Jaime Escalante, Alfie Kohn, John Taylor Gatto and Frank Smith
Jerry Heverly, my guest columnist today and next week, teaches English at San Leandro High School in the East Bay community of San Leandro, Calif. When he sent me this imaginary discussion between four very different experts on education, I wasn't sure what to make of it. Once I started reading, I was hooked.
Given the level of erudition of readers of this blog, I think you will be too. Heverly has found a way to dramatize great issues of teaching, and at the same time illuminate what educators like him are struggling with in schools full of disadvantaged students not that interested in learning. He may not have captured them perfectly. The real experts might have answered his questions differently. But his impression of Jaime Escalante, whom I knew well, is very close to reality, so I am going to bow to Heverly's imagination. The point is to illustrate the conflicting influences that teachers must deal with. Feel free to comment here and/or send Heverly a message at email@example.com.
The following conversation is purely fictional. No such meeting ever took place. This is merely my attempt to guess what these four experts might say to me if I could get them all in one room at one time. I wrote this in a effort to work out my own demons, in hopes that I might increase my understanding of the failings of my own teaching methods.
Jerry Heverly: I want to thank all you gentlemen for joining me here today to try to clear up my confusion about teaching success. I don’t think all of you know each other so I thought I’d give brief introduction for each.
On my immediate left is John Taylor Gatto. Mr. Gatto was Teacher of the Year for the City of New York in 1991. Since then he has penned at least four books including “Dumbing Us Down,” “The Exhausted School,” “Weapons of Mass Instruction” and “The Underground History of American Education.” He presently teaches at the Albany Free School in Upstate New York.
Next to Mr. Gatto is Jaime Escalante, identified as “The Best Teacher in America” by Washington Post writer Jay Mathews and others. Mr. Escalante taught many years at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles before being enticed to Sacramento in 1991. Escalante’s story was made into an award-winning film called “Stand and Deliver.” He died in March 2010 but his spirit lives on in the many teachers he influenced.
Beside Mr. Escalante is Alfie Kohn, noted lecturer on education and author of more than ten books. His works on education include "Punished by Rewards," "The Schools Our Children Deserve" and "The Homework Myth." Mr. Kohn is a former high school teacher who has said he learned most of what he knows about teaching from observing other, more talented, teachers.
And finally our group includes Frank Smith, an expert on literacy and reading education in the English-speaking world. Mr. Smith has published 14 books of his own in addition to editing three others. His tome, "Whose Language, What Power?" describes his brief tenure teaching in a South African teacher’s college. He is currently working on a book about evolution.
Welcome gentlemen. Put simply, I hope the four of you can help me understand how to become a better high school English teacher. I have read most of the books each of you has written and, I must tell you, I’m very confused! It seems as if each of you espouses ideas and teaching techniques that are incompatible with each of the others. How can four such wise men differ so radically in the way you teach or advise others to teach?
Frank Smith: I’m afraid you have the wrong person here. If you’ve read my books you know I’ve consistently made it clear that I don’t prescribe teaching methods. My brief is simply to clarify how human beings acquire language.
Heverly: Yes, Professor Smith, I understand that. But you must concede that you often come very close to prescriptions. For instance you have railed against the “tyranny of testing” haven’t you?
Smith: Yes, I have argued that frequent testing can get in the way of learning.
Jaime Escalante: I tested my students every Friday and as often as I needed to.
Heverly: Why did you feel frequent testing was so important?
Escalante: How else could my students know if they had mastered the skills? A kid comes to class hung over from last night’s party. He didn’t do his homework. He didn’t study. He isn’t prepared for class. I need to show him that that kind of choices will sink his chances for a better life!
Alfie Kohn: The only thing homework does is to alienate kids from school. There’s no evidence that it helps kids learn.
Escalante: You’re loco if you think I can get an East L.A. teenager through calculus without him doing lots of homework. If I didn’t force my students to do homework they’d spend their time in front of the TV or at the video parlor with their homeboys.
