Saturday, September 27, 2008

Building a Legacy

I have been extraordinarily privileged to have continued my relationships with many of my former students "beyond the classroom." Over the years, I have stayed in contact with many of them as they earned their undergraduate degrees, found work in the world in different professions, and earned advanced degrees in many different disciplines.

I am most proud of and gratified by the former students who have become my colleagues -- experienced and dedicated educators in their own right -- professional adults who are working in some of the toughest schools and contexts in Philadelphia and other cities around the country including Boston, New Orleans and New York.

One of the projects I am working on in the nascent stages of my retirement is some sort of collaborative project that enables me to collaborate with my former students to share our collective knowledge of inquiry-based teaching and learning, multi-disciplinary and writing intensive curricula and critically oriented pedagogy with other educators striving to make a difference in the lives of urban ( and rural - see Pamela Hampton-Garland and her program ) youth.

I see this a our way of addressing the deleterious effects of NCLB legislation on these particular groups of young people -- the skills-based, test-driven remediation model of teaching that further alienates young people who are already convinced that school has nothing to offer them.

A couple of days ago, I put out the call to my former students who are now educators and challenged them to think of ways of working individually and collectively to drive home the efficacy of a rigorous, critically engaged pedagogy that values and builds on the skills, experience and knowledge urban and rural youth bring to the classroom.

Their lives and the work they are doing in the world is proof of the efficacy this approach and can be a powerful counter-narrative to the "scientific" data the forcing to teachers to teach down to their students and driving creative, bright teachers and students from the classroom.

Here is a link to a new blog started by former Gratz/Crossroads alum Carl Tone Jones. ... the start of a legacy.

A Response To Marsha's Call...

As another member of that infamous graduating class of 1992(Gratz), I would love to indulge in the opportunity to offer some of my experiences to young, aspiring teachers in the inner-cities. As a Learning Community Instructional Leader at CEP of Philadelphia, one of my duties is to offer instruction and tutelage to teachers and instructional assistants assigned to my learning community. More times than I can remember I revert back to many of the experiences that worked for me as a student in Crossroads from 1990-1992.

One factor that seemed to matter the most was that our faculty truly cared about the students they served and that commitment made a difference. For some of us, it really saved our lives. I take that commitment with me on a daily basis when I deal with some of Philadelphia's finest at CEP. When you care, not only about what you're doing but whom you're doing it for, it makes an impression on the students that you serve. I often have teachers who question why my students respond to me with such relevance and respect, and I simply reply, "it's because it's genuine when it comes from me."
So, Mrs. Pincus, I would love to take part in this venture, thanks for the opportunity.

Carl "Tone" Jones

Friday, September 26, 2008

Images of Teaching and Teachers in the Movies

The review in today's New York Times of the French quasi documentary "The Class" has re-awakened in me a serious interest that I have in the ways in which teaching and teachers have been represented in films throughout the decades.

One of the things I would like to do in the coming months is to develop a course that looks at "teacher movies" critically and engages participants in discussions of substantive issues of education and representation through the analysis of these films.

I will add to this post at a later date, including the ideas I have been gathering for this project. In the meantime, if any of you have any ideas for films which you think should be included in a such a course, please share them in your comments.

Below is the review of "The Class."

Movie Review

The Class (2007)

NYT Critics' Pick This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.
The Class
Sony Pictures Classics

The lines between documentary and drama are often blurred, as in “The Class,” which has young Parisians playing fictional versions of themselves.

September 26, 2008

Learning to Be the Future of France

Published: September 26, 2008

The young bodies crowding “The Class,” an artful, intelligent movie about modern French identity and the attempt to transform those bodies into citizens through talk, talk, talk, come in all sizes, shapes and colors. With their cellphones and pouts, these bored, restless junior high students look pretty much like the fidgety progeny of Anytown, U.S.A. One difference being that these African, Arab and Asian Parisians live in a country that insists its citizens have only one cultural identity, even if it is an identity— as France’s smoldering suburbs vividly suggest — many of these same young people don’t feel welcome to share.

More About This Movie

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Manohla Dargis Interviews Laurent Cantet at Cannes (mp3)

“The Class” isn’t directly about civil unrest and French identity as a republican ideal, though these issues run through it like a powerful current, keeping the children and adults (and the filmmaking) on edge. Rather, the director, Laurent Cantet — using a small team and three high-definition video cameras — keeps a steady eye on the children, these anxious, maddening little people flailing and sometimes stalling on the entryway to adulthood. He shows them giggling, arguing, boldly and shyly answering questions. He marks their victories and failures and, with brutal calm, shares some of the other lessons schoolchildren learn on their way to the office, factory, shop, unemployment line and perhaps even prison: sit down, raise your hand, stand up, get in line, keep quiet.

That’s tough stuff, but “The Class” slides its points in at an angle, letting them emerge from the children’s chatter instead of hanging its politics around these tender necks like placards. For audiences accustomed to big-screen pedagogical imperatives soaked in guilt and deep-fried in piety, this makes for an exotic change (though the HBO show “The Wire” covered similar ground) and might sound perilously dry. But “The Class,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opens the New York Film Festival on Friday night, is as much an emotional experience as a head trip. Mr. Cantet would prefer you to think (he is a French filmmaker, after all), but he’s enough of an entertainer to milk an occasional tear.

Just about as tightly focused as a documentary by Frederick Wiseman, the story unfolds almost entirely inside a school in the working-class, fast-gentrifying 20th arrondissement, a residential district on the city’s farthermost eastern edge. You don’t see much of the neighborhood (its most famous residents are taking the big sleep in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery), though you do get to know several dozen of its younger inhabitants. A rainbow coalition of sullen boys and mouthy girls ages 13 and 14, the students are meant to be learning the finer points of the French language, parsing the differences between the passé composé and the imparfait, distinctions that seem nearly as foreign to them as does the reedy young teacher down in front.

One of the most remarkable things about “The Class” is that this quietly stubborn, prickly man is François Bégaudeau, who wrote the autobiographical novel on which the movie is based. (In France the original title for both is “Between the Walls.”) Like the students, the administrators and other teachers — all culled from the same school in the 20th — Mr. Bégaudeau is playing a fictionalized version of himself developed through weekly workshops, improvisations and a shoot that lasted a full academic year. Like Mr. Cantet’s shooting style in this movie, he initially comes across as free-flowing, even loose, a guy whose jocular teasing suggests that he wants to be seen more as a friend than as an authority figure, one of us rather than one of them.

He isn’t, which proves this classroom’s most difficult, painful lesson. Over the course of the year, François pushes and prods at his students, encouraging a bashful Chinese boy, Wei (Wei Huang), and trying to navigate around two pint-size terrors — a lippy Arab girl, Sandra (Esméralda Ouertani), and a belligerent African heartbreaker, Souleymane (Franck Keïta) — who test his patience with unsettling effectiveness. Souleymane, son of Malian immigrants, flashes some Arabic tattooed on his arm, challenging everyone with the barely suppressed rage that radiates off him at times like a fever. Sandra, meanwhile, in one of the story’s few false notes, announces that she has read “The Republic” on her own time, a revelation that feels more directed at the audience’s prejudices than at François’s.

Despite this Platonic nod, Mr. Cantet, who shares the screenwriting credit with Mr. Bégaudeau and Robin Campillo, tends to keep his ideas more strategically nestled in the unassuming guise of a documentary-inflected realism that plays a lot like life because that’s precisely where it comes from. Here Mr. Cantet — whose earlier features include “Human Resources” and “Time Out,” two other dramas about systems of power — has done that rarest of things in movies about children: He has allowed them to talk. There’s no question that he’s occasionally overeager to speak on their behalf, but he’s listening too, engaged in a conversation that’s as urgently necessary in this country as it is in France. And, just in case you don’t have a festival ticket, rest easy: “The Class” will open later this year.


Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Laurent Cantet; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Cantet, François Bégaudeau and Robin Campillo, based on the novel “Entre les Murs” (“Between the Walls”) by Mr. Bégaudeau; directors of photography, Pierre Milon, Catherine Pujol and Georgi Lazarevski; edited by Ms. Campillo and Stéphanie Léger; produced by Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Barbara Letellier and Simon Arnal; released by Sony Pictures Classics. At Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, as part of the 46th New York Film Festival. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: François Bégaudeau (François), Wei Huang (Wei), Esméralda Ouertani (Sandra) and Franck Keïta (Souleymane).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Beyond the Classroom - When Your Former Students Become Teachers

This Sunday, I spent the afternoon with a former high school student of mine, Max, who is currently in his third week teaching at a neighborhood high school in Philadelphia. For three hours, we talked about his experiences and questions. I listened as he told me how using his own money, he had duplicated the pages of a novel to teach with his classes because there were no sets of novels available to him to use. The only books given to him were literature text books -- large ungainly things that are not user friendly, organized around such inviting and exciting topics such as "plot" and "character." Additionally, he said, there were not even enough of those books to send home with students.

Still despite his lack of supplies ( two reams of paper per week and by the third week, he didn't get his allotment) he was excited to be a teacher. He told me that he thinks about it constantly and is totally immersed in the process and couldn't imagine doing anything else with his life and career.

My meeting with Max was good for me. It reminded me of the realities of teaching in an urban high school ( I had been relatively shielded from those realities for the past ten years teaching in a magnet school with an active and fundraising PTA) but it also gave me the opportunity to encourage Max, share some of my knowledge with him and offer him access to my huge personal library of teaching resources.

It also got me thinking about something else -- something bigger and something that could become a major project in my life. Over the years, I have been asked to speak about my teaching in a number of different contexts. Whenever I could, I would bring students with me as co-presenters -- we'd plan and conduct the presentations, workshops, panel discussion together. These were always successful and the participants could see the efficacy of what I, the teacher, was saying because they were seeing my philosophy embodied by my students.

Many of my former students at Masterman and at Gratz are currently teaching in schools around the country -- Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland -- but many right here in Philadelphia.

What if I were to create an educational consulting group that specialized in inspired and engaging curriculum and teaching practices and invite my former students who are currently teaching to be my co-consultants? They could talk about the way an inquiry based critical education influenced their lives as well as the ways they are enacting it in their classrooms.

I could call the group Teaching Possibilities -- with the intended double meaning.
Johnny Oliver, former student ( Simon Gratz, 1992) and current teacher at Friere Charter High School has on more than one occasion recited the following quote when describing his high school education -- from Mark Mathabane in Kaffir Boy -- "Education opens doors where none seem to exist." This quote attests to the power of teaching for opening students up to what is possible in their lives. I and my former students know what possible approaches, strategies and curricula are needed to move students to think about their own knowledge, their abilities, their futures in different ways.

Wouldn't it be awesome for us to find ways of sharing this together?
What a legacy!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Into the "Great Beyond" -- Opportunities for Living, Learning and Making a Difference After the Classroom

Last year, near the end of the school year, when my days as a teacher were numbered, one of my colleagues said to me, "Well ten more days until you go into the great beyond." At the time it struck me as an odd statement and I thought about it all summer. Every day that I'd lay out in the sun, reading a book, I'd think, so this is the beyond. In September, it really hit me... being in the beyond. That's when I realized that the life I had known for all of my adult life had come to an end.

It has been both frightening and liberating to be outside of the classroom. The first part of September was relatively easy. My son, my first born got married to the love of his life on a beautiful Indian Summer day overlooking the Hudson River. In a scene borrowed from Washington Irving, 120 friends and family gathered in the warm sunlight as Mike and Danielle gazed lovingly into each other's eyes and promised to love, honor and cherish each other for ever. It's safe to say that I didn't miss teaching at that moment.

Nor did I miss teaching a couple of weeks later when my husband and I traveled to Europe for the very first time. We chose Italy because we had heard that it was a very special almost magical place. We had never been able to travel in the past-- my schedule as a teacher only made it possible for us to travel during high volume times. Besides, we had made a decision that our children's education was the top priority, so there really wasn't a whole lot of money left over for us to travel much further than Disney World. So the trip to Italy was both relaxing and eye-opening -- and again, I really didn't miss teaching very much at all.

That is until I returned home, slept off my jet lag, unpacked and realized that I didn't really have anywhere I needed to for the foreseeable future. I didn't have a group of people I would see every single day -- start my day with in home room, end my day with in Drama class and inquire together into literature and writing throughout the day. I was particularly bereft during the final days of the presidential campaign and the historic election of Barak Obama when I couldn't be in the company of young people hearing the ways in which they were making sense of this historic event.

So how have I been spending my time in the "great beyond" and what I have I learned so far about life after teaching?

First thing I've learned is that it's great not to have to get up at 6 AM every day. And it's wonderful to be able to have a liesurely cup of coffee while reading the newspaper in the morning.

The other thing I've learned is that it's much easier to take care of your health when you can actually make doctor's appointments at any time of day.

I have also learned that the Internet can be a great big vacuum that sucks all of your time and energy if you let it. It takes a great deal of disicpline to turn off the Internet connection and just use the computer to write.

I have been spending much of my time reconnecting with former students -- some from almost thirty years ago, others from last year.,, Google and Facebook have made it easy for people to reconnect and many of my former students have been finding me through these web-sites.

I have been giving a lot of thought to the ways in which I can create a forum as well as opportunities for my former students -- many of them educators -- to do professional development work and give talks and presentations about the impact of a progressive, student-centered, inquiry-based and writing-centered curriculum on their lives. I started this blog as another way to reconnect to former students and to engage them in the conversation about the meaning they made of their high school education and the impact that education has had on their lives. I think this is especially important at this particular time when NCLB has caused administrators to put pressure on teachers to teach to the test and not to the children in front of them. If my former students can tell the story of the long range impact of their high school education then that can begin to counter the arguments for test-driven pedagogies and describe an alternative pedagogy of possibilties..

So that's one project in the great beyond.

Another is working with After School Practitioners in a Seminar that teaches them how to engage in practitioner research. Building on what I have learned and done as a teacher researcher, I am now working with the National Writing Project and the National Insitute for Out of School Time Studies to adapt that work for people working with children in out of school or after school settings. Today, for instance, I am spening my afternoon visiting two programs at Philadelphia playgrounds with on of the seminar fellows and I will be helping her focus her research question.

Yesterday I attended a meeting between the Council for Evidence-Based Education and the principals and other administrators of Camden City Public Schools for the purpose of launching a professional development initiative in Camden that intends to bring about systemic reform. I was brought in by CEBE as a member of their team as a expert in teacher development and leadership and my role in this project will be to coach teams of teacher leaders in 3 Camden middle schools ( and possibly two high schools in the future) to be better teachers and to become teacher leaders in their buildings based on their knowledge and abilities as teachers. At the meeting yesterday, I expressed my hope that this program would enable and encourage good teachers to find career satisfaction within the classroom. I also expressed my hope that it would counter the popular view that teaching is an "entry level" position and in order to move up one needs to move out.

The other project that I have initiated since returning from vacation is a continuity group for Teacher for American teachers who went through Penn's Urban Education Master's program and who have chosen to stay beyond their 2 year TFA commitment. These teachers are in dire need of support -- they no longer have the TFA community nor the Penn community to mentor them and in some cases depending on the ages and experiences of the teachers at their schools, they are being looked to as veteran teachers. I first met these teachers when Dina Portnoy asked me to design a course in Inquiry into Practice for 2nd year Master's students ( who by the way are teaching full time throughout their certification program!) and despite what I think of Teach for America itself ( not much.. a topic for another post) I have come to admire and respect the young people who are teaching in some of the most difficult schools in the country. One of my reasons for creating this continuity group is to not only support them in their teaching but to thank them for staying when so many others ( including myself) have left.

