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Is That Penguin Stuffed or Real?

Posted: 2005-08-26

Sugaring and teaching are not projects for the impatient. Even in these days of instant everything, you can't hurry maple syrup -- or third-graders or seventh-graders.

ESSAYIST Will Cuppy once noted that penguins are dignified, they get their names in the newspaper, and only an expert can tell a live penguin from a stuffed one. I feel the same way about plans for revamping the schools. Curriculum reform must be at the heart of any substantive change, but too many people who talk the talk of reform can't tell a live curriculum from a stuffed one. And, as every teacher knows, it is easier to move a graveyard than to change a district's existing curriculum. For people who plan the school curriculum, God is in charge of the SAT, and Santa Claus presides over Title I. Now, with the chancellor of the New York City Public Schools joining the crowd that declares every third-grader will read on grade level and every 12th-grader will take calculus, schools need a direct line to the fairy godmother, too.

Because I'm the kind of teacher who focuses on what I'm doing this minute with this kid, when curriculum reform stalks the corridors I try to duck, but more often than not I weep. My husband asks how anybody can possibly cry over curriculum, but he's never tried to obey the mandate of teaching Silas Marner to ninth-graders. Nor has he ever tried to convince a primary teacher not to teach the comma in apposition. Saying she had "no time for supplementary reading" when I offered to lend her my collection of rhyming books, my colleague insisted that, to "maintain standards" and "get students ready" for the rigors of third grade (well, every third grade but mine), she had to teach commas in all their exotica. Being no greenhorn, I knew that in the schoolhouse mythical standards invariably win out over sense or sensibility. Nonetheless, I somehow became involved in this comma confrontation. My colleague stood safe and secure behind her teacher's manual. I ended up in tears.

My husband did get involved in a curricular dispute that cuts to the heart of the university territorialism that undermines every attempt to bring about significant reform in the schools. At the time, he was teaching physics at a liberal arts college. When the English Department suggested revamping freshman English, he volunteered to teach a new course in which students would fulfill the composition requirement in the department of their major instead of in the English Department. My husband and I prepared a great reading list for science majors. "Oh, no," protested the English Department. "We still want everybody to read Plato and Gulliver's Travels. We just want you to teach them."

Why was I surprised? I guess I thought professors might be collegial toward their colleagues, even though, when dealing with teachers, they typically make all the choices from the safety of the Cave, where there are few teachers and no children. Then, the choices made, the mandates passed, the certifications issued, they'll leave us to teach the kids. I once spent several years being retrained as part of a big National Endowment for the Humanities grant, administered by a prestigious university. I'm a dutiful, even good, student; I do all the reading and write all the papers. And so I was considered an asset to the course. The only problem was I taught the wrong kind of kids. The good professors did not regard seventh- and eighth-grade rotten readers as worthy of being included in a sophisticated NEH project. And so, caught up in the esoteric intellectualism of the endeavor, early every morning, before our school began, I went next door to the high school and taught humanities to a ninth-grade honors class.

I loved that honors class, but I loved my rotten readers, too, and after a while I was troubled by the exclusionary zone imposed by the university. If a humanities approach to teaching literature was good for honors students, why wasn't it good for rotten readers? So I began working on ways to make the university scheme meaningful to my own students.

Michael was one of those students, and Michael already knew about some of the humanities material because an 11th-grade history teacher used material I had developed and Michael's brother had talked about it at the dinner table. The fact that Michael was dumbfounded, impressed, and pleased that his teacher's work was being used at the high school should remind us that kids in remedial classes, so often relegated to the academic slag heap, think their teachers must be remedial rejects too.

If such a thing as dyslexia exists, Michael had it in spades. He also had wit, humor, and a very real charm that made it easy to forgive the whining and wheedling he routinely did to get out of work. The students and I had a daily note exchange, which Michael complained about every day. When I asked students to fill in the open-ended statements "I'd rather read than . . ." and "I'd rather write than . . ." Michael wrote that he'd rather read than die and he'd rather write than read.

