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Thompson: The Essence of Inner-City Teaching and Learning

180Days_TanishiaWilliamsMinor_t700Watching Part 1 of PBS's "180 Days" is like gazing across the Grand Canyon.  You want to share your feelings about it, but first you must silently revere its majesty.

This masterpiece chronicles a year at the District of Columbia's  D.C. Met High School. When students like Raven Q., Raven C., and Rufus open up to the camera, this viewer forgot he was sitting on a couch.  I was back in school, listening, sharing, contemplating, and feeling the same gratitude that fellow human beings would open up the way these teens do. School is not the place for adults to impose solutions.  Our job is to contribute our experience, love and support, as we accept the invitation to join in their journey.

And, who would not commit to following principal Tanishia Williams-Minor wherever she dares to venture? Watching her coach the cheerleaders, I bet she could even teach me some moves! Ms. Williams-Minor understands that teaching and learning is an affair of "the Heart," not "the Head."  She knows that the moral and emotional consciousness of students is the rock on which schools must be built.

I am glad that I missed the first five minutes which foreshadowed a problem with the D.C. Schools central office, so I forgot politics. For the next two hours, the filmmaker portrayed so much of humanity's most profound emotions that I completely forgot that the D.C. accountability hawks were also watching the school. Even the central office IMPACT evaluator seemed cool. Surely, any administrator could see the genius at work in leading D.C. Met. 

Watching the previews for part 2, which show Ms.  Williams-Minor crying before the faculty, I got sick at my stomach. I didn't feel outrage that some bureaucrats might think they know what is better for her students.  I just mourned. 

It was during the second viewing that disgust started to wash over me.  How could bureaucrats see such a leader as accountable to them, as opposed volunteering to follow Ms. Williams-Minor wherever she and her students led? But, then again, I had only seen the preview.  In part two, perhaps the central office will see what it really takes at schools like D.C. Met.  

Of course, it was those extremes of emotions that make "180 Days" a work of genius.  The courage and wisdom it portrays are responses to extreme trauma.  No resolution is given to the paradox where we are allowed to celebrate the artistry of great educators and of great filmmaking, and bond with those wonderful kids, and yet be given no easy way out.  It is a privilege to watch every scene where young people allow us into their journey, but we are not allowed to forget their travails or deny where most of their paths are going.

I must make one political point.  It parallels the absurdity of central office "reformers" placing their theories over the hard-earned wisdom of Ms. Williams-Minor.  Why are we fooling around with Common Core?  We already have PBS's inspired curriculum-makers.  Why not provide students and teachers with pbs.org (and npr.org) and then share ways of learning from them? Why reinvent the wheel instead of building on their excellence?

O.K. I know we need curricula, evaluations, and bureaucracies.  They are minor annoyances compared to the burdens of  Raven, Raven, and Rufus.  But, where did we get the idea that "accountability" can play more than a bit part in school improvement?

I can't wait for Part Two. Who knows? Maybe viewers from all backgrounds will be inspired by Ms. Williams-Minor. Perhaps we will all be humbled by "180 Days," and we will all try to redefine ourselves as contributors to the team sport of teaching and learning.  And, maybe there will be a happy ending or, at least, the happiest ending that we can expect in the battle against extreme poverty and trauma.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.   


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I too was struck by the administration's level of care for their students. They approached these students without any preconceived idea about who they were or judgement of them based on what they were lacking. This I believe, gives students a level of self-respect in that the adults are not there to belittle them, but push them to be the best that they personally can be. The series allowed a very intimate glimpse into the lives of these students, it was honest, refreshing, and humbling. It's definitely a must see for anyone interested in education.

I've been there and done that, too, but I'd like to unpack a missing element that left a very bad taste in my mouth. Both times.

I don't remember the young science teacher's name, but did you notice what McWilliams said to him when she was hiring him? "Can you teach science with nothing but an empty room?" Some things have changed, and that one has stayed the same.

Almost 20 years ago, I asked for books and supplies for the (all minority) physical science class I'd been assigned at Berkeley HS, and my curriculum director answered, "You can go into the room and close the door, and whatever you can do is fine. Nobody will bother you about it, but there are no resources for that class."

I remember it exactly, because I stopped and wrote it down. Then I answered, "Isn't that against the law?" It was happening inside the same building as my white chemistry classes, so I had a strong case. Coincidentally, PBS made a documentary about the situation, and you can see it here:

My principal that year was real reformer James Henderson, and he backed me up. I got some stuff, but both of us were looking for a job the next year. He wrote for me.

