Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pedagogy ("Real Talk for Real Teachers" by Rafe Esquith)

When you enter a college teaching program, the very first thing that happens--before you've sat down for a single lecture, observed a single classroom, or even met your professors--is that you're given books. Lots and lots of books. And these thick, expensive books come with dense, impressive-sounding titles like Classroom Instruction That Works and Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning and Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design. They're almost always written by tenured professors who've done extensive research and assembled binders full of data, and their names are always followed by an alphabet's-worth of accreditation. At some point--usually the introduction--they offer a real-life anecdote from a real-life school to not only personify the problems they hope to address--the problems running rampant through our education system--but also to make up for the fact that, behind their curtain of insights and recommendations, they are speaking without the experiences of an actual, full-time educator

The three examples mentioned above aren't just random titles pulled from the internet; all three were textbooks I was given during the five years I spent in college.* If I actually finished any of those books, I don't remember doing so. What I do remember, however, is that each one infuriated me from the very first page, and each one was just as meaningless as the next. Most of what they said was common sense--know how students learn, design lessons with the goal in mind, tailor your activities and projects to the interests and abilities of your students, and so on--except it was common sense smothered under the ever-warm pillow of Hard Data. I kept those textbooks, hoping they would actually be useful once I had my own classroom and my own students, but they stayed buried in the dusty bins filled with all of my college materials until, one bright summer day, I pulled them out and recycled them, having forgotten until that very moment that I still had them.

That's not to say the content of these books are irrelevant or wrong. On the contrary, many of these concepts--backwards design, differentiated instruction, individualization--have radically changed American education for the better and helped drag it from the sucking, smelling tarpit that has swallowed up so many millions of students over the last half-century. The mistake these writers make is assuming their ideas will fix The System when, in fact, it's The System itself that has been the problem all along. Speaking as someone who actually enjoyed high school--at least as much as one person can enjoy such an experience--and had fantastic teachers, even I recognized long before entering college that our nation's schools are set up as one big people factory:  they take in diverse, thoughtful, creative people and grind them all up into the same stiff, thoughtless pulp on a crusade to "prepare" kids for "the real world" by transforming them into button-pushing office drones. Respect was replaced by fear, enthusiasm was replaced by compliance, intelligence was replaced by rote memorization...and as a result, the generations we hoped would better our world had no qualms about watching it deteriorate alongside those who had raised them. A system that is supposed to encourage creativity, individuality, and free expression is designed instead to discourage those very same traits.

Most teachers recognize that success happens in spite of The System, not because of it, and any educator with an ounce of common sense understands that teaching kids to be good students--that is, good at taking tests, writing essays, and doing homework--is not as important as teaching them to be good people. It's wonderful when a lesson or project raises a student's reading scores a point or two on a test, or demonstrates their ability to identify nouns or integers or the mistake in a chemical formula; it's even better when those same lessons teach students to work together, embrace a new attitude or perspective, appreciate themselves, or solve a complicated and unusual problem. These are often called "real-world skills" by five-cent politicians hoping to pick up a few extra votes before Election Day, but even that term has been corrupted to include skills that will never come in handy beyond the classroom.** Our purpose as educators is to prepare students, not for five years of college or four decades of full-time work, but sixty or seventy years of being an adult with a career, a family, responsibilities, life-or-death decisions that need to be made, and so on. And those skills, whatever they end up being, cannot be measured by data, even if the letters after your name tell you it can.

Thankfully, I had enough ambition in college to seek out books that downplayed the pedagogy in favor of common sense, personal reflection, and stories from the front lines--after all, as a future English teacher and lover of books, I'd come to value the lessons in a good story anyway, so this seemed like the better avenue. And down this path is where I found the men and women whose words, wisdom, and experiences have kept me sane for the last nine years of my life. They have informed my teaching, changed how I view my roles and responsibilities as an educator, and chastised me for my mistakes long after I've finished chastising myself. Their books still sit on my shelves years after those costly data-tombs found their way to the recycling bin, and their names--Jim Fay, David Funk, Robert J. Mackenzie, Renee Rosenblum-Lowden, Gary Rubinstein, Esme Raji Codell, Vickie Gill, and, later, Frank Stepnowski and Frank McCourt--are etched in my subconscious with reverence and gratitude. And at the top of this list--the one teacher whose books I come back to over and over again--is Rafe Esquith, who has now been teaching in the same Los Angeles elementary school for three decades, and whose lack of abbreviateds after his name is no match for the vast number of awards and honors he has received, including a National Medal of the Arts and being made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.

