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

Monday, July 21, 2014

At KIPP, "they wouldn't have desks at first" and then they are "chained to a desk 10 hours a day"

ob Andres bandres@ajc.com
Detria Mills and Justin Campbell work on the floor with their fellow eighth-graders at a KIPP academy in metro Atlanta. Students get classrooms and desks when they demonstrate they have earned them by meeting their student goals.--AJC
Last week Atlanta Public Schools picked former KIPPster, David Jernigan, as its new deputy superintendent.  This decision should be concern for any parent in Atlanta Public Schools who aims to protect the health and human rights of children in Atlanta public schools.  

Jernigan was overseer of the Atlanta KIPP network of seven schools before his selection as Deputy Supt., and it was during his tenure as Executive Director of KIPP Atlanta that children learned to earn their desks after sitting of the floor for a week or so of school.  I wrote about this phenomenon of floor sitting earlier this year, but the account or interview excerpt below was not included as part of that story.  The account below is based on experiences of a former KIPP teacher who taught at one of Atlanta KIPP schools during Jernigan's tenure.  Like most teachers with more concern for children than they are a paycheck for teaching in hell, he did not last long at KIPP.

Allen:  At first it started off exciting because it was all new to me.  I was putting together my classroom and then the children came in and it was basically us introducing ourselves and introducing what KIPP does.  I didn’t really get a formal--they didn’t really take me through any kind of learning experience on how KIPP was set up, so all I had was the reading that I did with “Work hard.  Be Nice.” . . . . They didn’t take me through a formal training.  It was really the principal and the administration; they were the main ones that were really focused on teaching the children about KIPP.  

Basically they would come in and they [the children] wouldn’t have desks at first, so they would sit on the floor and that’s how they would have class at first and then they were teaching how to SLANT, how to track the teacher and making sure that they keep their eyes on the teacher.  It was conditioning I would say, so that was the main thing that they basically did--and setting them up for their homework, so how to have homework so that they would get homework for every subject and the teacher would have to come in with a checklist for every child and just mark off that they did the homework and they would have to have specific periods and capitalized letters.  There isn’t really room for error, so it took away the fun, just really making mistakes and learning from your mistakes.  It was more like trying to teach them to be perfectionists at the beginning. 

INT:  Why didn’t they have seats?  Why were they sitting on the floor?

Allen:  Because they had to earn their desks and they had to earn that chair.  They had to earn their t-shirts.  They had to earn different things.  . . . .

INT:  Even from the desk that they sat in, they had to earn?

Allen:  Yes.

INT:  How long did this KIPPnotizing go on?

Allen:  It went on for basically I would say it went on for the two weeks, two and a half weeks that they were there for the summer and then it continued on afterwards, after they came back from their summer break.

INT:  And how long had this school been in operation when you came there?

Allen:  I think…I can find out, but I’m thinking it was…I know that they had been in operation for a long time so it was probably ten years.

INT:  So it wasn’t a new school?

Allen:  No sir.  Between five to ten years.

INT:  Your expectation coming in had been based on what you had read and what you had found in the Mathews book and on the web.  Did the reality match your expectation?

Allen:  No it didn’t, not at all.  As I went it was basically saying that you shouldn’t smile at the children; that you should be strict and you shouldn’t give them any kind of leeway at all, so it was different from the way that I am as an individual, because I love smiling; I love really communicating with the children and allowing them to use their free minds.  At the same time, the way it was set up, the way the discipline is set up, it didn’t leave room for me to discipline the child so they were already staying in [and missing free time].  They would stay in for the whole day because they would lose their recess.  They would stay in the whole day because they didn’t have their homework and they would go into a room.  It was somewhat of seclusion and basically trying to make them perform to the KIPP method, but at the same time, that took away from the teacher trying to discipline the child on their own because I am used to coming from a school system where they have you stay after school if you don’t do the right thing, but having them stay after school is more taxing on the teacher than the student because it was ten hour days with the students that you were teaching. 

INT:  Let me ask you this, if I were a friend of yours interested in applying to teach at a KIPP school and we were hanging out and I asked you well what was it like there, what would you tell me?

