Education Letter to the Editor


September 01, 1993 14 min read


The article about Lynn Cherkasky-Davis [“Woman On A Mission,” August] was inspiring. As soon as I read about her “epiphany” experience, my own popped back into my head, which made me wonder if all teachers have had them at some time.

Mine occurred with a little girl in my 1st grade class who had come from a tough home situation and with no kindergarten background. I nursed her along until sometime in January or February, when I decided she was ready to deal with letter recognition. I gave her a cut-and-paste sheet for matching six upper- and lower-case letters and, with the sweep of my arm, indicated that she could consult the alphabet chart on the wall if she needed help. When she could finally get a word in, she stopped me in my already retreating tracks. She asked, in frustration, “Mrs. Danner, just what is the alphabet anyway?”

Among other things, I learned two great lessons that day: One, never take anything for granted; and two, leave nothing to chance.

Mary Lou Danner
Fayetteville, Tenn.

Reading about Lynn Cherkasky-Davis and her fellow teachers at the Foundations School let me know that I am not alone. After four years of “traditional” teaching in a rural district, I left, partly from location boredom but mostly from early burnout. When I finally landed another teaching job three years later, my teaching had changed to the whole language, child-centered approach described by Cherkasky-Davis. That job lasted only seven months, thanks to the underhanded policies and practices of school and district administrators. Parents, too, evidently did not agree with my “new” way of teaching through discovery, authentic literature, child-centered writing, and true-to-life projects. In a sense, I let these people take my job away from me. I have yet to find another position. The Foundations School sounds like a place in which I would feel very comfortable as a teacher and learner.

I have learned several things from Cherkasky-Davis: Teachers must stand up for what they believe is right, teach the way kids best learn, and never let an administrator bully them into throwing all of this out the window. I hope that both public and private school principals will give up their quest for power and let their teachers have a much needed voice in decisions that affect their own jobs and the education of their students.

Rhonda Cash
Versailles, Ky.

A Scary Prospect

I would like to respond to David Krantz’s commentary, “Not So Special” [August]. I am a special education teacher in the New York City Public School System. I agree with Krantz’s comments on the unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy of special education, and I also agree with his assessment of the learning-disability label as bogus. But I do not believe wholesale inclusion in regular classrooms is the answer to the failures of special education.

I have a master’s degree in special education from Bank Street College. I was taught the gospel of special ed labels: I believed that the categories “learning disabled,” “emotionally handicapped,” and “ADD” were written in stone—quantifiable and real. But over the nine years that I have taught various categories of children in special ed, I have come to ignore the labels as useless. Indeed, as Krantz states, the labels are pejorative and have created a second-class group of schoolchildren who are often isolated from interesting and exciting activities available to those in the mainstream.

Unfortunately, no matter how the child is categorized, I have never had one in my class who did not have problems severe enough to warrant a self-contained, intensive program. I don’t know why these children fail in a regular setting, but their failures are real. I know they benefit from the closeness and intensity of a “special education.”

Inclusion is a scary prospect. Lack of funding, inefficiency, and bureaucratic turf wars will prevent the necessary support services from reaching the children. They will be thrown back into regular, overcrowded, noisy classes with teachers already harried and overloaded with problems. The trained special ed support staff will quickly become untrained, part-time aides, overseen by a special ed teacher with an unrealistic caseload of children to visit.

The indignities Krantz finds in special education will be mild compared with the indignities the overwhelmed children will suffer back in the mainstream. Large, urban school systems such as New York City’s will never have the money to hire enough trained staff to make inclusion positive and viable for large numbers of children with learning problems.

It seems to me that the same people who sued to create the least restrictive placement process are now suing to dismantle it without any clear idea of the number of children who will be affected. I urge people like Krantz to think through the realities of large-scale inclusion before they reform the many successful special education classrooms into extinction.

Marilyn D’Alessandro
Brooklyn, N.Y.

What Kids Bring

The work of Signithia Fordham [“Searching For Answers,” August] is most remarkable in two respects. First, unlike most of what passes for educational research, Fordham does not presume to have already found all of the answers, which can be obtained by purchasing a book, video, or entrance to some workshop.

Second, Fordham appreciates and attempts to understand what pupils bring to their schools. The idea that what pupils bring to a school could possibly be as important as what the school brings to the pupils is one that simply doesn’t exist for most education “experts.”

Charles Breinin
Tonawanda, N.Y.

