Monday, February 17, 2014

Progressive Faith

in which our narrator considers the curiously broad appeal of John Dewey

The Secret Life of Teaching, #5

By Horace Dewey -- no (biological) relation

I write five words on the whiteboard five times, each time underlining a different word:

All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.

            “So, kids, are any of these statements true?” I ask, turning around to face the class. “I mean, what a crock of bull, right? How could Jefferson—himself a slave owner—possibly be serious?" 
A few wry smiles. Some of them have apparently asked themselves this question before. 
I love that line!" Vanessa Thompson, ever the contrarian in her vintage Sex Pistols t-shirt. But she’s been too busy chatting with Janey Orlov to be much of a presence today. 
            “Doesn’t matter whether they believe it," says Eduardo Salinas. "It’s propaganda. 
I try to mask my surprise. This is the first time I’ve heard from Eduardo all year. I want to kindle the flame without smothering him.
“You think they’re lying?
            “Dunno,” he replies. “Maybe. 
“You called this ‘propaganda.’ What do you mean by that? 
            “I mean they’re trying to persuade people. 
Can propaganda be true? 
“I guess.”
“Do you think they were trying to persuade themselves?”
 Eduardo shrugs. I can’t tell if he’s expressing skepticism or a desire to be let off the hook. 
“I think they did believe it,” Zoe Leoni says without raising her hand. “I mean, you kind of have to believe it if you’re going to stick your neck out like that."
“You say 'they. Do 'they' all think the same way? 
“No, probably not. But I don’t think they really have any choice. They’re desperate, right? Didn’t you say yesterday that there’s like this big invasion the British are planning?”
“Right. They’ve already landed on Long Island. They’re headed for Manhattan even as the Declaration of Independence is being written.”
 “So of course they’re going to talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So it sounds like they’re the good guys. 
“But how do they think they can get away with it?”
            “It was a bunch of rich white guys who wanted other people to help them,” Derek Simonson, who sits next to Eduardo, blurts out with an edge of impatience in his voice. Wonder of wonders: two silent types in one day. 
“I think you’re absolutely right,” I say, more eager to encourage him than to pursue the angle of ideological difference between the revolutionaries. “A big part of the Declaration was designed to attract foreign support, especially the French. But here’s what I wonder, Derek: Is this really the best language to use in order to do something like this? Let’s assume you’re right: these guys are essentially a bunch of frauds, and that people then could see through them then just like you are now. I'm reminded of the famous writer Samuel Johnson’s response to the colonists: ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps of liberty from the drivers of negroes?’ So how is a lot of talk of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really going to convince anybody?”
Jiian Cheng raises his hand, and I acknowledge him. "I don’t think they really have any choice. I mean, you gotta start somewhere.”
Laura Lynn wants to weigh in and I nod to her. “Jiian’s right. It’s an important first step.”
“A step towards what?”
“Freedom. Independence. All that stuff.”
“Well, OK.” I point at the whiteboard. “But this says ‘all men are created equal.’”
She hesitates. Then: “Yeah, that too.”
“So freedom and equality go together? How does this work—first we get the freedom, then we do equality?”
She’s lost. “Yeah, kinda.”
I shift my gaze from Laura and make a puzzled expression to the class generally.  “I don’t get it, kids. What does freedom have to do with equality? Are they the same thing?” 
What I regard as a fruitful line of discussion is disrupted by Wilhelmina (a.k.a. Willie) Sperry, who has already emerged as one of my favorite kids, maybe of all time. I often see Willie walking the hallways, hunched over a backpack that looks like it’s crushing her and bearing a grim expression in marked contrast to the animated child who’s most fully alive in the classroom. In other words, a girl after my own heart. Not pretty, really—red-haired, flat-chested and a little scrawny, Willie’s warm personality has always made her appealing, at least to adults and what seems to be a small circle of friends. But will the boys see it? (Maybe it won’t matter; maybe she’s gay.) Willie, who has been silently following this conversation with her usual intensity, chooses this moment to raise her hand. But I’m disappointed that she seems to be taking us way off course.   “They’re hypocrites,” she says. “The King simply has to go after them. If they’re allowed to get away with this, it would set a bad example. They have insulted him . . . . 
I begin to lose track of what Willie is saying. For one thing, it seems tangential: what does the King have to do with what we’ve been talking about? For another, I realize I’m hungry. And yet I marvel at how fully immersed she is in this discourse. Even Janey Orlov has noticed. Not approvingly.
I cut her off. “I’m not sure we need to shed any tears for George III, Willie. If there’s anyone in the world who can brush off some punk critics, surely it’s him. But I tell you who I am worried about,” I say, pausing for effect. “The King of Spain.” I put my hand on my chin, and narrow my eyes. "I mean, here’s a guy who’s going to be losing sleep at night." 
"Who is the King of Spain?" Willie asks, genuinely curious.
I dunno," I reply, not changing my expression. "Carlos the twenty-something. They were all called Carlos back then." The class breaks into laughter.
"See, here’s the problem,” I say when it subsides. There’s nothing old Carlos would like more than to stick it to Britain. He wants it so badly he can almost taste it. The problem is that if he and his Bourbon cousin Louis XVI enter an American war against Britain on the side of a group of rebels who have issued this revolutionary manifesto, then his own subjects in places like Mexico and Peru might actually begin to take some of the nonsense in that manifesto seriously. And that would be a real mess.” 
“So what does he do?" This from Vanessa, who’s back among us. My, my: I am on a roll today. 
“Well, ultimately, he takes the plunge—he joins France and declares war on Britain. And his fears prove justified, because even though he gets some real estate out the deal, within a generation all hell breaks loose in Central and South America. Eventually, the Mexicos and Perus of the world declare their own independence. The King of France, who tended not to worry as much, ends up literally losing his head in the name of abstract ideals like freedom and equality—which, I’ll point out in passing, we’re still lumping together as if they’re two sides of the same coin. We can’t blame all of this on the Declaration of Independence, of course. But it certainly didn’t help matters if you’re the King of Spain." 
            “Which,” I continue, after a pause, “is another way of saying that you’re right, Eduardo and Derek. The Declaration of Independence was a piece of propaganda by a bunch of rich white guys who were desperate enough to say whatever they thought might help them at that particular moment. The problem is that in so doing they let a genie out of a bottle, because some people, despite much evidence to the contrary, actually began to believe what the Declaration said—or, maybe more accurately, they acted as if they believed what the Declaration said. ‘Acted,’ in the sense that they pretended, and ‘acted’ also in the sense that they ended up doing things that they otherwise might not have done had there been no Declaration of Independence. That genie ended up doing a whole lot of mischief all over the world. 
“Still does,” says Willie with a smile.
“You think so?”
“Yes.” Willie is firm. So smart, so innocent. Eduardo is packing up his books: my signal that my time is up. Derek is looking, inscrutably, at Willie. Oh, dear girl.
“You think so too, Zoe? You think Willie is right?”
She nods.
“Well, then, I guess we’ve figured this all out. See you tomorrow.”

