"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, January 17, 2014

Full Interview, Part III, with Former Charter Teacher at Brooklyn Ascend

Below is Part III of my interview with Emily Talmage.  Parts I and II can be found here and here.

INT:  When you think of Brooklyn Ascend, what comes to mind?

R:  The first thing that comes to mind is that I am so happy I'm not there.

INT:  Is there an image that you end up with?

R:  Yeah.  The image that comes to mind is this kid with their mouth closed, with their hands by their side, and really not looking happy.  There wasn't a lot of happiness there.  The image that comes to mind is kids with either their hands folded, or their hands by their side, with their mouth shut.  Also, really unhappy teachers.  I have a lot of images in my head.  I should have picked up on that, and I wish I had picked up on that before I ever started working there.  The teachers at that school, everybody just seemed annoyed and frustrated all the time.  There was so much scowling.  I got the impression that the kids were pests.   That's what comes to mind.  Scowling teachers, and silent kids.

INT:  Do you ever dream about it?

R:  Yeah.  The dreams I have are good.  The dreams I have are me finally saying the things to my higher ups that I never got to say.

INT:  You're having healthy dreams.

R:  I think so.  I think that they're healthy dreams.  For a while, they weren't.  I'll tell you that I remember the day that we had to go back to school after April break.  I didn't sleep the entire night before.  When I got to school, I found out that neither had either of the two female teachers that I worked with.  That can't be healthy that none of us can sleep, literally the entire night before they had school.  I remember just tossing and turning.  I remember when I got there, this feeling, this lump in my throat.  This feeling of how am I going to make it?  I felt like I was being asked to be a referee, or a cop.  I didn't feel like I was a teacher at all.  We watched some European championship soccer game.  I remember watching the referees. There was so much pressure to "catch" the kids.  Catch them whispering.  Catch them doing this.  Catch them doing that.  It was exhausting.  It was all about catching them.  One of Doug Lemov's ideas is that if you don't have one hundred percent compliance, one hundred percent authority, then other things will think they can question.  There's something to that, maybe, but I think that that idea just got taken way, way too far at the school I was at.  If a kid even giggles.  The kids weren't even allowed to giggle.  If a student giggled too loud, we had to mark it down that they were being disruptive.  If I'm reading a story aloud, I'm okay with my kids giggling every now and then.  That's what kids do.  That shows that they're listening.  It shows they're interested.  We had to mark it because any little misbehavior was a threat to the one hundred percent authority, and one hundred percent compliance.  It was just so exhausting, and it left no time.  I was there for a year, and I feel like I never got know the kids.  Whereas compared to where I was before, I still hear from them.  I still miss them.  I still think about them. 

Whereas these kids, I barely know them because they had to be silent the entire year.  I didn't like the relationship that I had, the way I was forced to treat them.  The way I felt like I had to act towards them.  It was so inauthentic.  If you can't tell, I just really hated it.  I just really hated it.  The thing that I can't stand the most is that I feel like people are being fooled right now.  These schools are being touted as the solution and it's these movies like Waiting for Superman and my parents have seen it.  Isn't this so wonderful?  Wait a second.  Why isn't anybody asking what's actually happening?  That's the way I feel about that.

INT:  Your voice is going to be heard. 

R:  I hope.  I really hope.  I'd like to do whatever I could to do something.  I'm actually really looking forward to this rally at the end of July. 

INT:  Yes.  All of us are looking forward to it.  If you were in charge of changing this school, what would you alter?

R:  If I were in changing it?

INT:  Yeah.  If you were put in charge of making the changes that you would like to see at this school, what would you do?

R:  One of the first things I would do if I could, obviously this is a dream, but I would make the sizes of the classes smaller.  Thirty eight year olds sitting in rows in one class is way too much.  I would definitely make the classes smaller.  Even if it's twenty kids.  Four classes of twenty kids.  I would have the kids sit in groups rather than have them sit in rows.  I would have to be concerned about the results of the state tests, but I don't think I would use that for the basis of everything we teach them.  I would encourage teachers to use what they know about how to assess kids, and how to get to know kids.  I would encourage teachers to actually form relationships with their kids to find out what's going to work best for them.  I would completely change the curriculum.  I wouldn't use what they use at the school we have right now.  The use at Brooklyn Ascend what's called SABIS.  It's something that was developed in Lebanon.  It's this curriculum that suits very well the I Do, You Do, We Do format.  I'd get rid of that. 

