Schools Needn’t Fail

65095480.jpegWhen I originally started this blog, I started with a pretty self-important diatribe against the systemization of education, especially in the form of standardized testing, rubrics, and the like. I find myself wanting to return to that discussion again, especially in the wake of the ongoing debate fueled by a post on Clay Burell’s Beyond School blog. On the other hand, I feel the urge to exactly ignore that discussion, because ultimately it leads to an us-against-the-administration discussion, or a persistent feeling of hopelessness, futility, and desperation. Because I did not get into teaching to feel desperate, nor to feel oppressed by or to battle the administration (hey, I am the administration), I hesitate to the point of intentional inertia to enter that discussion.

In my misty-eyed freshman forays into postmodern theory, I wandered across this theory about how power works. I believe both Michel Foucault and Judith Butler are contributors, though I could not for the life of me trace the exact place or documents from which my understanding of the theory arises. (Does that make me a plagiarist, or a scholar?) The idea is this one: that any center of power (the government, the media, the Internet, the school, etc.) is always already oppressive insofar as you are always in relationship with it. Power occurs within a kind of matrix, with the object of power being near the center or at the center of the matrix. Everyone within that matrix (citizens : government, consumers : media, users : Internet, teachers/students : schools), the subject of power, is always either drawn toward that center or is pushing against it. Regardless of a subject’s posture, though, the center is reaffirmed: slide toward it and you acknowledge its power, rebel against it and you do the same thing. Protesting the government reaffirms the power of the federal administration; leaving in frustration a teaching post does nothing to dismantle the school.

I really hated this realization when I had it, or when it was handed me. I felt suddenly existential: why bother to do anything then? The only solution against what most certainly was an entropic system, then, was to ignore it altogether. Pretend the power doesn’t exist. Don’t try to change it, just don’t participate. If I want to teach (and I do), and I leave a school because the policies and the way those policies batter the living happiness out of students and teachers alike are too much for me to bear, I don’t get to teach and the school doesn’t change. The students continue to be beaten senseless, and the only teachers left in school are those who are willing to participate in the madness, or who simply (horrifyingly) agree with it.

So, how does one ignore the power of the school?

Jonathan Kozol: “The first thing I did was to rip down from the walls and blackboards all of these materials – “obedience” quotations and the rest – and to stash the social studies textbooks in a box and seal it shut and stuff it in the closet … I introduced a few familiar poems of Robert Frost, some early lyrical poems of William Butler Yeats, and some beautiful posters of the streets of Paris and its skyline…” (from Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 13).

One of my favorite high school teachers was a certain Mrs. Meyerle, who taught me the five-paragraph essay. She used a couple of class days to explain the reasoning behind the form, told us we’d rarely actually write in it, and then moved quickly on to helping us discover what it was we wanted to write about. She fulfilled the expectations of the curriculum in as little time as possible, trusting entirely in our ability to master it quickly, and then, almost without missing a beat, kept the actual learning happening.

Do these exemplify behaviors that ignore the power of the school? I’m not sure.

When I enter the composition classroom, one of the first messages I send to students – either specifically or more palatially – is that some of them are entering a classroom for the first time where English is not only actually interesting, but where they have power over their own language. I refuse to give tests (and now, as chair of my program, have removed them from all our online templates), and deny fervently and repeatedly that there is a correct way to write. Instead, I lead students through a process of ideation, creation, and revision. I let them explore their own authorities (both over their ideas and their words), and give them lots and lots of room to make mistakes.

When I first introduced this approach to composition people balked. “Um, you’re not going to teach them grammar? You’re not going to teach them spelling? You’re not going to enforce plagiarism rules?” To which I responded, both in word and deed, “I don’t need to. Grammar is useful only insofar as it is common sense; so, I’ll teach common sense. Spelling is overrated; many of the world’s geniuses can’t spell. And I’ll teach them authorship, not plagiarism.” I take this approach to composition because I’m interested in genius, not conformity. The world’s writers break rules, bend them, make new ones. Why shouldn’t my students be allowed the confidence to set the standard rather than wonder if the standard applies to them?

The result, in the first semester of a test-run of this approach, was explosively successful. Attrition rates in composition classes this past semester bottomed out; where in the past a class of 25 would narrow to about 12, now they winnowed down to only about 20. Faculty came to me laughing and complaining that the course required them to really teach rather than just grade. Students reported that they finally understood the ideas behind plagiarism, while at the same time feeling incredibly confident in their own voices and ideas. Some even chose to submit their semester’s work for publishing online; and more than one, allergic at the start of the semester to writing, started blogging.

