First Person

Pairing serious inquiry with play, my students find a balance education policy lacks

At a Washington Heights bookstore in May, senior Sofia Arnold asked, “Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet?” She then took a rose and polled five audience members—first calling the object a garbage compactor, then a rose.

Sofia’s presentation, which also included lines from Macbeth and King Lear, was one of three “empirical Shakespearean experiments” that played a part in the launch of our school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE.

She and other students at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering created the journal over the course of the academic year. For them, the event was an exciting chance to celebrate their accomplishment and experience their ideas in action; for me, a teacher who has seen pedagogical reforms swing between what I’ve come to think of as piety and play, with little in between, it was refreshing to see students so naturally balancing the two.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter posits that the intellectual life has “a peculiar poise of its own … a balance between two basic qualities in the intellectual’s attitude toward ideas—qualities that may be designated as playfulness and piety.”

For this context, “piety” consists of the pursuit of specific goals; “play,” in the unraveling and teasing out of possibilities. The primarily “pious” educator structures a lesson to meet clear objectives; the primarily “playful” educator welcomes the unexpected question or tangent, and follows it where it leads.

Hofstadter’s larger argument is that intellectual life requires a combination of piety and play. One must have goals and structure, but one must also have room for questions and surprises.

Unfortunately, education policy rarely gets the combination right.

Today the dominant emphasis is on piety, with little room for play. Teachers are encouraged—even mandated—to establish and meet clear objectives in every lesson. NPR recently featured a model Common Core lesson in which the students began by reading and discussing the Common Core standards that the lesson would address. Many would consider this good practice, but others would have the students set their own goals or even let the goals develop gradually.

Sofia Arnold conducting an  "empirical Shakespearean experiment."
Sofia Arnold conducting an “empirical Shakespearean experiment.”

In contrast, certain strands of progressive education (from the early twentieth century to the present) have emphasized creativity, spontaneity, and discovery—often at the cost of the structure and content I believe students need.  For example, proponents of “discovery learning”–many of whom teach at education schools or serve as consultants–maintain that students should discover subject matter on their own, with minimal direction from the teacher.

Given this landscape, what can policymakers do to foster intellectual life in schools? Attempting to prescribe a mixture of piety and play could harden quickly into dogma. But one step policymakers can take is avoiding dictating exactly how to teach. The “how” is the teacher’s vitality; remove it, and you drain the profession. On a school level, teachers can encourage intellectual life by thinking about the subject matter, mulling over questions, and listening closely to their students.

I support a structured curriculum with room for the unexpected—where the point is to open up the subject and the mind.

Granted, my experience is atypical. I teach at a selective school in Harlem, where certain basic skills are assumed. But I have also taught at struggling schools and seen students respond to a mixture of concrete learning and playful questioning.

Nafassho Nafasshoev and Memphis Washington reading from a student-written philosophy journal.
Nafassho Nafasshoev and Memphis Washington reading from CONTRARIWISE, a student-written philosophy journal.

During the journal celebration at the bookstore, my current students embodied the balance my colleagues and I have tried to create.

Take the introduction, for example. Rather than simply describing the journal, editors-in-chief Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, both juniors, staged a playful interruption that also demonstrated their engagement with a core philosophical question.

Ron mentioned that the audience would have an opportunity to ask philosophical questions at the end, if there was time. A sixth-grader, Theo Frye Yanos, shot his hand in the air.

“Excuse me, I have a question,” he said with spontaneous flair, though the interruption had been planned.“What is time?”

Nicholas responded that they would answer the question after “an interval in the non-spatial continuum of the succession of events.” After conferring with Nicholas, Ron awarded the “H. G. Wells Award” to Theo for being the first to ask a question about time.

After Theo received his award, the event continued with readings, philosophical improv, more humorous awards, a song, a cake, and more.

Students read pieces from the journal— ranging from Faith Flowers’s “Roundtable on the Distribution of Health Care Resources” to Anthony Lewis’s “Letter on the Ethics of Lying,” in which Jiminy Cricket lectures Pinocchio sanctimoniously on Kant but then finds a contradiction in his own argument.

The delight of the event lay in its intellectual liberty; these students saw no contradiction between serious study and fun.

First Person

I’m on a Community Education Council in Manhattan. Mayor de Blasio, we need to move faster on school integration

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Mayor de Blasio,

As the mother of a fifth-grade student in a New York City public school and a member of the Community Education Council in Manhattan’s District 2, I thank you for acknowledging that our public school system does not provide equity and excellence for all of our students.

I’m writing to you understanding that the diversity plan the city released this month is a beginning, and that it will take time to integrate our schools. However, the black and Hispanic children of this city do not have decades to wait for us to make change.

I know this firsthand. For the past six years, I have been traveling out of my neighborhood to take my child to one of the city’s few remaining diverse elementary schools, located in Hell’s Kitchen. In looking at middle schools, my criteria for a school were that it matched my child’s academic interests and that it was diverse. Unfortunately, the only middle school that truly encompasses both is a long commute from our home. After commuting by subway for six years, my child wanted a school that was closer to home. I obliged.  

At my child’s middle school orientation, I saw what a segregated school looks like. The incoming class of sixth-graders includes few students of color and does not represent the diversity of our district. This middle school also lacks a diverse teaching staff and administrators. (Had I not sent my child to this school, I would only be fueling the problem, since my child was one of the few children of color admitted to the school.)

These predominately affluent and white schools are creating a new generation of students who will not know how to interact with others that come from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Integrated schools, on the other hand, will provide opportunities for them to learn and work with students, teachers and school leaders that reflect the diversity of our city and the world we live in.  

There are measures we can take that will have a stronger impact in integrating our schools than what is listed in the diversity plan. I am asking that you come to the table with students, school leadership and parents that are directly affected by school segregation and consider our ideas to create schools that are more equitable for all students.  

In the words of Valerie Castile, whose family received no justice in the death of their son Philando, “The system continues to fail black people.” While she was speaking of the criminal justice system, true reform of that system begins with educating our children — who will be our society’s future police officers, politicians, legislators and judges.

Mayor de Blasio, you have the power to spur change. The students and parents of our great city are asking for your leadership in integrating our schools.

Josephine Ishmon is a member of District 2’s Community Education Council. This is her personal opinion and does not reflect that of the CEC.

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.