Education Opinion

Grace Under Fire

By Grace Hall McEntee — March 01, 1998 16 min read
After a stint with a national reform group, one teacher returns to the classroom eager to try out her new ideas. But change was the last thing people wanted.

No teacher in my district had ever spent four years outside the classroom and returned. I hadn’t meant to. When I was invited to apply for a position at the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national school reform network based at Brown University, I intended to give it a year and then go back to my classroom. But I became so absorbed in the reform work that I stayed longer, first with the coalition and then with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, also based at Brown.

During my four years away, I visited classrooms in such places as New York City; Albuquerque and Zuni, New Mexico; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Houston. I coached teachers who were teaming up for the first time, and I led seminars for education leaders. I worked with practitioners as they wrote about their experiences with school reform. And I thought about teaching, student learning, and school change. All the while, I read voluminously, always thinking, thinking, thinking about what I might do with my own students when I returned to the school system where I had been a student and a teacher for most of my life.

But it wasn’t until my last year away from the classroom that I formally began to prepare for my return. Although no specific post was being held for me, I had been assured that a job in my subject area—high school English—would be available. The director of human resources sent me a letter confirming my “hire date"—September 3, 1969—locking in my seniority. I would attend the district job fair in June and get the best available position.

That fourth year was like a gift from the great god of teachers. As I concluded my work at Annenberg, I thought about how I could work valued ideals—active learning, student choice, personalization, diversity—into my classroom. Gradually the pieces fell into place for a project that I called “Logs and Letters.”

As conceived, Logs and Letters would be a yearlong project that would take my students down a new path in their educations while honoring the district’s language arts guidelines. Just like other high school students in the system, my kids would do research, write essays, and read and critique literature. The purpose of Logs and Letters was to get students to understand why they study what they do and to reflect on how they learn best. They would examine the district curriculum. They would keep “Learning Logs” and write autobiographies summing up their key learning experiences. Then, working in teams of three or four, they would create their own language arts unit, with the subject matter and learning methods largely of their choosing. Finally, they would present their work to a public audience. In the end, I hoped my students would see that learning was in their hands, that they would discover and follow their own passions.

A colleague of mine named Jane joined me in designing Logs and Letters. She had been my student teacher 16 years ago and my friend ever since. Teaching together in one of the district’s junior high schools five years earlier, we piloted a similar but more modest project. We worked with 50 9th graders at the bottom of our district’s outrageous tracking system. The students chose areas of interest; topics ranged from our city’s American Indian heritage to police work with local runaways. Then they researched, wrote articles, and published the class’s collected work, which they sold locally. We felt then, and do now, that students should be engaged in work driven by their passions and interests.

While I was still at Annenberg, Jane and I met often to plan the project. We believed that our work would make a difference for kids. For the first time, they would get the chance to examine curricula designed for them and gauge its effect on their learning.

One or two teachers alone can hardly change a large school, but they can circumvent numbing practices. Students need personal attention. Half our combined student load of 225 students—two classes each—would participate in the project, but we knew that the work and our evolving teaching would affect others. To help us serve our many students, we created partnerships with people outside the school whose perspectives would help shape the work. These alliances would support learning experiences beyond the school walls and bring a steady flow of new people to our classroom as observers and helpers.

We forged one such partnership with a professor of education at Brown, who created a class at the university—"Literacy in Contemporary Society"—to run parallel to ours. During their first semester, her students would write literacy autobiographies as ours wrote learning autobiographies. Her students also would coach ours once a week.

As preparations for the project continued and my Annenberg work drew to a close, people often asked me: “How are you feeling about returning to teaching after being away for so long?” My response was always a beaming smile. My school memories were rich and satisfying. I loved teaching. We had an exciting plan, and I was excited to get back into the classroom. I didn’t know the challenges that lay ahead.

Introducing anything new to a traditional school system is tricky. I understood that from my recent experience in national school reform but also from years of working to change teaching and learning in various schools in my district.

The district serves a middle-class suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, and includes three high schools: one where I had spent 14 years teaching, a second where Jane was now teaching, and a third that was my alma mater. I created Logs and Letters with the latter in mind. I had done my student teaching there, and within the cycle of my own professional career, it seemed right that I close the circle of my classroom teaching there. Jane and I hoped that she would be able to join me at that school. It was unlikely that a job would open up for me at her school, so our backup plan was to run the project in two different high schools.

