Should a Cooperating Teacher Make Things More ‘Real’ for His Student Teacher?

Thought experiment: You’re a successful veteran male HS teacher, firing on all instructional cylinders. You take your first student teacher. Your classes this year are right where you want them—the students have begun to trust each other and their own ideas and skills. They’re functioning well. And now—you’re going to turn the teaching over to your young, female student teacher.

You think she’s not likely to have such cooperative classes in her first job. In fact, it took you some time to establish good classroom routines, but hey—that was a long time ago. If she teaches your classes, she might think all kids were that amenable and eager to learn. You ask colleagues for some ideas on how to make her student teaching experience more ‘realistic’—planted behavior problems, stump-the-teacher questions, other ideas to put her on the spot? You’re just trying to give her a taste of the challenges she’s likely to meet. Right?


Stop thinking. Experiment over. Your thoughts?

On the education-group Facebook page where I read a post like this—only not a thought experiment– it was heartening to notice that there were perhaps 50 comments and 45 of them were some variation of ‘what a terrible idea’ or ‘please don’t do this.’

Any student teacher is vulnerable, and tentative. She’ll naturally run into plenty of challenges, no matter how well-behaved the group. While your tips and advice are part of the experience of working with a novice teacher, setting her up for faux problems is not really ethical, dude. You’re supposed to be her guide.

And here’s another thing, something none of the first round of commenters mentioned: There might be a gender dynamic here, including some doubt about a young female teacher’s ability to control a class of high school students. How tempting to be the master teacher, stepping in to save the day, when students are subtly encouraged to relax behavior standards for the student teacher.

If this is beginning feel like a personal story, it is.

Back in the stone age, when I was student teaching, I spent the first two months reorganizing and cataloguing the school’s music library. I handled my cooperating teacher’s correspondence and wrote his monthly column for the band directors’ association. My only ‘teaching’ experience was working one-on-one with isolated students who were having difficulty with a musical passage and giving free flute lessons.

I observed the cooperating teacher work with ‘his’ bands for fourteen weeks, and there was never any spare time for me to direct any group—always a concert or festival coming up, and he wasn’t about to give up his rehearsal time.

Finally, the last week of my student teaching, I got up in front of the high school band, to conduct one piece. The cooperating teacher grabbed someone’s trumpet and started ‘playing student’—slouching, chewing gum, talking loudly. He asked questions he knew I couldn’t answer (Should I play that with an alternate fingering?) and made glaring mistakes. He acted like a jerk. The students laughed.

Any credibility I had with them was gone, in five minutes.

And then, in my final evaluation (which I typed up) he wrote: I think Nancy would be better suited to a position teaching elementary music.

Kind of ironic, since I never had any student teaching experience whatsoever in teaching elementary music. Having now taught music, PK-12, general, vocal and instrumental, I can say with confidence that all levels have challenges.

Cooperating teachers carry great weight in the development of a novice teacher. In my case, I learned what not to do. I learned not to be a bully (and there was a lot more bullying from the podium, back in the 1970s—it was a kind of badge of honor to some). I learned not to control students by fear and threats, but to instill cooperation by being authoritative but kind. I learned that the blood-and-thunder school of band directing was not for me—and I could still have top-notch bands.

And I accepted student teachers. I had a few over my 31 years in the music classroom—and they were all women.  Photo: the author as a first-year teacher.firstyr

What is ‘Quality’ Music? Choosing the Best Materials for Our Students.

Back in the day, when I was an early-career teacher, I was sitting at the judges’ lunch table, at a music festival. It was my first time serving as an adjudicator and the other judges were well-known veteran band directors. One of them was expounding on the poor literature choices made by young band directors. He claimed that identifying quality music was becoming a lost art, and that most newly published band music was ‘trash,’ especially compared to the pieces from the early days of school band programs.

It was out of my mouth before I had time to think: What is ‘quality’ music? How do we know it’s worthy?

