Monday, July 07, 2008

Considering Social Justice and Project Based Learning

This is a slightly modified version of a "book review" I did at Daily Kos. IT is an essay largely about one book, and while it is LONG, I think it relevant to also post it here

Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way

Please bear with me. I have to explain. Partially as a result of my visibility ad Daily Kos, I often get asked to write about books, particularly on education. Sometimes they show up at home or at school without notice. Even if they are good books, often it is not relevant to write about them here.

Also, people who try to turn the material from doctoral dissertations into books often find it exceedingly hard going, as my dearly beloved has discovered over the past few years.

And personal narratives can also be frustrating, because regardless of the success portrayed in the book, one immediately wonders if that success is transferable beyond the individual personalities, the specific context in which it occurred.

I have recently finished a book that is a personal narrative, derived from a doctoral dissertation. And I am going to suggest that even for a general audience such as this, it is not only worthy my writing about it, but also encouraging you to read it. It is entitled Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way: Lessons from an Urban Classroom and was written by Brian Schultz.

One of the most important tasks facing this nation is how we educate our young people, particularly those who come from inner cities and rural poor districts. While aspects of our educational policy at least label the problem, such as No Child Left Behind, in reality our approach to many of these students tends not to respect what they bring with them to the classroom, the worlds in which they live, the skills which they already have developed. Instead we are too prone to take an approach of insisting on their learning certain academic skills in a decontextualized fashion, using materials that often have little relevance to their experience and their lives. And then we wonder why our attempts at improving their lot by education do not seem to accomplish the goals we have set out.

What if we could learn from the examples of others that when we respect the students and trust them, within limits, when we take into account the issues of social justice - or rather, for many of our students, the social injustice with which they already are far too familiar - it becomes possible not only to develop the necessary academic skills but to see rapid development of the application of those skills in the lives of the students with whom we work?

Yes, that is a very prolix expression. But it is necessary for me to set the framework in which I wish to approach this book.

And it is also necessary to introduce you to We the People: Project Citizen (a program of the Center for Civic Education) about which I quote from the introduction at the website:
We the People: Project Citizen is a curricular program for middle, secondary, and post-secondary students, youth organizations, and adult groups that promotes competent and responsible participation in local and state government. The program helps participants learn how to monitor and influence public policy. In the process, they develop support for democratic values and principles, tolerance, and feelings of political efficacy.

Entire classes of students or members of youth or adult organizations work cooperatively to identify a public policy problem in their community. They then research the problem, evaluate alternative solutions, develop their own solution in the form of a public policy, and create a political action plan to enlist local or state authorities to adopt their proposed policy. Participants develop a portfolio of their work and present their project in a public hearing showcase before a panel of civic-minded community members.

This is project based learning, and can serve as a means of simultaneously developing skills such as organization, data analysis, computer skills, public speaking, cooperation, etc.

That introduction is necessary because it is the framework used by Brian Schultz in the experience he describes. It is his experience as a 5th grade teacher in Room 405 of the Richard E. Byrd Community Academy (pseudonymously named in the book as the William D. Carr Community Academy) in Chicago, adjacent to the notorious Cabrini-Green Housing project. To quote from Schultz's preface and acknowledgments:
The book is organized as a reconstruction of my thought processes and my interpretation of a year-long classroom experience with fifth graders from Chicago's Cabrini Green neighborhood. When the elementary students in Room 405 were challenged to name problems in their school and community, the unanimously focused on replacing their dilapidated school building. Rather than this being a simple activity, addressing this complicated issue became our curriculum for the remainder of the schoolyear. The narrative storytelling central to the book portrays the fifth graders' attempts at solving this complex problem through a curriculum that we developed together.

through a curriculum we developed together That is a key to what you will encounter when you read through the book. Schultz recognized that in order to engage his students in their own learning, he also needed to find ways to empower them, and thus the process of exploring how to address the situation in their schools required him to be less of an instructor and more of a coach, less didactic and more encouraging. That required surrendering some of the authority inherent within the classroom while still maintaining overall responsibility for what happened.

