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Where Did the Spark Go?

I recently had a discussion with my students about how my classes have changed over the course of my first three years of teaching. It began when I shared with them a question I had been wondering about: Were my classes better my first two years than they are this year?

I began thinking midway through this year that my classes were not the same as they were when I was fresh, and that the change was not for the better. The students responded eagerly to my question, and their feedback confirmed my suspicion: “Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Fullam, I still love your class,” one student remarked, “but sometimes the spark is not there.”

My progression as a new teacher is unique in this sense. I began strong with a lot of “spark.” My strategy was to create the curriculum as we went along, introducing texts from literature, philosophy, and the social sciences according to the students’ emerging interests. I encouraged the students to think about how one unit related to the next, how everything fits together. The students wrote questions about the texts and spent entire class periods sitting in a circle, freely discussing those questions — and we did this often. We also wrote poems and journals, published a school literary magazine, produced a video documentary about the achievement gap, and even managed to squeeze in some preparation for the English Regents Exam.

Everything I was doing in the classroom during my first two years was based on an approach I learned when I was studying to be a teacher in college: critical teaching. The idea behind this pedagogical approach is that we all hold deep inside of us our culture’s theories about the world, and that these theories can be excavated, problematized, and reworked. Critical teaching engages students in theorizing not in a detached or purely abstract sense, but in a manner that is political and deeply personal; it engages a community of learners in the transformation of our beliefs about language, culture, and society so that we are no longer mere products of socialization, but instead are evolving, freethinking, intelligent beings.

I had a great deal of success with this approach as a new teacher. So where did the spark go? Why was I successful in implementing critical teaching in my first two years and now less so in my third year? The story begins last September, when I decided to undertake a teaching experiment:

I began the year feeling confident that I could continue my practice of critical teaching and use sanctioned teaching methods while providing administrators with sanctioned kinds of evidence that my students are learning. In other words, I set out to situate critical teaching within a framework of “data-driven” and “differentiated” instruction while conforming to widespread “accountability” practices — the three primary components of current policy trends in New York City. Accordingly, I gave my students essay exams in the format of standardized tests, used those exams to determine the skills that each student most needed to improve upon, grouped students according to these skill needs and drilled them with exercises designed to improve the skills, and then gave another round of essay exams to repeat the cycle. I also documented the improvement that individual students demonstrated on subsequent exams and generated fancy charts to show progress over time. All of this required a lot of work and a lot of time devoted to what I described to students as “housekeeping”: everything had to be documented.

Creating and implementing this data-driven, differentiated, and accountable teaching system came to fruition during my school’s “Quality Review” (when representatives from the Department of Education spend three days investigating a school as part of a comprehensive evaluation). When two DOE reviewers observed my class, everything I had planned was in place. My students were working in groups to finish Regents-style essays comparing Plato’s philosophy to a novel they were reading. Each group had two teacher-edited rough drafts of their essay on hand, along with completed “formative peer-assessment” and “summative self-assessment” sheets. Individual students showed the reviewers work samples and charts for monitoring their progress that we kept in their binders; and I showed them my own charts for monitoring student progress: “You see,” I said, “Mattie was getting 4’s on her essays and now she’s getting 6’s.”

My students were aware that to some extent we were putting on a show during that observation, and since they generally support me, they were happy to play along. The whole thing went great — so great, in fact, that one of the reviewers later told the principal that I was one of the most impressive teachers in the school and should be brought to the forefront of professional development for our school. By this time, though, I had become strongly suspicious that incorporating sanctioned teaching methods into my practice had caused me to compromise my commitment to critical teaching; and I was already too cynical about my new approach to enjoy being praised for it.

In retrospect, the result of my teaching experiment is clear to me: While my plan was to situate my practice of critical teaching within a new framework, I ended up with a different practice altogether. I am now convinced that the sanctioned and mandated teaching methods in NYC are skill-oriented and teacher-directed, and hence are incompatible with critical teaching, which is inquiry-oriented and student-centered. Furthermore, while the sanctioned methods may succeed in driving up test scores, I found that they shape the roles of teachers and students in unfavorable ways. Rather than acting as an intellectual and leader, for example, in my experiment I had become more like a clerk officiating within a bureaucracy. Rather than entering into critical interactions with language and life — rather than growing as real thinkers and real learners — my students had become parrots of the “correct” way of responding to different prompts; they were practicing a kind of intellectual obedience that inhibits critical thought.

The dialectical reading journals I mentioned in a previous post are one way that I am now attempting to get back on track. In my other classes, the students are planning critical research projects on how the achievement gap affects their school and their lives. I hope these activities help regain the spark that my classes had before I embarked on my teaching experiment. I am concerned, though, about how I will fare working in a school system whose policies I disagree with at such a fundamental level. Now that I am an experienced teacher, I feel greater pressure to conform to sanctioned teaching methods. Can I still be successful as a critical teacher? Can I survive in a school system whose policies I will be attempting to subvert on a day-to-day basis? Is it even ethical to do this?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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