Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Occupy Wall Street Is Like a Classroom

A speaker on the people's mic, arguing against occupation, at about 20 minutes to midnight
On Saturday night, I watched a miracle of classroom management such as I would never have imagined possible; it didn’t happen in a classroom, and there was no teacher.

Over the course of the evening, a crowd of three thousand or more had gathered in and around the dry fountain basin in Washington Square Park. Returning from the earlier march on Times Square, the attendees were agitated after a day of chanting and dancing, packed, often shoulder to shoulder, between police barricades. There were reports of scores of arrests and a couple of violent incidents. Word had spread of a possible illegal occupation of Washington Square that night. Meanwhile, a line of police officers stood at the entrances to the square, announcing to each arriving crowd that the park would close at midnight—i.e. “you’ve been warned.”

A little after 10 pm, a handful of facilitators from the Zuccotti park occupation stood up on the grate that covers the water jets at the center of the fountain basin and asked the mob to be seated. The general assembly had begun.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Teaching Values Across Cultural Difference

There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog lately, both in the posts and in the comments, about the teaching of values. Most of these discussions have dealt with, if not necessarily middle-class values, at least values taught by middle-class educators—and taught, for the most part, to working-class and poor children, with the idea that these children are short on good values. Today, I want to talk about a different scenario.

I recently happened upon this blog post by “Teacher MRW,” an African-American first-generation-college-graduate teaching in a predominantly white, upper-middle class private school. Inspired by the discussion of moral education generated by my post on the London Riots, MRW writes about the cultural dissonance between herself and her privileged, white students, particularly around conduct, manners, and responsibility. She opens with an anecdote about her attempts to make her students take their hats off when they enter the classroom—a wonderful bit of old-fashioned decorum that my Jesuit-educated 6th-grade history teacher enforced with an iron hand, to my baseball-cap-wearing classmates’ surprise and, at first, consternation, but ultimately half-frightened, half-amused respect. MRW’s demands that “gentlemen take their hats off in class,” as my history teacher used to put it, however, met with only bafflement and resistance, and she finally gave up on the hat battle.

In a lot of ways MRW’s predicament seems to mirror that in which many privileged, white college-graduates (myself included) find themselves, when they take teaching jobs in inner-city public schools. For MRW, however, the gradient of cultural privilege runs in the opposite direction, a fact that drastically alters the terms of the cultural exchange in ways that are frustrating to MRW and far from beneficial to her students. The particulars of the exchange also highlight some of the difficulties facing middle-class education and harken to some of the themes discussed in my last full-length post. (Yes, there are difficulties facing middle-class education; admitting that does not belittle the difficulties facing inner-city education.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What makes a good principal? Don't ask Michael Winerip.

Last week, The Times published this ridiculous puff piece by Michael Winerip about the principal of NYC's PS 126. The Times has published some excellent education journalism in recent years, especially the long and nuanced pieces that Paul Tough writes for the magazine supplement, but Winerip's column is of a very different sort. Bad, partisan education reporting (and Winerip's article is subtly but definitely partisan) has very real negative consequences for the public debate. I wrote the Times the letter below, which, naturally, they declined to publish. I knew they would— its tone is far too strident— but I'm disappointed that they published this letter instead, which not only praises Winerip's column, but treats it as serious education journalism.

The "letter to the editor" is a fun form. The word-length constraint forces a nice directness and economy. Here's me on "The Secrets of a Good Principal," in 150 words:

Dear Editor,

I don’t know whether Jacqui Getz is a good principal. She may or may not be, but Mr. Winerip’s column sheds no light on the matter. From the column we learn that Getz works hard; that she espouses union-friendly opinions about teacher evaluation (but not that she acts on them); that she talks to students; and that she wears high-heels.

I’ve observed classes at PS 126 and happen to know that over the last few years, it ran a highly innovative literacy program that produced impressive results and inspired other schools. Is this program still in place? Is Ms. Getz supporting or revamping it? These are details that a responsible journalist might report on.

But this column is not journalism, and it leaves the public none the wiser. This kind of negligent reporting is damaging to the entire public debate about education, and The Times ought not to publish it.

Max Bean