First Person

How Student Work Can Illuminate Teaching

Teaching is an honorable profession with a dash of folly. What sane person would take it on, knowing what it entails? Not only does the work often take over one’s evenings, weekends, and vacations, but one can rarely take pride in a job well done. Each lesson has imperfections, some of them painful; a teacher sees the flaws of her presentation as she speaks, or has to stop repeatedly to deal with chattering students. Then there are other tasks, such as database maintenance, phone calls, and data analysis, some of which enhance the work, some of which distract. On top of this, the teaching profession does not enjoy much respect in society, to put it mildly. What, then, beyond a sense of duty and the need for a job, explains a teacher’s decision to persist in the classroom day after day? For me, it is the intense joy of conveying a subject to students and receiving their thoughts and questions. Sometimes, after a discouraging week, I sit down to correct homework and am enlightened, intrigued, and moved by what I read.

For this reason, the opportunity to showcase and discuss my students’ work comes as a great treat. I teach philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. (I have written about these courses here and here.) I have selected three pieces to discuss; each one, in a different way, has enriched my thinking and the courses I teach. They are all first and sole drafts (with minor edits in the latter two cases); in a future article, I might examine a piece as it progresses from first to final draft.

I will begin with a piece that a 10th-grader wrote for the first assignment of the year:


To get a sense of my students’ ideas and writing, I asked them to write about a situation involving an ethical dilemma, either in their own lives or in a work of literature. I rarely give assignments on personal topics, but this proved instructive; I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness of the responses. Among all of them, this one stood out for its philosophical thinking and play. It begins:

While I was about to start this assignment, I spent about twenty minutes stressing over the fact that I couldn’t think of anything that made me question ethics. I complained to my mother that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I then asked her whether I should ask Professor Senechal whether I could make it up. Mom raised her eyebrow. “Is that ethical?” she asked.

This student (who requested anonymity) clearly took the assignment seriously and treated it with respect. His initial thought was not exactly to lie, but to ask me whether he might make something up. Then came the delightful detail of his mother raising her eyebrow, and the question, “Is that ethical?” which the student realized was an ethical dilemma right there. Thus, he ingeniously turns his dilemma about the assignment into the very topic of the assignment.

In the second paragraph, he examines philosophical positions on lying: Kant’s argument that any lying results in loss of dignity; utilitarian arguments that lying may be acceptable if it is used to a good end; and more. He concludes that he is somewhere between Kant and utilitarians. Implicit in the discussion is his decision, for this particular occasion, not to lie. I learned from his piece, first of all, that this was going to be a good year; and second, that real-life applications of philosophy need not be shallow, if the philosophical thought is strong.

The latter point has affected the way I plan lessons. Early on in my teaching, I resisted the overemphasis (in many schools) on real-life learning, where students talk and write about their lives without reading much of substance. I was determined to have my students tackle interesting and lasting books. I keep that determination but recognize that we are all finding our way through our lives, and that the books can help, directly or indirectly. So, I explore with my students why these books matter, as well as what they contain.

The second piece was written by Khadijah McCarthy, also a 10th-grader, for a test that the students took in late October:


Students had to choose one of two open-book essay questions (and were allowed to use their books and notes). Khadijah chose to compare the ideas of Immanuel Kant regarding value and dignity with those of Martin Buber regarding “It” and “You.” (The students had read substantial excerpts of Kant’s “” and Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”) This was an especially challenging question, because their ideas appear similar at first glance.

Both Kant and Buber are concerned with human dignity and how it is upheld or demeaned. According to Kant, each of us has value and dignity; our value is that which can be measured and replaced (our job skills, for instance), whereas dignity allows of no measurement or replacement. In Buber’s view, humans have a dual attitude toward the world: an “I-It” attitude, which involves treating others (humans, animals, trees, things) as objects, and an “I-You” attitude, which is a full relation, an acknowledgement of the entirety of the other. Like Kant’s “value,” “It” can be described, experienced, and contained; “You,” like Kant’s “dignity,” has no limits. Khadijah, who has shown exceptional perseverance and keenness in working with complex texts, was able to find a difference between the ideas of Kant and Buber:

Kant offers a solution that is everlasting; as long as you have dignity, then you can never be matched, and because dignity has an intrinsic origin, you will have it for as long as you live. With Buber, you can only remain in the “You” realm for so long; as Buber states, “It [the “You” realm] lacks duration, for it vanishes even when you try to cling to it.” If this “You” realm has the ability to vanish at any given point, and there is nothing that you can do to prevent that, then this may not always be a tangible, realistic alternative or solution.

I was fascinated by Khadijah’s idea that Kant’s solution is more “realistic” than Buber’s (if his can be called a solution). I asked myself: is this so? One might also argue that Buber’s is more realistic, because it acknowledges the extreme rareness of relating to others in their fullness — and the greatness of such relation. Also, alhough Buber’s “You”-encounter vanishes, it can affect the rest of a person’s life, and thus has a kind of eternity. At the same time, Kant’s idea of dignity does seem unshakeable, intrinsic to humans, and thus more practicable than Buber’s “You.” Khadijah’s interpretation of the texts challenged my own thoughts and helped me form questions for future class discussion.

I conclude with an 11th-grader’s parody of Plato:

In the fall, the 11th-graders delved into ancient political philosophy and discussed the benefits and pitfalls of different forms of government. After we finished Book VIII of the “Republic” (where Socrates explains one form of government decays into the next, until tyranny is reached), I asked students to write a continuation in which Socrates and Glaucon explore how tyranny devolves into something else. Through this assignment they could demonstrate their understanding of the reading, their grasp of Plato’s logic, and their political imagination. As I collected the students’ work, I started reading Christian (“Kit”) McArthur’s piece and stifled my cachinnation. I looked over at Kit, who looked back with a mischievous twinkle. The piece begins (with Glaucon speaking first):

Well, I am still unsatisfied. Socrates, could tyranny devolve further into something else?

Possibly.

We’ve already established that an aristocracy devolves into a timocracy, which devolves into an oligarchy, which further devolves into a democracy, which even further devolves into tyranny.

Absolutely.

Therefore, according to logic, the tyranny would have to devolve further.

Of course.

Kit grasped that much of the dialogue in Book VIII isn’t dialogue at all; most of the time, Socrates speaks and someone else agrees. (Elsewhere in the “Republic,” there are substantial exceptions to this pattern.) Kit’s piece turns the tables, making Glaucon lead the way, yet it’s clear that Socrates remains in charge (or does he?). The piece becomes increasingly sophisticated as it progresses, with a combination of wit, insight, and parody. Such qualities in combination cannot be conjured at will, but I want to do more to make room for them.

Grading homework does not always bring delight; often, when working through stacks of papers, I realize that I am not offering my students the detailed comments they deserve. (Or the grammatical errors start to endanger my hair.) Everything from the ideas to the spelling needs attention, yet I must work fast in order to get the grading done. Then a piece comes my way that makes me stop and marvel. I sink briefly into thought, then shake myself and move on. Still, the piece doesn’t go away. It finds its way into a lesson or question; it comes back to mind months or years later. Often I am overwhelmed not by all the work I have to do, nor by the distractions and disruptions, but by the gifts.

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.