First Person

Where Did the Spark Go?

I recently had a discussion with my students about how my classes have changed over the course of my first three years of teaching. It began when I shared with them a question I had been wondering about: Were my classes better my first two years than they are this year?

I began thinking midway through this year that my classes were not the same as they were when I was fresh, and that the change was not for the better. The students responded eagerly to my question, and their feedback confirmed my suspicion: “Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Fullam, I still love your class,” one student remarked, “but sometimes the spark is not there.”

My progression as a new teacher is unique in this sense. I began strong with a lot of “spark.” My strategy was to create the curriculum as we went along, introducing texts from literature, philosophy, and the social sciences according to the students’ emerging interests. I encouraged the students to think about how one unit related to the next, how everything fits together. The students wrote questions about the texts and spent entire class periods sitting in a circle, freely discussing those questions — and we did this often. We also wrote poems and journals, published a school literary magazine, produced a video documentary about the achievement gap, and even managed to squeeze in some preparation for the English Regents Exam.

Everything I was doing in the classroom during my first two years was based on an approach I learned when I was studying to be a teacher in college: critical teaching. The idea behind this pedagogical approach is that we all hold deep inside of us our culture’s theories about the world, and that these theories can be excavated, problematized, and reworked. Critical teaching engages students in theorizing not in a detached or purely abstract sense, but in a manner that is political and deeply personal; it engages a community of learners in the transformation of our beliefs about language, culture, and society so that we are no longer mere products of socialization, but instead are evolving, freethinking, intelligent beings.

I had a great deal of success with this approach as a new teacher. So where did the spark go? Why was I successful in implementing critical teaching in my first two years and now less so in my third year? The story begins last September, when I decided to undertake a teaching experiment:

I began the year feeling confident that I could continue my practice of critical teaching and use sanctioned teaching methods while providing administrators with sanctioned kinds of evidence that my students are learning. In other words, I set out to situate critical teaching within a framework of “data-driven” and “differentiated” instruction while conforming to widespread “accountability” practices — the three primary components of current policy trends in New York City. Accordingly, I gave my students essay exams in the format of standardized tests, used those exams to determine the skills that each student most needed to improve upon, grouped students according to these skill needs and drilled them with exercises designed to improve the skills, and then gave another round of essay exams to repeat the cycle. I also documented the improvement that individual students demonstrated on subsequent exams and generated fancy charts to show progress over time. All of this required a lot of work and a lot of time devoted to what I described to students as “housekeeping”: everything had to be documented.

Creating and implementing this data-driven, differentiated, and accountable teaching system came to fruition during my school’s “Quality Review” (when representatives from the Department of Education spend three days investigating a school as part of a comprehensive evaluation). When two DOE reviewers observed my class, everything I had planned was in place. My students were working in groups to finish Regents-style essays comparing Plato’s philosophy to a novel they were reading. Each group had two teacher-edited rough drafts of their essay on hand, along with completed “formative peer-assessment” and “summative self-assessment” sheets. Individual students showed the reviewers work samples and charts for monitoring their progress that we kept in their binders; and I showed them my own charts for monitoring student progress: “You see,” I said, “Mattie was getting 4’s on her essays and now she’s getting 6’s.”

My students were aware that to some extent we were putting on a show during that observation, and since they generally support me, they were happy to play along. The whole thing went great — so great, in fact, that one of the reviewers later told the principal that I was one of the most impressive teachers in the school and should be brought to the forefront of professional development for our school. By this time, though, I had become strongly suspicious that incorporating sanctioned teaching methods into my practice had caused me to compromise my commitment to critical teaching; and I was already too cynical about my new approach to enjoy being praised for it.

In retrospect, the result of my teaching experiment is clear to me: While my plan was to situate my practice of critical teaching within a new framework, I ended up with a different practice altogether. I am now convinced that the sanctioned and mandated teaching methods in NYC are skill-oriented and teacher-directed, and hence are incompatible with critical teaching, which is inquiry-oriented and student-centered. Furthermore, while the sanctioned methods may succeed in driving up test scores, I found that they shape the roles of teachers and students in unfavorable ways. Rather than acting as an intellectual and leader, for example, in my experiment I had become more like a clerk officiating within a bureaucracy. Rather than entering into critical interactions with language and life — rather than growing as real thinkers and real learners — my students had become parrots of the “correct” way of responding to different prompts; they were practicing a kind of intellectual obedience that inhibits critical thought.

The dialectical reading journals I mentioned in a previous post are one way that I am now attempting to get back on track. In my other classes, the students are planning critical research projects on how the achievement gap affects their school and their lives. I hope these activities help regain the spark that my classes had before I embarked on my teaching experiment. I am concerned, though, about how I will fare working in a school system whose policies I disagree with at such a fundamental level. Now that I am an experienced teacher, I feel greater pressure to conform to sanctioned teaching methods. Can I still be successful as a critical teacher? Can I survive in a school system whose policies I will be attempting to subvert on a day-to-day basis? Is it even ethical to do this?

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.