As I continue to ride the Smolin wave of readership (and shamelessly brandish his name even though this post is, well, maybe not exactly 100% about him…wait! Don’t go anywhere! I actually am going to mention him…hang on, all you Smolinites in Mongolia and the Netherlands), my mind is racing as I scramble to think of how I could incorporate some of his techniques into my teaching, since I do not think he would agree to a brain transplant. And the first think I’d like to point out is that if I went back to my former school I couldn’t teach like Barry even if he did opt in to donate his brain. Because as I’m coming to learn, teaching is a complex interaction of many factors, and one of the most important is the students themselves.
Barry teaches at one of the most highly-regarded magnets in Los Angeles; if you want to read more about the nearly-incomprehensible setup whereby students are admitted to magnets, click here. Suffice it to say that his students by definition have parents who are savvy and committed enough to game the magnet system, which means the students generally come in above what I call the Trust Line (if you don’t know what I mean, click here). Statistically, magnet parents have a higher education level in general than most LAUSD parents and also generally are middle- and upper-middle class, as compared to the 80% of LAUSD families who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Which is not to say that Barry’s students are any “smarter” than anyone else. But it generally means that they come from families with a positive history with education. That means that if things get a bit rowdy, there aren’t two or three or four kids with serious behavior problems in the room who then go totally out of control and can’t calm down. And Barry can make gigantic intuitive leaps and digressions in his conversation, safely assuming that almost everyone in the room is making those subtextual leaps along with him. Even if a few kids don’t or can’t, it’s likely that they come from homes with enough resources, financial and emotional, that if those kids fall behind or even flunk out, they won’t end up on the street.
None of these conditions would have been the case in my classroom, where kids came in often several years below grade level in reading and many were what I’d call hesitant or resistant students due to a negative history with school. Also, a large number were English Language Learners, which meant I could not assume that my students were understanding all of what I said, though most of them never would have dreamed of saying so. What would have happened is that they would have mentally checked out, either quietly or, in some cases, not so quietly. My general ballpark was that I could talk for ten minutes before I’d totally lose the class, and by “talk,” I mean stopping frequently to ask students questions. After ten minutes, though, the kids had to do an activity. They simply did. I mean, I’m sure there were eight or nine of them in any class who were so advanced they would happily have listened to a college-style lecture every day, but the remainder of the class could not, and a couple of those kids would act out, which would, if not immediately contained, eventually make everyone act out, even the brainiacs.
The other reason the kids had to do an activity was that even if they seemed to know what I was talking about, often they didn’t. I needed to do an activity so I could make sure everyone, or most of them, understood.
Because the other thing was, in my classroom, the stakes were higher. If Barry’s students flunk out, all sorts of negative things might occur, including plenty of yelling, therapy or any kind of wrenching intervention that might be appropriate. But Barry’s students have a safety net of resources. So do their parents. They will probably not end up in jail, in a gang or on the streets.
And any of that might happen to my students if they flunked out. At my school we knew it because we knew the kids who’d washed out in years past. I had a student once, I still am haunted by this, an incredibly smart, very sensitive guy I’ll call Frank, who stopped doing any homework basically because he was furious with his dad, an extremely volatile man who had once dumped Frank and his sister Raquel on the side of the highway. Anyway, Frank, stopped coming to school. The next thing I heard, he was in juvie.
Two years later Raquel told me Frank was out and living with their dad after two rounds of juvie.
The next year Frank was in prison for life after a drug bust because he was now eighteen and California had a three-strikes law. I mean, I’m sure it was more complicated than this. But I’m pretty sure Frank is still in prison. And Raquel, one of the smartest and sweetest and most interesting kids I’ve ever known, completely freaked out, started using hallucinogens, flunked all her classes and simply did not return for her senior year. I have no idea where she is now.
I think of Frank and Raquel all the time. Because for my former students, there was no safety net. And so I had to make sure my students were understanding everything.I know their lives were affected by factors way, way beyond my control. But one of the few things I could control was that I could make sure they did not flunk out of school because they couldn’t understand what I was talking about.
All of this is a long way of saying that even if I had Barry’s talent, I couldn’t teach the way he does, though I will definitely try it in shorter bursts, attacking a text with my own personal life. I’d do it using a style of teaching called “I Do, We Do, You Do,” currently axiomatic in high-performing charters for a variety of reasons. It’s an extremely useful technique in which you chunk all teaching into short, activity-filled bursts—and at the same time, a technique I find troubling, for reasons I’ll explain in my next post.
For today, I’m attaching a link to a post from the Daily Kos by an 11th grade English teacher at a charter high school in a low-income community who blogs under the name Shakespeare’s Sister. In it, she describes and critiques “I Do, We Do, You Do” because she feels it encourages her students to be helpless. I’m going to be interviewing her and will post about it next week, but in the meantime, click here for a link to her very thought-provoking post.
Finally, in a shameless plug for my own writing, I have a new post in the L.A. School Report about why I burned out as a teacher.
To all of you, but especially my teacher friends because I know this is one of the toughest, longest parts of the year, I hope you have a happy, restful weekend.