John Taylor Gatto: You don’t think a teenager has the right to decide what to do with his time away from school? What gives you the right to dictate what a young person does when he is away from your control?
Escalante: I’m not forcing my students to do anything. I’m leading them to a better future, a chance to escape life working at a fast-food joint for eight dollars an hour. They haven’t lived long enough to realize what life has to offer — and what unhappiness they face if they make the wrong choices at age 16 or 17.
Gatto: Then why not show them their choices? I often arranged for my students to take a day or two off. I used those days to connect the student to someone in the community who could show them what life is like. I had kids with straight F’s on their report cards who apprenticed with comic book artists and physicians and they showed they could hold their own with learned people.
Kohn: Which shows the pointlessness of grades.
Heverly: I gather, Mr. Escalante, that you did a lot of grading?
Escalante: You bet. But I didn’t grade to humiliate anyone. I graded to motivate. I used whatever motivations I could lay my hands on: money, candy, grades, threats … hell, I’d smack a kid in the back of his head with a pillow if that would convince him to do what I demanded of him. My kids knew I cared about them. They put up with things from me that they’d never tolerate from the guy across the hall. I wasn’t trying to get a Scarsdale spoiled brat to raise his SAT score. I was trying to lift impoverished inner-city kids out of the ghetto and into careers and doctors and lawyers. And what we did worked.
Kohn: It was their love for you, Mr. Escalante, that motivated your students; it wasn’t the candy or the grades. I can cite boatloads of research that proves that incentives — and punishments — don’t work. You succeeded in spite of your bribes and threats, not because of them.
Escalante: I’m sure you’ve studied these matters more thoroughly than I have, Mr. Kohn, but I tell you that my kids loved me because I tested them and rewarded them. When a kid got an F on her first report card she was often angry or hurt. That was my meat! Once I had them emotional about their schoolwork I knew I had a chance to reach them. Not everyone, but most kids responded to a strong message delivered to the family mailbox. If I had to I embarrassed them in front of their peers. I could get away with that because we were a team; everyone focused on the same goal, to pass that test — and I learned it was crucial that the test was written by someone other than me, an outsider, and a common foe. A failing grade on a quiz wasn’t Kimo criticizing them; it was the teacher’s attempt to show them the best way to succeed. If you failed a quiz you had to come to class the next day with the proper solution for every question you missed the previous day. Earning a grade was a wonderful lesson for my students, kids who had never had a job or had no experience of the real world. I couldn’t fire them but I could show them that laziness and lack of focus had real consequences. I’ve had many students come back and thank me for that lesson.
Heverly: You mentioned a key point, Mr. Escalante, that I’d like to ask you about. According to what I read your program, at its peak, had about 500 students enrolled in calculus or the classes preparing them for calculus.
Escalante: People didn’t realize how many years it took us to get to that point. My first year in calculus we only had five kids take the AP exam.
Heverly: Yes, but it’s the other three thousand students at Garfield that I wonder about. If I was a math teacher at Garfield, I’d be upset if I had to teach the ones you didn’t want.
Escalante: We never turned down any student who wanted into our program. I hate tracking. Anyone with the ganas was welcome in our classrooms -- I had two other teachers working with me. If they couldn’t tolerate my methods they could take the class from another member of the team.
Heverly: But still, there were thousands of students who weren’t in your universe, right? If I yearn to be a teacher like you, how do I face the fact that I’m reaching only a small percentage of the student body?
Escalante: If you become the kind of teacher I was you will be helping hundreds or thousands of young people better their lives. Isn’t that enough for you? You needn’t settle for dumbed-down classes. You can create your own high standards. Let the others, the lazy teachers, deal with the incorrigibles.
Gatto: There was a time when we educated far more than one seventh of our children. And we did it without formal schooling in many cases. And I can give you the names of hundreds of highly successful inventors and entrepreneurs and explorers who were labeled ‘incorrigible’ by the American educational system.
Kohn: That’s fine, Mr. Gatto, but I think Mr. Heverly is interested in finding a way to work within the existing system, am I right?
