Ghosts in the Schoolyard (Ewing)

This book is essential. Much of its success stems from its narrow focus, a focus that’s encapsulated in its subtitle, “Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.” Ewing refers here to the 2013 school closings because, as she makes it clear, this isn’t the first time that there were school closings; nor will it be the last. She also makes it clear that she recognizes that school closings have to happen. She seeks to make sure we understand that these decisions need to be understood as more than just the results of test scores or other cryptic jargon (“underutilized schools,” for example). There are historical factors as well, and those factors are inextricably linked with racism.

Since I knew her first as a poet from her remarkable collection, Electric Arches, it doesn’t surprise me that her attention to language is so insightful. The section on institutional mourning was revelatory to me. I just never thought that deeply about that aspect of a school closing. It helps to have the words of those who have experienced one (and, in some cases, more than one), but it is Ewing’s capacity to bring the various pieces of testimony together that really helped crystallize the issue for me.

This is not a book to read and shelve. This is not a book just for teachers or for Chicagoans. This is a book for citizens because we all, whether we like it or not, have a stake in public education. As we move forward in the wake of strikes (LA, and perhaps Denver), disaster capitalism and charter schools (New Orleans) and a Secretary of Education who seems to know very little about, well, education, it’s time to remember that the public is supposed to be in charge of public education.

Image result for cover image Ghosts in the Schoolyard
photo by Susan Irene Phillips

Pose Wobble Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen)

Well, I had been aiming for an epic for review #1,000, but my schedule got away from me a bit. But I’m okay with it (and will still get to The Master and the Margarita over my winter break) because this book, in its way (and not because of page count – about 130) has had an epic impact on me. I can’t say that I found a remarkable amount that is new here. It’s just the best, most condensed version of the kind of (English) teacher I want to be. I have the vocabulary for it and strong support for my development in that each chapter has reflection questions and additional sources at the end of it. I had some quibbles with their presentation of reading online (I side with Nicholas Carr here), but aside from that, I strongly recommend this for all people who are English teachers, are preparing to be English teachers, are interested in literacy education, and, well, teachers in general. A mind-changing, life-changing book. An epic, if you will.

No More Fake Reading (Gordon)

This is certainly an admirable goal and one I’d like to achieve. But I am just not sure Gordon’s suggestions are the way to do it. I appreciate the emphasis on independent reading. I’ve always wanted to approach in a more thoughtful way. I’m just not sure I can replace the whole-class novel, particularly in an IB program. The premise sounds a bit like what we did in elementary schools when we found it incredibly hard to teach phonetics; we codified our failures and called it invented spelling and kicked that particular can down the road. I’m interested in the idea of independent reading being a complementary experience. Later this year, I will teach a dystopian novel, and I am going to require students to read one of their own independently or at least in small groups. There are patterns worth exploring there. There’s also enough choice to appeal to all different kinds of readers. Of course, it would help a great deal if we had a fully stocked library.

There’s just too much magical thinking in this book for it to be compelling. There are pieces I might use to experiment with, but overall. . . no. The giving good advice about reading will also be good advice about life, though a small and late moment, is an example of pervades much of this book – wishful thinking. I mean she is right when she says we have to try something because we can’t do much worse, but this? Again, no.

Teaching and Learning Argumentative Writing in High School English Language Arts Classrooms (Newell, Bloome, Hirvela)

Though the reality of and disdain for those of us (teachers and students) who have to work with standardized tests can be somewhat irksome here, once I got used to the omission, I found some useful pieces here. The prospect of rethinking the notion of argument as an investigation. This allows us to move away from the traditional notion of argument as another way of asking students to simply amass pre-digested information and present it in a manner that follows the structure we’ve required. Though there are allowances for the fact that some of us may need to teach more structure than others, there are also alternative ways of teaching argument that are presented here, complete with case studies. I appreciated the discussion of Toulmin’s structure for arguments as well. I support the way the authors presented transfer as our highest and most important goal, but I was dismayed the way they were willing to subordinate writing skills to the needs of other subjects. That said, I am going to try it with the low-hanging fruit subject, namely, Social Studies. I hope to also encourage the notion of argument as an investigation. It seems to me that kind of follows the increasingly popular podcast format.

Doing Youth Participatory Action Research (Mirra, Garcia, Morrell)

There’s much to admire here. These people have done and are doing the work. Maybe it’s a question of audience. Who is this book for? If it’s meant to  convince teachers and administrators to take up their charge, I don’t know if this book will reach that audience. It’s a fairly academic text. It even looks unapproachable. I can’t imagine anyone picking it up at a conference and being able to use it to begin to develop a YPAR program. Who is this for, then? I fear that it’s circular – that this book, like the presentations the students make at impressive conferences, to reinforce the idea that research is done for the sake of people who attend conferences and then return to their universities to conduct. . . research. For all of the imagination and attention to logistical detail that the authors describe, their imagination seems to have certain, unfortunate boundaries. What, other than the perceptions people tend to have of students who look like them, do the students actually change? They seek to address, in the year that’s studied here, educational inequities, but what do they actually do to change things in that area? Has there been any research done to follow any of their participants to see if they continue to use the skills they learned from the program in college? To be change agents? Do they finish college? If the work is so dependent on grants, why don’t the students learn how to write grants? Why don’t they discuss what it means to be a grant-dependent program? For all of the discussion of disruption, why don’t they disrupt this?

