Grace Under Fire

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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.

I ntroducing 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."

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