Would You Be Happy With This Teacher Or Would You Transfer Out?


Diane Ravitch, that tireless fighter for students and teachers, brought the above video to my attention on her blog. I re-posted it elsewhere, but got some reactions which I had not expected. I’m very curious to hear what you have to say. The high school teacher in the video, Joshua Katz, asks his students to watch the video as their first assignment. What do you think of Mr. Katz? Would you do well in his classroom?

The Way of the Storyteller


A few days ago I came across a used copy of The Way of the Storyteller by Ruth Sawyer. I had never heard of this 1942 publication before, but as I read the first few paragraphs in passing, I was hooked by its old-fashioned sense of wisdom, practicality, and humanity. There was something about reading this book that made me feel that I was in the presence of a true artist, a master teacher, for the message that runs through the book stands undiluted, even after all these years. I went to look up the book on Wikipedia later, and my instinct was confirmed—I was not the only one so captured by the book. It turns out that The Way of the Storyteller is an enormously influential book in the field, and Ruth Sawyer is the patron saint of storytelling.

The storytelling that Sawyer is talking about here is mainly the storyteller of the oral tradition. And though there has been a resurgence of the modern day griot in some quarters recently, this book from 75 years ago reminds us of just what an integral part of everyday life oral storytelling used to be, intimately woven into the social and educational fabric of the day. Sawyer talks about her storytelling in elementary schools, libraries, reform schools, and prisons all across the country. She talks also about the restorative power of folk tales, and how by telling the myths and folk tales of a culture, one generation raises another.

Sawyer takes her art very seriously and has the aura of a tough taskmaster with no time for foolishness. She warns would-be storytellers that there are no shortcuts available and that telling stories requires lots of hard work. The tale must be chosen with the audience in mind, and the storyteller must be absolutely familiar with the folk tradition of the tale, she warns, otherwise there is no chance of getting to the heart of the story.

And the heart of the story is what is always important. She never lets go of that. She believes deeply in the need for, and nourishment of, folk stories for all children. She believes that if children are told such stories when they are younger, that then they can learn to be full adults. But, she warns, the stories are not for the sake of teaching lessons or morals, but for the sake of imagination, for the sake of inner freedom, for the sake of the sacred bond formed between storyteller and listener.

When I read such a unapologetic humanistic view of education and art, it makes me sad and happy at the same time. Sad, because when I look at the educational system at this point in the US, it is so far from what Ruth Sawyer envisioned. She doesn’t talk about “achievement” or “college readiness” or “testing” or “assessment.” Instead, she talks about how to lead children through delight onward to wisdom by telling stories. On the other hand, I am happy to have stumbled across this classic, because the knowledge that in all times and in all countries there have always been those who have championed the message of true relation, communication, and the importance of art, gives courage and permission for one to be courageous as well. There’s so much nonsense all around us that it’s a blessing to hear from someone who reminds us what it’s all about.

It’s a flashlight beam cutting through the dark, illuminating a pathway. This is a classic book with classic wisdom.

On Why We Should *Not* Suffer For Our Art


“Do we need to suffer in order to make great art?”

This question was asked the other day. A student actor was disturbed about being in an acting class where the teacher was abusive. The teacher’s theory was that one needs to “break down the students” before they can learn how to be artists. This is not an uncommon theory among acting teachers. I suspect it is pervasive in other forms of art education as well—dance, music, studio art. The theory further posits that one must be hardened to the sufferings of the soul a life of art will inevitably entail.

Please, please, please, let’s dispel a few destructive, though popular myths.

Most artists suffer whether we want to or not. It’s a tough life. No use making it tougher. Certainly, it’s no use putting ourselves in a position where we will be abused by others. So one more time, life for an artist has enough suffering all ready built into it. Don’t be afraid that suffering will pass you by unless you actively put yourself into a miserable situation. You don’t need to seek it out. You’ll have your share of suffering, I promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, no need to worry on that score. So don’t allow yourself to be abused in order to experience “suffering.” Not by “teachers,” yourself, or anyone else. There are plenty of great teachers out there who are not abusive.

Is suffering good for art? Well, living is good for art, and so in that sense, we need to know what suffering is. But to dwell there? Then there will be so much else that you are not allowing yourself to feel. It’s giving yourself permission to lead an emotionally constricted life, experiencing the same suffering feeling over and over again.

Look at what Stanislavsky has to say about tension in An Actor Prepares. You can’t have a free body and voice while you’re lifting a piano. He says the very first prerequisite for effective acting is relaxation. Likewise, if you’re living with all kinds of tension and emotional anguish, you cannot give yourself with full availability to the material. Even if the material is about an emotionally suffering person, you must be free to express that artistically.  Otherwise, it’s just bad acting.

