Romances with Schools

September 1, 2004

Twenty years ago, in his seminal work A Place Called School, renowned educator John Goodlad concluded?with the help of a research staff that visited 1,000 classrooms and interviewed 27,000 teachers, students, and parents?that most American public schools were characterized by a narrow range of instructional routine and a neutrality of tone. A genuine passion for learning was rarely in evidence.

It is, then, perhaps only appropriate that the octogenarian former schoolteacher and dean of UCLA?s graduate school of education titles this memoir Romances With Schools. He wants schools to be places of connection and wonder, and he laments their tendency to become "a well-oiled machine tool for fashioning children according to visions of economically productive adulthood."

Goodlad?s own schooling in British Columbia was not always a romance. He remembers the sting of a very public reprimand by his 1st grade teacher, and he still loathes the music teacher who struck him on the head with a baton on account of his poor singing voice. But he also remembers Miss Hamilton, who sometimes took her students home for cookies and storybooks, and the formidable Mr. Siddons, who demanded?and usually received?impeccable spelling and grammar.

In essence, what Goodlad learned during these years was that "it is rarely the pedagogy of our teachers we remember" but rather their "classroom personalities," which have the power either to inspire or frustrate. This idea seems obvious enough, but, as Goodlad realizes, it?s easily forgotten in bureaucratic school systems that subordinate personality to the dictates of curricula.

Goodlad was perhaps fortunate in that his early teaching career placed him in situations where he had no choice but to ignore the lock step curriculum. His first job was in a one-room rural schoolhouse with 34 students in grades 1 through 8. In the mornings, he and the kids conversed around a big stove, then read and wrote to one another. It was more of a family affair than a classroom. Because the children were oblivious to their grade classifications and learned at variable rates, Goodlad quickly came to see that "there simply is no such thing as a 4th grade class other than for numerical classification."

His awareness was heightened further while teaching at a school for delinquent boys with little interest in academics. He had to be on the lookout for the slightest flash of interest, which, in turn, had to be met with a corresponding flash of instructional creativity. "Never before," Goodlad writes, "had I been so sharply aware of individuality."

So why do so many schools still push highly regimented instruction? Misguided politics (Goodlad offers up the No Child Left Behind initiative as an example) are one reason. But a bigger reason has to do with the fact that schools are generally not reflective places. This point was driven home in the early 1970s, when teachers visited the UCLA laboratory school, then under Goodlad?s directorship, and claimed that few back at their schools expressed interest in their experiences.

This led Goodlad to focus, at UCLA and later at the University of Washington, on changing the culture of schools, in particular the age-old isolation that keeps teachers almost continuously with their students and away from their colleagues. Such isolation tends to lead to an emphasis on the delivery of secondhand content (e.g., textbooks) "better suited to the packaging...of milk products than the development of thoughtful, responsible, caring members of a social and political democracy," Goodlad argues.

Long known for his boundless optimism, Goodlad sounds saddened in later chapters by the emphasis on dull curricula and testing that has undermined the romance of learning. The best he can leave us with is a glass-half-filled quote from Samuel Johnson: "It is necessary to hope,... for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction."

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GREAT BOOKS FOR HIGH SCHOOL KIDS:
A Teachers? Guide to Books That Can Change Teens? Lives
Edited by Rick Ayers and Amy Crawford
(Beacon, 240 pages, $15)

In this age of inclusion, "What to teach?" is a much harder question to answer than it once was. Thank goodness we have Ayers and Crawford, English teachers at Berkeley High School in California, to offer guidance. They not only provide a detailed list of great books for teenagers, summarized in trenchant paragraphs, but also helpfully categorize them under such headings as "Culture and Survival" and "True War Stories." Essays by eight gifted teachers on their classroom experiences with works such as Huckleberry Finn and Song of Solomon fill out the volume; they provide keen pedagogical insights while refusing to gloss over teaching struggles.

A wise realization guides the selection of texts, namely that it?s false to assume that "teenagers want to read about themselves in every book they open....In fact, most adolescents favor books that offer experience far from their own." Hence, while some selections do capture the darker side of human nature?something teenagers can relate to almost too easily?there is no constant drumbeat of despair.

Humor is in abundance among the books cited (e.g., David Sedaris? Me Talk Pretty One Day), as are spiritual journeys (Leslie Marmon Silko?s Ceremony). The list ventures everywhere geographically, from the Russian tundra to Jordan (the works of Nicolai Gogol and Laila Halaby, respectively). And the Western classics aren?t neglected: Ayers covers Aeschylus? The Oresteia with his "at risk" students, who understand only too well the tragic cycle of revenge.


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