My ninth-graders and I are still working our way through "Romeo and Juliet." I’ve taught this play before. For the most part, I’m using lessons I’ve used before, just tweaking them to suit my new students. I’m not being lazy. I’m being smart. My lessons are good and I know they work.
In the middle of Act III, however, we got to my favorite scene in the play. It’s the one where Friar Lawrence chews Romeo out for being self-absorbed and melodramatic. While I love this scene, I’ve never figured out an effective way to teach it: it’s filled with long speeches that students often find very difficult. In the past, I’ve just walked the students through the scene, making sure they get the key points. It works, but it’s kind of boring.
This year, rather than reuse my old lesson, I planned something new. I put the students into groups and had them divide up the speeches amongst their group members. In their groups, the students created contemporary versions of the scene, translated into their own contemporary language and supplemented with stage directions. It was a two-day lesson and my plan was to have the students perform their versions of the scene at the end of the second day.
As it turned out, I was too ambitious. While a few groups completed everything in two days, none of them had a chance to rehearse for a performance. Many groups didn’t even complete their stage directions. According to the goals I set during planning, I — or my students, or both — had failed.
Earlier this month, my ninth-graders read the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” Whenever I teach Shakespeare, I like to have my students do some acting. When I teach the balcony scene, I push the students to take this process very seriously. I look for enthusiastic volunteers who can read the lines with aplomb. This is, after all, one of the great scenes in world literature.
In case you’ve forgotten, teenagers are extraordinarily self-conscious. A few of them put their hands up right away, ready to stroll up to the front of the room and try on some Elizabethan English, but they’re a small minority. When I ask for readers, most students aren’t even thinking about Shakespeare’s language; they’re worrying about the pimple on their nose or their changing voice. So when I ask for volunteers, it’s never surprising that many students simply slump down in their chairs and try to hide.
I teach in Brooklyn now, but my hunch is that this response, this hiding, is universal. Some years ago, I taught at a private school in Ann Arbor, Mich.; my students there used to hide too. What are these kids hiding from? What are they so afraid of?
It's clear to me that they are afraid of failure. In many cases, they’re absolutely convinced that they will fail. Day after day, dejected students tell me that they can’t do things. They can’t write a paragraph; they can’t draw a tree; they can’t multiply fractions. Very often, our job as teachers is simply to push students to engage in tasks that they already know how to complete. It might not sound like hard work, but many of our students are so demoralized, it’s a wonder they even get out of bed in the morning.
Here’s the thing: They’re not just being moody teenagers. These students are expressing a hopelessness that’s been drilled into them for years. Day after day, year after year: our students hear the same message: that they are failures.
My ninth-graders recently finished reading "Of Mice and Men." This is my third consecutive year teaching the novel and I imagine I’ll be teaching it for years to come. The students love it. Something about George and Lennie’s plight resonates with them, even though a ranch in 1930s Salinas, Calif., seems a world apart from a high school in New York City in 2012. Why do my city-smart students love reading about two Depression-era farm workers?
Perhaps, as I like to tell my students, we should dig a bit deeper. George is smart, but due to circumstances beyond his control, his life has been one of struggle and frustration. Lennie is physically imposing, but due to an unspecified learning disability, he’s lost in the world of adults. In different ways, each of these characters is doomed, through no fault of their own.
George and Lennie exist in a harsh world, one that is familiar to many of my students. It’s a world where economic survival trumps human connection, where a person’s worth is measured based on their ability to add value to the economy. When a farmhand’s dog gets too old and decrepit to be of any use, he gets shot.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the boss’s son, Curley, struts around like a peacock, antagonizing the workers, comfortable in the knowledge that his privilege will protect him. I saw Curley on television last month when Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his Martin Luther King Jr. Day attack on New York teachers. “We have to realize that our schools are not an employment program,” Cuomo announced. “They are an education program for the students. It is this simple. It is not about the adults; it is about the children.”
Like Curley, Cuomo lives both on the ranch and above it. From a distance, false dichotomies like “adults vs. children” might serve a political purpose. For those of us who work in the schools, however, pitting students against teachers is both dangerous and misleading.
What does all of this have to with "Of Mice and Men"?
What makes a great teacher? To a lot of people, the answer seems simple enough: a great teacher is one whose students achieve. For the most part these days, student success is measured with test scores. Logically then, a great teacher is one whose students perform well on tests.
Let’s take it a step further: what makes a great school? Again, the same basic logic applies: great schools are ones that produce the highest proportion of students who perform well on tests. The role of the school, in other words, is to produce students successful according to test proficiency.
Perhaps this framework appears overly simplistic, but it’s the framework that currently directs our efforts to improve public schools. Schools are knowledge-manufacturing facilities, with students being their products. This framework has led school reformers to advocate for accountability systems, human capital mechanisms, and other private sector management tools in public school reform.
Not surprisingly, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is an aggressive proponent of this business framework. The mayor’s private sector management approach recently led him to propose a “turnaround” program at 33 city schools that would require replacing half of those school’s teachers. Not happy with the product? Fire experienced workers and bring in cheaper, lower skilled replacements.
This framework is not just a New York thing. All across the country, school districts are being pushed, by influential figures like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Calif. Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss, to evaluate teachers based on a “value-added” analysis. What does this mean? It’s a kind of metaphor: students are raw natural resources; unprocessed, they contribute little to the economy and thus possess little value. If teachers process them effectively, however, their value increases.