The book is published by Teachers College Press, which does not take lightly its responsibility as a major publisher of tomes on education. That should give you one sense of why I was willing to take the book seriously, which I began reading in an uncorrected advanced proof before I finally obtained a copy of the final product. Schultz, who now teaches at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and who won awards for his teaching both while at Chicago Public Schools and in his current position, was a doctoral student at University of Illinois Chicago Center while he did the teaching covered in the book. One of the members of his doctoral committee was William Ayers, and I feel it important to address this, even though Ayers was not Schultz' doctoral adviser. During the current political season the past of Ayers and his wife (Bernadine Dorhn) has become a matter of some interest because of their activities during the 1960s as part of the Weather Underground and because of a piece from Ayers published around the time of 9-11. For several decades now both have been serving the larger community as academics, Dorhn teaching juvenile justice as Northwestern and Ayers as one of the most important voices addressing the matter of social justice in our schools. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago in particular has praised the work Ayers has done. If Ayers' backgound is a stumbling block for you, then you are likely to resist what Schultz can teach you in this book, because the book is permeated with the same kind of thinking about social justice and education that has been a major part of the work not only of Ayers, but of figures such as Paolo Freire and Jonathan Kozol. Its roots can clearly be traced back to the too often neglected work of John Dewey, and in its concern for democratic participation is clearly visible in the current work of people like George Wood and Deborah Meier today.

To fully appreciate what one's students can do, one must approach them with the attitude that there is no limit, to not close the door before they even have a chance. Sometimes this is hard. I want to quote a passage from well into the book. The setting is that a reporter from the Chicago Tribune had come and spent time with the students, listening to them. Schultz had brought copies of the published article in for them to read. Remember as you read the material I quote that this are 5th graders from an inner city school. Also, the reference to video is because Schultz had arranged cooperation with what is known as the Collaboratory, an initiative at Northwestern
that provides project consulting, training, technical advice, and Web-based resources and services to K-12 teachers and their students who are interested in using Internet technologies to advance education.

That is sufficient context. Now read what Schultz writes on pp 79-80:
When the first student found the article on the front page of the second section, he shouted, "Found it! March 23, 2004, 'Pupils welcome All to See Their Dreary Reality.' Go to section B at the top to read 'bout us!" I watched each child find the article and begin reading. Some read silently, while others stumbled over some words as they read aloud line by line. There was definite excitement as they went through the sentence looking to get the meaning fo the article as they searched for their own quotes.
I remember enthusiastically watching these fifth graders enjoying reading. Individually each student took the initiative to get through the entire article, each had a stake in what it said. They all wanted to read what that guy wrote about them and see their efforts headlined in the newspaper.
Tavon and his video documentary team had arranged for Karen Percak from the Collaboratory, along with a videographer, to be present for the interview of activist Therese Quinn later in the morning. It was a bonus to get footage of the first deconstruction of an article about them in newspaper.
As we went through the text, we were able to talk about personification, albeit in a manner unconventional when compared to a traditional language arts curriculum. The article contained a real-life example of the literary device" Cresswell Academy of the Arts, a recently built $15 million facility that sits in mocking splendor just across a ball field from Carr." Definitions had to be found for the great new vocabulary found in the article. The key to reading and making sense of the article was that these students - students who were labeled as incapable, not meeting standards, at risk, and struggling - were readily able to make sense of what they read. They were able to decipher the meanings from context, just by looking around the room as Zorn did the previous day. They may have stumbled over some words, but they understood, made sense of, and connected with the text. They consulted the dictionary when a word surpassed their vocabularies because they truly wanted to know the meaning. The text was alive; it was about them.
Most of the students were engaged in the reading lesson, and my initial reservations about having the videographer present and not wanting to be caught on tape being a bad teacher subsided. Classroom management, luckily, was not difficult because the students were genuinely interested in the material and remained focused.

Let me note several things from this passage. These were students who were labeled as incapable, not meeting standards, at risk, and struggling. They they truly wanted to know the meaning because the text was alive because it was about them. And as a result, there were no classroom management problems.

