“Rebecca Mead joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1997. She has profiled many subjects, among them Lena Dunham, Christine Quinn, Santiago Calatrava, Nico Muhly, Slavoj Zizek, and Shaquille O’Neal….”
Reformers trying to merge traditional and progressive teaching approaches is a tough road to negotiate. In How Teachers Taught (1984) I laid out many examples of progressive efforts to do, for example, project-based teaching in the midst of bolted down desks during the 1930s. That effort to marry the two has continued to produce many hybrids. In this New Yorker article, I extracted an excerpt where Mead describes a second grade teacher in a Success Academy trying to wed the two ideologies of teaching.
Success Academy began in 2006, with a single elementary school in Harlem, and now has forty-six schools, in every borough except Staten Island. The overwhelming majority of the students are black or Latino, and in most of the schools at least two-thirds of them come from poor families. More than fifteen thousand children are enrolled, from kindergarten to twelfth grade…. [T]he schools do well by the favored metric of twenty-first-century public education: they get consistently high scores on standardized tests administered by the State of New York. In the most recent available results, ninety-five per cent of Success Academy students achieved proficiency in math, and eighty-four per cent in English Language Arts; citywide, the respective rates were thirty-six and thirty-eight per cent. This spring, Success Academy was awarded the Broad Prize, a quarter-million-dollar grant given to charter-school organizations, particularly those serving low-income student populations, that have delivered consistently high performances on standardized tests. [Eva]Moskowitz has said that, within a decade, she hopes to be running a hundred schools. This year, a Success high school, on Thirty-third Street, will produce the network’s first graduating class: seventeen students. This pioneering class originated with a cohort of seventy-three first graders.
Success Academy Springfield Gardens, in Queens, opened in the fall of 2014. The neighborhood, close to J.F.K. Airport, has many Caribbean immigrants, as well as a large African-American population. The school is on an upper floor of a building that it shares with a zoned middle school, I.S. 59; both schools principally serve students of color whose families qualify for public assistance. The floor tiles of Springfield Gardens’ freshly painted hallways are labelled with spelling words, so that children can absorb information even as they file, in silence, from one room to another. The classrooms are carpeted, muffling the baseline din that usually accompanies students at work—the scraping of chairs, the dropping of pencils—and imbuing even a space occupied by more than two dozen second graders with the hush of a corporate conference room.
One morning earlier this year, the second graders were engaged in a group reading lesson. (Over several weeks, I was permitted to observe classes at eight Success Academies around the city, from the elementary to the high-school level.) The teacher sat on a chair at the front of the classroom. Her students—or “scholars,” as they are known at Success—sat at her feet on a deep-blue rug patterned with a grid. They wore uniforms: plaid dresses or navy pants for the girls, pants and polo shirts for the boys. Everyone wore black slip-on shoes, as prescribed in the Success Academy parents’ manual; Moskowitz does not want teachers to waste instructional time tying errant laces.
For decades, a rug has been a desired amenity for early-childhood classrooms. Children are more comfortable sitting on the floor than squirming on a chair, and during “circle time” they can interact with one another and with the teacher more easily. Mary Hammett Lewis, an educator who founded a school in Buffalo ninety years ago, observed the transformative effect of placing a “big, friendly rug” in her classroom. In “Loving Learning,” a 2015 book by the educator Tom Little and the journalist Kathryn Ellison, Lewis is quoted saying, “It became a sort of magic carpet in my adventure. The attitude of the children changed completely the moment they set foot on the rug. Language lessons became confidential chats about all sorts of experience. One day the rug became early Manhattan Island; another day it was the boat of Hendrick Hudson.”
In the second-grade classroom in Queens, the gridded rug seemed less like a magic carpet than like a chessboard at the start of a game. Within each square was a large colored spot the size of a chair cushion. The children sat in rows, facing forward, each within his or her assigned square, with their legs crossed and their hands clasped or folded in their laps. Success students can expect to be called to answer a teacher’s question at any moment, not just when they raise their hand, and must keep their eyes trained on the speaker at all times, a practice known as “tracking.” Staring off into space, or avoiding eye contact, is not acceptable. “Sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility,” Moskowitz wrote a few years ago, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal. Students who stop tracking are prodded both by their teachers and by their peers, who are expected to point out classmates who aren’t looking at them when they are speaking.
