Before returning to my home state of Maine, I spent several years teaching in New York City, including one year at a charter school in Brooklyn.
It was not a good experience.
While at this school, in search of support and a better understanding of the madness I was witnessing, I discovered a website maintained by professor and educational researcher, Jim Horn, called Schools Matter. Jim was looking for teachers who had worked at KIPP or KIPP-related schools (as mine was) to interview for his upcoming book, “Work Hard, Be Hard.” I reached out to him back in 2011 to share my experience.
I am re-posting the interview here for a couple reasons:
First, at Brooklyn Ascend, we relied heavily on Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion,” – a book that has been the subject of a number of posts going around the internet right now. I want people to understand what my experience was like with these teaching methods.
Second, I have become increasingly concerned by parallels between the practices used at Ascend (and schools like it) with the system of education that I have written a great deal about on this blog, known in Maine as “proficiency-based” education, but elsewhere as “competency-based” or “mastery” learning. In these systems, as at Ascend, “outcomes” reign supreme – meaning that all learning must be observable, skill-based, and measurable. Teachers have very little autonomy; instead, they are treated like technicians. Micromanagement is the norm. Children’s performance on assessments are the “bottom line.” The natural joy, humanity, and messiness of real learning are lost.
In this interview, I am “R.”
INT: When you went looking for an opportunity to teach in a charter school, can you talk about that a little bit? Why a charter school?
R: At the time I didn’t know a whole lot about them. I actually hadn’t seen it yet. I had seen the advertisement for Waiting for Superman. I had this idea in my head that charter schools were, and I think I even said at the time that they were, “getting the job done.” I didn’t really know what I meant by that. What I was looking for was just a different type of experience after working at the public school that I had been at for three years. I had heard that you can get paid more at a charter school. I had heard that they treat teachers more like professionals at charter schools. I don’t even know what else I heard.
I went on the web sites, and I had found a couple of schools that had really nice looking websites. Harlem Success had one. There was this school called Harlem Village Academy in Harlem that had one also. I had heard that charter schools are closing the achievement gap. There are these certain schools that are really making it work. I didn’t really do my homework before I got into it. A lot of what ended up happening, ended up really surprising and disappointing me.
INT: Let’s talk a little bit about that. I guess I could phrase it this way. How was the experience of working in a school different from your expectations?
R: I had thought that I would be treated like a professional, and that teaching would somehow be seen as a respected job. I don’t really know what I expected, looking back. I know that when I got there, they immediately changed what I had applied to do. I had applied to be, and they had hired me as a third grade pull out teacher.
A couple of months into the year, they gave the students a mock ELA test and a mock math test. They panicked, and realized that the kids weren’t really doing very well, or that they weren’t on track, just pulling threes and fours at the end of the year. They decided to completely rearrange the third grade.
INT: What kind of tests did they give them?
R: They gave them a mock ELA. You know New York State has a state exam each year, and they gave them a mock test. I think it was one from one of the previous years. These are done about once a month, all through the school year, gave them a mock test to see what their progress was. They completely changed it, and then they decided to restructure the third grade.
They had us come in over Christmas break, and told us that I was no longer going to be the pull out teacher. They were going to put all of the lowest performing kids into one class, and have it so there was the low, medium and high class. Now all of a sudden, I had a class of thirty scholars, we had to call them. I was only allowed to teach reading and math. I really wasn’t even allowed to plan my own lessons.
That was a big difference than what I had expected versus what actually happened. I had it in my head that I would be working in this place where teaching is really respected. Then I ended up having to spoon feed to the kids. They were handing everything to me, saying, “You have to teach this lesson, and this lesson.” I felt more like a robot for a while, to be honest. It was pretty miserable.
INT: What were these lessons like? Were they scripted lessons? Did you have a script?
