Connections: Doing It Their Way

April 01, 1994 3 min read

Herbert Kohl, whose new book is excerpted beginning on page 26, urges teachers to practice “creative maladjustment’'--which he defines as “breaking social patterns that are morally reprehensible, taking conscious control of one’s place in the environment, and readjusting the world one lives in based on personal integrity and honesty.’' Put more simply, it means: When the system is wrong, buck it.

One of Kohl’s earliest maladjustments was against the “notion that the demands and structures of schooling were normal and the students were problems if they did not adjust.’' That meant recognizing “practices and texts that were racist or sexist, as well as coming to understand the mechanisms for tolerating professional incompetence and for marginalizing children who are outspoken or different.’' Sometimes, he concludes, students are right “to resist the education being forced upon them.’'

In their own special ways, the subjects of the other two features in this issue have practiced creative maladjustment.

Jaime Escalante (page 22) became America’s best-known teacher in 1987 when a feature-length movie, Stand and Deliver, depicted his extraordinary success teaching Advanced Placement calculus to poor Hispanic students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. The conventional wisdom in education then was that calculus and other difficult academic subjects were beyond the capacity of such students. They were not on the college-bound track; little was expected of them.

Escalante clearly maladjusted to the reality of America’s inner-city schools. He was unwilling to accept a practice that was indisputably racist and harmful. Before it became fashion- able to assert that “all children can learn to high levels,’' Escalante was proving it.

Maladjusting, as Kohl warns, can be a risky business. Teachers who go against the tide may get fired or at least become unpopular with their colleagues. Projects they have nourished may be undone. Escalante left Garfield High in 1991, a year after he lost the election for the chairmanship of the math department to a man he deemed to be his good friend and protege. He now teaches in Sacramento, Calif., where he is something of a loner; he no longer criticizes colleagues who don’t meet his standards. “Now I keep my mouth shut,’' he says. But he continues his wizardry in the classroom.

The faculty at the newly established Manhattan International School (page 32) also practice creative maladjustment. In an educational system that generally views ethnic and racial diversity as a problem and has institutionalized a tracking system to cope with it, Manhattan International prizes diversity and makes it an asset. It admits only immigrants who are limited-English speaking and have been in the United States for less than four years. Its 90 students hail from 22 countries.

Manhattan International’s teachers have also broken with other educational patterns: They reject, for example, the immersion approach to teaching foreign-born students English, and they do not attempt to dissuade their students from speaking their native languages. Textbooks, drill in English grammar, and high-stakes testing are de-emphasized. Students learn English at the same time that they learn academic subjects, and vice versa, and they learn from each other as they work together on team projects. There is no sorting by age or ability level.

Although they are often out of step with the system, Kohl, Escalante, and the International School teachers share a faith in public education. Kohl writes that they are involved in “a long struggle to make public education work for all children.’' He continues: “The biggest problems are not with public education itself but with the attitude that, inasmuch as many public schools don’t work, public education should be abandoned and that because many students are not currently learning, they can’t learn. It is our job as educators to make schools work, and that requires taking up the struggle, within the system, to transform them.’'

Escalante and the Manhattan International teachers also have something else in common: They know their students, they care deeply about them, and they know that the students must take responsibility for their own learning. Escalante calls it ganas--desire--and insists that you can’t learn without it. I’m sure he would agree that you can’t teach without it, either--at least not successfully.--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Connections: Doing It Their Way