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Jaime Escalante, Alfie Kohn, John Taylor Gatto, Frank Smith (part 2)

This is the second part of California high school English teacher Jerry Heverly's fictional conversation with four great education experts. Scroll down this blog for last week's first part, which introduce Heverly, my guest columnist, and four real people whom, as far as we know, never met except in Heverly's imagination. Heverly's e-mail address is heverlyj@yahoo.com.

Heverly: When I hear you speak, Mr. Kohn, I am reminded of the early 1970s when I first moved to California as a young man. It was a time of idealism, of solving every problem with love. People felt that if we could all just listen to each other and treat each other with respect, that almost all conflict would dissipate. It sounds silly now, but at the time a lot of very smart people believed they could make this kind of thing work. And it was hard to oppose the prevailing wisdom because critics always came off sounding uncool and negative.

Many of my friends formed communes and tried to raise their children collectively because they believed kids would benefit by having more people care about them. People formed cooperative businesses where every employee had a vote. It seemed common sense that a society with more love in it would produce better people.

It all went to hell, though. None of us behaved as we thought and hoped we would. Our selfishness undermined every idea. I wonder if your suggestions for my classroom will meet the same fate for the same reasons.

Kohn: So you think I’m being idealistic?

Heverly: I think that many times when I try to use your methods things go wrong because somebody — sometimes me — acts in non-ideal ways. I get angry; kids trample on the feelings of other kids; a minority of kids sabotage the good intentions of the teacher. Your books describe kids acting rationally, having thoughtful conversations with the teacher. How come my kids never act that way? How come I often don’t act that way?

Gatto: It sounds like you are trying to be a social worker and parent more than a teacher. You’re unhappy because kids don’t obey you. You’re the one with the knowledge, right? So they should shut up and listen to you?

Heverly: Not true! I don’t lecture to them, I don’t talk to them en masse very often. I try to set up situations where they can learn on their own, but most of them have no interest in learning anything. They’d rather play video games.

Gatto: The irony is that there is little they can learn inside a classroom that has real meaning. It used to be that children formally or informally apprenticed themselves to adults in the community. Now we try to institutionalize that process but it can’t work because the resources inside the school building are so limited. Real learning can only take place in the real world.

Kohn: I think you are too impatient, Mr. Heverly. Mr. Escalante said it took him years to get his calculus program going. How long have you been trying constructivist or progressive methods in your classroom?

Heverly: About two years, depending upon how you define that.

Kohn: Just as I thought. I bet it took Mr. Escalante more than a decade to perfect his methods. I would expect it to take you at least that long to learn how to carry out humane teaching techniques.

Escalante: I knew from my first moment in a classroom that I was on the right track.

Heverly: But your methods have elements I can’t use. You refused to teach kids who didn’t cooperate, right?
Escalante: After a while I found a sympathetic counselor who was willing to find places for the small number of kids who refused to get with my program.

Heverly: Isn’t that tracking, by the way?

Escalante: No! I would have taken back anyone who agreed to make the effort. There was no permanent banishment from my program. And my partner teachers, Mr. Jimenez and Mr. Villavicencio often took students who didn’t like me. The important thing was for the students to know that I wasn’t judging their abilities, just their desire.

Heverly: The more I listen to you the more I come to see that you weren’t teaching math, you were teaching hard work and sacrifice.

Smith: I’ve often said that children learn language by joining the ‘literacy club.’ Much of what I’ve heard today seems to involve this kind of association. It also sounds like your students don’t have that kind of connection to you, Mr. Heverly. I don’t know how you can make your kids feel welcome but I suspect the secret you are seeking is involved in forming a group that students would want to join. It’s also likely that Mr. Kohn is right when he advises patience.

Heverly: Unfortunately after all this learned discussion I don’t think I’m any closer to figuring out how to do that.

Kohn: I want to go back to what you said about my idealism. If it is idealistic to expect teachers to listen to their students then I plead guilty.