Stanislavsky talks over and over again about just how tenuous and delicate the thread of the creative state is, and how easily it can be broken. How protective of that thread we must be, exclaims Stanislavsky!

In studying the great actors, one thing always comes through in their work: the great relish they take in their role. Part of what an audience experiences when they watch great acting is the mask slipping ever-so-slightly to where the actor as a human being exists. The audience starts to think not just about the story, but about what a wonderful thing storytelling itself is. The audience members start to think about the malleability of human beings who can show such full empathy for others—human beings who inhabit their characters physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It holds out hope that there is a possibility of being understood by another.

Now an actor should never play that directly, that would just be egotism, but if an actor as a human being is, in fact, living that joy in the profession and the art, then some part of that is communicated to the audience, without the actor indicating it. That is a healing thing for the audience to feel. Art becomes worthwhile, and the audience goes home feeling more human, more connected.

And isn’t that what we are all aiming for?

Testing Tangles


My friend, John Macnab, who has an excellent, thought-provoking education blog, posted some time ago about Timeliness and Grading. I responded with the following comment:

“IMO, there are exactly two reasons to give a test:

1) To sort students.
2) To help students learn more.

I believe reason #1 is the main reason tests (in particular, standardized tests) are given. We know this because for most standardized tests, teachers and students get no feedback at all about what items have been missed and why. Certainly by the time results of any kind are received, the student has moved on to a new teacher.

If the purpose of a test is to learn more, then it needs to be designed as such, and teachers need to treat them as such. Why, then, would there need to be a score? When was the last time your tennis coach gave you a precise grade on your backhand? Would that have helped you play tennis any better?

The same can be said for end of term grades. To my mind, there are two reasons to give end of term grades:

1) To sort students
2) To let the student know what the teacher thinks of the student’s ability over the term.

Again, how is knowing that I’m a 65 student and not a 75 student meaningful in terms of improving my learning? How does it point me in the direction that I need to go in order to improve in the future?

So, basically, the reason for grades is to sort students. Once we acknowledge that, we can then have an honest discussion of whether such sorting is a good thing or a bad thing.”

John wrote another post, in reply, where he offered up the comments of a Canadian educator, Dr. Jacqueline Leighton, defending the use of standardized testing.

I replied as follows:

“I’m afraid, though, that Ms. Leighton’s comments are woefully inadequate and reside somewhere in the realm of fantasy rather than reality.

First she says: “students working with different teachers, and completing different assignments and assessments during the year can end up with the same teacher-awarded grade at the end of the year — say, 85 per cent — but actually possess very different levels of preparedness, learning and mastery.”

But this is exactly true of two students who receive an 85 on a standardized test. In fact we even know *less* about these two students than before–we know *nothing* about their preparation, their consistency, persistence, character, areas of high ability, obstacles faced and obstacles overcome. In short, the student has been erased in favor of some numerical ranking. A ranking that totally obscures precisely the fact that an 85 for one student could means something very different for another. One student knows nothing about logarithms while the other knows nothing about quadratic equations. But they are both 85 students. Standardization means precisely that there will be loss of information about the individual data points we call students.

But more incredible are her assumptions a, b, c, d.

We have many years now (at least in the US) of reality to check against.

a) In fact, tests are very often *not* aligned with classroom practice.

b) In fact, tests are riddled with mistakes and sloppily worded questions. Testmakers are like any other industry and they seek to cut costs. In the US, Pearson is trying to make it a crime to release the questions to their tests, even after the tests are given, because they have *repeatedly* been embarrassed by the terrible quality of the questions. They have tried to force districts to buy computer equipment for the administration of their tests, and then the networks fail citywide and the tests have to be postponed.

c) Technical analyses for internal reliability are silly in a timed, scored test as these are. These are not personality tests. A student may *not* necessarily answer two questions the same, even though they appear to test the same content, if they appear in different contexts within the test. Do different answers mean that the student has not learned the concept? Should the student get no credit, half credit or full credit for that concept?

d) “Test results are constantly monitored so that the test continues to measure the appropriate content and skills in students who have learned the material well and achieved mastery.”
No, in fact experience shows just the opposite–rather than the test being a reflection of classroom practice, the high stakes test *drives* the classroom practice, and forces desperate teachers and students to focus all their energies on adjusting to the educational misconceptions of the test makers. The curriculum becomes dry, classroom time is spent on sussing out the test, and anything that cannot be tested in a standardized way is thrown out the window.

Instead of living only in theory, it’s important to test theory against what actual practice has been. Test makers have put out a call in the US for temps at $12 / hr to score the enormous numbers of standardized tests that are now being given. Yes, a student’s English essay is being scored by a $12/ hr temp–and a bachelor’s degree is not even a necessary requirement.

