January 01, 2004 5 min read
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Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students

by Ron Berger
(Heinemann, 156, $17.50)

No educational metaphor has had more potency during this time of standards and standardized tests than that of the “high bar.” Clear it (i.e., pass the test), and the teacher and students are on their way to the promised land of academic success; knock down the bar (fail the test), and their days will be lost in misery.

The problems with the high-bar metaphor, as noted by Berger in this compelling book, are many. Success in the real world is much more ambiguous than the either-or proposition of clearing or not clearing the bar. And even if success could be so simply determined, you’d need hundreds of high bars, representing the almost countless ways individuals can achieve success.

While the veteran teacher says that the standardized-test scores at his own Shutesbury Elementary School in western Massachusetts are good, he also thinks that they’re pretty much beside the point and that the high-bar metaphor should be put into storage. As a progressive educator, he scorns paper-and- pencil tests in favor of having kids produce meaningful work. To this end, his students have published a field guide to local amphibians, tested the town’s houses for radon gas, and designed and built cave homes. Berger, who is also associated with Harvard’s Project Zero and the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound project, puts all of this work on slides and shows it to teachers in other towns and cities, encouraging them to adapt the project-based approach.

Of course, projects have been around forever, and there’s nothing, Berger points out, inherently valuable about doing them. To be of real value, projects must be “well-crafted,” a term that has special meaning to Berger, whose summertime profession is carpentry. Some carpenters,he notes, “are adept at trigonometry and use calculators to figure rafter angles"; others “rely on a tape measure, spatial intelligence, and an experienced eye.” The important thing is not that the carpenter possess a certain kind of know-how but that he have a “toolbox” of skills that helps him produce work that is exacting, solid, and beautiful—namely, thewell-built house.

Berger wants his students to learn just as a carpenter builds: by fully engaging in the work at hand. Basic skills matter, but only in the context of projects that are actually taking shape. This, he notes, is the opposite of how most schools, caught up in the cycle of endless testing, think of basic skills. They approach reading, writing, and math as skills to be taught directly andintensely, after which, if time permits, projects maybe undertaken as an “extra activity.”

Impressive as the projects of Berger’s students apparently are—it would have been helpful if photographs were included in the book—skeptics of such purebred progressivism might justifiably wonder if the issue of basic skills is dealt with somewhat flippantly. Most of us who teach, while seeing the value of having students produce authentic work, also see the value of practice and even drill (a word progressives abhor). Repetition isn’t, in and of itself, a basic skill, but it can foster the development of skills needed in the “real work” Berger so emphasizes.

Nevertheless, we’re almost certainly better off erring on the side of Berger’s project-based methods than sticking with the standardized status quo. At the very least, Berger is a necessary thorn in the side of the educational bureaucracy. And, perhaps more important, he can help us get rid of that horrible high-bar metaphor once and for all.

The Crisis of Moral Authority

by Richard Arum
(Harvard, 336 Pages, $39.95)

Arum, an associate professor of sociology and education at New York University, began thinking about school discipline when he was an English teacher at a notoriously tough high school in Oakland, California. Violence and the threat of it were ubiquitous, and Arum pondered why his school and others were doing a “poor job of educating and socializing youth.” While he acknowledges that the reasons are complex, this interesting study casts a critical eye on the American legal system, which he sees as having undermined the ability of teachers and administrators to socialize teenagers.

Between 1969 and 1975, students, with the help of their parents and activist lawyers, began challenging school policies regulating everything from hair length and clothing to locker searches and political protest. Students won more than half the cases, which had, as Arum details it, a chilling effect on teachers and administrators. Fearing that they would be embroiled in controversial and costly litigation, they became increasingly reluctant to enforce rules, resulting in a decline in their legitimacy. This reluctance, Arum argues, remains today, even though the courts have backed off considerably from their earlier advocacy of students’ rights.

Arum, it must be pointed out, is adamantly opposed to such measures as zero tolerance, which, he insists, often results in unfair and excessive punishment. What he wisely calls for is not authoritarianism, but for school folks to regain a sense of moral authority so that they can act decisively in matters of school discipline without having to look over their shoulders.

The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers

by Linda Perlstein
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pages, $24)

Despite the cute title—the acronym “NMJC” is a favorite salutation of early- teene-mailers—much of Perlstein’s book makes for a frightening read. The author, an education reporter for the Washington Post, details a year in the life of several students at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland. What she reveals are students who engage in dangerous sexual gamesmanship, who ostracize and humiliate anyone who is “different,” and who are generally directionless. This is not your parents’ junior high.

If the portrait of the students’ lives is discouraging, the portrait of classroom life is downright depressing—a weird mixture of regimentation along with some touchy-feely add-ons. On the one hand, the official busybody curriculum demands that students spend much of their time filling out worksheets, plowing through dismal textbooks, and copying out definitions from the overhead projector. Then, as if realizing the mechanical nature of what they’re required to teach, teachers have students get in touch with their feelings through “journaling.” This leads to reflections like this one, written after September 11: “I was saying no more World Trade Center that is bad, but as long as I am OK, and my family.”

An irony Perlstein astutely expounds is that the middle school movement, which developed in the 1960s, was supposed to supplant the mini-high school feel of junior high with kinder, more age- appropriate schools. But if Perlstein’s book is any guide, we have pretty much the same setup of kids being shuttled from one dull class to another. Our middle schools may be goofier, but they’re no kinder.

—David Ruenzel

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A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Reviews


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