I don't want to give away the story. Some may know it, particularly those in Chicago, or who have been involved with Project Citizen. You may have encountered them through the writings of Ralph Nader. It is an interesting story to follow, and it has a rhythm of its own. You can, if you choose, explore much of what was accomplished that year, with all the artifacts from the students, by visiting the website they built (with some assistance) to document their experience. It is called simply the Room 405 website.

I realize this is not a traditional book review. Such a review would do justice neither to the book nor to the story it has to tell us. For that you will need to read the book. What I hope I can do is demonstrate some key ideas for you. I have already illustrated the connection supposedly limited students were able to make with higher level text (the Chicago Tribune is not regular reading for most elementary school students) and have hopefully demonstrated that project-based learning such as Project Citizen can be an effective way of students learning important skills because they are applying those skills in a context of value to them.

People are often shocked by examples such as this. There is a paragraph on p. 105 where Schultz directly addresses this:
People were shocked the fifth-graders from the inner city were willing and able to do something good for themselves by taking on a project with such dedication. Some of these reactions were belittling and offensive, but it was an opportunity to change their viewpoints by spreading awareness of the smart young citizens' capability, regardless of their neighborhood.

This book is more than just a recounting of a very interesting year in the classroom. Schultz also provides the reader an important chapter on Justice-Oriented teaching. This is a chapter that is going to challenge the thinking of many. I want to quote the first and third paragraphs of the chapter, as they appear on pages 126 and 127 respectively, and then digress with some commentary of my own.

Should teachers have agendas? Whose agenda should it be? When teachers challenge the dominant culture of measurement, standards, and curriculum mandated by federal, state, and local government as well as school boards to enhance student learning, they may be alienated or pejoratively labeled "maverick" or even "radical." Where can teachers seeking to engage their classrooms in democratic practice get support? Should they be able to follow their visions, even if they are in conflict with current school reform efforts? How teachers are viewed in their respective schools and communities raises questions about the idea of whether a teacher should be an activist, someone who takes direct action to achieve a social or political goal, or advocate, one who speaks or writes in support or defense of a group or cause.

Then, after telling us in the second paragraph that "Teaching is not an ideologically neutral practice" and "it is imperative that the teacher be political, especially in the current state of affairs, in which one-size-fits-all testing is prescribed as the only way to improve education" we read the key third paragraph:
Teachers teaching for social justice maintain a curricular stance rooted in and relevant to the lives of students. With a focus on critical, multicultural, antiracist, and antioppressive perspectives, teachers focus on meaningful hands-on, experiential, and participatory activities that seek to help students (and themselves) to critically think about social, political, and economic problems. Teachers and students learn alongside one another in culturally sensitive and culturally relevant spaces. Academic rigor is paramount because curriculum delivered within a social justice context has a tendency to move beyond the school structure

This is a very different approach than that we see in most schools in this country, which may make it seem alien to you. But before you dismiss it, recognize this: it was by using this approach that Schultz was able to reach a group of inner city 5th graders that most would have thought should be given extensive remedial work in order to "improve" their skills in order so that they could perhaps "pass" the high stakes tests which we impose so broadly, and incorrectly.

I want momentarily to digress to another book I am reading now. By Daniel Koretz of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, it is entitled Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us. I want to quote three relatively brief passages that I think are relevant to bear in mind as you consider what Schultz has to offer. The first is a quote Koretz repeats from a friend who at the time ran a large testing program, and who got impatient when he tried to explain the subtleties and limitations of testing to a woman who wanted to know what was the best school in which to place her child, and who kept returning to test scores. Finally he told her
"If all you want is high average test scores, tell your realtor that you want to buy into the highest-income neighborhood you can manage. That will buy you the highest average score you can afford"

The second quote is when Koretz is describing the limitations listed in the manual for the widely used Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which
advises school administrators explicitly to treat test scores as specialized information that is a supplement to, not a replacement for, other information about students' performance. And for the same reason, it warns that is inappropriate to use a score from a single test, without additional information, to assign students to special education, to hold students back, to screen students for first-time enrollment, to evaluate the effectiveness of an entire educational system, or to identify the "best" teachers or schools.
Please note, Koretz is saying this in a book that attempts to explain to those of us who are not psychometricians both the benefits and the limitations of testing - he is NOT anti-test per se. Isn't it interesting how many things against which the makers of ITBS warn are precisely what we are doing with our current misuse - or should I say, abuse - of testing?