It’s all crap, and the proof is in the results. Leighton can write as many books as she likes from her ivory tower about quality tests, but we live in a real (capitalist) world, where private companies under a profit motive try to keep up with the (created) demand for their product. There is no quality, and there can be no quality. It’s all lip service. These tests provide zero information about a student that the student’s teacher could not tell you with far more accuracy; and they provide no information about a teacher that a teacher’s principal could not tell you with far more accuracy.”

You can read John’s thoughtful reply, right afterwards, but essentially he says, that in Canada, the tests of which Leighton is talking are teacher created and scored, much like our NY State Regents Exams. I am happy to hear that that is the case and that Testmania has not reached Canada yet. So I owe an apology for my tone and comments about Leighton.

So Canadian readers, I am glad your educational admins are still within the realm of rationality, while we in the US can only shake our heads in disgust at those who pretend to be concerned about education in this country.  If we don’t have a real conversation about what testing is for, I am afraid we will never get the educational system we need and deserve.

Reflections On A Year of Teaching


(At the end of each year, in the urban public high school where I taught mathematics for more than a decade and a half,  we would write our reflections concerning what happened that past year. We always felt stressed out writing these essays, because it came at such a busy time: final papers and tests to grade, graduations to prepare, parents to meet, classrooms to clean; but, in the end, when the entire staff got together in one big circle, and each read his or her reflection to the rest of the staff, it was one of the most powerful, affirming things about the job. When a new principal ended this ritual in the interest of time, I knew the school was headed  downwards . . . Here’s one of those reflections. Looking back, it makes me smile at the guy who took so long to figure out the basics . . .)

 Jack’s Reflection 2003

After several recent rocky years of teaching, including taking a year off because I was so mentally deranged, I’ve come to my best, least stressful, and favorite year of teaching in a career of teaching in many different kinds of situations. I’m not sure I understand why this is. Some of the reasons lie outside of myself and were the result of happy chance: the advisory full of nice warm students, or the classes with the right mix of superstars and struggling but striving students. So, I think I’ve been lucky this year. But I also think there are reasons that lie within me, and perhaps, if I were able to articulate what those reasons are, I can continue to make things better for myself and perhaps pass on some ideas.

Something changed inside me this year: I made a few conscious decisions and a few less conscious decisions, which I have been trying to understand for myself.  I’ll attempt to lay out some of what I think I’ve figured out this year.

First the conscious decisions: I learned from Kathy [my math teaching partner] that 80% of this job, in this school, with this student population, is selling and cheerleading. I used to think this was beneath me, and besides I probably wouldn’t be very good at it. It turns out I’m pretty good at it, and it does make a difference, a huge difference, in student involvement and engagement. When planning a lesson now I spend three quarters of my time asking myself “How am I going to first engage these students in front of me in the lesson of the day? What’s the hook—what can I do to make them want to hear the story I’m about to tell?” At this point in my teaching career I don’t worry much about the rest of the lesson, I’ve been doing this a long time and it comes out automatically. But if I’ve figured out what the grabber is, then the lesson generally goes well.

The second conscious decision I made was to have fun. It became clear to me if I was bored by a lesson, or if I dreaded teaching a lesson then my students must really be bored. So, if I work to entertain myself, I’ll be entertaining the students too and create a better atmosphere in the class.

These two decisions I realize now were a groping to what I now realize is the basic principle that in teaching and learning everything depends on the student and teacher being in the correct relationship with each other in the correct environment. Gordon [our meditation–sitting History teacher] would say this is a Buddhist realization. This environment is the emotional tone of the relationship, and without a correct emotional tone very little is possible. It is the teacher’s job, perhaps the most important part of the job, to help create that tone.

The key to creating this environment is a basic principle that I was not able to verbalize until I listened to Laura [science teacher] at the Christmas party. She told me how her mentor was giving her feed back on her teaching. Her mentor told her a very interesting thing: you’re a very good teacher and have loads of promise, but your problem right now is that you love your subject too much. More specifically, you love your subject more than you love your students.

As soon as Laura said this to me, a bell went off inside me. This is what I was trying to express to myself, this is the understanding that I had been working toward. Love your subject, yes, but love your students more. This brought to mind two things that I had heard around the same time from Keri [a ninth-grade math teacher] and Harry [a ninth-grade English teacher.] Keri said that it was sometimes more important that her students knew she cared about them than that they knew how to find the slope of a line. In fact, it was that knowledge of caring that allowed them to want to find the slope of a line. And then at a different time, Harry said that in some sense our job is to find something to like even in the most unlikeable student.