I'm much fonder of curriculums that actually have kids asking questions, and doing a lot more writing.  That's another thing I didn't mention.  We didn't do any, any writing.  No creative writing.  No open response writing.  No journaling.  That's something for me that's so important.  With writing, kids learn about the mechanics and stuff of the language, but they also learn how to find their own voice.  They learn how to express themselves.  They learn how to interact with others through writing.  We didn't do any of that.  It killed me.  I'd definitely institute a writer’s workshop during the day.  That was something I did at my old school that, to me, was one of the most valuable things we did.  I'd have us do that.  Is getting rid of the state exams an option, or is that not a choice?

INT:  It's your redesign.

R:  If I could get rid of those, then I really would.  I would find teachers that I trusted, and that I knew cared as much about the kids as I do, and that were smart.  They would preferably have Masters in Education.

INT:  Let me ask you this.  What makes a good Ascend teacher?  What makes a teacher who really thrives in that environment?

R:  Not me, that's for sure.  The one's that seemed to get the least grief were the first year teachers.  We had a pretty big number of Teach for America grads, or Teach for America first year teachers.  Those are the people who got the least grief because they didn't have any basis on which they would be asking questions.  They'd follow directions, and they did what they were told.  If they had to read a script that says, "Now watch while I show you how to do this," then they'd do it.  Which, my first year of teaching, I might have been grateful to have that because I was lost, and didn't know what to do. 

You have to be good at following rules.  You asked how I've changed professionally or personally.  I've certainly learned one thing about myself.  Following very scripted, structured rules is not one of my strengths.  Definitely not one of my strengths.  The teacher who yelled at me to get out of her room, it baffled me that somebody could spend so much time with kids, and call themselves a teacher, but not be looking into what was actually happening, or asking, "Why are we going to do that?"  Once it started to feel like things were not right, I got the book that the President of the school, Stephen Wilson, had written, called Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Schools.  And it was kind of my first time about hearing and thinking about this idea of business and public schools, and how this school really was trying to run itself like a business and like a corporation.  I didn't understand why other people weren't talking about that, and weren't reading it, and why I was the only one that had ordered the book.  One thing that blew my mind is that I got this book that Steven Wilson had written, and who has a chapter about these genius curriculums that are going to make it so that it doesn't matter if teachers are idiots.  They can still do it.  One of them is the SABIS thing.  SABIS has this brilliant concept of having prefects.  The prefects are the four or five best performing scholars in a class, they check the rest of the kids' work.  Rather than having to hire an instructional aide, or having smaller classrooms, the teachers have the four kids.  They finish the work real quick, and that fast, and then they go around the room checking other kids' work.  It's in the book.  It says it's possibly that this is to cut costs. 

After I read that, I went into school and I was, "Did you guys know this?  Did you know that that's what this prefect thing is about?"  Nobody wanted to listen.  They were, "No.  It's because of the good instructional strategy."  "Really?  Because I think that these kids should probably be getting to do more challenging work."  I remember when I was in third grade, I did really well.  I got good grade.  My teacher, Mr. Carey, sent me to the library and I got to do my own research project.  Why aren't these kids allowed to do that?  Why are we using them as a substitute for instructional aides in order to cut costs? 

It blew my mind.  This was the beginning of the unraveling for me, when I started to really look into things.  That was how I came across the Schools Matter blog, was because I was on line being like, "What's the deal with these charter schools anyway?  Whose idea was this?"  I guess I found out a lot that really made it hard to be there.

INT:  It sounds like it took quite a sacrifice for this lesson that you learned.  It sounds like the veils had fallen away from your eyes in some way.

