Jeanie Oaks

JEANIE OAKES

Well, when you walk into a low track classroom, you see um – you see something that’s very different then what most of us as teachers think of as a typical classroom. Because we’re – we live in a culture that basically has said that there are some people who just don’t have as much ability and that they need something really quite different from other students that you tend to see much more um, um sort of rigid practices. There’s often a lot of worry that – that kids, if they have low academic ability, will also be harder to control. Um so if a school um is likely to have a classroom that has desks and rows, for example, it’s most likely to be the low track classroom rather then the high track or the gifted classroom. You’re likely to see students working alone rather then with one another um often on worksheets. You see lots of worksheets in low track classes. Lots of kids – or lots of “Read the chapter, answer the questions at the end,” um but mostly one pagers, easy to do kinds of things. In fact, sometimes you’ll see uh a lot of instructional activities that – that almost seem like time fillers, like kids doing word searches or other kinds of puzzles, uh things that teachers may think will keep them happy uh even if – because the – they’re not expected to be so excited about learning. Um part of this is because we – we think about low track classes as a place where we think it’s okay maybe to put a teacher who doesn’t have uh, um, uh, uh state credential. Maybe it’s okay to have somebody teach math who doesn’t have a background in math because the – the academic challenge of these classes is so low.

You know one of the things that’s so interesting about low track classes partly I think because teachers are often nervous about whether they’re going to be able to control these classes, is that students learn more then anything else how they’re supposed to behave. Coming to class on time, very important. Often teachers will enforce tardy policies more rigidly in the low track classes then in other classes. Um doing work neatly is often stressed very much, and it’s almost as if kids are being trained for very low level jobs where they’re going to be expected to follow orders, do things correctly, not ask too many questions, um get things done on time.

Well, what’s so interesting is that what we think of as this rote or transition model of learning where the kids are seen as empty vessels and the teacher with the knowledge can fill them up, um it’s really not a very good way for anybody to learn. Um the irony is that we often stick more closely to that model with children who have the most difficulty learning. Less willing with them to experiment with hands on, less willing to let them connect what they’re learning in class with their experiences outside of class, and so we make – we make learning, we make the knowledge so much more abstract for children that we believe – that we know have difficulty learning. It’s – it’s very hard. I mean when you have to memorize spelling words for the end of the week or if you have to memorize a list of vocabulary words for a rote test, it’s very much like if someone gave us the Russian alphabet and said, “Just memorize this and we’ll uh give you a quiz on it,” completely out of context. It’s a task we would find almost impossible and yet when we teach kids who – who have difficulty learning these isolated bits and pieces of – of knowledge or isolated skills, that’s exactly what we’re doing to them.

Well, often in high track classes we really assume that students are smart and so we’ll often give them the benefit of the doubt on things. So for example, if a student asks the question like “Why are we doing this?” in a high track class we’d say, “Boy, what an inquiring mind. This student may really want to understand what the relevance of this material is,” unlike students sometimes in a low track class where we just assume they’re being sort of obnoxious or wasting time or – um and that – that example is a trivia one, but we do much the same thing with all kinds of instructional opportunities and curriculum opportunities. Let kids pursue their own questions. Um make connections between what they’re doing in school and what they’re doing outside of school. Give them multiple ways to engage with ideas. Let them engage with each other. Um we think that’s a very rich conversation when kids who we have decided smart talk with each other. Um very different then we treat students who we think um are not so smart.

Well, grading practices, especially in high schools, are very, very complicated because we want to use grades to do many, many things. Um and high school teachers have to confront a hard reality that the grades they assign are going to be used to decide what opportunities kids have next, and that’s a very heavy responsibility. So secondary teachers often feel they need to be very rigid, to have very um strict standardized ways to determine who’s an ‘A’, who’s a ‘B’, who’s a ‘C’. Um the other thing we want grades to do though is to give students feedback about their learning. Often that runs very much counter. Sometimes we know the students who learn the very most in a class are the ones who might go from a ‘D’ to a ‘B’ rather then the student who might go from a ‘B’ to an ‘A’. That student might have come in knowing much uh of what was going to be taught already. Um this creates a huge dilemma and high school teachers that I know who struggle with this try very hard to give students both objective feedback about where they stand relative to some standards about what world literature should be about or what 9th grade science should be about, but also to find ways to grade them based on how much they’ve learned. Um there’s no easy answer to this. Uh it’s very, very tricky. I know most teachers feel they’d just be happy without having to grade students at all.

Well, the question about why we do sort students into high ability groups or high tracks then low tracks or college prep or non-college trap – non-college track has a very long and not very friendly history. It goes back to the turn of the century when immigrant students were coming into secondary schools really for the first time or immigrant students non-English speaking or non-northern European uh immigrants coming into schools and school people really didn’t know how to deal with different differences. Well, this coincided with – with the development of standardized testing and with really the development of the idea of the normal curve. The idea that intelligence is pretty fixed and it resides somewhere in the brain and really it may be a matter of evolution that some groups of people just aren’t as intelligent as other people. All of these things came together to lead educators to decide, “Well, the best thing to do then would be to divide the ones who are smart from the ones who are less intelligent, teach them very different things. Let’s – let’s prepare the smart ones to – to go on to gentlemanly like pursuits or to be part of the professions, and the others let’s prepare them for good factory work.” Now unfortunately this was not a race mutual process. The groups that seemed to score highest, that seemed to be judged as the most intelligent, were the – the groups of Anglo-Saxon, mostly Protestant uh families who had been here for a very long time. Um non-English speaking immigrants, especially those from the southern and eastern parts of Europe, often Jews, Italians, and increasingly free blacks um in the United States were thought of as less intelligent. We know who got trained for upper level professions and who got trained for factory work. Unfortunately while we don’t – most educators now don’t know that history. Many of them would not agree with those decisions, but the practices have become thought of as – as common sense. We don’t question the normal curve. We don’t question standardized tests. We typically don’t question ability grouping.