All winter my notes were filled with complaints about the snow and ice. Michael counseled me, "I just take the months as they come." I began to write about the first signs of spring, and I wrote my students that I looked forward to asparagus ads in the newspaper as a sure sign that winter was ending. They thought this was hilarious -- only a teacher would come up with asparagus. They also began to scan the paper for asparagus ads and leave them on my desk.

One day Michael came in and went straight for the typewriter. He left this letter on my desk:

Dear Mrs. O,

As you no I went to Boston firday. It was a lot fo fun. Wen I first got to Boston we drov aron looking for a parking plas. We fond one and then we got out of the car. We walkt to a fance markit and had a bite to aet.

Then we went to the aquarium and that was eciting. Thar was a shoe with dolphins and seals. Wan we got out we went by a fruit markt. I thot of yoou and chekt the pric of asprgus. It is $1.00 a lb in Boston and 3 heds of letis for $1.00. Boston is a long way to go for asprgus tho.

Your freind,


Michael asked me how to spell "aquarium." Thinking that at last I could show the university professor why my work was so important to me, I felt proud when I gave him Michael's letter. He looked at it and then turned to me with a sad face. "Sue, when are you going to stop wasting your life with these kids, join our doctoral program, and get on with something worthy of your talents?" That professor had observed me teach the honors class, but he had never set foot in the seventh/eighth-grade classroom for rotten readers. I say that anyone who cannot see past the awful spelling and recognize that Michael's letter has structure and voice, as well as humor and charm, should find himself another job. Certainly he shouldn't be setting standards for teachers or restructuring schools.

I'd been struggling with the university course for three years. I was challenged and captivated by the rigor of the intellectual model. What I couldn't stand was the professors' refusal to entertain any discussion about the day-to-day needs of students. I'm the kind of teacher who is not particularly interested in getting kids ready for tomorrow -- not directly, anyway. I believe that, if I teach them well today, this minute, tomorrow will take care of itself.

As science writer and maple-syrup maker Roger Swain tells us in Earthly Pleasures, even where the sap flows best, "the drops form one at a time." Sugaring and teaching are not projects for the impatient. Even in these days of instant everything, you can't hurry maple syrup -- or third-graders or seventh-graders. Swain goes on to say that in boiling the sap "the change from colorless sap to a light amber syrup is impressively slow." So too was third-grader Chris' transformation from an intransigent, reluctant reader, a child who only scowled at books, to the boy who insisted on copying Peter Rabbit in longhand because he "just liked the way the words feel." So too was Michael's appreciation of the written word. When he graduated from elementary school, Michael's mother wrote me a note. "I was going to phone and thank you for everything you have done," she wrote, "but Michael insisted that I must write you a letter. He said people know you really mean something when you write a letter." Over the years I have received half a dozen such letters from parents. "My child told me to write." Half a dozen letters may seem insignificant to the number crunchers, but half a dozen letters sustain the spirit of a teacher in a way that a stack of SAT scores cannot match.

I learned recently that Michael is now a noted chef at a prestigious restaurant. I wonder if I can take any credit. I did, after all, spark his interest in asparagus.

Poet-farmer-teacher Wendell Berry points out, "Good teaching is an investment in the minds of the young, as obscure in result, as remote from immediate proof as planting a chestnut seedling." Teaching is a rigorous act of faith. We must be guided by the present lives of children, not by the shadow of the college admissions officer lurking in the corner.

Although college entrance requirements must bear a share of the blame for the inappropriate curriculum content imposed on the nation's third-graders (and every-other-graders), there's plenty of blame to go around. Who has the bloodier hands, the Harvard admissions office or the Fortune 500 CEOs who collect 100 times the wages of the middle managers they downsize into poverty (while proclaiming something is wrong with the work ethic taught in schools)? Two U.S. Presidents with their America/Goals 2000 hot air balloon or the media muckrakers firmly convinced that their high school graduating class contained the last students who knew anything? Ineffectual and out-of-touch professors of education who wouldn't last 12 minutes in today's urban classrooms or parents who have abrogated their ethical and moral responsibilities? Gutless schoolmarms who go along with the curricular status quo or rabid change agents who insist they've found the one true path? So many to blame, so little time.