And finally, and very relevant, we need to remember why we have schools, and it should not be merely to prepare them to test well:
We don't put students in school simply to do well while they are there. We put them in school because we think it benefits both them and society as a whole - to make them mores successful in advanced study, more successful in the world of work, and better citizens, and to enable them to manifest their own potential and lead fuller lives.

better citizens, and to enable them to manifest their own potential and lead fuller lives The first is clearly one key goal of Project Citizen, and both of these are key parts of the approach of teaching for social justice, of taking into account the lives of the students as Schultz has done and as he and many others advocate.

Schultz's students were eventually invited to present their project the next year at the national conference of the Center for Civic Education. The students gave a presentation, and then, instead of simply waiting for questions, one student, Malik, took a different approach. Remember, this is an inner city sixth grader speaking to a national conference of adults. The moderator had explained that before taking questions, the students had some to ask. The audience cheered and clapped, and Malik interrupted to say "It is fine and good that y'all think we did good work, 'cause I agree, we did. Thank you. But how ya gonna help us?" As the audience grew silent, Malik continued as follows:
You know it costs a lot of money to get a new school, and kids can't go to schools like our bootleg, old one. I am not saying we want your money now, but when leave out of here, I bet there are schools just like Carr in y'all cities. What are you going to do to make a difference for them kids and them schools? You can't just think we did good, clap a lot - which I like, by the way - and then not do something in your communities. Think about it.

Schultz offers a commentary immediately after recounting this episode, and I hope he will not mind my also quoting that paragraph in its entirety:
Malik's exemplary series of questions were a perfect manifestation of what we as a class had striven to create the entire previous school year - a problem-posing curriculum that centered around questions that were most important to the students and their lives. Well aware that there were going to be many questions from the audience, Malik also understood that he could think critically for himself. Malik's story illustrates the emergent themes that came out of Carr's room 405 and the many possibilities for the future of the students and their curriculum.

I don't want to spoil the book by telling you more of the details. The students Schultz taught learned how to learn, by learning how to pose questions. They learned because that is also how he taught them. And I will give an example of how he uses that technique to teach, or should I say, challenge us (really, is there a difference?):
Could a skill-rich curriculum adhere to democratic principles and progressive educational ideals and vice versa? Isn't one purpose of education to provide students with the opportunity to explore with what they already have: curiosity, intelligence, and the drive not only to achieve but also to make a difference in their own lives? Teachers should embrace the moral obligation to provide them with the skills necessary to matriculate, while also allowing them to explore their world and become conscious, active citizens in the process.

This kind of teaching is inherently risky. Believe me, even approaching it can raise all kinds of anxiety among parents, administrators, other teachers. And the teacher has to be very careful NOT to impose her own values or politics over those of the students. The real value in taking something of a Socratic approach is this, and again I quote Schultz: "Teachers can best understand the needs of their students by asking them questions and allowing the children, in turn, to pose questions back." Questions, not mere lectures of fact. There is a time and a place for lecture, for practice and drill, but it is far less necessary than its current prevalence in our schools would warrant. And unfortunately, too often that increasingly that is the school experience of many students in inner city schools, precisely the ones we say we do not want to leave behind.

I commend you for having read this far, those of you who persisted. I hope I have at least raised your curiosity about what this book from Schultz has to offer you, to offer us all, as we consider how to make the educational experience we offer our children truly productive, a productivity that surely can be demonstrated by means like the project based learning experience of the students in Room 405.

Read the book, then ponder it.



teacherken said...

Brian Schultz also has a website which will enable you to more fully explore the topic, and includes videos and other materials. The vertical images are file folders on which you can click.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Great post, Ken--thanks especially for taking the time to include the multiple examples, which were the impressive heart of your description of Schultz' book.

The whole time I was reading this, I was wondering what kinds of machinations Brian Schultz had to go through to get around administrative oversight and collegial critique in his school. I cannot imagine any teacher being this unconstrained without someone above him in the hierarchy trying to shut him down or control his practice.