His answer was mostly eye-rolling at the other men and sputtering—but he ended by saying that his sainted mother used to listen to country music on the radio, and even as a young lad he knew that it was pure garbage. Nobody was correcting him, by the way. Certainly not me.

I did, however, start thinking more about my own judgment in deciding what music would teach my students the most. I looked for appealing pieces that had some modest challenges embedded. I made some mistakes (buying pieces that were so static and repetitive that even the students were able to see how some music is, well, static and repetitive—and boring). But I also picked some winners, pieces I used again and again, music with some cultural depth or technical tests or simply tunes that the kids loved.

Were my curricular go-tos ‘quality’ music? What features, precisely, comprise quality? Is there a set canon of high-quality titles that should be in every library?

And–who gets to say what those works are, in any discipline? Choosing the best anything is a perennial exercise in taste and appraisal—and over time, the definition of ‘quality’ shifts.

English teachers want their students to read and interact with the most delicious texts. Social Studies teachers want to wrestle with relevant issues and science teachers want to engage their students with scientific solutions to existing real-world problems. What’s most useful and attractive now may not have existed 10 years ago.

I trust teachers to sieve through the Big Ideas and choose good concepts and materials. That’s not possible in many schools, however, where all curricular decisions are made above (if that’s the correct preposition) the classroom. Replacing materials also costs money.

There was a piece in Medium recently that got some deserved attention: Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class.  The gist? We need to take a look at the often-racist roots of some American ‘folk music.’

I read about the piece on an Elementary Music Teachers Facebook page. There was a long thread, discussing music that might have problematic origins. Were there ways to get around questionable lyrics while keeping a jaunty, familiar tune? There was a little disagreement—a couple of people upset by ‘political correctness’—but the large majority of the teachers participating thought the article had value in helping them improve their practice by ditching some songs long considered ‘classic.’

Many admitted that all this information was new—and surprising—to them; they could do better. There were comments about high school and college traditional/fight songs with racist roots or references.

I loved reading these conversations. These are questions that teachers should be discussing. Teachers are conscientious for the most part—they want to teach well. They will even occasionally be vulnerable, confessing that they don’t know how to handle a curriculum/instructional dilemma. This discourse supports genuine professional learning.

For music teachers, the next frontier might well be the dearth of music published for school musicians with female or non-white composers.

Composer Dale Trumbore said this:  Let’s talk about quality.

‘I program music based solely on quality.’ ‘I don’t think about race or gender when I program—only whether the music is good.’

This argument is fundamentally flawed. You’re programming based on the quality of music you’ve already heard. If you don’t regularly hear or seek out music by women or composers who aren’t white, their music will never make on to your programs. Lack of quality isn’t the issue here; unconscious programming is.

Is this a key issue for music teachers? It should be. For a dozen reasons—including our old benchmark: quality.

Recently, there was a revelation that a very well-known school band composer, a white man, had been publishing Asian-flavored pieces using a pseudonym that suggested he was a Japanese female. Eventually, he started feeling a bit queasy about the deception (or perhaps his publisher got tired of not having any PR information about ‘Keiko Yamada’). He publicly apologized and recalled all the inventory using his phony name.

The composer, Larry Clark, sat for a long and somewhat rambling interview with Jennifer Jolley, another female composer, explaining, sort of, why he originally chose to use a pseudonym. He is not entirely successful in this effort, although I am certain he now regrets the initial decision. Jolley holds his feet to the fire—it’s a wonderful, in-depth interview. Then she says:

The lingering effects of Clark/Yamada are to magnify the paranoia and cynicism too often experienced by underrepresented composers. It confirms the most extreme sense that the music world is an unfair system rigged in favor of the privileged. 

I think teachers of all subjects are interested in concepts and materials that show their students the system doesn’t have to be rigged in favor of the privileged—that there are things we all should know and can all appreciate. That curricular materials in all subjects can be authentic and inspiring.

I think I know quality materials when I hear and see them. I also think that our definition of curricular quality has to consider diversity and acknowledge change. Some items are evergreen. Others outlive their usefulness.

