Charter Schools Privatization Teachers and Teaching

Emily Talmage: Teach Like a Champion…Or Like a Robot

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Emily Talmage recently reposted an interview she had with Jim Horn, editor of Schools Matter. Horn wanted to interview teachers who had taught in KIPP or KIPP-like schools, and Emily responded. She shared her experiences with him in 2011 and decided the interview remained relevant and worthy of reposting.

She writes:

I am re-posting the interview here for a couple reasons:

First, at Brooklyn Ascend, we relied heavily on Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion,” – a book that has been the subject of a number of posts going around the internet right now. I want people to understand what my experience was like with these teaching methods.

Second, I have become increasingly concerned by parallels between the practices used at Ascend (and schools like it) with the system of education that I have written a great deal about on this blog, known in Maine as “proficiency-based” education, but elsewhere as “competency-based” or “mastery” learning. In these systems, as at Ascend, “outcomes” reign supreme – meaning that all learning must be observable, skill-based, and measurable. Teachers have very little autonomy; instead, they are treated like technicians. Micromanagement is the norm. Children’s performance on assessments are the “bottom line.” The natural joy, humanity, and messiness of real learning are lost.

Then follows a lengthy interview, which is fascinating. Emily is referred to as “R.” It is well worth reading the whole exchange.


INT: When you went looking for an opportunity to teach in a charter school, can you talk about that a little bit? Why a charter school?

R: At the time I didn’t know a whole lot about them. I actually hadn’t seen it yet. I had seen the advertisement for Waiting for Superman. I had this idea in my head that charter schools were, and I think I even said at the time that they were, “getting the job done.” I didn’t really know what I meant by that. What I was looking for was just a different type of experience after working at the public school that I had been at for three years. I had heard that you can get paid more at a charter school. I had heard that they treat teachers more like professionals at charter schools. I don’t even know what else I heard.

I went on the web sites, and I had found a couple of schools that had really nice looking websites. Harlem Success had one. There was this school called Harlem Village Academy in Harlem that had one also. I had heard that charter schools are closing the achievement gap. There are these certain schools that are really making it work. I didn’t really do my homework before I got into it. A lot of what ended up happening, ended up really surprising and disappointing me.

INT: Let’s talk a little bit about that. I guess I could phrase it this way. How was the experience of working in a school different from your expectations?

R: I had thought that I would be treated like a professional, and that teaching would somehow be seen as a respected job. I don’t really know what I expected, looking back. I know that when I got there, they immediately changed what I had applied to do. I had applied to be, and they had hired me as a third grade pull out teacher.

A couple of months into the year, they gave the students a mock ELA test and a mock math test. They panicked, and realized that the kids weren’t really doing very well, or that they weren’t on track, just pulling threes and fours at the end of the year. They decided to completely rearrange the third grade.

INT: What kind of tests did they give them?

R: They gave them a mock ELA. You know New York State has a state exam each year, and they gave them a mock test. I think it was one from one of the previous years. These are done about once a month, all through the school year, gave them a mock test to see what their progress was. They completely changed it, and then they decided to restructure the third grade.

They had us come in over Christmas break, and told us that I was no longer going to be the pull out teacher. They were going to put all of the lowest performing kids into one class, and have it so there was the low, medium and high class. Now all of a sudden, I had a class of thirty scholars, we had to call them. I was only allowed to teach reading and math. I really wasn’t even allowed to plan my own lessons.

That was a big difference than what I had expected versus what actually happened. I had it in my head that I would be working in this place where teaching is really respected. Then I ended up having to spoon feed to the kids. They were handing everything to me, saying, “You have to teach this lesson, and this lesson.” I felt more like a robot for a while, to be honest. It was pretty miserable.

INT: What were these lessons like? Were they scripted lessons? Did you have a script?