* * *

People of all temperaments and ideological persuasions become teachers, but the nature of the job as it’s currently constituted makes them instinctive progressives. I should add that I’m using the term in multiple senses, some of which I am avowedly skeptical. But their valences are powerful and should be recognized, even if they’re not dominant in the U.S. education system in particular or American society generally.
In its most specific educational formulation, the word “progressive” refers to a pedagogical philosophy that took root in the late nineteenth century and has in various iterations persisted to this day. Its patron saint is John Dewey. Central to Dewey’s vision was an emphasis on process (discussion) over product (test scores); subjective experience over objective truth; learning by doing rather than having information delivered. As a movement, progressive education in this country probably peaked in the 1930s, and has largely persisted as an alternative educational subculture in the decades since.
That said, important elements of the progressive ethos have long been absorbed as common sense even in schools that consider themselves traditional. Such schools may emphasize traditional values, basic skills, and mastery of content (and relentless testing). But they will hardly disparage—indeed, they will likely explicitly uphold—critical thinking, diversity of thought and experience, and pragmatic problem solving, all of which are hallmarks of progressive education. Virtually no educators will assert the primacy or necessity of lecturing as the best or only means of delivering instruction, even when teacher-centered information delivery is the primary approach. Ironically, one of the major problems for the contemporary progressive education movement as a movement is that many of its core ideas are now taken for granted, even when they conflict with others. So it is that parents and educators insist on growth and rigor, or diversity and continuity, whether or not they’re simultaneously achievable.
The second way teachers tend to be progressive is more generally political. In school systems of all sizes, where different constituencies jockey for maximum room to maneuver, teachers are the inheritors of the Progressive tradition—note the capital “P” to distinguish indicate the movement in electoral politics that spanned roughly from 1900 to 1920. It’s important to note, however, that there was a curious bifurcation in the Progressive movement that it never entirely resolved. On of the one hand, early Progressives were locally based, experimental, and highly empirical in their approach to social reform (not just in schools, but also business regulation, municipal services, and electoral reform, among other initiatives). They were very much bottom-up. On the other hand, Progressives were also—and this became increasingly apparent as the movement gained momentum in the second decade of the twentieth century, when it dominated that nation’s political life in both major parties—great centralizers of power, as long as it was concentrated in the hands of independent experts who acted in the name of the common good. If the settlement house worker Jane Addams personified the first strand of Progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt was the epitome of the second. By the time of Roosevelt’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, however, there were growing questions about whether experts really could be trusted to act on the common good—Wilson, who held a Ph.D. in political science, was notoriously high-handed in his foreign policy, for example—and whether they really knew as much as they thought they did. Though Progressives and their contemporary heirs have always thought of themselves of champions of The People, their skeptics have always regarded them, not without reason, as elitists insufferably blind to their own arrogance.
Whether or not they identify as latter day inheritors of the old Progressive tradition, most teachers in their day-to-day lives embrace the Progressivism of the localized Jane Addams variety. In contrast to administrators or politicians who want to impose their ideas for reform from the top down, they see themselves working with the facts on the ground: particular children responding to specific circumstances that may or may not correspond to a reform template. To at least some extent, this is a matter of self-interest: workers in many occupations tend to insist on the necessity of discretion in performing their jobs well. But teachers aren’t the only ones who make this case for their roles in the classroom; a long tradition of reformers, some of them in positions of administrative authority, have embraced the principle of teacher autonomy, even if this has always been a minority view in policymaking circles.
The third and most decisive way in which teachers tend to be progressive is what might be termed temperamental. In a literal sense, to be a progressive is to believe in progress, and anyone who’s in the business of educating children that does not believe in progress is probably in the wrong line of work. In this realm, too, the word has multiple meanings.
The most fundamental, of course, is at the level of the individual child. Teachers must act as if—and at least try to believe that—every student is capable of improving. This uniform principle gets affirmed in highly variable ways. A good teacher will assess where a student is and identify an attainable goal, and in a good teacher’s assessment of student work, the distance that student has traveled will matter at least as much as the objective quality of the work. The essence of fairness in this context means taking differences into account, of honoring the struggle more than the effortlessly achieved excellence.  This is an admittedly tricky matter, inherently subjective in nature. But it’s a standard worth pursuing. The fact of the matter is that virtually all students do make progress, variously understood, over the course of their academic careers. The school or instructional climate will never entirely account for it, though such factors (among them a child’s teacher) really can matter.
This progressive principle also applies to the craft of teaching itself. As anyone who’s done it for any length of time will agree, you get better at as you go along. Improvement can take the form of formal professional development, acquiring more knowledge from casual reading, or simply mastering a curriculum by repeatedly teaching it. There is certainly something to be said for the vitality of a new teacher, whose receptiveness to experience and willingness to shoulder often onerous demands (like teaching unfamiliar material) should not be underestimated as a source of institutional vitality. And there’s no question that that dead wood—which is to say teachers who have given up trying to grow—is a problem at virtually every school. But the seasoned veteran teacher is an asset any successful school will have in abundance.
The most profound way in which teachers are temperamentally progressive is generational: they believe in the future, a faith grounded in their engagement with the children who will take their place as adults. Strictly speaking, a desire and ability to work with young people doesn’t necessarily mean you think the future will be better than the past. (I don’t, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.) But unless you’re animated by some sense of hope about tomorrow, teaching becomes an exercise in grim fatalism, no doubt a contributing factor in dead wood syndrome.
