My wife's personal statement for a recent job application:
Speaking with a Providence colleague recently about changes to our city schools, he shook his head sadly and said “it isn’t like the Bil Johnson days anymore.” In 1999, I came to Providence, inspired by the work Bil was doing at Brown with student teachers and by the similar reforms working their way through the district. By 2001, we were able to open a small site-based school, designed around Coalition principles, serving 360 urban students who used the school primarily as a neighborhood school. Over the years, we formed multi-grade teams, wrote our own interdisciplinary curriculum, created a gateway process, designed rubrics and portfolio requirements, created a flexible block schedule, sent kids on internships, camping trips, community service projects, and finally to college. We sent as many kids to college as the city’s exam school, and more importantly, as many of our kids were staying in college as were graduates of the exam school. We grew more confident and began to trust each other more. We began writing curriculum that was not only interdisciplinary within each of our four teams, but that was united around a school-wide theme and essential questions. Now our work became very public. Student exhibitions became such the norm; clearly high standards were expected of everyone, teachers and students alike. All students entered their senior year confident in their writing, presenting, and problem-solving skills, and all students graduated knowing they were well prepared for the world beyond Feinstein High School.
That is, until a new superintendent ended our program last year in an effort to standardize programs across the city. Suddenly, the scramble for “credits” began. A student who refused to complete an academic defense could not be held back from graduating, because she had enough “credits.” This year I have students who became seniors by credit rather than gateway; the skills these students are lacking are palpable, as more importantly are the strategies to become more independent learners they did not have time to develop. Since I don’t have a team, I have no one to turn to for my own strategies I can use to help these students. Since I don’t have a flexible schedule, I can’t have a student come see me twice in a day to check in on his progress.
The difference between our old program and our new one is at least as striking with my freshmen. There is little motivation to do better, since all one needs to “pass” is a D-. I have no older students in the room to provide positive role models, leadership, or insight into my expectations. I am so isolated from other teachers this year that I had to ask the freshmen to write a reflection describing the kinds of learning they are experiencing in other classes so that I could provide more appropriate scaffolding. I am still culture shocked this late in the year; recently a student asked if he needed to save an assignment. I opened up a file drawer full of student work going back several years and gestured at it, not even sure how to respond.
If nothing else, this year has provided me with concrete evidence that the Coalition principles are best practice not just for me, because they are “convenient” or because I am used to them, but they are also best practice for kids. In October, one senior reflected that the school was now all about grades, and that he appreciated my class because he was still building on the same reading, writing, and problem solving skills he began with three years ago. Another student reflected recently that without a school-wide theme this year, he was having trouble identifying what he had really learned. And every day when the bell rings after 54 minutes, we still all groan and ask “is that it?”
I have decided that can’t be it. And so I am seeking a place to teach where the process is still as important as the product, where the voices of both students and teachers count, and where the spirit of Ted Sizer lives on.