How do you define quality?


 Don’t Give Them Your Power!

Here’s an eye-catching headline: Middle School Student On A Trip To DC Spat On A Black Person At The African American History Museum.

And the follow-up, somehow even more depressing: The principal of the Connecticut middle school said she did not believe the incident was racially motivated.

There’s more rationalizing, in the local paper. The principal is doing what principals do: trying to express that they’re just kids, prone to goofy adolescent misbehaviors, while explaining just how they’re going to sharply address this in school—assemblies, suspensions, whatever’s in the disciplinary toolbox.

But I’m with Greg Johnson, a local civil rights leader, who said ‘spitting in the museum — opened three years ago to highlight the contributions of African Americans and educating visitors about the history of slavery — was itself a racist act.’

As it happens, I visited the African American History Museum for the first time a few months ago, a road trip with two old friends who were also going for the first time. It was absolutely the best adult field trip ever—it’s a fantastic national resource (thinking like a teacher). And also, one tiny and way-overdue step toward recognizing the unsung economic and cultural contributions of the involuntary diaspora of African-Americans in the United States.

There was a lot to see, to appreciate and to learn. The viewing crowd that day was about 2/3 African American and 1/3 Other. There was a grandmother, wrapped in a colorful homemade afghan in her wheelchair, on a toasty June day–being pushed by an adult granddaughter, who dutifully read the posted copy at each showcase or exhibit. Grandma kept saying ‘Imagine that!’ and every time, her granddaughter rolled her eyes and smiled.

There was a young dad, tracking a wander-y five-year-old, simply telling the boy, at his own level, exactly what they were looking at—the maps, the model ships, the heavy, rusted tools of hard labor. The little boy ran ahead. There is a slave cabin, preserved, transported and rebuilt at the museum. Stepping into the doorway, Dad said ‘this is where one or two whole families of enslaved people lived.’ The boy did a 360-degree turnaround. ‘You kiddin’ me?’ he asked.

It was an amazing day. And then, emerging blinking from the core exhibit, a spiraling, detailed history of slavery, into a sunny atrium, we see them. A half-dozen white boys, middle-school aged –I have 30 years of knowing a middle school boy when I see one–coming down the three-story escalator wearing red MAGA caps. They are, astonishingly enough (or maybe not), accompanied by an adult man, also white, who seems cool with the hats.

People around us freeze, seeing them. A teenaged girl is practically snarling to a friend—Look at them! It’s SO disrespectful. They come HERE—in those hats! Her friend puts a hand on her arm.

Don’t give them your power, she says.

There were more kids in MAGA hats, later in the afternoon, gathering at an appointed spot to meet the bus. Their teachers were busy counting and corralling and wouldn’t have appreciated a question from a stranger: Why didn’t you tell your students to remove their hats? Did you tell them what they were going to see—and why a respectful attitude is required for all visitors to this museum?

Hey. I taught middle school for 30 years. I know that the rules and rationales for visiting this museum may have been hammered out by others, leaving the students’ teachers powerless. It’s better for young adolescents to have had this introductory experience than not.  And, true, 13 year-old boys frequently don’t have great judgment. But all that’s just weak sauce.

Students on any field trip need to be prepared, intellectually, for what they’re going to see or do–or the value of toting kids around to see interesting, meaningful places in the world is seriously diminished. Field trips—like all curricular decisions and activities—are based on the principle that taking students out of the building will make them better able to deal with the ideas and challenges of the real world.

And it’s always wrong to be disrespectful, on purpose, in the real world. Always.

In ‘White People are Broken’, Katherine Fugate shares a story about another museum, and still more white kids wearing MAGA hats, who are confronted by a young black man of the same age, who quietly explains to them that their hats make him uncomfortable. Fugate stands silently by the young man, hoping he will see her as an ally. The MAGA hat students are confused, saying it’s their country. It’s everyone’s country, he replies.

