That Story’s Wack, Yo!
Into the 4th Grade Wild
Public schools as Fort Apache
The newest entry into the distinguished genre of teacher memoirs is Dan Brown’s “The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the Blackboard Jungle.” As an elementary teacher in an urban school, Brown’s narrative immediately call to mind Jonathan Kozol’s 1967 entry Death at an Early Age, set in Boston’s as opposed to Brown’s Bronx. While Kozol’s book is a non-fiction masterpiece, Brown’s memoir has a great deal to recommend it also. It reads as less of a polemic than Kozol’s book, and it is more about the teacher and his students, less of a shout against the system. Brown describes his routines, his successes and his failures, his interactions with Bronx ’s PS 85 staff and administration, and allows the reader to draw his own conclusions about policy and practice in American schools. Brown’s book is invaluable to anyone who wants an understanding of what public schools are like today, especially schools in high poverty areas, and how federal policy affects teaching and learning.
On one level Brown’s book describes the struggles of a first year teacher, struggles that would be recognizable in any school in America . He comes to his classroom thinking he can be “relaxed,” a word first year teachers should eliminate from their vocabulary. As the students in classroom 4-217 begin to eat him alive, he realizes that he should have begun the year with a more clear and consistent classroom management strategy than “let’s make rules as a class.” Brown goes through the inevitable self-doubt, the question of whether it’s worth it, struggles to balance his personal life with the sometimes overwhelming demands of teaching. He wakes up at 3 a.m. to prepare lesson plans for his boss who never looks at them. He loses his temper and punches the blackboard. He despairs at the prospect of losing his best student. He negotiates with an unreasonable and probably incompetent boss and adapts to her asinine demands.
But mostly, it is Brown’s classroom management that creates the bulk of his problems. His students, like any group of fourth graders, want to talk and socialize, resist lines and quiet work, dissemble about their misbehaviors, and obsess over their peer relationships. What is atypical of a fourth grade class are the special behavior issues—more than a few—that populate Brown’s class: the fighters and thieves who terrorize their classmates, and whose behaviors receive surprisingly little attention from the building administration. His mismanagement of his class leads to occasionally comic scenes like this one:
Two pages into my Crow Boy read-aloud Fausto stood up and ambled leisurely toward the door, drawing the attention of the whole class. “Fausto. Fausto. Fausto!” I shouted. Fausto turned back toward the class. “THAT STORY’S WACK, YO!”
I kept a straight face but a majority of the class erupted in crazed laugher at Faustor’s apparently genius comedic line. Fausto beamed while fifteen kids cracked up, Lakiya the loudest of all. She bellowed a forced, open mouthed cackle, swaying violently in her seated position, knocking into classmates.
Ten seconds ago we were all on the same page. Now it looked like a different class.
As the overwrought giggles receded, Fausto, now a superstar, still had not returned to his seat. I had to take this kid down. In deadpan, I said, “The story’s not wack. Are you ready to stop acting like a kinder-“
”DAAAAAA! Mr. Brown’s talkin’ gangsta, yo!”
As the year goes on, Brown heroically manages to reclaim his classroom, using techniques gathered from his colleagues, but relying mostly, as all new teachers must, on his own tenacity and grit, but also on effective and meaningful instruction that keeps students engaged.
So the book is universal in that sense—the disruption like the one above could happen in any school, public, private, or charter, in America. On a second level, Brown describes problems that are endemic to high poverty schools. The transience: I’ve spoken to teachers and administrators often in districts near mine that have high incidences of poverty, and this is one of the recurring frustrations. They could teach them if they stayed put. Not just for the year, but year after year. Getting to know students and their families, keeping track of student progress, learning what works and what doesn’t as an institutional knowledge is built on each child. Brown’s successes with the students he keeps are impressive, but the students who move in and out of his classroom face disruptions to their educational progress.
Brown reserves his comments on policy for the epilogue, but by then several conclusions have already made themselves clear. The first is the excessive emphasis on test preparation created by standardized testing. The argument could be made that the weeks Brown and his colleagues spent cramming were weeks spent building essential skills. Certainly, this is the unstated goal of NCLB: by being held accountable for scores in reading and math, schools will focus almost exclusively if necessary to build on these building blocks for learning. But Brown responds to this succinctly with a clever metaphor:
I thought the massive cram that led up to this abrupt pressure release on the days of the Test was like jamming ice cubes into a fever patient’s mouth in hopes that by quickly checking the temperature,, the reading would come out a normal, acceptable ninety-eight point six. The thermometer is not corrupt, but the hospital staff is. If P. S. 85 had more family outreach and year-round, small-group support services for kids struggling with literacy fundamentals, I believed the Test scores would be higher because the kids would be better readers, not savvier multiple-choice guessers.
I think Brown precisely identifies the problem with NCLB...its intense focus on yearly testing tends to distract us from practices that we know works. But there are other policy issues at work in the book. I was astounded by the incompetence of Brown’s administrators, their simple minded solutions to his management problems (when they weren’t being ignored), their fixation on his bulletin boards. Bulletin boards! Furthermore, the administrators seemed to have no concern whatsoever for retention. Knowing that young teachers like Brown were at risk to bolt from the profession, there seemed to be no interest in working to alleviate his stress, to support his growth and professional development, to create better and more fruitful relationships with parents. And discipline issues, which never seem to get discussed in the policy arena, come to the forefront. How to deal with chronic misbehaviors like fighting that disrupt the educational process is an important part of student achievement equation, and an important difference between effective and ineffective schools.
Brown’s book is a terrific read. His students are loveable, and the reader becomes attached to them in spite of their occasional bad behavior. Like a good novel, there are heroes and villains, but unlike popularized accounts of teachers in bad schools, there is no magic solution, no easy answers. Brown shows that perseverance matters, but individual efforts have to match sound policy. He makes this point in his epilogue beautifully:
Widespread accountability through standardized testing makes sense in theory, but my experience on the front lines of a school has shown me its counterintuitive failings. One particularly crippling unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind is the tacit determent of teachers from dynamic lesson planning, the lifeblood of any classroom. With so much time and attention placed on preparation for the all-important Test, it is both easy and encouraged fro teachers to fill their planbooks with mundane mass-produced packets of Test materials. This resignation from ownership of their own classroom deflates the spirit of teachers and students. No one can argue that legislation that creates a classroom environment where teachers and students are disgusted virtually all of the time is successful or beneficial.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
See Ohdave's interview with Dan Brown, and links related to the book, at Ohdave's Into My Own.