Heverly: Yes. I’ve read your books, Mr. Gatto, and, though I admire you greatly I’m stuck with a dream of changing my school for the better; maybe even influencing a few other teachers outside my school if that’s possible. But influence them to do what? Mr. Escalante advises I use candy and grades. He can prove his way works because he has the AP pass rate to prove it. Yet you, Mr. Kohn, you have a thick stack of bibliographic references that prove Mr. Escalante’s methods are wrongheaded. And everything I’ve read in Professor Smith’s books suggests that quizzes and drills and repetition — the things that Mr. Escalante points to as fundamental to his success — that these things won’t work. What is an inexperienced guy like me to think?
Smith: Obviously every teacher has to find his or her own way. It’s platitudinous but true. It’s fruitless to try to prick holes in Mr. Escalante’s record of success. We all learn by imitating people we admire. I would agree with something Mr. Kohn said. Clearly Mr. Escalante’s students admired his hard work and devotion to their welfare. You can call that love if you wish. I once wrote that children don’t learn from what we exhort them to do, but from what they see us doing. It’s not clear to me how much of Mr. Escalante’s methods are reproducible in the average American or Canadian high school unless every teacher is willing to work 80-hour weeks. Are you willing to do that Mr. Heverly?
Heverly: Honestly, I’m not sure. I work about 60 hours a week now, but the difference is that much of that time I’m alone in my room reading about how to be a better teacher. My students do not love me as Mr. Escalante’s did. In fact most don’t even like me. So my experience is that merely putting in the hours isn’t a guarantee of loyalty. One of the things I should probably try to learn from you gentlemen is how to develop that kind of connection to my students.
Smith: I suspect that isn’t learnable, Mr. Heverly.
Escalante: My students bonded to me because they were convinced that I had their best interests in mind. I worked them hard.
Kohn: I’ve observed thousands of successful teachers and in the vast majority of cases the teacher was not the focus of the room. Often I’d have trouble locating the teacher in the room because he or she would be stooped down in conversation with one student. In successful classrooms I’d hear more conversations between students than lectures by the teacher.
Escalante: I saw teachers at Garfield who tried that kind of thing. It didn’t work. Kids in East LA would walk all over any teacher who tried to be democratic. You can’t teach derivatives by having kids chat with each other.
Heverly: Mr. Kohn, I confess that I’ve tried with all my heart to use your ideas in my classroom. I have greatly reduced my use of grades and I have tried, really tried, to dispense with manipulative praise and punishments. But I’m missing something because my lower level classes walk all over me. It seems as if your methods cause my students to lose respect for me.
Kohn: By losing respect I assume you mean that they aren’t quiet when you want them to be?
Heverly: That’s a big part of it, yes. But there is also the fact that they simply don’t seem to care about school or learning or any of the things I’d like to impart to them. My supervisor at my last observation praised my constructivist methods but she was also highly critical of my inability to hold kids accountable. I didn’t need her to tell me that; I already knew my room was so noisy that it interfered with learning.
Smith: They are learning. They just aren’t learning the things you’d like them to learn.
Heverly: Yes, of course. But they pay me to teach certain things and I’m not doing that. I’m talking here about my lower-level kids. The honor students are more cooperative and seem to be gaining in literacy. It’s the disaffected kids I can’t reach. They are failing everyone else’s class, too, so I’m not alone. But that’s no consolation. I need to find a way to reach more kids than I reach now.
Kohn: To what extent do you allow your students to set the rules for the classroom?
Heverly: At the beginning of each semester I hold a meeting under Quaker rules to decide on class rules. I make some suggestions but every student has a veto. But they don’t seem to care about the rules. I think they are so conditioned to believe that the teacher makes the rules that they don’t believe me when I try to surrender some control to them. And that’s true of all kids, even the honor students.
Kohn: It’s true that many kids are suspicious when you first propose that they have choices about how the classroom will be governed, but that shouldn’t be a reason to give up on what you know is right. Fundamentally you are building relationships with kids. That takes time and patience.
(To be continued.)
| July 29, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
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