Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Letter to Cathie Black

Dear Ms. Black,

It was just yesterday that your appointment as Chancellor of Schools was officially declared, and though I admit that I was not one of your supporters, I see no point in mudslinging or complaining. Now that you have been chosen, I only wish to make your term as fruitful as possible for students, teachers, and administrators of the NYC public school system. 

The first question you're probably wonder is "who is this person" and "why does she feel qualified to address me"? My name is Nicole Papaioannou, and I am doctoral fellow at St. John's University, studying English. I take classes as a graduate student, while teaching a section of the school's core writing class, a class filled almost entirely with NYC-schooled students. I feel that I am familiar with all of the positions in the education world, as I am student, a teacher, and a tutor. While working towards a Masters degree, I also worked for a Hearst magazine staff writer, meaning that I am acquainted with your business strategies, as well.

First, I would like to speak to you from the position of a student because that is the perspective you are least likely to find. Being only slightly removed from my own public school education, I am still able to remember it well. I began my very first year of school at a public Pre-K in Brooklyn, NY, and later moved on to the New Jersey public school system. Having several years of critical pedagogy studies, critical race theory, and even literary theory under my belt, I can now analyze that experience. 

What I remember most about school was the teachers. The best teachers were the ones who set the bar high, encouraged students to reach that bar by modelling excellence themselves, and helped us to learn through hands-on activities. In elementary school, I learned about my neighborhood by creating a "Marlboro project," where I had to go out and take pictures, interview locals, and create a book about my town. I learned to do addition by adding plastic teddy bears and playing math games. In high school, I learned about The Crucible through role-playing and keeping a journal through a character's perspective (I was the supposed witch, Mistress Hibbins). Even in biology class, I learned about genetics by partnering up with a classmate and sketching what our future child would look like based on genetic probability. 

I can tell you that I don't remember anything I learned for a test. For instance, I got an A+ on an Algebra II final during my junior year. I crammed for that test for a week, trying to learn everything that I couldn't figure out throughout the semester. To this day, I still have trouble doing anything more than very basic algebra. Even in English, my very best subject, I hardly remember the details of any of the books that I was tested on, but anything I learned interactively, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that we read aloud in class in silly voices, I remember almost entirely.

A better example, I landed myself in the 94th percentile on the Verbal Section of the GREs, which got me a spot in a graduate program. For the entire month before the GRE, I used the Kaplan book and CD-ROM. I studied vocab flash cards and copied over the top 400 words. If I retook the GRE right now, I can tell you, I would probably score half as well. I don't remember any of the words that I learned. Testing helped me, but really poorly represents me. I would have preferred that someone reviewed my portfolio and found me a worthy candidate.

Moreover, learning things out of context simply makes it boring. Students find a drive to learn when they see how their educations can be used to enhance their lives. Heavy testing, especially standardized testing, is one way to guarantee students will not want to learn. Testing only serves to generate numbers that result in funding or bragging rights. In reality, it does little to motivate or encourage children. When students see that they have scored low, they are not inspired to do better, but rather label themselves as dumb, underachievers, forever ruining their learning process. Many of my friends who scored low on the tests in high school never bothered to go to college; they figured they weren't cut out for it. Instead, you will find that students learn much when they are encouraged to self-assess and self-evaluate. Then, they begin to work to improve themselves rather then their scores or their ranks. 

Now, I would like to speak to you from the perspective of an educator. It was just last year that many of the students in my Composition course graduated from high school, and I have had the pleasure of having them in my classroom. They represent a rich array of cultures and ideologies. What unites them, however, is that almost all of them are the product of the New York school system, with a great majority from the NYC system. For their first assignment, they were asked to write a literacy narrative, their stories about learning to read and write. Many of them focused on evaluation. If they got an A, it improved their love of learning. Some of them talked about being multilingual, and their struggles with teachers and classmates who made them feel inferior, making them dislike school. 

Talking about these narratives in class and having a semester to learn more about them, I now see a common trend-- the Regents destroyed their love of learning. They all forgot how to really think and write. Instead, many of them began the year by writing papers that were in the 5 paragraph style, gave no thought to audience (other than maybe me), and had no idea how to organize a paper. They had very little idea about how to analyze texts or  use research effectively, and many of them were hesitant about using new technology, asking about a dozen questions before we could use a simple discussion board or file drop box. 

They are all really smart, though, and this simply should not have been the case. They were so worked up about making the grade, though, that they simply couldn't think innovatively. Regardless of whether its testing or simply memorizing strategies, I think students have been mislead by preparing them to meet specific tasks rather than teaching them to apply critical thinking. They all made it to a private university, and they are all doing well in my class. Even those who were falling off the wagon at the beginning have come around. But from honest conversations, I can see that they are jaded as to what "education" can truly offer. I would be too if that was how I was taught. Lucky for me, testing wasn't as big of a deal when I was in school, and my teachers were highly motivated, creative individuals.

I am lucky because I have resources at my fingers tips that most teachers do not, but I do not believe that technology or money will necessarily fix our school system, nor do I believe that slashing budgets and giving pink slips to teachers simply because they were the last hired is an effective strategy (unemployment is a big expense anyway). I really encourage you to think about how you learn, how you are motivated, and how you can make improvements to what already exists. We can't start from scratch and "reform" an entire school system. The system is too big for that. We have to make better what we've already got through professional development and collaboration. We have to have leaders who are willing to make the same sacrifices as those lower down in the chain, and we have to stop battling each other over every word launched by the media.

Finally, if you read nothing else, I pray that you will read these final four suggestions. To truly enhance your ability to lead a body of educators, administrators, and students, I ask you to consider the following:

1. Read pedagogy, race, postcolonial, and poststructuralist theory: Until you realize how deeply capitalism affects the way we think as Americans, I don't think you will be able to effectively lead a school system. Furthermore, I think that the underlying racism that is still very widespread in our nation would shock you, and with a school system as diverse as NYC's, it would be a major accomplishment if you were able to break some of these racial barriers. Reading pedagogy would simply help you understand how and why teachers are teaching. 

If you read nothing else, read Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System. Understanding that our school system evolved from the model of our prison system will help you understand some of the conflicts education faces. 

2. Follow teachers on Twitter and see what they are doing in their classrooms: If you want to know what teachers are thinking, then read what they are writing. Thousands of teachers are working on innovative projects, blogging about their classroom experiences, involving themselves and their students in collaborative learning and global interactions, and doing self-motivated professional development. They are committing themselves to transparency and accountability in a way that "merit based" systems do not allow. In only 140 characters, you can find learn a great deal about these individuals. You would be a fool to overlook the voices of the people you will be leading.

3. Engage with students: Students aren't empty vessels. They come with their own knowledge and their own thoughts. Rather than trying to mold these students, why not enrich what's already there? If you want students to learn, it is better to interact with them on their level, then trying to indoctrinate them. Ask them what would encourage them to want to graduate, rather than assuming that you know these answers. The students will respect you for respecting them and be more likely to trust in your leadership.

4. Ask yourself what makes an ideal education: Ultimately, you will be at the head of many decisions regarding the education of the NYC youth, and while it is entirely impossible to please everyone and tough choices will have to be made, I encourage you to never lose the vision of a perfectly educated individual, outside of simple business terms. What is it that students should be able to do when they graduate, and is that truly what they are being prepared to do?

Sadly, through all of the controversy, I have heard little, if anything from your own mouth, though the media is all afrenzy. I am not sure of your plans for the NYC school system, but I truly hope that you will surprise us all and become a leader that we did not expect. I look forward to seeing a brighter future.


Nicole Papaioannou

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