The trouble is, as a teacher, I must be ever aware that whenever I point one finger at somebody else, three more point back at me. Norman MacLean, author of A River Runs Through It, says that, when how you define yourself no longer haunts you, this should tell you that you are dead. I can't think of a profession that could be more haunting than teaching. Every new student we encounter must cause us to redefine ourselves.

Does it really matter to most people how many quadratic equations can fit on the head of a pin? Has anybody noticed that, while school folk worry about how much Dickens a high school student needs, the real world is putting Danielle Steele on the best seller list? Isn't it out of kilter that the adults who want all youngsters to take calculus can't figure out that credit card debt is ruining them? Are school uniforms, the Internet, the V-chip, and calculus really the answers to problems posed by our balance of trade, crime rate, health-care crisis, or divorce statistics?

What I want to know is what the chancellor of the New York City school system and all the other education bureaucrats drafting standards across the land are going to do with the kids who don't measure up to their Olympian goals. What happens to the third-grader who doesn't read on grade level? Or to the 12th-grader who cannot master calculus? As Claude Brown asked 30 years ago, "Where do you go when you're already in the promised land?"

I was my school's third-grade teacher representative on a districtwide language arts committee. Our charge was to come up with grade-level guidelines. So we polled the other teachers in our schools, asking what minimum expectations for language arts should be in place for students in each grade. Surprise, surprise. Second-grade teachers said that entering students should read on the second-grade level, third-grade teachers said that students should read on the third-grade level, and so on. We committee members looked at the list and, because we were teachers and not bureaucrats, we did not issue these grade-level requirements as standards or even guidelines. Instead, we just laughed.

We laughed, and then we did what good teachers always do: we tried to figure out how to teach the kids we have. Not ideal kids, maybe, but definitely the kids we have. School, after all, is now -- and should remain -- the place where, when you come, they have to teach you. We primary teachers broke away from the rest of the committee and decided that, instead of blaming the victims, we'd take a look at ourselves. We asked ourselves what we could do to become better language arts teachers. For starters, we asked that, instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on language arts textbooks, the district give each teacher a package of resources -- professional books, journal subscriptions, and so on. It was a truly revolutionary act: a group of teachers giving up texts filled with busywork (in the lingo of the trade, "seatwork") and committing themselves to learning more about how language works.

Of course, we didn't get away with it. On various pretexts, the assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum called our committee back to vote again. And again. First it was because one school's representative was absent from the meeting; another time we were told the board of education felt that our vote should be by secret ballot. Finally, we caught on that we were going to be asked to keep voting until we got it right. The assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum insisted that the public would perceive the lack of language arts texts as a lack of standards. Never mind that nobody was taking away the children's reading texts, spelling texts, handwriting texts, math texts, social studies texts, or health texts.

You can bring textbooks to a teacher, but you can't make her use them. That same assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum once sent me a curriculum by pickup truck. Without ever talking to me or setting foot in our storefront school that had been set up to accommodate high-schoolers with drug, crime, and social problems -- kids who had been excluded from the regular campus -- this administrator decreed that what the students needed was fourth- and fifth-grade math and grammar skills. On her instructions, copies of fourth- and fifth-grade math and grammar books were reproduced for every student at our school.

Unfortunately, the paper was printed on both sides, so we couldn't even use it for scrap. In addition to being illegal, those pages were pointless. It is typical of an education bureaucrat to assume that students who hate school must be behind in something they like to refer to as "basic skills." Those high-schoolers didn't hate school because they couldn't do it. They hated school because it was conducted in a language and format that excluded them. My job was to help the students find a curriculum with meaning, intrigue, and consequence. And so I chose Mathematics: Human Endeavor, by Harold Jacobs, for their text. These high school failures, law breakers, social misfits, and general malcontents were pleased and excited to be doing something difficult. They groaned and bragged at the same time as they struggled with algebra, geometry, statistics, and probability.