Experience has taught me that pushing new ideas gently is not only respectful but also essential, given the inherent politics of schooling. I requested meetings with the head of the English department, the principal of the high school, an assistant superintendent, and the superintendent, all of whom I had worked with. I wanted to share my proposal and listen to their concerns. It would be an opportunity to think about issues that I might have overlooked, to address them sensitively, and to negotiate my reentry.

Introducing anything new to a traditional school system is tricky. I didn’t realize, however, the challenges that lay ahead upon my return to the classroom.

A talk with the department head seemed the most appropriate first step; she was closest to the action. For 14 years, Angela and I had taught in the same school and worked compatibly on various committees. I looked forward to seeing her.

Angela greeted me coolly, however. She sat with her hands in her lap—composed. Although I had already sent her a copy of my proposal, I brought another, along with several supporting articles. I held these on my lap during our conversation. I was there to listen.

After describing her department of tradition-minded veteran teachers, she spoke of her own new role—department head for not quite two years—and about how she had avoided ruffling any feathers to date.

As she talked, I jotted notes, but when she mentioned not ruffling feathers, I looked up to read her face. Was she being facetious? She was serious.

“Is that one of your concerns, Angela, ruffling feathers?”

“Yes,” she said. And my heart sank. She went on to suggest that I teach at a school affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools.

“You know, Angela,” I replied, “I have spent my whole teaching career in this city. I would like to finish my teaching career here. I’m concerned about our colleagues, but above all I am concerned for our students. I would like to work with them in a different way.”

“Do you think that the teachers in this department are not concerned with students?” she interrupted.

I didn’t want to get into this kind of exchange. “Of course they are. Most of us are longtime veterans who care about kids. I just want to teach in the way that I feel will be most effective. Should I meet with the other teachers?”

“No. Why don’t you talk with the administrators. You should have gone to them first. Then come back, and we’ll talk.”

I left her with the project proposal and articles and went to see the superintendent. He welcomed me at the door and motioned for me to sit on the couch in his office. He took a seat so that I had to turn my head over my shoulder to talk with him. I turned my whole body on the couch so that I could almost face him. He smiled.

He had been principal of the high school where Angela and I had taught, and he had supported the various initiatives I introduced to the school. Now, as superintendent, he expressed some concerns, particularly about asking high school students to critique the district’s language arts curriculum.

“What if they don’t like it?” he asked.

“They’ll learn how to say that respectfully,” I said, “and how to provide reasons why it might not be contributing to their best learning. Then they’ll attempt to create a curriculum of their own. They’ll see how difficult a task that is, but I hope that they will do it with passion. You and others will be invited to their curriculum presentations. They’ll benefit from your questions and feedback.”

He gave his nod of assent and said he would be there for the final presentations.

I left the superintendent’s office and went down the hall to the assistant superintendent. He was delighted with the project and said he wished others would try “different things like that.”

Several days later, I made my way back to the high school to meet with the principal, who expressed his reservations and urged caution. He did, however, support the way I was trying to improve student achievement.

Just after graduation, I called the department head back. “Hello, Angela, this is Grace. I’d like to make an appointment to come in to speak with you again.”

Once a week, 18 Brown University students observed and coached my Logs and Letters students. They shared the literacy autobiographies they were writing and helped our students reflect on their own learning. After one such session, I asked my students to write in their logs for two minutes on the question: “What is a learning experience?” They discussed what they had written and then jotted their responses on the board. One student wrote: “Everything we do is a learning experience.” Another wrote: “It is something that you do for the first time, but it is something that you never forget.”

When it came time to write their learning autobiographies, many students maintained that they could not remember anything that they had learned. Eventually, though, they all wrote, and many focused on powerful learning experiences.

The pressure was almost unbearable. I felt I should be a model and mentor, but I was fighting for my teaching life. I wondered: What does it mean to be a teacher? What does it mean to be human?

One student wrote about a teacher who had yelled at her for erasing an error, “as if a 2nd grader isn’t supposed to make mistakes. I started crying, and she threw me out in the hallway and told me I couldn’t come back in the classroom until I stopped, but that only made me cry more. That made me feel it wasn’t right to make mistakes, and I always thought that until 4th grade.”