Occasionally, you can read columns–or comments–suggesting that teachers should stick strictly to transmitting factual disciplinary content and stay away from values. There is no such thing, however, as opening students’ flip-top heads and pouring in knowledge. All knowledge, skills and judgment are learned in context, through interaction and practice.

A lot of what is learned in school—and through school-based activities—isn’t ‘content,’ or ‘skills’, per se. It’s how the most important knowledge and skills are useless, unless they’re applicable to living. It’s how to be a thoughtful, curious, responsive person in this world. Or not.

Which means that wearing a MAGA hat in the African American Museum of History and Culture is not just a bad fashion choice. It is, instead, a hateful coded message. And spitting is not just an impulsive decision made by someone too young to know better. It’s an act of degradation, indefensible.

After all, it is truly everyone’s country. Make good choices, and don’t relinquish your power to hate.  AfAm Museum


Sweet Child of Mine

Like—one hopes—most Americans, I watch the ongoing story of children separated from their parents at our southern border with horror and sorrow. There will never be anything even approaching reconciliation or forgiveness for the despicable and shameful behavior of those whose hatred and fear of ‘the other’ drives policy enactment like this. My biggest worry is that, with all the other shocks and distractions we’re juggling in 2019, these children will fade into the background.

Last week, we learned that the number of separated and ‘lost’ children is higher than has been reported:  U.S. immigration authorities separated more than 1,500 children from their parents at the Mexico border early in the Trump administration, the ACLU said, bringing the total number of children separated since July 2017 to more than 5,400. Children from that period can be difficult to find because the government had inadequate tracking systems. Volunteers working with the ACLU are searching for some of them and their parents by going door-to-door in Guatemala and Honduras.

One facet of the story I follow even more closely: the very young children who have been recklessly and deliberately removed from their parents, resulting in ‘lost’ identification information, and are put in foster care here, and eventually even deemed eligible for adoption by American parents.

There have been any number of stories about children too young to speak for themselves winding up in places where their parents, who risked everything to bring them to what they hoped was safety, can no longer find or reach them. Often, these parents are not able to get appropriate help, and are deported, leaving children behind.

Bethany Christian Services, a Michigan-based non-profit that took a relatively large number of separated children into foster care over the past two years, has especially come under fire. I have seen memes and stories accusing Bethany (which has accepted donations from the DeVos Foundation for many years) of essentially stealing children for the benefit of white Christian couples who want to adopt.

I know a little about Bethany CS, because it’s the agency we used when we adopted our son Alex, now 31, from Korea. Ironically, we chose Bethany because they had such a good reputation for ensuring that adoptable children were fully available and duly relinquished by their biological parents.

We had heard horror stories about disrupted international adoptions, families who later learned that their adopted children were placed via coercion, or were babies ‘from nowhere,’ whose parentage couldn’t be traced at all. But not with Bethany.

Bethany was also a little pickier than other agencies—insisting on age limits for parents, a stay-at-home parent for the baby’s first six months in America (which we split, each of us taking three months), and a lengthy and rigorous home study process. The ‘Christian’ in their name didn’t really faze us, although we were not church members at that time. Like getting your life insurance from Lutheran Brotherhood, or putting your money in the Catholic Credit Union, it did not seem like a drawback in the international adoption process, which is plenty fraught.

Our caseworker from Bethany carefully guided us through all the steps—adoption, citizenship, and when Alex was 13, a whole-family trip to Korea, where we were able to sit down with a social worker and translator and read his entire file. We also had lunch with his diminutive foster mother, who spent the entire time patting his face and rolling up bulgogi in lettuce leaves for him to eat.

It was always clear to us just how fortunate we were to raise this young man, a gift to our family. Occasionally, low-information people would suggest that Korea was a backward nation and Alex was lucky to have us, but we always knew that wasn’t remotely true—and earnestly sought many opportunities (camps, cultural organizations and travel) to keep in touch with his remarkable heritage.

In the past few years, however—even before hateful border policies—I have become more and more aware of suspicion, even hostility, toward parents who choose international adoptions. Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know filled in some of those blanks. I read more broadly today, including critiques of multi-cultural families built through international fostering and adoption. It’s not as simple as a child needing a home. I get that.