R: What they did is we had at Brooklyn Ascend a data analyst. She’s a former Teach for America person. I think she was a PhD in Data Instruction, or something like that. Basically, she took the mock ELA and the mock math data and analyzed it, and came up with these certain concepts that the kids weren’t doing well on. Some certain percentage hadn’t done well on the main idea questions. Some certain percentage hadn’t done well on making inferences in narrative procedure type passages. Just pulled right from the test. I’m trying to get this all right. Our data analyst basically pulled out these skills from looking at the mock data. I remember another thing that really surprised me which was that I didn’t have any authority to actually assess the kids myself. Which for me was really disappointing because I had come from working with a really small group, and that was a big part of what I enjoyed about teaching. Really getting to know the kids, and figuring out on a really deep level what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, why they’re struggling in some parts of reading and not others. That was something I loved about teaching.

All of a sudden, I had no power to do that at all. We had to use documents placed in front of us that said, “This percentage needs to work on this.” Our school Director, who incidentally a Teach for America graduate, decided to take one of the second grade teachers and put her in charge of the third grade. We now had this supervisor, and it was her job to come up with these scripted lessons that we would then have to present to the kids.

INT: You had a script. You had something to say, and the children had something that they were supposed to say back to you?

R: Some of it was. The lessons were scripted in that it was all written, like say such and such to the kids. We had to do this thing where we had to snap our fingers and then the kids would repeat it back. To me it was just complete and utter nonsense. The kids aren’t learning a thing this way. It blew me away. For some reason, nobody said anything about it, either. Everybody was just going along with this way of teaching. I don’t know–It felt like we were training dogs, with all the snapping.

INT: Was their chanting also?

R: We had to do the chanting, oh yeah. Every morning we had to start out. The way it worked is the kids would come in at seven-thirty. They came in silently. They had to walk in single file. The first thing that would happen would they would stop in front of the doors to the cafeteria. There would be a teacher sitting there who would pull up their shirt, and make sure they had a belt on. Pull up their pants, pull up the bottoms and make sure they had on the right color shoes, and the right color socks. If the top three buttons weren’t buttoned, she’d button up the top button.

The kids would come in and they had to have breakfast completely silently, which I think is what they do at KIPP. I’m not positive. A completely silent breakfast, which was also fairly disappointing to me because at my old school, breakfast was a time when I’d chat with the kids about their weekend. Get a sense of where they were at in their lives. What was going on with them. Are they having good days? Are they having bad days? Did they get their homework done? Do they need any help with it? This was a time to chat with the kids. It was also a time I really liked. Now I had to be completely, completely silent.

As teachers, we were required to carry these clipboards that had a list of each child’s name. Any time we had to give a kid a “correction,” we had to mark it on the chart. If a kid whispered to another one during breakfast, we had to write down “talking.” We had what I think at some schools they call it “Slant,” but at Brooklyn Ascend we called it STAR. They had to sit up tall, track the speaker, attention forward, respect always. That’s what it stands for. At breakfast, everybody’d come in silently, eat their breakfast silently. They had a choice to either take out a book, or they had to sit with their hands folded in front of them. I wasn’t even allowed to talk to them. Sometimes I’d secretly try to walk beside them and whisper, “Did you have a good weekend? Is everything okay?”

They’re eight year olds, and they need somebody to check in with. At least that’s the way I feel. I had one little girl who I had moved into a shelter, but we had to whisper about it at breakfast. She had to whisper and tell me, “Things are okay.” (Deep sigh.) It was awful. A silent breakfast. Silent breakfast would stop when one of the head teachers — our third grade supervisor would stop and say, every morning was the same thing, it was “Good morning, scholars.” They’d say, “Good morning, Miss ….” Then we’d say, “How do you feel today?” Then they would say, “Hungry for knowledge to get us to college.”

Then we’d do some other type of cheer, “Pick up your pencils, and you will be rewarded” was another one. These all come right out of, I don’t think they come from KIPP but I know that they use them at the Uncommon Schools, and a lot of the other charter schools in the area. Every morning, right before you went upstairs, we had to say this one cheer, “What’s out destination (clap clap)? Higher education.” Have you heard that one before?

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