Another wrote: “I never felt I played the violin well because I had a hard time realizing I was actually good at something. When the final performance came, I realized I was actually quite good because I sounded good to myself.”

“My father is a carpenter,” yet another wrote. “He showed me how to hammer nails into a board, how to use a screwdriver, and how to measure. . . . He let me use the table saw and the electric drill. . . . I could do some of the work that he did.”

Despite their resistance to me, most students said they enjoyed working with the Brown students and writing the autobiographies. Some said it had changed the way they thought about learning.

During the second half of the first semester, we launched part two of the project: Students were to examine the district curriculum as preparation for creating their own unit of study. The district’s “Goals for Language Arts Curriculum” was the text for one seminar. I had asked the students to consider two questions: “What is curriculum?” and “What is the purpose of a curriculum?” For homework, they had written their own questions, and the seminar began with these: “How do you use materials to create a curriculum?” “How do you decide which books each grade will read?” “Who came up with the curriculum?” “Is this information meant more for the students or the teachers?”

These launched a discussion. “I think that since you guys gave the curriculum to us, it is for the students,” one student said.

“It’s to make sure something gets accomplished in class,” another added.

“Before, we never knew what the curriculum was for,” someone admitted.

We were making progress. But how we slid back, too. Every day, someone sat in my class as an observer: Haley, the Brown students, a group of teachers that I coached, a friend and colleague named Sam who was documenting our work, and others. For me, the pressure was almost unbearable. I felt I should be a model and mentor, but I was fighting for my teaching life. Frankly, I often felt like a fraud.

Things were particularly off during one of Sam’s visits to my period six class. The day before, I had given the students the seminar text and asked them to begin working on it in class. But 20 minutes into that period, just after I had given the directions and answered questions, two-thirds of the class was called to the cafeteria for a vocational-aptitude test. As the students left, I reminded them to read the text and mark it up for homework. But they did not hear me.

So when Sam observed, students in two of the groups had not done the reading and were stuck. Watching one group, Sam left his position as observer to help the student facilitator.

I felt like the class session was a failure.

He and I talked after the class. I was usually glad to get Sam’s feedback. Having someone else in the room was often painful, but the debriefing was always valuable. On this day, however, I felt ambivalent. “I’d rather fail privately,” I told him.

Usually, Sam didn’t tell me much. He would ask skillful and controlled questions to help me dig out the issues. On this day, though, he told me something he had overheard while observing a group of girls. Talking to the group, I had put my hand on one girl’s shoulder, and after I left, she had said in disgust, “Oh, I hate it when she touches me.”

That day, I cried on the way home. I cried because a huge gap existed between what needed to happen and what was happening. I cried because the odds were heavily stacked against good teaching and learning. The students seemed impoverished. I wondered: What does it mean to be a teacher? To be human?

During the second semester, the students formed permanent teams and selected what they would study as they continued to refine their reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening skills. As part of that process, the teams raised a number of questions: How can we help the homeless? How does discrimination affect our lives? Is “guilty” always guilty? What is the connection between education and learning?

Years before, I had let go of the need for quiet and order and allowed the work of teaching and learning to spill over the classroom. Students moved about the room to work on individual and group projects.

They were now learning in a much more public way than before. Each day, they wrote in their learning logs, which they handed in once a week so that Haley and I could provide written feedback. Teams submitted curricular proposals, and each week they turned in “artifacts” from their work to help us track their progress. As they moved through their studies, they videotaped their discussions and organized portfolio presentations.

Although we were making progress, the classes continued to challenge me in unfamiliar ways. Years before, I had let go of the need for quiet and order and allowed the work of teaching and learning to spill over the classroom. Students moved about the room to work on individual and group projects. To be near paper and project materials, they often clustered near my desk and bookcase.

On the day following our February vacation, just after a 9th grade class had left the room, I reached for my wallet in my bag under the desk but could not find it. Nor could I find my class keys. I spoke with the class as a whole and with individual students about the loss, particularly of one irreplaceable treasure: my address book, which contained addresses and phone numbers of friends from around the world.

Although my students and I had traveled across huge continents in our relationship since September, no one came forward. I offered a reward. Finally, one girl came to me and said, “You’ll never get that stuff back, Mrs. McEntee. I know who took it, and he threw it in the Pawtuxet River. But don’t get me involved.”

