At-Risk Students, Bad Teachers, Failing Schools: Our Blinding Accusatory Finger Pointing

radical eyes for equity

Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

“The Scientist,” Coldplay

The absolute greatest gift of being a teacher by profession is accumulating throughout your career the young people gifted you by your classroom.

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a former student and current teacher, Ali Williams, who teaches English at a majority-minority, high-poverty high school in the school district that serves the county where I teach.

Among the ramblings of our nerdfest, we talked about language, about the challenges of trying to be a good teacher, and about the fields of psychology and sociology, a tension that has more and more fascinated me over a thirty-plus years career as a teacher.

For anyone who doesn’t know Ali personally or who has never spent time at her school or with her students (I have had several teacher candidates placed…

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We Can, and We Must

radical eyes for equity

I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas—she was always voicing it—that in the long run one gets used to anything.

The Stranger, Albert Camus (Trans. Stuart Gilbert)

Pamela Cantor offers her medical perspective to the education reform debate that tends to focus on high-poverty schools disproportionately serving  black and brown children:

The argument that says we can’t fix education until we fix poverty is a false one [1]. We can’t fix poverty or the other adverse events of children’s lives, but we can “fix” the impact of stress on the developing brain. In fact, we have to. We can and must teach schools and teachers how to do this now.

Lurking beneath the good intentions of this charge, however, is the false dichotomy of fatalism that is common among a wide range of education reformers.

For children living in poverty—a stressful and toxic life of unjust scarcity

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Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Thoughtful, layered discussion!

radical eyes for equity

Few issues in education seem more important or more universally embraced (from so-called progressive educators to right-wing politicians such as Jeb Bush) than the need to have all children reading on grade level—specifically by that magical third grade:

Five years ago, communities across the country formed a network aimed at getting more of their students reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade. States, cities, counties, nonprofit organizations, and foundations in 168 communities, spread across 41 states and the District of Columbia, are now a part of that initiative, theCampaign for Grade-Level Reading.

However, advocating that all students must read at grade level—often defined as reading proficiency—rarely acknowledges the foundational problems with those goals: identifying text by a formula claiming “grade level” and then identifying children as readers by association with those readability formulas.

This text, some claim, is a fifth-grade text, and thus children who can “read” that…

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The Humble Visionary

I am struck, on a regular basis, by the contradictions inherent in this initiative around innovative teaching. It is essential that we are at once humble and empowered; strong, confident learners, communicator-collaborators with a level of disciplinary expertise who are at once authorities in their domain, but with a willingness to share space & open doors. We must be, in the parlance of the coalition-of-essential schools, generalists first; specialists second.

Educators must know their content area but ALWAYS begin from a point of inquiry; build lessons around genuine questions; invite students in to learn with you—to model learning more than to model expertise.

***

School leaders, from the top down, need to lead with an inclusive vision that is at once personal and communal. We need to be consensus-builders.

It is not a movement for the literalist, for it is not formulaic. It looks different in every department, in every classroom, in every individual teacher’s practice.

Here at Worcester Academy, teacher leaders serve as:

Chairs: humble reflective practitioners who lead by example. They lead professional development in each of the departments, creating a unique, holistic educational experience that becomes the culture, the classroom, the hallmark of the school. They are humble and reflective, with the sort of complexity that requires a fine confluence of intelligences.

Vision committee: selfless faculty who choose to advise the school leadership on next steps, help gauge progress; move the initiative forward. Last year they planned an unconference—teacher designed-teacher delivered. They continue in that vein. It is open to all; there is little attrition; we have several new members this year.

Next layer of leaders: Here are those who have stepped up to lead special areas of interest or special projects (i.e., blended and online learning; special projects in mathematics) The road is unfolding (always taking the temperature). The vision committee led workshops on our last PD Day on key topics (essential questions; formative vs. summative assessment; growth mindset; blended and online learning, etc.) These experts from within engaged teachers on an introductory level; the next step is a “deep dive” into those topics with the goal of forming interest groups or professional learning communities so that teachers can discover and develop that strand that can drive their practice and growth.

The challenge–to return to one of the fundamental tensions in this field–to lead with the authority of a clear and informed vision, work toward consensus, build confidence and expertise in all members of the community, so all are empowered to be collaborative contributors to an innovative vision and a visionary school.

“Boyhood” and “Being Mortal”: Agency, Agency, Agency

Projects for the New Paradigm

I spent my winter break with a 2-year old whose mantra, as you might imagine, was “I do it myself!” Her areas of expertise: steps and doors. I quickly learned that if I tried to open the door, she would shriek. If I let her do it, she would try and try until she got it. I had to be patient, but she stopped shrieking as I learned to be patient and give her time and space to perfect her craft.