I’m a YPAR convert. I am very excited to be part of a school (which has a University partner) that embraces this kind of work. But I don’t want to settle for conference presentations. Before students can be the change they see in the world, they need to see the change their work causes. And this change should include, but not be limited to the change they see in themselves. They can start by changing something in their own school, but we need to honor their work enough to let it influence our approach to education. Anything short of that seems, well, just academic.

A Novel Approach (Roberts)

A good piece of professional development reading has a pedagogical basis for the ideas presented, and the ideas are presented by someone who has a realistic sense of what’s going on in a classroom. The author should not be afraid of logistical details, nor should the author shy away from aiming for the kind of greatness from students that could never be captured by standardized tests.

Kate Roberts’ book does all that. And there are videos. While her students are definitely quieter than mine, more than a few wear that glazed look of boredom / indifference that I recognize.

Roberts’ voice is straightforward and her examples are specific and inspiring. In a somewhat meta-move, I used her advice about sticky notes on her book. And I did not so much change my lesson plan for tomorrow, as I made it more focused.

Roberts is attentive and practical  when it comes to questions of differentiation, and she is ambitious when it comes to envisioning the bigger picture.

I am lucky to be able to attend her session when she’s in town next week. I can’t wait!


Kate Roberts in Cleveland

Instructional Rounds in Education (City, Elmore, Fiarman & Teitel)

Meet the newest metaphor. School systems should use rounds, like hospitals do, and then whatever the problem of practice that exists will be cured. I overstate things. . . but only by a little bit.

This quartet of authors has created an extremely organized system. And if – as is the case with most professional development plans – it is applied down to the last detail, it would probably help. Yet even the best organizational plans, when laid upon shifting sands, will crumble. The authors have their parachutes built in, ready to explain away as the participants’ responsibility, any flaws in their plan. They forget, and this is the major flaw of the book, that they are dealing with human beings. And this is not, to use some of their condescending language, because I want to protect my own style; it is just true. You can practice and pinpoint all you want, but my descriptions of what I see in the classroom are always going to be grounded in who I am and all of the biases and background bits that I bring to the table. It is not a business; it is not a science. It is human beings. Here’s the core of the book and also the core of the problem:

Rounds is based on the highly contentions and problematic assumption that for schools to improve systematically, they have to develop shared practices and a shared understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between teaching and leaerning. To characterize differences in practie as matters of taste or style, having little or no consequence for student learning, is to trivialize the importance of teachers’ practice and its cumulative effect on student learning.

They do love to think of themselves as controversial – here and throughout the book. They’re not; they’re just the flavor of the month. Data-Driven Decision Making by another name. This effort to reduce teaching to some kind of cause-and-effect that is easily identifiable and once identifiable then replicable is akin to chasing unicorns. But what such an effort does support is reducing teachers to part of the mechanics of education. If it was so easy to find these cause-and-effect relationships, don’t you think we would have done that by now? The authors assume that things in the classroom operate in some kind of vacuum, like if I just follow the algorithm, then all of the kids, the ones who ate breakfast and the ones who didn’t, the ones who were born into houses with lead poisoning and the ones born into houses with silver spoons, well, they will all learn. And if teaching can be reduced to an algorithm, then teachers can be replaced by computers.

The others move on from the paragraph quoted above to hysterical and hyperbolic examples to try to make their point. They refer to a plane about to make a landing and mock those who would want to deviate from the routine and accepted practices about how to land the plane. First, I want to ask, are those practices the same as they were 10 years ago? 20? But that would be to accept their analogy. That teaching is akin to landing a plane after a routine flight. The thing is, it’s not. Teaching is akin to having 25 different planes heading for some kind of crash, and that’s when we want teachers who are knowledgeable and trained and flexible and trusted enough to be like Chesley Sullenberger. Now do that 5 times a day. Every day.

You want systematic improvements? Start by leveling the playing field. School funding in Ohio, where I teach, has been declared unconstitutional 4 times. 4 times. And nothing has changed. Or start before that. Start with a country founded on two genocides, do nothing to offer any kind of reparations, develop policies that make those who are starting behind become cemented in those spots (at best) or fall further behind (at worst) and then say, if only we offered descriptive observations than judgmental ones, then all will be better.

Believe it or not, I am for systems. I am for coherency, consistency, collaboration. And I do see how the process of rounds could, if implemented well and narrowly focused, help address a very specific problem of practice in such a way that such an effort could be evaluated at an appropriate interval to see if it’s having the desired impact (and I wholeheartedly reject standardized test scores as the way to evaluate the success or failure of rounds). But this book, in the end, is a sales job, and one based on a kind of circular logic and plenty of false dichotomies. Dichotomies work with computers, not people. Certainly there are better and worse ways to do things, but that’s not the same as saying there are right and wrong ways – far from it.