My wife and I read to each to other out of books sometimes, and tonight was no exception. While I was doing some lettering for my comic strip, she read to me from Nazar Nasifi’s Republic of Imagination. As someone who grew up in Iran, the author knows the reality of oppression and the value of freedom. Hearing her words this evening, coupled with my own increasing frustration with my own profession, made me realize something that I had not put in precisely these words before:
Education Reform is nothing less than the hijacking of the American mind and intellect by companies in order to turn a profit.
You may think I’m overstating the case, but I don’t think I am.
If you think I’m overstating the case, then you probably think that a teacher’s job is to teach from a textbook and use textbook-supplied tests to see of students learned. You are not alone. But if you have ever had a great teacher, you know that teaching, and learning, can be so much more than assigning and assessing textbook skills.
In order to make my case, I need to show you how my thinking about teaching has developed over the years, and then show you the type of thinking that is completely taking over our schools now.
I began my teaching career with a very simple premise. I loved reading and writing, and I wanted my students to love them too. If you love reading and writing, you will work hard to do them well, just the way that if you love music or drawing or baseball or dance you will work hard because you love them. So my prime directive has always been to promote enthusiasm and love.
Over the years, my love of reading, writing, and teaching led me to understand the powers and potentials of literacy. I have never thought of teaching as dispensing a list of canned standards and checking them off as I taught them. I think of literacy as a big web of interconnected concepts, ideas, tools, and ways of thinking. My job as a teacher is to help my students explore that web, and to get good at using its tools.
I realized that I could take whatever issue was at hand in my class and use it as a way to engage my students. If discipline was a problem, we’d talk about power and how it is used in schools. We would read about and debate the purpose of school, and we’d discuss the need for all of us to work together to create a good class. If attention is a problem, we’d begin to read and write and talk about the power of attention, and how our lives essentially consist of what we pay attention to. When my students weren’t being successful in school, I made my entire 7th grade year about the idea of success in all its glorious ambiguity and paradox. I call this “meta-teaching”: making my teaching about what is going on in the class, and how it applies to life.
I also realized that if I was going to use thematic inquiry units, these units not only needed to be big, universal themes, they needed to somehow relate literacy to life, to show the power of words, of reading and writing to shape our lives: words help us make decisions, plan the future, see the world from new perspectives, and define our relationships with those around us. We are a nation founded on the power of words. With this idea of literacy and life in mind, I created units about things like happiness, success, and, at my wife’s suggestion, power. The journey changed with each group as the students, and the material itself, inspired new ideas in me and in my students.
Combined, meta-teaching and literacy-life teaching formed something that Neil Postman probably would have called subversive teaching. I encourage students to question things, but I also challenge their ideas. I share with my students a quote from Ernest Hemingway, who said in an interview that what every writer needs is a “shock-proof, built-in crap detector.” I use my crap detector to develop theirs. We talk about the limitations and problems of standardized testing. We criticize whatever workbook or textbook we are currently asked to use. We talk about how school rules and punishments tend to hold students to the lowest level of moral development (“I don’t want to get in trouble.”). We talk about the purpose of school, the purpose of reading and writing, the purpose each assignment. We don’t do busy work. Everything is on the table for discussion, and nearly every assumption is worth questioning. Including the assumption that nearly every assumption is worth questioning.
When I think about my teaching, I realize that I shoot above the standards, above tests, above grades. I want to invest in my students as people. I want them to be able to ask good questions and have insights. I want them to want to learn more, not for a grade, but because learning is fun, satisfying, edifying, necessary to live a wise life, and important for being a citizen in a democracy. I guess I think of teaching this way as transcendent teaching.
But I am not all “up in the clouds.” I care about getting my students to read and write well. I see where they are, I have a vision for where they should be, and I try to create experiences that will take them there. If I need to cut a unit I used to love, add a new unit, add a major writing assignment, book, story, or activity, I will do it. I will do whatever it takes to get my students to learn.
And when teaching happens this way, students remember it– for a long time. And they get pretty good test scores. Which I don’t really care about.
On the other hand, here is what teaching has been reduced to now:
Teach these standards; the students will be tested on them.
Use this textbook. It covers all the standards.
Use this curriculum map. It makes sure you cover the right standards during the correct month, week, or day.
You are part of a department, a PLC (Professional Learning Community). You will meet to make sure every teacher at your school at each grade level teaches essentially the same things on the same “pacing guide.”
Your grade book should look like all the other grade books of teachers like you.
Assign. Assess. Repeat.
Use data to decide how to improve instruction, but you cannot do anything that another teacher isn’t doing, too.
When your students get tested, you are responsible for their performance, even though you had no choice about how to teach them.
Every curriculum map I have ever seen is based on the “instructional resource.” This makes sense to people, I guess, because the textbook is the “thing” that is common to everyone who teaches a subject. Why not base what you do on a textbook? It’s easy. They’ve done all the work for you. You don’t need to do all that hard work of thinking. You aren’t a Language Arts teacher. You are a SpringBoard teacher. Or an HMH Collections teacher. You are the user of a product.
Actually, when you teach from a textbook, you do think, I suppose. You think how they want you to think. Here is what textbook teaching looks like as a thought process:
Here are the standards in the front of the book. They need to be covered, because students will be tested on them, or at least on some of them. Here are a series of texts and assessments that will insure that I am covering the standards and getting them ready for the tests. They have already thought of the thematic units for me. They have already thought of all the prompts, all the text-dependent questions, all the performance tasks that will enable me to measure how well my students are learning.
Here is the curriculum map. I don’t need to play around with the order of the thematic units or come up with my own units or assignhents. A committee has already set the order for me, chosen the texts we will read as a class, and created a pacing guide to ensure that I stay on track. My job is to think as the textbook company and the testing company want me to think. I am not a thinker. They have done all the thinking for me.
The culture we have at schools now positively forbids teachers from straying from the parameters set by the textbook and testing companies. If you have creative ideas of your own, forget it. Your job is to dispense the curriculum that was written for you. And since most younger teachers don’t have tenure anymore, and can never get it, they have a dilemma. Do they leave the profession in disgust? I know a few who have already left, and few who are getting ready to leave. Because they know this kind of thinking, teaching, and learning aren’t real. They are prepackaged.
If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s something to do:
If you are a teacher, ask yourself: Is there anything your district encourages you to do that is not standardized, that is creative and outside the box of test prep and using a text book? If so, I suspect you are in the lucky minority.
If you aren’t a teacher, find one and ask them that question.
The fact that teachers must leave or fight to be thinking, question educators distresses me. But most frightening of all are the teachers who stay and have no problem at all with the new status quo. They think as the textbook and testing corporations want them to think. They never think for themselves. They never question what they are being asked to do. They are models of unthinking, product-based teaching and obedience to authoritarianism. They don’t know there is another way to teach. They don’t know there is another way to think.
And you can’t pass on what you don’t have.