Perhaps more than teachers elsewhere, American teachers have a particular attachment to seeing their work as part of a larger drama in the progress of U.S. society. For much of the nineteenth century, the dominant strain of historical interpretation in Great Britain and the United States was the so-called Whig school, which emphasized the degree to which history was a story of progress—moral no less than scientific—embodied in the White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant politicians who emphasized the importance of liberty (notably the liberty of American colonists in their revolutionary struggle for independence, whose supporters in England were known as Whigs).  The Whig interpretation of history fell out of favor around the time of the First World War—events in the first half of the twentieth century discredited confident assumptions of progress—and are regarded as racist today. But the notion that American life has been one of gradual improvement remains an article of faith that continues to animate everyday life inside as well as outside of classrooms.
You can see this progressive sensibility in just about any U.S. history textbook. If the Whig school cast its notion of progress in terms of white supremacy, these books instead depict a slow, irregular, but unmistakable march toward pluralistic egalitarianism. Particularly in the early going, these books have a demographic emphasis. We’re introduced to groups of people of African, European, and Native American origin, and the divisions and interplay between them.  However subjugated they are at the hands of imperial Europeans, those shut out of power manage to maintain their dignity and their hope in the face of considerable adversity. Though they experience tragedy, even catastrophe, they manage collectively to live another day. They’ll have their postcolonial moment, just like the United States has. History is destiny—of a hopeful kind. It’s what we think students need.
But—and this was the point of that opening anecdote—this progressive version of U.S. history is not something I tell them. This is something they tell me. It’s a logic they’ve absorbed into their bones long before they reach me. I’ve done this “all men are created equal” exercise a bunch of times, and it always goes pretty much the same way. I’ll usually get a student or two who says it really is nonsense. But inevitably one or two students will come forward and say that such a judgment is too harsh. I press them to explain, they may or may not flail in their attempt to do so, and a classmate or two (or three) will jump in. The gist of their riposte will be, in effect, that the Declaration of Independence was a kind of first draft of progressive history. First the white men were created equal. Then we remembered the ladies. Then the slaves got freed. And so on through gay marriage. That’s our history. It may short on facts. But it’s long on vision—which, let’s face it, is the most you can really hope for in a history course.
My problem is I’m not sure I really believe it. Yes: it is possible, desirable—right—to think of events like the ending of slavery, suffrage for women, the egalitarian achievements of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement(s) as constituting an upward moral as well as material trajectory in American history. But if we stipulate that—and we put aside social hydraulics that seem to suggest gains for some people always seems to mean losses for others (e.g. the decline of economic equality that has accompanied racial equality in the last four decades)—progress is not a permanent state. Republics and empires come and go: that seems to be the iron law of history. The arc of history is long, but it is an arc: what goes up must come down.
Unfortunately, this is not something I’m experiencing as an abstract proposition. Virtually every sentient American in the early 21st century is uncomfortably aware of a discourse of decline in our national life, particularly in the economic and political realm. Though (shockingly for anyone over 30), events like 9/11, the Iraq War and the financial crisis of 2008 are distant events for today’s students, all have grown up in homes where recent history casts long shadows. For some students, they loom large in their overall perception of American history; for others they don’t, either because they haven’t fully absorbed their impact or because they imagine them as developments that are not really part of the historical record. Mostly, I think, reconciling recent events with their progressive vision of history is a matter of living with cognitive dissonance in the form of cultural lag that’s quite common to people in all times and places.
I don’t directly challenge the historical progressivism of my students, other than to note at some point in the school year that visions of history come in many shapes: circles, spirals, straight lines, and inclines (I usually draw them for the visual learners).  I don’t particularly want to evangelize my fatalism, partially because my instinctive skepticism makes me question my own certitude—events rarely happen in the way or at the pace we predict. But even if I did have certainty, I wouldn’t push it on them, because I can’t see how it would do them any good. I don’t want to puncture their confidence. Instead, I hope to sharpen their understanding—here’s where the facts and information come in, because they can help a good student get a particular version of the story straight—and send them on their way. In this regard, I really am a progressive educator in that first pedagogical way I talked about, the heir of a movement that emphasizes the plasticity of knowledge and the need for children to construct their own working models about the way the world works, but to do so in a social context where they are interacting with others.
And yet—and this is something I struggled with as a form of cognitive dissonance in my own life—I am not a progressive in the broadest, most historical, sense of the term. There are days when I feel like I’m leading lambs to the slaughter, when I am fostering habits of thoughts and behavior that will be singularly unhelpful in a coming world that will not be like the one in which we are living. Sometimes I imagine that future world as one of chaos; other times it’s one of stifling autocratic order. Either way, I imagine former students bitterly recalling the irrelevance, or worse, of what they learned in school.
So what keeps me going? My salvation is my ignorance: I don’t know, I can’t know, what will happen in the future. Call me an existentialist progressive: I labor in the faith—in the end, that’s all it is—that something I do, something I say, something I ask my students to read, will have some utility in their later lives. Some sliver that will be transubstantiated into an act of leadership—or, more simply, some act of decency—that will bring good into the lives of that student and the broader community in which that student lives. That’s not much to count on, I know. But sometimes it’s the counting that’s the problem.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Weather or not