Has this course changed the system? No. The community college system in Colorado still requires the same outcomes, still requires the same standards. Does this course resist the system? Maybe a little. Primarily, though, it ignores the system by examining on its own an approach to composition. Students meet the state requirements demanded of them, but without ever really knowing they’re doing so. Plus, they leave the class enjoying writing, trusting themselves, and feeling (maybe most importantly) that school hasn’t failed them.

Johnathan Kozol again: “Establishing a chemistry of trust between the children and ourselves is a great deal more important than to charge into the next three chapters of the social studies text … Entrap them first in fascination. Entrap them in a sense of merriment and hopeful expectations” (from Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 15).

There is no standardization around merriment and hopeful expectations. There is no rubric for fascination. But these are human things, removed from the power struggle of “schooliness” (thank you, Clay), and they are more important than measurable skills to a life spent learning.

(An interesting perspective on teachers’ role: Teacher as Daemon and Jester)


12 thoughts on “Schools Needn’t Fail

  1. Oh yes, yes, yes.

    I wonder how much of my current pebble-shoed yen (and your freedom from same) has to do with the simple difference in our student ages and home institutions? I’m in a high school; you’re in a college. My students are melting down over college applications and AP classes taken for the college aps; your students have already played that game. I get parent complaints for every idea they want to shelter their child from (my “critical thinking about safe subjects only” rant); you can teach gay theory to your legal adults with no parent repercussions (or am I wrong on that one?).

    I’ll share a snippet from an email to a Twitter “friend” about that “leaving teaching” post:

    But what I couldn’t get right in that entire conversation – and didn’t want to, because I don’t want to write about it until I do it – is that really, the entire thing is positive and liberating for me. I think the negativity is a sort of moulting, explicitly sloughing off and cataloging all the reasons that leaving mainstream education is the right thing for me.

    And speaking of leaving mainstream education (in order to enter an alternative form), isn’t that a viable alternative to ignoring the system from within?

    I love the philosophy of teaching you paint in this post, and have been toying with similar ideas as I look ahead to semester two next week. Wonderfully sane and gonzo.

    Thanks for the great post, Sean.

  2. D’oh!

    Sean. You home-school your own child, I just noticed in a tweet you sent me.

    Is there a tension between that fact and your post above? Or is there something I’m not getting?

    (E-tone alert: this is not in any way an other-than-curious and -sincere question!)

  3. Clay,
    I feel, in some way (if not rhetorical, than perhaps thematic), my response to your posts must answer both of your inquiries. Shouldn’t pedagogy not be circumstantial, but a philosophy through which you engage with any and all students you encounter? Or is that too cow-over-the-moon?

    I have thought about the differences – the severe differences – between teaching legally independent adults and teaching high school students. I have visited high school classrooms and attempted to teach there, and really have nothing but the utmost admiration and wild awe for those who can pull it off. Those who pull it off and take learning to new levels through new educational mechanisms (like you) are practically sublime in my view. High school students, while wonderful with their crazy, chatty, scattered energy, I found nonetheless inattentive to the extreme. I don’t know how you do it.

    That said, I really honestly believe that pedagogy is pedagogy (is that solipsistic?). When teaching, I do what I can to take into consideration where my students are, who they are, what their problems are, what their desires are… And then I attempt to make everything they do relevant to their lives. If, for example, I ended up with a group of University of Colorado students who were impossibly bent on late-night parties and dating and skiing, well, this same body of students would *write about those experiences. We’d discuss them, openly and frankly, in class. I would use their experiences and desires as metaphors. Always keeping in mind that my own life and knowledge has limited relevance to them, but they can learn and learn and learn from their own lives.

    Could you, do you think, incorporate your students fears and anxieties about applying for college and getting through these last trying years as dependent, constrained adolescents into the work they do in class? Hamlet becomes the ornery teenager. Wordsworth and Shelley get sexy. Can you get students to talk about the class materials as if they themselves had decided what to read?

    Clumsy segue: So what does this pedagogy have to do with a decision to home school? In this case, it’s relevant because of how I try to engage with any and all students: at the level of what is necessary to their learning. In the case of my own daughter, I watched as middle school slowly wore the interest in learning out of my daughter; not unlike the kind of dreary badgering the results of which you deal with in your classroom. For the majority of a year, I and her mother tried to repurpose the pedagogy she was encountering in the classroom, but there is only so much we were able to do. Finally, it became clear to me that I could not counter the pedagogies of other teachers – practices that were slowly turning my daughter against school – without becoming the teacher. I absolutely believe in the possibility of school, and in the potential for teachers to be innovative, amazing, and great. As I said, I am interested in genius, and I believe in it. But without the ability to directly influence the coursework and pedagogy she was exposed to, I worried she’d lose valuable learning years.

