Monday, July 07, 2014

Summer Reading Suggestion

One of my favorite bloggers, José Luis Vilson, actually sat down and wrote a book. A book! I'm pretty impressed by this. First of all, it had hundreds of pages, and each one was filled with words. That in itself was impressive to me. Even better, it kept me turning pages, which many books fail to do nowadays.

More impressive was finally seeing an extended reflection on teaching from a real teacher. I’m not used to that. Over the years I've become increasingly irritated by books from people who’ve given it up, who’ve taught for a year or two and have decided to share with us their insights. My insight is those people are failures. I don’t care what they think, and I have no idea why anyone else does. If anyone should be discussing the system, for better or worse, it should be us.

One of the best things José wrote was that feedback, the only meaningful feedback, is that which you get from the kids in front of you. I was at a book release party at UFT when someone read that, and it was kind of a "eureka" moment for me. I couldn’t agree more, and that’s just one reason all this corporate-produced nonsense about complex junk-science evaluation systems is just that. Maybe there are teachers who have no idea whether or not things are going well on a day to day basis. How they manage to drag themselves to work on a daily basis I have no idea.

If you're tuned in, as José clearly is, you don't need to wait until the principal wanders in to know how well you're doing your job. Teenagers tell you all the time, from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave. If you aren't tuned in, then I suppose you do need adminstrators to come in and explain objective reality. (I can only guess that's what all the E4E teachers who love junk-science based evaluation systems must need. I just can't figure how on earth they equate any such need with "excellence.")

The best feedback I ever got from an administrator was from a former principal, before Reformy John King decreed "Ye shall be observed 4-6 times, whether ye need it or not." This principal observed full classes of mine twice, promised to write both up, and never did. But when he walked out of the second one, he said, “Those kids love you.” That meant a lot to me. I have a pile of written observation reports stashed in a drawer somewhere. You look for the S on the bottom and likely as not it made no difference precisely what gobbledygook the rest contained. (Or you toss it away without even reading it, as a friend of mine used to do.)

I hadn’t really given a great deal of thought to what it’s like to be a person of color in this system. But having lived it, José writes about the odd perceptions and preconceptions that have followed him most of his life. As much as we want to be colorblind, it's clear in 2014 we still haven't arrived. I'm acutely aware that my students, all of whom come here with little or no English skill, have to endure disparate treatment on a pretty regular basis.

While José teaches math rather than English, like me (and while I'll never understand exactly why a poet and writer chooses that), his awareness is something I'd like to see in anyone teaching the kids I serve. I'm sure he'd take them one at a time, regardless of color, sex, religion, or whatever else the world may prejudge them by. That's not something the corporate reformers fret over, and it isn't a job requirement, as far as I know. But it ought to be.

I was a little surprised to learn José and I have a completely different concept on what "teacher voice" means. For him it's getting our voice out, and that's not only something he's not only been very active in, but also almost certainly what caused him to write the book. I fully agree that this is necessary, though to my mind that's a job we share with union leadership. (In fact, it's a job at which they've failed miserably, jumping on virtually every reformy notion that's come out of Bill Gates' abundant and fruitful hind quarters.)

I see teacher voice as the unique personality or style of individual teachers. I also think it’s being relentlessly squashed in a drive toward standardization, a drive that’s idiotic and ignorant. For example, I think José's a really good writer, but I wouldn’t try to write like him. In the same way, I wouldn't emulate the teacher I consider the best in my department. She’s very affectionate, calling kids honey and sweetie, and winning them over. She’s also very smart, getting them to write and think about things. But if I were to call kids honey and sweetie, I’d probably be in jail or something.

This notwithstanding, as a writer, José manages to find a new and more forthright voice here. I find José's blog often oblique, hinting at things but not always saying them outright. I was pretty surprised to find, from the very beginning of the book, that he's largely dropped this approach in favor of being quite direct. José's new teacher voice works well here, and this book will give you a great deal to consider.

The best thing the United Federation of Teachers has done in a long time was to give José a first-class book launch. For that we have to thank High School Academic VP Janella Hinds. Several readers got up and shared selections from the book, including the UFT President. Personally, I have never, ever seen Mike Mulgrew so thoughtful. He actually put on reading glasses and looked very much like a teacher. I hope someday to see that guy at the DA, rather than the one who gets up, claims not to follow the blogs, then publicly labels those of us who write them as liars anyway.

But give the union credit for recognizing a great achievement from such a thoughtful teacher. If only Tweed were half this thoughtful my students and I wouldn't be sitting in a trailer. If you're wondering what to do with a free moment during your summer break, I highly recommend this book.
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