Sometimes, I worry that I’m seeing thing that aren’t there. I tend to be pretty idealistic and hopeful; I try to see the best in people, and I always think that things can get better, but I recognize that my idealism very often casts a veil over what I’m really seeing.
That being so, it’s hard for me, sometimes, to get underneath bad things. I tend to be all or nothing; either the bad thing is terrible and needs to be burned to the ground, or I second-guess myself and think that maybe things aren’t that bad and I’m just overreacting.
This is why it’s so wonderful to get second opinions about things. I have felt vindicated in the fact that several of my coworkers have expressed dismay and frustration about many of the things that *I* see as problematic in the school, but something happened the other day that really confirmed that I’m not making this shit up.
We’ve got a graduate student working here as an aide. She’s primarily working one-on-one with two of the most needy students in the school, but she also goes to a couple of their classes with them (which is how I met her; one of her kids is in one of my morning sections). As part of one of her grad classes, she’s required to write reflections about her experiences.
We’ve had a couple of private conversations about the environment of the school. Most of them have been her expressing her shock over what she’s been seeing; a lot of her experiences thus far have been very different from what she was expecting, and these differences have been troubling to her. She understands the desire to reject the “traditional” model of kids in desk cranking out worksheets, but she also understands that it’s important for teenagers to have SOME structure – and for needy kids to have a lot of it – and she’s not seeing the kids get that here.
Her dismay and frustration have increased over the past couple of weeks, and that’s been reflected in her writing for her grad classes. Here, unedited, is a reflection that she shared with me two weeks ago:
Throughout the semester, I observed several classes in the course of my work as a paraprofessional at Charter School (CS). In many ways, the experience has been a valuable introduction to the challenges and rewards of high school teaching. I am only more convinced after these observations that teaching is my vocation. The observation has also been useful as an exposure to the alternative approach to learning that CS is modeled on. In the first place, there is no homework. All of the schoolwork required of students takes place in the classroom. Although this drastically reduces the amount of time students are required put into their studies, the hope is that it affords the students the autonomy to direct their learning.
After two months of working at CS, I am becoming increasingly convinced that this educational model is at best ineffective and at worst, damaging to students’ self-esteem. Unfortunately, the culture of the school seems largely to be one of underachievement. Grades are given on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is the only failing grade. I have yet to understand the minutiae of this grading system, and the academic expectations communicated to students vary wildly from teacher to teacher. However, in most cases, my impression is that both individual assignment and quarter grades are often arbitrary.
Worst of all, none of this is lost on the students, most of whom seem to be very aware that the expectations placed on them are drastically lower than those found at other high schools. On many occasions, I’ve heard students refer to “CS moments,” in which assignments, activities, or lessons are strikingly watered-down or blatantly age-inappropriate. In one instance, a student asked his teacher if they needed to memorize the material being presented. “You don’t need to know anything,” another student replied, “this is CS.”
A school with no homework, no tests, no finals. It is as if, in response to the numerous shortcomings of traditional education, CS has thrown the entire playbook out the window. And in its place, CS has established itself as a school that pivots around the concept of project-based learning. What is missing is any pretense of a theoretical framework within which project-based learning is to be practiced and to what ends. In its rejection of all facets of the public school experience, CS has become a caricature of the so-called progressive schools that John Dewey criticizes in Experience and Education, for “assuming that it suffices to reject the ideas and practices of the old education and then go to the opposite extreme” (22).
Although I disagree with many of the underlying philosophies that structure the classes I have observed, the experience has nevertheless been instructive. It has reinforced for me the value of concrete learning goals in lesson planning. While the concept of learning goals may in some instances be conceived of as being too rigid and inimical to student-centered learning, CS offers a vivid illustration of their necessity in lesson-planning. Most of all, CS has spurred me to heed Dewey’s warning to proceed carefully with branching off from the practices of traditional education––not because those practices are unobjectionable, but because it does not in fact suffice to build one’s educational philosophy on the foundations of the opposite extreme.
and this came as a text message to me this morning:
This. Is. Not. A. School.
Just came from —‘s class. No instructions given for first ten minutes, then a student presentation a la the “Google this shit and present” pedagogy. The presentation closed with a vocab activity that the kids came up with. And no body. As in not a single goddamn kid even pretended to participate. And — did nothing. So the last 10 minutes were a waste too. Not a school.
My misery kind of loves this company. If nothing more, she’s confirming for me that I’m not seeing things that aren’t there.