    As far as leaving teaching as a viable alternative to ignoring the system from within, it’s absolutely an alternative. But unless the teacher undertakes some other occupation that leads to a change in the system, no change will occur. No genius, no brilliance.

    Thanks as always for your interest and support.

  4. But unless the teacher undertakes some other occupation that leads to a change in the system, no change will occur. No genius, no brilliance.

    –I’m still bewitched by the idea that we can reach the young directly, without (or despite) schools and “the system,” through the web. Not all of them, of course – a will-o’-the-wisp if ever there was one – but perhaps a significant mass (which doesn’t necessarily mean a sizable one). Vague, I know. For now.

    Sorry, by the way, that I didn’t respond to your comment on that post. I try to be vigilant about that, but it was a bear to keep up with this one.

    Funny thing about that post, is that it was a toss-off. A happy moment with the concluding line, and bam, Will R quotes it, and then off it goes to make a wave. Clearly it tapped into what a lot of us are feeling, though. Anyway, the line that carried the most import for me was, “Moreover, I’m thinking obviously [it’s possible to make more of a difference outside of teaching].” Instead of focusing on that constructive sentence, people seized on the dolor. In a sense, that’s symptomatic of what’s wrong with teaching too, and of schools: we’re much better at talking about problems than acting on possible solutions.

    Do you really think “the system” is typically instrumental in the causation of “genius” and “brilliance”? I tend, again, to believe those things happen in spite of, not because of. After typing that, though, it occurred to me that teaching – “slam teaching,” as I see it – can cause such things by teaching “to spite the system.” So maybe your argument is sinking in.

    But I have to say that your own words about why you took your daughter out of the system speak more to my sense of the realities:

    I watched as middle school slowly wore the interest in learning out of my daughter; not unlike the kind of dreary badgering the results of which you deal with in your classroom. For the majority of a year, I and her mother tried to repurpose the pedagogy she was encountering in the classroom, but there is only so much we were able to do. Finally, it became clear to me that I could not counter the pedagogies of other teachers – practices that were slowly turning my daughter against school – without becoming the teacher. I absolutely believe in the possibility of school, and in the potential for teachers to be innovative, amazing, and great. As I said, I am interested in genius, and I believe in it. But without the ability to directly influence the coursework and pedagogy she was exposed to, I worried sheโ€™d lose valuable learning years.

    Happy new year, Sean. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Clay,
    Your “toss-off” post really touched a hot point for a lot of teachers. I’ve been following the discussion as it pushed on, and have been surprised to see how clear the divide of teachers who would never think to leave and those who think the only solution is to leave. For me, I feel like responding to the system by either fighting it or leaving it risks abandoning what’s meant to happen in the classroom. I guess, ultimately, I feel like activism for education should start with the interaction between students and teachers. The most sustainable, meaningful change can occur at this grass roots level. Appealing more to different administrations (politicians and the like) seems like it really leaves behind the purpose behind teaching: growing genius.

    I don’t know, though, if I’d go so far as to say that the institution is *instrumental in growing genius; but it sure is convenient. We have a system in place to bring teachers and students together in a space where – given the right motivations, environment of trust, and creativity (“slam teaching”, if you will, but we have to remember that teaching is a two-way road, and students are slam teachers also) – amazing things can occur.

    All that said, I’m also bewitched by the idea of reaching students directly (in some other location besides the classroom), though I admit a lack of creativity in picturing how that could happen. My strongest motivation at this point is to try to reach *teachers directly (thus this blog… though I have grander ideas, as well). Keeping teachers *in schools and making a difference *in schools seems a path of less resistance, if that makes any sense.

    I really am sorry for the sad badgering you see happening in the school system. I feel for those students who are losing interest or hope in their educations, and for those teachers trying to pull them through a standardized education. I know it’s a lot harder to deal with than I probably give credit for. I know my idealism cannot repair the damage done; I guess I hope, though, that by taking things slowly, engaging directly with the students who want badly to directly engage with us, and staying honest and creative, teachers can manage to make change where they are, no matter how awful the circumstance.

    What do you think? Am I being naive?

    Happy New Year to you as well.

