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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
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.
| 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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