Attendance Laws

Finally the subject has been broached. I refer to the commentary on compulsory school attendance laws [“It’s Time To Change State Attendance Laws”] in the August issue. Writers George McShea and Mary Babcock did an excellent job of explaining the drawbacks created by this type of legislation. Their opinion is shared by me and, I suspect, many of my colleagues in secondary schools. It makes no sense to waste the increasingly scant resources schools have (including the time of administrators and teachers) on students who do not wish to be there. Informally, we estimate in our own school that 90 percent to 95 percent of our serious discipline problems result from 5 percent to 10 percent of our students, students who, more often than not, leave no doubt they would rather be somewhere else.

I fear that society is fast reaching a point where some form of educational triage, such as allocating resources to those most able to benefit, may become necessary. McShea and Babcock’s estimate of the financial losses due to compulsory attendance is probably conservative because they focused mainly on the administrative costs of chasing nonattenders. If you also factor in the discipline problems caused by many of these students, costs skyrocket. Faculty meetings that should have been used to improve curriculum instead become gripe sessions, fomenting accusatory diatribes. And time that should have been spent assisting students or readying science labs is wasted “guarding” detentionhall inmates. Let’s face it—professional time is too expensive to be squandered this way.

Terry McCormick
Port Allegany, Pa.

Kudos to George McShea and Mary Babcock for their courageous article. I agree with them in principle; secondary school attendance policies are out of date and costly. My further point is that most students are absent because the school experience itself is of little interest and value to them. So they “vote with their feet.” When the high school experience is appropriate and meaningful for both employment- and college-bound youth, the eminence of current attendance policies will diminish.

Catherine Schwarz
Ann Arbor, Mich.

A Student’s View

I am a 15-year-old girl whose mother receives your magazine. One of the letters in the May/ June issue caught my attention. The letter, written by Marsha Langseth from Albert Lea, Minn., has had me disturbed ever since I read it, and, even though she has canceled her subscription, I feel that I ought to counter-reply. She made remarks to the effect of not agreeing with homeschooling. She felt that she was a more reliable teacher than a child’s own parents. Although I may understand her feelings on the subject somewhat, I can’t help but feel that people with such one-track minds are the downfall of this world. For a long time now, the “school system” has been trying to rule over children and have more control than even the parents. Slowly but surely, the system has been able to take over more and more of the child’s life. I am sure there are some parents who are not fit to teach their children, but I don’t believe that parents should be denied the right if they have the time, patience, and the means to do so. The system has tried everything it can to keep homeschoolers away from provisions they may need, and it is the last to offer help when needed. The main issue here is this: The schools shouldn’t have more control over children than their own parents.

Sarah Abrell
Lewisburg, Ohio

Read It Again

I was surprised by Mary Elizabeth Anderson’s angry letter [May/June] about my essay “No More Lesson Plans” [April]. Perhaps I was too subtle in my attempt to distinguish between real, meaningful planning and getting bogged down in the process of writing lesson plans. We teachers are in danger of taking ourselves too seriously and losing sight of why we are in the classroom in the first place. I would like to suggest that Anderson read the article again.

Dorothy LaBarbera
Nacogdoches, Texas

I have just finished rereading “No More Lesson Plans” in the April issue. I loved it. I plan to quote the piece, especially the part where author D. LaBarbera says: “There is too much art involved in good teaching. Lesson plans are meant to be made in the mind and heart and adjusted continually.”

I’ve taught early childhood and reading for 26 years and have experimented with nearly a dozen different types of plans. None of them has ever been the plan. When I first taught, I saved the plans from year to year thinking I’d reuse some. Wrong. I do save lists of songs, music, and poetry that serve as resources for themes I’ll use again. But no plans. I’ll never teach it the same way twice.

When I did some postgraduate work in England, I asked to see plans, and the teachers just looked at me blankly. What they did was to draw a large circle and in the middle write what the large theme for the month would be. Then in a spiral out from that word, they wrote the resources they’d need and which teacher would do what. They included, for example, ideas for drama, writing assignments, math lessons, and field trips. There were no page numbers—only general concepts to be covered. Then they let it evolve. They knew generally what a 7- or 10-year-old should be learning, and they made sure to provide materials that offered students the opportunity to discover the skills they should learn. It’s an art.

Ginny Stiles
Elkhorn, Wis.

In my 23-year career as a teacher, I have often asked myself the same questions LaBarbera asks in your April issue. I didn’t learn what a lesson plan was until I began teaching 2nd grade in the neighborhood’s parochial school. I was asked to write the objective of each lesson on a daily basis. Every week, the principal would collect the plan book, turn to the last page, and stamp her signature on it. I wondered if she read them and how she could keep track of what every teacher wrote. She didn’t.

That’s when I began to ask myself: Who are lesson plans for? Sometimes, I prepared extensive plans that didn’t work; other times, I gave wonderful classes without any previous planning. I wondered why some teachers had to fill in lesson plans they had forgotten to do after the fact. What possible use could they serve at that point? And so I continued to question myself with no reasonable response.

