Monday, October 1, 2012

More than Kvetching: A Letter to the Secretaries

I read Diane Ravitch's blog post from yesterday, Ten Years of NCLB: A Student Says, “How Sad.” Her Teacher Agrees and got inspired to do a little letter writing. Here's a copy that went to Jason Snyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and School Turnaround in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. A similar version went to Arne Duncan. 

You can find more names from this office here. I followed the model of Duncan's email address, 

Dear Assistant Secretary Snyder,

I have the privilege of teaching pre-service English teachers in an M.A. program in the teaching of English. Several days ago, one of my former students wrote the blog post I have included, below. As the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education with a particular focus on turnaround schools, you are the leader who would most closely understand this teacher's concerns. Your response to his closing question would be very helpful. 

You may respond in the comments section here: Alternatively, I would be happy to directly convey your response to this teacher. 

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


So . . . I've started my first year of teaching here. A quick background: I'm teaching freshmen at a school in ________. The student population is mostly black, a little Hispanic, very few ELLs. Most are on free lunch. It's a vocational school, so most of my students are boys (I'd say it's 90-95%), three of my classes are literature, two are grammar, classes are forty minutes long, I have no books to use (and so make a lot of photocopies and write a lot on the white board), zero technology in my classroom (not counting the lights) and very limited access to it elsewhere (unless you count a TV with a VCR and an overhead projector, but I use neither since I have PTSD of teachers wheeling those out in front of the class when I was in school), my classes sizes are 30-34 per and my room is small, which has proved highly prohibitive to any arrangement of the desks that doesn't constitute rows. So my students are sitting mostly in rows, rows which have such narrow aisles that are otherwise clogged with backpacks and feet that they prove difficult to walk down if I wanted to, say, tap on a student's desk and ask him to please get his head off the desk. Or if for some reason I didn't want to constantly have to stand in front of my students and wanted to stand in the back. And so, you know, group work's hard to do for purely physical reasons if not for all those typical, sometimes confounding and always frustrating reasons stemming from teenagers being pathologically repulsed by having to do any sort of academic work with someone whom they don't know and on whom they scent the faintest whiff of difference, low-grade coolness, whatever. I taught ESL in _______ in the Peace Corps for two years and taught in school rooms with broken desks and bare shelves and chalkboards, packed to the rafters with students who were so different from myself that the only common ground we seemed to have at times was that we all breathed oxygen and this  . . . this hardly feels different. 

Additionally, I am constrained by a department-wide curriculum map that I'm not opposed to on principle, but that I have little faith in for a number of reasons. One, it's extremely uncreative and uninspired. As best as I can tell it's been copy and pasted together piecemeal from the NYC DOE and Common Core, most apparently in what texts I'm to be teaching my students. And so with little regard for my particular population of students and their background, or what they might respond to, or our (the teachers') own taste in literature (I can teach texts I'm not enthusiastic about, but I can't teach boring texts I don't care for), the creators of this curriculum map have cribbed the canonical suggestions from the DOE and the Common Core and slapped them on there. We are to teach those poems and short stories and novels and teach them together at the same time. (Absurd for reasons I don't need to elaborate on.) And the suggested end-of-unit projects or papers and even what of the texts we're to teach are equally dry, bleak and uninspired and clearly test-driven. When I asked how much we can waver from these circumscribed units, I was told not very, but that if I chose to teach a poem or a short story outside the map, I was to get approval from everyone so that we can all be on the same page. (Why, exactly, we need to be on the same page, is beyond me.) And which leads me to the second reason why I have little faith in the curriculum map: I'm almost positive none of the other freshman academy teachers are following it closely. I've seen print outs left out on the copy machine, peaked into the rooms and the lessons are almost never centered around texts from the curriculum map. And these deviation from the very teachers who shut me down during the department meeting when I meekly challenged the circumscription of the maps. It's all for show. I know it, they know it, and no one wants to admit it out loud. And three, the curriculum map isn't teaching my students what I believe they actually need to be learning. Last week some mentor group came in and wanted to talk to the boys to try and recruit some of them for this after school program. Leaving aside the fact that these guys were young and black and were from the same neighborhoods as my students and I was lamenting the fact that I'll never be able to speak to my students in the same way these guys do (or connect, I should say connect) (and same goes with most of the other teachers, too, who are mostly older and black or Hispanic and have a certain rapport with the students I simply will never have and while I am mindful of the fact that, yes, I have something else to offer my students all I see when I see them seeing me is them seeing a teacher who is basically from another planet and so cold comfort my own particular "uniqueness" is), I was looking at my lesson on the whiteboard behind them and it was about sonnets or some other such bullshit and I nearly had a break down because I was thinking to myself Jesus Christ this is not what my students need. It does not matter that they learn what the "rules" are for what makes a sonnet. Even further, it doesn't really matter that they're able to identify what the "theme" (yuck) of the sonnet is. Sure, there are skills associated with finding those things out that help my students academically, but so many of them seem to need so much more help in other non-academic areas (focusing, getting organized, staying on top of the work) that teaching them what a Petrarchan sonnet is feels absolutely ridiculous. And which is not to say that my students are throwing desks at the window and standing up and telling me to suck their dick and eating nachos in class, because they are all very nice and seem to like me and respect me and want to do well, and so it's not like I'm working with the worst of the worst here, but focus and attention and being organized and actually doing the work are daily mountains to climb nevertheless. And so I bring up the "sonnet" thing merely to highlight how in yet another way how constraining the curriculum map is because if it were up to me, I'd have designed an entirely different poetry unit that would have engaged them (I believe) on a deeper, more important, more relevant way that didn't just answer the what and the how of the literature, but of the why. (Though a current professor eased my mind by wisely offering the counter argument to this which was that "the WHAT is important foundationally, and/or the WHAT develops certain capacities and habits that are missed by an exclusive focus on the WHY or even the HOW. And might it be the case that the WHY is lovely for readers who have certain luxuries to begin with (such as time and resources outside of school), but that other readers (including the more left-brained) really can benefit from a focus on the WHAT?" which helpsAnd in fact I did, but was told I couldn't use it. So. 

As a result of all this--what I feel is a bad curriculum, little pedagogical autonomy, zero access to digital technologies, overcrowded classroom, little physical space--I feel very strongly that I am failing. Class management has become an issue, most especially for one class (if not two), and while that may have to do with other factors, I also think it has to do with how little I am able to engage them and vary the instruction. I'm finding myself standing in front of the class for almost the entire period, either lecturing or calming every one down because it's so so so difficult to get them to focus. A lecture that I imagined would run 5 minutes, with an reinforcing group exercise I imagined would take also five minutes ends up taking the entire class. Group work has proved fruitless. I find it impossible to go around and make sure everyone's working or everyone's understood the concept simply because most of my time when I send them off to do individual work) is consumed with a few students who are talking or refusing to do work. I do not want to be the center of my classroom. The only time I have success with that is when they do journaling (which they're better at some days than others; I've been experimenting with prompts) or independent reading, but that's new, and I'm only using it in my grammar classes. I don't want to result to simply handing out worksheets and asking the students to do them individually, but I don't know what else to do. 

And so . . . the big question for you, the veteran teacher, and one with a lot of good ideas and a lot of good advice . . . what do I do? Given what I have and where I am, what in the goddamned hell do I do?

Image by Tomas Hellberg Used via Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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