Monday, October 17, 2005

Through the Looking Glass

Today I discovered a whole new world, despite the fact that Aladdin was not there to help me. Apparently he was at "that tiger's head that rises out of the sand." Whatever, it's totally over between us.

My roommate works at one of the KIPP schools here. She brought me along today so I could meet the principal and sit in on some classes. Note that this school does not select kids; it's an open lottery system, and most of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most are minorities. I'm not going to say everything was perfect, even though I want to, because then people will accuse me of seeing it through rose-colored glasses just because I agree with its methods. It's funny, because I actually was wearing actual rose-colored glasses.

Ok so here are some of my observations.

--The principal sitting at a school desk in the middle of the hallway, in front of a long line of little boys. Apparently the boys were tardy. The principal talked to each as they got their turn, then called their parents right in front of them. After that, they were sent to class.

--An 8th grade history class that was discussing the attempted impeachment of Andrew Johnson. One little boy asked about checks and balances. The teacher replied, "this was a massive check."

--A fifth grade class of 35 kids who were quieter, more polite, and harder-working the class of 10-15 kids I work with on a regular basis.

--A wall of eighth grade history essays that were clear, made sense, were neatly written, contained a crapload of historical content, and had been revised several times. I am not exaggerating when I say these kids' writing is 1000 times better than the kids' in my 11th grade class. These eighth graders are ready for high school. My 11th graders aren't even ready for junior high.

--Quiet in the halls, kids laughing and smiling in and out of class, neat binders, teachers who worked together, lots of mission reinforcement, repetition of chants and rhymes to memorize basic skills, grammar being taught, plaques of alumni colleges, pride.

I also went to the school on Saturday to help out at a practice interview event. The eighth graders often apply to selective high schools, including elite boarding schools, and have to do an interview to get in. We were their interviewers and asked them typical high school entrance questions. I had this one little eighth grade girl who was awesome. She was articulate, self-aware, outgoing, and enthusiastic. She described how much she had improved since she entered KIPP and how important schools is to her now. She talked about her parents' divorce years ago and how it had negatively impacted her school performance, but after a long talk with her mother about priorities, she decided that school should be first. She loved her history class and she used the word "complacent"! She was amazing. I don't have to hope that she'll do well in high school because you can just see that she will. It was a whole new experience for me, seeing all these kids like her in this school. It was hopeful.


At October 17, 2005 7:02 PM, Anonymous Catherine Johnson said...


At October 17, 2005 10:07 PM, Blogger PrajK said...

It's true that KIPP gets amazing results with the kids that come to them. But it's also true that the teachers at KIPP are incredibly dedicated--much more so than the average teacher. How feasible do you think it is get results like that in a large, diverse school district? Is it even possible to attract that much talent to the teaching force?

At October 18, 2005 9:09 AM, Blogger CatoRenasci said...

< begin rant>

I think the question of discipline is closely related to expectations. When children begin school, in kindergarten or pre-school, they are generally eager to please and have something of an open mind as to what constitutes acceptable behavior in school. If reasonable discipline is enforced from the beginning -- that is, reasonable for their ages, with clear rules about respect for others, and adequate outlets for the natural exuberance of children (boys especially), then their expectations of what is acceptable in school will reflect that discipline.

Of course, the key point to be instilled is that real discipline comes from within. A disciplined environment, such as a KIPP academy or a military school, simply provides the structure within which it is easy to exercise enough self-discipline that it can become an ingrained habit.

Short of the methods of the Prussian Army at the time of the Great Elector -- that is the discipline of absolute force -- no system of discipline can be successful unless the members of the group under discipline voluntarily (even if somewhat begrudgingly) accept it.

Accepting the discipline and internalizing it is easier for some than others, but ultimately, it is a sense that to refuse to accept the discipline will lead to one's exclusion from a desired group (whether it's a military unit, a school, futur opportunities or what -have-you) that will lead the reluctant to accept discipline.

The greatest cause of a lack of discipline in the public schools lies in the inability of teachers and administrators to readily exclude those who will not accept the rules. Once, such children were expelled. There also seems to be a lack of will on the part of teachers and administrators to enforce discipline.

Begin with the little things, like Giuliani's cleaning up the petty street crime of New York. Create order. Demand excellence. Don't worry about students' self-esteem, rather worry about their self-respect. Self-respect comes only from achievement.