R:  Yeah.  Definitely.  Maybe I had to have this experience in order to realize that.  Now I'm going to be more cheerful in general.  Also, do my homework before I go to work anywhere.  I wish I had done that before.  That's part of what makes me angry.

INT:  Do not censor yourself here.  This is your opportunity to say what you feel, and to get it off your chest.  A couple of other questions I'd like to ask you.  One is what was your high point and your low point when you were teaching there?

R:  The high point was right at first, when I was doing what they told me I was going to be doing.  When I was taking out small groups, and doing what I had spent the past three years learning how to do.  Getting to know their learning needs.  Designing activities that were really going to help them.  Getting to know a new group of kids.  I love getting to know kids.

The low point came the end of January, maybe.  All we were doing was teaching these test prep lessons.  It was all we were allowed to do.  There was one time when I had to put up an overhead on the overhead projector.  It was one of these "let me show you how to do this, then you're going to do it."  I looked around the room at the kids.

INT:  You just started talking about your low point.

R: . . . The low point was sometime in January.  Starting from Christmas break onwards, you were only to teach these test prep lessons that I had nothing to do with.  I had no business in deciding how we were going to teach these, or what we were going to teach.  I was really just administering what they had given me.  I just remember one morning putting the projector on, and putting the overhead, and looking around the room.  I had one kid falling asleep.  They just looked miserable.  They looked bored.  I was miserable.  I was bored.  I remember just feeling like I can't teach this lesson right now.  I remember turning the overhead off.  We need to do something that actually matters, that's actually going to get these kids going.  I don't remember what we did, but it was this sense of I can't do this.  This is not fair to them.  It was just so clearly all the way through, not about the kids.  It was so blatantly obvious that it was about the scores that they were going to get on these tests.  We weren't teaching writing.  We weren't giving them any time that they needed to rest.

All the conversation we'd have during our meetings was about had they mastered this concept?  It's going to be on the state exam.  This concept might be on the state exam.   When they ended up taking the state exam, I don't know how they did.  I remember there were certain questions that asked them to use the concepts that we had tried to teach them.  We basically were teaching them these tricks and formulas.  I remember one was number patterns.  We had to teach them very explicitly the way to find the answer to a number problem problem.  A number problem question is you have a series of numbers like four, eight, twelve, sixteen.  What's the next number?  The way to find it is you had to teach them step by step, follow what I do.  Step one.  Look at the first two numbers.  Step two.  Find the difference between the first two numbers.  Step three.  Write down the rule.  Step four.  Apply the rule to the final number.  Let's say the rule we figured out was add four.  That was how they had to go about doing it every time.  They got to the state exam, and I remember the question was two, four, eight, basically it was multiplying by two so it didn't work to use that formula.  You'd just subtract the first two numbers.  My kids, at least, they had no idea what to do because they didn't know the concept.  They didn't know the idea of what it meant to look for a pattern.  All they knew was this formula. 

To me it was of course they got that one wrong.  The formula is not going to work all the time.  That's how math works.  Sometimes you have to be able to look into it, and think critically about it.  [Sighs] There were a lot of low points.  There was a low point where this little boy, K_____, got suspended for the fourth time.  He just wasn't that bad.  I had seen kids in the Bronx that were bad, that got in fights, and they were disrespectful.  [K_____] wasn't like that.  This little boy was just a busy body.  He tapped his feet all the time.  He would make these little humming noises while he worked.  He was really bright.  He was really sweet.  Because we had this very rigid behavior system that we absolutely had to stick to, we had to mark every time he talked.  We had to mark every time he turned around in his seat.  He had to go the Dean.  It broke my heart because this poor kid basically lost the majority of his third grade year.  He didn't have to.  If we had been teachers that were allowed to actually teach, and actually allowed to do at least what I learned how to do when I got my Masters in Education, then when I did my first three years. 