SO, AM I contradicting myself? Should every high-schooler learn calculus, French, and Dickens? No. Some of the students at our very small school could not handle Jacobs' sophisticated text. They did different math. This kind of individualizing seems easy to do when your school houses just 40 students, but it seems impossible when the numbers are in the thousands. I don't know why. The first school I taught in was a high school in Queens, New York, that was larger than my Northern California hometown. When one of my students refused to read Johnny Tremain, I asked the department chairman for advice. And the man who had also told me that every teacher should have the experience of teaching Silas Marner (decades later, I think he must have been employing irony, but at the time I was too green to detect it), told me to ask the kid what he would read and to get him another book. It's probably the best teaching advice I ever received. Certainly a school that can't change the curriculum for a child is a school that is too large -- and should be dismantled. We need to remind ourselves that schools should exist only to help children.

I have no quarrel with the entrance requirements of Harvard or any other institution of higher learning. My quarrel is with all the school folk who insist on the 13-year curriculum that aspires to get all students ready for Harvard. I say that, if Harvard wants its students to write research papers, then let Harvard train them. I refuse to "get third-graders ready" for the research rigors of fourth grade. After all, fourth-grade teachers are on their students to "get them ready" for the rituals of fifth grade, and so on.

Obviously, our august institutions of higher learning can set any standards they want. But does anyone really believe that, if tomorrow morning first-grade teachers bowed to sanity and stopped teaching the apostrophe, third-grade teachers stopped teaching cursive writing, fifth-grade teachers stopped intoning "invert and multiply," and high school teachers stopped teaching English literature from Beowulf to Wordsworth, the number of college admissions would drop? The truth of the matter is that the number of students admitted to any university is based not on Carnegie units or SAT scores or other things that go bump in the night, but on the number of bodies the institutions of higher learning can squeeze in. If students refused to take the SAT for the next four years, Harvard would not close its doors. It would find some other way of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Proof of the pudding? When I taught GED (General Education Development) courses for the neighborhood Youth Corps, one of my students was brilliant. He quickly earned his GED, and then we began looking for a university that would accept him without Carnegie units. Someone knew someone who was a Harlem Globetrotter and an alumnus of a prestigious Ivy League school. He said that, if our student was at least 6' 4" tall, he could get him into the university. Alas, Jared was just 5' 11" -- five inches short of the university's admissions standards.

Truth in disclosure: I couldn't come close to passing the ambitious standards now approaching the final draft stage at the education department of a large state with a multicultural student population. Here's a brief sampling. In science, all ninth-graders are expected to understand the structure of atomic nuclei and to explain the fusion process in stars. In math, students must be able to use trigonometric ratios and to solve linear and quadratic equations. In social studies, students must explain "how processes of spatial change have affected history" and analyze trends in world demographics. Ninth-graders are also expected to lead discussion groups and to prepare a research report in a foreign language. (Children in the primary grades are expected "to make inferences based on information in print media available" in a foreign language. How many primary graders do you know who can make inferences in their mother tongue?) In the fine arts, ninth-graders must "analyze and evaluate the distinguishing musical characters of works representing historical periods." And finally, in physical education, ninth-graders must "achieve improved health-related fitness" through a physical fitness program they design.

Does this mean fatsoes won't be eligible for a high school diploma? Pardon me, I meant to say "the weight challenged."

Of late, there have been several stories in the press noting that Chelsea Clinton sometimes gets help with her algebra homework from Alan Blinder, an economics professor at Princeton who is vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Chelsea's dad confesses that he's finding it increasingly difficult to cope with her complex homework. Certainly, a case can be made that our future Presidents, as well as other dads and moms, should know algebra. Perhaps we could have a competency test for all candidates. What a delicious thought!

But before we scurry around to set up new requirements for public office, we'd better take a careful look at what doors we are willing to shut on those who don't take to algebra or music theory or a physical fitness regimen. Interesting, isn't it, that the politicians and business leaders who are quick to denounce the present lack of rigor in school curricula were themselves educated in the days when the only required courses were driver's ed and home economics? They seem oblivious to the glaring contradictions inherent in the fact that, while legislative bodies pass laws that demean residents who are already fluent in a language other than English, some state boards of education insist that any student who wants a high school diploma had better be fluent enough in a second language to lead seminars and do independent research.