These are the projects that I am working on in the "great beyond." And there's so much more I want to do. More and more I am realizing that I have to write.... about my teaching, about my life.... I am just about finished a chapter for a book about student choice and voice which documents my struggles during my final year of teaching with one particular class and all that I did as the teacher to "make it matter" to the students. I have a computer full of other papers, chapters, half-finished essays that could possibly be shaped into a book.

When I reitred, I promised myself that I wouldn't work for six months and allow myself time to figure it out. I couldn't keep that promise of course -- I became way too bored. So I've taken on these projects -- all of which feel very connected to my life's project -- being a teacher and a person who makes a positive difference in the lives of others.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Learning from Laramie, Redux

In 2003, I taught the play The Laramie Project to 2 sections of my Senior Drama Class at Masterman High School in Philadelphia. The experience proved to be quite profound and moving for the 55 students and myself. The issues that it addressed - religion, homosexuality, violence, and community as well as the type of documentary theater it represented ignited my students to think, feel, argue, empathize and ultimately change.

I wrote about this experience in an essay entitled "Learning from Laramie: Urban High School Students Read, Research and Re-enact The Laramie Project published in Going Public With Our Teaching: An Anthology of Practice.

The Tectonic Theater Project, the company founded by Moises Kauffman, created The Laramie Project from interviews of over 200 people involved in the incident and subsequent trial. From those interviews, they created the play which debuted in Denver in 2000.

Matthew Sheppard was murdered in 1998 and to commemorate his death and to reflect upon the meaning and significance of the play, the Tectonic Theater Project has developed an online community entitled Laramie Blog.

I wish I were still teaching high school so I could share this blog with my students -- so they could see for themselves what happens over time to individuals and a community that were devastated by this crime and how time does and doesn't heal wounds and how people still hope for redemption.

Recently another teacher asked me if I thought that The Laramie Project was a great play and if I thought it would stand the test of time the way Shakespeare's plays had done. He wanted me to say no, of course -- so he could prove his point about the lasting value of classic plays. I replied that I really didn't care whether it stood the test of time -- whether it would be taught in schools for generations to come -- what I did care about was the way that play helped my students empathize with people different from themselves, grapple with their values and beliefs and become more human in their interactions with one another.

A New York Time article addressing the impact of Matthew Sheppard's death and the play The Laramie Project 10 years later appears below.

The New York Times
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September 17, 2008

Laramie Killing Given Epilogue a Decade Later

LARAMIE, Wyo. — Near the end of “The Laramie Project,” the widely praised and frequently staged play about how this small city grappled with the notorious murder of the gay college student Matthew Shepard, one of the characters wonders if the convictions in the killing will help Laramie heal.

“Maybe now we can go on and we can quit being stuck, you know?” says Reggie Fluty, a local policewoman. She is one of the real-life characters whose words, collected on tape, make up the actors’ entire script.

Ms. Fluty was among 200 people interviewed in 1998 by the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York City company that created “The Laramie Project” shortly after Mr. Shepard was tied to a fence by two Laramie men, pistol-whipped and left to die in the frigid Wyoming night. And Ms. Fluty is among those whom the theater company is re-interviewing this week to explore whether Mr. Shepard has a legacy here on the high plains, 10 years later.

“Hurt’s hurt and pain’s pain, and I think people in Laramie see that now,” Ms. Fluty, now retired, told Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of Tectonic, during a conversation in her sun-splashed living room just north of town.

“Sometimes you got to just, as a community, get slugged before you wake up and grow up,” she said. “I don’t think we’re all grown up, but I think people are trying.”

For Mr. Kaufman and his colleagues, returning to Laramie, a town of 25,000 near the Colorado border, is far from a theatrical exercise. They plan to use the new interviews to write an epilogue to the play before the 10th anniversary of Mr. Shepard’s death, on Oct. 12; it will be added to the published version of the script and will be included in future performances of “The Laramie Project,” which has had about 2,000 productions since it opened off Broadway in 2000.

On a personal level, too, the artists arrived here with a palpable yearning to find change in Laramie, its people and its attitudes toward gay people. (The troupe allowed a reporter to sit in on the interviews.)

“We’ve had some degree of apprehension about coming back to Laramie,” said Mr. Kaufman, who is also the author of the 1997 Off Broadway hit “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” “There had been such fervor about how Matthew Shepard’s death would make a difference. There are hundreds of hate crimes each year, but Matthew is the one that resonated nationally. But what if nothing has really changed?”

Mr. Kaufman does not hide his feelings easily. After an interview this weekend with Laramie’s mayor, Klaus Hanson, Mr. Kaufman shook with anger that Mr. Hanson was not doing anything to commemorate the anniversary. (“Now that you have touched upon it,” the mayor said, “I will need to rethink it.”) Mr. Kaufman’s expressed dismay that there is no hate-crimes law in Wyoming, as he thinks there should be. He and others also said that some in Laramie were no longer speaking of Mr. Shepard’s death as a hate crime but rather as a drug-fueled robbery gone wrong.

“A lot of people in the community went through a sense of grief, in a very poignant, heartfelt, painful way, and I think eventually the pain became so great that they don’t want to think about it or hear about it,” Rebecca Hilliker, a professor of theater at the University of Wyoming here, told Mr. Kaufman over the weekend. “After I got over the emotional trauma, the nightmares, I myself had to say, ‘O.K., step back, think about this — what you can and can’t do — and stop placing the burden of changing the state on yourself.’ ”

Mr. Kaufman conceded, “People get exhausted.”

“You get exhausted,” Ms. Hilliker nodded, sitting by windows in her home on a breathtaking open plain. “And then you can’t plan anymore how to fix things.”

Laramie has changed in some ways. The city council passed a bias crimes ordinance that tracks such crimes, though it does not include penalties for them. There is an AIDS Walk now. Several residents say they came out publicly as gay, in their churches or on campus, in part to honor Mr. Shepard’s memory. The university hosts a four-day Shepard Symposium for Social Justice each spring, and there is talk of creating a degree minor in gay and lesbian studies.

And yet, to the bewilderment of some people here, there is no memorial to Mr. Shepard in Laramie. The log fence has been torn down where he lay dying for 18 hours on Oct. 7, 1998. There is no marker. Wild grass blows in the wind.

The Fireside bar — where Mr. Shepard was lured away by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who are serving life terms for murder — is also gone, sold and renamed years ago. Without the Fireside, there is no longer a bar in town where gays, jocks, foreign students and cowboys mix together.

“I put it up for sale two weeks later — it was a ghost town,” said Matt Mickelson, the former owner of the Fireside, told Andy Paris, a member of the Tectonic company.

Mr. Mickelson, wearing a weathered white cowboy hat and a university sweater sporting a large W, said he lost almost everything because of the infamy of the Shepard murder. He ended up moving from the place he loved to look for work elsewhere.

“I got it from both sides: ‘the Fireside was a gay bar,’ ‘the Fireside had gay slayers,’ ” Mr. Mickelson said over beers at a dance hall here, the Saloon. “The media gave our whole town a black eye. They gave our whole state a black eye. They gave the university a black eye. It was hate crime, hate crime, hate crime.”

If Laramie has struggled with this onus, young gay men here have also reckoned with the fact that Mr. Shepard’s death did not change much for them. Nor, they say, did the success of the 2005 movie “Brokeback Mountain,” about two gay ranch hands in Wyoming.

“If you walk around campus holding hands with another guy, you have to know that people are going to holler and yell at you,” Iain-Peter Duggan, a junior at the University of Wyoming, and who is gay, said in an interview. “You just have to be smart.”