Let’s leave aside our gut reactions to talking about children this way. The real problem with this framework is that it’s been a dead end. For the most part, debates about how to produce better students have led to discord within the field of education, while demonstrating little significant impact.
2011 was a wild year for New York City teachers. Cathie Black’s brief reign, the mayor’s aggressive layoff threats, attacks on tenure and seniority, and the the continued push to shut down public schools often left us stressed, confused, and paranoid. Given all this, as 2011 moved towards its conclusion, I felt like I’d grown a pretty thick skin. There was nothing anybody could say about teachers that would upset me.
In late November, however, Mayor Bloomberg proved me wrong. Speaking at a conference at MIT, Bloomberg said that if he could, he would get rid of half of New York City’s teachers. Why? For starters, we are apparently not that bright. Bloomberg explained, “We don’t hire the people who are at the top of their class anymore. … In America, [teachers] come from the bottom 20 percent and not of the best schools.”
I know this quote is old news, but the “bottom 20 percent” claim really stuck with me. I’m used to being attacked for my exorbitant salary, cushy benefits, and lavish lifestyle. I’m not used to being ridiculed because of my poor academic skills or below-average intelligence.
Like a lot of teachers, I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder. When I heard Bloomberg’s comment, I got defensive. How dare he attack my credentials? What does he know about where I went to school, or what kind of grades I got? What does he know about anything?
Then I calmed down; I thought about what it would mean to be a part of this “bottom 20 percent.” I’m a special education teacher. Many of my students are in the bottom 20 percent of their high school classes. This isn’t a criticism; it’s an observation about how these students perform academically.
“A teacher in struggle is also teaching.” Lately, this phrase has been on my mind.
On Nov. 17, I marched with the Wall Street occupiers and thousands of other New Yorkers. We were protesting the occupation’s eviction from Zuccoti Park and proclaiming that the movement was as alive as ever. I cannot claim any deep involvement with the occupation movement, but it has inspired me. Marching the streets of New York with tens of thousands of students, teachers, nurses, janitors, and other occupiers inspired me even more.
Like many teachers, I often get pessimistic. Budget cuts, attacks from the media, and an ever-growing pile of ungraded assignments make the idea of progress seem like a fantasy. Watching the Occupy Wall Street forces build a movement over the past couple of months has reminded that cynicism is not only unproductive, but it is always rooted in illusion.
Day after day, we teachers grade our papers, teach our lessons, create predictable routines for our students, and so it’s natural that the world would start to look stale and stagnant. Yet all teachers know that stagnation is an illusion. Month after month and year after year, we see new life emerge from these repetitive routines. Behind their tired eyes, our students learn until one day, seemingly out of the blue, those tired, distracted children have become writers, scientists, and actors. It’s why we chose this occupation.
Growth is real; movement is real. As teachers, we are responsible for directing that growth in small, but significant ways. A student who three months ago claimed to hate reading is now frustrated because we’re reading The Odyssey too slowly. Two other students are gossiping in terrible, ninth-grade Spanish. Small moments, but the Occupy movement has shown us that small moments can turn into big things.
It doesn't matter what subject you teach; every lesson contains at least one frightening transition. After the teacher presents the day’s new content and gives instructions to the students about the day’s activity, he or she says the magic words: “Get started.” It’s like a step into the abyss.
On the best days, 75-85 percent of the students get started immediately. Ten to 20 percent of the other students see them working and, feeling self-conscious about their inactivity, pick up their pens, open their books and pretend to be immersed in the work. Confused about their assignment, the two or three remaining students raise their hands and I walk over to answer their questions.
Such days are rare. Sometimes, the percentages are different, but the range of activity is roughly the same. Some days, I say the magic words and the whole class stares at me like I’m speaking Greek. Ancient Greek. It’s a brutal moment. Were my instructions that unclear? Am I really that bad at this? Are the students punishing me?
Alternately, I might wonder, “What’s wrong with them?” I know I’m a good teacher; my instructions were clear and I’ve taught this lesson before. Why don’t they start their work?
In that moment — while the students stare at me blankly, silently — I have to make a choice. I can break that silence, restate the instructions, perhaps more loudly and slowly than before, and take questions from the students. Or I can let the silence sit there and wait it out, hoping and trusting that the kids are just moving slowly today and will figure it out.
As a new teacher, my impulse was always to opt for the former.
Confession: I didn’t like high school. I went to a good school, in a highly ranked district on Long Island. I liked some of my classes, I had some great teachers and some good friends, but on the whole, school was not something that I enjoyed.
Mostly, I just resented having to be there. I liked reading, I liked learning, but I didn’t like being told when and where to do these things. Like many teenagers, I wanted to make my own decisions about how to spend my own time. I didn’t like math; I didn’t like biology. Spending my days trudging from classroom to classroom, studying subjects that I had no interest in and having adults tell me it was all somehow good for me. … I just wanted to be outside, or back in bed.
Still, I learned. History, English, biology, calculus: I retained stores of knowledge in all of these areas, despite my best efforts to resist. It sounds corny, but there’s something magical there. Some part of the mind wants to learn, even when other parts want to do anything but.
Now I’m a high school special education teacher. Every day, I watch tired, distracted students study Homer’s "Odyssey," the principles of trigonometry, the French Revolution. Some of these students are not simply battling their teenaged willfulness and the rush of hormones in their bodies; they’re struggling with autism, dyslexia, or attention deficit disorder. Yet for the most part, they learn. Even the students who forget or refuse to do the work will surprise me with an insightful comment about Napoleon’s fall from power, or a comparison between Odysseus and Harry Potter.