Allen:  I love the people there, but I don’t love the system itself because it’s turning into a system instead of what I would think is leeway; a way for you to change the way a school system is set up.  I would think it is something totally different from a formal school system and that’s what I was trying to escape, a formal school system.  But what it is doing is it is creating another system, which I don’t really feel is the best way.  But what I would tell them is that it is hard.  Ten-hour days with students is definitely taxing on the teacher.  You have no life.  KIPP is your life.  Even when you are down with the children at 5:00, at the same time, you might have one of them after school or at the same time you are definitely developing lesson plans for--because the way they have it set up, we didn’t really get time to plan our formal lessons; we just say now we are hired in June and I started in June.  I didn’t really get the time to really plan any kind of lessons at all and then we had a week’s worth of planning but that first week before school started we went to a KIPP Summit.  You really don’t have a life at all; that is what I would definitely tell them. . . .

. . . .

INT:  What kind of person is likely to do well at KIPP and in terms of teachers, what kind of teacher is likely to do well at KIPP and what kind of teacher is likely to have difficulties?

Allen:  We had one teacher who basically, she knew KIPP because she had worked for KIPP for such a long time and she saw how other teachers what I would call it was such as a drill sergeant, so first it was drill, drill, drill the information as far as how you want them to act in your class and then you would want them silent constantly.  The problem was I had never had thirty children in a classroom so what seemed to me having thirty children in the classroom was more like cattle driving.  You couldn’t really mold the line, allow them to…as a teacher you are supposed to pull information out of them that they already have within them, but more so you were pouring information in them, which was focused on discipline first and then testing next.  That was the focus of it.  If you are about the money I would say it will be better.  If you are more about discipline and just learning to control them it was a better experience for you and just mean.  You have to be mean in an area like that. 

INT:  Did you have difficulty?

Allen:  Yes sir.  Definitely.  That is why I only stayed a short tenure, which was only _____ months sadly to say, but it was the way the children were grouped, you had all of them all together and then you had the lows, the highs and you had the people in the middle.  With it like that and thirty children in a classroom and that means thirty different personalities that you have to deal with and you have to find some kind of way to get the information to all of them so that you are meeting them where they are, which is the hardest thing in a classroom.  Really it can’t be done I don’t think.  But we were trying to do that.  Yeah.  It was definitely hard.

INT:  How do you think that KIPP achieves its purpose and it’s aim?

Allen:  You said how do they achieve them?  By testing them, constantly testing them.  We were constantly testing the children.  Once you give children problems, which are found on the state test eventually it becomes normal for them to test so it is more like initiating and not allowing them to think.  . . .

INT:  It’s more like conditioning than anything else?

Allen:  Yes sir.  Definitely conditioning because eventually after they had been tested and 8th grade is where they perform the most and me personally, I am not a person on data because it can always be fudged.  Unless you can show me a child and allow me to really test them and test their knowledge through questioning and their answer, which are more or less the Socratic method more so than the testing method.  So questioning and then having them answer the questions; we go back and forth just like that because with the debate, I think that’s the best way a child and an individual period learns. 

. . . .

INT:  If I were to follow you through a typical day at KIPP, what would I see you doing?  What experiences would I observe you having and how would I see you interacting with the students?

Allen:  A typical day during that time period, it was my first year teaching and having thirty children was painful.  You would come into my classroom and you would have some disruptive students because I didn’t know how –

INT:  Take me from the beginning.  What time did you get to school and walk me through your day?

Allen:  From the beginning I would get there probably around 6:00 and I would prepare for the day.  I would start making my board, because our classes were set up that children stayed in class and the teachers wrote things.  So I would have to carry all my books that I had for the children.  I would carry those in basically a buggy and then I would have to carry my work with the books and all the worksheets that I had for them and I would also have to carry the board that I had laid out.  That’s the way that we set it up and so I would do that until the children came in so I was prepared and I would put the morning work on the board and the children would eventually come in after breakfast and they would come in and sit down and start doing the morning work and put the homework in the homework basket. 