Heverly: Would you concede, Mr. Kohn, that a basic assumption of your writing is that students are rational people who, if approached in the right way, will embrace learning?

Kohn: Absolutely.

Heverly: That’s where you lose me, then. As much as I’ve tried to do the things you recommend — to ask questions, to avoid lecturing wherever possible, to eschew rewards and punishments — my classes fail because students don’t act rationally. Or at least they don’t act humanely. I think I read about this first in one of Eric Hoffer’s books, but it has been my observation that when students are granted freedom they don’t feast on their new liberties to make a better life for themselves. Even when they’ve agreed to follow basic rules of civility they quickly forget any promises they’ve made. It’s not exactly ‘Lord of the Flies’ but it’s awfully close.

Kohn: There is a skill in bringing kids into the decision-making process. It’s not an all or nothing thing. It must be done gradually. Kids have to trust you. If they don’t then, yes, they are likely to behave selfishly.

Smith: It’s unclear to me, Mr. Heverly, if you are frustrated with your students’ behavior or with their inability to learn what you wish them to learn.

Heverly: I’m frustrated that the misbehavior of some students makes learning too difficult.

None of you seems to recognize, in your writing, the situation that I often face. In one room are some kids who enjoy learning, some who are just nice kids who would cooperate even when I ask them to do foolish things.

But there are also some kids — often just a handful — who hate school. They respect no rules. They have had over a decade to practice disruptive techniques. They crave being in the limelight. They suck the goodwill out of teachers. And, most importantly, they force the teacher to devote most of his or her attention to the few malcontents.

And nowhere in any of your books do any of you recognize that these kids change everything about education. It is these kids who mandate that teaching be all about worksheets and lectures — because they won’t tolerate anything else. Any time not filled with mindless activities is time such a kid will use to trample on the rights of everyone else.

Mr. Gatto, you once said that by eighth grade, kids know that grades are irrelevant. The winners know that grades will always be there for them, and the losers know a grade isn’t connected to their futures. I agree, but what you leave out is that it is the most disaffected students who demand grades. A classroom operating without grades depends upon a tacit contract. All students must have some trust in the teacher. All students must see the school operating at least somewhat in their interests. If there is even a little bit of mistrust, the disaffected kids will quickly wreck a class without grades.

All it takes is one renegade kid who refuses to cooperate at all, who terrorizes the teacher or the other students. And once that person flunks -- the contract is voided. Once one person flunks, it is no longer a classroom without grades. Why is it, by the way, that teachers who hate grades never flunk all their students? Wouldn’t that be the clearest message that grades are irrelevant?

And why does tracking exist? If the district is run democratically then the majority of parents will insist on segregated classes because they know what a minority of unhappy kids will do. It is virtually impossible to persuade a group of rational parents that de-tracked classes benefit their kids.

Every pernicious practice of modern education originates from the goal of trying to segregate and control the mischievous. But I read virtually nothing about these kids in any of your writings — except to insist that better techniques would somehow transform these kids.

These kids I speak of are not interested in your ‘literacy clubs,’ Mr. Smith. And you, Mr. Escalante, you readily admit you won’t even allow these kids into your classroom.

And Mr. Kohn, your whole system depends, as you said, on the idea that any kid can be shown that school can benefit them. But some kids will never accept that idea!

And Mr. Gatto, you admit that you had your best success when you eluded the system by coaxing such kids to leave the classrooms and get their education in the community.

Kohn: I constantly travel around North America lecturing to teachers and administrators and, more importantly, listening to their problems. I hear your frustration everywhere I go, but I tell you the traditional, behaviorist, keep-them-busy methods will not solve your problems.

Escalante: You need to decide who you want to teach, Mr. Heverly. By trying to be all things to all students you are failing to hold all your students to high standards. If some fail it isn’t your fault. You need to concentrate on those who can be successful.

Gatto: The American public school system is a giant con game, Mr. Heverly. You are just one small part of it. My recommendation is simply to be the best person you can possibly be. Some students will respond to this, some will not. Look outside the school for ways to truly educate your kids.

