Education Opinion

The ‘Still, Small Voice’ of Reform

By Ronald Thorpe — October 01, 1997 12 min read

Ronald Thorpe is the vice president for programs at the Rhode Island Foundation in Providence, R.I. A former high school teacher and administrator, he is the editor of The First Year as Principal (Heinemann, 1995).

The champions of school reform have labored through many dark nights since A Nation at Risk, Horace’s Compromise, High School, and In a Different Voice arrived on our bookshelves in the early 1980s. There has been study after study, book after book, yet the long shadow of business-as-usual seems to hang over most of America’s schools. Or does it?

It could be that we are too set on searching for our signs in the large and dramatic, when instead we ought to remember the lesson of the prophet Elijah and look for our inspiration in “the still, small voice.” If we did, we might see that there is more happening in individual classrooms, at the hands of inspired teachers, than the public knows or the press acknowledges.

As a parent of a high school student, but also as a former teacher still deeply interested in the future of schools, I have been eager to see the signs that school reform is taking root. I am not referring to the big stuff like changing how we fund schools or breaking the death grip of age-grouping. Nor do I need to see that our nation’s SAT scores have risen by 15 points or that reading levels jumped two grades to convince me that better learning is taking place. Like most parents, I am interested in my own child’s experience. I want to see my daughter learning and being taught in authentic and worthy ways. I want to see her enthusiasm for what she is doing and her pride in what she’s accomplishing. Does she “own” what she does every day? Is she eager to get to school? Does her school affirm her strengths and give her a clear picture of where she needs more work and how to compensate for weaknesses so she never uses them as an excuse?

And I want to see my daughter’s teachers’ enthusiasm--if not passion--for their own learning. Do they model for her the kind of behavior and habits of mind that are the serious underpinnings of the whole enterprise? Do they hold her to high and fair standards, and do they have a variety of strategies for helping her reach those standards?

In short, I want to see that my daughter is being taught in ways that are not just different but better than what I experienced as a student and what I offered when I taught my own Latin and English classes.

Let me qualify that last statement. All that I experienced and did as both a student and teacher was not bad: I learned some valuable things well and so did some of my students. The problem is that there was too much time spent on unworthy things and too many students whom our schools (and my own teaching) did not serve well. It might sound greedy and unrealistic, particularly in a time of tight resources, to want more for every child, but it is the job of every parent to expect and demand no less.

What is borne in a teacher’s heart cannot be killed by the vicissitudes of leadership or funding, even though it might have to struggle fiercely to stay alive.

However rich or poor a school or town might be, however weak or strong its leadership, we still can expect teachers to take the best of what has been learned in the past 15 years about multiple intelligences, habits of mind, assessment, and gender and cultural differences, combine it with what they already know, and then use this new knowledge to think differently about the process of teaching and learning. This integration of the old with the new by teachers is the foundation on which meaningful “reform” will be built, reform that cannot be undone by the vicissitudes of leadership or funding. What is borne in a teacher’s heart cannot be killed by such ephemera, even though it might have to struggle fiercely every day to stay alive.

I have seen some signs that such integration is taking place, and the results are stunning, especially because they have touched my own daughter in a class that is not only standard in most high schools, but well known to me because I taught much of the same material to the same age group of students. I write, therefore, from the perspective of a reasonably qualified critic as well as a happy parent.

During her 9th grade year at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass., my daughter, Katie, enrolled in an interdisciplinary course called Ancient Studies. The course combines three basic freshman-year subjects: English, ancient (Western) history, and the arts (photography, in Katie’s case). Three teachers work separately and as a team to weave together what is designed to be a one-semester course. The structure of the program, however, is less important than how Katie was taught and how and what she learned.

Some of the course, especially in the beginning, was recognizable to me as a student and as a teacher. Katie did a research paper on ancient Greece, starting with an object she studied during a museum field trip, read Homer’s Odyssey and did the standard paper on Odysseus as leader/hero, and learned to see form and pattern through the camera’s lens in the photography part of the course.

Reading-comprehension skills do not come easily to Katie, at least not yet, and sometimes she is not as thorough as she might be in her writing. Consequently, the results of her research paper and the expository piece were fine, but not good enough to convince her that she could ever make a solid contribution to the class. I began to sense some frustration in her outlook, not the healthy kind that drives a person toward improvement, but the futile kind that can lead a student to conclude that there is nothing that she or he can do to get out of the C-plus to B-minus doldrums ... except to go lower.

Katie did find success in photography. From the very beginning, she worked hard to perfect her technique in the darkroom, where she developed and printed the reels of film she was shooting. She started talking about building a darkroom in the basement at home and soon got a position on the school newspaper as a photographer. When her first photo credit appeared, there was much celebrating. Something about this part of the Ancient Studies course engaged her in that way that is the precursor of all learning: She took ownership of the process and therefore could deal with her successes and failures as she measured her work against a standard of excellence that she knew was worthy and eventually within her grasp.

If we are keeping score of this experience, we might say Katie found real success in only 33 percent of her work in this three-pronged class--hardly an achievement to write home about. In fact, in schools 33 percent means failure, plain and simple. Since her grades were fine, Katie was not failing in the literal sense, only in her attitude toward her own prospects. And as all teachers and parents know, once attitude dips too low, it is difficult to reclaim.

About four weeks into the class, a new momentum emerged. The first thing that caught my attention was that the English teacher had assigned the Odyssey differently from the way I had. When I taught that epic poem, we went from Book 1 through Book 24 in about 20 school days, with some quizzes, a paper midway through the unit, and a full-period test at the end. A few students loved it and did well; many others came away with only a clear understanding that “epic” means something that is very, very long and exhausting. Katie and her classmates, however, spent an entire semester reading the Odyssey, not every day, of course, but sporadically and with assignments from other literature sprinkled throughout. I sensed no “epic” fatigue as she went about her reading.

