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So He Thinks He Can Blog: John Thompson

So_you_think_you_can_blog2_2 I am pleased to let you know that Oklahoma City high school teacher (and education blog commenter extraordinaire) John Thompson is going to be posting here this summer, giving a much-needed classroom perspective to my usual blather. 

Thompson teaches high school in Oklahoma City and has been commenting on various education blogs for the past several months -- often with vivid, honest, and sometimes biting insights. 

His first post is about the HBO documentary "Hard Times At Douglass High."  Click below for his review and some video excerpts.

HBO’s "Hard Times at Frederick Douglass High" is absolutely awesome. During the first month of summer, I hadn’t dreamed about school. But viewing the documentary of that Baltimore school, my dreams kept going back over the Douglass students just like they were my own.

In the opening scene with a struggling young English teacher, as I watched the body language of students, I wanted to shout at the screen. He’s going to try to teach before he gets control of the situation. I understand the teacher’s dilemma, with no leverage and no disciplinary backing, and he needs to get instruction started.

My second thought was how thankful I am to teach social studies. When faced with an impossible situation in freshman Geography, my "Standards of Instruction" are essentially the entire world, and that provides so many more options for engaging students. Plus, it is worse for Math and English teachers who are under the gun and have to stay so close to the curriculum. (When faced with such a challenge, I would toss the theories in the trash and adopt a teacher-centric approach even if it meant that I played a more dominant role than is ideal.)

 During so many parts of the show I’d slap my knee and shout "see what I mean," explaining why teaching in the inner city can be the greatest job in the world. But you never get used to all of that "father yearning" of so many kids raised with so little adult guidance. This dynamic is even apparent as the students mourn the loss of the English teacher who resigned. Even when the students - or especially when the students - helped drive away an adult, they are hurt by another abandonment. Teens want to resist adults, but they do not want to "win." They want adults to demonstrate their love by establishing a safe and orderly environment. I was equally enthusiastic in agreeing with the 12th grade teacher who bemoaned the annual full-court press to "just pass on" students.

When adults used a series of fig leaves to justify the graduation of 200 students, even though 132 had met requirements three days before, the teacher mused, "its all in the way your morals can handle it." After all, the students had clearly learned that adults were supposed to just pass them on. The English Department, for instance, was short by four teachers. You have to assume that any student in the many classes with substitutes, not teachers, would get an automatic passing grade. (In our school they all get blanket Bs when we can’t find a teacher, which sometimes happens in 1/4th of the classes.) The principal also embodied the "just pass them on" attitude while placing the responsibility on the teachers.

 The principal was the archetypical "principal’s principal." She had that nonstop effort to put a smiley face on everything. She showed real compassion, and sometimes the truth came out of her mouth. But mostly she had that perfect pitch of a principal whose job is to confidently say that tomorrow the sun will rise in the west, and if we all believe, great things will happen. She also issued the single most destructive line in her profession, saying that she has several teachers who have no discipline problems, implying that a teacher who seeks disciplinary backing is unworthy. It was so clear to the filmmaker that there are huge differences between classes of older and younger students, of core classes and favored electives, and regular versus advanced classes. I’ll never understand why administrators are so wilfully blind to that reality.

After a second viewing, though, I owe the principal a huge apology. Any imperfections were dwarfed by her love and the commitment. I sure couldn’t do better. The filmmaker had trade-offs, but she always made the right decision. For the first 1/3rd, I kept asking about the silence. Where were the shouts of "F___ You," and the "N word?" She revealed a little of the sound in the halls as she faded into her narrative. Also missing was anything more than a hint of gangs and violence. You would think that the camera would prompt more gang signs.

Perhaps the cameras prompted the school system to deal with violence and gangs at that school. When we want [and that’s a big when], school leaders know how to drive violence from the school premises, even if we can’t deal with chronic class disruptions.

