Ghetto Film School

This sounds like an awesome program. I like how honest the kids were:

“One said, ‘I don’t want to come into a place and find out someone is trying to raise my self-esteem,’ ” Mr. Hall said. “Another said, ‘Yeah, it’s not like we want a ghetto film school.’ Everyone started laughing, and I thought, ‘What if we could co-opt a negative term and throw it back out there, do the exact opposite?’ ”

Enough of these half-baked programs — the kids know immediately whether it’s a fake or if real resources have been committed.

NCLB jokes

The parts of NCLB that makes me craziest are the provisions that allow students to transfer out of a low-performing school. This section is based on the highly-problematic assumption that there are genuine options in locales where there are poor performing schools.

There was an editorial earlier this year suggesting that NCLB allow for cross-district transfers, a worthy idea that has absolutely no chance of passing. Any suburban representative who voted for this would lose his or her job immediately; a legal challenge would ask the Supreme Court to overturn Milliken, which frankly, ain’t gonna happen. Maybe, if there were huge state and federal incentives, you might convince a few suburban districts to take on a handful of good students, but even that would require a well-respected School Board that could handle the response from reactionary residents…

Either or…

I’ve been working on this piece lately emphasizing the continued significance of the philosophy of education essay in teacher education programs. I argue that it ought to be the starting point for each class and that the process of revising this piece will make it that much stronger and relevant to the students.

But one of the things I’ve been addressing is how students deal with the question of location. One of my students wondered last semester why so much of our time was devoted to “urban education” when she just wanted to be a “regular teacher.” In a recent conversation within my department, the question of how much of a course ought to be devoted to special education and how much to “regular education.” In setting up my literacy course, I agonized over how much time ought to be devoted to “struggling” students and how much to “regular” students.

Are these distinctions necessary? Is good practice enough to address the needs of all students? Will well thought-out methods work, regardless of who is sitting in the classroom? Is there a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate methods based on the student population?

My gut response is no, but only if the teacher is paying very close attention to each student.

Elementary School

If you live in the city and you go to the park or pretty much do anything with your kids, you run into other parents and you talk about school. The conversations are almost always the same (public schools are a hard sell, private schools are very expensive, etc).

thinking about it tonight, here’s all I want out of elementary school for my kids:

1. they continue to love to read.
2. they learn to love math and they never become afraid of it.

That’s all.

Adolescent Literacy

Reading a recent text on how teens learn to read (Jetton & Dole, 2004) and I start to remember my issues with the literacy folks.

I always approached reading as emerging from engagement. If I had framed my class right and had gotten students invested in the topic at hand, then they would do battle with difficult texts. If students were given a chance to express themselves, they would happily search for the best word and slowly shape their arguments into the form I requested. The discourse of the class would aid their efforts to read.

I still think this is how you start in high-school classrooms, particularly when there are many students who struggle with reading. But I’m realizing that maybe ten minutes an hour might be well-spent in hardcore, explicit instruction on how to decode words. NOT giving vocabulary lists, but giving real sentences (from real texts) that contain difficult words, and discussing how to draw meaning from the words.

Adolescent Literacy

Thinking about a number of things as I prepare to teach Reading in the Content Areas again:

One, how much of one’s approach as a high school teacher has to be triage for the damage done by previous teachers? Unlike a fifth grade teacher, who can look at a group of children and know that they might, with a lot of work, be able to catch everyone up, a high school teacher can look around the room and know that getting all student to grade level is nigh impossible. And all of the horrid things that have been done to kids in elementary school and middle school in the name of literacy…well, let’s just say that high school is a chance for a revenge, whether the suburban “I don’t hear you version” or the urban “read it yourself chump” version.

I think about Mathilda and the discovery of the joys of reading. How do you get teenagers to feel that same joy if they’ve never done so before?

From Sven Birkerts, whose Gutenberg Elegies I have assigned…I’m scared of the outcome — I love this book but I’m really worried my students will hate it.