I want to know who's going to pay for all this excellence. Where's the money for the foreign language teachers in elementary school, for the computers, for the electrophoretic and other sophisticated scientific equipment required to study the new curriculum? Point out to a bureaucrat calling for curriculum reform that his state is eliminating librarians and art teachers even as it passes standards to increase the emphasis on student research and artistic performance, and he will merely shrug his shoulders. The fellows standing guard at the exits don't communicate with the fellows who control the purse strings. Ask "What happens to the kids who cannot master these skills?" and you'll get a pep talk about Jaime Escalante.

You could say I taught without standards for nearly 20 years. I worked in a district that never saw a government grant it wouldn't grab, and so I have taught everything from high school to first-grade remedial reading, with K-6 science, ninth-grade honors, and high school dropouts in between. I've taught third-graders who hated reading, seventh-graders who hated everything, and high-schoolers who were in school only because the alternative was jail. Am I revealing a failing when I appreciate my students' potential, when I admit that I am too busy taking students to Planned Parenthood and to court -- as well as trying to find them shelter -- to spend any time looking over my shoulder for college admissions officers? We shortchange students when we give them the message that they can't find success and happiness without going to college.

Instead of asking university admissions officers how many Carnegie units need to be delivered, schools would do well to ask their graduates how often they read to their children or take them to libraries, museums, concerts, and parks. Do they have hobbies? Friends? Meaningful jobs? How often do they call their parents, perform community service, vote, recycle their refuse, and refrain from running red lights? Everett Reimer cut to the heart of the matter years ago in School Is Dead. He asserted that "unless people enjoy, in the main, good human relationships, they can neither be educated nor educate themselves."1

Schools can't improve themselves if they ignore the students. It seems such a simple matter to ask our students what they really dislike about school and then to talk about what we might do to change it. Without exception, students at our alternative high school agreed that what they hated most about regular school was the bells. "Just when you get interested in something, a bell rings and you have to go start something else." At our school students knew the requirements for graduation. They could work on them in any order they chose -- and at any speed. Typically, a student would work on, say, social studies for several weeks. Then he'd switch to science for a while. Okay, so this isn't practical in a big school of 3,000 students, but other monolithic institutions have figured out ways to change time-honored schedules and procedures. With large industries throwing out the factory model as counterproductive, it is long past time for schools to do the same. I wonder how many adults would do well at dealing with different job requirements and a different boss every 47 minutes.

Too many schools are designed to encourage kids to fall between the cracks. When I taught in a junior high newly built to house 1,100 seventh- and eighth-graders, we were put on a crazy six-day cycle, a cycle ruled necessary to accommodate half-time "special" subjects, such as art, music, and physical education. Students came to my reading tutorial for three days and then went to regular English class for three days. This meant that, when a student's third day was on a Wednesday, I wouldn't see him again until the following Tuesday. It was an extraordinarily idiotic plan: put the worst readers into literature classes for half as much time as "regular" readers. Surprise, surprise. Those rotten readers with discipline problems piled up in the principal's office.

On the first day of school I discovered that I was sharing a room with the eighth-grade reading tutor. Not knowing each other, we divided the room with a couple of bedspreads strung from a rope stretching across the middle of the room. After one semester, we took down the rope and went to the principal with a proposal. "Give us the worst readers in the school," we said, "but give them to us for double time, not half time." We wanted these rotten readers for two periods a day. "It will be their last best chance to become readers before they're lost in high school."

The principal immediately grasped the benefits that would accrue from getting the school's worst discipline problems out of his office and into the classroom of teachers who did not send students to the office. Nonetheless, he fell back on the old excuse. "It's a scheduling impossibility. There's no room in the day for an extra period of reading."

We were ready for that one. "Let students choose a class to drop from their schedule," we countered. We'd done a little digging in state education department rules and regulations and had discovered that, although math and English were mandated in both seventh and eighth grades, science and social studies were not. "Why not let these kids choose whether they want to skip social studies or science? This will lighten the academic load of kids who are nonreaders and failing their courses. It will also give them a feeling of autonomy." A revolutionary thought, that: letting a seventh-grader make some decisions about the subjects to study. The principal talked about making the dropped class a nonessential, such as art or shop, but we pushed for letting our 12-year-old nonreaders have at least one class a day that wasn't reading intensive. He warmed to the notion that it's better to let a kid skip social studies altogether than to have him spend that period in the principal's office.