On a Smart Board at the front of the classroom, a digital clock marked the seconds. Every moment in a Success classroom is timed, often with Cape Canaveral-style countdowns, as students transition from one activity to another: “Three, two, one, and done.” Some teachers use kitchen timers with beeping alarms that notify students when the ten seconds allotted for finding a space on the rug, or retrieving a book from a backpack, are up.
That morning, the students were engaged in a “shared text” exercise. They read and analyzed together a short story, “The Family Tree,” that had been projected onto a screen. It was about a grandmother who was moving, unhappily, to a smaller house. Her two grandchildren, a brother and a sister, were helping her with the move, and cheered her up by making a collage of intergenerational family photographs for her. The text had been adapted from a picture book; in its condensed form, it consisted of a single page containing two dozen short paragraphs, and just two illustrations. Each paragraph was numbered, as it would be if the story were encountered during a standardized test, rather than pulled from a library shelf.
The teacher, after establishing that the story’s genre was realistic fiction, reminded the class of the necessary “thinking job” required in approaching such a text: to identify the character, the problem, the solution, and the “lesson learned.” A girl with pierced ears and a sober expression made a stab at an answer: “The problem here is that the sister thinks that her grandmother is mad, because they already broke lots of stuff.”
Several children looked skeptical. “You have a couple of friends disagreeing with you,” the teacher said. She called on one of the dissenters, another girl, who said, “I disagree with you, because the grandmother is already upset, because her new house does not feel like a home.” Success Academy students are required to speak in complete sentences, often adhering to a script: “I disagree with X”; “I agree with X, and I want to add on.”
The teacher addressed the girl with pierced ears: “I’m a little confused. Prove to me that something broke.” The girl replied, warily, “It says so on the second line.” The teacher asked her to look again at the line—in which the sister warned her brother not to break anything, because their grandmother was already upset—and said, “Did anything break? No. She’s warning him.”
It was an impressive demonstration of close reading by seven-year-olds, as far as it went. Moskowitz recently told me that she saw no reason the principles that govern a graduate seminar in English literature—“You read a book, and you discuss it, and you look for the big ideas”—couldn’t be applied to a class with young children. The text being studied by the second graders wasn’t particularly easy; even in its original picture-book form, it was intended for third graders. The teacher spoke to the children in a firm, unsmiling tone, as she might have done to a class of students fifteen years their senior. Moskowitz abhors the singsong voice that some adults often adopt with young children, characterizing it as “an insult to the scholars’ intelligence,” and her teachers are trained to avoid it.
The teacher led a brief discussion of the difference between a house and a home—a material distinction possibly familiar to some of the children in the room. One in twenty students at Springfield Gardens had experienced homelessness at some point during that academic year. “A home is where you feel comfortable, and you make your memories,” the teacher said, before a student gave an admirably succinct summation: “A house is where you are just moving in, and a home is where you have lived for a long time.” The students were quiet and attentive, as neatly aligned on the rug as the blinds at the windows, all of which had been lowered to precisely the same height.
But the lesson seemed to be as much about mastering a formula as about appreciating the nuances of narrative. When the students were called to “turn and talk,” they swivelled, inside their grids, to face a partner, and discussed the section of the text that had been examined collectively. The exchanges I heard consisted of repeating the conclusions that had just been reached, rather than independently extending them. Some students seemed to be going through the motions of analysis and comprehension—performing thought. “The grandmother’s house is too small—she doesn’t have the space to put her memories,” one child informed her partner, garbling the story’s sense in her effort to comply with expectations.
Nor was there time for more imaginative or personally inflected interpretations of the text—the interrogation of “big ideas” that happens in the kinds of graduate seminars Moskowitz held up as a model. When one child proposed that the grandmother was feeling uncomfortable in her new home because she was lonely—a reasonable inference, given the absence of her husband, who was pictured in the family photographs—the teacher asked for textual evidence, and the student was unable to provide it. With the clock ticking, the discussion moved on, and the question of the grandmother’s loneliness—of what else the story might be saying to a reader, beyond the surface meaning of the words in the numbered paragraphs—was left unexplored….