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Subversive Teaching

Playing School
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Been There, Done That
Why They Turn in Garbage
If You Teach Them They Will Learn
Teaching Well is the Best Revenge

"Having spent a lot of time at a lot of schools over the past 20 years, I can say there are a lot of schools where I would be a dropout. There are some schools where it would be a rational act to drop out. It sounds flip, but it's deeply troubling to me how academically boring and weak is the work in some high schools, how much wasted time there is."

Theodore Sizer

Imagine that you have a job you don't find interesting and did not choose -- and on top of that, you don't get paid or rewarded in any way for your efforts. How long would it take you to stop showing up?

Furthermore, what if you failed at most tasks you are assigned, even when you tried hard? How long would it take you to stop trying?

This is what school, particularly high school, is like for a lot, if not most, kids. Instruction in many classes ranges from poor to non-existent. It is often unbearably tedious. Some kids have the ability to pass classes with minimal effort and stick it out in hopes of getting a diploma or going to college, but I've thought that we would be doing some kids a favor if we met them at the door on their first day of high school and told them the truth: with your deficits, including a complete inability to even manipulate the system to your advantage, there is no way you are ever going to graduate; in fact, it's unlikely you will even pass a core subject class.

These are the kids that fall through the cracks. They are not prepared for high school -- they have elementary reading and math skills -- but they don't have a bona fide learning disability so they do not qualify for special services or modifications such as shortened assignments or extra time. They may have no support at home, no encouragement to do well in school. Who knows what their homes are like? It may be impossible for them to do homework even if they felt like it, or knew enough to be able to do it. Some have demanding after school jobs.

They don't appear to be at school to learn, yet if they were taught something they were equipped to learn, they might be receptive (though maybe not). I admire them for showing up, on the off chance that they might be successful at something, that if they keep showing up long enough, maybe their luck will change.

It's not always the teachers' fault. They are handed an impossible task. This is what Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition for Essential Schools says"

"To teach students well, obviously, we have to know each one well. For us in the Coalition, that means that the total, consistent student "load" per teacher has to be fewer than eighty in secondary schools and twenty in elementary schools; and each student has to be with us for more than a few months. All else flows from that ratio and stability. In most schools that means a program focused on the essentials, beginning with literacy, numeracy, and civic understanding and moving on from there."

Instead, most high school teachers have a load of almost twice what Sizer recommends, and instead of being focused on the essentials -- the concepts that students must have a deep lifelong understanding of -- the state-mandated curriculum is so broad that teachers are already behind by the third week of school.

Teachers see the kids who are drowning, but have no lifesaver to throw them. It is painful for dedicated teachers to be given the task of leaving no child behind, when everything is structured so that they have no choice but to leave many behind.

Still, there is more that can be done. I have proposed one measure in the "Square Hole" article on this website. Another is for teachers to accept that leaving no child behind means not counting on the child being motivated and resourceful enough to do most of his learning at home, by himself. Instead, they must be directly taught the skills they lack, as far as possible, while they are at school. They cannot be given a list of vocabulary words and told "Go and learn." They cannot be told to write an essay without any direct teaching about how to write. They cannot be told to analyze literature without being taught how to do so. Yet because the curriculum is so broad and time so inadequate, this is what happens.

Teachers are a tough crowd. I would hate to try to present a workshop to a group of them. They are hostile to consultants because consultants are talking about what should happen in a perfect world, not the one in which teachers only have an hour and a half per day in which they are supposed to plan and prepare these masterful lessons, grade stacks of papers, and attend meetings, among a great many other things. Teachers already stay hours after school and/or come to school on weekends, just to keep up with the bare minimum.

Sizer points out that teachers and students have had to strike a deal: teachers pretend that they are delivering thoughfully prepared lessons and assignments, and students pretend that these are worth doing. Students scribble something on a piece of paper, teachers slap a grade on it, and there's something to put in the gradebook. It makes everyone feel like a fraud. And until someone stops pretending that the mandated curriculum is reasonable and doable, it will continue.