Actually really get to know a kid, and really figure out what's going to work for them, he could've been fine.  Even if seventy five percent of Brooklyn Ascend scholars passed the state test, I can tell you for a fact that there were some of them who we, personally, completely failed.  Completely and utterly failed them because we did nothing for them, because they didn't fit this total compliance model.  They got completely left behind.  That's one thing that I wish I'd thought more about.  I was a special education teacher to start out, so I have a special place in my heart for these special education kids.  That's what I'm most passionate about, and most committed to.  A school like Brooklyn Ascend, maybe it does work for the kids who can do it, the kids who can keep their hands still, and who tend to sit and nod, and say things back.  It doesn't work for the kids who have learning disabilities, or have special education needs.  It just doesn't. 

I had another little girl in my class.  To me it was just blatantly obvious that she had dyslexia.  She would flip her numbers.  She would flip her words.  There was nothing I could do.  She had to go through the exact same structure, exact same I Do, We Do, You Do lessons, with the same worksheets, and the same thing as everybody else.  She'll probably get left back.  She's probably going to have to repeat third grade.  That's another thing at Brooklyn Ascend is that they're very proud of the fact that they don't do social promotions.  Very proud of the fact that if the kid doesn't meet the cut off, that they have to repeat the grade. 

INT:  How many third graders do you think repeated this year?

R:  I don't know how many will end up doing it.  I can tell you that in the class that I taught for thirty kids, all but three of them we labeled them as promotion in doubt because of the results on their mock test scores, and that type of thing.  I would really doubt that they would hold back that many kids, because that in and of itself isn't going to look very good if they have a third of the class staying back.  I wouldn't be surprised if at least ten, maybe sixteen end up having to repeat third grade. 

INT:  Thirty to fifty percent?

R:  I would say that.  If they actually end up doing it.  I don't know if they ended up doing it.  Another little anecdote.  Another low point for me was the day after Osama Bin Laden got shot and killed.  This was something that at my old class up in the Bronx, we would have taken a few minutes in the morning to talk about it.  It was all over the news.  Everybody had seen it.  The kids want to know what's going on.  Who was this guy?  Why is this everywhere?  Why is this everywhere I look?  It would have been something we would have talked about.  I probably would have had them journal about it, and maybe even later in the day gone and get a map of Afghanistan and talk about that.  I would have found ways to connect it.  I'm not going to just waste the day chit chatting.  It's important.  To me, it's important that a kid knows what's going on around them. 

Because our day was so structured, and there was no time for anything except for these structured I Do, You Do, We Do lessons, there was no chance for them to ask about it.  I remember it was ten days later.  Maybe even longer.  I think it was ten days, almost two weeks, when one my little girls raised her hand.  I had to sit down and crouch beside her.  She was, "Who is this guy, Osama Bin Laden?"  "That's a really good question.  We should really talk about that, if I have a chance to talk about it."  We never had a chance to talk about it.  These kids have these questions, because they're kids.  They have questions, and they're not being allowed to ask them.  All in this name of getting to pass these tests.  I'm a little bit worried that they did pass them, because then is Brooklyn Ascend going to be held up as another one of "look at how great, we're closing the achievement gap."  . . . .

R:  Right now, I think I've said as much as I can think of.  That's mostly my story of what happened at Brooklyn Ascend. 

. . . .There's another thing that bothered me at Brooklyn Ascend.  I'm pretty liberal with my views about language and how people use language.  I took a socio-linguistics class at Teachers College, and we would actually recording kids talking, and analyze their speech patterns.  I'm a really big believer that the way we speak isn't better, and isn't superior, it's just the way people in power speak.  When I taught in my old school, my kids would speak the way they spoke, and I'd speak the way I speak.  I would try to have conversations about how people talk in different situations.  I tried to teach them this is the way you're going to want to speak in this situation.  I not only valued, but really admired a lot of the ways that they used language.  At Brooklyn Ascend, any time a kid would say something that wasn't in proper English, we would have to stop them and say, "Rephrase that."  We'd have to make them rephrase it until they said it in a way that was right, because Doug Lemov has got a chapter of "Right is Right."  There's a right way to say things, and a right way to do things.  All, to me, stripping them of their identity, and stripping them of any power or voice that they have, and saying that "you've got to do this our way."

R:  If you want to take anything, I'm giving you my permission.  Anything I have written or said, whatever you want to do with it, I grant you permission.

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