The situation at the border and Bethany Christian Services’ willingness to foster children who have been separated from their parents there put this into sharp focus.  Bethany’s policies about refusing adoptions to LGBTQ families (recently overturned) came under scrutiny. And there was a lot of finger-pointing toward the DeVos family, which has supported Bethany’s work for many years—not surprising, since DeVos charitable giving (and influencing) is everywhere in Grand Rapids, MI, where Bethany is also based. Snopes does a good job of tracking that money and answering other questions about Bethany: here.

I am not defending Bethany Christian Services—but I do hate to see blanket condemnation of international adoption. It’s also true that children should not be warehoused in cages—and that sheltering migrant children is a multi-million dollar business, prone to profiteering and abuse. This is a problem of our own making.

It’s hard to know, any more, where to draw the bright line between well-meaning people wanting to adopt children who need homes and outright, obvious human trafficking. Recently, evangelical Christians have been pushing families to adopt, as a way of demonstrating that they were willing to take care of the children who might otherwise have been aborted:

In 2007, national Christian leaders like celebrity pastor Rick Warren encouraged their followers to shift their focus from issues of “moral purity”—abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce—to something more positive: helping children in need. More than just “pro-life,” it would be a “whole life” response to the longstanding pro-choice challenge that Christians adopt all the children they wanted to be born. It would also be an extension of existing evangelical engagement with global development and health issues. Promoting adoption would help rebrand U.S. evangelicals, from moral scolds to children’s champions.

The premise of the movement was a particularly American response to global child poverty. It was based on the idea that the existence of somewhere between 143 and 210 million vulnerable children around the world—a number that also includes those who live with one parent or extended family, often in poor conditions—constituted an “orphan crisis,” but that there were also 2 billion Christians who could help. If just a fraction of those claiming to be Christians stepped up to adopt, the movement’s leaders argued, parentless and hungry children, as a category, would cease to exist. As one leader put it, the goal was to “get as many people in the church to adopt and adopt as many kids as you can.” 

I find this ominous. I’m the American parent of a child born in Asia, so you might think I would trust that American instincts and institutions for young children in crisis would be good ones. But I no longer have any confidence in ‘American’ ideals, after witnessing what’s happened at our own border.

Alex and Mom cropped

Should Teenage Trick or Treaters Go to Jail?

For 20 years, I lived in a subdivision in the heart of the school district where I was teaching. Halloween was a big deal—we’d get a couple hundred trick-or-treaters if the weather was nice. Many of them were my middle school students, or former students, now in high school. I bought a lot of candy. The good stuff.

I’d put speakers in an open window, and a spooky music playlist on my iPod (remember iPods?)—pieces that were part of my annual spooky-music lesson plan. The kid who asked ‘Is that Night on Bald Mountain?’ would get an extra piece of candy. And the boys who came for candy, left and switched costumes on the street, then came back—twice—got another piece both times and props for ingenuity.

I would dress up. This was easy—same costume every year—because my 8th grade students performed a Halloween-themed concert, and I was always the Wicked Witch of the Band Room.  It’s a perfect time of year for students with two years’ worth of playing experience to prepare a fun program, stretching their musical skills and knowledge.wickedwitch3

The students dressed in costumes. This was a hard sell for some of them, but they were assured that ‘costume’ could mean something very simple—perennially, there were boys in shoulder pads and football jersey, toting their euphoniums into the gym to play Danse Macabre.

My principals, over the decade we did this concert, were supportive—all school leaders love events that bring hundreds of happy parents into the building, especially when small children are welcome.

One principal was open to all students dressing in non-violent costumes when October 31 was a school day. This did not go down well with a subset of the faculty, who felt middle schoolers were too old for such nonsense and that costumes would be a major distraction to learning.

Are your students typically focused and quiet on Halloween? she asked. Well, no. So let’s let them be kids a little longer. Endorse a little good, clean fun in a safe space.