R: What they did is we had at Brooklyn Ascend a data analyst. She’s a former Teach for America person. I think she was a PhD in Data Instruction, or something like that. Basically, she took the mock ELA and the mock math data and analyzed it, and came up with these certain concepts that the kids weren’t doing well on. Some certain percentage hadn’t done well on the main idea questions. Some certain percentage hadn’t done well on making inferences in narrative procedure type passages. Just pulled right from the test. I’m trying to get this all right. Our data analyst basically pulled out these skills from looking at the mock data. I remember another thing that really surprised me which was that I didn’t have any authority to actually assess the kids myself. Which for me was really disappointing because I had come from working with a really small group, and that was a big part of what I enjoyed about teaching. Really getting to know the kids, and figuring out on a really deep level what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, why they’re struggling in some parts of reading and not others. That was something I loved about teaching.
All of a sudden, I had no power to do that at all. We had to use documents placed in front of us that said, “This percentage needs to work on this.” Our school Director, who incidentally a Teach for America graduate, decided to take one of the second grade teachers and put her in charge of the third grade. We now had this supervisor, and it was her job to come up with these scripted lessons that we would then have to present to the kids.
INT: You had a script. You had something to say, and the children had something that they were supposed to say back to you?
R: Some of it was. The lessons were scripted in that it was all written, like say such and such to the kids. We had to do this thing where we had to snap our fingers and then the kids would repeat it back. To me it was just complete and utter nonsense. The kids aren’t learning a thing this way. It blew me away. For some reason, nobody said anything about it, either. Everybody was just going along with this way of teaching. I don’t know–It felt like we were training dogs, with all the snapping.
INT: Was their chanting also?
R: We had to do the chanting, oh yeah. Every morning we had to start out. The way it worked is the kids would come in at seven-thirty. They came in silently. They had to walk in single file. The first thing that would happen would they would stop in front of the doors to the cafeteria. There would be a teacher sitting there who would pull up their shirt, and make sure they had a belt on. Pull up their pants, pull up the bottoms and make sure they had on the right color shoes, and the right color socks. If the top three buttons weren’t buttoned, she’d button up the top button.
The kids would come in and they had to have breakfast completely silently, which I think is what they do at KIPP. I’m not positive. A completely silent breakfast, which was also fairly disappointing to me because at my old school, breakfast was a time when I’d chat with the kids about their weekend. Get a sense of where they were at in their lives. What was going on with them. Are they having good days? Are they having bad days? Did they get their homework done? Do they need any help with it? This was a time to chat with the kids. It was also a time I really liked. Now I had to be completely, completely silent.
As teachers, we were required to carry these clipboards that had a list of each child’s name. Any time we had to give a kid a “correction,” we had to mark it on the chart. If a kid whispered to another one during breakfast, we had to write down “talking.” We had what I think at some schools they call it “Slant,” but at Brooklyn Ascend we called it STAR. They had to sit up tall, track the speaker, attention forward, respect always. That’s what it stands for. At breakfast, everybody’d come in silently, eat their breakfast silently. They had a choice to either take out a book, or they had to sit with their hands folded in front of them. I wasn’t even allowed to talk to them. Sometimes I’d secretly try to walk beside them and whisper, “Did you have a good weekend? Is everything okay?”
They’re eight year olds, and they need somebody to check in with. At least that’s the way I feel. I had one little girl who I had moved into a shelter, but we had to whisper about it at breakfast. She had to whisper and tell me, “Things are okay.” (Deep sigh.) It was awful. A silent breakfast. Silent breakfast would stop when one of the head teachers — our third grade supervisor would stop and say, every morning was the same thing, it was “Good morning, scholars.” They’d say, “Good morning, Miss ….” Then we’d say, “How do you feel today?” Then they would say, “Hungry for knowledge to get us to college.”
Then we’d do some other type of cheer, “Pick up your pencils, and you will be rewarded” was another one. These all come right out of, I don’t think they come from KIPP but I know that they use them at the Uncommon Schools, and a lot of the other charter schools in the area. Every morning, right before you went upstairs, we had to say this one cheer, “What’s out destination (clap clap)? Higher education.” Have you heard that one before?
INT: Mm hmm.
