Sunday, November 08, 2009

Ted Sizer and Excellent Schools

John Merrow has a nice tribute to the late Ted Sizer on the Learning Matters site.

It just so happened that I was listening to a podcast featuring an interview with Sizer lat week while raking the yard. Here are some of the highlights.

Merrow has a theory that he has been asking teachers, administrators, politicians, and other education experts about. He posits that America has three finds of schools. Excellent ones. Terrible ones. And the ones that make up the majority of schools in the country, those that are ‘good enough,’ which, of course, is not good enough at all. Most parents would say that their child’s school is good enough, but they really have no idea what that means. This Merrow attributes as to why American has fallen behind other countries in math and science, why reports such as “A Nation at Risk” and the more recent “A Democracy at Risk” have warned about “the rising tide of mediocrity in American high schools,” and why many businesses and industries are dissatisfied with the finished product that we turn out to them.

When Merrow asked Sizer about this, Sizer mentioned a few key things he looks for in an excellent school – and he also agreed with Merrow that the majority of American public schools are barely good enough. The thing Sizer looks for first are small class sizes, time student actually spend in class working, and constant scrutiny of student work.

If you have to get to know 30-60 students, you’ve got a shot, Sizer added. If you have to get to know 120 students, then you’re in the crowd control business. It’s hard to do real intellectual work – and foster the supportive environment necessary to thrive – when you have a building full of strangers.

Plus, it’s awfully daunting to get a meaningful discussion going among 35 students, especially given the fact that many schools cram students into a nine period day (thank goodness for our block schedule!). Engagement is rare in such a setting.

Constant scrutiny of student work. Students need feedback. They also need to do serious intellectual work – no worksheets or busy work – and they need to enter into a dialogue with their teachers about that work. Again, that’s hard to do when you only have 45 minutes in class. Or curriculum or teachers who view students as the empty receptacles of knowledge. Lack of discussion and scrutiny of students work is bad, bad, bad.

Again, the main goal of a school should be to focus and develop the intellectual lives of their students. But how often do we lose sight of that? How often do we let insignificant things creep into our classes and rob us of time with the kids (think homecoming or spring quarter)? Now, I know a school must offer students plenty of outside activities and opportunities. Sizer’s point is just to focus on the adjective “outside.”

Sizer goes on to explain that constant scrutiny takes plenty of forms. It could be the kind of scrutiny that seems to dominate my life – reading and scribbling down suggestions and feedback on students’ compositions. But that is just one way. Discussion is another way. In an excellent school, Sizer states, you would find open doors and hear serious discussion of work that the kids had done themselves. No bubble tests or worksheets involved there.

Sizer later said something in the interview that I can’t get out of my head: one aim of schools should be to teach students how to be less sure they have all the answers.

How I love that, for too often we (students, teachers, parents, adults, republicans/democrats) are all too sure we have all the answers. Students come in with a set of preconceived notions and values and beliefs. It must be our job to challenge those. I’m not saying we need to turn them against what they have learned at home. Not at all.

In fact, through questioning one’s values and beliefs, one should get to understand their beliefs in greater depth. Students should be at least able to take an objective look at their beliefs and values and have the ability then to entertain others’ beliefs and values – even if they run counter to their own.

I cannot tell you how refreshing I found that statement. Instantly, I thought of all those wretched persuasive topics I’ve come across over the years and the half-ass logic used to support them – a topic like, “the drinking age should be lowered to 18.” Of course, that would be backed up with this undeniable fact – “if you can die for your country, you should be able to have a beer.”

So often in high school our students are so sure they are right, they don’t even bother to construct a skilled argument defending their beliefs. Or, they simply default to clich├ęs or shallow or routine support of their beliefs.

Teach them to be less sure they are right. I love it.

I recall an interesting discussion a Lit and Lang 11 class of mine had several years ago where we all decided we were a little less sure we were right.

I had read that George Washington had indeed worn those famous wooden dentures, but he had also worn dentures that included real human teeth . . . teeth that were pulled from his slaves.

I asked my class about this. Most were appalled than angry. First, they learned that the cherry tree story was a bunch of bull and now this. I was using this in class as part of the debunking of the American myths that many texts construct around our ‘heros’ – Washington, Columbus, Jefferson, Franklin . . .

I was ready to use this as yet another example of how your heroes are not always as squeaky clean as we like to think (Columbus’ ‘gold dust quotes’ comes to mind, where if natives did not bring enough gold to reach their quota, he had their hands cut off).

I was sure I was right and onto something here. Well, I began to think about this more and turn it over in my mind. There had to be more to it than this, so I did more research.

I soon found a claim that he actually paid his slaves for their teeth.

Well, that did not necessarily make it that much better, but it got the image of a slave being tethered and having someone tear out his teeth with a large pliars out of my mind.

Still, this didn’t sit well with me, so I searched for more information.

Finally, I came upon a site that talked about how it was not uncommon for people – white and black – to actually sell their teeth to the wealthy, who would then use them for dentures.

This made more sense to me – and it was a great example of being less sure I’m right. I began to think about the situation more. Why wouldn’t a lower class person sell their teeth? What were the odds that their teeth wouldn’t rot or fall out because of disease? Why not make some money before they just fell out on their own?

When I brought this to the class, we had an interesting discussion about jumping to conclusions, taking things out of context, and using information to meet various agendas.

We never came to a real conclusion about how we felt about Washington, maybe the person most associated with our great country, and the fact that he had dentures made out of teeth from his slaves.

Would that really change all that he means to this country? Can we even judge him – and other figures form the past - from our current social/political/historical perspective? Does this example allow us to tolerate some of the missteps of our current leaders?

These questions helped us to be less sure that we were right . . . or at least that we had any definitive answers.

Then I turned them loose to try and uncover their own examples of such historical conundrums.

Now just listen to any extreme radio or TV shows and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Is Fox News, for example, ever less sure that they are right? How about our president and his cabinet?

Or, an even easier way to get better at making students less sure they are right is to do what my colleague Mike does so well: play devil’s advocate.

Any of these ways of scrutinizing students’ work and challenging them and motivating them helps engage them. Which, and this is a topic for a forthcoming blog topic, what we all need to do is engage students. For as a recent survey and discussion with my students revealed, they rarely consider themselves engaged in school. In fact, when they wrote about being engaged in school not only did many struggle to think of one example (I argue they should experience this daily in school) but when they did finally think of an example and wrote about it, they often stated that “it didn’t feel like school at all.”

Ouch.

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