On second viewing, however, I had a radical thought. Douglass committed a lot of effort into hall sweeps, tardy and attendance enforcement, and counseling overaged students. Maybe the lack of violence was a result of those efforts, and I should have trusted my "lying eyes." Also, does every inner city school have the same name for the "hall-walkers?" Do we all face the same dilemma where the administration is powerless to deal with kids who "come to school but won’t go to class?" And are other viewers surprised by the lack of angry hall-walkers, groups of kids juicing themselves up prowling the hall looking for fights? And where were the electronic devices and the cell phones that are so disruptive and dangerous? Has Baltimore solved that problem all through its schools?

 The Douglass approach reminded me of our approach when my school was changing from an inner ring suburban school to the small hardcore school of today. Back then, we would push our 200 or so most disruptive students to the far edges of school property and segregate our Transitional 9th and 10th classes. In return, the serious gangsters kept their business away from school.

On the first viewing, the administration seemed to be "pushing out" students. After all, they started with 500 freshmen and gradated 200.  But that conclusion was in comparison to my system’s nonstop, though equally unsuccessful,  efforts to keep kids in regular schools, long after it becomes obvious that they need an alternative program.

I had love-hate relationship with the scene where the hall-walker was physically pushed out of the school. On one hand, we have to admire the efficiency and understand the smile on the face of the security guard after removing the student. But even if it was not physically violent, it was emotionally assaultive, and that kid will never forget those feelings. On second viewing, however, I realized that I had completely mis-remembered the scene. The incident grew out of an argument over a hoodie and it was blown out of proportion. But I had conflated that incident with other hall-walker scenes, and I had become an "arm chair quarterback." Also, I had recoiled because the defiant student reminded me so much of a student who I have mishandled.

I mourn for the indignities thrust upon struggling teenage human beings. But the film just documents the dictum, "Feed the teachers or they will eat the children." At any rate, the filmmaker made the right decision in not overemphasizing the violence and overwhelming chaos. Her quieter approach made us more sensitive to the children. The first thing everyone says about our school - and I bet they say the same at Douglass - is the noise. But most of our kids are very quiet. The passivity is much much greater than the aggression.

And that’s what is so maddening about the freshmen who create most of the disorder. They are sweet children. They are immature. They are immature because they have had so few adults in their lives. Then peer pressure and a critical mass of other exceptionally immature teens create a geometrical increase in disruptions. It is understandable that administrators, and others, would hope that teachers could just keep a lid on things until the kids grow into juniors and seniors. Who wants to remove a child from school because mostly he’s just struggling to grow up? The difference between the chaos of the regular freshmen classes and the classes of older students, honors students, and students who engage in extracurricular activity is not intelligence or talent. It is maturity. What do you want to bet on this? Those students who were humiliating themselves in regular classes had been athletes, singers, musicians, or debaters, but for some developmental or family reason they were not able to function within the structure. Now they hide their fears, frustration, and deficits through passivity and/or disruption.

Also, I bet Douglass was like our school when we raised the total number of students who passed the Algebra test from two to eight; none of the new passes were kids in regular classes. Which gets us back to the tragedy of NCLB. Clearly, "accountability" is not going to make a difference in these toughest schools. But I’ve always been frustrated by this question. We have focused completely on our school’s weaknesses Why haven’t we tried to build on our strengths? The Douglass choir is almost as good as ours (OK maybe I’m biased), the students responded to the team work of sports, debate and band, and parents did also. They had a freshman team. Every scene that occurred on-stage in the auditorium was brilliant. Every time the teens had opportunities to display their skills in debate, drama, dance, oratory, choir, band, or sports, those kids were wonderful. Why not concentrate first on building relationships, and teaching students to be students? If students failed to function in the context of the freshman team, then efficiently, respectfully, and humanely divert them to alternative schools where they would have a second chance to become members of a team. Had the coach been repeatedly interrupted by his ballplayers when he was trying to coach, he would have cut them from the team. That process is far less damaging than allowing immature children to humiliate themselves in class, rob their peers of an education, and then belatedly pressuring them into going elsewhere.

The problem with my proposal is that it would require adults to stand up, take responsibility, and make tough decisions in a timely manner. Its is much easier to wait for the child to fall hopelessly behind, and let circumstances rule. And the problem is that adults at Douglass High can not make those tough choices until adults in central administrative offices and government stop imposing simplistic "quick fixes." And the blame and shame game of NCLB just makes it worse.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.