She was right. Halloween, once a neighborhood-based candy grab for little tots, has turned into a major commercial boondoggle with pop-up stores, sexy whatever costumes and a lot of serial-zombie blood and gore.

Telling seventh graders that they’re too old for all the fun and have to stay in the house and do their math homework isn’t likely to change their minds about anything. And just try to keep your HS sophomore home if their friends are out creating minor-league mayhem. Better they should be in their own neighborhoods, toting pillowcases full of loot, or at parties where there’s a parent upstairs.

So how old is too old?

Chesapeake, Virginia says 13 is the age when trick-or-treaters should be fined or sent to jail, for up to six months. No, really. And if you’re out at 8:05 p.m., it’s a misdemeanor.

I don’t know who made up these rules in Chesapeake, but good luck enforcing them.

And pass me another fun-sized Snickers.


Tired of Democratic Infighting? How Much of it is Sexism?

So—Elizabeth Warren released her very progressive K-12 Education Plan yesterday. As soon as it was released, I got a text with a link to the plan, which I read, top to bottom. Just as I have read the other K-12 education plans.

I get texts about all of Warren’s plans, as soon as they’re developed. I assume this is because I donated to Warren. Actually, I have donated to six candidates this year (those tiny little donations that candidates claim they treasure). One of them has dropped out, but I gave money to two men and four women. Warren is not my preferred candidate—although she’s certainly in my top three. She just seems to be the one with the target on her back. Or, more likely, her head.

I get plenty of email and texts from all of these candidates, some more than others. I delete the money requests, but I read the plans. Because I am interested in what candidates see as political priorities.

Not that any of them, individually, has the political muscle to leverage a full-blown transformation of public education, a totally free national health program, tuition-less college and cancelling student debt. I am a mature, well-informed citizen who pays attention to politics. I’ve known better than to vote for the candidate with the most tempting promises since the 1970s.

That doesn’t mean that policy briefs don’t matter. They certainly do. But could we please stop doing line-by-line comparisons of campaign platforms, looking for miniscule differences? Let’s look for the highlights, the goals and principles of good governance– and more important, the smarts and stamina of who endorsed them.

The fight for what we really get (or don’t get) comes later. Much later. The issues and sub-issues will be hammered out, one by one, in the 2021 Congress. And it would be a shame if we weren’t on the same page then, when it really does matter. Anybody notice how the make-up of Congress is shaping the news these days? Let’s put some attention there.

I was working on another—probably better—blog this morning. I took a break to look at the ongoing conversation on social media. And it was beyond discouraging.

This is awful stuff to read, on friends’ pages. It’s not because we have ‘too many’ Democratic candidates. It’s not about the flaws in Democratic party power-wielding. It’s not about who has strongest platform or policy ideas—because those are just…ideas. It’s because we’re back in boots-or-flipflops mode, obsessing over the polls, the public fights, the personalities. Some of us love the infighting, but it’s dangerous.


On the morning of November 9, 2016, as I was moping around, red-eyed and sleep-deprived, I said to my husband: I wonder when America will be ready for a woman president.

He thought I was over-simplifying what happened, that maybe America just didn’t want Hillary, not anywoman, to be president. He suggested it wasn’t incipient sexism underlying the most stunning loss since Dewey vs. Truman—just a lack of enthusiasm, or some other ephemeral reason—James Comey? The Russians?

But now that we have multiple outspoken, qualified women candidates, it feels like déjà vu—nobody wants to be perceived as sexist, but there it is. Let me go out on a limb here and say that I would very much like to have a woman in the White House before I die. Even if she’s pedantic or not perfect on health care or didn’t do well in one of the debates. It’s time.

I am about to return to that better blog, which actually is about a single topic, with a point to be made. Unlike this blog, which is nothing more than free-floating resentment. Sorry.

