Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher" by Garret Keizer [Review]

"I'm afraid the day of the teacher as artist is dead," writes Garret Keizer in Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher, the most important book I read this summer. 

Against the cacophony of edubabble produced by the likes of Campbell Brown and the ladies of "The View," Garret Keizer has personalized the consequences of the educational reform movement in his ground-breaking memoir Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher. 

The book narrates Keizer's journey through a year in a Vermont high school after a fourteen-year absence from teaching. Keizer's account tells a story data alone cannot articulate, from the effects of poverty, technology, and social upheaval to the impact of teaching as a lost art to standardization. 

If I were to articulate an essential question the book poses, it is this: What are we really teaching our children through the implemented reforms and with what consequences? We live in a country that verbalizes the value of education but that often uses education to exploit children. We voice one set of values while displaying another.

His thesis that the education reforms of the past twelve years have had detrimental consequences for public education unfolds through monthly chapters that peel back the veneer that shrouds school in a zone of secrecy little understood by those outside the profession. This is a book that wraps teachers in comforting familiarity but that also educates lay readers through narrative in the realities of school life. 

I contemplated the "death of the teacher" who stands before a class of students this past week as I listened to young teachers in my district tell me that I must assign seniors in my English class the task of writing a 50-line "epic" as the formative assessment in the Anglo-Saxon literature unit I teach. The notion that by its very definition an epic is quite long, much longer than fifty lines, seemed irrelevant to the mandate. Increasingly, teachers are forced to dispense wrong information to students. 

Perhaps this is one reason Keizer's memoir resonates with me. Simply, he captures the internal conflicts, the insecurities, the paradoxes I experience as a teacher nearing the end of my career. "The greatest challenge of teaching is not, as is so often averred, finding a way 'to relate to kids.' It is rather finding a way to relate to yourself in a process that often leaves you feeling like a kid" (3). 

Among the books gems are the following: 

On leadership: "You can build a school from the ground up, but the directing of its destiny will always move from the top down" (21). 

On technology: "The technology allows for greater standardization and oversight; it also provides the rationale for greater standardization and oversight" (33).

On curriculum standardization: "I'm not sure students are best served by a faculty of conformists, by teachers who are less shepherds than sheep" (34). 

On data: "I am increasingly devoting more time to the generation and recording of data and less time to the educational substance of what the data is supposed to measure" (52). Additionally, Keizer contends, and I agree, "things of beauty," such as nature and novels, can't be reduced to data points (196). 

On DuFour: "The authors seem to indict the very teachers who played the biggest role in my own formation. Those teachers were never lazy but they were indeed lone wolves, sleek-furred beauties who preferred howling at the moon of their own lunatic inspirations to sniffing hindquarters among the faculty pack" (60). I'm one of the howlers. Always have been. I keep a sign above my desk that reads: "It's not logical; it's just our policy." 

"The DuFour agenda strikes me as an argument for ignoring every 'brutal fact' save those that can be blamed on poor teaching. Out with the pedagogical lone wolf! In with the political ostrich!" (61). 

On standardized testing: Keizer writes about "the game schools must play," the reductive nature of "constructed response" that privileges the five-paragraph essay, and the need for students to "fill the space" as a way to raise their scores (78-79). 

On Teaching as Paradox: "You must reach out to every student with the belief that no student is beyond your reach and that you must, at the same time, hold to the conviction that having served one student is worth the effort of having tried to serve them all" 85). 

On Rubrics: Ostensibly, a rubric is designed to make grading essays objective, but the rubric is filled with criteria that require subjective evaluation. Keizer says rubrics are "as solid as a Freddie Mac mortgage or a Miss America scoring card" (87). 

On Teachers' Influence on Students: "Be wary" of overstating it" (95).

On Failure is not an Option Policies: We enable students to avoid the assigned work. "The idea is an instructional program tailored to meet student needs; the reality, I fear, often devolves to teachers working at cross-purposes and students working the system to their own (dis)advantage" (181). 

Teaching is a profession that fosters insecurity among teachers. We constantly second guess ourselves, and this questioning of our choices feeds those who label public education a failure. Just as we each have stories about inspirational teachers, we also tell stories about that one "bad" teacher. We worry about having been that teacher to some poor student under our tutelage. "Anything you do is bound to be, on some level and for some kid, wrong" (101).

One of the most poignant ideas Keizer floats is the paradox of promoting education to young people and having them think we mean that those without formal education have less value, having them think we're telling them "be more like me." How do we encourage students to get an education for themselves and not devalue those who choose an alternate path? "In a class-bound society, education provides much of the basis for despising--and exploiting--those who lack it" (207).

On Tuesday I'll meet a new class of students as I begin my 34th teaching year. It will take much effort for me to stand strong against forces that harm students and public schools, but part of my job is to teach truth to evil. Part of my job is to show students that it's not enough for me to tell them to resist peer pressure that will do them harm if I'm not prepared to do the same. 

This year, it will be more important than ever for me to show students the importance of literature to their lives and to share how important literature is to me.

Finally, I plan to remind myself that "as far as teaching goes, when all you are is right, what you really are is in trouble" (268). 

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