in which we gauge the political climate of homework
The Secret Life of Teaching, #4
By Horace Dewey
The following piece has been published on the home page of the HNN website.

The phone on my desk is ringing when I arrive in my office at 8:17 a.m. on the Thursday morning in the week before winter break, though with the temperature stuck in the thirties, Spring feels like an eternity away. I pick up the receiver—how much longer is there going to be a phone on my desk?—while simultaneously trying to slip out of my coat. I’m tempted not to answer it.
"Mr. Dewey?"
"I'm so glad to reached you. This is Ruth, Jason's mom? We met at the basketball game a couple weeks ago."
"Yes of course. How are you?" In my mind I see nothing, no name, no face. But Jason—Jason Thompson—will be enough to work with. I drape my coat over my desk chair, pull my laptop out of my briefcase, and power it up.
"Well, I've been better,” she’s saying. “I'm calling about the History Day project. As you know, Jason's working with Tom Schlacter."
"Yes.” I sort of do know that. I’ve got a hard copy of the master list somewhere in my inbox. I begin to rustle through it.
"A thoroughly depressing subject, if you ask me." Now I remember: They're doing the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Originally, they wanted to do World War II. I told them the subject was too broad. They've narrowed it down to the bomb, and are working on a PowerPoint (the first refuge of scoundrels). The first draft I saw was not too promising. Big slabs of text, relatively weak in conceptual organization. Technical glitches. Normally, one or both of them will be working with Joey Rizzo. But Joey has grand plans for a tabletop reenactment of Pickett's Charge that he says he's been working on since July with Roy Shimkin. Ominously, I’ve seen nothing new on Jason and Tom's project since they handed in their notably sketchy first draft last week, only an email with a string of questions that could have been answered if they’d actually studied the assignment’s parameters.
Then I realize that I've not been paying close attention to Ruth, who has been explaining the series of obstacles Jason and Tom have encountered. "It doesn't help matters any that Tom lives so far downtown. He never wants to come to our place. Did you know that they spent all night working on this Saturday?"
Given the taciturnity of both of these boys, I'm tempted to ask how I would know that, but bite my tongue. I also imagine an empty pizza box, a Madden NFL game on a laptop, and vintage Ludacris blaring from a set of speakers. Still, I feel a twinge of unease. Truth is, the History Day Project has long been a sore point among some administrators and colleagues, who think it asks too much of the kids at a difficult time of year. We have revisited the subject from time to time as a department, and concluded that the pluses outweigh the minuses. For grading purposes we like to have a substantial grade-wide assessment at the end of the quarter, and see bona fide value in a group undertaking in which students get to choose their topic and work on it in a planned sequence of stages. And some of the final results are truly extraordinary. Alas, that's not going to be the case here. 
"I'm sorry to hear that,” I say soothingly about the all-nighter. “I know that this is a difficult undertaking. That's why I always emphasize at the start of the project that students need to think carefully about with whom they're going to work and to emphasize that the quality of their collaboration is an important dimension of what this is all about. I also emphasize that they stand or fall together, and that if one kid coasts and another kid does all the work, that itself can be a valuable lesson."
"Well, I'm not sure I agree with you about that,” she says. “Don't get me wrong— I'm not saying that Jason has handled this perfectly. He can be lazy. But I knew as soon as I heard that he was can be working with Tom were going to be problems. Tom is a nice kid, but I don’t think he’s capable of pulling his weight, intellectually or otherwise.”
Not a kind assessment, but not an inaccurate one, either. I click on my browser, go to my bookmarks, and choose the weather page. I see something about an approaching storm.
"What I don't understand," she continues, "is the timing of this project. Why does it have to be just before the break? We're leaving for St. Bart's tomorrow morning. We’ve planned this trip for months, and I'm pulling the kids out of school tomorrow to get an early start.”
I click on the WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY link. Snow to begin late this afternoon; six to ten inches by morning. Fine by me: I’m not going anywhere.
"Well,” I respond, “the deadline for this project is something my department periodically reviews. But we've learned from experience that it makes more sense to have the project due before the break so that really we clear the decks for kids to have a real vacation. Nobody likes to have a big assignment hanging over their heads going into a stretch of time off." Actually, I have traditionally had this assignment due a week before the break, but watching my own son scramble to complete it (a documentary about strategic bombing -- the boys always seem to go for war) has led me to conclude that a little more time really does make a difference. He kept me out of the loop on that one, I’m happy to say. His partner’s dad was a documentary filmmaker, so that's where they got most of their help.
Ruth is pressing the point: "I've got to tell you, an assignment like this really wreaks havoc on family life."
"Again, I'm sorry to hear that. Is there something you'd like me to do? Would you like me to talk with the boys?”
“That would be good," she says. "But what would really help is giving them more time. I don't think these two really understood what they’ve gotten themselves into. The geographic factor has really proven to be a major complication, and coming up with good times to collaborate has been a major, major problem. At my urging, they made plans to meet after school today—Tom is going to skip practice and come over—and my hope is that they’ll forge a game plan to finish it. I think Jason will have lots of down time between connecting flights and will be able to work while we’re on the plane. They can communicate by email or instant messaging or whatever. Do you think you could give them another day or two?"
I can't resist a smile. Normally, I'd be in a position I really hate: having to say no. To accede to this request would not only precipitate an avalanche of similar ones—the word would be on the street almost immediately—but get me into trouble with my colleagues, as we've all sworn a blood oath to hold the line in the face of these pressures. I realize I'm taking a chance here, but if my bluff gets called, I can say I was certain, however mistakenly, that there was going to be a snow day, rendering the deadline moot.
"Well, I don't like to do this, but understand extenuating factors in this particular situation. So I'll allow Jason and Tom a little more time to finish this up. As long as I have it we get back from break, there should be no harm done."
"I really appreciate that. I want you to know that Jason loves your class.”
Yeah, right. "Thank you. I enjoy working with him."
"The best part of this," she tells me, adopting a confiding, even conspiratorial, tone, "is that Jason will be spending the second week of the break with his father. For once in his life, the man will actually have to pay attention to his son's needs. Can't wait to see that.”
"Glad to be of service," I say with a chuckle. And though I don't know why, I mean it. Though she's given me little reason to think so, I suspect her grievance with her ex, whoever he is, may well be legitimate. "Have a good trip, Ruth."
“Thank you, Mr. Dewey.”
 “Please call me Horace.” But she’s already hung up.
Turned out to be more like a foot. But they got out in time. Jason came back with an enviable tan.

