A Berlin Memorial and a Philosophy of Education

Why do we teach? I thought about this question while reading a blog by a newer teacher describing the oppressive nature of some school systems and the teacher oversight ala Michell Rhee and other ‘rock star reformers’ .  Teaching in some urban schools  has become so prescriptive that the human side of teaching, the reason most of us went into the profession, has been eliminated.

While in Berlin, I asked my two fellow study tour participants, why and if it was important to teach about the Holocaust. More specifically, I asked if it was worthwhile to teach a detailed unit on the Holocaust to secondary school students. We didn’t immediately say yes. We grappled with this as we visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Wannsee (where Heydrich and other Nazis finalized the plans for the ‘final solution’), and Gestapo headquarters. When we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe the question became philosophical. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete pillars or stelae  of varying heights. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman the memorial is large and open to the Berlin streets; it beckons the visitor to walk through the stelae. “One of Germany’s preeminent architectural critics, Heinrich Wefing [describes the memorial as] …a beautiful abstraction that does not dictate what its observer should think or experience, but is nonetheless thoughtful and moving.” (pbs.org). When I entered the memorial, I felt off-balanced and calm, but soon I saw a child and a father chasing each other through the pillars, a couple of teenagers hanging out on top of a lower concrete slab, and a girl having some glamour shots taken against the pillar. My calm was gone and my discomfort began. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this much freedom.  Peter Eisenman, when talking about the uses of the memorial says “that is something I have no control over. When you turn a project over to clients, they do with it what they want — it’s theirs and they occupy your work. You can’t tell them what to do with it.” The German government has not been as free as the architect. They have covered the stelae with an anti-graffiti coating and posted rules such as no running or yelling; enforcing the rules is a bit harder. Still, the memorial is open to individual interpretation and the visitor is largely responsible for his or her own behavior within the 2711 pillars. There is no script for how a visitor should feel about the memorial or about the Holocaust. The architect has created a place of memory, but the individual must decide ‘what to do with it’.

Schools and classrooms are also guided by a philosophy. There are schools such as Waldorf Schools which try to develop the whole child. Similar schools try to create an open learning environment where students can engage freely with classmates, develop skills  at their own pace, and pursue their own interests. On the other hand, we have the prescriptive learning of programs such as Balanced Literacy or Success for All, with a script for teachers to follow. Perhaps the analogy between democracy and fascism is too obvious. I’m not sure if it is too strong. I do know that the children who attend Waldorf Schools and other open learning schools are from progressive, free thinking families, where the parents take an active role in their child’s education (think the Obama and Clinton family).  I also know that the students in balanced literacy classes and other prescriptive programs are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Trust and respect are the key philosophical underpinnings of private schools and wealthier public schools. The school trusts that the student and his or her family will take an active role in the educational process. The school’s role is to foster an environment that encourages intellectual exploration, open discussion, and analysis of information. In many urban schools, the students, families, and teachers are not to be trusted. Instead an administrator or more and more often a politician decides what children will learn and how they will learn it.

This philosophy is antithetical to a course on the Holocaust or any course that explores human behavior. In these classrooms there can be no script. The topic is human behavior.  The difficult issues and the uncomfortable ideas are grappled with and brought to the forefront. The education belongs to the students and they do with it what they want.

Summer Reading

Purposeful or purposeless?

Ah, summer. I cannot deny that you make me love my job. You give me time to clean my closets (2 bags of clothes and shoes to goodwill) and the leisure to have 4 hour lunches with friends (Heng Heng II in Lowell; cheap and highly recommended). And best of all you give me time to read.

A couple of weeks ago, I planned my summer reading kickoff and bought The Girl Who Played with Fire. And now, as summer vacation begins but  still not having checked my teacher hat at the door, I find myself putting TGWPWF aside and reading Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the way they learn. According to the author, schooling and education must change to appeal to the new   iGeneration; young people raised on technology and multi-tasking. (To read an NPR interview with the author click here.) A new era of schooling fueled by rapidly developing and changing technology is popping up in all sorts of journals and books. The new schooling may take many forms including virtual classrooms and constant availability and use of technology. According to Harvard Professor Paul E. Peterson, teachers will no longer be teachers, but coaches for students as we “customize learning to the needs of each student.”

As a member of the baby boom generation (the tail-end, thank you very much) I need to keep current with the kids to do my job. A few of my former colleagues question teachers who use facebook, have twitter accounts, and email with their students. By doing all those things, I am not trying to be one of the teenagers, but I am trying to understand them. My experience tells me that understanding or the desire to understand is what all teenagers, maybe even all people, are after.

I am hoping that as I continue reading Rewired I will gain some insights into how best to incorporate WMDs (no, not those WMDs, but wireless mobile devices) and other teencentric technology into my practice.

But now, Day 5 into summer vacation, I can hear purposeless reading calling my name. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

Mellow Discipline?

