Sleeping with the enemy, or the pit and the pendulum

After years of reading books such as How Children Fail, Summerhill, Dumbing Us Down, etc., it was a bit of a shock to read JD Hirsch. Hirsch describes the many “student-centred”, “project-based”, “hands-on/experiential” etc, etc, approaches to education: “Great! I’m all for it!..” then throws a bucket of freezing water over you: “If only they worked!”

If I remember right, Hirsch bases his judgement on exam and test scores as well as anecdotes from parents and teachers. I don’t know enough to argue about the test scores, but I remember recalling the students in my class who were just sitting around, or goofing off, and the comments after a 14-week term: “I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do”.

I basically said, “OK, enough of that. Back to some good ol’ from-the-front-of-the-room, positivistic, no-arguments teaching (coz
that’s obviously what everybody wants, other faculty staff, students, and administrators).” It was a matter of regaining my self-respect. I also felt I was in danger of losing the respect of students, indeed, may have lost it already.

I didn’t swing around completely to Hirsch’s point of view, but his book (and Melanie Phillips‘) combined with uneasy memories of my classes to prompt me to do some serious soul-searching.

It certainly burst my “romantic” bubble, and that is a Good Thing.

Lisa Delpit’s book added to my critical awareness: she describes the discourse styles of white teachers versus black teachers, and how the white teachers’ style doesn’t fit well with what black children are used to or expect. The black teachers are more likely to lay down the law and be “tough”, and the black children seem to prefer this, according to Delpit and the people she quotes.

Maybe it was just time for the pendulum to swing back the other way, but I was pleasantly surprised to read this exchange between a white teacher (of black children) and a black teacher of the same children in James Herndon’s The Way It Spozed To Be.

Herndon had to take an unscheduled month off from work, and a substitute teacher (Mrs. A.) replaced him. Here, Herndon returns to his class after a month’s absence:

9D… greeted me with an indignant and sincere-sounding outcry. Mrs. A was a better teacher than I, she was a real teacher, I wasn’t no real teacher, she really made them work, not just have them old discussions every day; no, man, they were learning spelling and sentences and all they was spozed to. Moreover she was strict and didn’t allow fooling around – all in all they felt they’d been really getting somewhere. I looked in my grade book, up to now pretty empty of marks, and saw, sure enough, a whole string of grades after each name – mostly, however, F’s and zeroes. Many of them had nothing but zeroes, which I took to mean they had been busy not-doing this important work. I pointed this out to the class, but it didn’t matter. They had been back on familiar ground; strict teacher, no fooling around, no smart-off, no discussions about how bad school was, and plenty of work. That was, after all, what school was and they were in favor of it.

7H was in a similar temper. They too had tales of plenty of real work, strict discipline, no talking, no gum, reading aloud every day, everybody – and then they came out with a long list of all of them who had been sent to the office for talking or chewing gum or refusing to read or laughing or getting mad at the teacher. Mrs. A gave them work on the board every day, they screamed, and she made them keep a notebook with all this work in and they were spozed to bring it every day to work in and get graded on it. That was what real teachers did, they told me. I asked to see some of the notebooks; naturally no one had one. What about that? I asked. No use. She made us keep them notebooks, they all shouted. The fact that no one had kept or was keeping them notebooks didn’t enter into it….

In my free period that first day back I conferred with Mrs. A, who was sticking around to let me know what she’d been doing… She told me, although not in so many words, that my classes had been a mess when she took over, that she considered them well on their way to straightening up after a month with her, and that it was now up to me to keep them that way. She got this across to me very nicely in the kind but firm manner some people have with training animals…

It was important, she said, to get them into the proper mood for schoolwork as soon as they entered the room. In particular, avoid beginning the period by talking to them, explaining, or lecturing, which they would not listen to and which only encouraged them to start talking themselves….

The best method for getting them in order was to have a paragraph written out on the board when they entered, and get them in the habit of copying this paragraph in their notebooks immediately they sat down, giving them a time limit for its completion, erasing the paragraph when the time was up, and grading the notebooks frequently. Copying was something they could all do without further explanation from me; it got them in the mood for schoolwork, quiet, their materials ready, all set for the day’s lesson, whatever it was.

Then Herndon dumps that bucket of anti-Hersch freezing water:

I didn’t have a lot to say to this advice. In the face of the nonexistent notebooks and the unused or all-wrong spellers, the list of those trooping down to the office for misbehavior, I couldn’t see that the regimen had been a great success. In any case, the advice wasn’t new… Perhaps after a year or so of this it might work; I didn’t think so, but it didn’t matter either. I knew damn well that they’d been getting this treatment for the past six years, that during that this time they’d learned practically nothing about the “skills” this type of order was spozed to produce – no adverbs, not how to spell, no punctuation, not adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing; many hadn’t even learned how to read. I couldn’t see my way had been a great success either – in fact, I didn’t know what my way was – but the other was a failure and was going to be a failure.

Herndon’s book is a fun read, but it’s also disturbing in a, well, disturbing kinda way: Herndon seems to be suggesting that his experience of teaching is that “teaching” is “spozed” to be mainly about control of kids, even if they don’t learn anything. The disturbing thing is that Mrs A’s arguments and suggestions sound so familiar, so reasonable, and so seductive. Who would argue against such a pedagogy? In fact, according to Herndon’s account anyway, he was fired basically because he refused to take on the same values as the school (that keeping order is paramount).

So I’m back face-to-face with a familiar question: am I teaching or merely trying to keep order, believing that keeping order equals teaching (and therefore learning)? Were my uneasiness and guilt a few months ago merely the withdrawal symptoms of not trying to impose order? And if I am merely trying to keep order, instead of teaching, will I be able to recognize it? How can I tell?

One thought on “Sleeping with the enemy, or the pit and the pendulum”

  1. I had the same type of experience teaching at a high school. If I did not do a teacher-centered, lecture style class the kids would walk all over me. Group work and individual always ended in a complete breakdown of order in the class. I had to resort to a type of teaching I did not believe in but seemed to be the best for the circumstances.

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