Why I Didn’t Do Homework

scale model guillotine
Image by Smudgie’s Ghost via Flickr

The other day on Twitter someone sent me this message: “your profile [on Twitter.com] says you are a teacher – I’m confused. You are against compulsory education?”

All I had done to earn this wonder was to scoff at the notion that assigning homework and giving students academic demerits for not turning it in somehow teaches responsibility.

I should not have been so dismissive. Some students need homework to help them learn, but many do not. Requiring it teaches responsibility the same way requiring a road test teaches good driving.

I stopped doing homework toward the end of ninth grade and did not resume until I was in graduate school 36 years later.

In between I dropped out of high school, returned to a different high school, dropped out again, started college, and dropped out of college.

All that was before I turned 17.

Somewhere in there I became responsible.

When I was 17 I started supporting myself.

I’ve never been much of a wild man. Quite the opposite, I think not doing homework may be one of the most irresponsible things I’ve done.

I stopped doing homework because one morning a magnificent, masterful and meticulous teacher told me to never do anything just because someone who claims to have more authority tells me to.

That teacher, Mrs. Edith Novad, the homeroom and English teacher in my accelerated middle school program of 7th, 8th and 9th years in four semesters gave us homework that night.

The next morning everyone handed in their homework, except me. When Mrs. Novad asked where mine was I told her I didn’t do it. When she asked why not, I told her because she had not given me sufficient reason to do it.

Mrs. Novad, a substantially proportioned brick of a woman in her last year of teaching before a well-earned retirement, stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. The whole class was watching to see how she would react, what she would do.

She burst out laughing.

She laughed for a full minute. We all started laughing with her even though none of us knew what was so funny.

Eventually Mrs. Novad regained her control, brought us under control, and told the class I was getting extra credit for taking her at her word.

My high school teachers did not appreciate my explanation for not doing homework. They demanded homework even though my straight ‘A’ average demonstrated that I really didn’t need to do it.

They said rules were rules and I had to follow them.

I dropped out instead. And I got a better education for doing so.

Great teachers don’t teach blind compliance.

Great teachers don’t force students to jump through hoops just to prove that they have that power.

Great teachers lead students to discover their strengths and help them learn how to maximize them.

Great teachers understand that their role is not to preserve existing conditions but to assist students to develop the talents and courage to change them.

Mrs. Novad was a great teacher. She woke up my intellect and helped me learn how to use it.

I could go on in exhaustive detail about what else she did that made her a great teacher, but I’ll just tell you the absolute highlight of my two years as her student: we made a movie.

We read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Then we rewrote it as a musical, and filmed it. I played Sidney Carton. It was a far better thing I did then than ever I did before. Or after.

This was 1965. Students wrote and played all the music for the soundtrack. Students did all the filming; we had to actually cut and splice the film to edit it. We figured out how to stage and film the usage of a guillotine to cut off my head and, despite the wishes of some people, actual decapitation was not involved.

In the Generation Yes blog Sylvia Martinez lists what students say they want from teachers according to an article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development magazine Education Leadership:

  • Take me seriously
  • Challenge me to think
  • Nurture my self-respect
  • Show me I can make a difference
  • Let me do it my way
  • Point me toward my goals
  • Make me feel important
  • Build on my interests
  • Tap my creativity
  • Bring out my best self

Mrs. Novad did all that and more.

Everyone deserves at least one teacher like her.

I wish we could all be that good.

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Making A Difference Differently

A typical American snack vending machine
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I used to want to change the world.

All of it, for all time.

No one ever accused me of thinking small.

I tried. I worked really hard at it.

I marched; I carried signs, candles, and bullhorns.

I boycotted grapes and aluminum foil. I sat-in.

I signed petitions, wrote letters, organized students, organized grown ups, made speeches, registered voters, voted, and more.

I did that for a long time. I still do some of that.

I’ve changed the world.


Not on the scale I wished to, but change none-the-less.

It happened in my first year teaching, and it was completely unintentional.

New York can get pretty cold in late autumn and as November slid into December 2004, it did.

One morning I noticed that none of my students had gloves, mittens or hats.

That afternoon I went to a dollar store and bought every stocking cap, pair of gloves, and set of mittens they had. I cleaned that store out. When I told the owner why and who they were for he gave me a generous discount. It still cost me about $75.