* * *

There are multiple frictions in the triangular relationship between parent, teacher, and student, ranging from grades to school budgets. But on a day-to-day basis, the most pervasive, if evanescent, is homework.  It’s a subject on which each party feels ambivalence. Students typically say they hate homework, but it’s often the source of their most substantial achievements. Teachers feel they need homework to make class time more productive, but assigning it usually means more grading. Parents want to feel their children are learning, but worry about the demands on their time and the way homework can sometimes interfere with extra-curricular and/or family activities. (Having been involuntarily been drawn into my own children’s projects, sometimes as a matter of the specific mandate of teachers, I can sympathize with this exasperation.)
Of these three constituencies, it’s teachers who are the most stalwart champions of homework. Mastery of anything is always to some degree a matter of a willingness to invest—and a willingness to waste—time in the pursuit of long-term gain. This is a truth that students experience in realms ranging from sports to computer games. Not all students are eager to make such an investment in Spanish or chemistry, but they certainly can understand why their parents and teachers want that for them.
Which is not to say that homework is always assigned thoughtfully or usefully by teachers. Inexperienced or lazy ones will sometimes use homework as a crutch to compensate for failures to use class time efficiently. Or they will assign homework that has no clear relationship to the material being covered in class. Or assign it without assessing it in a timely way—or at all, an omission that breeds resentment and fosters corrosive corner-cutting by students.
Even if one assumes that every teacher is thoughtful about the way homework is deployed, the fact that any middle- or high school student will be taking up to a half-dozen subjects at a time creates significant stress in even the best-organized student’s life. It’s not unusual in some school districts for students to routinely have over three hours of homework a night, a particularly daunting prospect for a kid in a play or on a team who returns from school on a late bus, has dinner, and gets to work circa 7:30 p.m., twelve or more hours after the day has begun. While schools often have circuit breakers of various kinds in place for this kind of problem (no homework over weekends or holiday breaks, make-up provisions for students saddled with multiple assessments on the same day, et. al.), they’re such complicated organisms with so many moving parts that it’s virtually impossible to craft an even work flow for any given kid. Even if this was possible from an academic standpoint, the discretionary choices students make—clubs, theater, sports—and their varying ability to juggle such balls, complicate any attempt to create a truly level playing field. Under the circumstances, teachers can not only plausibly say they can’t know what else their students are doing, but also that they shouldn’t allow such knowledge to become a consideration, lest their particular enterprise be crippled altogether.
It’s for reasons like these that education reformers like Alfie Kohn argue for the elimination of homework entirely. Such arguments get additional support when one considers how little a role homework plays in leading educational powers like Finland. And how much of role it plays in others like South Korea, where saddling students with extra work has become an arms race of sorts generating so much misery and alarm that the government has resorted to police raids on tutoring classes that run beyond the state-mandated curfew of 10 p.m.
Perhaps predictably, I will state that I’m a homework partisan. I try to be intelligent and efficient about it. Even more than work undertaken during class time, students should have a clear understanding about how what they’re being asked to do fits into a larger curricular schema or prepares them for an upcoming assessment. Homework should be relatively modest in scope—the rule at my school is an average of 45 minutes a night—and ideally give students some leeway in the timing as to when they complete it, as in an assignment given on Monday but not actually due until later in the week.
There are two core tasks that homework is good for—that homework is uniquely good for. Both are alike in that they demand a measure of concentration and reflection difficult to come by during the school day. The process of education is inherently social; while home schooling has its partisans and may be necessary for any number of reasons, children learn best in school because interacting with peers on multiple levels is central to learning (including the acquisition of self-knowledge). And yet—in part for that very reason—an educational process that does not build in opportunities for solitude and absorbing lessons, implicit as well as explicit ones, is incomplete. Students need time to make sense of things. This work of making sense can happen in the hurly burly of class discussion or in scribbling down notes while a teacher talks, but processing and integrating information is typically work that gets completed off-site.
The first important homework task is reading. Adults typically laud it, for themselves and children—“readers are leaders,” a beloved uncle of mine, a construction worker who as far as I can tell was indifferently educated at best, used to say—but few of us really have much stamina for it. Reading requires a sense of focus that’s difficult to attain, because there’s so little time in the day, or because of our physiological limitations, or both. I think of reading as really quite akin to physical exercise: the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the faster your mind works. Reading may well be less important for the actual content you encounter than the habits of mind it inculcates—attentiveness, imagination, a capacity for abstraction. In the end, reading is the sin qua non of learning: everything else is a short-cut, a compensation, a substitution (like a fad diet in lieu of exercise). To use a cooking metaphor: reading is homemade; getting it in lecture form is store-bought. Sure, reading takes longer. But it’s just plain better.
Precisely because reading is so difficult, teachers should assign it with care—something which, alas, is difficult when one is subject to district-wide mandates. Textbooks are like baby food in that they’re age-appropriate, relatively substantial, and segmented into measured servings. But that doesn’t mean they’re tasty. Far better are selections chosen by a well-read teacher with a sharp eye for the relevant newspaper article, blog post, short story or poem. As in so many other ways, less is more. In part that’s because the ability for students and teacher to read together, to close-read sentences and passages, is an excellent use of class time after students come to class having already had a first coat of exposure to a piece of text. Reading intensively, which is to say reading things more than once, is among the most important wellsprings of learning.
Reading is so crucial because it’s foundational for success in an even more demanding intellectual task that’s also best undertaken as homework: writing. Writing is among the most complex neurological tasks the human brain performs, and it’s hard work. Paradoxically, good writing seems effortless. Which is one of the reasons students find it so daunting: it seems like it should be easy, and when it isn’t they assume they’re bad at it, which makes them even less willing to undertake it. But knowing that it’s hard for everyone will only get you so far: writing is like bench-pressing a lot of weight—you have to work yourself up to it. That’s what school is for: creating a space where such activities are promoted and sustained, precisely because there’s really nowhere else it would happen on a mass scale.
But—really—the single most important reason to ask students to write is that it’s something that they must do alone. Only when they’re by themselves, grappling, seeking, struggling to communicate with somebody else, are they fully engaged in the task of learning. Actually, they can’t really begin to explain something to someone else until they’ve explained it to themselves, which is what first drafts are for. Writing is also a collaborative enterprise, in that peers and parents can provide feedback, and in some cases teachers can sit beside students and coach them through the process. But even when this happens, there still needs to be a time and place where students follow through on their own: the coach must step aside.
The coaching analogy is a very rich one for understanding teaching generally, but it has particular value in the context of homework. Coaches prescribe workouts, some of which are executed on the field of play, but much of which take place offsite. The coach can’t monitor any given athlete continuously; nor can a coach be certain that a particular routine will pay off equally or at all for every athlete. It’s a game of percentages which, should the student honor the coach’s instructions, is likely to yield long-term gain. Beyond some general parameters (like the length of a practice and care for the health of the athletes), the coach doesn’t know or care what else the players may have to do, and a coach’s personal regard for a player should not cloud the coach’s judgment about who is or isn’t in shape. There are no guarantees. But the best way to win games is to practice.