Smith: As I said when we began, I am not the person to tell you what to do. I think teachers do a difficult job. My guess is that whatever you choose to do will be your own, individual solution, and it will take time to work out.

Heverly: Thank you, gentlemen. I don’t think I’ve found my answer today but I enjoyed the dialogue. I hope that, as I reflect on our discussion, I will get closer to the kind of teacher I’d like to be.

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By Jay Mathews  | August 5, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Alfie Kohn, California English teacher Jerry Heverly's imagined conversation with education experts Jaime Escalante, John Taylor Gatto and Frank Smith  
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Comments

I'm struggling with how to say what I am thinking here, so I apologize if this comes out poorly. How soon do you decide which students 'hate school'? I teach elementary school so I expect that I am in a very different world. But even at early ages I've watched teachers quickly write off students, determine that those kids don't want to be there, won't work, etc. Even at early ages kids recognize this. They become the kids they are expected to be.

We talk a lot in education about high expectations. Students certainly are quick to meet our low expectations. Meeting the high ones are harder, but possible.

I've enjoyed these two posts. I've read works by all of these gentlemen and I am impressed with how you captured them.

Posted by: Jenny04 | August 5, 2010 10:48 PM | Report abuse

It is so rare to read in the media the situation that is raised by the handful of students in a classroom which is perfectly described by Mr. Heverly. I teach 4th grade in a public school in NYC and I have the same situation year after year - just one or two students whose emotional lives are so wrought with unprocessed pain that they are simply unable to trust a classroom that gives them some freedom. The solution, to me, is not simply to hand the students off to another teacher (a la Escalante) or say, well, you did your best - because I truly feel that it is our duty to reach each and every student in our classrooms. Rather, I think these students need intense social and emotional support from school counselors or psychologists, working with the teacher. When students are able to really build trust with ONE adult outside the classroom it makes a huge difference. Unfortunately, and probably unsurprisingly, this support is not available nearly enough. In my school the counselor (who is highly effective) is posted in the "Save Room" which is like an in-school detention room where very disruptive students are sent for a short time until they decide to behave in the classroom. Can a counselor speak privately to students in such a setting? Of course not! The principal decides how to allocate resources, he decides to put the school social worker in that room (which she hates), and students do not receive the services and support that they need to be successful in school.

Posted by: westdenise | August 6, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I am a high school teacher. I have always held that instead of magnet schools and allowing good kids to transfer we should have a system for removing disaffected students from regular school. We need programs that specifically address those students who can not function in traditional school. Programs which involve "real world" experience& part time work. This is the group we are failing and they are ruining school for all.

Posted by: sopranovcm | August 6, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I am a high school teacher. I have always held that instead of magnet schools and allowing good kids to transfer we should have a system for removing disaffected students from regular school. We need programs that specifically address those students who can not function in traditional school. Programs which involve "real world" experience& part time work. This is the group we are failing and they are ruining school for all.

Posted by: sopranovcm | August 6, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Great comments. We will have to persuade Jerry to write more.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | August 6, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

There are indeed those that for whatever reason choose not to learn, or who are frozen in fear and cannot learn. These students need psychological help to be able to work on their issues first. Remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs? Our public schools need to partner with social services to accommodate these children.

But why must we always choose one over the other? "Instead of" this we must do that? We can do both and be effective. Our school failure is not just one issue.

One of the screenings school should provide is mental health. We screen for vision problems, obesity, scoliosis, and head lice. Why not social emotional and mental issues as well? A child wreaked with fear at home cannot simply put that on hold for five hours a day to learn. A child who has not been able to trust any one before school is not going to have the experience to trust anyone at school either.

I have seen social workers line up almost every Monday morning at the school office to ask to see a student that has been assigned a new foster home because their parent was incarcerated over the weekend. Tell me who could keep their minds on school work after that experience?