My daughter was learning, thanks to the rigorous, inspiring teaching that drew on a variety of pedagogies.

The first specific assignment that made me take note asked the students to prepare an oral presentation of a mythological character using the bard style of Homer. This seemed a bit frivolous to me, but I kept quiet. Katie was nervous, but she worked like a ... well, like a Trojan on her presentation of the mythic Artemis. She rehearsed and rehearsed, really fine-tuned her best Homeric style, and got a terrific response from her teacher and classmates. That success helped her turn an important corner in feeling like she was connected in a high-quality way to the work the class was doing on this challenging poem. From a learning standpoint, she also showed definite signs of getting inside the text. It was clear from the way that she “became” Homer that she understood a great deal about oral epic tradition.

Next I noticed that the specific assignments began to integrate the three disciplines. The students were asked to do a project using visual art and words to address some theme or motif from the Odyssey. Katie chose to do her project on journey and loss. Her great-grandfather had died recently--her first experience with the loss of someone she knew well--and Katie combined her own photographs of grandpa-related images with prose that represented his journey through life. There was even a haunting photo of a stone bridge arching low over a small stream that evoked a trip to the underworld. The project moved me not only because of the sensitive way she dealt with her great-grandfather, but because of the unusually imaginative way in which she blended fact and fiction to produce profound truth. I had never seen Katie work at this level before, and I credit it to how thoroughly she was learning, thanks to the rigorous, inspiring teaching that drew on a variety of pedagogies. Her spirits ultimately grew in every part of the course because she was so buoyed by the unquestioned success she was having in those areas that drew on her talents and interest in the arts.

Then came a wonderful assignment from her English teacher: Each student was to write a missing book from the Odyssey. Many teachers use this approach to teach valuable thinking skills, but this time the students also were asked to incorporate the piece of art they had studied during their trip to the museum and used in their research papers. Katie chose to write about Penelope, the loyal, long-suffering wife of Odysseus. She did the kind of job that proved to me, her teachers, and herself that she really did understand the form and content of the Odyssey, that she had gained much from her field trip to the museum, and that she had learned some valuable things during her research.

For the final “banquet,” staged one evening near the end of the semester, each member of the class was asked to prepare a presentation that would engage the class in a variety of ways. Katie chose to produce and direct a scene from Aristophanes’ play “The Birds.” Once again, she worked tirelessly with her cast of student volunteers--six or seven classmates pressed into service--and made all the props and some of the costumes herself. The results were excellent.

Looking back on Katie’s experience in Ancient Studies, we misunderstand that “33 percent” if we see it as failing. Katie’s success in photography and in those other parts of the class that exercised her artistic and creative talents gave her an entrance to the process and content of the entire course. Initially, she could not get through the traditional doorway of research papers and tests, but once she found another way in, she learned as much, and probably more than most of the students I remember teaching.

Widespread education reform may come slowly, but when it does, it will be the culmination of many individual efforts tested and sustained in classrooms.

Just as important, everyone--and most especially Katie herself--got a more complete picture of what and how she had learned. Through the multiple forms of assessment, there were many different chances to find her capabilities. By valuing the artistic doorway to learning equally with the linguistic and logical/mathematical ones, her teachers got Katie to use her strengths while improving in areas where she was weaker. She did cooperative work, which is something she values, tested her leadership skills, and showed her ability to work independently. Finally, the course helped her begin to develop some essential habits of mind--especially perspective, analysis, imagination, empathy, communication, commitment, humility, and joy--that will sustain her long after she’s forgotten the name of Odysseus’ father or the dates of the Roman Republic.

Will any of this learning show up in her reading scores or SATs? Perhaps, eventually. I trust it will if those measures are any good. But those numbers, too, will be lost with a long list of other names and dates--part of the means to the end, but not the end in themselves.

Theodore R. Sizer’s recent Commentary, (“On Lame Horses and Tortoises,” June 25, 1997.) poses three questions that he believes are good tests of reform and assessment of schooling. Adapting his language from a system-context to the classroom, the questions might sound like this: (1) Are the criteria and instruments for the assessment of students clear, fair, and connected to useful intellectual activity? (2) Are a student’s teachers provided the necessary conditions for effective work and the stability to pursue it? (3) Have the teachers seized the opportunities these conditions provide, and does a student’s work--the content as well as the form--reflect that powerful teaching? For Katie, at least in this one class, the answers were all yes.

In the same way that many episodes of the Odyssey open with dawn’s rosy fingers spreading across the sky, what I witnessed with my own daughter during her 9th grade year feels like a type of dawning for teaching and learning. Ironically, any high school in the country could offer this kind of course. There was nothing costly about it, nothing high-tech. Nor was the content much different from what 9th graders have grappled with for decades. What changed was the thinking of the teachers, their vision, and their commitment. The results were considerable for my daughter and, I am sure, for others in the class.

I have no way of knowing whether this one experience is simply an anecdote or whether, in fact, there is some synecdoche here. I tend to believe that if such changes are happening in one class in one school, they also are happening in others. Because teachers tend not to tell people what they are doing, those of us outside schools are unlikely to hear about these kinds of innovations. We hear only about the great winds, the fires, and the earthquakes. Widespread education reform may come slowly, but when it does, it will be the culmination of many individual efforts tested and sustained in individual classrooms by teachers whose “still, small voices” will eventually tell us what we need to know.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1997 edition of Education Week as The ‘Still, Small Voice’ of Reform