Another gay undergraduate, Christopher, who did not want his last name published because he is not out to his family or many friends and former teammates, said he was torn about the legacy of Mr. Shepard: He loves Laramie and Wyoming very much, but he also said he was “disappointed” that he cannot openly date another man here without facing hassles.

“Online chatting is a big deal for gay guys in Wyoming — that’s pretty much the only place to be safe,” Christopher said.

Even some of the most politically active gay people in Laramie told the Tectonic actors that, however sad they were with the pace of change, they were also philosophical about it.

After Sunday dinner at the home of Catherine Connolly, a lesbian professor at the university who is a memorable character in “The Laramie Project,” she and Mr. Kaufman affectionately sparred in the kitchen about his frustration that this town had not become a place transformed.

“You know, Moisés, how much has really changed in Manhattan in the last 10 years?” Ms. Connolly said, referring to ongoing hate crimes and the lack of a gay marriage law in New York. “It’s unfair to hold Laramie to a standard that you don’t hold yourself to.”

Mr. Kaufman answered: “Maybe that’s fair. I guess what disappoints me isn’t so much Laramie, it’s the fact that more social progress hasn’t happened everywhere.”

Friday, September 12, 2008

Making Teaching Public

This essay was written as part of the discussion at the launch of the site Making Teaching Public: A Digital Exhibition and the publication of the book Going Public With Our Teaching: An Anthology of Practice. Both projects find new ways of opening the classroom doors and sharing best practices of teachers from across the country with the public. Below is an essay that I wrote in 2005 when the work first went public, where I describe my participation in the process of documenting my work and discuss the issues involved when teachers move their work beyond their classrooms.

As one of the teachers in the first cohort of K-12 teacher scholar participants of CASTL in the summer of 1999, I can still remember my surprise and discomfort when Tom Hatch and Desiree Pointer Mace approached me and asked me if I would consider documenting my scholarship of teaching on a web-site. At the time, I had been planning to write an extended narrative essay about my experiences teaching Drama and English at an urban magnet high school in Philadelphia. I wanted to tell the story of my own growth as a teacher and the ways in which inquiry into my own teaching enabled me to create an inquiry based Drama class at my high school. Tom and Desiree sat me down and began talking about their vision of using the World Wide Web and technology for capturing images of teaching for the whole world to see. They spun out the powerful possibilities for these sites to expand the knowledge of teaching by creating a complex community of educators who could learn from each other’s work.

At that time, it was impossible for me to imagine what such a site might look like, let alone imagine the depth, range and diversity represented by the sites collected here. I still am not sure why I said yes. I had many reservations. I worried that the sites would be construed as models for others to follow without consideration of specific students or diverse contexts or that novice teachers would see the sites and be intimidated by the apparent ease with which experienced teachers could do this work. I was also afraid that the teachers documented on these web-sites would be seen as “exceptions,” and that as such reinforce the public’s conception that the only thing wrong with public schools today are the teachers, thereby releasing society at large from any responsibility for the funding and opportunity gaps that exist between the schools in our richer and poorer communities.

Maybe it was Tom’s enthusiasm and compelling argument that I would be joining a group of pioneers in the field, getting on board at the beginning of an exciting journey with limitless possibilities to make contributions to the field. Or maybe it was Desiree’s brilliant mock up for my web-site that she created right before my eyes as we discussed my philosophy of education and the way that philosophy played out in my Drama classroom. She was able to show me how the web-site could illustrate the relationships between and among theory, practice, teacher inquiry, student learning and school reform in a more complex and dynamic manner than the linear text I was then in the process of writing. Whatever the reason, I committed to documenting my scholarship of teaching as a web-site.

inquiryI entitled the site “Playing with the Possible: Teaching, Learning and Drama on the Second Stage,” the title I was planning to use for my narrative. I wanted the entire site to embody a “second stage,” a space for the development of new often non traditional teaching practices that weren’t commonly employed in academic classrooms. This site as well as the Drama and Inquiry class it documents, were meant to be “second stages” alternative places where teaching and learning looked different from more traditional models.

From the start, it was important to me that the site be constructed as an inquiry into my practice. Indeed, one entire section of the site is devoted to illustrating and explaining the ways in which that process of inquiry can sustain teacher learning over the course of a lifetime.

To tell the story of one particular inquiry, I began with a moment of dissonance from my teaching that past year: the unexpected virulent disdain some of my students expressed for feminism after reading a play by Paula Vogel. The site opens with an inciting incident of dissonance that sparked my inquiry, exemplified by the videos of the two opposing monologues written and performed by my students for their final “exam” in Drama and Inquiry class.

monologue1 monologue 2

From here, I was able to go back in time and tell the story of the creation of the Drama and Inquiry Class, describe the curriculum and pedagogy of the class, and share my preliminary insights and new knowledge I developed through the course of looking very closely at my students’ responses to the question of feminism.

Additionally, it was important for me to include my students in the construction of this web-site. During the summer and throughout the following year, I routinely emailed them (they had all since graduated and were attending college) and elicited their responses to the over-all construction of the site and to the inquiry into their conflicted feelings about feminism particularly the attitudes of the young men.

Two years ago, I was once again asked if I would be interested in documenting another aspect of my work on a new web-site as part of the Goldman-Carnegie Quest Project. This time I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Ann Lieberman explained to me that these new sites would be part of a larger project about capturing images of practice by exemplary teachers, in essence, opening up the classroom doors and revealing to prospective and experienced teachers as well as the general public the often hidden scenes of real learning that happen on a daily basis in our schools. She also explained that the sites would be used as texts in teacher education classes and that selected teacher educators would also be making web-sites documenting their use of the teacher sites in their classes. One teacher educator, Pam Grossman, had specifically requested web-sites devoted to engaging and rigorous instruction of Shakespeare’s plays, an activity that her prospective teachers needed help to envision. The result is a new site entitled “Double Double Toil and Trouble: Engaging Urban High School Students in the Study of Shakespeare". This site situates the teaching of Macbeth within the framework of my English III curriculum. In addition to documenting the actual classroom activities through video, the site includes samples of student work and some of the projects I assigned before, during and after the actual reading and studying of the play. What I like best about this particular web-site and all of the other web-sites that were developed as part of the Quest project is that the video, the assignments and the student work are surrounded by commentary, in which the teacher explains her thinking about what is happening in each segment of the unit. Here, more than in the videos themselves, the viewer of these sites can see the teachers’ knowledge- in- action. As each teacher reflects upon what is happening in each classroom scene, the act of teaching can be seen for what it is – a thoughtful, deliberate intellectual, process that involves systematic long-term planning as well as countless in-the-moment decisions made in response to the immediate needs of the particular students in that classroom. Unlike the first multimedia website of my practice, which was organized around the process of inquiry and explicitly investigated a dilemma of practice, this time around the site emphasized my teaching of a particular text: Macbeth. The emphasis was on the enactment of my teaching in my English classroom and it was designed to represent exemplary practice. While I am pleased that the web-site represents my teaching and my students well ( after all, we all brought our best selves to the process, knowing we were being videotaped), I worry that in- service teachers and pre-service teachers in particular might view this site and assume that there were no moments of dissonance or conflict.

This aspect of teaching, the responsive reflection-in-action is even more important to present at this particular time when public school students and teachers are being bombarded by standardized objective tests to measure our performance developed by those who have not spent significant time in real classrooms Teacher knowledge is not being considered in the development of teacher-proof scripted programs that are being foisted upon many public school teachers in urban settings. In a recent commentary, published on October 11, 2006, in Education Week, Mike Rose decries the absence of the details of the lived experience of daily classroom life from the national conversation about schools. He writes, “ The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done day to day across the nation – the feel and clatter of teaching and learning.” He goes on to describe such details, sharing images of students examining glass test tubes in a chemistry, making sure they were clean before they added salt or hydrochloric acid to determine the polarity of different materials. In this scene, he notes that the students are learning a particular scientific concept – polarity – but they are also learning so much more. They are learning to inquire, to collaborate, to experiment, to ask questions and to grow intellectually and it is the teacher who is deftly fostering this learning environment through creating and shaping the experience.