At that point of the year I was the push-in writing teacher for three of the four 4th and 5th grade self-contained special education classes. I taught 36 students and they all got either gloves or mittens and a stocking cap.

I had one pair of gloves and a stocking cap left.

The one special ed class I did not teach was the fifth grade class of students who had emotional disabilities.

Almost all of the students, and certainly all the poor, minority and/or special ed students in the NYC public schools have every reason to be extremely angry and most are.

The few deemed to have emotional disabilities are the ones who act on the basis of that anger in what is seen as a less than positive manner. These actions include relatively mundane things like yelling and cursing a lot, and less benign activities: hitting people or throwing pencils, chairs, desks or other students; generally putting people at risk of physical harm.

There were eight students in that class and one acted on his anger more violently than the others. At the end of my first day as a certified teacher I had to hold this kid, Tyrone, wedged between the cafeteria wall and a vending machine to prevent him from doing further damage to the face of some other kid who had somehow angered him.

I managed to hold onto Tyrone even after he knocked the vending machine over. I kept telling him that I had no problem with him and he did not have one with me. Eventually he relaxed and I let him go. By that time the other student had been taken to the nurse’s office.

I did not see Tyrone for a couple of weeks after that because he had been placed in a suspension school, about as close to being a juvenile prison as you can get without actually being one.

I had one pair of gloves and a stocking cap left. I was standing in the hallway holding the bag they were in when Tyrone walked by.

I gave him the bag.

Tyrone stared at me. I told him to look in the bag. He kept staring at me. Then he looked in the bag for what seemed to be a minute before he finally took out the gloves and hat.

As he stared at the items in his hand his shoulders began to shake. I realized he was crying.

I didn’t know what to do. Another fifth grade teacher, a gentle, generous and experienced giant named Mitchell Weintraub took Tyrone into his otherwise empty classroom.

I went down the hall to my next class.

Later that day Mitch filled me in.

Tyrone never knew his parents. He had spent his entire life as a foster child, moving from one placement to another.

It turned out that it was Tyrone’s 13th birthday. Tyrone thought the hat and gloves were a birthday present, the first he had ever received.

I cried when Mitch told me that and I’m tearing up again now.

I know that every thing that happens has an effect on every other thing that happens afterwards, and that the effect of any one occurrence increases exponentially over time.

That truth is the basis of the Butterfly Effect, a notion that the wind created by a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing will, over time, cause a hurricane in the Caribbean.

I didn’t know it was Tyrone’s birthday and I would not have given him a gift had I known. We did not have that kind of relationship.

Even so, that bag of warming things meant a lot to Tyrone.

It meant someone loved him.

The other evening, after sharing an intense day of science professional development and a pitcher of beer, I got into a heated discussion with a NYC Teaching Fellow second year teacher who saw nothing wrong with teachers being rewarded or fired based on the test scores their students receive.

I don’t think I sold him on the idea that the tests are unfair, easily manipulated and fail to test the abilities most people say they want students to develop in school, but I think I helped him realize that the most valuable thing teachers do can’t be assessed from year to year, from class to class.

The most important things that teachers do isn’t measured in a test or from year to year. What we do takes years, sometimes decades to come to fruition.

We change the world, one Tyrone at a time.

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PD That Really Is Professional and Developmental

Ferocactus pilosus (Mexican Lime Cactus) growi...
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I went to the Bronx Zoo today.

I’ve been going to that zoo for about 50 years, including an annual trip with my students each year.

Today was very different from all those other visits.

Not only was it the first time in my 55 years that I went to that zoo by myself but, thanks to arriving very early for a professional development session that was to start 90 minutes before the zoo opens, I was the only human not employed by the zoo on the premises for a good hour or so.

I arrived so early the animals were still in their overnight quarters. Only the peacocks shrieking their distinctive call let me know animals other than mundane Bronx rats and pigeons were around.

As I wandered around the grounds I saw sights that have been there for decades but that I had never noticed when crowds of humans or other animal distractions focused my attention elsewhere.

Today I noticed the skill with which plantings have been placed to disguise the moat that keeps the lions from the humans, or how those plants have thorns and other disincentives for humans trying to get to the lions.

Later on I learned from a zookeeper that should a lion or other animal likely to be dangerous to humans escape the first priority is to kill the animal, not capture it because failing at the first attempt to capture would likely have dire consequences.