Posted by: darleensun | August 6, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I thought it was good, too.

"How soon do you decide which students 'hate school'?"

It's not our decision. It's theirs. And it should be pretty obvious from posts that they've decided by high school.

I made a brief comment about this in Admissions 101 when I was asked if my opinions had changed when I became a teacher:

"I [used to] read other teachers say that classroom problems are caused by just a few students and [thought] this was nonsense. I've changed my mind. I am stunned at the fraction of kids that we waste time and money on. I don't know what the answer is, but there are kids in high school that don't want to be there. We should stop pretending that high school's where they should be--and stop giving them a choice if they've wasted enough time. "

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/community/groups/index.html?plckForumPage=ForumDiscussion&plckDiscussionId=Cat:a70e3396-6663-4a8d-ba19-e44939d3c44fForum:5093b309-eb0a-47e2-b777-ea68b9dd478eDiscussion:b75543d9-7206-4ad7-94a1-5918de85d565&plckCurrentPage=395

"This is the group we are failing and they are ruining school for all."

We're not failing them. They are failing themselves. I reject the notion that teachers and society bear the blame for individual choice.

(PS--Jay, are you in the Bay Area? Can you check email?)

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | August 6, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Heverly: "I’m frustrated that the misbehavior of some students makes learning too difficult... But there are also some kids — often just a handful — who hate school. They respect no rules. They have had over a decade to practice disruptive techniques. They crave being in the limelight. They suck the goodwill out of teachers. And, most importantly, they force the teacher to devote most of his or her attention to the few malcontents."

The above passage pretty much sums up the difference between high performing schools whether they be public or private, and low performing schools. The high performing schools either have few or they banish these chronically disruptive students and the low performing schools either can't or won't.

Disruptive students are to teacher qualifications as 10 is to 1 when explaining the origins of academic performance.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | August 6, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

sopranovcm,

Your post was awesome. I wish we could do the something similar for elementary kids.

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 6, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

And fairfaxvaguy and others,

When you talk about the mental health issues and disruption in the classroom you speak the truth. Why can't we get the powers that be (like Blarney Duncan) to see.

How can they not see that there is more classroom disruption in lower income neighborhoods than high income neighborhoods? How can they not the connection between this and test scores?

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 6, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

"Rather, I think these students need intense social and emotional support from school counselors or psychologists, working with the teacher"

Resources are limited. How can you justify spending huge sums on the very kids who already cost the schools more money already? Leave the bleeding heart out of your answer.

Suppose we spend an additional $15K per kid if they are the troublemakers, and we have a success rate of 10% (which I would consider huge). Have we justified that expense?

These kids aren't necessarily bad or evil. But they are actively harming classroom environments.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | August 6, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Cal,

What do you suggest doing with the elementary level disruptive kids? I've seen kids do things in elementary lower income neighborhood classrooms that are so disruptive yet the administration choses to leave these kids in the classroom.

Other children can't learn because of these kids. Yet the school administration refuses to do anything about them.

And it's just not a matter of classroom management because classroom management is much harder in the low income schools. Something has to be to handle this problem but the big voices in education (those who have all the power) are choosing not to deal with it. Instead they just want to fire teachers.

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 6, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Under Obama the disruption going on in the classroom will never be acknowledged. The powers that be: the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Michael Bloomberg will never deal with this issue.

What can we do when those who have the power to do something about this problem refuse to acknowlege it?

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 6, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm struggling with how to say what I am thinking here, so I apologize if this comes out poorly. How soon do you decide which students 'hate school'? I teach elementary school so I expect that I am in a very different world.
Posted by: Jenny04
...........................
If you are in a Title 1 poverty public school children can start hating schools in kindergarten.

All that children have to see is the teacher paying so much attention to the problem child day after day and ignoring them. Couple this with the teacher expecting them to behave and telling them that learning is important to them and they will quickly hate school.

I love teachers that state:
Students certainly are quick to meet our low expectations.