Somehow, reason prevailed, and the students were allowed to choose. We had a good success rate. Some students scored well enough after one year to go into regular English in eighth grade. All students had individual programs: separate, individual spelling tests may have been a slightly loony idea, but those brief encounters every Friday gave me a chance to talk with all the students about the way language works and to get them to accept responsibility for learning their words. Parents were especially grateful for the decrease in stress and for the fact that their children had two periods a day when the classwork was tailored to fit their needs. People who advocate wholesale mainstreaming don't ask children how it feels to be the dumbest one in the class year after year. I remember Dan's mother hugging me and saying, "It's the first year he's been successful in school."

But all this happened more than a decade ago. Our program lasted for six years, actually a longevity record in my district. I can't imagine such a radical proposal as helping a 15-year-old read his way through Hop on Pop -- the first book he ever read in his life -- getting heard in today's climate of world-class schools hoopla. Bureaucrats don't talk about what happens to the kids who don't read on grade level.

OF LATE, I have been looking at the different ways students are treated in math classrooms that are deemed college preparatory and those that are not. I recently sat in on some quite wonderful Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP) classrooms. IMP is an innovative, problem-based high school mathematics curriculum that emphasizes communication skills and integrates such traditional math topics as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and precalculus, as well as incorporating topics from statistics, matrix algebra, linear programming, and finite math. Working in teams, students work on a real-world problem that might take six weeks to solve. There is a lot of talk in an IMP classroom: teasing, roasting, and peer coaching commingle with quiet, concentrated thinking. A student will withdraw from the group, struggle with a problem, and then come back to the group for confirmation that she's on the right track. These students could tell me what they were studying and why it was important to study it. They were articulate about how and why their work differed from that of traditional college-prep math. Unsolicited, the students were quick to assure me that, while things may look relaxed and full of fun, IMP students score just as high on the SAT math as those enrolled in traditional college-prep math courses. No matter how you justify your innovations, the bottom line stays the same: for college-prep kids, those test scores had better be good.

I sat in on skills math in the same schools where I saw the innovative IMP. In a school where a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and proud vice principal in charge of curriculum talked to me for an hour, expressing her enthusiasm for and pride in IMP, the skills courses were never mentioned. When I observed the skills class, my worst fears were realized. It could have been my own fifth-grade math class; it could have been the seventh-grade teacher across the hall from me 25 years ago. Skills math has a content frozen in time. On this day it was "Do all the odd ones on page 146 in class; do all the odd ones on page 147 for homework."

"We do the odd ones because the even ones have the answers in the back of the book," a girl in my group confided. It's the only explanation I could pry out of the students for why they were doing what they were doing. Was I nuts or stupid or what? They were doing what they were doing because that's where they were in the book. Forty problems calling for division of fractions for seatwork in class. Forty more for homework. Ours is not to reason why. Just invert and multiply. Students write out the problems for homework because there aren't enough books for every student to have one -- never mind enough to allow the books to go home. This is a predominantly middle-class school, not a place one would choose to illustrate the horrors and injustices of our education system.

Students in college-prep math are treated like intelligent, reasoning, social human beings. Students in skills math are treated like inmates. Here's one small example. In each class I joined a group of four students. In IMP, the college-prep classes, I was interviewed by the group I sat with, who then introduced me to the rest of the class. (And the students were given free rein to exercise their humor -- asking me, among other things, my favorite vegetable and my favorite joke about Rush Limbaugh.) In the skills class the student desks were clumped into groups of four, but the clusters must have been left over from the previous hour. In skills math, anybody who talked was sent to a corner. When a boy nodded toward me and asked the teacher, "Who's that?" the teacher singled him out for ridicule, sneering, "It's none of your business. You have enough trouble looking out for yourself. Never mind worrying about other people." The teacher didn't say anything to me except to mention that he looks forward to retiring in 15 years.

