There was a new tone in the President’s brief comments about education in his State of the Union address. Of course, he promoted his proposal for 2 tuition-free years of community college and the need to help students from debt incurred when pursuing higher education. That was welcome but not surprising.
What was welcome was the absence of fear-mongering about our public schools. No crisis talk about how nations with higher scores would take away our jobs and ruin future economic growth. The President instead highlighted the facts (that I documented in “Reign of Error” in 2013) that the high school graduation rate is at an historic high, as are test scores.
I don’t know if anyone gave much thought to this shift to a positive tone, but it definitely represents a repudiation of the “reformers'” sky-is-falling rhetoric. No reference to “obsolete” high schools, to “failing schools,” or to the…
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Dante had the ability to be in the honors class for 11th grade English, but he couldn’t stay quiet. He called out in class, interrupting the teacher and annoying the studious kids intent on earning A’s. So he was demoted to my class of average students. Lucky me.
Paraphrasing a quotation known as a “critical lens” was on the agenda the day Dante appeared. Crossing my fingers, I gave an assignment that was a little challenging, asking the students to interpret a quotation ascribed to Benjamin Franklin: Hunger is the best pickle. I put the kids in groups, ostensibly to discuss the quote, but actually to make noisiness acceptable. I knew they’d be talking about everything except the quotation. I pretended to pounce on Dante’s group, and of course, bright light that he was, he came up with a reasonable interpretation. I don’t remember what he said. It didn’t matter. I just wanted an excuse to praise him.
I made kind of a big deal over this, asking Dante to repeat his answer to the entire class. Another boy in the group echoed my praise, announcing that Dante had been really good at explaining the puzzling quote.
Whew! What I’d done could have backfired, but luck was with me. Dante was never a problem in my class. His hunger for praise was the only pickle needed.
An article in today’s NY Times,” Smarts vs. Personality” by Anna North, inspired this memory of a boy I’ll call Roberto.
Roberto slid into my sophomore English class each day and took his assigned seat wordlessly. Unlike the other boys who favored jeans, he dressed as if for church, in slacks and a button down shirt. He carried a briefcase, not a backpack. I never saw him speak to another student, and he never answered in class, although he did well on tests and always handed in homework. The motherly security guard at the main desk worried about him. “That boy’s in trouble. I don’t want to read about him someday,” she told me. His guidance counselor said to give him space, that he was like one of the early flowers in the spring – a harsh wind or careless footstep would destroy him.
I was new to the school, and I had to be observed by an assistant principal several times a term. These observations would be reduced to writing. Typically, a lesson’s critique would mention three good things and two things that needed to improve. For example, repeating student answers was a no-no for the teacher. Instead, the teacher was supposed to ask another student to repeat a classmate’s answer, encouraging kids to pay attention to each other.
This was one of my “bad things” on a previous observation. I had to watch out for that during my next observation. With the supervisor sitting in the back of the room writing diligently, I asked a question and got a correct answer from a girl named Rachel.
“What did she say, Miss?’ a boy asked.
“Who can repeat Rachel’s excellent answer?” was my careful response. The class was silent.
“Why you being so stupid today?” the same boy asked. “Why can’t you just tell us?”
The supervisor was writing furiously. I looked around at the students, desperate. But the room was silent. And then, a miracle occurred. Roberto’s hand, for the first time, slowly went up. For the first time that term, his voice was heard. He repeated Rachel’s correct answer. And he smiled at me.