* * *

The goals of the History Day project that Jason and Tom are working on are a bit different than what I’ve been outlining here. My school participates in the National History Day, a program that annually involves 50,000 students from 49 states who work within the parameters of an annually chosen theme like “Turning Points in History,” “Revolution, Reaction and Reform,” or “Rights and Responsibilities.” Students can work alone or collaborate in groups of up to three people, and choose formats within a menu of options that include tabletop exhibitions, documentaries, dramatic presentations and websites. My colleagues and I believe that the work of formulating arguments may be easier for students when working in media other than traditional essays, which is why this project is a capstone assessment for the quarter (a grade-wide research essay is the main undertaking for the end of the year).
We’re pretty upfront with students at the time when we assign this project in January that it’s as much about managing the enterprise as it is about the content. That means planning ahead for deadlines that come up in stages: topic, bibliography, first draft, final draft.  We tell them: choose your partners carefully, because you sink or swim together. Someone who does all the work will get the same grade as a member of your team that does none. (In fact, we keep an eye on this, and make a mental note the balance the ledgers in some silent way.) “I'm not sure I agree with you about that,” Ruth had said when I explained my colleagues’ thinking in our phone conversation, and she might be right. But we try to get kids to perform different kinds of intellectual tasks, and revealing her son’s difficulty in performing this one is part of the point.
For all our planning and justifications, however, we never entirely feel we’re in control of the assignments we give. Loopholes and ambiguities inevitably present themselves; so do unplanned exigencies like snowstorms. My delight in conferring on Ruth and Jason Thompson an extension dissipates quickly as my colleagues in the History Department realize the storm is creating a logistical mess, and a flurry of emails swirl among us. If the History Day project was a run-of-the-mill essay, we might simply expect students to email their work to us, whether or not school was in session. But given the number of projects that actually have to be brought in and set up (the kindly librarians have given us some space), we can’t expect that. Since we need to be uniform, we decide the project will have to be due the first day back after the break. The very thing we were trying to prevent—having kids with homework over the holidays—has come to pass. Jason and Tom’s project, long on images and short on interpretation, gets a B. On the acknowledgments panel of their PowerPoint, Jason thanks his Dad, “for help in proofreading, and for the pizza.” Motherhood, apparently, is truly a thankless task.

In the aftermath of the year’s assignment, we decide that maybe a post-break due date isn’t such a bad idea after all. In fact, we agree, the thing to do is to have draft workshops the first week back, and have the projects due the second week. That will create a grading squeeze before the semester ends, but it seems worth it. For teachers no less than students, there’s no substitute for experience. We learn by doing—and redoing.

Monday, February 3, 2014


in which we see a teacher annoyed by students with minds of their own

The Secret Life of Teaching, #3

By Horace Dewey

The following piece has been published at the History News Network website.