These moments, like the ones documented on these web-sites, should not be imitated. After all, teaching happens in particular contexts with particular students and each action taken by a teacher in a classroom represents only one of an endless number of possible actions that teacher can take, drawing upon her knowledge of her content, her curriculum and her students. And like theater, teaching is performative; it is a lived through experience that occurs in a specific time and place that cannot be replicated. While these moments can serve as inspiration and visions of the possible, they can also serve as rich and complex case studies, ripe for in-depth analysis In particular, teacher educators using these sites as occasions for teacher learning must be encouraged to use them as places of inquiry and invite their students to question what they see happening in these classrooms, uncover the teachers’ beliefs and assumptions about teaching and learning, and look for the tensions between theory and practice. Through thoughtful inquiry, interpretation and analysis, viewers of these sites can make meaning for themselves.

Rose goes on to connect such moments of real learning in the public sphere of the school classroom to the very health of our democracy –“Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.” With the public availability of these sites on the very democratic World Wide Web, one will not have to travel the country visiting classrooms all across America as Rose did in the mid-1990’s for his book Possible Lives (1995) to gain a “lived felt sense of what public education means in a democracy.” It is here, now, in all of its living breathing complexity, waiting to be critiqued, expanded and built upon.


Rose, M. (2006). Grand Visions and Possible Lives. October 11th, 2006.

Rose, M. (1995). Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Students Remembering 9-11

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching my English class at Masterman High School in Center City Philadelphia. It was a gorgeous fall day. The sky was blue, the air crisp and clean and I remember thinking how especially beautiful the city skyline looked as I drove to school along the scenic West River Drive.

I taught my first period class as I would on any other September day. It was still the honeymoon time where students were still eager to be back to school and willing to give their new teachers a chance. When the class ended, I stepped out into the hallway and a colleague, Bill Synder, a popular history teacher, pulled me aside. He had an uncharacteristic frown of worry on his face and he said, "There was just a plane crash in New York. Right into one of the twin towers!" I barely had time to process what he had said when the late bell rang and my 2nd period class was assembled in the room.

At first I began the lesson as if nothing had happened. Then I told my students what I had heard and asked if they wanted to find out more themselves. They said yes, and I turned the television on just in time to see the second plane hit the other tower.

The rest of the morning passed quickly. Parents began arriving the school to take their children home. At the time, the mayor of Philadelphia's son was attending Masterman and he sent a car to whisk his son away. The principal came over the PA and told the students what had happened and that they were going to be dismissed early. For the first time in my memory, that announcement did not produce a collective roar of approval.

People were terrified. The plane that was to crash in PA hadn't been located yet and there were rumors that it could be headed to Philadelphia -- to the historic sites of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. One 12th grade boy asked me what he should do, because he lived a block away from those possible targets.

This was before every child over age 8 owned a cell phone ( and may have contributed to every parent's need to be in constant connection with their children that would become a part of our culture in the ensuing years). My students were confused and frightened and they were looking to me -- their teacher -- who was also confused and frightened --- to offer some comfort and perspective.

In those moments on September 11, 2001, I remembered and afternoon in late November, 1963 when I learned of John Kennedy's assassination . Mr. Ellsworth, the bus driver had told me and the other elementary school students as we got onto his bus that Friday afternoon. There was stunned and embarrassed silence on the bus as Ellsworth wept driving us home.

As we were watching the devastation, when the towers fell and the terror spread, I said to my students -- "Watch -- when you get home tonight and you're watching this on tv and you're hearing about all of the horror and the death, keep your eyes out for the ordinary people and how they will do kind and wonderful things to help each other -- look for the stories of heroes who will save others, the stories of people opening up their homes, their stores, their hotels --- stories of people who will travel from around the world to help search for victims or clean up debris... Because when there is an outbreak of evil, it is always met with a response of goodness.."

I don't know where those words came from, but I was grateful for them. And in the following years, some of my students have told me that they do remember them and that they did go home and sure enough saw evidence of what I had predicted -- merchants handing out water bottles to hundreds of thousands of commuters having to walk miles and miles to get home, shoe stores giving away sneakers to the women trying to make the trek in high heels.

In the coming days, we would all struggle to make sense of what had happened. In Drama class, we decided to make it the focus of a dramatic inquiry. I had introduced them to the work of Anna Deavere Smith -- her Fires in the Mirror and Twilight Los Angeles -- part of her In Search of America's Character project in which she interviews people from all different walks of life, all different perspectives then from careful study of their words creates a performance in which she becomes them.

In the days after 9-11, students interviewed people about their responses to 9-11 -- where they were when it happened, what they think America should do, how it was affecting their lives. Their interview subjects ranged in age from 9 -75 and they were from all different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Many interviewed family members. The most touching of the interviews where the ones done by students whose siblings had witnessed the attacks--- as students at NYU and GW. As the process continued, the students would shape the words and stories of their interviewees into monologues, then try to live inside the words until the "words became them."

Below is an edited version of some of the monologues written and performed by my students in 2001. After the in-class performances of the full-length monologues, a group of students and I selected excerpts and juxtaposed those excerpts to create the scene presented below. We performed Dust to Dust at Interact Theater in June as part of our end of the year festival of student written plays.

And every year since, until my retirement, if September 11th fell on a school day, all of my classes would remember that day by reading and performing this scene -- forged from the lived experiences of their older brothers and sisters.

Dust to Dust – Living Through September 11, 2001

By the Masterman Drama and Inquiry Class

Part I – Mundane

Eyewitness AISLING September 11th - I wake up and go to my 8 o’clock class.

Eyewitness BEN Well, I remember, I was sleeping on, in my bed, on the futon uh in the living room and uuuhh, I felt the building shake…

Young Man MARQUES I’ll be honest though. I was sorta excited. Like it’s something out of the ordinary. I mean that’s not to disrespect anyone you know, the situation in any way, but you know, sometimes daily life gets kinda mundane.

Eyewitness BEN …. and I kinda thought at first it was a sonic boom, but then I kinda figured what would they be testing jets over Lower Manhattan at ya know, 8:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. Uuuhm and I wasn’t quite awake yet either to really give it too much thought so I sorta fell back to sleep and whatever the e3xact time interval, I don’t remember from the news, but the second plane hit and the impact actually threw me off of my bed.

Little Boy NIRVANA Cause, when I first heard about it, I didn’t really know much about it. Soooo, I really wasn’t that scared..

Woman JULIA A workman stopped me and said, “Did you hear about it? A plane crashed into the World Trade towers.” I sort of blocked it out of my mind and went about my business.

Eyewitness AISLING Twenty minutes after seeing the broadcasts, I had to leave for my next class. The entire time I was wondering if terrorists would hit something next. Living in Washington, three blacks away from the White House I was nervous. I have never been more scared than I was right after Washington was attacked. Seeing people running in every direction from federal buildings was crazy. If the government is telling all federal workers to leave Washington and I’m stuck in the middle of Washington in my dorm room, of course I am going to be scared. I felt as though I was sitting in the bull’s eye of a giant dartboard.

Little Boy NIRVANA First we heard when I was in the bathroom, people from the other class saying “Yeah, we have a half day cause of a plane cra… a plane crashing. I was actually in Science. We had been hearing fibs like “a plane crashed into the Statue of Liberty, it’s about to fall.” That kind of stuff. My teacher finally stopped us talking about it and she started talking about it and I just thought it was awful. Cause who would do something like that? It’s just… unthinkable.

Part II – Chaos

Eyewitness JILL Everything was totally chaos on Tuesday. Everyone was running around not knowing what to do. When the second building fell down, cries came out, that like, it would break your heart if you had to hear. Everyone was screaming and running, It sounded like New York herself was crying. I don’t think anyone knew where they were running. They just were. Seemed like they were trying to race back into time, you know, before this ever happened.

