My thesis statement was developed after reading Herbert Kohl’s book, Stupidity and Tears. Mr. Kohl wrote this book after years in the education field. He reflects on his experience as a young teacher in the inner city systems of New York, his sabbatical year in Italy stretching himself to write about his experiences, many of them about students that he had taught. He then describes his current efforts to create a new kind of teaching program associated with the University of San Francisco which is unique in its philosophy and its style of grooming teachers to push beyond the expected in education. As a result of reading this book, I would question if in inner city schools, teachers were permitted to challenge the standard system, add creative thought to their lesson plans and teaching approaches and still adhere to the school system’s required curriculum, would this change the learning environment to be more successful for the students and the school system as a whole?
There is a premise that in many inner city schools, particularly underperforming schools, that the school curriculum is based on a strict curriculum that is put in place by local, state, political and teacher union mandates in order to address the poor performance and improve the results of the school program. However, many mandates do not consider the differing abilities and contributions that teachers can bring to the table, nor do they account for the many profiles of the students that are in the classroom which directly impact their success to learning. Herbert Kohl is a lifelong educator, who has taught in many inner city school systems and established the Institute for Social Justice and Education at the University of San Francisco. He believes that without being a little rebellious, challenging the norms, and allowing for creativity in the classroom with a solid understanding of the social environment that the students live in every day, that effective and successful teaching cannot be accomplished. In his book, he questions whether, “creating stupid teachers perpetuates stupidity in the classroom and keep stupid systems of education functioning”. (p.11) Stupidity is not defined as ignorance, but is the act of being hindered by a system of learning for both the student and the teacher. This system does not allow for adjustments, unusual teaching methods and imagination, gearing learning to the specific needs of the students. Instead of encouraging teachers to push beyond barriers, it reinforces acting like robots where anyone could deliver a prepared lesson. When programs do not encourage a student from feeling stupid, discouragement trickles down to feelings of inadequacy, frustration and lack of confidence. School is just the beginning of building those qualities to hopefully develop a student into being successful in life. Most successful people have a good sense of worth, and have confidence. Those traits can be nurtured in a creative, imaginative school environment.
There are instances where very imaginative and creative teachers have taken on a classroom of students that traditionally have failed and turned their learning to be positive and successful, yet are being shut down because they were not strictly conforming to the system curriculum mandates. The end result in some of these cases is discouraging a gifted teacher from flourishing and questioning his/her ability to be an effective teacher and an inspired teacher. It is also failing the students further by not providing an environment where they were succeeding. In some examples, teachers are actually moved to different schools for being successful because they were being a rebel by challenging the standards.
The realization is that school systems need to examine themselves and decide what will succeed and what fails. Education reforms often are pushed through under the auspices of the fear that our nation’s economic competitiveness is being derailed by unsuccessful school systems. Mr. Kohl goes on to suggest, “Obsession with national power distorts people’s perceptions of the problems youngsters face in schools, and most reform proposals end up by leaving out the concern for the quality of the children’s lives.” (p. 31)
1. There must be a progressive approach to change our educational system to critique and address current shortcomings, failings, and discriminatory practices. The approach must be grounded in ideals of social justice, equality in education, and a dedication to facilitating educational experiences where all students reach their full potential as learners and as socially aware and active people. Teacher-education programs must adopt new ways to approach education and help either new teachers or experienced teachers redefine the environment in which students learn and students succeed. You must start with teachers who believe in this type of social change so they can support each others ideas, collaborate on change and make adjustments when approaches are not working. Creating bonds infuses energy into this type of effort so that teachers are equipped to take on established, failing programs and believe that they can learn from set backs. They should feel energized to forge on to reach their goals of developing learning programs for students that reflect their everyday challenges and find the seed of a learner in them and make them feel OK that they can be a student and not feel the pressure of their peers that it isn’t acceptable to succeed in school. The new design of a student program has to be creative, but still adhere to the mandates that oversee education systems. Kohl believes that his program at the University of San Francisco is succeeding in developing a new generation of teachers where “their creative role in drawing from many radical democratic traditions, their own experiences, and the voices from within the communities they serve in order to make effective and excellent education for their students”.( page 149-150) The aim is for teachers to learn to act within the defined programs, but not ignore their feelings, their concerns, their guts so that they can react, encourage, inspire young learners to embrace education and become successful. This is particularly true in inner cities where support systems are not always readily available outside of school. If in inner city schools, teachers are permitted to challenge the standard system, add creative thought to their lesson plans and teaching approaches while adhering to the school system’s required curriculum, they could effect change in the learning environment of inner city schools to be more successful for the students and the school system as a whole.
Stupidity and Tears, Herbert Kohl, the New Press, NY 2003
Cited: Stupidity and Tears, Herbert Kohl, the New Press, NY 2003