  6. The thing that strikes me most in this discussion is this idea that we, as teachers, are subject to (or constantly resisting) some sort of controlling SYSTEM (of whatever sort it might be, whether literal or internalized). Forgive me, by the way, because I feel as though I’m coming into a discussion that has been well underway (luckily, it’s been simultaneously underway in my own brain, so I don’t feel too utterly overwhelmed by the extent of it). You’re quite prolific, Sean–I turn away from your slam teaching blog, then turn back, and there is a mountain of activity.

    I was recently having a conversation with someone that works for a large company, a sort of “corporate America” stand-in. The discussion was about the politics of the company (competition between peers being one of the major ones), and the discovery for me (not really a new one) was the degree to which those politics overwhelmed the work that was being done, subsumed it really to the point that the politics and the work were indistinguishable. There is a similar sort of politics in education. Many of my fellow teachers (whether virtual or live-classroom) bring that politics right into the classroom (whether consciously or unconsciously) through the spouting of anti-plagiarism doctrine or a heavy reliance on cumbersome (and sometimes strange) “classroom policies.”

    Education is becoming more and more like corporate America (I know that’s a large and vague statement that deserves a much more direct unpacking that will have to come at a later date). And, yet, for me there is still a difference. That difference is that I don’t HAVE to bring those politics into the classroom. This is a fact that both of you are alluding to, and one that is the reason that I haven’t crumbled in the face of the ever-approaching and always-already-present behemoth of the SYSTEM. My classroom has a door on it. Things can happen in my classroom that stay within its four walls. Authentic interactions between me and my students. There is this cliche’ about erecting boundaries not walls. My, admittedly out of context, response is that I like walls. Doors and windows are fine, preferred even, but my teaching requires walls.

    Does this mean I need “real” walls, or is there something akin to what I’m describing here in the online environment? If there is, I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. What I do know is that my teaching tries not to kowtow and it tries not to be reactionary. When I step into the classroom, I step out of this conversation altogether, letting my classroom be a save-haven for the students (but also, and importantly, for me). There is the teacher in me that engages with the politics and philosophies of teaching. But the one that shows up is another teacher entirely, one that necessarily must leave those politics and philosophies at the door. I joke with my students that I’m “touchy-feely”, but what I mean is that I’m really there, as engaged myself in what is unfolding.

    On another note, Sean, maybe Derrida and deconstruction would add something important to your thoughts on Foucault and Butler. I’m not sure the system has to be as impenetrable as the two of them make it seem. Foucault and Butler would scare me too, I think, if Derrida wasn’t so permanently ingrained in me.

  7. Your positive look on teachers acting within the system is a bit of hope for me. That’s what I set out to do, originally. I started working in public school because I felt that I could at least do my best within the system and be one good teacher for those students that I have.

    I keep thinking, lately, that I can’t do that. The system is too much. I teach to a highly standardized (and state-tested) curriculum, and I drive myself crazy sometimes trying to somehow prepare my students for that test while still subverting the curriculum and being the teacher I should be. I don’t know if it’s my lack of experience, the particular situation I’m in, or what, but I just don’t seem to have it in me to really do it in the face of the SYSTEM. I can’t ignore it enough.

    I’m really hoping that leaving my current position for a public school in a state without social studies end-of-course testing will take enough of the pressure to conform off that I can ignore the system and teach.

  8. Penelope,
    First of all, I love your blog. One of your first posts on Where’s the Teacher was really inspirational for me, and I have continued to really love your insights. I think you are doing an excellent job.

    Next, I want to say that I really can’t imagine the pressure you must face, trying to fashion a conscionable pedagogy under the restraint of a SYSTEM that seems bound and determined to thwart actual learning (which, as any good slam teacher knows, does not take place in any systematized manner, but with plenty attention to chaos, disorder, and discovery). I want to ask a couple of questions, though, both for thinking on and for, if you wish, responding to here (these, by the way are not questions meant to be particularly provocative, though I know they may be; they are really, honestly meant as questions both for reflection and my own edification):

    First: what happens if you *don’t teach to the end-of-course test? Will your students fail their test? Will you or your school lose funding? Will you be reprimanded? Are there any positive, happy repercussions?

