and deceived the general public? Important information that I feel everyone should know, instead of blindly praising a woman with obvious deceitful tendencies simply because they have higher scores. There is a reason for that and the public needs to know the actual truth. Isn’t writing about and printing the truth Reporting 101? We ALL deserve a public apology with answers to the questions I have mentioned.

We need more reporters like Juan Gonzalez who is not afraid to tell the truth. He has posted several articles on SA, even one that had a focus on our school. He is one out of how many? AND because of all the faulty and biased information out there, when he does write something, he does not get any respect and he has been bashed.  “How do you say such things about Moskowitz and her schools?”

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!

###

Ms. Rosier has also written to the New York Times and Daniel Bergner to express her surprise that none of her conversation made it into the article, and to remind Mr. Bergner what she had said to him.  As of today, the letter has not appeared in the Times, but Ms. Rosier provides the text of it here.

26 Comments

Filed under Activism, charter schools, Media, Stories, Unions

Ms. Tullo — Portrait of a Great Teacher

Recently, I contemplated what it would take to really evaluate a teacher preparation program in contrast with the methods employed by the National Council of Teacher Quality.  My thoughts rested  with actual measurements of program effectiveness and quality, but they also rested with the graduates of the program and the education narratives they compose with their actual students in actual schools.  In an age when we valorize data from test scores far beyond their designed capacities, it is important to pause and see how lives are impacted by teachers in ways that affirm the aesthetic in teaching.

A number of my former students came to mind as I considered that question, and, among them, is Ms. Shaina Tullo, a member of Seton Hall’s Class of 2010 and an English teacher in the northern New Jersey area.  I taught Shaina in a number of classes from our introductory history of education and foundations course, to a course on the role of diversity in the classroom and her secondary English methods course.  From the beginning of her teacher education, it was obvious that she was sincerely dedicated both to reading and writing and to helping new generations of children learn to love them both.  Shaina always demonstrated a passion for the English language, a deep appreciation of the power that is embodied in language and genuine excitement at the thought of working with her future students born of her own discovery of what language’s power can do.  What was perhaps most impressive about Shaina as a teacher candidate was how consistently she reminded me of why I had originally become an English teacher.

Naturally, I was delighted when she agreed to let me write about her and her work in this blog, and she was very informative when answering my questions.  I will let her words speak on her behalf from this point forward:

How did you decide to become a teacher?  Which people and which experiences were most influential for that decision?

Ironically enough, I decided to be a teacher when I was in kindergarten. I actually have a photo of my kindergarten graduation with my “When I Grow Up”project which stated that I wanted to be a teacher and teach children how to read books.  Seems like quite a bit of foreshadowing, huh?  This was definitely drawn from my experiences in and outside of school.  To say I grew up from modest means would be an understatement.  School, and moreover, books became a method of escapism and wonderment that would carry me through the hardships of growing up in poverty.

Additionally, the unwavering support of my educators throughout my school years drove me to education. I have been blessed with some of the most diligent and beautiful educators throughout my school life.  Mrs. Goldenbaum, my first and third grade teacher, condoned my book habit at a young age.  Once, when crying because the librarian would not let a seven year-old me check out Joan of Arc, she marched me to the library and took it herself.  We had to renew the book about five times, but I finished it.  My eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Weissman, was an invaluable member of my life and continued to push me towards more complex texts while nurturing my love of poetry and creative writing.  He would read my stories religiously—even the horrifically bad ones—and provide meaningful feedback.  In high school, Mademoiselle Cermak and Mr. Bischoff became surrogate parents, offering life lessons and advice on everything from prom dresses to boyfriends to the philosophical ramifications of existentialism. All of these people were monumental in helping me towards teaching.  They awakened in me the need to give of myself, to strive for excellence, and to love unconditionally. So, in a sense, the decision to become an educator was never something I pondered over. It seemed to be what I was always meant to do.

What is most important to you about teaching English?  Why is this subject important?

Teaching English, to me, is more than just analyzing symbolism or parsing poetry for deeper meaning.  To teach English is to study the human condition, to examine life as it should be lived and as it has been lived across cultures and time.  There is something so remarkable about finding truth, didacticism, advice, hope, despair, and fear within the written word.  My subject is important because it teaches students how to live life well, and is an essential component in understanding our humanity.  Other subjects, mathematics, science, foreign languages, are pursuits that will undoubtedly aid those in my classroom in being intelligible, functioning members of society.  But few subjects get to help formulate identity, as is the case in an English classroom.

