First Person

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?

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.