Yesterday through a lucky coincidence I spent the morning visiting Cleveland Heights High School. Ours is an inner-ring Cleveland suburb whose high school serves close to 2,000 students. I jumped at the opportunity, because it is difficult these days to visit classes at a school. Security is an issue and, as we know, ideological attacks on public schools and their teachers tend to make everybody feel very protective.
Here was my chance, however, and at 8:00 AM, I presented myself and my photo ID at the security desk. The guard cheerfully cajoled the hundreds of students who entered when I did to show their IDs, please. This was a nostalgic morning for me. Heights was my children’s high school, and I know its halls with the polished red tile floors so well I could walk them in my sleep even though my youngest graduated twelve years ago. Yesterday I was privileged to observe three full classes: Advanced Placement (AP) world literature, non-AP American history, and a social studies elective in political philosophy.
Heights is a majority-African American high school; 63 percent of the students in our district’s public schools qualify for free lunch. The three classes I visited were filled with eleventh and twelfth graders. I will share the number of students in each class and the racial breakdown of the classes because it is important to observe how well a school is doing institutionally with racial integration.
In first period, AP world literature, (22 students in the class: 13 African American, 9 white), the teacher quietly made an exception for the student coming straight from his job by permitting him to eat his breakfast during class. She then presented a rather formal PowerPoint about dominant theories of literary criticism–Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Reader Response, Deconstructionist, and New Criticism. AP curriculum is prescribed by the national end-of-year test, and I presume schools of literary theory are a major AP topic this year. After introducing each category, the teacher invited her students, in what became a spirited discussion, to think about books and plays they had read or studied that would lend themselves to the particular critical approaches. E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for example, might be good choices for the post-colonialist approach. The students numbered off and formed groups that will each adopt one of the critical approaches and work for the rest of the school year using that approach, and, I presume, in group presentations to the class demonstrate all the different approaches. Toward the end of class, this teacher told the students she had finished writing recommendations for their college applications, and very quickly in the last five minutes of class asked them to tell their peers where they were applying and what they hoped to study. I was struck, as students quickly named their career hopes, by the positive comments of other students. When a young man said he’d like to be a nurse or nurse practitioner, a young woman across the room declared: “You’d be the best nurse. You are so kind.” By now, mid-November, the teacher knows the students, and I picked up on a number of short personal conversations and much joking and careful support, The teacher listened carefully when students tried to frame their comments on why specific literary works might lend themselves to different critical approaches; then she asked questions that might help students think through what they were struggling to articulate. The class remained lively throughout, and the teacher remembered to wish one girl, who had arrived quite late, a happy birthday.
In American history (22 students: 15 African American, 5 white, 2 Asian) the teacher, a powerful story-teller, engaged the students with a PowerPoint and his own recounting of the Spanish American War. Attentive to his students’ academic skills, he frequently interrupted himself to remind them about what ought to be in their notes. What seemed most to interest his students was this teacher’s focus on the role of historians and the press in determining how history is made and remembered. Students engaged with him in spirited conversation about the role of African American troops recruited to fight the Spanish American War, why African Americans in the Jim Crow South likely joined the army, and the way the press ignored their role. The teacher also engaged the students by asking them to think about the parallels between this war that established the United States’ empire and the more recent war in Iraq, which they remember personally. Even shy students felt safe enough to venture to draw connections they had not previously considered and to respond to each other. Near the end of class time, the teacher gave a quiz (to be collected and graded): “Write down on a half sheet of paper six probing questions about the Spanish American War. You don’t have to answer the questions. Just write down six good questions.” Then the stars from a previous day’s round of what must be a long-running class game stood up to be peppered with the students’ questions. They were stumped, sat down, and others stood up. The bell rang. The teacher commended the students on the quality of their questions, collected the quizzes, and reminded them that tomorrow their essays on the Spanish American War are due.
Political Philosophy at Heights High is what the school calls a social studies elective. The particular section I observed is a seminar really (14 students: 5 African American, 9 white); according to the teacher these students are a mix of juniors and seniors. The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion. After he reviewed the class ground rules for respectful conversation, the teacher presented to the class a list of fifteen questions for discussion. He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions… “What is the significance of the ‘six kings’?”), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting the students to choose a question they would like to discuss. Each time a student requested to discuss a question, he or she explained why discussion of that particular question seemed important or would help him or her better understand the book. The classroom was arranged in four rows, two on each side, which positioned the students facing each other for conversation. One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room. The teacher seemed to keep a running list of those who were posing questions and speaking up. He made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students. The conversation ranged from the role of two characters, Pangloss and Martin, as foils and philosophers to the question of what Voltaire is satirizing in the term “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-boobology.” The teacher wondered aloud whether the students understand Martin’s religion, and when nobody responded, he asked them if anyone had looked-up Manichaeism. A very tall, introspective young man, who had usually spoken in perfectly framed paragraphs, risked replying that he thought he had read that Manicheism is a very old religion, but he didn’t fully understand it. The teacher commended his familiarity with the subject and then carefully explained its meaning. This student then opined that it seemed Manichaeism must have become archaic by the time of Voltaire. Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion itself, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions. No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that. What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy. At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged them to think about that question as they finished the book and invited them to speculate how the book might end. I came home realizing that, after 47 years, I ought to re-read Candide and admiring the intellectual safety of this classroom where fourteen earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.
Tacked to the wall of each classroom was a poster about the Common Core standards that Ohio is trying out now and adopting formally next fall. I thought about those posters and I also reflected on the national conversation about the quality of school teachers and the econometric Value Added Measures being incorporated into their evaluations. These trends seem so disconnected from what I experienced yesterday. All three teachers are well qualified professionals; all three were conducting their classes according to their own high academic standards; all three were engaging students respectfully and insisting that students engage each other intellectually and respectfully. What impressed me about the pedagogy itself was, in each case, inventive engagement of students and depth of academic content. For me the most important thing to look at in any school is what is known as the hidden curriculum—what all the students at a school learn but nobody explicitly names or teaches as subject matter. What I was so delighted to observe yesterday in our community’s high school is a hidden curriculum of mutual respect—respect for learning and respect for others—teachers and students.