Jonathan Kozol and Inspired Teachers discuss testing, empathy, and diversity in schools

May 12, 2016

(Photo credit: Brittney Oswald/Center for Inspired Teaching)

On April 21, author and activist Jonathan Kozol toured the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School. After visiting several classrooms, Mr. Kozol sat down for an open discussion with the school’s teaching and administrative staff. Below are some excerpts from this conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Kozol (JK): It was a fascinating visit, and I’m impressed and intrigued. I was listening to a Socratic dialogue in a middle school class about privilege. It was about – I’m trying to use the words the children used – if you were unusually affluent and had many more opportunities, would you give away one of those opportunities to someone? It was fascinating. I wanted to pull up a chair and join. And I want to learn from all of you here. I have some questions, too. I assume you’re under an obligation to meet standards?

Teacher: Absolutely. Many of the classes you visited today will begin PARCC testing soon. But one of the standards we set at the [Inspired Teaching Demonstration School] is that we look at student achievement through a variety of lenses. What you saw today – students engaging thoughtfully with one another – is something we value as much as high test scores. We would never take away from specials or recess time for test prep, and we hold ourselves accountable for that choice. Our test scores are published, and we are prepared for that.

JK: I spoke with a Maryland teacher last night, and he told me he tells people not to visit his classroom anytime after March because you won’t see him teaching. That’s so disappointing. For my part, I would love it if we didn’t have a testing regime. But it’s there, and I think your approach is terrific.

I loved the class where I watched the students work together on art. From a visitor’s perspective, it looked easy, but I know I’m seeing something that must have taken a lot of work on the part of the teacher. How do you set that up? What prepares the students to work with the materials and relate to one other?

Teacher: You walked in seeing their work time, but we start with a mini-lesson every day. You saw them using scissors, but you didn’t see all the lessons we’ve had before about what scissors are, how you safely use them, and where you store them. I think working together is something that’s fostered school wide. Those students can choose to work independently – and some students do – but many choose to work together.

Conversations about community are something you hear in every classroom. Those kinds of discussions in different venues and with different teachers set children up to be able to talk to one other about the work that they’re doing and also be able to negotiate issues as they come up. Obviously, circumstances change constantly, and as a teacher, you have to be willing and prepared to have those conversations over and over again.

JK: When you have these class dialogues, will children address a personal issue or will they be careful not to for fear of humiliating the child in question?

Teacher: Those things do come up, and it depends on the students’ age how you discuss it. I think people here really empower students to be able to talk to each other and address one another. If a group of students is annoyed at someone, they have the words to tell that person – respectfully – “that’s annoying. Please stop.” There’s the expectation that students try to handle issues on their own before they bring in adults. We’re always there to help them navigate those conversations – “What can you say to ask him not to do that?” Students are required to be respectful of everyone, and that carries through.

Teacher: [The Demonstration School] has three rules – Everyone is safe. Everyone learns. Everyone builds the community. We do a lot of that work by building empathy and teaching children to have empathy for others. Then as teachers, we can return to those conversations and help students make the most of those ideas and feelings.

JK: It’s very exciting to hear this. It’s the flowering of many of the ideas I’ve held for many years. I have a quirky question to ask you. One of the things I saw in the classrooms was the diversity, and this is unusual. American schools are more segregated now than they’ve been since 1968, and this has been accepted with equanimity. They’re doing Plessy, basically. So it’s especially beautiful to see what you’re doing here. How does this cross-pollination happen?

Teacher: We take students from all different backgrounds and levels, and this can be especially challenging in the middle school level. At the very beginning of the school year, we had some difficult conversations about race – emotional conversations where students asked to bring in school counselors. We’re asking students to use this as a process to bring communities together because where you’re from impacts how you think. The teachers are very savvy about discussing these issues. There’s no shying away from them, and there’s also no shame in them.

Teacher: We talk a lot about giving every child the luxury of feeling normal. We talk about what we can do here to recognize everyone’s different background. There’s tremendous value in establishing school routines and calling them that – these are “our routines,” not something that’s “good” or “bad.” Students have something to learn not only from each other, but also about themselves. This has required work with families, and I’m proud to say that families now own both these routines and these expectations.

JK: Very moving, thank you. And now I’m afraid it’s time for us to go. But thank you again for welcoming me to your school. Thank you.

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