Critical Educators

By MAURA WALZ

Midway through his first year as a Teach for America teacher in Brooklyn, Andrew Parsons began to suspect that the way he’d been taught to teach was not helping his first-grade students to learn.

For instance, when it came to teaching a unit on the American Revolution, the curriculum his school required him to use — though full of facts — lacked both context and a coherent narrative.

“Lexington and Concord was the first battle. George Washington was a great general,” Parsons would read aloud to his class from the provided materials, entirely devoid of pictures to spark their imaginations.

“There was no real conceptualization of why these events were taking place and no real story line,” Parsons said.

The unit ended with a 10-question multiple choice assessment. It quickly became clear that something was lost in translation — namely, that his students had not learned what was taught.

“They got a lot of things confused,” Parsons said. “The whole idea of freedom, for example — they got it confused with the Civil War and the civil rights movement. They didn’t understand why there were no black people in the books we had chosen.”

Meanwhile, Parsons began looking for a new approach. During his Teach for America training, he met two other new teachers, Michael Klein and Noah Green, who wanted to incorporate more educational theory into their training as teachers.

During the summer of 2007, between Parsons’ first and second year as a teacher, they started holding informal reading groups to discuss how to incorporate educational theories into their classrooms.

During their meetings, the teachers read theoretical texts about learning through play. And it was right around this time that Parsons began to reflect upon different ways of teaching his first-graders about the American Revolution. By the next year, he overhauled his teaching strategy altogether.

While he was bound by the same curriculum as before, he began the unit with a broader discussion of what the students thought it meant to be free and what freedom looked like in their own lives. From there, they drilled down to the nuts and bolts of history. Instead of just passively reading passages aloud, Parsons had the students act out the key events. The unit culminated in a play depicting the events of the Revolutionary War, written and performed by the first-grade students at the school.

“It was a way for me to align what we had to do in our school and what we have to cover in the curriculum with the theory behind children learning through play, learning through dialogue and talking, and also learning through connections to their own experiences,” he said. “And they did really well on the assessment as a result.”

Parsons, Klein and Green knew that the discussion meetings that helped Parsons reevaluate his teaching methods could help other young teachers, too. So by the spring of the following year, they formalized their reading groups into regular forums, spread the word to other young New York City teachers and called themselves the Critical Educator Network.

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Matthew Block discusses teaching poetry at a Critical Educators Network Forum. Photo: Maura Walz / COVERING EDUCATION

The goal is to provide a new model of teacher-driven professional support — one they say was lacking from their own training — dedicated to helping teachers guide their students toward becoming engaged, critical thinkers.

The teachers in the network are products of the rush to fill schools with young, energetic people trained through fast, on-the-job routes to their teaching certificates. They’re also among the first groups of these young teachers to emerge with an organized critique of alternative licensing processes and professional development for young teachers from the inside.

Jean Pallister was in the second year of her Teach for America commitment in the spring of 2008, teaching at P.S. 305 in Bedford-Stuyvesant and completing her master’s degree in teaching at Pace University when a mutual friend introduced her to Parsons, Block and Green.

Like many other teachers entering the profession through alternative certification programs like Teach for America, Pallister came from a liberal arts background that emphasized questioning and discussion. She was startled by the absence of those techniques in the classrooms for which she was being trained. She said she felt the forums filled a void in her training by giving her a theoretical grounding in education.

“For me, and for a lot of teachers I know coming out of Teach for America, you get a lot of support in terms of learning how to meet daily standards and objectives, and you get a lot of support in terms of making sure your classroom is running smoothly and you have good procedures,” Pallister said.

But the program did not provide any wider, theoretical perspective about what she was doing, Pallister said. “I felt that lack of support. And I think there are other teachers out there who feel that way, too,” she said.

Pallister quit her teaching job last fall, she said, in part because she felt unsupported and adrift in her position teaching special education students.