R: We’d do that, and then the drums would start, and they’d have to march out silently. Again, completely silent though the kids have been at school for thirty to forty minutes and have had a chance —
They–we’d walk out of the cafeteria around eight or eight ten. Even after a weeklong vacation, they still haven’t even had the chance to say good morning to each other. They still haven’t even had a chance to say good morning to the teacher. It was crazy. We’d go up to the classroom. They’d go to their seats. Their job was to silently take out a book. They’d sit for another half an hour, doing completely silent reading. This was for most of the year, except for starting December. They’d come up, they’d unpack. We’d have small groups where we had this scripted reading comprehensive test prep thing that we had to do. Which was basically completely mimicking what happens on the state ELA test. There was a reading passage, and they’d have to read it and figure out what answers to pick, and bubble it. Sometimes we got to talk if we were doing that. At eight thirty, it would be the first period of the day. We’d start a lesson. Even the lessons, there still wasn’t an opportunity to talk. Again, you asked what my expectations were versus what actually happened. I thought that a school that really prides itself in giving the kids what they need, and bringing them to where they need to go, you would assume that it’s going to foster some kind of community, and that the kids are going to get to know their teacher. Something, but there was nothing.
You had to go right from silent breakfast to silent reading, to the first lesson. Every single lesson had to be in the format of what’s called I Do /We Do /You Do. You’ve heard of that probably?
INT: No, I haven’t heard of that.
R: I Do /We Do /You Do is one of Doug Lemov’s techniques. Everything the lesson did had to be, first the teacher explicitly models how to do it on the board. Let’s say we’re learning, if it were math, how to write a fraction. You would say, “First, I’m going to show you how to do it.” Literally, we would have to say, “First, I’m going to show you. Watch what I do. I’m going to write the number 1, and then I’m going to draw a line, and write the number two.”
That was the I Do. Then We Do would be, “Now, can somebody help me do the next one?” We’d do it together. Then You Do would be we’d pass out worksheets, and the kids would do it on the worksheets. It was always, always worksheets. We did stacks, and stacks and stacks of worksheets. You wouldn’t believe how many worksheets these kids had to do. It was crazy. It all had to be in that format. I Do. We Do. You do. Then You Do would be independent worksheet time. There was no pair work. Nothing.
INT: No group work, no cooperative group work?
R: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Also, sometimes I would get in trouble because we got observed constantly. The impression I got was that they thought the reason the third graders hadn’t done well on that original mock exam was because the third grade instruction was off. I was new to a charter school. In fact, actually all four of us were new to charter school that year. We were constantly being observed. We had to come in over Christmas break, and do this whole training, and it was all based on Teach like a Champion, which is the Doug Lemov technique. We were always being observed.
Our supervisor would come in and videotape, or check off that we were doing this, that and the other thing. I used to present a question for the kids to ponder. I like to start lessons like that from time to time. Not all the time, but some times. Let’s look at this problem on the board. Let’s brainstorm some ways about how we might solve this. We were not allowed to do that. That was an inefficient use of the time. I had to go right from teacher shows the kid how to do it, to We Do, to You Do. Which I hated. I couldn’t get over how superficial it was. I didn’t understand how no one seemed to be saying anything about it. It was like, “No. This is just how things happen here. We’ve got to get them ready for the tests.”
INT: Your three new colleagues, there were four sections of third grade, right?
R: At first, there were three classes. I was the pull out teacher. They restructured it so that at first, I had the whole class of the lowest performing. We had this one floating teacher who would teach some classes of different things, and coach each in some classes. They changed it again. I can’t remember when. I think it was in January or February. The class that I was teaching we’d pull out not quite half, ten of them at a time, to a special room because they were starting to realize that having thirty “struggling kids” in one class wasn’t really working out very well. All sitting in rows. All of the kids in my class, not all of them, but we had seven of them who had IEP’s. You know what IEP’s are, right?
R: Individualized Education Program. Of course. Some of them with IEP’s, at least four of them, who had diagnosed ADHD. These poor kids just had to sit there with their hands folded, and they would rock and they would tap. Every time they would rock or tap or talk, you would have to mark it on the chart. If you had to mark it three times, then they had to go to time out. If they had to go to time out twice, they had to go to the Dean. There was about five, six or seven kids who just couldn’t get through it. They were constantly either in time out, or in the Dean because they just physically were struggling to sit that still.
