Enlightened Education Options

Even though we teachers have numerous reasons these days to be disheartened – budget cuts, school shootings, and constant policy reforms – two news education-related news stories show those rays of hope that it isn’t all going down the tubes. Maybe these hard times are just growing pains when we are learning the hard way, as our young students sometimes have to, that figuring out what does work is sometimes accomplished first trying what doesn’t.

At a time when we are hearing more and more about school security, including the possibility of armed police or teachers on campuses and school-centered training exercises for law enforcement, we can’t forget the reasons we have the kids there: to teach them and to have them learn. K-12 schools are not incarceration-minded daycares meant to imprison young people for eight hours a day until they’re old enough to leave and get jobs. What is getting lost in the school security debate is: if we handle schools under the basic idea that “any kid could be the next school shooter” then we will be ignoring the fact that any of those same kids could also be the next Martin Luther King, Jr. or Harper Lee or Steve Jobs. And if we’re so busy with security concerns that we forget why we’re there, then we’ll be in sho’nuf rough shape!

As an example of what I mean, last week NBC Nightly News ran an education story that was easy to miss, since the little preview screen next to Brian Williams’ face said simply “The Big Idea.” Frankly, I almost missed it because I get really weary of NBC’s Education Nation segments. I am always frustrated by their three-minute over-simplification of the issues facing schools, so I barely listened to this story when it aired. The next day, our principal e-mailed it to us, and that’s when I actually paid attention to it and got what they were saying. (Yes, I too am guilty of closed-mindedness sometimes, but I’m glad I gave this one a second chance.)

This principal at a low-performing middle school in Boston decided to get rid of the school’s massive “security infrastructure,” as he called it, and use that money to hire arts teachers instead! As the sixth principal in the school’s seven years, coming into a school that had problems with both violence and poor academic performance, he said that the place “definitely had a prison feel” to it. So rather than continuing down the same trajectory, he made the decision to begin tapping into the students’ creative minds rather than continuing to clamp down on them. And it has worked! The school is a success story with decreasing violence and improving academic performance. (Click the link above to watch the story.)

It’s no wonder that when we treat young people with care, respect and common decency, most of them will respond with the same. The private school that I attended for the latter half of my K-12 schooling used to justify their rigid dress code by telling us that people will conduct themselves in the way they present themselves— basically if you’re dressed well then you’re more likely to behave well. Even though I didn’t like it back then, I’ve always remembered that justification, and now as a teacher, I apply a similar logic. If these students were having to present themselves every day as security threats, then it’s no wonder that many of the students were acting like security threats. When that environment changed, so did the students. It’s the basic premise behind the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecyif you’re going to treat me like a “security threat” in a “dropout factory” in a “bad neighborhood” then I might as well be that, if I’m going to be treated like that way anyway. This principal, who was told that he was committing career suicide with this decision, chose to treat his students like students, and it paid off.

And what did he replace his “security apparatus” with— a rigorous academic load with required after-school classes and twelve-hour school days? No. Arts programs, and lots of them. He remarked specifically in the story about wanting to see student work posted in the hallways. He showed them respect as human beings who have value, and it worked. I raise this point because I also get tired of news stories that seem to declare that the best way to turn around a failing school is to work the absolute hell out of the students (and their teachers). These are children that we’re talking about, and children are naturally creative and curious. Children naturally want their ideas to be valued. This Boston-area principal ignored every currently popular bad idea that was being suggested to him, and we see that he was right when he replaced security measures with good teaching.

The other story was run late last month on the website of The Atlantic, and it deals with an issue that I’ve already written about: the Common Core. In “Why I Support the Common Core Reading Standards”, college professor Karen Swallow Prior describes how important reading and writing skills are to educational success . . . and moreover how too few students have these integral skills when they arrive at college. Yet, this is not another one of those articles that decries the state of education through anecdotes about twelfth graders reading on a third grade level and stuff like that. No, Prior eschews those generalities (for the most part) and focuses on the actual act of reading as she sees her students attempting to do it; she writes:

Years of their so-called “reading” is spent “making connections” between themselves and text or the world and the text, but the foundational step of actually reading the words on the page is neglected often to the point that actually reading the assignment isn’t necessary: Students become skilled at responding to leading questions that solicit merely their opinions or experiences. And they apparently get decent, or even excellent, grades for doing so.

I see these same kinds of stab-in-the-dark approaches to answering questions about texts in my high school classroom, too. And I also work to undo these bad habits before the students get to college. One problem with these widespread bad habits is that I often can’t tell who actually read and didn’t understand, who skimmed right before class, who perused and browsed the pictures and headlines, who asked their classmate what the text was about, and who is making up crap to cover up not doing anything at all.

Though I respect the work of elementary teachers in teaching young children to read, I am aware that I spend a lot of time combating the skill called “fluency,” which encompasses the ability to skip words we don’t know and use “context clues” to guess the meaning. The problem is that the guesses are often completely wrong, and the student was not taught with equal vigor to look up the meaning every single unknown word they encounter in any text. Many of my students stare at me totally appalled when I suggest reading every assignment as many times as it takes to understand it and looking up every word they don’t know, taking notes on those words’ definitions. The approach that I teach gives no points for reading fast; it gives all of its credit for reading well.

Like Karen Swallow Prior, I teach this way:

I have to train them to look down at the words rather than looking at me or up at the ceiling or into their hearts in order to comprehend the meaning of the language. I have to remind them to cite passages as evidence when they answer questions, something more and more of them are unaccustomed to doing. I have to exhort them to use dictionaries to look up words they don’t know because the approach to “reading” they are so familiar with does not depend on knowing the meanings of words. Instead, they have been expected merely to offer “reader-response” answers to questions that prompt readers to react superficially to the text rather than to comprehend it.

According to Prior, Common Core’s methodology contains some remedies to these problems. This educational system has students reading and thinking and writing constantly. Constantly! And I love it! I’m for it, and I want it implemented as soon as possible!

When people ask me what I think or how I feel about some debate or issue within education, I always tell them the same thing: I’m for teaching and learning, and I’m against any policy that stands in the way of it, and I’m for any policy that supports it. Any mandated task that takes me away from teaching and grading papers and helping students is a task that I would just assume be eliminated. The best educators – whether teachers or administrators or specialists — are the ones who care most about that one thing: seeing to it that children learn. Plain and simple. Both of these education stories strike at the heart of that very notion.

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