< /rant>

At October 18, 2005 10:39 AM, Anonymous SuperSub said...

I've just recently found your blog through and it is comforting to hear stories from another student teacher that match my own.
Good job, keep it up, and don't let the BS from your classes get in the way of your teaching.

At October 18, 2005 4:51 PM, Blogger Heather said...

I too taught at a (high) school where my (urban) students used words like complacent. When I started teaching there in 1996, the teachers were not all young, but were bound and determined that our school would be different and better (a school for leaders and public servants).
It was.
I arrived in the school's fourth year. I was in the main of the teachers and found myself happily among the smartest and best professionals I'd ever worked with.
The kids got no leeway with bad behavior or lame excuses. They thrived (Georgetown, Cornell, NYU, Williams, Franklin and Marshall, Vassar, etc., etc.)

However, slowly the bset and brightest of the teachers left the building (conflicts with the principal mostly) and the will of the teachers eroded. Slowly the adults in the building ceased to set the tone and the school culture and the kids began to take over.

The final straw was 9/11. We were evacuated, and after that, the rest of the best of us left or left our bodies there, but our will elsewhere.

When I was pregnant with my first child (2000), my students brought me yogurt ("Miss, baby needs some calcium!"), opened doors, carried my bags. When I got pregnant with my second child (2003), I was convinced I wasn't safe in the building. A beloved gym teacher and our principal had been jumped by a student. The kids had taken over the building. My lame attempts to try to maintain some semblance of order (suggesting the same things we did in 1996) were greeted as though I were a Brownshirt.

Times had changed.
Staff had changed.

The good teachers are out there, but they need good leadership. Leaders who have a vision of a school that's "better than" and are willing to lock doors and teach.
Leaders who back the teachers up and remove the one loud kid so the other 33 can learn.
I LOVE the image of the principal in the hall with the tardy kids and a phone.

Guaranteed, those kids aren't late often. And definitely not without a reason.

If KIPP's what it takes, I'm both saddened, and heartened. Not a solution _I_ would have thrived in, but any solution is GREAT at this point.

At October 19, 2005 12:58 PM, Anonymous Great Lakes Writer/Editor said...

What about parents?

catorenasci's comments are on point, but what goes unsaid is the parents' role in supporting school disciplinary policies. Parents who give a da** will go out of their way to find schools like KIPP and will likely give great support to the school leaders on discipline. Many friends of mine who teach at public schools in a small city in the upper Midwest complain about the lack of support they get from parents when they enforce discipline.

A big fear about "choice" schemes--public school choice, charters, or private school vouchers--is that the successful schools will "cream" the population of students, leaving the more challenging students behind in the non-chosen schools, who now must work with this more difficult population with fewer resources. I know that, from an academic standpoint, the "creaming" hypothesis appears not to have been borne out, but another sort of "creaming"--namely, the pulling out of the regular school of involved and savvy parents--seems inevitable.

I'm not saying it's all the parents' fault. But don't leave them out of the equation.

At October 19, 2005 4:39 PM, Anonymous Jim Stegall said...

prajk brings up a good point: Where do you find teachers (and administrators, for that matter) dedicated enough to make the KIPP model succeed? Remember though, that we were all that dedicated once. I would bet that new teachers who begin their careers in an environment such as the one described above will be just that kind of teacher. I would also be willing to bet that they would stick with the job longer, and in greater numbers, than many do today.

At October 20, 2005 8:38 PM, Blogger newoldschoolteacher said...

Just to respond to Prajk...I would kill to work at that school. Long hours be damned, at least you're doing something meaningful and successful, rather than tragically noble. I don't have a family, I don't have hobbies really. I can devote that much time to a job. And people like me will be attracted by this, as TFA attests. Also, responding to the parent comment, I'm not really sure what the consequences would be of a large-scale choice effort. Maybe neglected kids would end up in the same school. But who are we to deny urban parents the choices that their wealthier peers enjoy through private school? And aren't the parents who truly care entitled to put their child in a school in which he/she can succeed? Perhaps we will always lose some kids, but surely we can do better than we are right now. I have seen too many dedicated kids, and too many caring parents, to think otherwise.

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