First Person

Delving Into John Stuart Mill With My Students

This is my second GothamSchools piece about teaching philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering. Much has taken place over the past few months; the 11th-graders recently read John Stuart Mill’s treatise On Liberty (1859), in which he argues that “the peculiar evil of silencing of the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.”

At age 20, more than three decades before the publication of On Liberty, Mill, already a contributor to utilitarian thought and writing, found himself in a profound intellectual crisis characterzed by “a dull state of nerves” and loss of interest in subjects that previously had excited him.

It was William Wordsworth’s poetry, among other things, that helped Mill see beyond his despondency. His home education (though remarkably rich) had given meager attention to the inner life and the emotions. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, in which Mill had been steeped, treated emotions as though they could be tallied by means of “felificic calculus” — that is, a method of calculating pains and pleasures. Over the years, Mill sought  to synthesize his concern for the common good with his concern for the individual; one can view his treatise On Liberty as such a synthesis.

When I told my 11th-grade students about Mill’s intellectual crisis (before we began reading On Liberty), I sensed unusual interest in the room. They were looking up; some were nodding. When I read them part of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” (which Mill mentions in his Autobiography), the room was hushed; later, in discussion, a few students spoke about what had moved them. Yet I walked away unsatisfied with the presentation; I knew that I had made slight errors and left out some subtle points. Still, I thought, this was a start.

The following day, we discussed a long passage in the introductory chapter of On Liberty; students explained the progression of ideas within it. They understood Mill’s argument that political philosophy of past centuries had concerned itself, first, with setting proper limits to a monarch’s authority, and later, with the formation of a representative government — and that people had lately come to see a discrepancy between the ideal of “self-government” and reality. Students understood (at a certain level) why societal oppression was of such concern to Mill; they could explain the concept of the “tyranny of the majority” and give examples of it.

This is my life at school and outside — and despite its high demands, I enjoy it. I have nearly 270 students; I teach three high school philosophy courses, each of which meets twice a week. The 11th-graders are studying political philosophy and have read Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; the 10th-graders have begun a unit on virtue and are reading the second book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; and the ninth-graders have been working with syllogisms, logical operators, and truth tables. Outside of class, much of my time goes into planning lessons and correcting homework; other chunks of time go to meetings and paperwork. Beyond this, I spend time with the philosophical works themselves, and find myself needing more time. I must not only know the material but be capable of interpreting it, even if I am “only” leading a discussion.

This aspect of teaching — the immersion in the subject — often gets overlooked. We hear a lot about teacher preparation — and even about “lifelong learning”—but not about the daily mulling and pondering, which often takes place on the fringes of the day, early in the morning or late in the evening. Teachers need time to read and think, even if they have a strong background in their subject. Certain works and concepts reveal their meanings over the years; on the other hand, teaching is one of the best ways to delve into them. Not only that, but such delving will inform the very practice of teaching.

Like Mill, I have felt discouraged when surrounded by proponents of one school of thought, no matter what it might be. I find hope in an intelligent kind of synthesis — not just a balance of everything, but the right combination at the right time.

For example, in my first few years of teaching, I encountered educators and coaches who emphasized anything but the text. I saw lessons devoted to pre-reading activities, turn-and-talk activities, prediction activities, and so forth, with minimal attention to the text itself. Later, I encountered educators who insisted on sticking to the text and the text alone — without introductory presentations, historical background, or any other kind of preface. (These approaches have their analogues in literary criticism.) While I emphasize close reading in almost every lesson, I see no harm in offering an introduction with a story. Mill’s story, in particular, gives students an entry into the text and even into the study of philosophy.

Students, too, find themselves confused about many things, including school. Some avoid doing their schoolwork, even knowing that this will hurt them. Others spend hours on schoolwork without knowing why. Many students yearn for meaning, but meaning does not come on demand. Some go through long periods of doubt and indifference, and then, one day, find something interesting in a lesson. Then comes another such instance, and another — and then a way of looking at things that wasn’t apparent before.

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.