A few moments later the lions were released for the day and the male let out a roar designed to warn other male lions away from his harem. It was the first time I’d heard a lion roar at a zoo and I realized how fortunate I was there for this early morning ritual.

And as I walked around the bend I noticed the skillful way that zoo architects 50 years ago arranged the angles to simulate the African savannah so well that beyond the lions you could see their typical prey prancing in the grassland behind them.

I watched four camels come around the bend from their sleeping quarters, eye me briefly, then, one-by-one in rhythm, as if putting on a well-rehearsed show, bend front legs, then rear ones so that each body lowered to the sand pit in which they had been standing. When the last camel was squatting, all four simultaneously rolled over onto their right sides and craned their necks toward me, reminding me of how my dog used to show submission and seek petting.

I saw a very young giraffe seem to dance with pleasure, tripping over mom’s legs, as mom and two other adults stood with necks fully extended so their mouths could trim the canopy of overhanging leaves

A lot of teachers I know complain about the professional development they receive. I complain about some of the PD I receive.

Then there are days like today.

Of course, I made the day more interesting by making the effort to arrive early, but I wouldn’t have done so if it were just going to be another school-based drone & moan session.

But it took more than a change of venue to make this PD special.

A smart, knowledgeable zoo educator taught about two dozen of us about animal adaptations to desert life by letting us observe desert animals, discuss our observations and draw conclusions from the discussions.

Later on, at the Bronx Botanical Garden, two educators led us through an examination of desert characteristics, how deserts are created, and some of the adaptations desert plants have, and what those adaptations do for the plants.

Then we got to get out hands dirty and, despite being taught how to prevent it, occasionally stuck as we transplanted succulents and cacti.

It was interesting, creative, collaborative and highly engaging. We taught each other and we learned from each other, we asked questions and had to think about the answers. Can you figure out what a cactus’ spines do besides protect the cactus from predation?

The best part? No one told us what to teach, how to teach it, or in what sequence. We were trusted to figure that out for ourselves.

I realized what good things happen on those too rare times when teachers are treated like intelligent human beings.

And I was reminded that its good to treat students like intelligent human beings, too.

Tomorrow we study rocks!

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Not So Special Anymore

Teacher in primary school in northern Laos
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My teaching life is changing again.

Every year I get a new teaching assignment. Up till now, no mater how different each assignment would be, they’ve all had something in common: they’ve all been teaching special education students.

Starting September, all that will change. I will still be teaching special education students using Scholastic’s Read 180 program, but I will also be teaching social studies to two general education classes, one 6th grade and the other 8th grade.

I am entering my sixth year of teaching, my fourth in a middle school, and I should be pretty fearless about entering any classroom by now, but this new assignment has me on edge.

Most of my anxiety is centered on class size. I’m used to having classes of no more than 12 students. My general ed classes are likely to have more than twice as many,

I know. I sound like a wimp.

After all, teachers in certain third world countries often have 70 or more students in classes.

But they don’t have to worry about making the mayor look good by constantly raising test scores. I wish my mayor worried about students learning useful skills and other important stuff, but that is fodder for another blog post. This one is about not feeling special anymore.

I’m not worried about my not feeling special anymore. I will admit that there is a certain undeserved cachet connected to being a middle school special education teacher. I say undeserved because the people who assign cachet to the job think I teach maniacal children running through the halls throwing desks.

The truth is, that hardly ever happens.

I spent twenty-five years in the bar business before becoming a special education teacher. I tell people who now don’t see how I can be excited about going to work every day that my students are much easier to deal with than my bar customers were.

As difficult as my students get at times, they are sober.

I’m not worried about my not being special but I am worried about my students not feeling special.

I don’t like the idea of putting labels on students but I work in a system that constantly does it so I’ve tried to adapt. My adaptation has been to do my utmost to make my students feel special in all the ways the education system tries to convince them they are not.

I tell them they are smart.

I tell them they are talented.

I tell them they are distinctive, exceptional, exclusive, extraordinary, select, individual, memorable, and unique. ,

I tell them that most of the difficulties that they have with school are more about school than about them.

I let my students know that there is at least one pretty smart adult who believes in them, and that I also do.

My worry is that I will not be able to do as much for each individual student when I have twice as many students.

I’m worried that I/ won’t remember all those names.

How can I help all those students feel special if I can’t even remember their names?

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Incidental Learning

Pair of forks made of sterling silver.
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Nothing that follows should be interpreted as demeaning or diminishing the importance of education professionals. No teachers were harmed in the creation of this blog post or in any of the events described in it.