Stories like Pallister’s are exactly what members of the network say they hope to avoid in the future. Members point to estimates that more than a third of new teachers leave the profession within three years. They contend that a lack of professional support is a major factor in teacher attrition.

The teachers are also trying to redefine what professional support looks like. Their vision involves teachers helping each other, sharing resources and reinforcing pride in their profession. They point to their forums as a model for what teacher-driven professional development could look like.

And so roughly twice a month, the teachers gather, usually in the basement of the apartment that three of them share in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On a recent Saturday afternoon, about 15 teachers settled into couches, folding chairs and floor cushions to discuss ways to teach poetry.

When one teacher questioned why poetry was valuable in the classroom, Lizzy Voegel, a middle school English teacher in the Bronx, quickly countered: “They feel that this is something that they can actually do, which is harder to do when you’re dealing with something longer like a novel.”

Many of the teachers said that they missed this energetic exchange of ideas among teachers in their formal professional development. Parsons cited a survey of teachers in three alternative certification programs including Teach for America that reported those teachers more likely to feel unsupported by other teachers. The forum meetings are explicitly designed to stimulate professional relationships among teachers.

After 90 minutes of free-form discussion about favorite poems and reasons to teach art, Matthew Block jumped from his seat and began tacking large sheets of poster paper to the walls of the basement. Now it was time to get everyone’s ideas on paper. Soon the posters were full of names of favorite poems and how to teach them, exercises teachers can use to begin and end units on poetry and ways of connecting poetry lessons to other curricular goals.

Block and Parsons save these poster sheets and are collecting the ideas generated in the forums with the goal both of making them available online as resources to teachers and working them into a formal professional development curriculum.

In their current form, Parsons said, the forums serve as a place to test drive ideas about how to structure a year-long series of professional development sessions that members of the group hope to pilot at schools and in alternative certification programs starting this fall.

Parsons left his teaching job for a year to focus on developing this curriculum. He spent this year visiting classrooms and teachers, preparing materials, writing the curriculum and reaching out to schools and teacher’s groups. Parsons said that they expect to pilot the program at the start of the coming school year, and said they were in discussion with several schools and programs, though he refused to name specific details.

“We view it as adding an alternative or another option into the development of what teachers have,” Parsons said. “I don’t want to say ‘we’re filling this gap,’ but we see that there is a need for teachers to have alternative professional development. We found that we needed that option and that alternative — and that’s something that we want to provide.”

In their effort they’ve been aided by a seemingly unexpected source: Teach for America’s Social Entrepreneurship Project. Noah Green, a Harlem teacher who has headed the network’s fundraising efforts, said that while the project did originate in response to what some teachers felt was lacking from Teach for America’s training, the program’s support of their effort was not surprising.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Green said. “In some ways, we want to lighten the load for them.”

Green said the teachers of the network are not wholly critical of the training approaches of Teach for America and other alternative routes to teaching. “We want to come off as saying, ‘You’re doing this and it’s very good, but it’s not enough,’” he said. “They want to create effective teachers. We want to create excellent teachers.”

Green said the most important goal of the network and its professional development programs is to create thriving communities of teachers who take pride in their work and feel supported in their creativity.

Voegel, who led the forum on teaching poetry, said that community was what drew her to the forums in the first place. She said that when she came to Teach for America, she immediately started looking for a way to explore the broader perspective.

As the teachers headed upstairs after the forum, Parsons pointed out a letter posted on his kitchen’s refrigerator. “Dear King George,” was scrawled in a child’s hand across the top. A student in Parson’s class wrote the letter the year that he overhauled his American history curriculum. The teachers keep the letter on their fridge, Parsons said, as a reminder of the link between their own training and his original reworking of the American history unit. Teachers’ own creativity leads to the creativity to their students, he said.

“Teachers learn best through on-going professional development,” Parsons said. “Just like children learn best through on-going basis, not through 45-minute workshops — kids can get some takeaways but not conceptual knowledge. And teachers learn best from each other.”

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