Spellbound

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a really terrific teacher in a high-poverty community give a lesson that, if rated on a “College-Ready Promise” evaluation rubric, would have scored about a 1.5 out of 4. Faced with classroom of 35 students, most of them reading and writing below grade level, here’s what this energetic, enthusiastic teacher did not do:

1)   Write a measurable objective on the board and reiterate it frequently

2)   Check frequently among her students to give her a verbal or visual sign to let her know they understood what they were saying

3)   “Chunk” her lesson into short, digestible 10-minute intervals

4)   Have students “pair-share” (answer every question in partners before calling on the class in general) to make sure they all participated

5)   Call unpredictably on random students to keep everyone on their toes

6)   Insist on a response from reluctant students

7)   Demand that students who had gotten an answer wrong go back and give her the correct answer

8)   Use a powerpoint to visually reinforce what she was teaching

9)   Stop intermittently for group work practice of the day’s learning objective

10) Collect an “exit slip” at the end of class so that she could gather data about whether the students had mastered the objective.

That’s right. She did none of those things. Here’s what she did do:

She read the text aloud.

That’s all. For pretty much the whole class. Passionately, joyfully, with maximum expression, pausing frequently to discuss and decode important moments. They were reading “The Red Badge of Courage,” a book filled with difficult vocabulary and cultural references that were mysterious to the kids. She’d define words and ask questions, but she didn’t pull out random names on index cards to make sure everyone was going to have to answer. The kids weren’t on the edges of their seats with anxiety, knowing they might have to produce a response.

Instead, they were spellbound. Every last one. You know the look people get when they’re listening to a really great story? That kind of dreamy look, a kind of delicious rapture of being caught up in words and imagination? Every kid in the room had that look, even the boys who’d come in restless and chatty. Now they were settled in and quiet. They were listening. They were imagining.

Now, I’ve seen teachers do this in schools with high-performing, more affluent populations—Barry Smolin at Hamilton Humanities Magnet comes to mind—but in a school like Hamilton Humanities, with kids coming in with skills at or above grade level, you could make the argument (I did make the argument) that the stakes for these kids are lower, at least in terms of the worst-case scenario. Kids like the Hamilton Humanities students tend to have significant support from parents who have high levels of education; if for some reason they zone out in class or don’t do the reading, even if they totally fall off the rails and flunk out of school altogether, they’re probably not going to end up on the street. They may end up in an intensive therapeutic setting, there may be a tremendous amount of yelling, weeping and pain, but the stakes are not life and death.

For kids in high-poverty communities, though, the stakes may not be quite life and death, but a kid who flunks out is looking at free-fall, at the very best a lifetime of minimum-wage drudgery. The reason charter schools use techniques like the ones I listed at the top of this post, which I’ll call “Teach Like a Champions” techniques since so many of them come from Doug Lemov’s book by that name, is that they make sure every kid in the class, no matter how quiet, shy or behind, is paying full attention and actively engaged, maximizing the likelihood that all students are moving forward. Calling on kids at random, doing “pair-shares” and activities, continually checking for understanding—all of these techniques make sure that the quiet, compliant kids aren’t lost, and if you’ve ever taught, you know how distressing it is to find that the sweet, smiling kid in the third row who always looks so encouraging has in fact not been hearing a thing you’ve said for the last week.

But watching this teacher read aloud to her class reminded me that though there are real and measurable gains to these “Champion” techniques, there are also some losses, perhaps less measurable but significant nonetheless. First of all, I noticed that her class actually went much faster than it would have if she were stopping all the time; the kids at the low end of proficiency may not have been draining every single drop of literal understanding, but they may have been gaining a more holistic understanding of the book’s larger meaning by experiencing it more immersively.

For kids at the higher end of proficiency, the class was just frankly whole lot more interesting. My worry about “Champions” techniques is that however effective it may be for kids who are below grade level and quiet kids who may be flying under the radar, it bores the crap out of the gifted kids to go that slowly. I mean, yes, I know, you’re supposed to be peppering them with differentiated high-level questions but if the text itself is going at a snail’s pace and you’re stopping all the time so that every single question is answered, I don’t care how energetic you are or how complex your questions, the class develops a mood that’s more athletic than intellectual or imaginative. And that’s a big loss for your proficient students, it seems to me.

But what I really thought about, and continue to think about, was the way these students were spellbound by the book, something that just can’t happen if every text is seen as a useful way of imparting skills and every day has a measurable objective. The writer John Gardner once described fiction as “a vivid and continuous dream.” Those dreams don’t happen in 10-minute chunks interspersed with activities and exit slips. They take time and sometimes they take quiet, a personal quiet that lets a student’s imagination learn how to breathe. I know we need to push our students hard in order to build skills; I’m not questioning that. But I think the balance is at risk of being lost.

We live in a time when nearly every art form has been eliminated from education, at least in low-income communities: no dance, no music. Students will get maybe one art class in all of high school. Literature is the only art that remains in our schools in a serious way. If we are going to continue to believe that literary narrative is an essential part of education, if we believe that art has any value at all—and God, I hope we do still believe that— can we sometimes, at least for a little while, allow our students to delight in it?

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3 thoughts on “Spellbound”

  1. Here’s an article on teacher prep programs that seems relevant to this post
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/26/us/obama-administration-plan-seeks-to-rate-teacher-training-programs.html?_r=1

    It sounds like the teacher prep program of the teacher in this post would get marked down for her lesson. I’d argue that her students didn’t increase their multiple choice test scoring ability from this lesson. (The champion techniques do.).
    As a compromise, maybe she can do champion teaching 90% of the days so she gets the high scores, and hence keeps her job and her teacher training program gets high scores, and then do the other kind of teaching mentioned in this post 10% of the days so that she and the students can feel human!

  2. I did a K-6 school visit earlier this week…an independent school. For the most part the children come from families who can afford the tuition, though diversity is a high priority of the school and financial aid is available.

    They have a library. And books… and a librarian. The librarian does not teach library skills, nor does she create projects with the differing classes. What she does is read to the children. There are amphitheater style steps taking up a good deal of space within the walls of this library, and the children grab a seat and get swept off to adventures or pulled into mystery and drama, during their small group library visit once a week.

    Immersing people in text and story is a pedagogical thread that weaves through this school in the teaching of reading and writing. Engagement. Reasons to read. Reasons to write. Skills are introduced and worked on within the context of actually reading and writing. It works.

    Reading your piece, and seeing the impact of the teacher’s method that you observed, points to an alternative to pushing hard, and, more importantly, an alternative way of thinking about students from disadvantaged homes (or no homes). It doesn’t matter that there are no books at home when there are stories and books over here, made accessible in various and meaningful ways. These kids have hearts and imaginations just like those of privilege. They deserve to be read to, to be engaged-not prodded, pushed, and tested for most of their school day….

    The teacher who read that book aloud is a master teacher. More please.

    School does not and cannot end poverty. It would be a thing of the past by now if it could.

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