Teachers and education administrators sometimes fall victim to the conceit that learning only or mostly occurs in schools. The fact is, every one of us learns most of what we know and can do outside of schools

Some of that out-of-school learning is every bit as deliberate and curricular as any teaching unit, a mother teaching her son to do the laundry or a father teaching his daughter how to hit a curveball for example.

But much of the learning in and out of school is unplanned and unintentional. This is constructivism writ large because an individual assembles meaning from disparate and not necessarily related circumstances or events.

I call that incidental learning.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died this morning. That news helped me recall some incidental learning I assembled from the first time I met her and her sister-in-law Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow.

Thirty-five years ago I was a radio news reporter and wire service stringer working on Cape Cod. The Kennedy’s, particularly the Kennedy children, were often good for a story. That’s how a nice, nominally Jewish lad like me ended up attending Mass more often than most of my Roman Catholic friends. I always knew where I’d be December 24th at midnight.

One hot August day I got a phone call from a colleague at a radio station in Connecticut. A busload of men, women and children were on their way to one of the Hyannis beaches, from which they were going to march along the shore to the Kennedy compound to protest the lack of public beaches accessible to people who were not residents of the town the beach was in.

What any of that had to do with the Kennedys was puzzling, but I knew a story when I saw one. I was there when the bus arrived and watched as the men in jackets and ties, women in dresses and fully dressed children got off the bus and started walking south toward the Kennedy family’s property.

It was brutally hot and humid, but they marched without pause. As we walked I interviewed the leaders of the group and got the gist of their complaint against Connecticut. They were marching on the Kennedys because they figured it would get them publicity. They were correct.

Eventually we got to the Kennedy homestead. You cannot see any of the buildings from the water’s edge. They are hidden by substantial sand dunes that some say were erected by the Secret Service when JFK was President.

For about ten or fifteen minutes we all stood around admiring the sand dunes or looking at the waves on the water. I sweated profusely, and most of the men and women were mopping their brows with handkerchiefs, but not one loosened a tie or took off any item of clothing. Neither did the children.

We just stood there.

I’m not proud of this, but I was waiting for the police to arrive, almost hoping for a noisy, perhaps violent confrontation that I could report on, sell to one of the networks and earn an extra $20 or so to supplement my $160 weekly salary.

Then I saw what I thought was a mirage.

Two tall, thin women carrying silver trays with large pitchers on them were coming down the dune followed by a half-dozen children, each carrying a silver tray.

As they neared I could see that the women were Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Ethel Kennedy

When they reached us, they  started pouring and serving cold lemonade to the protesters while their children circulated carrying sterling silver trays and offering sugar cookies.  Then the the various Kennedys and Shrivers stood around chatting with the protesters as if they were guests at a party.

It was almost surreal, but as I watched I realized I was seeing something special.

I was seeing class. and I was seeing a lot of it.

Class wasn’t something I had come to expect from the Kennedy family, but as the lemonade poured from their silver pitchers, class poured from Eunice Shriver and Ethel Kennedy

I didn’t figure out what it all meant until a few years later.

I was out of radio and working in a bar. One guy felt that another guy got in his space and comments led to shoving. I separated the jerks before they could fight, and threw one out. Later that night, as I reflected over a scotch and water, I recalled how those protesters got in the Kennedy’s space and how different their reaction was.

It occurred to me that people react to provocations many different ways. Everyone gets provoked, but we control how we respond.

And one more thing…

When you respond with class, things generally work out better.

Thank you Mrs. Shriver, for the Special Olympics and everything else you did for people with mental retardation.

And thank you for simple acts of kindness and class.

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A Better Idea for Improving Teaching

1913 photograph Ford company, USA
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One of the most common suggestions for making teaching better is patently absurd, counter-productive and dangerous. It is the one proposing studying, recording and analyzing excellent teaching so that it can be replicated.

Proposals to replicate excellent teaching are counter-productive and dangerous because they distract us from thinking about ways to improve teaching that will actually accomplish that goal.

That the replication proposal exists at all is testimony to the pervasiveness of industrial models of and ideas about education. Xeroxing excellent teaching is absurd because teachers are not assembly line robots that can be programmed to perform the same task the same way every time, precisely the way every other robot does it.

