Connections: Lighting The Lamp

February 01, 1998 3 min read

Since Teacher Magazine‘s first issue in September 1989, the purpose of this column has been to look for connections among the main features in each issue and the lessons they might offer. The story topics aren’t chosen based on any theme, and often we have no reason to expect them to have anything in common. Fortunately, they almost always do, even when we least expect it.

Take this issue, for example. David Ruenzel set out to write about what has happened to the middle school reform movement, but he ended up writing more about one particular school, Canton Middle School, in an impoverished Baltimore neighborhood. David Hill traveled to Norwich, Connecticut, to write about a controversial charter school that the National Education Association and its state affiliate endorsed and the local affiliate opposed. Although it was this conflict that drew him to Norwich, most of his story focuses on the difficulties of starting a nontraditional public school. And finally, there is Greg Michie’s media literacy story, which seems to bear no relationship to the other two.

But as it turns out, these stories have much in common.

The first two are about schools trying to do something different. In 1991, Baltimore principal Craig Spilman and his faculty launched wide-ranging reforms that transformed Canton from a dysfunctional school into a successful one. In Norwich, meanwhile, Joan Heffernan and a colleague created an alternative program nine years ago at Buckingham Elementary called Integrated Day. When their request to expand into three additional classrooms was turned down, they transformed Integrated Day into one of Connecticut’s first charter schools—and ignited a community controversy in the process.

These two schools have other things in common, as well. They are small and have multiage classes, characteristics that guarantee teachers get to know their students well. (At Integrated Day, teachers and students even eat together.) Canton and Integrated Day each give teachers unusual autonomy and empower them to make important decisions about their time, their students, and their classes. Both have high expectations for what students should know and be able to do. Their students take on long-term projects that require them to accept responsibility for their own learning. The schools have abandoned bells and rigid schedules, and their curricula are integrated and interdisciplinary.

As research and experience both suggest, all this is the prescription for a successful school. Canton, a school with 90 percent of its students from poor families, scored higher last year than any other Baltimore school on the state’s basic-skills writing test. Before it became a charter, Integrated Day was so popular that it was picked up at another school. When the charter school opened this fall, it already had a waiting list.

Teacher Greg Michie exemplifies at the classroom level many of the fine qualities Canton and Integrated Day demonstrate at the school level. He wanted to try something different—to help his mostly minority students become critical viewers of the media. His principal gave him free rein to design a media studies class for upper graders at Seward Elementary, a K-9 school located in inner-city Chicago.

Michie gets to know his students well, and he holds them to high standards, expecting them to do good work. And in his class, they usually do. He challenges them, makes them think, and doesn’t let them slide by. Like the teachers at Canton and Integrated Day, Michie worries that what his students study won’t stick. So he strives to link their classroom experiences to the world they live in.

Michie puts it this way: “I knew that I couldn’t fight students’ disengagement by simply creating slogans that forbade it (‘Stop being bored!’) and that I couldn’t make students think simply by requiring them to do it. I had to find ways to engage them. I had to find things for them to do—things that were relevant, things that would interest them, things that could not be accomplished without the one element that sometimes seems most foreign to school classrooms: real, live, unadulterated thinking.”

That’s an important first step toward lighting the lamp of learning.

—Ronald A. Wolk