From there I would have a person come in, because if you think about it, you have thirty children in the classroom and you are checking four subjects so there are four piles so you are checking over a hundred and twenty pages a day with the homework and sometimes more.  They would have their homework packet and you would have to go through and try to check and see if they had correct grammar as far as punctuation and stuff, correct punctuation and see if they showed their work with their math work. 

You would go through checking off and you would give them the amount of money that they earned throughout the day because you would have to calculate it.  On Monday morning, so I will do the beginning of the week on the Monday morning.  After the announcement they would go and have the Monday morning meeting and basically they would try to prepare them for the week and they would either have it as a full school or just 5th grade itself.  From that point on you would start switching.  The children would go back to the class after the Monday morning meeting. 

They didn’t teach me classroom management.  I didn’t learn as far as setting routines and procedures so at the beginning of the year I was basically thrown into the deep end and I was trying to swim, but I was constantly drowning.  I would come to the administration and constantly tell them that I was drowning because I wasn’t able to hold the children up; I couldn’t teach because of all the chaos that I was having in the classroom.  . . . .

INT:  Did you have children with IEPs?

Allen: Yes sir.  As a matter of fact, almost half of them had IEPs.

INT:  Were those needs being –

Allen:  I think if I am not mistaken, more than half of them had IEPs.

INT:  Were those needs being met?

Allen:  Definitely not. No sir.  Not as far as math was concerned because when I left, which was in __________ the principal took over because she eventually tried to take ove--not take over, but she tried to help me because she saw that I was struggling and I constantly came to her.  I was quitting in August because I saw that I wasn’t moving the children and it is not about money; it’s about educating for me.  That’s the only reason that I went into the field.  When I came to them basically they said we will help you form out the lessons and then after that they [saved] me and they saw some of the problems that I was having and eventually she came in and tried to teach the classroom and show me how it should be done.  But she was the principal so it is a totally different feel for the children than having a regular teacher that they see everyday in class, because she can suspend them.  . . .

INT:  How would you describe the children's way of being together?  Were they hostile?  Were they happy?  Were they excited?  How would you describe -?

Allen::  I would describe it like this.  If you never saw outside until 5:00 pm, I think anybody would be hostile and we saw constantly those four walls and those children what I call…it was prison for them; the desks were their prison.  They would sit at those desks all day at that same desk all day, so they were definitely hostile.

INT:  They were at the desks all day.  How about lunch?

Allen:  Some of them, they had lunch in the classroom so some of them would sit at their own desks but at the same time, they would go to the cafeteria.  To start off most of the time they couldn’t talk so they were silent at the lunch tables.

INT:  They were silent from the time that they arrived at school until the time they left at the end of the day a lot of the time?

Allen:  That was the means. That’s what they wanted to do.

INT:  You described it as their desk was their prison.

Allen:  Yes sir.

INT:  This affected the way that they acted toward one another and they acted toward the teachers too?
Allen:  Yes sir.  How can you keep a person inside for ten hours out of the day?  . . . .

INT:  Can you tell me about your low point and your high point while you were at KIPP?

Allen:  As far as what?

INT:  As far as your own experience as a teacher?

Allen:  What I liked about it and what I didn’t like or my low point as a teacher as far as what I was good at?

INT:  Yes.  When you think of the worst thing that comes to mind when you think about KIPP what was your low point and then at the same time, on the flip side when you think about KIPP at it’s best, what comes to mind?

Allen: The low point it was we didn’t teach them morals and I feel that’s been taken out of a lot of the classrooms, even the public school setting because everything is taught to the test.  At KIPP it was more to the test because ten hours they were basically focused on that test so the low point was just basically we weren’t able to teach them how to interact with one another so a lot of our students would go off to high school, a private high school and they wouldn’t make it because they weren’t able to interact in an effective way, because they were either too mean or they weren’t able to adapt to the surrounding that they were in. 

That was the low point and the low point was that I felt that I wasn’t able to really build relationships with the children because there were so many of them in the classroom and I saw ninety children a day.  Not at all was I able to build a relationship with them and at the same time, I was tired.  You talk about burning out on some of your articles.  I was that teacher that was definitely burning out because my whole life; I was there on Friday nights; I was coming in on Saturdays because we also have Saturday classes.  Those were the low points of my life with KIPP, and eventually I was on the verge of what I would say going crazy, because I wasn’t pulling the students like I wanted to and if I taught any subject it would either be social studies or reading because I am not a great at _____ person because in school they didn’t really teach us how to teach math. 