So now, EVERYBODY wants to mess with this young teacher, but there's still no justice. Why doesn't he fight? I wondered if the crap show of his first lesson was deliberate, so we could see later how much he improved as a teacher. We see him doing low-budget showman demos, and the kids are all amazed and applauding. (He couldn't even get a class set of paper cups and string?!!)

I had a political argument once, with now-emeritus reformer Prof. Art Pearl. I said I would go into schools and fight like we could win, to open the door for the specific kids in front of me. I said that was the most powerful political message I could send, and that if enough of us did it, we would get through. He said it wasn't political, and I said it was.

If you didn't feel any outrage at that still-intolerable, ingrained injustice, I don't even know how to talk to you. That's the education reform we lost (so far), when cheats and profiteers stole the brand name. There are a lot of us still fighting.

Sadly, the old Frontline episode, School Colors, isn't available at PBS anymore. You'd have to buy the video, I guess.

Thanks for the response. I definitely see the issues with that one specific teacher he seemed to not take his job seriously at all. I'm not sure however, if it is because of the tone set by Principal's question, or if he lacked the passion and innovation it takes to be a great teacher for any classroom much less one where students face so much outside of the class. I will look up the video, thanks for the reference.

Well Mary, you sure like to toot your own horn.

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I get it. How could you not? You were a brilliant perfect teacher on your very first day in the classroom, leaving you plenty of time to fight the district and write grants and whatnot, while others around you struggled. It must be so frustrating to constantly be surrounded by people not as wonderful as you. I can truly empathize. I am pretty awesome myself.

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Shanice on the other hand, I cannot understand. Who are you to judge a new teacher? You are definitely not awesome like Mary.

To the armchair educators judging the first year teacher:

I am generally amazed that people forget that learning to do something new is difficult and takes time. But I think it is completely unforgivable that someone who's stated profession is teaching people new skills would forget that. I would hate to be in your classroom.

I find it hard to believe that we watched the same documentary. What I saw was a new teacher in a difficult situation who was not only holding it together, he was maintaining an extremely positive attitude and developing ways to reach the students with limited resources -- all while being filmed during the hardest year of the world's hardest job. I can say absolutely that I could not have done what he did.

Did you actually miss it?

I'm judging the administrator who told that utterly unprepared young teacher he had to teach science to these kids without the minimal supplies and equipment any teacher in a middle class school would have. I'm judging the reformers who put an obviously unprepared Columbia student in their classroom with no more preparation than that. Yes, I'm telling him he should fight it, from day one.

I'm judging you, too, if you think it's okay to deny basic equipment to the students in this school. They aren't in school to provide onlookers with emotional catharsis with their tragedies, they have a right to every education opportunnity your own kid gets, in addition to your kind sympathy. And, whether he or you are first year teachers, or not teachers at all, I'm telling all of you: you should either stand up and fight for those kids' real opportunities, or sit down and shut up.

Before my first day in the classroom, by the way, I had student teaching and field placements which were apparently not judged to be necessary in this Ivy League instance.

I'm pretty sure we all watched a differnt film. Or pehaps we just went on popcorn breaks at the wrong times.

In defense of the administrator, she didn't say he had to teach in an empty room. She asked if he felt he could teach with minimal supplies. The school didn't even have lockers. I highly doubt that was the fault of the people in the building. And did you notice the basketball court? It was in the auditorium which looked like it doubled as the cafeteria and testing room. I don't have insight into the funding of the school but it seemed like if there had been money to equip the building with the necessities, the building would have been equipped. I'm sure that those teachers, who seemingly cared 100%, understood the value of materials. I don't think that it's fair to assume that those conversations didn't occur in the school.

I think you, Mary, actually missed it. The whole film seems to speak to the lack of resources while showing the presence of heart.

Mary, you are a peculiar person. You watched 4 hours out of a school year, and a few minutes devoted to a new teacher, and suddenly you feel that you know enough to berate the teacher, the administration, and the rest of us bystanders. I repeat: I would hate to be in your classroom.

You know exactly one thing about me: I stand in support of the teachers (and the administration) who were willing to be utterly exposed in order to give the rest of us a glimpse into the challenges facing inner city schools. So how exactly did you decide that I don't want schools to have the necessary equipment and resources to facilitate education? Being impressed with how much they accomplished with so little does not imply they don't deserve more.

I am sorry that you find their successes so threatening. I think you may want to see someone about that. That, and your inability to relate to people, are probably making it difficult for you to be an effective teacher. Since education is an issue I care deeply about, I hope you find the help you need.

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