There are boundless reasons why Esquith is a much more reliable and trustworthy expert on this topic than the hundreds of other self-anointed experts currently out there. For starters, he's still a teacher, which means he's facing down the waves of reform instead of causing them, so he's fully aware of how damaging they can be. It also means that, unlike other educators in recent memory, he didn't abandon students for a higher-paying job as a lecturing consultant, activist, or ivory-tower number-cruncher.*** Esquith is more than willing to lay his shortcomings, mistakes, and failures out for us to see, especially when they provide readers with a valuable lesson about the realities of teaching. (His most important lesson for new teachers? You will have bad days. Expect it, accept it, learn from it, and move on.) He's also more than happy to show us his successes--his new book is filled with letters from former students--and explain just what allowed those successes to happen in the first place. He works long hours for very little pay--his district rewards teachers who take classes, something Esquith doesn't do--and while Esquith refuses outright any attempt to make him the standard for effective teachers--every teacher, school, class, and student is different--he does hope that teachers take a few simple lessons from his own classroom. One of the most important--and the one that has appealed to me ever since I began reading Esquith--is that he doesn't teach content, he teaches people.

Every day, teachers contend with a myriad of forces working to keep them from doing their job well. There are the professors and their books, politicians and their misguided reforms, difficult or absent parents, obstinate colleagues, children who live in poverty and come to school hungry, outdated materials, ramshackle buildings, funding cuts, and shifting government standards; there is work that needs to be graded, lessons that must be planned and revised, calls to make and emails to send, reports to file, meetings to attend, and so on. Lost in this shuffle are the students, who deserve nothing more than the best we have to offer but more often than not must deal with frustrated, distracted, or downright exhausted teachers. Esquith's plea is to not just for teachers to prioritize within their own buildings but to prioritize students over the subject they're learning. Even though Esquith works twelve-hour days, weekends, and over summer, almost all of that time is spent on student learning. And even though he is still beholden to the same standards and benchmarks as every other teacher, he makes sure that everything he teaches has a lesson behind it that goes beyond data and standardized tests. The time he has with his students is precious, and he doesn't just want them to be good students by the end of the year--he wants them to be good people.

In Real Talk for Real Teachers, Esquith covers a lot of the same ground he tread in his three previous books, only now the lessons are clearer, distilled for his readers, and he includes many more personal stories to support his beliefs about education and teaching. Which is perfectly fine because, as all teachers know, it sometimes helps to repeat a lesson over and over again for its knowledge to become permanent. Sometimes, as teachers struggle with all of the extraneous distractions and frustrating roadblocks, it's good to know there's a resource written by someone who has experienced the same and found a balance that doesn't take away from his time with students. And it's also good to know that, despite the maelstrom of voices telling us that teachers are not measuring up to a constantly changing set of standards, there are those who understand the real standards we should have for not only our students but ourselves. In Esquith's classroom, learning the content is important but ultimately secondary; learning to understand one's self and the world around us is the primary lesson, and it's the goal every teacher should have--to make their lessons relevant, relatable, and personal.

It's because of Rafe Esquith that, two years ago, I tacked a single, three-letter message to myself to the wall behind my desk. In 72-point font, against a bare white background, is the word "Why?" Every morning, as I settle in and prepare for the day, that question hangs just above my head--a reminder that, if I don't have a reason for teaching something, I shouldn't be teaching it at all. Following that message has been difficult--after all, what's meaningful and profound to me can be dull and pointless to someone else--but it's perhaps the  most important word in all of education today. If we don't have a good answer to that question, then we are doomed.

*Unfortunately, this practice doesn't end with graduation. In the last month alone, I was introduced to yet another one of these books, this one titled Implementing the Framework for Teaching in Enhancing Professional Practice, which weighed about a pound and a half. It was being passed around the table at a conference, and I didn't even open it. Good money says I'll never have to, either.

**For example, I was a standout in high-school English, took every undergraduate English course I could fit into my college schedule, enjoy reading and writing in my free time, and have taught 9-12 English for 4 years...and in all that time, I've never once needed to know the different kinds of pronouns and adverbs. And if someone who spends their life neck-deep in the English language doesn't need to know them, why should a 15 year-old? I'd rather read John Steinbeck--at least he can teach us something useful.

***I'm alluding to Michelle Rhee, who trained to be a teacher for only five weeks, taught in an actual classroom for only three years, and has since spent the last decade telling everyone else what makes good teachers. She did much of her sermonizing, by the way, while overseeing a school district that was later accused of fudging its test scores to look better. Go figure.