The principal questioned the boy she named and a couple of others, but he felt certain they were not the ones. Again, I talked with students individually and collectively; I approached parents. Eventually, I turned the matter over to the police.

Though I could identify with great certainty the class in which the theft occurred, I refused to blame any single student, and we continued our work together. Gradually, most of my students yielded to the urge to be human. Although the tide had begun to turn earlier as students had recognized the role that they had to play in their learning, a tidal surge occurred after the theft. It was a decisive moment. One by one, the students let down their guard, dropped their attitudes outside the door, and agreed to learn with me.

Having mapped out their own curricular units, the students now set out on their learning expeditions, moving around our school and community—to the senior center, a local elementary school, a shelter for the homeless, the zoo, and my home on Prudence Island—for research. Students learned to make polite requests, to accept refusals, regroup, rephrase, and go forward. They kept learning logs, collected artifacts of their own learning, and constructed portfolios.

The administration and faculty at the school supported our work in ways that surprised all of us. The school principal, several department heads, teachers, parents, and other interested students and adults attended the final presentations and offered feedback. Through his assistant, the superintendent sent his regrets.

At the school’s final staff meeting of the year, I stood and thanked the faculty for accepting the hundreds of people who had come through the school on behalf of the project and my students. I thanked them for giving me a safe haven for my style of teaching and for giving my students a supportive place to learn.

In our final interview, my department head said, “Grace, if you ever create a project and need a school for it, you can come here.”

That year was the hardest I’ve had as a teacher, but I’m glad I returned to the classroom. I needed to reconnect with students, to be in there with them, struggling to listen and to learn. When all those in a class—the teacher included—are learning together, energy charges the atmosphere. There is no telling what might happen. That can be frightening for those unaccustomed to giving up control. For protection, some set up barriers. I have tried to walk calmly beyond the barriers.

At the end of the year, I asked my students to reflect on Logs and Letters and those who led it. Here are a few excerpts from what some of them wrote:

In the beginning of the year, my English teacher's name was Mrs. Edwards. She dressed and acted like all my others except she was strict. She would give us homework every day and give tests about once a week. Then, about three weeks into the school year, we were told she was leaving. Everyone was kind of upset because she grew on us. After we were told she was leaving, we didn't want another teacher. We assumed our next teacher would be a jerk. Our next teacher was Mrs. McEntee, and when we met her, we hated her. Everyone wanted her to leave, but she didn't. She was strange. She didn't dress like other teachers or act like other teachers. I guess you could say we felt threatened because she's just like us. After a while, we realized she was cool, and we all felt bad for being rude to her at first. I guess you could say we all learned a good lesson: Don't judge a book by its cover.—K.P. I would like to write about a positive and negative learning experience for this essay, if I could. But I can't because I feel that I have not learned anything valuable this year in English class. After all the work we did, I didn't learn a thing.—J.C. I always thought that the only way that I could learn was through a textbook and a test. Boy, was I wrong. I learned that I have learned something from almost everything that I have done and experienced in my whole life. I just never knew it until now.—J.M. Mrs. McEntee, when you first came to our school, I thought I wouldn't like you because you had taken over from Mrs. Edwards, whose class most of us had A's in. Then you started to do something "different," something that none of us was used to. Some of us resented it only because it was different. We didn't know how you would grade us or what we would be reading. Through this year I have learned so much about learning and teamwork. Your "style" of teaching is not "traditional." You have introduced a new way of thinking and teaching. To you, I feel, there is no such thing as "slow" or remedial learning, only different ways of learning. You understand that it's not how much we learn but how well we know what we learn.—J.D. My experiences changed the way I think about the future. My greatest experience was getting to meet Ms. Andrews from Prudence Island. I didn't know what I was going to say during the interview. Ms. Andrews is a social worker, and she works with handicapped kids every day. The way she has to work with children made me feel like this person is great. She devotes her life to people, trying to help them. Then I thought that her job is what I want to do in the future. She was giving me a preview of what it's like to work with a group of individuals, that it can be hard, but it's all worth it. After the interview, I realized that I now know what life is all about: hard work and dedication.—G.F.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Grace Under Fire