I don’t blame them at all. The kids that I had taught up in the Bronx, they also had ADHD. Part of what I thought as my job was to find ways to make it so that even though they still had a lot of energy, and needed to move, and talk, and be active they could still learn. There are so many things that you can do, I think, to be active, so that they can still learn. Instead of this, they just got sent to the Dean. I had one little boy who got suspended probably once or twice a week. He wanted to talk, and he wanted to tap, and he didn’t want to have to sit completely still. He couldn’t sit completely still like the rest of his peers. It was really, really sad. I didn’t think it was fair to some. It really was.
INT: Were these children with special needs, were their needs being met? Were their IEP’s being paid attention to?
R: I’ll tell you what, I never saw them, because we had a special education coordinator. She’s the one that oversees what happens with all special education needs. I never even got to see the kids IEPs, so I don’t know exactly what they specified. We did have one teacher for the whole school. She was the SEP teacher, Special Education something, I can’t remember what it stands for. She would come once a week maybe, and take the kids out. I honestly have no idea what she did with them. I never saw an IEP.
INT: You were their teacher but you never saw their IEPs?
R: Nope. Those were in the office with the special education coordinator. Frankly, even if I had seen them, we literally weren’t allowed to differentiate. We had to teach every single lesson in the same exact format. Every kid. There was no concept of accommodating. There was no concept of maybe having this one group work on something a little bit different. It was the most rigid way of teaching.
INT: How did the parents of these children feel about that [the rigidity with no accommodations]?
R: I don’t really know because I don’t really know if they were aware of what actually happened in the school. I never saw a parent actually come in and observe a classroom. I never once saw a parent actually in the school during school hours. I don’t think they really knew what their kid was being expected to do, and why they kept getting in trouble. They just kept getting these phone calls saying, “So and so was talking during class. We had to mark it down four times. It disrupted everyone. Now you have to come pick him up.” I don’t think they really knew.
I do know that the one little boy that I was talking about earlier, his parents were getting angry with the school because the school was putting enormous, enormous pressure on them to have him medicated for ADHD. There was this idea that the only way he was going to be able to stay in his seat was if he was on medication. I’m not anti-medicine, but I have seen having worked with special kids up in the Bronx, kids that are way, way more extreme than this little boy was. The fact that everyone was pushing meds for him so hard, it just didn’t seem right to me. He was the kind of kid that if I had been given the opportunity, I really feel confident that I could have found ways for him to succeed in the classroom. I don’t think he was a kid that needed medication. I’m not an expert for that obviously, but I know that his parents were getting very frustrated and had stopped showing up for the meetings. In fact, I never really set them up. Our supervisor set them up.
….So we would have our first class of English from 8:30 till ten. Then we would have a twenty minute–once again silent–in that break, till 10:20. They had to take out their books, and silently read. We’d give them a little bit of Cheez-its or something. Then we would go right into math. Then they’d have the special. They didn’t get a break until 12:45. So they’ve been at school from 7:30 to 12:45, literally have not been given any opportunity to talk unless it’s for an explicit question that the teacher’s asked them.
INT: What kind of specials did they have?
R: How many specials did they have? They had art a couple time a week. It was just funny, though, because I was an art major. The way art was taught blew my mind. Even art was like, “Now pick up your black pen. Draw a line down the center of the page.” It was just like fear that if we gave the kids any freedom at all that somehow the school would collapse which I didn’t think was going to happen.
INT: Every class was taught with this total compliance?
R: I Do. We Do. You Do. Do you have Doug Lemov’s book, by any chance, to teach Teacher like a Champion?
INT: I’ve read about Doug Lemov. I haven’t read his book.
R: He’s got a chapter in there about it. Doug Lemov was the bible of our school. If Doug Lemav said it in his book, it was how it was going to be done.
INT: The world according to Doug?