Teachers are not robots and educated students are not mass-produced uniform quality-controlled products. Teachers and students are human; whatever education occurs in a classroom is the result of human, not human-like, interactions. If you need proof of this, think of your favorite teacher.

Is your favorite teacher your favorite because of her teaching precision? Do you even remember particular lessons she taught? Or is what you remember fondly your interactions with her, or the way that teacher made you feel about yourself?

I could go on and on about my junior high school English teacher for two years,
Elizabeth Novad, who I credit for showing me my intelligence, helping me learn to think, to express myself clearly (despite the evidence before you) and to feel confident about having a different view of things than the current popular opinion.

Mrs. Novad was a very different teacher than any I had before or after her, but the way to better teaching is not by trying to get all teachers to do what she or any other great teacher does. In fact, I have absolutely no doubt that were Mrs,.Novad teaching today she would be vilified for half the stuff that she had the students in my class doing.

Lets ditch the industrial manufacturing model of schooling that assumes that while good things occasionally occur, for the most part teachers are incompetents who need to be scripted so they deliver identically excellent lessons.

Lets adopt the medical model instead.

The medical model assumes that doctors are competent people who are expected to capably assess patients and deliver specifically targeted treatments to improve the patients’ health.

Everyone agrees that doctors need the flexibility to make diagnoses, try treatments, and adjust or radically change the treatments if necessary to better ensure patient health.

Even though doctors are generally capable undesirable outcomes occur; the wrong medicine or dose might be prescribed, the wrong leg amputated or, in the worst case, someone dies.

When things go badly, instead of looking for the easiest person to blame for the failure there is an open-minded inquiry, in which all the patient’s doctors and others physicians participate, that examines all the factors that influence a patients outcome.

There is understanding that even with the administration of the best care available at the time, unexpected and undesirable outcomes occasionally occur. There is acknowledgment that each patient is unique person with their own quirks, physiologies and willingness to comply with medical advice, and that those patient individualities can sabotage even the most careful medical plan. There is also awareness that doctors are human, that humans are not perfect and sometimes make mistakes.

Because everyone involved realizes that identical symptoms might indicate a variety of medical needs, that not every condition can be treated with the same medicine or procedure, no one calls for analyzing good doctoring so that it can be replicated and every patient treated exactly the same way all the time.

No one makes rash or brash assumptions. Instead, there is a conscious reflective, inquiry-led effort to refine diagnostic techniques, to reconfigure error-prone procedures, to develop new medicines and methods and remove doctors who do not have the skills or knowledge to be effective.

In other words, the focus is not on finding good work and multiplying it, but on finding out what doesn’t work and eliminating it.

Isn’t that a better way to improve schools and help teachers become more effective.

Keeping a Comment For Myself

The Bay of Fundy at high water
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I write a fair number of comments on other blogs. I often think that some of my best thinking, if not my best writing, is posted at other people’s blogs instead of my own. It occurs to me that I can take some of those comments and give them another airing here.

Today’s post is in response to a post on The Edurati Review titled Making the Shift Part 1: No More Objectives. I suggest you read it, but I think my comment in response also stands on its own. This is what I wrote:

Over the history of schooling in the US there have been migrations from content to skill and back again. At the moment we are in a content-heavy era precisely at the wrong time. It is the wrong time because we are in an era of increasingly rapid change that is simultaneously broadening and deepening the trove of information that might be considered essential for teaching in school.

This broadening is evident from the overcrowded curricula that teachers are required to present and that students are expected to learn. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there has been an incredible explosion of knowledge so profound that the percentage of it that any one person can know continues to decline despite individuals actually learning more information.

If the amount of information available is deeper and wider, it becomes important to increase what one knows. Doing so takes skill, specifically research skill, organization skill, interpretation skill and discernment skill. Students who acquire these skills will be better equipped to determine what is important to know, learn it, recall it and use it.

So we realize it is very important to teach skills and the best way, perhaps the only way to increase competence in any skill is to practice, practice and practice some more. Practicing skill requires something to practice on or with. Potential pianists need pianos, doctors need cadavers and drivers need cars and roads. Students need information on which to practice their skills, and that returns us to content.

The shuttle between content and skill exists because one cannot exist without the other but it is not clear what the ideal balance between the two might be. Sometimes we overstress skill and need to introduce more content and other times, as now, content is over emphasized and there are cries for more skill instruction. The ebb and flow is never equal but it is as constant as the tides.

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