Eyewitness BEN But I kinda got a sense from them that they didn’t even have a clear idea of what was going on and they were more concerned with ushering the ..the fire department and rescue squads that were already being deployed into the zone. Umm and at that point, ya know, no body was figuring that they were gonna collapse uhhh,,, so it was quite ya know ( beat) upsetting ( beat) afterwards to realize that ( beat) during those few moments, we were literally watching guys, ya know, sort of run towards their graves.

Young Woman (JULIA) And they kept showing the same scene over and over and over and over. It got really annoying. It’s okay for them to have it on regular tv, because it’s free, but if I’m paying for cable then I should be able to get what I’m paying for.

Woman ( CATHLEEN.) I would love to deport all of the Arab nationals who are over here on illegal visas or have illegal immigration papers and even those who have legal papers. I would put a waiver on a lot of civil rights that people carrying green cards have in this country. I don’t know what else to do.

Man ANTHONY Thank God I’m not in a position to have to come up with the solution. We have to stand by our government. We have to make sure we are all in line with what the President says and does.

Young Man MARQUES……. WHAT??? So like we don’t have to follow along the rules of decency and like it just doesn’t I dunno, we just do what we please with no regard to any other nation? I don’t mean to say we have it coming. I think it’s a tragedy a grand tragedy for all the people that died. But I think that’s where the tragedy stops. I mean we have the right to attack people, but they don’t have the right to attack us?

Part III – Too Philosophical

Eyewitness JILL That night, everything got so weird. It was like silent. It was like New York was asleep, for the first time ever. I was walking around taking pictures today. You know you’re used to seeing missing dog posters on every corner or so, but now it’s missing people signs every couple of feet. Pictures of these smiling faces - faces that are lost.

Man DAVE. At Rosh Hashanah services the tragedy was on everyone’s mind. I think it set the background for all of the prayers that we were saying that day. It’s like all the prayers had a tinge to them now that they never had before.. and when I was ummmm leading the part of the service and when I came to the prayer for peace, I just felt very very emotional and at the end of the uhhhh section of prayers the last prayer is a prayer for peace. Every word just seemed so vitally important to me.

Young Man LAMAR – What they don’t realize is that this is a holy war. In my opinion, God is on the side of the believers, the Muslims. These cats think they just gonna wipe out the Afghans. Nah, man, nah. Not if it’s the will of God. We gonna be the ones wiped out. People gonna see how corrupt they are, ya know. I hope they uhhh turn to God, ya know. If they don’t, they gotta pay.

Young Man ANTHONY You know, I think what we are facing here is a war against a belief system. That means we are facing an intellectual enemy, not one of brick or mortar. The “enemy” theoretically could be your neighbor, best friend or the person standing behind you in the store. We are “fighting” something that is not tangible. Thought has no body. No headquarters to bomb. Thought is liquid. ( 2 beats) Was that too philosophical?

Part IV – Dust to Dust

Eyewitness JILL On Wednesday, the air changed and the wind blew towards us. It was like a really dense fog, the dust and asbestos were everywhere. I just walked around a lot, but I had to wear a wet paper towel on my face. Everything I wore was covered with dust.

Young Woman JULIA I think that all those people are dead now, so they need to stop looking for people. What they need to do is just dump all the debris in the ocean and have one big mass funeral and memorial service. That would be a lot easier. Because they’re not going to find any more people alive so it’s a waste of time to keep looking for people. And they want you to send clothes and money and stuff up there, but for what? What they need to do is just dump all the debris in the ocean.

Eyewitness BRONWEN There were people lined up cheering for the workers as we passed by. People were crowded along the street to thank the rescue workers. They had water and food and all this stuff to give to the rescue workers on the bus. There were people of all ages and all races out cheering.

Man ANTHONY The main thing right now, people have to get on with their lives which is hard to say and hard to do considering what happened. But I guess that’s why we’re the United States of America. Heal we will.

Eyewitness JILL It’s weird. I am a passive person who doesn’t believe in war and never did I think I would be for murder, but sometimes I catch myself wanting those sons of bitches to die. You know what I keep wishin? I mean I keep thinking about when my friend first told me, I mean man, I wish, I just wish, wish I could go back to that one second when I just, I just didn’t believe him.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One of the Many Reasons I Support Obama

Take a look at this video of Barack Obama speaking before and audience in Virginia that includes teachers from the Virginia Writing Project. At this event, Senator Obama is asked what role writing has played in his life. He responds by talking the process he went through in writing ( by himself! ) his two memoirs, Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope. He talks about how the writing was a process of self discovery and assessment of his life. He talks about how the writing not only gave him a perspective on his past, but helped redefine him for his future. He explains the value of journal writing and the connection between writing and thinking. Later in the video, he also responds to a question about NCLB, accountability and standardized tests and addresses their negative impact on students who are subjected to mind numbing skill and drill pedagogy in a misguided attempt to improve their skills and close the achievement gap. He ends with a discussion of what it will take to keep teachers in the classroom over time and a plan for meaningful professional development.


I had to watch this several times and pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. This is the first and only time I heard an elected official speak with such intelligence and nuanced understanding about the importance of writing in young people's lives and the role of teachers as professionals!

I haven't read his books, but after seeing this video I am downloading both of them to my new Kindle ( a retirement gift from my children!)

What do you think about this video? Have you read his books? I look forward to reading them and sharing my thoughts about them in the coming weeks. Watch below and comment!!!!

Is "Racial Balance" the Same as Racial Equity?

In yesterday's Philadelphia Daily News, education reporter Mensah Dean presents a history of the policy of "racial balance" among the teachers at schools in the School District of Philadelphia. This is a policy that requires the teaching staff of every school to reflect the over all racial balance in the district - i.e. if 35% of the teachers in the district are African American, then every school must have 35% of its staff comprised of African Americans. The policy was initiated in the late 1970's and it was linked to federal money from the now defunct department of Health, Education and Welfare. And while the policy was on the books in school district and even in the PFT contract, it was not uniformly enforced. In 1978, then Secretary of HEW threatened to withhold federal funds from the district unless it complied to the racial balance requirement.

In February of 1979, over 2000 teachers were force transferred. It was the largest mid-year upheaval in the district's history and I am among those teachers.

At the time I was a 5th year teacher at Harding Junior High School, a fairly large junior high school in a white working class community. I was told that there were "too many" white teachers there and I would have to get reassigned.

The scene at reassignment was like nothing I have ever seen in my life. Two thousand teachers, black and white and all pretty young ( remember -- the seniority rules remained intact -- it was the least senior white teachers and the least senior black teachers being transferred.) I took a seat next to a young man name Antoine ( I can't remember his last name but he was very instrumental in my life because of the ensuing exchange.) We had all been handed papers with the vacancies listed and next to each vacancy was either "C" or "N" for Caucasian or Negro. ( I am sure some of you are wondering about Latino teachers or Asian ones or even those who were bi-racial -- the federal policy was not concerned with them -- only that the number of black teachers at each school reflect the ratio of the district.)

Antoine and I were pouring over the list, when he turned to me and said, "Take Gratz." I just looked at him incredulously. Gratz was a large comprehensive high school in the heart of the African American community. It was the first school in the district to have an all-black student population and in the late 60s and early 70s it was a powerhouse of black pride -- with courses in Black History and Swahili. Antoine had taught there for five years -- we had the same seniority date. "But I've only taught junior high," I said barely hiding my real fear. And he said, "Just treat the students with respect and they'll respect you." Within seconds of that exchange, my name was called and I barely whispered "Gratz" when they asked for my selection. "Cross off Gratz," the district official yelled to the room of remaining teachers and with that, I was transferred to a school where I would stay for 19 years, make many many close friends with staff and students alike, found a school within a school that would be very successful, bring a playwriting program to the school which enabled the students to write award winning plays ( three had their work produced off-Broadway!) and co-teach a graduate seminar, on site for other teachers in the building.