Well, the sad fact is that even today, after 30 years of talking about equality of educational opportunity, we find non-English speaking immigrant kids typically placed in low ability classes. We seem to believe that just because they can’t speak English they also can’t learn math, or history, or geography, or science. That somehow we really confound these ideas that in order to learn those subjects you have to be proficient in English. Um that’s also true for African-American students; it’s also true for many Asian immigrants. Even though we have this stereotype that Asian immigrants are all very bright and quick, especially in mathematics, um that there are many groups of Southeast Asian immigrants who are also found in low track classes. The sad thing is we – we think that this – in the name of teaching them English, we often deprive them of years of learning academic content.

Well, the – the problem with how to deal with language minority students is not a matter of what we know about how children learn best. We know that children learn best in diverse groups. We know they learn best when they can rely on their native language, as well as the new language they’re learning. The research about this is very clear. This is a political issue and that’s what’s so frustrating, that it’s very hard to decide about what’s best for children when policies are being driven by nervousness about “Is this country going to turn black and brown? Is this country going to turn Spanish speaking?” Fears, very much like fears at the turn of the century about what changing demographics might do with this country.

Well, the courts have really been the one institution in this society that have been willing to stand up for the rights of those who are often ignored in mainstream policy making, and I think that’s a terrific thing. We talk a lot about the failure of desegregation, about the failure of bilingual programs, but we sometimes forget that we would not even be talking about desegregation. We would not be even talking about children having access to instruction in their own language if the core – if these issues hadn’t been raised in the courts and if – if the judges hadn’t had the courage to say, “We may not know how to do this very well, but we have to do it.” Now often court decisions and top down mandates turn out badly. Um often that’s because of the politics in a local situation that undermine the intent. Sometimes they turn out very well and many educators find that the most helpful thing they can have is a good court order that says, “You must do this,” but that’s when the educators themselves believe that it’s the right thing to do and they’re willing to tackle the very hard work of trying to figure out how to make a lofty equity policy very workable on the ground in their schools.

Well, you know I – I read something very interesting about how important it is to be engaged in public work, about seeing the work you do as contributing to a better society. And an example in the – in the article I was reading was about in the – in the early Renaissance a carpenter um working on a wall and thinking about his work as not just building a wall, but he was building a cathedral, something that was far beyond his individual work, something that would be a major contribution to the culture that he lived in. And I think if teachers think about that work that way, that they are – they are doing work for democracy and the expectations they have for these children who are right in front of them, as difficult as the goal may seem, is part of a much larger project to create a culture, a wonderfully diverse democratic culture full of people who are smart, and who can solve public problems, and who can create a harmonies life together. And I think that so often we – we don’t inspire teachers to realize what – what – what part their piece plays in this larger picture of – of the public good.

Well, I like to think about a social justice perspective on teaching as one that keeps critical questions always in mind so that we never look at a practice and say, “Does this make sense?” Of course we ask that question, but we also say, “What’s the history behind this practice? How did it become to be that we think this is a sensible way to teach?” How does this practice intersect with things like children’s race and social class, gender, or language, and finally, did the results of this practice play out the way we want them to in terms of a diverse society. So always those questions, thinking that – that in an effort to provide the most rigorous and challenging learning environment, we’re also asking questions that look at the political side of schooling, as well as simply the best techniques.

We have so many filters that we bring and when we understand – fortunately as teachers and learn – people learning to be teachers, we’re exposed a lot to theories about how people learn and we know that people will make sense of things what ever they encounter, children, adults as well, in light of their past experiences and the assumptions that they bring. Issues around race, and social class, and language, and culture are so permeated with very – with sort of value loaded perceptions that it’s not information like learning a formula to do a mathematics problem, or learning the periodic chart in chemistry, that you take it in – in this very – I mean it might not be neutral, but we think of it as neutral. We filter what we learn about race, and class, and language through our own values and it’s – so it’s very important for students to have an opportunity to make that explicit, to say, “Yes I’m learning these new things. Here’s how I make sense of them given my own background and experience,” and then to take that and look at that. Do I like how I’m making sense of that? Does that – will that serve children well, that I’ve made sense of it that way? Besides even – even when we have a group of – of beginning teachers who are all white and who are all middle class, they also have race, and culture, and language, and social class, and they need to begin to see themselves in that way too in order to understand the positions of others.

Well, teaching to change the world is an every day task that the world changing things we do are often not the huge events we might create, but the day to day way we work with people and relate to children. And to think about how those small every day interactions will eventually change the world is a very daunting thing. We know that it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle to have everyone we work with make sense of things in very different ways. Um hope is our best ally. Hope and being very, very skillful. Hope will not substitute for deep knowledge and very good skills, but it requires this – this sense. It’s – it’s again about building a cathedral rather then simply building a wall that keeps us – keeps us moving ahead and remembering these ideals of social justice, and that it is our job to change the world. You know, uh Voceland Hoval, the president of the Czech Republic uh says – one of my favorite quotes of his is “Of course no one individual acting by themselves can change the world, but each of us should act as if we can.”

Well, I think one thing is that it’s – when people are learning about learning theory and psychology um we run into the Bell Curve. One of the – one of the most frightening things to me about the Bell Curve is that we call it normal, and I think our challenge as teachers is to make very clear to our practice that that Bell Curve isn’t normal. We invented it and we can invent a very different kind of a learning curve that we see as normal, a curve where all children learn.

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