    Second: are there ways to teach students to succeed on the test without fully compromising your own pedagogy, or without draining the joy out of the classroom? Can you take a really frank look at what’s on the test and every now and then teach just that? Really, really. What if you told your students, “Look, we’re going to be able to have a bunch of fun exploring social studies this semester – role-playing, games, grass skirts – but one day a week, we’re also going to have to do drills so that you can take this test at the end of the term. Thing is, we have to take the test *seriously on those days, and we have to do our best to perform well, in order to have fun the rest of the time”? Is there some approach like that which could work? Could your students pass the final test without you sticking to the highly standardized curriculum? Where are the open spaces where teaching can peek through?

    Thanks for speaking up here. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.


  9. Just noticed your questions here…

    Positive, happy repercussions? Nope. We’re very test scores focused–if enough of my students fail the end-of-course test (or even the county-provided benchmark tests) I get put on a “plan of improvement” and possibly lose my job. I don’t think our funding is that dependent on the soc. stud. tests, since the national reqs are just English and Math, although I’m not clear on the in-state stuff for Virginia. If they pass the test? Well, my first year (when I was teaching geography) I had a high passing rate and 20 perfect scores and I got…mentioned in a faculty meeting. I did some on my own to congratulate my high-scorers, but there’s no recognition set up beyond passing the test = not having to retake it or the class.

    I don’t know about your second question. I hear people saying that that’s how they’ve dealt with the standardized curriculum but I’m not sure how to make it work. I tend to do the sort of thing where I look for fun exploring social studies ways to expand on the standard curriculum in the same lesson. Since I teach in an AB block schedule, it’s been hard to set up the sort of weekly routines you’re talking about (drives me nuts). On the other hand, the block gives me a chance (if I can manage it) to say, spend half an hour focused on the curriculum and then expand, explore or at least spend some time doing something with that information.

    It’s a lot more possible with my world history curriculum, which actually gives me some leeway in that it’s not that detailed. My US history curriculum is the one that really bothers me. Where the world will have a title like “causes of the Industrial Revolution” and then a list of 5 things, the US will have the same title and then a page of detailed explanation that the students are expected to recognize *in those words*. I’m pretty good at getting them to the essential understandings of a topic, but seriously, memorizing the exact wording of how the VA DOE decided to describe the creation of the Constitution? Blargh. (On the other hand, the actual US history test is apparently incredibly easy–other teachers I talk to have the same frustrations I do and yet most of their students pass it. So maybe I should worry less about it and do what I would do anyway? Not sure.)

    I think a lot of my frustration is that I went to college in Pennsylvania, spent all my time preparing to teach to that curriculum, and then came to Virginia and ended up in a totally different situation. The PA social studies curriculum is very well laid out, with a more emphasis on themes and essential questions than details, and all the high school objectives are couched in terms of higher-level thinking…Virginia is all “the student will be able to describe this, explain that, asses this, describe this, identify these people”

    It has gotten easier, as I know the curriculum better, to find the spaces where teaching peeks through.

  10. Penelope,
    Your post feels humbling to me. Much in the same way that some of my Skype talk with Clay felt, actually. There seem ways in which my pedagogical musings or suggestions appear utterly naive in the face of the oppressive curricula teachers like yourself face. As a college teacher, I have a certain privilege, I’m gathering, to create classrooms that are laboratories, to practice experimental pedagogies. It doesn’t seem that, at least on average, middle and high school instructors, forced to teach specific material (or, in your case, specific phrasings), have the same sort of freedom to *teach. I really admire your and your colleagues abilities to find the places where the teaching peeks through.

    Aside from that – and I know you’re already asking this question – what solutions do you see? Are there ways to work at changing the curriculum? Is it possible to look more broadly at the problem? For instance, if your students need to recognize specific facts or events by some common way of referring to them (since this is not learning, but memorization), can you help your students really just *memorize, and then get on with the rest of the learning? Am I asking the same questions again and again?

    For me, transparency has always been the key. Sitting down with students and telling them, for instance, “I’m required to make sure you know specific facts before you leave this course. Some of these facts will be interesting, and some of them won’t be; regardless, we’ve all got to deal with them or the school will get pissed. So, what say we learn those things as quickly and as painlessly as possible, and the rest of the time we’ll totally buck the system and do our own thing?”

    I’m speaking, I know, from the confines of the ivory tower, and from the much less complex classroom full of adult learners who have chosen to come to school. Nevertheless, is there *any germ of relevance in what I’m saying here?


  11. Sean-

    I’m not up to that level of transparency yet. Nothing wrong with the idea, just not something I personally feel capable of undertaking right now. There is some relevance in what you’re saying…Stepping back from the whinging about curriculum and thinking about ways to teach in spite of it is worth doing. I’m just not happy with the answers I’ve found yet.

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