Discipline in the classroom has never been my forte. In the beginning of my high school teaching career, I used to get angry at the class. I would yell once in a while, but usually I would just get red  in the face and say something like “I refuse to teach you anymore” and go sit at my desk. My students, not used to seeing me angry, would usually be quiet until the bell rang. The next day I would come in with a lecture or stern admonition about their unruliness. I’ve mellowed a lot in the last few years; it might be maturity or the practice of yoga. In school, I think of myself as patient and understanding. This  year, I only had to become stern a few times, and  that sternness was only accompanied by anger once or twice.

Halloween 2009 - Jorge graduated this year and I'm still trying to figure things out!

Sarcasm as a form of discipline is fairly ineffectual. I try not to use it for that purpose.

All that being said, I am still perplexed about how to handle poor behavior. I’m not talking about egregiously poor or malicious behavior. That is easier to handle. Instead, I’m talking about the little stuff that happens with students who are generally good OR who have some overwhelming issues with which they are dealing.

I’ll give a couple of case studies:

A) Student A is mouthy. He criticizes you during class, often under his breath. He talks in a disrespectful manner. But this same student usually pays attention, cares about grades, and always does homework. You know that culturally you are worlds apart. When you call him on his behavior(privately); he denies it and says that you just don’t like him.

B) Student B is a good student, an interested learner, and an avid class participant. This same student though, sometimes decides she is not interested in what the class is doing. This happens when the work is a little more demanding. At this point, the student will disengage from the class by putting her head down or acting bored.

What is difficult about this is that my style of teaching is very open and collaborative; I see students as my partners in learning. I want discussion, grappling with problems, and freedom to explore. My students often don’t have the maturity to do this.  The Mark Strand poem “Wherever I am I am what is missing” comes to mind. They are neither here nor there. They are texting, they are packing up for the next class, they are doing math in English class.

I know real disciplinarians will talk about establishing rules early and sticking to them. I get it, but in my mind class rules are always made to be broken; while rules of common decency and etiquette are not.

Cheating, Medicating, and Compensating

There is something so inorganic about the way we educate and bring up kids today.  But what amazes me about this is how we (parents, society, schools) accept the fallout; cheating, medicating, and compensating.

Cheating: On Thursday and Friday, about 500 students were put in the cafeteria and given an EPP test. I think that stands for education performance plan, but who cares. It is another standardized test, this time math, that some students have to take if they didn’t do well on the MCAS, or well enough anyway;  they passed, but didn’t pass enough. They sat at lunch tables, about 8 to a table, each student with exactly the same test. You do the math. It was almost as if the administrators were saying cheating is allowed. The fallout is clear; our love affair with testing is creating a culture of cheaters and adults who are so sick of administering the tests they just pretend that the cheating doesn’t occur. I guess it is passive-aggressive proctoring.

Medicating: A small study was done at the University of Illinois that demonstrated that young people diagnosed with ADD or ADHD who went on 20 minute daily walks in nature had better attention and fewer behavioral problems. This is one of those things that make you go hmmm, isn’t it? Kids need to be outside, they need to play in a soothing environment, they need to walk, and they need to explore. In other words, children need to engage in human activities; the kind that don’t involve electronics and electricity. Before we medicate our kids, shouldn’t we investigate the best environment for them?

Compensating: Because we’ve moved away from a more organic form of child rearing and educating, we are forced to compensate for a child’s inability to cope.  We offer rewards for following the rules that used to be expected. We offer excuses where excuses shouldn’t be acceptable. We drill kids in test-taking skills because the test is more important than the learning, and we look the other way when cheating occurs because we feel so helpless when we are party to something we know is wrong. We medicate ourselves and our children because it is easier than changing and fighting the system.

Period 8

For the last few weeks, I have left school at the end of the week on a high note. And it is because of Period 8. Period 8 is what I now call the group of students that meets after school on the last day of the school week. Yesterday was an especially good period 8. My students had a project due and they were struggling with it mightily. They came in to get extra help and finish up their work. The odd part of this is how the students behavior and attitude are completely changed during period 8. For example, yesterday:

1) Students were waiting for me at the door. (I usually wait for them)

2) I didn’t have to ask them to put cellphones away because I didn’t care if they used them.

3) They are usually ravenous, but yesterday I opened a bag of chips and threw half of the bag away because nobody was hungry.

4) They helped each other as needed without being placed in cooperative work groups.

5) I explained an assignment to one or two students in the exact same way I explained it in class, but this time the students  knew exactly what to do, and did it.

6) Everyone was smiling and happy to do school assignments. The demeanor of a few students was quite different from what I see during normal class time.

7) I had time to work with one girl and translate some words into Spanish so she really understood what I was reading to her.

8) During the school day, students will be waiting at the door to leave, but during period 8 most of the students stayed for one hour, while some stayed longer. A few hugged me when they left.

What do you think accounts for these differences? I’m anxious to hear your responses because I would like to make periods 1-7 more like period 8!