The questions raised by Dean's article which he entitles "The vanishing black teacher" are very compelling. How does this policy of racial balance impact black teachers? Why is the district more concerned about racial balance rather than raising the total number of African American teachers in the district as a whole? And Dean does a good job of talking about the history from 30 years ago, he doesn't cover the earlier history of racist policies that prevented black teachers from being hired in the first place or later policies that kept black teachers out of coveted positions in the high schools and relegated them to junior high. In many ways, the policy of 1978 was regressive for black teachers. If it was a struggle for black teachers to attain positions in high schools then the total number in the district and hence the percentage would be low. A policy that froze number and used it as the guide for the 1979 transfers took black teachers out of high schools and placed them back in junior highs and set as its goal

So for instance if in 1978, black teacher made up 35 percent of junior high school teachers but only 20 percent of high school teachers ( due to the racist hiring policies) then freezing the number of black high school teachers at the present 20% made it virtually impossible for more black teachers to move to high schools. In fact, among the secondary teachers caught up in the mass transfers, it was likely that a young white teacher would be moved from a junior high to a high school and a young black teacher would be moved to a junior high -- as was the case with Antoine and me... be basically changed places --- when his name was called he chose Harding. So when Dean and others in his article question the efficacy of a play in 2008 that made sense in 1978, I question whether the plan made sense even then.

Dean interviews students at Germantown High School where the majority of the teachers are white ( and according to the policy -- that will always be the case) and the students lament the lack of black teachers and long for teachers who can better relate. The also state that black teachers will push students harder because they know what is needed for them to succeed.

I posted the article on my facebook page yesterday and within minutes, one of my former students write a comment stating how in her experience the white teachers pushed her just as hard if not harder than the black teachers and went on to talk about how much she learned in my class.

Looking back on my career, I am personally grateful for the transfer. I spent the most generative and interesting years of my life as a teacher at Simon Gratz High School. The lessons that I learned about race, power, history, culture I'm not sure I would have learned ( nor cared to learn? nor know I needed to learn? had I not been a teacher at Gratz. Once, one of my students asked me in class, "Do you think that you'd be the same if you spent you life teaching in the suburbs?" And of course I knew the answer. I'd like to think that I would have developed a sense of equity and fairness that was informed by the injustices of the past. I'd like to think that I would have been able to see the impact of school funding on young people's life chances. I'd like to think that I would have come to understand that there is no monolithic "black community" in which all the individuals share beliefs. But I don't know for sure and I never will.

At my retirement party, former student and author and principal Salome Thomas-El talked about how his encounter with me as his teacher in 1980 -- just one year after I had been force transferred to Gratz, enabled him to have a relationship with a white person -- one that in his words, cared about him, pushed him to reach higher and supported him as a person -- had a profound effect on his life. Another question arises -- would I have chosen to teach at Gratz had I not been forced there? That I don't know either, though I imagine that my fears would have kept me away.

Here is the link to the Daily News Story.;!category=news;&randomOrd=091008045844

What do you think about this issue? Has your life been affected by this policy? Is racial balance the same as racial equity? Post your responses here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Writing Letters for Students - A Teacher's View

It is only the second week of school and the second week of my retirement and already I have received several email requests from students to write them letters of recommendations for college. I know that this is just the beginning of what could become a flood of requests that will go on until January when the season for applying to college officially comes to a close.

I have an interesting history with writing letters of recommendation and a thoughtful analysis of that history can unveil some seldom talked about aspects of the college application process and access in our schools.

When I taught at Simon Gratz from1976-1998 ( a comprehensive neighborhood high school in the heart of the African American community)I saw my role as a student advocate -- someone who was there to fight against the system that created obstacles for my students -- someone who was going to help open doors for them that seemed jammed shut -- someone who would work tireless with other colleagues - teachers and counselors - to provide SAT prep, access to summer programs and college. I would often tutor students ( off the books -- I never got paid) for the SATs early in the morning, buy the Barron's book myself, studying it and xeroxing it. In later years, when my own children were in high school and I paid for them to have a private test prep class, I used all the materials that my children received and shared them with my students.

So in that context writing letters of recommendation was part of the mission -- it was part of my ethical responsibility to advocate for my students who were hardworking and who wanted to go to college. I would write beautiful letters for them, taking an enormous amount of time on each, meeting with them, interviewing them about their lives, goals and aspirations, going though all the papers they had written in my class so I could quote their insights, cite examples of their brilliance. I still have a letter sent to me by the University of Pittsburgh, thanking me for a letter I wrote for Johnny Oliver even though they couldn't accept him. ( He subsequently went to Bradford College in Massachusetts and earned a Masters' Degree from Temple.)

When I transferred to Masterman, it took me a while to learn and understand my new context. I knew that it was a magnet school for academically talented and mentally gifted students from all parts of the city, but I knew nothing about the culture of the school. Some of my students my first year there told me that in short time I would be "Mastermanized" and they would laugh knowingly and I would remain perplexed. I got my first inkling of what they meant when I found a note in my mailbox on lawyer's letterhead questioning me about my homework policies and why his son had lost points on a late assignment. Clearly, the students ( or at least some of the students as I would come to know) didn't need me as their advocate when their parents were quite capable thank you.

My next lesson came in early October when I was asked by several of my 12th grade students to write their letters of recommendation. I thought it was a bit odd that they would ask me, since I had only been their teacher for a month or so and initially I encouraged them to ask other teachers who might have known them better. They convinced me that the ones who knew them well had retired and they flattered me by saying that I knew them better after one month than their former teacher had after two years! I met with three young men and interviewed them as I had my Gratz students and wrote them glowing letters to places like the University of Chicago, Brown, Penn.

The word spread that I was an easy mark for students who had alienated their former teachers by hectoring them in class, not completing assignments, cheating on tests and other behaviors that would make it difficult for a teacher to attest to the students' integrity.

The students for whom I wrote ( and there were way too many that year for someone who had just come to a school and who barely knew her students) remained on their best behavior until around December 15 when the early decisions came through. Once they had their acceptances in hand, they no longer had any need to act respectfully in class, do the assignments with integrity nor in some cases even come to class. One young man who had been accepted to the University of Chicago even came to my class drunk and became infuriated with me when I turned him in to the dean of students.

I spent a good part of the year stewing. I had been had. The veteran teachers just looked at me knowingly -- the ones who had endured the disrespect and arrogant entitlement for years before my innocent arrival on the scene. And I vowed that I would not be used in that way again.

That was a hard promise to keep in a school like Masterman where the students are told from the time they are in 5th grade ( and since birth in many cases no doubt) that they are the smartest little people in the world and that they are destined to go to the best colleges in the country. Perhaps destined isn't quite the right word -- but certainly entitled -- expected. I remember a parent conference my first year there with the parent of a 9th grader who had earned a D in my class -- the kid was a mess -- he wouldn't keep a notebook and did very little homework - the only thing that saved his grade was that the did read the assigned books. At this parents conference, as I was explaining to the father why his son had earned that grade, the father broke into tears and literally sobbed as he said, "I guess he won't be going to Harvard."
Dreams die hard and at the time it was hard for me to understand the way it was all crashing down on this father's head -- dreams that he had had since birth for his son, who just wasn't sharing the same dreams. Today that young man ( who graduated near the bottom of his class ) works in the tech world and graduated from Drexel University.

I continued to write letters for students -- this time however, I was able to know the students better -- some of them I had taught for multiple years in both English and Drama -- still others had also been in my homeroom for four years and I felt that I really knew the students. Still there were nagging doubts -- was I writing for someone who had cheated in other classes -- perhaps had cheated in mine -- I was told by my students that I was naive to think that people didn't cheat. They told me it was part of the culture not only of the school but of American society and that any attempt I would make to address it or change it would be futile.

