Friday, November 20, 2009

Leaves of paper

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet encounter a familiar education reformer in an unfamiliar light

The Maria Chronicles, # 24

It is an unusually warm, even sticky, Friday afternoon in late November, and Maria is at the library. She's brought her class to get a briefing from the school librarian, Lakisha Goodman, on how to use the various databases to which the school subscribes. All tenth grade students must write a research essay, and today marks the kickoff in a six-week process. Her class is now scattered across distressed chairs and worn tables in the main reading room of the library. Lakisha stands in the center, presiding over a laptop on a stand that also has a projector on it so that students can see the library website on a nearby whiteboard. Lakisha is quite facile on the computer, moving the cursor deftly to click on sites like JSTOR and ProQuest. She's so absorbed in her task she has no idea just how bored the students are.

Maria is bored as well. She regards this session as a godsend, because she feels too tired to work up the energy to teach class. Lakisha has a
good heart, and she really knows a lot about research, but she lacks real teaching skills and so is deadly in this kind of setting. In some respects, these kids know more about navigating their way around the Internet than any of the adults do, though they would do well to pay attention to the sites Lakisha is recommending. But most of them won't. Any more than they will actually saunter through the stacks and pull honest-to-God books off the shelves.

Maria now finds herself drawn to those shelves. She's actually spent very little time here since starting the job, and while she's always reading something and visits her town library occasionally, she has not really investigated what's here. She probably should be monitoring her charges, whether in piping up after Lakisha makes a good point or simply staring them into paying attention, but instead she finds
herself drifting off toward the far side of the room, near a window featuring a view of sunlight filtering in through a tree full of brilliant red leaves. She sees she's in the 300s section. So this is a Dewey decimal system library, she thinks. Of course. Not really big enough for the Library of Congress method.

Maria spots a familiar yellow and white spine, and reaches in to pluck the book off its shelf. Horace's Compromise by Theodore R. Sizer. A book she read years ago and loved. Actually, she's read bunch of Sizer's books. This one and the one that followed, Horace's Hope. And the one he wrote with his wife, The Students Can See -- no, The Students Are Watching. Maria remembers now that she has these and other books she read in a box buried in the back of her coat closet at her apartment. She brought them when she moved, but never got around to getting them out, because she planned to get new shelving. Maybe that's something she should think about this weekend.

She glances over to see that Lakisha is still going at it, and then opens Horace's Compromise to a random location. She reads on page 186:
Other occupations reward exceptional competence by promotions. Virtually the only promotion for a teacher is to get out of teaching and enter administration. To be sure, there are hierarchies of sorts among teachers -- some are department chairmen, some are not -- but these tend most commonly to follow seniority. While school boards periodically make noises about rewarding demonstrably effective teachers with endowed "chairs," like university professors, the reality is that a teacher has the same "rank" in his or her last year as in the first. This classlessness has a certain ideological glamour, but in flies in the face of most humans' need for personal incentives.
Endowed chairs? Maria's never heard about that. She flips back to the copyright page. This book first came out in 1984. Maybe such talk was more common then. Otherwise, this book could have been written yesterday. Maria herself has often ruminated on the point Sizer is making. Every once in a while, she's felt stuck. Making the move to this school certainly shook things up a bit, but she figures it's only a matter of time before the feeling returns. If only there was some obvious creative pedagogical outlet for her.

"Terrific, isn't it?"

Maria is startled -- she actually jostles the book, partly in fear and partly in guilt for having abandoned her class -- by an unfamilar voice. She looks up, and there he is: the figure she's taken to calling "Cuff Man." Gray slacks, white shirt, black belt. Sleeves rolled up. Tight shave, thinning jet-black pate: handsome.

"I saw him speak once," Cuff Man continues. "A truly remarkable man. Self-effacing, and yet with a tremendous sense of dignity. Have you read The Red Pencil?"

Maria is almost paralyzed with nervousness. She's about to say "No," groping to say something other than she's never heard of it, when in her peripheral vision she sees Lakisha waving her back over. "I'm just about done," she's telling Maria. "Do you want to say a few words before we cut them loose into the stacks?"

"Excuse me," she tells Cuff Man distractedly, putting the book down on a nearby table. "By all means," she hears him say behind her.

Maria recovers her composure enough to review the set of deadlines for each stage of the research project, glancing over to see Cuff Man thumbing through Horace's Compromise. She releases the students to begin looking around, and is soon surrounded by students with a series of questions that range from the mundane to the complex. By the time she looks up again, Cuff Man is gone. Horace's Compromise remains on the table.