In the March 1996 issue of the Washington Monthly, Rev. Al Hicks, principal of the Nativity Preparatory School in Roxbury, Massachusetts, points out that we know what to do to make the schools right. "It's just a matter of doing it." Rev. Hicks and I might run our classrooms and organize our curricula differently, but he's right that we don't need a blue-ribbon panel or some longitudinal research study to tell us that the students in the IMP class are getting a much better deal than the students in the skills class, and I'm not talking about algebra. Of course, it's not enough to adopt a good curriculum and get good teachers. Money enters the equation. The IMP teachers are trying to change fundamentally the way mathematics is taught, and change doesn't come cheaply. Teachers who are trying to change need time. The IMP teachers receive an extra preparation period, time to consult and bolster one another, plan strategies, figure out how to grade nonconventional problems, and so on. But we might question why the skills teacher should get any prep time.

Time to be thoughtful is what few schools give teachers. When an editor at a large publishing conglomerate once asked me, "If you could draw up the language arts curriculum for your school, what would it be?" I realized that I had been teaching in public schools for eight years then and had taken part in no fewer than five different language arts programs, each one hailed as "innovative" and "creative." It's easier for a district to switch to a new, creative program than to dig down and be truly thoughtful about one it already has.

For me, drawing up the plans for an ideal school isn't a matter of basics versus electives, phonics versus whole language, new math versus old, tracking versus heterogeneous grouping, Aztecs versus Inuits. No matter what side one takes, it always has to be amended with a "Yes, but." In personality, pedagogy, and procedures, I was the polar opposite of the woman with whom I team-taught for six years. We just did things differently. She believed in the 16 rules of syllabification, and I don't know what a schwa is. But somehow, on the things that really matter -- putting kids first, working hard, and being able to learn new things -- we were aligned. People numbed by TV talk shows and ritualized point/counterpoint news forums want definitive, 30-second answers. They want to know whether syllabification is more important in the curriculum than riddle books, and they don't have the patience to stay around for the "Yes, but" complications. People committed to reforming schools must insist that real life is not "Crossfire."

Instead of posing polar opposites -- big schools versus small, cooperative learning versus individual responsibility -- we must learn to create environments that do not expect the worst of children and teachers. Allowing children to choose the books they read will not create anarchy and illiteracy. Kids who use calculators do learn math facts. Teachers who are given free access to phones do not call their psychics in Las Vegas. Kids whom the bus drops off at 7:55 a.m. in 10? weather will not trash the school if the doors are opened before the official bell at 8:30. I don't have the statistics here, but I really wonder if depriving middle- and high-schoolers of lockers (and thus forcing them to carry around all their books, musical instruments, coats, and lunches all day long) reduces drug use. What I do know is that taking away the lockers shows kids that you expect the worst from them, and kids have a way of living down to our expectations.

One image in The Good Preschool Teacher, by William Ayers,2 continues to resonate. Ayers shows that, when a young child makes a choice between riding in a wagon or walking, we see the careful, thoughtful planning of a teacher who is helping her students learn about choice and responsibility. Ironically, because schools are structured to expect the worst, those preschool choices are the last real choices many children will make in their school careers.

I got involved in school reform very early in my career. Just eight months after I started teaching high school in Queens, I received a fellowship to study new techniques in urban education at Princeton University. In those days teachers were paid to take summer courses. Having married a graduate student the day before the course started, I was excited to learn that teachers were even paid a stipend for their dependents. So teacher trainees met at the university, and black teenagers were bused from Trenton to the sylvan setting of Princeton. The curriculum was movies -- not stiff and static education junk, but high-quality Hollywood movies. Every day we'd hand the kids a paperback book and show them a full-length movie based on that book. The idea was that teachers would learn about the power of film to lure reluctant readers into books.

I learned something important from that course. I learned about the power of the book. Those kids couldn't believe we were giving them all those books. Every day they'd carry in every book. You could see that they enjoyed the tactile qualities of the books. They'd run their hands over the smooth, shiny covers. They'd brag about the weight of all their books. "Not another one!" they'd cry, groaning as they clutched each new book possessively. And while, say, On the Waterfront was playing on the screen, the students would crouch over The Red Pony or To Kill a Mockingbird, trying to read by the light of the projector. Every day we saw the professors proved wrong once again. The books definitely had much more power than the movies. But no one ever said a word about this. Not one word. The professors just kept handing out the books and showing the movies. And we teachers who were being retrained just sat there watching the kids struggle to read in the dark.