What do you think draws most people to become English teachers?

I truly believe that English teachers are a special breed of people. We are, for starters, a very bookish bunch, but a reader does not necessarily make an English teacher. Those of us who are driven to teach English are profoundly inspired by text, by literary culture, and by words. We seek to guide others on this path because we believe it will profoundly alter their lives for the better. And those of us who are truly devoted to the study of literature, will continue with this pursuit in the face of resistance. It is too important a task and, thus, we are not easily shaken.

Explain your education as a teacher –from being a student, to being a student of teaching to being a teacher.  What was influential and helpful at all three phases of your education?

The progression from student to teacher is a very gradual one and, perhaps, the minutia of it may be lost on the outside world.  I would say the most easily traceable difference is the progression from philosophy to practicality.  As a student in high school, most lessons are very philosophical and idea heavy.  We discuss motivation, draw inferences, and express feelings.  As I moved into being a student of education, particularly as I moved through the teacher education program at Seton Hall, more and more practical aspects are integrated into education.  No longer was I dealing with the abstract, I was creating lesson plans, units, assessments with purpose.  This is practical.  And, of course, being a teacher, comes the most practical of all the stages in which most of which I produce is utilized.

I will say that Seton Hall was a remarkable institution for guiding me through all the phases of this process.  That my field placements started much earlier than other teacher education programs was invaluable.  I was able to have tangible and meaningful experiences in classrooms, such that I never experienced the “first year jitters”when I finally had my own classroom.  At that point, it seemed as though the classroom was a natural extension of myself. To this end, the various lesson planning and assessments done throughout my program at Seton Hall were so helpful.  Not only do I frequently use many of the artifacts I produced during my undergraduate years in my own classroom, but I also have the skills required to create high quality items for my class.  Throughout my four years as a teacher, I have consistently been complimented on the quality and caliber of the artifacts I generate for class.

What are some of the most important things a future teacher should learn before entering the classroom?

First and foremost, a future teacher should master his or her content. I cannot explain how invaluable this is in preparing yourself for a classroom, for without a deep knowledge of content, real learning cannot happen.

To this end, practical components of teaching should be mastered before entering the classroom. Understanding the basic tenants of teaching pedagogy and lesson planning, methods for employing differentiated instruction, and the philosophy and justification for differing types of assessment should not necessarily be mastered, as mastery will take the sum total of many years of teaching, but any future teacher should have a good working knowledge of these concepts.

I would also say that a lot of the important things a teacher will learn (classroom management, quick-thinking, the ability to balance work and social life) can only truly be learned in a classroom. In your first year, in your first classroom, you will fail.  Lessons you thought would profoundly change the lives of your students will be met with glazed eyes and snores.  This is natural, and will help shape you into the educator you want to be.  So, in a sense, the most important thing a future teacher can learn is the ability to forgive oneself, embrace failure, and learn from mistakes.

Can you describe a “typical”day teaching?  What is most memorable to you day by day?

A typical teaching day starts with arriving early and basking in the quiet of the halls for an hour or so before the students arrive.  This gives ample time to ready myself (literally and mentally) for the day.  The actual teaching component of the day flies by. This year I taught six classes and I always felt like the most enjoyable part of the day was the actual class time I spent with my student.  Almost all of my free time (lunch, prep periods, after school) is devoted to talking with or helping the students in some capacity.  This is the blessing (though some may call it a curse) of being a popular teacher in school.  The students often want to spend time with you.  I would recommend taking this time with the students as much as possible and within reason.  It is these quiet moments outside of class where students need you most.  They come under the guise of “hanging out”at lunch, but the amount that is shared in this time period is paramount.  Consequently, it is these moments that endear the students to you and you to them.  This allows for an environment of mutual respect and understanding.  It creates a mentor/mentee relationship in which you can become a positive adult role model for the students.  For a lot of students, particularly where I work in an inner city, having a grounded adult is very important as this may be the most stable time period in their whole day. These are always my favorite moments when teaching.

One of my favorite anecdotes surrounding teaching was this year during the spring musical.  I directed our production of Little Shop of Horrors which was an amazing experience but also a very stressful one as our theater program was very new.  As a former performer myself, I really did work the students very hard throughout preparation for the play (the theater kids started the rumor that I was tougher than the basketball coach). But, on opening night, when I was backstage with the kids who were all very nervous, I told them that the most important part of the play was to have fun. This alleviated so much tension and prompted what became a traditional backstage dance party.  It was so wonderful seeing the kids loosen up and enjoy themselves at what would have otherwise been a very stressful moment.  And, as it turned out, our production was nearly flawless.