I’ve just finished Atul Gawande’s thoughtful and significant book, Being Mortal. In it, he reflects on our reluctance to acknowledge, much less embrace, the notion that our bodies will, in fact diminish, and we will, one day, face the end of our lives. He examines not only death, but quality of life and care for the elderly, and the ways in which we restrict autonomy and remove agency…

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“Boyhood” and “Being Mortal”: Agency, Agency, Agency

I spent my winter break with a 2-year old whose mantra, as you might imagine, was “I do it myself!” Her areas of expertise: steps and doors. I quickly learned that if I tried to open the door, she would shriek. If I let her do it, she would try and try until she got it. I had to be patient, but she stopped shrieking as I learned to be patient and give her time and space to perfect her craft.

I’ve just finished Atul Gawande’s thoughtful and significant book, Being Mortal. In it, he reflects on our reluctance to acknowledge, much less embrace, the notion that our bodies will, in fact diminish, and we will, one day, face the end of our lives. He examines not only death, but quality of life and care for the elderly, and the ways in which we restrict autonomy and remove agency in the name of safety or to extend life—but at a cost. As we see in his example of the institutionalized diabetic who is forbidden dessert—who could, if she lived on her own, choose to indulge now and then.

He investigates and reflects on what becomes important to people as they approach their final years:

The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. …. We have at last entered an era in which an increasing number of [professionals] believe their job is not to confine people’s choices, in the name of safety, but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life. (Gawande 141)

Consider applying that excerpt to schooling, as in: “The battle of [learning; finding one’s passion, voice, interests] is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from … who you want to be. …. We have at last entered an era in which an increasing number of [educators] believe their job is not to confine [students’] choice… but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life.”

Lest you consider connecting end-of-life issues with early-life issues a bit of a stretch, consider Richard Linklater’s recent film, Boyhood. It was an unusual artistic venture—he began the fictional tale in 2002 when the actor playing the main character, Mason, was 6 years old and returned to film the next segment each year until his senior year and high school graduation in 2013.

We watch the character and the actor grow up over the span of two hours. Artistically, it was extraordinary, but beyond that, what leapt out to me, and felt so very true, was the way that every adult in the film with the exception of two—his mother and one teacher (in a brief encounter toward the end of his high school career) talked at him.

Mason was lectured to endlessly by nearly every adult in his life. He was a smart, artistic, quiet, reflective boy, but with the exception of his mother, you would not have known that by the interactions he had with adults. His father, his step father, his teachers, all spent their time with him telling him how life is, how he should act, how he should be, how to succeed, how insufficient he is, what a failure he will be, etc.

This was Mason’s interaction with his school photography teacher, Mr. Turlington:

I’m worried about you, Mason.

[laughs] Why is that?

I’ll tell you why: The images you’re turning in, they’re cool. You’re looking at things in a really unique way. Got a lot of natural talent.

Thanks.

Yeah, but that and 50 cents will just get you a cup of coffee in this old world. I’ve met a LOT of talented people over the years. How many of them made it professionally without discipline, commitment and really good work ethic?

[Shrugs]

I can tell ya. I can count it on two fingers. [Makes A-ok hand gesture] Zero. It’s not gonna happen for you, Mason. The world is too competitive. There are too many talented people who are willing to work hard; and a buttload of morons who are untalented, who are more than willing to surpass you.

The interaction does not even make complete sense—unless you are accustomed to the logic of school, where learning and exploration are, too often, not the goal. Certainly goals and outcomes typically do not include self-discovery, and the development of one’s own vision, voice and passions. Discipline, delayed gratification, the subversion of one’s desires—in the interest of “what’s good for you”—is much more commonly the goal.

Interestingly, Mason’s mother listens and respects her son’s integrity, even in the opening scenes, when he is only 7. They are driving home from school:

Your teacher said you’re behind on your homework assignments.

No, I did them, they were just sitting in my backpack.

So, why didn’t you turn them in?

She never asked for them.

Well, honey, she’s not supposed to ask for them. It’s your job to give them to her once you’ve finished.

Oh.

She also said you destroyed her pencil sharpener.

No I didn’t.

Then what did you put in it instead of pencils?

Rocks.

Why were you putting rocks in the pencil sharpener?

Because I needed them for my arrowhead collection.

Who among us is patient and kind enough to continue to question and listen that long?