In regard to the Title 1 poverty public school teachers need to recognize that children early on lower their expectation of teachers and school when they continuously see teachers that accept and tolerate problem children.

Later on teachers certainly are quick to meet the low expectations that these children have of teachers and school.

I hope for your sake, that as I assume, you are not teaching in a Title 1 poverty public school.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

There are students who adapt to different teachers and curricula w/relative ease. They succeed at school more or less no matter what. They are not often motivated BY school or what they learn there, but have reasons [like parental sanctions] to sustain them. They may well get interested in a subject or course, usually via their relationship w/a teacher. But for the most part, if asked in college what mattered in HS, they answer extracurricular activities or non-core courses (fine arts, eg). These are teflon kids, for the most part.

They can and usually will Do School. Same thing they do at college, although they may find a major that motivates them, and they enjoy some to more of the coursework. Most, at least preprofessional majors, end up praising field-based work the most. These kids can do any of the teachers/pedagogies discussed herein.

Another segment of kids start being more selective sooner, and even in HS only perform in courses where they trust/like the teacher. They may do enough to get by in other classes, but they are not engaged, nor interested in being so. Some of these kids, in 2ndary yrs, do enough to stay eligible for sports, band or whatever, but care little about any classes, per se. I think this is a relatively large slice of most routine HS's. These are not "problem" kids in such schools, but annoying often.

A large segment of kids just flounder and try to survive. Every now and then they may get caught up in a class or w/a teacher. How that teacher teaches, traditionally or not, is less important than whether they trust and feel cared about by the teacher. They are not kids who will respond to a particular method differently, although they will probably Do More School w/competent and persistent teachers. They don't pretend to enjoy much or any formal school processes. Many work a lot after school. There is no Magic Feather w/such kids - they respond if they choose to and as much as they wish to. Such kids usually have self-identified by middle grades and relatively rarely migrate to the previously-discussed groups. They are a mix on given days of minimalism and resistance. Their consistency is mostly in terms of apathy. In Shopping Mall HS, yrs ago, they were described as kids susceptible to "treaties" - low demand on them in exchange for minimal disruption.

Then, there are plenty of kids who disrupt or intimidate peers and teachers. As some discuss above, they diminish school for others and demand a lot of time. Lots of kids will regress to this behavior if a teacher is manifestly incompetent or generates intense dislike among students.

Indeed, kids are often in more than one category across a year or concurrently in different classrooms. What I describe has been schools for as long as we've provided compulsory ed. The segments vary in proportion in different schools and perhaps across time. There are outlier classrooms, maybe schools, but neither policy nor practice has changed these demographics in a scale sense.

Posted by: dsacken | August 6, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

It is so rare to read in the media the situation that is raised by the handful of students in a classroom which is perfectly described by Mr. Heverly. I teach 4th grade in a public school in NYC and I have the same situation year after year - just one or two students whose emotional lives are so wrought with unprocessed pain that they are simply unable to trust a classroom that gives them some freedom.
Posted by: westdenise
.................................
Time for teachers to recognize that poverty is a downer.

All those children that are not problems are cooping to some extent with "unprocessed pain".

This is the major problem with poverty public schools. The systems simply ignores the needs of the majority of students that might obtain the benefit of education by tolerating in classrooms the behavior of students that should not be in a normal classroom.

You can pity the one or two as much as you want, but they do not belong in your classroom hindering the majority of student that might benefit from education.

In middle class public schools the one or two problem students are not allowed to remain in normal classrooms.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

"I've seen kids do things in elementary lower income neighborhood classrooms that are so disruptive yet the administration choses to leave these kids in the classroom. "

I know. I wrote an op ed piece a while back about assessing teachers on student performance, and one of my criteria was "teachers must be able to remove students on a daily basis".

Elementary school: High poverty schools must have a place to send these students on a daily basis, and whatever the students do there must be really, really boring. Four or five teachers and teachers aides should be in there requiring the kids to work--or pretend to work. Being removed from a classroom must mean that students experience tedium immediately.

