Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Here we go again!

Here we go again. This time it's the New York Times' David Brooks rhapsodizing about the New American Academy in Crown Heights, which he nicknames the Relationship School:

When you visit The New American Academy, an elementary school serving poor minority kids in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, you see big open rooms with 60 students and four teachers. The students are generally in three clumps in different areas working on different activities. The teachers, especially the master teacher who is floating between the clumps, are on the move, hovering over one student, then the next. It is less like a factory for learning and more like a postindustrial workshop, or even an extended family compound.
[Founder Shimon Waronker] has a grand theory to transform American education, which he developed with others at the Harvard School of Education. The American education model, he says, was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers. He wants schools to operate more like the networked collaborative world of today.
Sound familiar? This the same school in which, according to the earlier (January, 2011) Times article:
While waiting for her teacher to come by, one little girl arranged the pennies she had been given to practice subtraction into a smiley face. Another shook her pennies in a plastic bag. A high-pitched argument broke out over someone’s missing quarter.
“We don’t know what we are supposed to be doing, but we are learning about math,” Thea Burnett, 6, said.
When [teacher Jennifer McSorley] leaned forward out of her chair to write a word on an easel, a 6-year-old boy moved it, and she fell when she tried to sit back down.
...Then another boy ran off to hide under an easel. Someone grabbed someone else’s pennies. The noise snowballed.
In the first two months of school, a student pulled a chunk of an adult’s hair out, and an ambulance crew was called twice to calm a child. Eight weeks into the year, the only student work visible on the blue-painted walls was a poster with finger-painted hand prints and the words “Hands Are Not for Hitting.”
By January, three children who were violent had been moved to more-structured environments; seven other first graders moved away or withdrew, reducing the class size to 50.
Apparently, things have improved in the last 15 months:
[The lack of structure] was a problem at first, but Waronker says the academy has learned to get better control over students, and, on the day I visited, the school was well disciplined through the use of a bunch of subtle tricks.
For example, even though students move from one open area to the next, they line up single file, walk through an imaginary doorway, and greet the teacher before entering her domain.
Lining up in front of imaginary doorways, apparently, doesn't yield the same depths of docility as lining up in front actual ones does.

Brooks notes that:
The New American Academy has two big advantages as a reform model. First, instead of running against the education establishment, it grows out of it and is being embraced by the teachers’ unions and the education schools. If it works, it can spread faster.
I'm sure that's true, though given who Waronker's (shocking!) backers are, I'd replace "if" with "whether or not."
Second, it does a tremendous job of nurturing relationships. Since people learn from people they love, education is fundamentally about the relationship between a teacher and student. By insisting on constant informal contact and by preserving that contact year after year, The New American Academy has the potential to create richer, mentorlike or even familylike relationships for students who are not rich in those things.
Maybe I'm just a cold-hearted left-brainer, but I'd say that people learn from those who know the material in question and how to teach it--whether or not there's love involved. If there is, I'd take love of teaching and learning and love of the material over interpersonal love.

Brooks concludes with the usual disclaimer (italics mine):
It’s too soon to say if it will work, especially if it’s tried without Waronker and the crème-de-la-crème teachers he has recruited, but The New American Academy is a great experiment, one of many now bubbling across the world of education.
If it's too soon to say if it will work, and if what's really making the difference is the crème-de-la-crème teachers, why give it so much attention? Instead, why not look further afield and ask (1) whether this model is truly original, and (2) whether, minus the the crème-de-la-crème teachers, and Beatles' bromides  aside, it has ever worked anywhere.


AmyP said...

Open plan classrooms--haven't we already tried that?

What hell for kids with sensory or attention issues.

FedUpMom said...

Sounds like hell for introverted kids today.

Jen said...

4 teachers for 60 kids. In other words, a 15-1 ratio, like a private school? It seems to me that smaller "class" sizes is likely the biggest improvement in that school. It would also be why teachers' unions can stand it!