Fomenting Revolution (aka MEPA Protests)

Over 800 students at my high school were given the MEPA (Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment) today and yesterday. You can read a previous post to understand my issues with that test and TO WHOM it is administered. My advisory is usually pretty mellow (when not hitting me in the head with duct tape;  again a previous post).

But there was some visible anger when these students were handed the notice that they were scheduled to take MEPA…again…for the 4th, 5th or 6th time.  One young man of Cambodian ethnicity, but born in the US,  simply took the notice and ripped it up. They were annoyed and humiliated.

Now, I have noticed that teachers have two different responses to the protests by their students who don’t want to take MEPA. There is one group of teachers that thinks and often says to the students something to the effect of  ‘quit your whining, take the test, we all have to do things we don’t like so just do your best and get it over with.’ (These teachers might not realize that a passing score does not necessarily get rid of your Limited English Proficiency {LEP} label.) And then there is the other group of teachers who doesn’t mind fomenting a little revolution now and then. This group of teachers agrees with the students, and supports their feelings of unfair treatment. I’ve decided it is a fundamental difference in how we look at the world and is based on our culture and our experience.

I encouraged my students to express their dismay, but I also knew nobody was going to listen to them. Everyone must kowtow to the state mandate including teachers, American-born students*, and administrators. My students were powerless; they are seniors and they just want to graduate and don’t want anything to derail their future plans. But to assuage their feelings of powerlessness they created art;  anti-MEPA protest art.

My whiteboard at school with student-created MEPA protest art

As they begrudgingly trudged off to take their exams, I couldn’t help but feel a glimmer of hope that things will change soon and that Americans will realize that we are wasting millions of dollars and losing valuable class time because of constant testing.

Now that Diane Ravitch, former NCLB proponent, has written,   “All of this test prep and test review narrows the time available to teach science, history, geography, the arts, or anything else that is not related to the annual test. This path leads to higher scores but worse education”,  I wonder if the rest of the educational establishment will be that far behind.

Let the revolution begin!

* I believe the test is an appropriate measure of progress for English language learners who have a first language that is not English. My main complaint is that students who were born in the US, and speak English as their first language and often their only language, are still being tested. I believe the English language learners should only take MEPA and not MCAS.

A Bad Day

Friday was one of those days that makes me reconsider my life as a teacher. The week had been leading up to a lousy Friday. I came back from vacation and I was ready to go. Unfortunately, I forgot that the students weren’t going to be ready. They were all exhausted and a bit surly, but no matter, Tuesday was fine.  Wednesday was a professional development day meaning that students are dismissed early and teachers stay for professional development. On this particular Wednesday the topics were:

  • Appropriate restraint methods
  • Classroom management v. reportable offenses
  • Filling out incident reports
  • The difference between and assault and a threat
  • Why the words assault and threat should not be used in incident reports
  • The incident report as a legal document
  • Gang activity
  • Cyber-bullying
  • Dangers of social networking
  • Repercussions of student sexting

These are the topics that were not discussed:

  • Education
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Math
  • Character Education
  • Student responsibility
  • Civics

The meeting was downright discouraging. I assume prison guards receive similar training. As teachers, we were left with a feeling of vulnerability.  The message many of us received was ‘be careful, if you report an incident, it could come back to haunt you’. A student assault could result in a charge of teacher incompetence.

On Thursday, I visited a retired friend. We talked about a few stories of excellent, dedicated teachers being falsely accused by students. There are many such incidents and in most cases the falsely accused teacher feels vulnerable, overwhelmed, and unsupported. At least a few of my former colleagues say these incidents led to their premature retirement. These teachers are the backbone of solid education; the ones who arrive early and stay late, who come into class with dynamic lessons, and truly care about their young charges.  No matter.

And then along came Friday. Now this may sound stupid and I know at the least it is embarrassing, but on Friday I got hit in the head with a very small ball of duct tape. It was during homeroom (advisory) and I’m not sure how the duct tape landed on my head. I was speaking to another teacher in the front of the room when the silver missile arrived. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t leave a mark, but it did surprise me. I know the students did not intentionally hit me. I assume they were just being their goofy teenage selves and the ball of tape was mistakenly chucked in my direction.

But it set me off. About 10 minutes after it happened, I felt my eyes well up (could it be any more embarrassing?).  In my second period class, one of the girls immediately asked me what was wrong. I replied that nothing was wrong  and asked her why she had asked me that. She said that I didn’t seem like the happy Mrs. Morgenstern who is in class every day.

I felt like a chump.

The feeling hasn’t really dissipated over the weekend. All educators are in a precarious situation; we are blamed for most of the problems with youth today and are responsible for teaching everything.*

I really don’t like feeling like a chump.

*Example: On the view, Elizabeth Hasselbeck (or was it Whoopi?), suggested the schools need to teach about the dangers of sexting.  I just can’t decide if I should teach that before or after I teach about the New Deal.