So it all begins with the personal relationship with the individual student. Even when we get angry with a student we need to reassure them that we like them, that we’re still there for them. I watched Amy [the school social worker] work with some of our toughest students, and was always amazed with the trust with which they would respond to her. And I noticed that even when she had the harshest things to say to a student she always did it with a smile. Now this is because she’s a nice person but this can work even with those of us like me who aren’t so nice. So, now I smile when a kid makes me mad and I learn to pick my battles. It’s just a simple fact: anger is not a very efficient way of maintaining communication with a student. So now I smile and smile. You can get away with anything.

This semester I tried consciously to actively communicate to each student that I am more interested in them as full, interesting, lively human beings than as receptacles for learning my subject. I purposely ask students in my class on the side how they’re doing in their other subjects, and how their parents are doing. In a sense, I’m trying to say to them I see you. At the same time, I think it is important for students to see me too—and I try to show them that there are other sides of myself than just the teacher. It’s important for teenagers to know that you don’t have to give up your individuality to become successful in the world of adult work.

I guess it sounds like I haven’t talked much about actual teaching. I mean what does this all have to do with students learning the quadratic formula? Don’t kids just need to buckle down more and do more work and improve their skills and get smarter? Yes, of course. But what I am suggesting here is that our students are already pretty smart. What’s stopping them from learning is often not an academic issue but a social issue.

Rereading this I realize that this is getting pretty serious and I don’t mean for it to sound like a term paper but I just want to throw out a few more ideas:

1) The most successful people as adults were not necessarily A students in school. Keep this in mind before you get too exasperated with any particular teenager.

2) It helps to have a realistic definition of success and failure in this job: if a student goes from an F to a D, or a D to a C, that’s a success! Congratulations! Because a student didn’t move from an F to an A, doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

3) Students consistently rate the most important quality of a teacher as fairness. Keeping your records straight and giving students frequent feedback as to how they’re doing really helps create trust.

4) For God’s sake, make it interesting for yourself. Use your power in interesting ways.

Teach Your Children Well

A little more than six months ago, I was volunteering at radio station WBAI, and I got into a conversation in the hallway with radio producer Mitchel Cohen about education. He started recording me, and a few hours later, we were still talking. Mitchel brilliantly edited all our talk down into a ten minute interview. He did a great job–I actually sound coherent, and as if I know what I am talking about. It was my first introduction to being on radio:

We talk about charter schools, Teach for America, New York City politicians, educational priorities, and the teaching profession. I think you’ll find it interesting.

Poem: Autumn


Only the unbirded raspberries remain

To be picked by other fingers;

The last egg consoles itself in the refrigerator.

Look, between the two spruces in the yard—

That’s where the blue heron flew.


Unmount the classroom tables

Thirty-two scarred chairs.

Set the purple quartz and hawk’s feather by the

Pencil sharpener. Stuck between the windows,

A pigeon flutters.

Kish Kush

Six oranges; a pocketful of sand; a wall. What might these mean to a person? I went with 25 middle school children to see Kish Kush and find out.

As we entered the theatre space–a square with seating on all four sides–we realized that once seated, because of the three-foot high plastic wall bisecting the space diagonally, we would only be able to see half of the performing space from any particular location. As a natural result, we could see the actions of only one of the two men seated on either side of those walls.

We had only our own point of view, stuck behind a wall.

Isolation. Slowly, slowly, the man becomes aware of something. A sound? From where? Over there? Oh, this is a wall? There’s something on the other side? How could it be? Tentative experiments testing the shadows projected on the wall from the other side. Finally the bold ripping of the wall to reveal: The Other.

Tall and short. Mutt and Jeff. Abbott and Costello. Vladimir and Estragon.

Circling. Who is this Me-Not-Me? Sound. Then the Tower of Babel. One man is speaking English, the other some mix of Hebrew-Arabic. They are attracted and repelled by each other. They see each other’s possessions which they envy and covet. However, they also know if they are to survive with one another in this wall-less universe they must find some way of communicating.

Kish Kush is the creation of two actors from Italy, Daniel Gol and Alessandro Nosetti who call themselves Teatrodistinto. They have been performing this piece all over the world in many languages for over six years. One actor always speaks the language of the locality where they are performing, while the other always speaks a gibberish mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.

The actors play with humor and specificity, enchanting a roomful of young students and myself. When the wall came down in the middle of the 60-minute piece, members of the audience were able to look across the actors’ space so that we could see each other, and so, ourselves. Delight, whoops of laughter, understanding. Two artists engage and the children engage.

It is Samuel Beckett for children, only this time Didi and Gogo, perhaps, have some hope. Godot does not come, but they have found each other. The students later talk of miscommunication, love, difference, oranges, language. I think of Marx, Gaza, imperialism, Plato, loneliness.

Spoiler: the characters do not hang themselves. They do not sit waiting. They pull out crayons. They draw together, filling the empty space with color and connection.