First Person

How Student Work Can Illuminate Teaching

Teaching is an honorable profession with a dash of folly. What sane person would take it on, knowing what it entails? Not only does the work often take over one’s evenings, weekends, and vacations, but one can rarely take pride in a job well done. Each lesson has imperfections, some of them painful; a teacher sees the flaws of her presentation as she speaks, or has to stop repeatedly to deal with chattering students. Then there are other tasks, such as database maintenance, phone calls, and data analysis, some of which enhance the work, some of which distract. On top of this, the teaching profession does not enjoy much respect in society, to put it mildly. What, then, beyond a sense of duty and the need for a job, explains a teacher’s decision to persist in the classroom day after day? For me, it is the intense joy of conveying a subject to students and receiving their thoughts and questions. Sometimes, after a discouraging week, I sit down to correct homework and am enlightened, intrigued, and moved by what I read.

For this reason, the opportunity to showcase and discuss my students’ work comes as a great treat. I teach philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. (I have written about these courses here and here.) I have selected three pieces to discuss; each one, in a different way, has enriched my thinking and the courses I teach. They are all first and sole drafts (with minor edits in the latter two cases); in a future article, I might examine a piece as it progresses from first to final draft.

I will begin with a piece that a 10th-grader wrote for the first assignment of the year:


To get a sense of my students’ ideas and writing, I asked them to write about a situation involving an ethical dilemma, either in their own lives or in a work of literature. I rarely give assignments on personal topics, but this proved instructive; I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness of the responses. Among all of them, this one stood out for its philosophical thinking and play. It begins:

While I was about to start this assignment, I spent about twenty minutes stressing over the fact that I couldn’t think of anything that made me question ethics. I complained to my mother that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I then asked her whether I should ask Professor Senechal whether I could make it up. Mom raised her eyebrow. “Is that ethical?” she asked.

This student (who requested anonymity) clearly took the assignment seriously and treated it with respect. His initial thought was not exactly to lie, but to ask me whether he might make something up. Then came the delightful detail of his mother raising her eyebrow, and the question, “Is that ethical?” which the student realized was an ethical dilemma right there. Thus, he ingeniously turns his dilemma about the assignment into the very topic of the assignment.

In the second paragraph, he examines philosophical positions on lying: Kant’s argument that any lying results in loss of dignity; utilitarian arguments that lying may be acceptable if it is used to a good end; and more. He concludes that he is somewhere between Kant and utilitarians. Implicit in the discussion is his decision, for this particular occasion, not to lie. I learned from his piece, first of all, that this was going to be a good year; and second, that real-life applications of philosophy need not be shallow, if the philosophical thought is strong.

The latter point has affected the way I plan lessons. Early on in my teaching, I resisted the overemphasis (in many schools) on real-life learning, where students talk and write about their lives without reading much of substance. I was determined to have my students tackle interesting and lasting books. I keep that determination but recognize that we are all finding our way through our lives, and that the books can help, directly or indirectly. So, I explore with my students why these books matter, as well as what they contain.

The second piece was written by Khadijah McCarthy, also a 10th-grader, for a test that the students took in late October:


Students had to choose one of two open-book essay questions (and were allowed to use their books and notes). Khadijah chose to compare the ideas of Immanuel Kant regarding value and dignity with those of Martin Buber regarding “It” and “You.” (The students had read substantial excerpts of Kant’s “” and Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”) This was an especially challenging question, because their ideas appear similar at first glance.

Both Kant and Buber are concerned with human dignity and how it is upheld or demeaned. According to Kant, each of us has value and dignity; our value is that which can be measured and replaced (our job skills, for instance), whereas dignity allows of no measurement or replacement. In Buber’s view, humans have a dual attitude toward the world: an “I-It” attitude, which involves treating others (humans, animals, trees, things) as objects, and an “I-You” attitude, which is a full relation, an acknowledgement of the entirety of the other. Like Kant’s “value,” “It” can be described, experienced, and contained; “You,” like Kant’s “dignity,” has no limits. Khadijah, who has shown exceptional perseverance and keenness in working with complex texts, was able to find a difference between the ideas of Kant and Buber:

Kant offers a solution that is everlasting; as long as you have dignity, then you can never be matched, and because dignity has an intrinsic origin, you will have it for as long as you live. With Buber, you can only remain in the “You” realm for so long; as Buber states, “It [the “You” realm] lacks duration, for it vanishes even when you try to cling to it.” If this “You” realm has the ability to vanish at any given point, and there is nothing that you can do to prevent that, then this may not always be a tangible, realistic alternative or solution.

I was fascinated by Khadijah’s idea that Kant’s solution is more “realistic” than Buber’s (if his can be called a solution). I asked myself: is this so? One might also argue that Buber’s is more realistic, because it acknowledges the extreme rareness of relating to others in their fullness — and the greatness of such relation. Also, alhough Buber’s “You”-encounter vanishes, it can affect the rest of a person’s life, and thus has a kind of eternity. At the same time, Kant’s idea of dignity does seem unshakeable, intrinsic to humans, and thus more practicable than Buber’s “You.” Khadijah’s interpretation of the texts challenged my own thoughts and helped me form questions for future class discussion.

I conclude with an 11th-grader’s parody of Plato:

In the fall, the 11th-graders delved into ancient political philosophy and discussed the benefits and pitfalls of different forms of government. After we finished Book VIII of the “Republic” (where Socrates explains one form of government decays into the next, until tyranny is reached), I asked students to write a continuation in which Socrates and Glaucon explore how tyranny devolves into something else. Through this assignment they could demonstrate their understanding of the reading, their grasp of Plato’s logic, and their political imagination. As I collected the students’ work, I started reading Christian (“Kit”) McArthur’s piece and stifled my cachinnation. I looked over at Kit, who looked back with a mischievous twinkle. The piece begins (with Glaucon speaking first):

Well, I am still unsatisfied. Socrates, could tyranny devolve further into something else?

Possibly.

We’ve already established that an aristocracy devolves into a timocracy, which devolves into an oligarchy, which further devolves into a democracy, which even further devolves into tyranny.

Absolutely.

Therefore, according to logic, the tyranny would have to devolve further.

Of course.

Kit grasped that much of the dialogue in Book VIII isn’t dialogue at all; most of the time, Socrates speaks and someone else agrees. (Elsewhere in the “Republic,” there are substantial exceptions to this pattern.) Kit’s piece turns the tables, making Glaucon lead the way, yet it’s clear that Socrates remains in charge (or does he?). The piece becomes increasingly sophisticated as it progresses, with a combination of wit, insight, and parody. Such qualities in combination cannot be conjured at will, but I want to do more to make room for them.

Grading homework does not always bring delight; often, when working through stacks of papers, I realize that I am not offering my students the detailed comments they deserve. (Or the grammatical errors start to endanger my hair.) Everything from the ideas to the spelling needs attention, yet I must work fast in order to get the grading done. Then a piece comes my way that makes me stop and marvel. I sink briefly into thought, then shake myself and move on. Still, the piece doesn’t go away. It finds its way into a lesson or question; it comes back to mind months or years later. Often I am overwhelmed not by all the work I have to do, nor by the distractions and disruptions, but by the gifts.

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.