I don't know if other teachers learned from that course what I did. As a teacher I now know that what a teacher thinks she teaches often has little to do with what students learn. Since this was in the days before chairs in a circle or in clusters of four, the other teachers and I never talked about what we were learning. All I know is that it's a good thing I learned what I did, because I have never worked in a school that had the money to make high-quality Hollywood films a part of the curriculum. Ever since, when an ed-biz-whiz consultant comes in with a plan to improve our school -- reading through typing, reading through art, reading through Transcendental Meditation, reading through basketball, reading through pizza -- I think of those kids from Trenton reading in the dark.

Kids want to learn. They don't have to be bribed, threatened, or shamed into learning. They need to be given a reason to learn. Not pie-in-the-sky promises that if they will just learn calculus they'll be guaranteed lifetime employment. Such claims are a disgrace and serve only the bureaucrats who make them. Students need benefit right now. Today. The wonderful thing is that children will come in tomorrow and give us a chance to do better.

IF I MAY be permitted one last personal story, I learned the aphorism about tomorrow being a new day from a big, mean seventh-grade girl with a wicked tongue. I was devastated the day she called me a white M-F. I was apprehensive the next day. How would she act? How would I act? She came to class cheerful, energetic, and expecting me to teach her. And so I did. She taught me to keep my eye on today, not yesterday. I don't much believe in planning for tomorrow. Do good today, and tomorrow will take care of itself.

Recommending reform to others is easy. Blue-ribbon panels do it all the time. The language of reform is global, grandiose, and gutless. By the time I got out of graduate school I had some sympathy for the fellow who didn't like the way the English Department was run. The semester before I arrived, he had walked into the building and started shooting. I'm not recommending wholesale slaughter in the ivory towers, but professors do need to look at their students through different lenses. A professor friend of mine had one of these telling moments. After major surgery, he awoke from the anesthetic to see someone in hospital garb fiddling with his tubing. The caregiver mentioned that he'd been a student in the professor's course. The professor made the mistake of asking, "How'd you do?"

"I failed."

Finding that your life is in the hands of a person who failed your course offers a clarifying moment that few academics are fortunate enough to experience. If we are ever to have any hope of reforming schools, we certainly can't put all professors under the scalpel, but we can look for ways to help them understand schools better. I offer just two modest proposals for reform. First, require that professors teach regularly in public schools. I don't mean a demonstration lesson here and there. I mean a full schedule for a semester, say, every three years. If that's too onerous, I'd settle for one full semester every five years. Or even 10. The teacher whose class is being taken over can teach practicums at the university for that same time period. This system will not only open eyes and reform practice, it will remove dead wood.

Second, require recertification every five years for anybody who works in schools or makes policy about schools, at all levels, pre-K through graduate school. The recertification should take place in a public meeting where someone is willing to stand with the candidate and bear witness that the candidate is loved. This testifier may be a student or a colleague. It may be a relative. But it must be a different person every five years. This practice will demonstrate that competency alone is not enough.

My favorite story ever about teaching and learning and standards and values appeared in the New York Times' "Metropolitan Diary" for 1 November 1989. A woman driving in midtown Manhattan made an illegal right turn and was pulled over by a stern-looking cop. He took her license and registration and explained the error of her ways. Then he let her go with a warning. As she started to drive off, the officer queried, "Aren't you going to ask why I didn't give you a ticket?" When she nodded, he grinned and replied, "You were my first-grade teacher."

Surely no teacher can read that story without both jubilation and terror. I spent three days making lists of students I thought would have let me off and students who would have gleefully thrown the book at me. If we could go into our classrooms every day with the thought that these kids are tomorrow's traffic cops, the world would be a better place.

1. Everett Reimer, School Is Dead (New York: Anchor Books, 1972), p. 103.

2. William Ayers, The Good Preschool Teacher (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989).

Phi Delta Kappan December 1996

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