The high points were teaching them about college, so teaching the 5th graders about college was one of the things that I think a public school should pick up.  It shouldn’t just be in 5th grade and I know that it isn’t.  We are just now getting an elementary school so this will be my first time really observing the elementary schools and the relationship that I have built with the teachers there.  We had wonderful teachers, wonderful teachers.  We saw each other all the time so basically I would call that my home and I still talk to the teachers still today.  Even though I don’t like the KIPP model, I do love the teachers that we had there. 

INT:  When you say that you felt like you were going crazy, what was that like?  How did you know that and what brought about your leaving in November?

Allen:  It was a lot of stuff. . . . I had one child that basically had one of those little skateboards, finger skateboard; I took that away from him and he took my clipboard and that’s when I say that I snapped because I have never been disrespected by a child like that.  And then another girl, she just threw her notebook on the ground and for me to try to control, because I am thinking I have to be mean to the children and so I took the desk and I looked into the corner of where I was going to throw the desk.  I was aiming for the ceiling.  So I didn’t do it but I did move the desk and that scared her and for me doing that, I thought that I was losing myself in the process; I wasn’t doing what I felt like I was sent there to do, which was educate children and have them love learning.  Those children did not love learning at all and will they ever?  I hope so, but from the way it was looking, they are testing constantly so they will learn how to test.  That is what they will learn. 

INT:  You felt like you were losing it so that’s when you decided that this was when you were going to leave?

Allen:  Yes sir and the children they weren’t learning from me, but to find out only I think thirty to forty percent of them I think were able to pass the test, so the _______portion of the test.  A lot of them went to summer school so I am thinking sixty percent of them went to summer school.

INT:  How did that make you feel when you left?

Allen:  Free. [Laughter] At the same time, I still came in because when I build a relationship with a child I know that when a person leaves it leaves a lasting impression on them.  It’s like divorce; the teacher is divorcing the child.  I didn’t want to leave but in order for them to be educated, I had to leave because I don’t want to be the reason why they weren’t educated, because I was ineffective, definitely ineffective in a means like that. 

INT:  You felt free, but what was that like, feeling free again?

Allen: I was able to basically go back and find my passion again, because being in that predicament, I still loved children but I didn’t love teaching.  I was able to get back into more of the books as far as reading about more educators and I found I was able to find myself again.

. . . .

INT:  If you were going to change anything about KIPP, what would you change?

Allen:  If I was going to change anything about KIPP?  The long hours.  I don’t feel children should be stuck in a building ten hours; I don’t feel like that’s true to learning.  I would have more hands-on.  I would do more field trips just to get them outside of the classroom and what our children in the inner city don’t have is exposure so I would expose them to more.  . . . I would have more parent involvement.
. . . .

INT:  Is there anything that you would like to talk about in terms of your KIPP experience that I didn’t ask you about or I haven’t asked you about?

Allen:  I would say that they are a temporary fix, and what I mean by that is that right now they are one of the best I would say and who I feel is the charter also.  Who I feel is the best right now from what I have read; I don’t know, I haven’t seen Jeffrey Canada, his program Harlem Children’s Zone, but after Harlem Children’s Zone you have KIPP so those were the main ones that were focused on “Waiting for Superman”. 

They are a temporary fix and it is not a solution, not at all.  It is only going to be partial because they are good for right now, but when you look at the long-term, those children are not thinkers, not at all because they are conditioned to take a test; they are not conditioned to love learning and to learn on their own, but to take a test.  

It is good for now because they are providing opportunities that urban children wouldn’t have and they give them the opportunity to go off to school, but when they go onto those schools they are alone because they don’t know how to interact with other races.  That’s a bad thing for the public schools itself because they have supposedly integrgated the schools but at the same time, they are still separated, definitely separated.  They are integrated but they are still segregated.

INT:  Still separate.

Allen:  Yes sir.

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