While I commend the principles, processes and products of his teaching--I found it hard to believe that he wasn't subject to a constant series of disciplinary actions. It wasn't a matter of imposing his own views-- Schultz was using great chunks of time for non-standardized instruction and learning activities. In my view, he was using the time well. But I can't imagine that would have gone without serious pushback.

Perhaps this is why I have to read the book?


teacherken said...


He had the support of his principal, which helps. He got criticized by some of the teachers in the building. But yes, it will help to read the book. The review is already almost 4,000 words, and I really could not cover everything.

Anonymous said...

I'm more than a little suspicious that what Schultz was doing was
using the kids to advance his personal political agenda. Not that a student of Ayers would do that.

teacherken said...

Well I see that our critic of Ayers and Schultz has such courage of his or her convictions that s/he hides behind anonymity.

In case that person cares, the agenda was that of the kids, who were in a decaying school and wanted their learning needs addressed. If your attitude is that their learning how to express their concerns is Schultz imposing his personal political agenda then you seemingly have a very warped notion of politics. Schultz was helping empower THEM to express THEIR political agenda. That is also why his approach was to be as little directive as he could. But then, you see Ayers and react reflexively, without anything meaningful to say. So be it.

Nancy Flanagan said...

RE: Personal viewpoints in the classroom

One of the great ironies in the massive national swing back to "managed instruction"--a phenomenon with many names--is that you can't, no matter how hard you scrub, take the teacher's influence out of the learning process.

Scripts don't do it, "fidelity" experts trained by educational publishers roaming the halls with clipboards aren't enough. Even the insecure teacher who follows the teacher-proof curriculum to the very letter is projecting something to her students not covered in the manual: "I am simply a technician, reading to you, because someone, somewhere, does not respect you enough to put a smart person in front of the room to interact with you. To that person, you are not a capable learner."

Here's what I wonder, frankly: Why are folks like anonymous so concerned about students' unscripted interactions with teachers? Are any teachers so powerful and influential that they could pull down political hierarchies with their personal beliefs and social justice curriculum? Doubtful.

Students come to school to learn, among other things, how to be part of a community. A school in the shadows of Cabrini-Green would have to worry much more about other kinds of "communities" forming, shattering peace and learning on their little concrete campus. If Schultz found a way to push elementary kids to organize for positive action, then that's something of miracle. What is there to fear?

Anonymous said...

They're fifth graders, for crying out loud.

That they were in a "decaying school and wanted their learning needs addressed" sounds like an adult's agenda for kids more than kids' agenda for themselves. See the nonsense from Amazon below.

''When city kids are thought to be nothing more than a tangle of pathologies and deficits who must be 'saved' by crusading, missionary teachers the result is always some form of colonization. In this extraordinary book, Brian Schultz, a courageous teacher writing here with clarity and passion, performs a radical reversal and provides an alternative.''
--William Ayers, Distinguished Professor of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of To Teach

''Through their compelling school improvement efforts, Schultz and his fifth graders clearly counter the colonizing policy that says only the privileged can be educated through freedom to pursue personal interests and collective commitments.''
--William H. Schubert, University Scholar, University of Illinois at Chicago

Nancy Flanagan said...

So--seriously--what would the optimum, realistic agenda for a bunch of 5th graders who go to school next door to the projects be? And what would a moral, thoroughly professional agenda for their teacher be?

"They were in a decaying school, so I was hoping to get their test scores up 10 points?"

"They were in a decaying school and I thought it best not to mention that fact?"

"They were in a decaying school so I was satisfied with orderly behavior and delivering a highly structured, bland curriculum?"

Fifth graders are probably more articulate about their learning needs than you'd suppose, given an opportunity to actually think about those needs--or compare their needs to the goals and desires of other 5th graders in America.

The fact is, Schultz got some remarkable results with kids from whom little was expected. Again, what is there to fear from what happened in his classroom?

Anonymous said...

Of course a dilapidated school needs attention. What is to fear is a teacher using children as cover for his personal agenda and attention-seeking.

"Little was expected" from whom? From the kids themselves? From their parents? From their teachers? Maybe a culture of low expectations is a problem even more pernicious than a broken-down school building?