Middle school: much of the same, but by this time, the students can be assessed for ability. Put put them in front of a CBT course and let them go. If they work, great. If they don't work, find them something even more tedious to do.

It may be possible to find a way to reach these students, but any work to be done must be done outside the classroom in which the majority of students behave.

High school: By this time, students should be given the GED and cut loose.

I am not trying to be brutal. I do think this is a serious problem. But rather than ignoring it, or refusing to put the responsibility on the kids incurring it, we are failing to come up with actual workable solutions while hurting all the other kids and probably creating more incorrigibles (borderlines who would stay in the lines without encouragement).

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | August 6, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Great comments. We will have to persuade Jerry to write more.

Posted by: Jay Mathews
..........................
What can we do when those who have the power to do something about this problem refuse to acknowlege it?

Posted by: educationlover54
.................................
The answer to educationlover54 is that discussing it in comments is effective.

Teacher unions should start including ideas regarding this in contract negotiation where safety in schools is considered, and schools are expected to have policies regarding problem schools. The union of teacher should have a national campaign against "class room management".

This builds public awareness of the glaring problems that should be corrected.

Another thing is to not accept the educational columnists that have simply ignored this problem and have only made public education worse in their silence. I have yet to see any articles in the Washington Post about these problems even though these problems are of epidemic proportion in the D.C. poverty public schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Great comments. We will have to persuade Jerry to write more.

Posted by: Jay Mathews
..........................
What can we do when those who have the power to do something about this problem refuse to acknowlege it?

Posted by: educationlover54
.................................
The answer to educationlover54 is that discussing it in comments is effective.

Teacher unions should start including ideas regarding this in contract negotiation where safety in schools is considered, and schools are expected to have policies regarding problem schools. The union of teacher should have a national campaign against "class room management".

This builds public awareness of the glaring problems that should be corrected.

Another thing is to not accept the educational columnists that have simply ignored this problem and have only made public education worse in their silence. I have yet to see any articles in the Washington Post about these problems even though these problems are of epidemic proportion in the D.C. poverty public schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I am not trying to be brutal. I do think this is a serious problem. But rather than ignoring it, or refusing to put the responsibility on the kids incurring it, we are failing to come up with actual workable solutions while hurting all the other kids and probably creating more incorrigibles (borderlines who would stay in the lines without encouragement).

Posted by: Cal_Lanier
...............................
I agree with Cal_Lanier.

The epidemic of this problem at the middle schools is simply from doing nothing.

Even the students that are not problems in the middle schools are apathetic seeing a system that simply ignores the problem.

Telling a student that study is necessary and education is important is ludicrous in a school system that tolerates mayhem.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

What can we do when those who have the power to do something about this problem refuse to acknowlege it?

Posted by: educationlover54
.........................
Teachers in middle class and affluent public schools should tell parents.

Tell these Americans that these parents are lucky in having a school system that deal with these problems instead of the poverty public schools where the problems are simply ignored when they could be fixed.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Then, there are plenty of kids who disrupt or intimidate peers and teachers. As some discuss above, they diminish school for others and demand a lot of time. Lots of kids will regress to this behavior if a teacher is manifestly incompetent or generates intense dislike among students.
Posted by: dsacken
....................................
More nonsense.

The problem are poverty public schools that have no policy to deal with removing problem students from classrooms.

The only policy of the poverty public schools when a teacher brings these problems to a principal is that the teacher is told that they are ineffective in class room management.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

There are indeed those that for whatever reason choose not to learn, or who are frozen in fear and cannot learn.
Posted by: darleensun
...................................
These are not necessarily the problem students that create mayhem in poverty public schools and that need to be removed from normal classrooms.

If a child is bright and can learn but creates mayhem in a classroom and hinders other from learning that child should be removed from a normal classroom.

Time to deal with the real problem that these children are not allowing teachers to teach and other children to learn.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 6, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

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