R: If Doug Lemov says, “I Do, You Do, We Do,” then that’s how every single lesson’s going to get done. If Doug Lemov said that call and response is a good form of teaching, where the teacher says, “Two times two is four,” snap. There was a lot of snapping, a lot of repeating.
INT: The students got there at seven thirty.
R: They did.
INT: You guys got there at seven.
R: We would get there some mornings at six, some mornings 6:30, some mornings at seven. It just depended on how much you’d gotten done the night before. During the heart of the year, I would say the really intense part which was the period between December and April break, because we were so focused on getting them ready for the test, we would come in at six and stay till seven, seven thirty, eight at night. It was hard.
INT: You’re doing twelve to thirteen hour days.
R: Yeah. It was a lot. It was a lot.
INT: Let’s get back to our lunch time. They finally get lunch at 12:45, right?
R: No. 12:45 is when they get recess. They get recess only if they have completed the homework that we’d given them the night before. If they have even one little section missing of their homework, then they don’t get recess. They have to sit at their seat. It was indoor recess. It was a maximum of fifteen minutes during lunch time. At the beginning of the week, they could choose one game. They had five different games like Sorry! or Connect Four. That was their one game for the whole week. They would get ten minutes to play because the last five minutes were for clean up. They get literally ten minutes to sit on the floor, and play one game. The same game all week. That’s it.
INT: They’d play the same game for five days for ten minutes each day.
R: Oh, you’ve got it. That was recess. They only got to do that if they completely, one hundred percent finished the homework from the night before. It was crazy.
INT: How long did these children work on their homework? Would you estimate that they spent an hour? Two hours? Three hours?
R: I would say about one hour. That was what we aimed for, what they wanted us to aim to give the kids. I wrote this in one of the emails that I sent. For a while, they had all of the lowest performing kids, I think it was optional, the parents had to sign a form. Most of them agreed that the kids would come in either for an hour before school, or an hour after school to do additional test prep. For a lot of my kids, they would come in from 7:30. The school day ended at 4:30. They would stay an extra hour till 5:30. They’d have to go home and do another hour of homework. If they didn’t get all of that done, the next day they wouldn’t get that ten minute break. To me, I thought it was inhumane. I really did. I was, “For an eight year old child to have to spend that much time with that short of a break, is this legal? Can you really legally be doing this to these children?” I guess they could.
INT: The children have their recess at 12:45. At one o’clock, I assume that’s lunch time, right?
R: One o’clock we did a whole class trip to the bathroom. All bathroom trips were whole class. We had to walk down the hall. I’m sure you’ve seen it at these charter schools. It’s called Halls. What was it?
Hands by you sides,
That’s how they had to walk down the hall. We’d walk down. We’d do a whole class bathroom trip. It was their opportunity to go to the bathroom, basically for the rest of the day. Unless they had an emergency, in which case we had a procedure for that. They’d go down to lunch at 1:15. I would say about fifty percent of the time they were allowed to have social lunch. The other fifty had to be silent lunch because the day before had been too rowdy or something like that. There were a lot of days where they had to have a silent lunch.
About half the time they were allowed to have, we would call it social lunch. The other half they had to have silent lunch. It would be because the school Director had decided that the previous day’s social lunch was too loud, or they had gotten too rowdy so the next day was completely silent. There were literally some days where they’d come in at 7:30, and not be given any opportunity to interact with one another through the entire day. Even after lunch, there was not. That was the lunch period.
INT: The lunch period is thirty minutes?
R: No, the lunch period went from 1:15, and we could pick them up at 1:35. That was also the teacher lunch period, from 1:15 to 1:35. We got a twenty minute lunch. We’d come back upstairs. If the kids were in my class, they’d have an hour of reading comprehension or math. After that, they did have PE. What was called PE. What PE looked like at our school was a structured dance class. We had a dance teacher rather than a gym teacher. The dance teacher would teach them these very choreographed routines that were really cute. They looked really great, but they were very, very structured. They had to learn all the steps. It was for a performance they did at the end of the year. Even PE time they didn’t have a chance to kick a ball around, or play tag, or anything like that. It was still one row in front, another row in the back, these are how the steps go. Even PE was very, very structured and very controlled.