Late November: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A few years ago, I teamed up with two colleagues in the English and Ethics departments to team-teach this Humanities course built around the theme of freedom. The course is divided into six units, each juxtaposing freedom with another concept that exists in some tension with it. So, for example, we open the school year with freedom and tolerance, in which we read The Scarlet Letter and study literal and metaphorical witch-hunts (like McCarthyism, allegorized in The Crucible, or the AIDS crisis, as depicted in Angels in America). Huck Finn is embedded in the transition between freedom/independence (the American Revolution, Transcendentalism, adolescent development) and freedom/slavery (Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, Phillis Wheatley, the Civil War). In every unit we juxtapose the literary and historical material with philosophy (Aristotle’s notion of slavery) and modern-day analogies (is modern-day sweatshop labor simply slavery by another name?).
It was a real challenge to get this course off the ground, and it took a couple of years of tinkering to get it right. Now it hums along, and there are times when I find it a little boring. When you do the same book year after year, you tend to get lazy; I haven’t actually re-read Huck in years. I’ve got a well-annotated copy I review as we get underway for about a two-week stretch of classes, and I’m probably one of the few people who uses SparkNotes for its supposed purpose: as a means to review the book (as opposed to a substitute for reading it). Actually, my main source of preparation for class, adopted at the urging of my tech-savvy colleage, is the online forum in which students are required to post passages they find interesting and to explain why. I’ll pluck out something I think has possibilities for close reading, or note if there’s a passage that seems to get multiple takers.
I’ve also got a few set pieces that I know from experience will generate a good conversation. One, of course, is the famous passage in Chapter 31, in which an anguished Huck, is torn between returning lost (human) property to its legal owner versus helping that property find his freedom. He finally decides on the latter: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he says, ripping up the note he’d written disclosing the location of the escaped slave Jim.
So it is that when I walk in to the classroom for what will be my fourth discussion of Huck Finn on a chilly but brilliant autumnal day I’m a little rusty but ready to improvise. I’ve got to pocket Chapter 31, because it will be awhile before we get there. So instead I’ll ask the students to summarize the novel through the first eight chapters, which is a relatively easy point of entry as well as a device to jog my memory. So gang,” I ask, raising a steaming paper cup of coffee to my lips, “who is Huckleberry Finn?”
I sip in silence. Damn. This is a misfire: I intended a kid to say something like, “He’s a boy from Missouri who’s running away from his father and traveling with an escaped slave.” But it seems my query has been interpreted more interpretively and thus   difficult to answer, as if I’m expecting something like, “He’s an empathic pragmatist in a morally corrupt social milieu.” I put my cup down on my desk, wait a beat, and say, “He’s a very blank person who blanks. Go ahead in fill in those blanks.”
Still nothing. And then Alba Montanez—decent student though her last essay was all over the place—blurts out, “He’s obsessed with death.”
I think: Blech.
I say: “Interesting, Alba. Can you elaborate a bit?”
Kim Anders—volleyball team, got a 92 on the last test, litigated another three points out of me—says, “Yes! I was thinking the same thing!”
What wavelength are these kids on? “OK,” I say. “But why?”
Kim continues her interruption of Alba. “Well, his mother is dead, right? That’s like the first thing we’re told.”
“Yes, we’re told that. But where do you get the idea of this death fixation?” I know I sound little impatient, but I think it’s a fair question, and I think in any case that I can get away with posing it, even with some irritation, to Kim.
But it’s Alba jumps back in. “It says right here on page six that the widow read to him about Moses. ‘She let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.’”
“Hmmm. So the fact that he’s talking about a dead person—says he doesn’t care about dead people—is evidence of an obsession.” I make this a statement, not a question. I’m hoping I can gently jog her out of what I regard as a foolish assertion.