I think Warren’s K-12 plan is a good as it gets for any unrealistic grab-bag of Democratic dreams.  She promises to support unions. She talks about the folly of testing. She apparently understands how underfunding has harmed schools. Best of all, she provides a full-throated defense of genuinely public education. Have at it.


Hidden Messages Your School Sends to Students

Once, at a staff meeting, my principal shared a short video he’d seen at an administrators’ conference.  It was an effort, I think, to talk about important things at mandated staff meetings, rather than simple announcements. Although there was a lot of eye-rolling when he cued it up, I thought it was worthwhile, with some apt observations about schooling.

One of those was a suggestion that if we wanted to assess what was most important to us, we should look at the times when the normal academic schedule was disrupted, and the student body gathered for an all-school assembly.

At that point in the school year, we’d had five assemblies:

  • An assembly on the first day, where students were welcomed, then informed which teacher would be leading them to their first hour class and giving them schedules.
  • An annual ‘rules’ assembly for each grade, where the assistant principal went through all the rules in the student handbook.
  • An all-school assembly to introduce the annual fund-raiser, and a follow-up assembly, two weeks later, to reward all the students who sold enough sausage and cheese with an hour out of class to play in bouncy castles and batting cages.
  • A fall sports assembly to recognize athletic teams.

I mentioned this to my principal, who asked tartly if I thought that our school was all about schedules, rules, fund-raising and sports? Why else would we be having assemblies? And did I think that bringing this up to the staff would endear me to him or anyone else?

Actually, I didn’t think our school was focused on administrivia or making money. I thought our teachers, pretty much, were doing interesting things in their classrooms, and our students were offered a nice variety of meaningful activities and clubs.

During the time I taught there, we hosted Holocaust survivors, who sat on folding chairs in front of the bleachers, holding microphones, 800 silent students listening intently to their stories. We also had square dancing assemblies where everyone participated, concerts where band and choir students performed for their peers, and student drama productions. It was—still is—a good place to teach.

But the idea stuck in my head: What are the hidden messages in our conventional school practices?

I learned about the hidden curriculum while working on my masters degree, back in the 1970s, reading Michael Apple and Philip Jackson. It made perfect sense then. But it didn’t much impact my teaching or the hundreds of embedded habits that shaped practice in my building, from 55-minute periods to detentions to tracking.  School was school, and like most teachers, my M.O. was ‘go along to get along.’ It took a long time and a lot of courage to ever raise a question around Things We Always Do.

Why? Because teachers who rock the boat aren’t popular.

A colleague who asks about changing the grading system, or altering the discipline policy, will face a lot of resistance, even if those practices are harming students. It took my district years to pass a ‘no paddling’ policy, even after 95% of the staff had stopped physical punishments, knowing they were cruel and pointless.

I thought about that video when I read Alfie Kohn’s tweet this week:

The entrance area that greets visitors to a typical high school contains two things: evidence (in the form of trophies) that its students triumphed over students from other schools & plaques listing which of its students are better than others. Assignment (for administrators, teachers, and kids): Design a school lobby that reflects a commitment to collaboration and community rather than to sorting and triumphing.

The tweet rang my chimes. I once brought a First Division band festival plaque to the Athletic Director (who had the keys to the showcase) and asked if it could be displayed. He explained that no, the showcase–actually, all the showcases–were for athletic accomplishments. I should hang the band’s plaque on the band room wall. Those showcases, of course were not in the gym, the locker room or athletic department hallway. They were four of them in a main entrance to the school commons, and filled with ancient, often rusting, exemplars of Teams Gone By, people whose names nobody knew.

The not-so-hidden message there, of course, was Sports First, other student accomplishments not so much–a sentiment familiar to many debate coaches, drama club advisors, journalism sponsors, robotics volunteers and National Honor Societies.

I did hang the plaque on the wall of the band room, and added several more, over the years. When I left the job, my successor took them all down and mailed them to me in a cardboard box. So much for tradition and pride in the program.

Kohn’s challenge is right on the money: How can schools challenge their students to build strong communities that bring out the best in all students? How should this be reflected in the school environment?