INT: Did they dress out, or did they go to the gym?
R: We had what we called the NPR. Brooklyn Ascend is not in a school building. I’m not sure what it was before it was a school, but it’s more like an office type building that they had converted into a school. There wasn’t a real gym. There was NPR downstairs, which is what they used for the cafeteria for breakfast and lunch. They pushed the tables to the side, and that would become the PE room. That’s where they went for that.
INT: That happened after lunch.
R: After lunch, they would have a period of either math or reading. Which again, from December to May was a scripted test prep lesson almost always. They would have that, and come back for the last period of the day. If they had reading after lunch the first period, then they would do math the second, or we’d flip flop. That brought us to almost four o’clock, or 3:45. We’d pack up. They would get a snack, and again this snack was a silent snack. They’d get their book bags, one at a time.
We had a very strict procedure of how the kids went up and got their belongings. Each kid had what’s called a snapshot, where we’d sign the snapshot. They got a zero, one or two for behavior that day. They got a zero, one or two for their homework, and whether they got a zero, one or two for attendance and punctuality. We’d circle that. Put it in their homework folder. They’d put it in their book bags. They’d have silent snack. Then it was time to go home. That was the day.
INT: They’d have math, reading and PE.
R: In the afternoon, yes. The higher kids, the kids that didn’t do quite so poorly on the first mock exam were allowed to have a period of science in the afternoon. They got science for part of the time, and then I think they switched to social studies. My kids, because everybody was so panicked that they weren’t going to pass the reading and math state exams, got no social studies and no science. Which wasn’t very nice for them, because they were, “Why don’t we get science? We like science? Why don’t we get social studies?” It was quite unfair to them.
INT: If your children went home at four o’clock, why were you there until six or seven?
R: The kids were gone by 4:45, because from four o’clock to about 4:20 was pack up, snack, and things like that. We had to lead them outside, and wait for the parents to come. That would take another twenty minutes. At the end of the day, every Wednesday we would have a team meeting. That would usually take up at least an hour, hour and a half. How did it work? After a while they stopped actually scripting and handing us the lessons, and said, “This is what you have to write lessons about.” We had to stay and write the lessons, and make copies. What else? There was all this paperwork, too. Also we had to make phone calls. At the end of the day, any child who left the day on Fix It or Stop. What we had in the classroom was a behavior system where every kid would start out at the top of the chart with a green circle that said, “College Bound.” I think I described the behavior chart, where we had to mark down if they talked, or turned around in their seat, or this or that. Any time we had to make three corrections, we had to move their clip to Fix It. If you had to make another three, we’d move their clip to Stop. At the end of the day, any kid that was on Fix It or Stop we had to call home to the families and say that their kid had done this, that or this and left the day at Fix It, left the day on Stop. That took some time, too, making phone calls. What else? A lot of really mundane things. A lot of hanging out by the photocopy machine waiting for copies to come out. That type of thing. What was your question?
INT: How has your experience at this school affected you professionally and personally?
R: Great question. I hate to say this, but I think it was a big emphasis for the decision I made this year not to go back to teaching this fall.
This year was so miserable that I don’t want to go back. The idea of starting at a whole new school, it’s too much. I don’t want to do it. …
I’ve got another friend that’s starting up at a charter school that sounds quite similar to mine this fall. I don’t want to scare her, but I’ve tried to share what I’ve been through. It’s definitely affected me. Definitely. In some ways, in a great way. In some ways, it’s fueled my fire to actually do something. I have to say it’s been a huge change. I admit I started out the year really not knowing I had been duped, to be honest. I hadn’t really done my homework, and was believing everything that I had heard about how they’re closing the achievement gap, and they’re giving these kids these opportunities to get into college. Then I worked at one of them. Wait a second. This is not right. If this is what’s happening to tons of kids, this is a really big issue. Something that really concerns me.
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. 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.”
(The photo below s from this article that was printed in the New York Times this past April, and closely matches the image I described above.)