That same year, I wrote letters of recommendation for college to almost 50 members of the graduating class of 2003 ( There were only 110 students in the entire class.) I wrote letters for students applying to the most prestigious universities in the country and for students applying to state and land grant colleges. I wrote for students at the top of the class and students who I thought could use an advocate at the bottom of the class. My letter writing began in September and it was still in full force in January when the entire class of 2003 decided to stage a "class unity" cut day on January 3, 2003. I got wind of the impending cut day because I was inadvertently included on several students' email lists so I became privy not only to the details of of the cut day ( one week before mid-terms!!!!) but also to the ways in which certain students were pressuring others to conform threatening them with all sorts of social ostracizing if they too didn't stay home from school that day. And to my dismay, those students sending the threatening emails were students for whom I had already written letters -- students who had already be accepted by the University of Pennsylvania.

On January 2, I told both of my senior classes that if students were not in class tomorrow, I would not complete the letters that I was still in the process of writing. I also let it be known that a teacher has the right to withdraw a letter of recommendation at any time -- with prejudice or without. This sent shockwaves through the high school community. Later it came back to me that the students were talking about it all day -- Would Pincus really dare to do that? Is she ALLOWED to? They would get their parents to make sure I wouldn't withdraw any letter I had written. They'd sue. Etc. I informed the administration of the impending cut day and in true fashion, the principal said that if students were to cut they would be disciplined when they returned. The discipline consisted of a mass detention in the auditorium the following day -- which was more like a part for sure and many of the students. Also, the parents became complicit in the cut day (one of the parents even hosted the event in her home and said that the students deserved a break -- this after a 10 day Winter vacation!) by writing absent notes and essentially lying for their children so they wouldn't have to face the ( meager) consequences of their actions.

The next day ( January 3) half of the class did show up for school -- When I discussed it with them that day, one girl said she came because she abhorred the peer pressure that was being sent out on the list serve and hated that kind of mindless conformity. Others admitted they were there because they still needed me to finish their letters. Still others said that their parents would have killed them if they cut school.

That year I did not withdraw any of the letters, though I never discussed it again with the students, nor did I acknowledge that I had heard the buzz about suing me that had ensued in the wake of my informing them of that possibility. But I did learn a valuable lesson about how to proceed with the letters in the future. Students needed to be educated about not only the process of asking and getting teachers to write for them but understand the expectations and significance.

Another piece of this story is the fact that teachers do not get compensated in any way to write these letters and they take an enormous amount of time. Many students apply to 5-10 schools and each letter has be accompanied by a specific form and all the materials have to be placed in envelopes and sent out. I can take up to two hours to write for one student - longer depending on how many schools she's applying to. Multiply that by the number of students and you can see that this is a significant endeavor. On top of that, the burden is almost always distributed unequally. Bad teachers never get asked to write. Some old crusty teachers refuse. Distant professorial like teachers don't know their students well enough to write substantive letters. So the same few teachers, the ones who tend to work harder anyway -- who coach or sponsor after school programs, who supervise community service projects - the ones who really know their students are the ones who write the most letters. And if we refuse or become overwhelmed, we leave the students in a bind. We are not given roster time; we are not remunerated. And to even suggest such a thing is to open yourself up to criticism about your own integrity.

The writing of letters of recommendation for students for college remains one of the more problematic aspects of a high school teachers work and it is never discussed in public forums like faculty or home and school association meetings. Unexamined, it remains plagued with problems and inequities.

Ever since that year, before I would assent to write letters for any student at Masterman, I would sit down with them and have a conference. In that conference, I would tell them that writing a letter for students for college is part of an enormous process that affects hundreds of thousands of individuals and that in order for the process to be as fair as possible, it relies on the integrity of the people participating - including the teachers whose words are taken as truth in helping colleges determine which students gain admission to their schools. I told them that in signing my name to that letter, I was putting my professional reputation on the line and I was not only vouching for their past performance but their future performance as well - in college and in my class the rest of the year. I informed them that as a teacher I had the right to rescind their recommendation at any time if I felt the student had not lived up to the high standards attested to in the letter. I ended each conference by telling the student that if they felt that they weren't able to promise that they would continue to perform with the same honesty and integrity and commitment that they had in the past that I would understand if they didn't come back to me the next day with all of the materials I needed to write the letter.

I started doing that with the Class of 2004. In all the years since, out of all of the students with whom I have had that conversation, ONLY ONE student decided that it would be too difficult for him to live up to those expectations and asked another teacher to write for him. I never did discuss with that teacher whether she held him to the same standards. In fact, she was one of those teachers new to Masterman much like I had been in 1998 before I understood the culture of the school.

I want to end this on a positive note. Initially, when I began this process of vetting who I would and wouldn't write letters for, of explaining the meaning of the letter to the students, of having conferences in which I asked for a pledge of integrity -- many people -- my colleagues and some of the students thought that I was over reacting. Or they thought that I was like Don Quixote grappling with windmills engaged in a fruitless battle for a questionable cause. But as 2004 progressed and the other classes followed, my pre-letter conference became part of the culture-- it became part of the school lore passed on in stories from one grade to the next and it became less unusual as other teacher began engaging in similar dialogue with their students before putting their pen to paper and signing their name to a legal document attesting to a child's integrity.

One day, back in 2000, when I was still pretty new to Masterman, in a frustrated response to what I was hearing my students saying, I blurted out, " I didn't become a teacher to get you into Harvard!" There was stunned silence. Finally one young man looked up at me and with no trace of irony asked, "You didn't?" What ensued was a discussion about how they viewed their school and how they felt that that was the message they were getting -- that they would only be worthy as human beings IF they got into Harvard -- that all of the teachers were working so hard to get as many of the students into those schools as possible so that the school would have a great reputation. I was stunned. I hadn't heard it explained quite that way before. They poured their hearts out to me about the impact those expectations had on them -- and how it affected and alienated the students who weren't going to go to Ivy League schools -- who couldn't get in or who couldn't afford it -- and how that created the undertow of cynicism that some of them got caught in. And how that cynicism enabled them to feel justified with cheating, lying and using teachers to get what they wanted. We talked too about what education can mean and what it should mean. Years later, I received an email from the young man who asked me why I did become a teacher if it wasn't to get him into Harvard. ( He went to Northwestern -- not sure if he applied to Harvard -- I hadn't written for him) In the email ,he told me that he was thinking about becoming a teacher -- that he remembered so vividly that day in class when I told them all of the reasons I became a teacher and what teaching them meant to me in my life -- how teaching was a profession in which you could participate in social justice and social change through working with individuals and within systems - how it was exciting and meaningful work, how it was intellectually and spiritually challenging --- and how it was about so much more than getting a selected few students into the best colleges.

It took me many years to understand Masterman. It took me even longer to resist being "Mastermanized" -- accepting as immutable some of the values and practices of a competitive, high performing academic high school. In the ensuing years after the incident with the Class of '03, I made it part of my mission as a teacher and a student advocate to educate my students about the process of college applications and the attaining of letters of recommendation. I would start in the 9th grade and discuss with students the importance of not alienating their teachers -- that they were building relationships that would continue through high school. With my 11th graders I'd have honest and heartfelt discussions about fairness and the importance of honesty in the college application process. I would engage them in substantive inquiry about ethical behavior through the literature we were reading, the topics we were writing about.

And as it has, ever since that September 10 years ago when I first arrived at Masterman from Gratz, and even though I have retired, the requests for college recommendation letters have begun. I believe that I have a moral obligation to write for some of my students -- particularly because so many of the teachers who have known them for years have retired. It will be a little harder to exact a promise of integrity from students I no longer teach. This time, I will have to go on trust and a faith in the lessons learned.