Soon, I learned that making lesson plans is not just for the teacher, students, or supervisor—it’s for all three. Plans do not have to be meticulous outlines of everything that will hopefully take place in the classroom, but they should help the teacher organize the material to be taught and guide him or her toward the ultimate objective of the curriculum. It should also lead students into conceptualizing the skills and objectives the teacher is pursuing. If a teacher and student know where they’re going and why, then the lesson plan has served its purpose. How does the supervisor fit in? Since everyone in a school system is accountable to someone else, the supervisor is directly responsible for the teacher’s work and the student’s progress.

My advice to all the disconcerted teachers who are trying to find justification for lesson plans is to continue writing the plans and try to make them better for yourself, your students, and the school system in general.

Rebecca Figueroa
English Department Coordinator
American Military Academy
Guaynabo, Puerto Rico

Reform Isn’t Free

As a future teacher, I was excited to receive the May/June issue, my first issue of Teacher Magazine. I especially enjoyed “Designs For Change” by Lynn Olson. She presented a cascade of exciting, challenging, and innovative educational programs.

If there is an identifiable common denominator among the diverse initiatives, however, it is that all of them seem to require increased funding. Olson may be quite correct when she maintains that “if there is a radically new vision of schooling emerging, it has yet to grab hold in the vast majority of schools and classrooms—or in the hearts and minds of many American schoolteachers.” But she should have gone further and noted that this new vision has not yet been accepted by society in general.

The restructuring of the educational system can only occur if American society is committed to it, and this will entail a fundamental shift in the American consciousness. It will demand that Americans stop perceiving the relationship between government and citizens as one predicated on antagonism and begin working for the common good. I have a friend who teaches in Germany, where people support the goals of education, respect the teaching profession, and realize that it is in everyone’s best interest to develop each individual child’s gifts and talents.

Instead of moving in this direction, American society is withdrawing its support. No one seems willing to sacrifice a portion of his or her paycheck to ensure that education can achieve its goals; it is easier to be a critic than part of the solution. Indeed, Meg Sommerfeld’s article, “It’s About Time,” also in the May/ June issue, alludes to the importance of funding.

The bottom line is that important reform programs and initiatives need to be financed. If the financing never materializes, the projects will remain microscopic manifestations that never become macroscopic realities. How can we expect our educational system to change if society never changes?

Still, the change that is materializing is breathtakingly exciting, and I want to be a part of it.

Mark Kessler
Austin, Texas

Today’s Students

I read “When Teachers Work Together, Students Benefit” [May/ June] with a great deal of interest. The brief item—about a school-based study—makes several good points. It states, for example, that “the teachers who thrived were part of a professional community that enabled its members to discuss problems and mutually develop strategies to deal with them.”

People are better able to function in a challenging and complex environment like a school when they have the social, emotional, and intellectual support of colleagues. Any teacher who has been fortunate enough to have worked in such an environment will confirm this argument.

However, I was dismayed to read that the teachers identified by the study as most effective dismissed the view that students were “the problem” in their schools. I concede that yesterday’s methods do not work with today’s students and that effective teachers must find ways to teach that engage their current students. But we are living in a society that professes to desire education reform and yet continually undermines the efforts of educators with powerful signals of violence, gratuitous sex, substance abuse, greed, and hedonism. I am referring to the electronic and print media. Their effects on today’s children are undeniably negative and contrary to the best efforts of good teachers everywhere.

Another serious problem is the deplorable state of parenting. Today’s teacher may be the only caring adult a child has in his or her life. There are so many angry, abused, neglected, and drugdamaged boys and girls in each and every community that it boggles the mind. These problems cannot be cavalierly ignored in the charge toward educating today’s students. The national education goals, for example, state that all students should come to school ready and able to learn. That is a tall order and one that cannot be filled at school. This is society’s problem, and we’d better admit that and start dealing with it. If we don’t, we will never realize reforms in education, and our society will continue its descent into the morass of licentiousness.

Daniel Farren Jr.
5th Grade Teacher
Falmouth, Mass.

A Winner

I thought you’d be interested to know that I have been awarded an Eleanor Roosevelt Teaching Fellowship from the American Association of University Women. I learned of this AAUW fellowship from your “Extra Credit” section and am thrilled that my first attempt at grant writing was such a success.

Not only am I an avid reader of Teacher Magazine (for all of its contents), but I also recommend it wherever I go.

Ruth Pilichowski
Fair Lawn, N.J.

Teacher Magazine welcomes letters. They must include your address and daytime phone number and may be edited for length and clarity. Mail them to: “Letters,” Teacher Magazine, 4301 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 250, Washington, DC 20008.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Letters