Keeping The Faith

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Five young leaders make the progressive tradition their own.
Keeping The Faith

In this age of standards and accountability and testing and cultural literacy, Jessie Singer is an unabashed progressive. The Portland, Oregon, high school teacher promotes multiculturalism. She eschews (as much as possible) the "canon" of dead white male authors. She uses an interdisciplinary approach to literature. She prefers to teach books that raise questions of justice, fairness, and equality. She opposes tracking and standardized testing. She believes classrooms should be more democratic. And she doesn't lecture.

But as Singer, 27, discovered early in her career, it isn't easy to go against the grain. After receiving her master's degree from Lewis and Clark College, which has a well-regarded teaching program steeped in progressivism, she spent a year at a Eugene high school where her youthful zeal was not always appreciated. "I felt isolated there," she says. "I was surrounded by some wonderful teachers, but they were very stuck in what they were doing. They were threatened by any new way of doing things." Singer says she was popular with many of her students, and that caused friction with some of the other faculty members. "One teacher made a rule that her students couldn't mention my name in her classroom," she says, still incredulous.

To keep sane, Singer would drive to Portland—a two-hour journey—to attend meetings with a group of progressive teachers who are informally affiliated with the Milwaukee-based quarterly education journal Rethinking Schools. Last year, she left Eugene and took a job at Portland's Grover Cleveland High School. At Cleveland, Singer is in good company. The school's English department is well-known for its embrace of progressive teaching methods. "My colleagues here are very supportive," she says.

Jessie Singer

Age: 27
Job: English teacher, Grover Cleveland High School, Portland, Oregon.
Education: Whitman College, B.A. in English; Lewis and Clark College, M.Ed.
Heroes/Mentors: Linda Christensen, activist, writer, and fellow Portland English teacher; Ruth Hubbard, professor of education at Lewis and Clark College, activist, and friend.
Favorite Education Books:In the Middle, by Nancy Atwell; A Workshop of the Possible, by Ruth Hubbard.

Today, Singer is helping other young progressives stick to their guns. As a leader of the Rethinking Schools bunch, she heads a support group for beginning teachers. Every other month, they meet at Singer's house to compare notes about teaching strategies, behavior management, job satisfaction, and other topics. "New teachers, especially young progressive teachers, feel really isolated because they often don't have a lot of like-minded colleagues," she says. These days, she concedes, it's harder than ever to keep the faith. "But that's all the more reason why we need good progressive teachers, teachers who are willing to stand firm, who know that there's more to good teaching than testing and assessment, who know that we have to have high standards, but that it comes with a strong curriculum and creativity and multicultural literature."

Bill Bigelow, a Portland high school teacher and a fellow Rethinking Schools leader, praises Singer for "her willingness to stand up and take a leadership role. I wish we had a lot more young teachers like her." He adds: "She's got a great heart and loads of energy."

Linda Christensen, language arts coordinator for the Portland district, thinks so highly of Singer that she recently asked the teacher to lead a workshop for English instructors districtwide. Never mind that Singer hasn't even completed her first year at Cleveland.

"She's an incredible teacher, with a sense of justice and equality and a vision that all students can succeed," says Christensen, who helped found Portland's Rethinking Schools group. "I wanted her to share her teaching skills with other teachers."

At 8:30 on a drizzly Tuesday morning, Singer introduces herself to 10 teachers who have turned out for training she's conducting at Cleveland High. The teachers, many of them older than Singer, are sitting where the students usually sit, in combination desk/chairs. Singer, who has short, jet-black hair and dark brown eyes, is full of enthusiasm and energy. Dressed in gray pants and a black long-sleeve T-shirt, she's relaxed and self-confident. Her workshop: "The Landscape of Literature."

"I want to show you one way that I get students to connect with literature," she says as she passes out copies of various short stories. Singer favors African and Latin American texts in her classes, and she has chosen examples of the former for the workshop. She asks each teacher to read the story and copy a short passage from the text that describes the landscape. Then, she asks them to illustrate the scene using crayons and pastels. "Sometimes I play African music in the background while they do this," she says. One teacher complains, "I have no artistic ability!" but Singer insists that "the art is not important."

A young woman wearing a long blue-and-white polka dot dress writes down the title and author of her book—Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South AfricaM, by Mark Mathabane—and this simple passage: "The place was mountainous, rugged and bone-dry, like a wasteland." Underneath, she draws brownish, dirt-covered hills with a blazing hot sun.

"This part is pretty easy for the students," Singer says. "But the next part takes it much deeper." She asks the other teachers to write a short interior monologue, putting themselves inside the story. As the teachers begin scribbling, Singer reiterates the lesson's objective with students: "The goal is to get them to connect as readers to the texts."

It's a far cry from asking kids to read The Catcher in the Rye and write a five-page report examining Holden Caulfield's relationship with his little sister, Phoebe. That approach, Singer says, can turn kids off to reading. "With my students," she says, "especially my sophomores, who are the most reluctant readers, if I give them a book and say, 'There's some really important imagery here that I want you to know about,' they will literally walk out the door." But if they are allowed to choose their own books to read—Singer is a firm believer in this—then chances are good they will develop a lifelong love of literature.

Later, Singer sits at a table in her empty classroom and expands on her teaching style: "To me, progressive teaching is coming from a place of wonder, instead of, 'This is what I know, and I'm going to pass it on to you.'" But she insists it's not the "airy-fairy" approach that critics make it out to be. "I do believe that teachers need to teach skills. In order to be a reader and a writer, there are skills you need to have. But they go in one ear and out the other unless they have a purpose and a context and a connection."

Singer leads a visitor through her classroom, which is lined with students' work, including posters and writings. She points proudly to a poem by sophomore Kyle Payne, a Native American. "He's never really read books," says Singer, who gave him The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian writer. "He loved it," she says. The poem, based on Alexie's novel, is titled "Reservation Style." It ends with this provocative line: "This life isn't any sensation/This life is the native nation." Singer smiles. Thanks to her, a student has made a strong connection with a book. It's a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

—David Hill

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 51-52

Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Keeping The Faith
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