August 17, 2001 6 min read
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LEARNING BY HEART, by Roland S. Barth. (Jossey-Bass, 272 pages, $24.95.) Barth, an eminent school reformer and founder of the esteemed Harvard Principal Center, doesn’t come right out and say it here, but he clearly thinks that too many schools operate like dysfunctional families.

The main problem is what psychotherapists call “codependency.” Like reticent family members, teachers observe a code of silence when it comes to counterproductive practices and behaviors, avoiding such touchy issues as tracking, incompetence, and low faculty morale. While this I-won’t-say-anything-if-you-don’t attitude protects a warped status quo, it also renders school improvement impossible. As Barth, who has a penchant for aphorisms, notes, “The fewer the nondiscussables, the healthier the school; the more the nondiscussables, the more pathology in the school culture.”

An unhealthy school, he argues, is particularly poisonous for enthusiastic new teachers. Veterans tend to treat such rookies as uppity younger siblings, summarily dismissing any ideas they may offer for improvement. Sadly, Barth writes, “Thou shall not distinguish thyself from the rest” is an undeniable axiom of the public school world. He relates how several teacher recipients of the prestigious $25,000 Milken National Educator Award told him that their excitement was tempered by a fear of disapprobation from their colleagues.

Why are so many teachers reluctant to stand apart and fight for change? Barth, who has been both a public school teacher and a principal, believes they have succumbed to a kind of grousing cynicism. The quick response to any promising new proposal, he writes, is “They’ll never let us,” the “they” being school board members, administrators, parents—anyone perceived as having authority.

Despite such dark ruminations, Barth is at heart an optimist. Indeed, he believes that teachers can “bring a spirit of creativity and invention into the schoolhouse"—but only if they are willing to break from the narrow confines of the classroom and wrestle with big issues. “The future of public education,” he writes, “rests upon a new majority of teachers who will extend their work as educators to the entire school.”

This message is hardly new. In the late 1980s, reformers talked incessantly about the need for courageous teachers to step forward and take the lead in school improvement efforts. But Barth’s notion of teacher empowerment is different. He astutely downplays the importance of the risk-taking visionaries. Such people, he points out, are rare and usually are not effective agents for change. What Barth advocates is a more modest form of teacher leadership, one that emphasizes the importance of “leading by following.” He urges teachers to set aside their cynicism and follow the enlightened leadership of others.

The school principal in Barth’s scheme is less an authority figure than an understated leader who deftly encourages teachers to embrace new ideas and methods. Once teachers emerge from the pack, the principal must run interference, Barth writes, to protect them “from the assaults of their fellows.”

Over the past decade, policymakers largely have abandoned school-based improvement strategies in favor of imposed accountability schemes linked to standards and assessments. But as Barth wisely notes, this single-minded emphasis upon external controls can only foster a greater feeling of helplessness among teachers. Improving schools from the inside isn’t easy, he acknowledges, but there isn’t any other way.

CROSSING OVER TO CANAAN: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms,by Gloria Ladson-Billings. (Jossey-Bass, 192 pages, $24.95.) The title of this instructive book refers to the biblical journey of the Israelites into the promised land. While Moses led his people most of the way, it was the younger, less-experienced Joshua who ultimately directed the crossing into Canaan. Ladson-Billings uses this rather elaborate allusion to suggest that it will be up to the next generation of teachers to lead the nation’s poor, underachieving students into the promised land of academic success.

Of course, these teachers can’t succeed unless they’re able to work with a racially and economically diverse student population. And Ladson-Billings, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin, has created a teacher preparation program she believes will do the trick. Called “Teach for Diversity,” it turns key aspects of conventional teacher education on its head.

While most training programs address the subject of multiculturalism through coursework—readings, instruction, and discussion, for example—Ladson-Billings insists that this didactic approach falls short. For teachers to be effective with youngsters from diverse backgrounds, they must, she argues, immerse themselves in their students’ cultures and neighborhoods. Consequently, as part of their TFD training, prospective teachers perform intensive community service before their stints as student teachers, volunteering in homeless shelters and working as literacy tutors, day-camp counselors, and the like. The program also puts teachers through exercises that force them to be self-reflective. Young educators, the author writes, need “to look at the way their [own] cultural background influences and shapes the ways they understand and act in the world.”

In this intriguing if somewhat academic book, Ladson-Billings lays the philosophical groundwork for the program, describes how it works, and offers anecdotes from its first 25- student cohort. The program is far too new and small to judge how effective it is. But by ensuring that prospective teachers understand the communities and cultures in which their schools are rooted, Teach for Diversity seems a big step in the right direction.

DIVIDED WE STAND: Teaching About Conflict in U.S. History, by James A. Percoco. (Heinemann, 238 pages, $19.) For generations of high school students, the study of history has been a desiccated, textbook- ridden affair, lost in a dust cloud of names, places, and dates. Percoco, an award-winning public school history teacher from Springfield, Virginia, has done everything in his power to ensure that this is not the case for his students. And by his own account, as related in this inspiring book, he has succeeded.

As the title suggests, Percoco builds his lessons around defining conflicts in American history. He does this, not by assigning the dumbed-down prose of textbook authors, but by offering up a rich vein of primary-source materials—everything from original newspaper reports, documents, and propaganda to art, music, and literature.

In Divided We Stand, Percoco meticulously details his eclectic approaches to such conflicts as the Civil War, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the struggle for civil rights. In their examination of Little Bighorn, for example, Percoco’s students study 1876 newspaper accounts and artists’ renderings of the infamous battle, the customs and religious beliefs of the Cheyenne, and the perspectives of historians. Drawing from these and other sources, students craft detailed journals, posters, political cartoons, and even bumper stickers.

Percoco writes compellingly and covers a lot of ground, but he is guilty of one striking omission. Nowhere does he discuss how his unconventional pedagogic approach dovetails with Virginia’s history standards and assessments. State guidelines, especially those that spell out in great detail what youngsters should know, can make life difficult for teachers trying to escape the tyranny of fact-oriented textbooks. It would have been nice to learn how Percoco manages—or doesn’t, as the case may be. Still, he has written a wonderful book that offers history teachers rich ideas for their own daily practices.

—David Ruenzel


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