28 March 2011

Once more: On the value of teachers

USA Today wasn't interested, so I'll just get my message out the twenty-first century way...

On a day in January of this year a man named Alan Shapiro died at the age of 85. He was not particularly famous, as most people are not, but for many of us who were touched by his life, many of whom gathered on the last Saturday in March for a memorial service, a celebration of his life, he was someone who changed lives, who changed the world.

Alan was a teacher. In today’s United States that is not a beloved profession. The President’s Secretary of Education routinely disparages veteran educators. Governors and their legislative allies of states from New Jersey to Wisconsin to Idaho say that teachers are overpaid, underworked, and greedy. Billionaire Bill Gates, Jr. says they stop learning anything after a couple of years. Celebrated “educational reformers” like Michelle Rhee have built careers and fortunes attacking the classroom teachers who work with our children every day.

Alan was a teacher, a veteran teacher, and he was a union organizer. He built both a teachers’ union in New Rochelle, New York and he built an alternative education system for students in that city’s school system. He thus empowered both.

I was one of those students, my mother was one of those teachers.
This is an hour+ video, but there's some good stuff
I met Alan as a 14-year-old ready to drop out of school. Angry, bitter, completely frustrated by any connection between my life, my learning style, and a miserable urban junior high school. In that year alone I’d be thrown out of three classrooms “permanently,” including very luckily, my English class within the first week of school. I landed among the “academic losers” in Mr. Shapiro’s room, in a class grouping other teachers literally called “dumb English.”

To make that classroom work, Alan did everything today’s “reformers” refuse to do. He abandoned not just testing, but grades - allowing the room to choose a grade we’d all get for the whole year. He abandoned teacher-centric instruction, often sitting silently, waiting for us to begin. He abandoned traditional discipline, letting us sit or not sit wherever we chose. He abandoned traditional delivery - when we read novels he also showed us the films, played audio readings, or read to us as a group. He abandoned traditional student work. There was no homework, and students responded to what was going on in class any way they chose to.

At the end of that year this group of “losers” collected over 150 pages of stories and poems we had written into a book we proudly shared, and I, suddenly, wanted to write.

Immediately after that, as a result of a teachers’ strike led by Shapiro, the New Rochelle City School District allowed him to begin an Alternative High School designed in collaboration with Neil Postman and Charlie Weingartner, as part of a new high school concept for the city, one based in student choice of program.

I, and many others of my generation who joined the memorial service, were in that Alternative High School - The Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study - known as “The 3Is.” In the 3Is the rest of the “form of school” disappeared. There was no required attendance. Most learning happened far away from anything which even resembled a class. There were no grades at all - it was “pass/no record,” with self and teacher evaluation of what had happened. For English I spent four months working with an overnight radio newsman, learning writing and editing without ever putting a pencil near paper, later I worked on the Program’s weekly newspaper. For social studies I worked in the City Planner’s office and interviewed the homeless in Grand Central. For science I worked on creating a heritage farm in a city park. Others worked in city greenhouses or the hospital emergency room. Took courses at Iona College or spent weeks at museums in New York. Read “great books” and discussed them on Tuesday nights in Alan’s living room, or argued theories another night in the science teacher’s home. There was folk dancing and mural projects. Efforts to work with elementary students and classes designed around student-asked questions.

And the results were stunning. From a mix of students including a huge percent likely to drop out, filled with what we’d now label learning, attention, and emotional disabilities, the 3Is got almost everyone to graduation, and got almost everyone to four-year colleges and universities, from Brown, MIT, and Cornell, to Hampshire, Kenyon, and Oberlin. For 13 years, until the conservative politics of the Reagan-era squashed such experiments, the 3Is took hundreds and hundreds of students who “did not fit” and “could not succeed” and proved the opposite. At that memorial we were educators and architects, lawyers and artists, managers and businesspeople. We are successes indeed. We are successes because he trusted us as both students and humans, because he knew we were individuals, not statistical data points, because he gave totally of himself to make our lives better.

But Alan’s actions stretched much further. My mother, an elementary school teacher, given voice by the union and enough income to take classes in the summer rather than work a second job, literally tore down walls in her school, creating a no desks/no chairs multiage open classroom. Today, via Facebook, I constantly get messages thanking her for her teaching. Other teachers at every level began experiments which challenged the system, including Alan’s 3I founding partner, who became principal of all New Rochelle High School in later years.

If New Rochelle has done better than most cities at educating a highly diverse and rapidly changing population - and the evidence says that it has - this may be largely due to the impact of Alan’s work in both unionization and true educational reform. In ways large and small, he changed the world.

And now I need to say that Alan is hardly alone. All over America, in places big and small, master teachers, protected by unions and tenure, challenge the system on behalf of their students. All over America teachers learn and grow, doubt and invent, and help turn those abandoned by our increasingly rigid systems to alternate paths. All over America great teachers are saving kids like me in public schools in every kind of place. I meet them through my work, I listen to them, I see them online, collaborating and looking for knowledge, solutions, ideas, day and night. Honestly, there is no profession in our society which should be more honored, or more highly compensated.

The memorial service for Alan Shapiro took place in a community center in a rural Connecticut town. The community center was once the extravagant home of a stunningly wealthy 19th Century governor. Not as wealthy, perhaps, as New Jersey’s Chris Christie or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, but obviously a very rich man. Then, as now, as the men who become Governors begin or end in great wealth. Then, as now, teachers, at best, reach some level of middle class comfort for their decades of life changing efforts.

But I was struck by something. A hundred plus years hence, today’s politicians and their “works” will be as completely forgotten as the “Who’s that?” whose house we were gathered in, but the impact of great teachers ripples out through society and through generations. In the years to come, when the Christie and Walker mansions have crumbled, what Alan Shapiro taught will still matter.

- Ira Socol

You may read much of Alan Shapiro’s “retirement works” at teachablemoment.org You can hear Alan in his own words at http://vimeo.com/21549634 The original New Rochelle “Postman Proposal” is available at http://www.echonyc.com/~jkarpf/3i/proposal1969.html


ashirwaad-holiday-apts-goa said...

Only some teachers can alter the course of our lives.

Scratchie said...

I really enjoyed your post Ira, and the video about Alan's life from the mouths of those who knew and loved him.