1. Please tell us about your teaching style and how it differs from the norm.
I have been teaching in the New York City School System since 1991. I was originally hired as a Vocational Carpentry/Cabinet Making Teacher in Queens. The school (and the Department of Education) was in a transitional period and slowly changing its focus to be more of a technology-based school.
The program lost students due to “lack of enrollment,” but I stayed on, bouncing from department to department for the next few years. I taught math, history, science, gym, etc. Since I wasn’t licensed for those areas, they couldn’t write me up for not strictly following curriculum guidelines. I looked at the lessons and what they wanted as an outcome, listened to the senior teachers (who were very set in their methods and had rather low opinions of the students), and decided that the classes needed to be rethought.
I have met other teachers who also take this path. But, the system really doesn’t like it.
2. What motivated you to buck conventional wisdom and adopt a different teaching style?
I remembered how bored I was in school, how I had to learn to just recite facts, figures and regurgitate information EXACTLY like the teacher wanted it (correct or not). I wanted to give my students more, I wanted them to THINK, not just memorize; to QUESTION, not just accept; and to CREATE, not just be good little workers. The students learned to argue and debate facts with me, question theories in the textbooks, and look beyond the teacher for knowledge.
I try to give projects which take different forms. Sometimes I just provide the answers and the task is to develop the questions and methods to arrive at those answers. I try to get the students to understand that even if the questions don’t change from year to year, often the answers change with new technologies and social changes.
I remember being assigned to teach American History one term. The students were not enthusiastic, neither was I, so I picked up the thick textbook and asked them, “Is anyone interested in reading this?” A hesitant chorus of “no” came back. I asked “So, what could make it interesting? You have to take a Regents Exam on this, that I can’t do anything about. We have to cover the information. But, I’m willing to discuss the method.”
We ended up having a discussion over the next three class periods about how to teach/learn history. One group researched all the films about that time period, another group looked for novels, and one group took the textbook and just copied out all the “facts, dates and names.” (We never looked at the textbook again.) We watched as many of the films as I could get ahold of, they did fact-checking and discussed WHY the filmmakers would change history.
The students enjoyed being put in charge of their own learning and they all passed the Regents.
The school never let me teach History again.
A student I had (I was told he was a problem student) turned out to be dyslexic. I realized I needed to change my instruction methods to include different ways of getting the information across. I remembered classes I took in Grad School (Yale School of Drama) regarding Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. I completely rewrote my lessons for him.
Standardized instruction and testing do not benefit students. They only benefit the administrators and politicians who need to be able to rank everyone on a scale that assumes all people are equal.
All people have equal rights, but everyone has different means of expression, different creative impulses, and different beliefs.
3. If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about our education system, what would it be and why?
Require that the people who are in charge of the school systems have been teachers.
4. If the readers of this interview can take one action to improve the education system, what would it be?
Vote. Actually think about the consequences of your actions on your children. Study with your kids and help them learn. Teach them to act respectfully to each other.