Instead, Alba says “Exactly.” I’m about to argue the point but stop myself. “What do the rest of you think? Do you agree with Alba and Kim that Huck has a death fixation?
I scan the faces in the room. Steven Gridley is looking out the window. Tommy Giddens is whispering to Zak Pacek. Tara Millberg is staring at her laptop. Evelyn WuWong is looking at me expectantly. She’s paying attention but clearly has no intention of jumping into the fray.
Tara, who has permission to take notes with the laptop but in all likelihood has been shopping for shoes, looks up. “He’s just so, what’s the word . . . you know when you’re just only reacting to what other people do—”
“Yeah, passive.  Like he’s so obsessed with what Tom Sawyer thinks.”
“Yes, but what does that have to do with being obsessed with death?”
“I dunno. It’s just, like, he’s not living. It’s almost like he’s a zombie.”
There’s something incongruous about Tara Millberg—lustrous hair, ruddy cheeks, fingernail polish that picks up the accents on her wool sweater—talking about death. It seems so remote that she can barely talk about it coherently. And yet she’s not entirely wrong. And, sure as she sitting there, death, like that character in the Emily Dickinson poem, will be coming by to claim her. For the first time, I’m curious about what will happen in the meantime.
“I’m a little confused,” I say, returning my gaze to Alba. “How can you be obsessed with death at the same moment you’re saying you don’t put no stock in dead people? Isn’t that a contradiction?”
Alba narrows her eyes, taking the question in. Is she going to be able to parry it? If she doesn’t, maybe I can steer this conversation back on course—or, maybe more accurately, out of the gate. I’m thinking the opening of Chapter 4, in which Huck talks about his schooling (he could “spell, and read, and write just a little, and say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five”). Can’t go wrong talking about education with high school kids.
But now it’s Sam Stevens—Dad writes for the Times, apparently he’s a good guitar player—who enters the fray. “What’s with the staging his death thing?”
“Staging his death thing?”
“Yeah. When his dad starts beating him. He makes it look like he’s been killed.”
“Right. That’s how he makes his escape. It’s a means to an end. Doesn’t mean he’s obsessed with death, does it?”
“Kinda weird, if you ask me.”
 I guess I did ask. Maybe these kids are on to something.
“I think Huck is depressed.” This from Dana Weiss. Figures. It’s not the first time I’ve heard therapy-speak from her. I remember her once referring to Arthur Dimmesdale of The Scarlet Letter as having low self-esteem. Tell me Mom isn’t a psychotherapist.
“Depressed, huh?”
“Yeah. I think so. I actually read ahead a little bit to the whole Grangerfords and Sherpherdsons clan war thing. That whole part about Emmeline Grangerford. After she dies Huck seems really upset. It’s interesting after the whole Moses thing Alba just read. It’s like this is the first time he allows himself to really grieve. And then he says something like ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’”
I’m a little stunned by this insight. My memory of the book is sketchy, but I know what Dana is talking about.
“Thanks a lot for giving the plot away!” Kim exclaims.
I’m about to try to explain to Kim that it’s not that big a deal when suddenly the fire alarm goes off. Damn. I remember the assistant principal telling me yesterday we’re behind on the quota that the state mandates. “Oh!” Dana says, genuinely upset. Steven Gridley looks like he’s just received a get-out-of-jail card. As per our protocol, we file out of the room and out of the building silently.
Shivering on the sidewalk, waiting for the all-clear, an essay question begins to take shape: Some observers of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (wink, wink) say that the Huck Finn we meet at the start of the story is suffering from depression, and in particular an obsession with death. Do you agree? If not, why not? If so, explain why—and where, if anywhere, you think that begins to change. In what ways would you say his state of mind is shaped by his historical circumstances? Be sure to use evidence from the novel to support your thesis. Gonna have to think about the depression thing—how to define it. Then again, let’s see if any of them do it. I’m always talking about defining your terms. Maybe a few of them will.
“Two down, six to go,” my colleague Eddie Vinateri says of the fire drills as we get the signal to head back into the building. After a pause, he gestures toward my clutch of returning students, a few of whom have, unaccountably, taken the book out with them. “How’s Humanities going?”
“Good,” I say. “The class teaches itself.”