Another one of my favorite times of year involved my work at my former school where I was the yearbook adviser. Our club sponsored all the social clubs, and we would frequently put on dances as a fundraiser. Being after school with an army of children, having about two hours to transform the gym into something other than a gym was always very stressful but also the most fun we had all year. The gym was always beautifully decorated and we always had successful dances, but seeing the kids pull together to create massive pieces of decoration was always tremendously rewarding. Our post-decorating dinner of pizza always impressed upon me a feeling of family, as we would laugh about whose tape ran out or who had paint on their faces.

One of my other favorite accomplishments that actually deals with the classroom involves my juniors from this year. When I first started teaching them, I realized the students in my class had never written academic analytical papers or conducted research of any kind. To be blunt, on average, their writing skills had been far below grade level.  I spent an extraordinary amount of time after their first papers were due teaching academic writing, research, and analysis. Finally, in March, I sat down to grade a stack of Othello papers and was absolutely impressed with the body of work I had received. Not only were my students writing academically, but they were uncovering nuance of text that I myself had not considered. I actually almost cried over how far they had grown and how much they had developed. It was definitely a gradual development throughout the year, but those papers really did move me.

How important are your fellow teachers to your daily work?

My fellow teachers are very important to my daily work. I have been blessed in both schools where I have worked, in that my fellow staff members were always extremely helpful and outgoing. There has always been a support network available to share materials, collaborate with projects, or share snacks on a particularly bad day.

Cross-curricular planning is also a very vital method for improving student achievement, as it ensures students’abilities to make connections and draw upon multiple intelligences. Having a teacher to work with is very helpful in this regard. Most recent, I taught The Things They Carried as a cross-curricular component to my juniors’unit on Vietnam in US History II. A lot of students said this was their favorite unit all year, as it provided faces and emotion to what would otherwise seem like a very rigid history unit. In turn, my students brought with them a breadth of knowledge as to the context of the events in the novel.

Also, given the demographics of where I teach, I often rely heavily on the foreign language department of school to provide translations and assistance when interacting with the parents of students who are non-English speaking families. Having the interpersonal relationships with these staff members help create a classroom culture that is both accommodating and welcoming.

What is your teaching “philosophy”?  What beliefs and commitments guide your teaching?

I am actually going to copy the first paragraph of my philosophy of education as it appears in my teacher portfolio:

First and foremost, each class has a different culture and personality dependent upon their past educational experiences. This is equally true of teachers. To teach is to find a marriage of class culture and teacher philosophy. As a teacher, I find myself consistently engrossed in developing my craft of teaching, especially when done in order to better meet the needs of my classes’cultures. Thus, the philosophies represented are a testament to my current beliefs and practices. They are in no way finite. I am committed to constantly adapting and changing my beliefs and practices in light of new data or new student needs. When it pertains to the teaching reading and writing, I find that five major beliefs shape my philosophy: (1) I believe that there is an inherent and necessary need for the study of reading and writing (2) I believe in the power of reading as a method of attaining lifelong thinking skills (3) I believe in the wide-reaching and pervasive importance of writing (4) I believe that assessment of reading and writing needs to reflect true learning by emphasizing process over product (5) I believe technology and the teaching of reading and writing is not exclusive.

Is there anything you would say to one of your students who wants to teach?

I would tell one of my students who wanted to teach that this career is about sacrifice. We give of ourselves so much, and, sometimes, we do so without thanks. But, if you can endure the long hours and can commit yourself to a life where your accomplishments are often immeasurable or unknown, then you will be rewarded in profound and extraordinary ways. You will see students grow to unbelievable heights and you will shape them in ways that they themselves may never notice. It is a beautiful life with so, so many rewards, and I fully recommend it.

I have been a part of conversations between other faculty members and students who have advised students not to become teachers, “Be anything but a teacher. Be something better,” they said. I even had a professor say the same thing to me in college when she found out my major. It is a hard job, yes, and it pervades your identity. But there are few careers that offer such tremendous rewards as teaching. It may take the right type of person, but when the person is right amazing things can happen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Portrait of a Great Teacher, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching