|Chemistry teacher Timothy Hearn has found a way to keep students attentive—and obedient.|
It was the first week of school, but the classroom was so quiet that,
at one point, you could hear the crunch of the teacher's leather soles
on the polished tile floor. The scratches of ballpoint pens followed,
providing a cicadalike chorus. Thirty-one students were recording the
observations of a chemistry experiment at Frederick Douglass Academy, a
public middle and high school in an area of Harlem where urban renewal
is under way but drug dealers still own street corners. The sophomore
girls and boys rubbed elbows and faced each other across crowded
tables, and nobody so much as whispered. Rather, the mostly African
American teenagers were clearly engrossed in the lesson, effortlessly
maintaining straight-backed posture on uncomfortable stools.
It was the middle of sixth-period chemistry class this past September 11, the fourth day of the school year. Before class, teacher Timothy Hearn had filled three balloons with different gases. The yellow one hung from the ceiling, while the blue and red ones were tethered to the demonstration table at the front of the room to prevent them from floating away. The 42-year-old Hearn, trim and wrapped in a neoprene apron, put a pair of plastic goggles over his aviation-style eyeglasses and lit a candle taped to the end of a meter stick. He then placed the flame under the blue balloon.
"I'm carrying out the same experiment as on the yellow balloon a few minutes ago," he said as the students scribbled away. "Your notes should appear under the 'method and procedure' heading in your notebook and later in your lab reports."
A bit of a performer, Hearn raised the candle slowly as his activities timer ticked away. "And I'm reminding all the ladies and gentlemen," he added, "that we're still working independently." This was his way of reinforcing what he'd established earlier in the week as the class's primary mode of behavior: quiet, sustained focus.
Students' faces tensed as the candle neared the balloon, and everyone seemed to inhale just before—boom!—a blinding flash leapt from the table. Startled gasps rippled around the room like applause, then nervous laughter brought release. Hearn repeated the procedure with the red balloon, but its explosion, in comparison, was anticlimactic. Although the silence had been broken, the students didn't get carried away. They spent the next five minutes quietly comparing notes, and then Hearn invited them to discuss their observations.
"When the blue balloon exploded, the candle didn't go out like with the other two," said the ponytailed Makeda Gunter, dressed in a white blouse and a navy blue skirt, the required uniform for female students. As she gave her answer, Hearn picked up his ever-present clipboard and marked a "Q," for responding to a question, beside her name—which translated into classroom performance points and canceled out an earlier demerit, a "C/O," for calling out before waiting to be recognized. Hearn's clipboard, part of a rigid disciplinary system endorsed by Frederick Douglass' administration, is both carrot and stick, enabling him to grade behavior as it occurs and motivating students to act how he trains them.
"The blue balloon gave off a flame ball," observed the handsome Valentine Silston, wearing navy blue trousers with a matching tie and white shirt. "Homey over there say it was helium or something like that."
"Hold on, Mr. Silston," Hearn admonished. "Be respectful."
Valentine, who grew up the youngest of eight children in Harlem but now lives with his father in the Bronx, continued. "Mr. Arce," he added, "also say it was oxygen in the yellow balloon. But that couldn't be in the blue one,either."
"The blue was probably filled with nitrogen," Isaias Arce II reasoned, running a hand over his wrinkled brow and through a thicket of curly hair. "Because when nitrogen expands, like, it blows up."
Timothy Hearn uses a
stern bahavior-based classroom-management system to keep his
"It's flammable?" Hearn asked, rhetorically. He then nodded heartily, thinking to himself, Got them, as the sophomores continued to determine the contents of the balloons. For 13 years, Hearn has punctuated each first week of class with the experiment. "It's always a crowd-pleaser," he says. "I love to wow them and perk their interest in science. Guess I'm still a teenager, too; I love the explosion."
But there's more here than meets the eye.
Hearn's preparations for the balloon experiment, and for covering the school's Regents curriculum (for New York's statewide standardized exam, which isn't mandatory for chemistry, unlike several other subjects), have little to do with the subject matter. Instead, he spent most of the first week teaching his two Regents and one AP classes exactly how to behave, which directly affects their grades and has proved, over the years, to inspire troublesome youngsters to become model students. "The bottom line is, my system allows me to teach," Hearn explains, pointing out that once it's in place, he can devote entire periods to content. As a result, virtually all his students pass his classes, with half choosing to sit for the Regents exam and more than 85 percent passing on the first try, making them more attractive to prospective colleges. (This year is his first teaching the AP class.)
The behavioral problems that Hearn faces are not unique to Harlem, of course. In classrooms across the country, an undercurrent of chatter and inattention corrodes learning environments, frustrating the efforts of even the most talented teachers. "In general, students are becoming a great deal less mature, less disciplined, and enter high school with increasingly lower skills," says Chris Abbasse, a global studies teacher at Frederick Douglass who, for 15 years, has taught students at both public and parochial schools in several large cities. "This low-level classroom chaos makes getting students ready for the Regents or other standardized tests very difficult."
But does Hearn's behavior-based system—applied, in this case, by a white teacher in a mostly black urban school—go too far? While those who ascribe to a child-centered approach to education, one at odds with uniforms and rigid rules, may think so, Frederick Douglass' principal, Gregory Hodge, feels that university education programs are decades behind in preparing new teachers. "They read all this theory crap," he says, "but don't learn anything about the nuts and bolts of getting students to perform academically when they don't want to." Even Abbasse, a charismatic and at times intimidating figure at 6 feet 5 inches and 260 pounds, had one class defy him last year. "So I went to Hearn's system, and it worked well," he recalls. "I always tell teachers with classroom management problems to see Hearn. It's a great system for a novice, a timid veteran, or anyone in trouble."
Frederick Douglass Academy is housed in a three-story, blond-brick box in the northeast corner of Harlem. Just across the East River, in the South Bronx, is Yankee stadium. But few residents in the academy's neighborhood of low-rent apartment buildings and housing projects can afford season tickets. Nor for decades, until well into the 1980s, did their children have access to quality education. The FDA facility used to be home to IS 10, a middle school that failed so miserably, its doors were closed. Lorraine Monroe, a former deputy chancellor for instruction for the city, took over and opened Frederick Douglass in 1991, combining a middle school (now with more than 400 students) and high school (800-plus students) into a college-prep institution that, according to its current principal, endeavors to provide the same opportunities and quality of instruction as private schools. "That's why we have 19 [sports] teams, including fencing," says Hodge, who grew up poor in Harlem but eventually earned a doctorate in education and took over FDA in 1995. The school also, he adds, arranges "for trips to places like Rome, Japan, and Mali, as chances to learn."
‘The bottom line is, my system allows me to teach.’
Modeled on the traditional principles that guided Martin Luther King Jr.'s education at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, FDA offers a culture that promotes academics and punishes misbehavior. Any New York City student may apply for admission, as they must to attend any school outside a designated neighborhood, but a mandated preference is given to Harlem residents, and all applicants must agree to follow the school's code of conduct. FDA's middle school consistently ranks among the city's top 15 on statewide reading and math tests, given to 4th and 8th graders, with 80 percent of students scoring at the "proficient" level or above. Dropouts are virtually nonexistent, and students graduate on time at almost double the rate of minorities at urban public high schools across the country. Last June,all 118 graduating seniors were accepted tocollege—including highly competitive institutions like Columbia University and Dartmouth College.
Above the Frederick Douglass reception desk is a large stenciled sign that quotes the school's namesake, the 19th-century black abolitionist and educator: "Without struggle there is no progress." The students at FDA are well-acquainted with struggle. Roughly 90 percent qualify for the National School Lunch Program, and most come from single-parent families. In Harlem, where two-thirds of FDA's students live (the rest commute mostly from Washington Heights, the Bronx, and Queens), they face the perennial urban traps and temptations. Given the deterioration of the traditional family and a lack of after-school programs, says police detective Ralph Davis, who teaches drug prevention classes at FDA, "gang leaders become the male role models, and the gang becomesfamily."
Hodge considers good teachers essential to the mission of creating an academic family that counters street influences and "prepares students to get into the college of their choice." After meeting Hearn through another FDA teacher, Hodge recruited him aggressively for two years. "Hearn is an extraordinary professional, one of the few who really know their subject," Hodge explains. "Often a teacher doesn't know jack; the kids sense it and beat up on that teacher all year. Also, Hearn has a love of what he does that's contagious and attracts students who hate chemistry, and learn to appreciate his idiosyncratic behavior."
At first glance, admittedly, Hearn looks like a geek. He stuffs a pen protector in his shirt pocket, and a stopwatch hangs from a cord around his neck. He wears an antiterrorism kit—compass, waterproof matches, and an indelible marker included. And he used to keep a pedometer on his belt, which helped him determine that, on average, a teacher walks five miles a day. But these details are less quirks than aspects of a teaching persona that Hearn has created to pique his students' curiosity and establish who's in charge.
On the first day of school this year, exactly one minute before the start of a Regents chemistry class, Hearn positioned himself in the doorway, checking each student for possible dress code violations before letting him or her inside. The sophomores filed in, their chatter stopping abruptly as they met Hearn's intense, blue-eyed gaze. The teacher blushed slightly, which made him appear almost angry at the sight of them. But, in truth, Hearn is so shy by nature that Toni Asendio, the school's PTA president—and mother of Danielle Freeman, a student in his AP class—says she thought "the kids are going to walk all over him" when he arrived three years ago. But Hearn soon established the opposite reputation.
|Memories of out-of-control students still haunt Hearn and, in part, explain his stern demeanor.|
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome back to FDA," Hearn boomed as he marched to the front of the room. "When you walk through that door, you go quietly to your assigned seat, which you'll receive shortly, you take out your binder and a writing implement, and complete the Do Now"—a five-minute exercise written on the blackboard ahead of time, so that the class begins immediately with academics. "Now that's every period, every day,all year."
Hearn stood erect in jacket and tie, as if he were trying to look taller than his 6-foot height. His right hand waved a pen as a conductor's baton. After a knock on the door, he reprimanded a student for arriving late, then pivoted and threw a verbal dart at another young lady: "You're not chewing gum, are you? Please get rid of it."
"My first impressionof Mr. Hearn was, like,he used to serve in the Army and participated in some of the world wars," Isaias, whose boyish face clashes with his adult-size body, said at the end ofthe week. "But when hedid that [balloon] experiment, I knew it's going to be a fun class. Just imagine, he's already set stuff on fire, so by the end of this year we're going to know how to make C-4explosives!"
Danielle was first introduced to Hearn last year, also in a Regents class. "He seemed so stiff, I thought we wouldn't get along," she recalls. She came around when Hearn began to remind her of her older sister, an elementary-level teacher in Baltimore who engages her students through sheer enthusiasm. But, Danielle adds, "the teacher shouldn't try to be our friend. We have a sixth sense and know that if the teacher isn't on point for the first five minutes, we can get away with stuff all year."
Memories of out-of-control students still haunt Hearn and explain, in part, his stern demeanor. In 1995, during his first year teaching at an all-boys school in Harlem, the teenagers sabotaged his lessons so severely, he questioned whether he belonged at a minority school. As a former National Science Foundation graduate fellow who'd published three papers, he had much to offer. And he'd walked away from a PhD program at Cornell University, and a potential career in lab research, in 1989 because "I realized I wanted to deal with people instead and felt more attracted to teens than college students," he explains. "They're a tough crowd but not jaded, and I believed I could get them fired up about science. And they're trying to figure out what type of a person they want to be, so I try to present myself as a model."
Per Hearn's rules,
Sabella Thompson raises her hand and waits to be recognized
before making an "appropriate comment."
But Hearn had had limited experience with minority students. He'd grown up the oldest of four siblings in an all-white, upper-middle-class suburb just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His mother, a registered nurse, and father, a flood plain manager for the state, instilled in their kids a sense of orderliness and an interest in science. They also stressed that one's talents should be used not only for personal gain but also to help those less fortunate.
Hearn, a former Boy Scout, graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry. Two years at the University of California, Irvine, followed, and then he transferred to the doctoral program in neurobiology at Cornell in 1985. Four years later, Hearn enrolled at Columbia University's Teachers College, where eventually he earned both a master of arts and a master of science in science education.
In 1990, although not Catholic himself, he began his teaching career at an all-girls Catholic high school near his apartment on the Upper East Side. He'd grown frustrated with the bureaucratic labyrinth the city's board of education imposes on hiring and licensing processes. As he walked to St. Jean Baptiste for the next three years, Hearn often looked uptown, across 96th Street, and longed to bring the quality of science education he'd received to students in Harlem. At Penn State and Cornell, he'd established close friendships with African American classmates and modeled himself after a black colleague who later became an associate professor at Stanford University. These positive experiences more than erased the only childhood memories he had of minority youths, bullies who kicked him from behind while he watched the Hershey Bears, a minor league hockey team. Hearn's connection to the black community deepened after he met Velva, an Antigua native, in 1986, then married her three years later.
In 1995, after working for a private tutoring company for a couple of years, Hearn answered an ad for a chemistry and physics teacher at Rice High School, an all-boys Catholic school in central Harlem. During that first year, teaching mostly black and Hispanic youngsters, he wasn't sure how to deal with the "violence in the broad sense that characterizes inner city culture," he says. While the students at Rice and FDA are loud and aggressive, "they're very upfront and honest, which is very touching," he adds. "But they also have a lot of inner turmoil born of the prevalence of crime on the streets that teachers have to deal with."
Hearn contemplated solutions to his discipline problems at Rice throughout the summer of 1996 but recalled nothing practical from his education classes. Then he remembered a text, Randall Sprick's Discipline in the Secondary Classroom, that he'd ordered several years earlier but never read. The book, one of the first in the then-growing field of research Sprick refers to as "positive behavior support," articulates what struck Hearn immediately as a workable approach. Instead of getting caught in heated exchanges with students revolving around differing interpretations of "doing your work," Hearn focused more that September on overt behavior. And it worked.
Seven years later, Hearn's "system" mixes Sprick's theories with what mentors and experience have taught him. During the first week of school this past September, for example, the "Do Now" blackboard notes emphasized the system's two fundamental modes of behavior: "working independently" (during lectures, demonstrations, and tests) and "working co-operatively" (during class discussions, group work, and lab experiments). For four days, the students copied the notes and took quizzes to make sure they understood and remembered every detail. Some were even asked to read the notes out loud in front of their fellow teenagers.
During class, Hearn's
clipboard is never far from his hand. Points as well as demerits
for individual behavior are recorded daily.
"While 'working independently' in Mr. Hearn's class," Kristen Babb, a tall, elegant sophomore, recited with a Caribbean lilt, "students are expected to, one, work quietly—no talking; two, be sitting in assigned seats; three, ask relevant questions or make appropriate comments after raising their hands and waiting to be recognized by the teacher; four, show academic posture."
"That's the Queen's English—excellent enunciation," Hearn replied, reinforcing an example of the skills he believes students will need for college and job interviews.
Of course, "working quietly" and "sitting in assigned seats" required little explanation. But training students to raise their hands and wait to be recognized took up quite a bit of Hearn's time that first week. And that Wednesday, he did indeed teach "academic posture," telling students to always sit up straight with "derrière against the back of the chair." His French provided a lighthearted moment as some students tried to figure out which body part he was talking about. Made perfectly clear, however, was the fact that pens should always be in hands, ready to take notes, and that, when not writing, students should maintain eye contact with the teacher or whomever is speaking. "This is the way we signal to each other, at least in this part of the world, that we're paying attention," Hearn explained.
The key, from a discipline standpoint, is to focus on scripting observable behavior so students know exactly how to act. "Ironically, the system works best for the worst-behaved students because it teaches them precisely what to do on a moment-to-moment basis and rewards them for it with grade points," Hearn says. "Most students misbehave because they've never been taught in the first place, so they get into subjective disagreements with teachers about what it means to 'do your work,' arguing that slouching or staring out the window doesn't matter. But no one can dispute whether they're holding a pen. They might be thinking about sex through the whole period for all I know,but if I can get them to act attentive, chances are they're learning and, at least, they're not bothering other students."
That students don't interfere with each other's education in Hearn's classroom is obvious. At one point, as groups of kids unscrambled letters into the names of chemical elements, Hearn added humor to the mix by reading aloud some of the nonsense words, like "ylbulmie." But the entire time, the volume in the classroom stayed low and the patterrespectful.
"If you follow Mr. Hearn's discipline," attests Louis Shakelford, a senior in the AP class, "you are always alert, and it makes you learn even if you don't want to." He recalls a classmate two years ago in Regents chemistry who often was disruptive with other teachers and disliked Hearn's approach intensely. "But she acted just like everybody else, and you could never tell," he adds.
So far, in three years, there's been only one instance in which a student defied Hearn, forcing the teacher to appeal to principal Hodge, who immediately reassigned the young woman to another class.
By Thursday that first week, all three classes were complying with Hearn's expectations. So prior to the balloon experiment, he introduced them to his grading procedures, which provide the motivation for buying into the system for the year. Class participation, he told them, is worth 20 percent of the grade on every report card, making it easier for a struggling student to pass and a gifted one to score an A—if those students play by the rules.
Hearn held up his clipboard as if it were the Holy Grail, displaying the Weekly Record Sheet everyone had seen him scribbling on. He then handed each student a mock version. On the left was a list of fictitious names, while across the page were two columns for every school day, one shaded for demerits marked with abbreviations in Hearn's neat script and the other, without shading, chronicling positive behavior with another set of obscure letterings. Hearn translated the abbreviations and explained how each encoded action raises or lowers the automatic 80 percent score in behavior compliance they begin the period with.
"Do we get points for wrong answers?" asked Anton Foster, a sophomore who hopes to play guard for the varsity basketball team.
"I'll give you a good mark if you make a sincere effort," Hearn answered with a slight smile.
Anton is one of his most zealous converts. Two years ago, Hearn taught the science component of the summer school program for entering FDA freshman. "At the beginning of the first class, Anton called out to his peers saying I was a 'cornball,'" Hearn recalls. "No doubt he was referring to my physical appearance and fronting with his boys."
But as soon as the 15-year- old, who lives with his widowed mother and two younger brothers in the Bronx, understood the assessment process and realized that failing a class would disqualify him from the basketball team, he became enthusiastic. "At first, I thought I would fail, but Mr. Hearn explains everything so clearly," Anton says.
In fact, Hearn was so confident of Anton's abilities that he used the student's Weekly Record Sheet as a real-world example of how it works. Showing his clipboard to the class, Hearn noted that an "A" in the shaded area indicated a 10 percent subtraction for lack of attention after Anton was caught staring out the window. A "P" (posture) in the same column was for the few moments he'd succumbed to slouching. In the positive column were several "Qs" (asking or answering a question), which canceled the demerits. Anton had also been given a "C" (proper conduct) for reading aloud and, at that point, was maintaining a 90 percent grade for class participation.
Several weeks later, in late October, Anton was still highly motivated, at least in the behavior category. While he averaged only 66 percent on quizzes over a five-week period, he'd achieved a 98 percent in classroom participation, which he knew would help bring up his total grade, as it did, to 88 percent. Others, like Valentine, who'd seemed less motivated that first week, had also caught on. While achieving only a 64 percent in participation during week one, over the next four weeks he averaged a near-perfect score, lifting his overall grade by 10 points, to 81 percent.
Because no lab reports or major tests had been assigned yet, class participation had the biggest effect on the first report card. While some may see this as cooking grades, Hearn believes it pays off academically in the long run. For example, Anton's tendency to become distracted easily in other classes shouldn't interfere with the "wild ride" Hearn promises as the course material grows more challenging the closer students get to taking Regents in the spring. "As the year progresses, the written grades suffer," Hearn says. "So the boost they get from behavior [early on] helps motivate them to keep working."
Hearn admits his system demands time and energy. While teaching, he tracks each student's behavior on the clipboard. A daily grade then has to be determined and calculated into weekly tallies. But students know exactly where they stand. Every Monday, he posts a breakdown of grades on a bulletin board. He also lets students see their Weekly Record Sheet files. "My system never forgets," Hearn points out, "and as long as I set myself up as a fair and consistent dictator to judge whether an action is rude or disrespectful, students rarely challenge my assessment."
There are those, of course, who do challenge behaviorist approaches. Alfie Kohn, for one.
There are those, of course, who do challenge the behaviorist approaches practiced by Hearn and Randall Sprick, who, as a consultant, has helped institute districtwide programs in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and other states. Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of standardization and author of Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, among other books, is one of them. "Highly structured approaches are good at getting the kids to sit down and shut up," he says. "But if there are punitive consequences for disobeying rules that the teacher unilaterally sets out, that's not structure; that's control, and has a destructive effect in the long run." Following rules without understanding why they might be justified, Kohn argues, "doesn't help kids construct ethical and social meaning for themselves."
Kohn recommends giving students "the autonomy to help formulate not only answers to the question of how do we want our classroom to be and why, but to figure out together how to do it." And, in fact, many schools do just that, allowing students and their primary areas of interest to dictate just how lessons and programs are run, the idea being that no student is going to invest wholeheartedly in an education that's been forced upon him or her.
But in practice, most teachers seek a successful balance of teacher- and child- centered pedagogies. "To say there's one model is retarded," says Chris Abbasse, Hearn's colleague at Frederick Douglass. "Great teaching is like being a great thief. You take whatever works from whoever's doing it and mold it around your personality and your kids."
Hearn always ends the
first week of class with a bang, by holding a candle to
gas-filled balloons. "I love to wow them," the teacher
Abbasse says he doesn't buy completely into Hearn's system because it involves too much paperwork. He does, however, call on it when necessary. "The toughest kids often have the least guidance and support at home and challenge you to see if you care," he says. "If you're clear, consistent, and follow through with consequences, eventually they fall in line."
There are 80 teachers at FDA, and after observing 10 of them, it's clear that most display effective management skills. Some teach in a free-flowing manner that combines structure with personal charisma. Jerome Hyacinth, for example, keeps his 9th graders entertained throughout his math classes. He explains, in the Caribbean cadence of his native Dominica, that "chaos is part of my lesson plan. Every 15 minutes, I say something to relax the students' minds, like a story or a corny joke, then go back to the work." Even his discipline is lighthearted. "Don't fall into the cockroach syndrome," he tells them. "When the lights come on, the bugs scurry for cover. The point is, I want to trust you so I can step into the hall with a student and deal with misbehavior without the rest of you becoming disruptive."
But newer teachers tend to have difficulties. "At first, it was very painful," says Hilary Johnson, who taught for four years in a Utah private school before joining the FDA staff as a Japanese teacher. "The kids were very disrespectful, and no tactic worked; they were clearly trying me." So Johnson sat in on several of Hearn's classes and developed a simplified version of the Weekly Record Sheet for her own use. She has since witnessed dramatic improvements in her students' behavior.
The Monday before Halloween, Hearn stood in the doorway just before class, inspecting his students one by one. "You need a blouse next time," he informed one T-shirt-wearing girl who claimed she couldn't finish her laundry in time. Hearn's left hand grasped his clipboard as the right swooped swiftly over the Weekly Record Sheet.
Inside the classroom, with everyone seated and a Do Now problem awaiting their attention, he asked: "What's going on, Mr. Arce? I don't see your hands above the desktop."
He then requested that someone read the question aloud, and Anton's hand shot up. But just as the student opened his mouth, Hearn fired back: "I don't see a three-ring binder. Where is it?"
"Don't answer that," Hearn snapped with a grin, making everyone laugh. He then marked the clipboard while raising his eyebrows like Groucho Marx.
"'Which of these changes of physical state would be considered exothermic?'" Anton finally recited with a chuckle. In an attempt to make up for the binder demerit, he answered the question himself. But it was incorrect. Hearn responded by leading Anton through a lengthy series of questions, showing why he was wrong and guiding him toward the right answer. Hearn is well aware that Anton and others, like Isaias, jump at every chance to participate so they can earn points. But instead of penalizing them, he uses their opportunism to steer classroom discussion.
Turning his brightest students into professional scientists is not Hearn's primary objective. A week earlier, a former student entered his classroom after school, beaming with joy. He told Hearn that he'd been accepted into a college chemistry program and that the inspiration to apply came from studying with Hearn. "That makes my day," the teacher told the young man.
"But that's not why I teach," he said later. "I want to get all my students excited about science and reach those with the least ability. I know I'm anal-retentive in the classroom, but it's the best way I've found to get challenging students to focus on the work instead of their problems at home or people of the opposite sex across the table. After all, science is about precise procedures, observation, and attention to detail, which is exactly what my management system is based on. One misstep in the lab, and you can blow it up. The same is true in life, especially for these kids."
Vol. 15, Issue 4, Pages 31-36Published in Print: January 1, 2004, as Point Guard