After two days I feel there’s enough water under the bridge (the chain bridge of course) here in Budapest to circle back to my 1st blog, which voiced my concerns about adolescents losing the spark of curiosity and the confidence in themselves to take chances in a classroom. What I am finding here is no different than the observations that I’ve seen over the last dozen years in classrooms in Baltimore. Towards the end of my time teaching in Baltimore County Public Schools, the State of Maryland instituted state tests in various courses taught in Maryland high schools. The ramifications of these tests were not inconsequential as students could possibly find themselves repeating a course if they were not able to earn a sufficient score on the test. Moreover, teachers and schools could find themselves in hot water if their students did not perform up to standards. These consequences were serious enough that more than a few schools were found guilty of changing students’ scores in order to reflect better performances.
As a result, teachers designed their entire curriculum around this test. What’s the harm in this some might ask? After all, if the test assesses the necessary skills and understanding of the core concepts of the course, then wouldn’t a comprehensive curriculum built around such a test be a good thing? At first blush, one might argue that the teaching of such a course might be good for a beginner teacher, who doesn’t yet have the experience to adapt to the ever changing dynamics of the classroom. They may surmise that the more formalized and structured curriculum would take the guess work out of teaching and allow for a better transition into the profession. Yet, my anecdotal evidence is that this is not the case. While it is the hope that all teachers continue to improve over time, it is also true that the really good teachers are really good from year one. An old saying states that “if a dog’s gonna bite, he’ll bite as a pup.” Great teachers bite early.
So what are the negative outcomes that could arise from teaching to the test? This thought takes me back to a Sociology of Work course that I took in college. One of the readings of the course outlined a survey that was given to workers in an American industry. One of the questions asked the workers to rank the importance of various attributes of the workplace. While I readily admit that I don’t remember the question verbatim, what I do remember is that the variable that respondents listed most was efficacy in the workplace. More than income, more even than the ability to achieve promotions was the individual’s need to feel as though they had a voice in achieving the desired task of the job. In other words, they wanted to feel as though their opinions and suggestions mattered. Students are no different. They want to feel that they are an active voice in the classroom. They want to feel as though the teacher respects their opinions enough to give them that voice. Such a relationship between teacher and student gives the student confidence to voice their opinions and, instead of sapping one’s individual curiosity, it develops and encourages it.
This belief was borne out yet again today at Scheiber Sandor School in Budapest. I walked into a high-level 12th grade class, which I had also taught on day 1. Like any remotely competent teacher, I walked into the class with a lesson plan. The lesson plan was good, really good, and I couldn’t wait to get started. But then a spectacularly bright young student named Hanna totally botched my plans. What was her crime? She asked a brilliant question that stimulated a conversation that involved at least eight other students in the class before it was finished. Of course this new discussion, which I hadn’t planned for, only spurred more questions related to the first. Very quickly I turned my brilliant lesson plan upside down on the table and never looked at it again because this one student achieved as much as any lesson I’ve ever created: it completely changed the dynamic of the classroom from a teacher-directed lesson to an enthusiastic discussion that directly related to the needs of the students, while also covering many of the same objectives for which I had planned.
Towards the end of class the conversation had ebbed and only a few minutes remained. As I looked out at the students I was as happy as I’ve been in a long time in front of a class. The students were energized and happy, moreover, the learning that had just taken place was profound, yet I had very little to do with it other than to allow it to happen.
As if I needed any reassurance, I was reminded yet again how fortunate I am to teach at a school that doesn’t force me to teach to a test. A school that allows me the freedom not to worry if I’m not on page 96 of the state-mandated curriculum guide on Nov. 10 or 11 or whatever day they say my class should be there.
Ultimately, my students may not have covered quite the amount of content that they would if I kept true to a defined schedule. However, I have absolutely no doubt that this deficiency in content is more than made up for in the students’ understanding of the material that is covered. And, more importantly my students are able to walk into my class everyday knowing that at any time they will be allowed to ask a question that may totally transform the class and validate their place in my classroom.
The first day at any new school (job for that matter) is always a little stressful and intimidating; today was no different. Of course none of my previous first days were in front of students who may not understand much of what I was saying.
It turned out that as the day went on, the level of students that I taught increased from the 10th grade through the 13th grade. As the levels increased so too did their fluency in English, which of course made my job easier as the day went along. My last two classes were with a class of three twelfth graders who were in a special history immersion course and who could not have been more engaged and welcoming.
If I were to use movies as my metaphor, the first class would have resonated with To Sir with Love, while the last class of the day was more Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Of course I ended each class the way I end every first day of school with a new class at Beth Tfiloh: I instruct them that the study of history is a labor of the intellect, but more importantly, it is a passion of the heart. If there is one absolute truth about the teaching of history it is that if students don’t engage the material on an emotional level, then I have very little chance to get them to connect to it on an intellectual level. In the same vein, if students don’t or can’t use empathy to relate to the material then making lasting connections is difficult.
And, just as the first day is always a leap into the unknown, the second day will be a little easier as I have a lay of the land of the school and the students. Tomorrow I will be continuing a lesson on the collision of Native American Culture with European Culture. In another class I will be exploring the rise of dictators that occurred in Europe after WWI; and, in the last course of tomorrow I will talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the US during the 1950s and 1960s.
Lastly, I am blown away with the beauty and vastness of Budapest. This city rivals Prague as the most beautiful I’ve seen. But, while the city of Prague is of average size, Budapest stretches out in every direction with no apparent boundaries. We learned about the two cities, Buda (apparently named after Atilla’s brother….I’m not kidding) and Pest, which were unified in 1873. And, unfortunately we also learned about the sometimes peaceful, but mostly horrible treatment of Jews during its history.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
Learning. Where does one begin? All primates learn; indeed, one might make the argument that most complex life forms learn. Yet, as educators this topic has incredibly profound and curious hurdles that we encounter daily. Many of these issues are not seen in elementary schools. Walk into any kindergarten classroom in the world and ask the class any of the following questions: “Who is a good artist?” “Who is a good musician?” Who can build terrific structures from blocks?” Any one of these questions would be met with a multitude of hands eagerly stretching skyward. Why is this true in kindergarten but not in high school? Has the world already been so cruel as to wipe out that spark of curiosity, creativity and confidence that abounds in kindergarten? Is learning only to be enjoyed by the innocents?
Of course this isn’t necessarily true. Any individual, if asked, could probably point to one of their friends who has a curious mind – one who still loves the process and excitement of learning. But the fact is, many, if not most have had much of this love of learning trampled down somehow. But why is this so?
As I begin this incredible experience in Budapest, I find myself thinking about education from this most basic level. Over and above the teaching of “skills,” or writing or critical thinking I am curious to see how our host teachers make learning accessible for this unique cohort of young people: adolescents.