“The main difference between childhood reading and reading undertaken later is that in the former, futurity — the idea of one’s life as a project, or adventure, or set of possibilities — has not yet entered the calculation. The child reads within a bubble. He is like Narcissus staring at his lovely image in the water’s mirror. He is still sealed off from any notion of the long-term unfolding of the life, except in the perfected terms of fantasy: I, too, will be a pirate…

The change comes with adolescence, that biological and psychological free-fire zone during which the profoundest existential questions are not only posed, but lived. Who am I? Why am I doing what I’m doing? What should I do? What will happen to me? It is in adolescence that most of grasp that life — our own life — is a problem to be solved, that a set of personal unknowns must now be factored together with the frightening variables of experience. The future suddenly appears — it is the space upon which the answers will be inscribed. The very idea of futurity now becomes charged with electricity.

Birkerts, S. (2006). The Gutenberg elegies : the fate of reading in an electronic age (Pbk. ed.). New York: Faber and Faber, 89.

Either you believe it…

Started reading one of the new journalist-not-academic spends a year at a school book to determine whether testing is having an impact or not.

And there’s lots of recent debate in various educational blogs about NCLB and its renewal.

Here’s the thing: either you believe that standardized tests measure something or you don’t.

If you believe, then you can look at pretty graphs and form all sorts of judgments. You can put yourself on the back for connecting accountability with these numbers and you can fret over the children and schools that just can’t seem to get it together.

But what if you don’t believe? What if you think these numbers measure nothing more than a child’s performance with a number two pencil on a single school morning? What if you think that what it takes to read and write effectively can never be measured on a standardized test?

What if you’ve spent enough time in schools to see the difference between test results when it’s the only thing focused upon versus those days when schools had other goals in mind?

I know schools are mandated to take standardized tests, but what happens if a parents refuse to send their kids to school that week? Can a principal mandate a test? I know that the number of children who take the test is included in the results but what would happen if a parent flat out refused to allow their kid into the room while the testing was taking place?

critical consciousness vs. up-n-out

Most of the literature on successful inner-city teaching focuses on critical consciousness,social justice or racial theory. You don’t have to look far to find these books, most of which enable bright young assistant professors to become bright middle-aged associate professors. And I like some of these books and found some of them immensely helpful in constructing my own classroom practice.

Here’s the problem — the top students, the ones who are most invested in learning and school, the ones who will be engaged regardless of the pedagogy — well, most of those students are looking to get up-n-out. They want to push the button in the glass elevator and be free from the struggles of inner-city living; to re-phrase in a more academic way, they want to be free of daily confrontations with the structural inequalities of urban life.

A critical pedagogy serves these children — as it serves all children — but I do wonder if this sort of classroom does a disservice to a student who wants nothing more than to do well in college. Obviously the best teachers manage both but where should I place my emphasis as a teacher educator?

Hitchens on Harry

Christopher Hitchens, professional literary bomb thrower, has a great review of Harry Potter in this weekend’s Times. My favorite line:

“The schoolchildren appear to know nothing of Christianity; in this latest novel Harry and even Hermione are ignorant of two well-known biblical verses encountered in a churchyard. That the main characters nonetheless have a strong moral code and a solid ethical commitment will be a mystery to some — like his holiness the pope and other clerical authorities who have denounced the series — while seeming unexceptionable to many others.”

How do you teach…

Thinking about my secondary student teacher seminar and wondering if the traits I perceive as most valuable for a new teacher can actually be taught in a seminar:

Humility ?


Intellectual curiosity?

Liking teenagers?

I feel as though — at least on good days — I might be able to inspire number three. By my example, perhaps I can demonstrate why humility and patience matter in a classroom, but I’m somewhat dubious as to how deeply that will penetrate…

As for liking the energy, the angst, and the smell of teenagers — either you have it or you don’t.