The Final Terraces
Summer 1991 was spent in Providence, helping facilitate a new group of “Citibank Teachers” and working with a variety of schools who sent teams of teachers to explore implementing Coalition reforms in their district. Under the able guidance of Paula Evans and Gene Thompson-Grove, I was developing my own skills as a workshop leader and “teacher-leader.” Among the districts that sent teachers to Providence that summer was Stamford, Connecticut --- a fortuitous occurrence for me, as it turned out, as their most outstanding teacher was Carol (Bjork) Lacerenza. Carol’s quick take on Coalition concepts (like student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach) was thoughtful and incisive --- there was an immediate connection between us and that began an enduring friendship that lasted --- and grew --- over the years (we were married October 26, 2014). One of the great “fringe benefits” of my Coalition work.
AS the 1991-1992 academic year ensued, I was consulting all over the New York Metro area --- Brooklyn, the North Shore of Long Island, Berlin & Torrington, Connecticut. In Bronxville, Anthony Angotta and I were killing our American Studies classes and the 9th grade interdisciplinary team was a well-oiled machine. The Student-Faculty Legislature and its accompanying Advisory classes were becoming embedded in our school culture and, probably because of John Chambers’s influence, I was getting along better with my colleagues. John, for his part, had quickly impressed the entire K-12 faculty by visiting every teacher’s classroom before the end of October --- providing positive feedback and encouragement to all. Starting in November he began providing written feedback with his observations. He observed my Senior class in Global Studies and noted:
I got to your Global Class before you! From the next moment, when you
walked in, though, you were very much the impresario, producing, managing,
cajoling your actors. (Do you like the impresario metaphor better than
the coach comparison?). The class was like the United Nations during a
coffee break, with all the ambassadors swapping information about their
countries, but for the fact that U.N. ambassadors wouldn’t have a
summative essay due next Monday. . . . I loved when you told me … how much
you still relish being in the classroom. . . . I also loved it when you said you
were going to be more patient with your colleagues, too. Ironically, they
may move faster in positive directions when encouraged by your patience
than when subjected to your righteous wrath. Coach them like you coach
Regarding those Global Studies classes, I had helped facilitate a Social Studies Department issue regarding when and how to offer the course at the high school, as it now was required by New York State. Most schools taught Global in 9th grade but my contention was that 9th graders couldn’t find their house on a local map, much less understand Global issues. What I proposed was #1: leaving our interdisciplinary Western Civilization/Humanities intact and #2: creating a Senior course where four teachers would each specialize in a Global area of study (Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East) and the students would stay in one group and rotate through the teachers/areas --- changing each quarter. The academic year would end with a Model U.N. simulation, with several crises/challenges that had to resolved through research, debate, and voting. The Department --- and administration --- bought in and we were off!
By the middle of 1991-1992, Bronxville High School was humming along, with 9 teachers having attended the Fall Forum in Chicago (the most we had ever sent….and almost 10% of our faculty!). There was a definite “buzz” in the school and community, and I was as surprised as anyone to see a front-page story in the November 28, 1991 edition of the Review Press-Reporter with my photo and a headline stating, “Dynamo of Education gets to put exciting ideas into practice.” In an interview with reporter Brian Koontz, I noted how John Chambers and our new Principal, Maureen Grolnick, were instrumental in re-invigorating our Coalition efforts. I also said, “I think people have gotten past the divisiveness we had back in the mid-80s. Back then, our participation in the Coalition was touch-and-go.” Unlike my 1987 interview with the Press-Reporter, when I was first hired, this one went over well with my colleagues. I had mentioned our school had been cited by the U.S. Department of Education and the New York State Department of Excellence as a “school of excellence,” which my more conservative colleagues saw as an “olive branch.” My endorsement of the Coalition was in no way a negative criticism of what we were doing. As John had noted, this approach worked far better than subjecting my colleagues to my “righteous wrath.”
In April of 1992 , I got a phone call from Ron Wolk, the publisher of Education Week, a highly respected publication covering K-12 issues. Ron was also a significant ally of Ted Sizer’s and I knew him from my work in Providence over the past few years. He wanted to know how the Citibank consulting was going --- and if I would be okay with an Ed Week reporter “shadowing” and interviewing me for a couple of days --- in my classrooms and on a consulting trip in Westchester County. I said, “sure,” and got a subsequent call from Lynn Olson, the Ed Week reporter. We arranged for when she could visit and the result of her work appeared in the May 13, 1992 issue of Education Week, with a photo on page 15 of me working with teachers at John Jay High School. It was a very positive article, about the work of the (now) National Faculty (formerly Citibank teachers) and the Coalition. It also gave me another chance to make amends with my colleagues. The article concludes with this:
“When I first came here,” Mr. Johnson said, “I was way too abrasive
and too demanding of people to change. And I’ve recognized that’s
not going to work. I still am somebody who would like to see a lot of
change in a short amount of time,” he added, “but that’s just not the
nature of the kind of change we’re talking about.” (Education Week, p.15)
John and Maureen circulated the article among the staff and, again, the response from my colleagues was quite positive. Was I finally moving in the right direction?
The year wrapped up with yet one more surprise. The class of 1992 dedicated their school yearbook to me --- the highest honor a faculty member could receive from the students at Bronxville. Even better, most of my colleagues applauded at the assembly where the Dedication was announced by the Yearbook Editors. As I prepared to work in Providence for another summer, I was feeling pretty good about how things were going and where we were heading. Little did I know that the next academic year (1992-1993 - the Final Terrace), would bring more --- and bigger--- surprises, and a new turn in my career as a school reform advocate.
Purgatorio: Part Two
Returning to New York in August I was looking forward to the 1990-1991 school year. As a newly-minted “Citibank Teacher,” I was primed to start consulting with Coalition and “Coalition-curious” schools in the New York Metropolitan area. Regarding Bronxville itself, I would continue working on the 9th grade Interdisciplinary team (implementing our “Western Civilization/Humanities” curriculum) and would now add two 11th grade “American Studies” classes --- team-teaching with Anthony Angotta, an English teacher who I loved working with! Added to that, my new Advisory system was starting (I was the “Coordinator”) in close conjunction with the Student-Faculty Legislature (which I was now the Faculty Advisor for). The Fall Forum was going to be held in St. Louis in November (I would be presenting a workshop there) and the drama teacher was on maternity leave --- would I like to direct the Fall Play? (Sure!) On top of all that, I was coaching the boys Varsity Basketball team (not very successfully) and the boys Junior Varsity tennis squad (very successfully). Quite a full plate.
Early in the school year our Superintendent announced that he would be retiring in June --- allowing a substantial amount of time for the School Board to find his replacement. My first consulting job in Westchester County was at John Jay High School (in Katonah-Cross River-Lewisboro) where John Chambers was the Principal. John was a deep-thinker and an excellent administrator --- that was clear from Day One. The more I worked there, the more I envisioned John serving as Bronxville’s next Superintendent, an appointment that would bring back serious support of Coalition reforms. When the Fall Forum rolled around in St. Louis in early November, I spent quite a few hours buttonholing and badgering John to apply for the Superintendency in Bronxville. He was reluctant, particularly because he did not hold a Doctorate (he had a Harvard Master’s Degree, as I recall) but I insisted he was “perfect” for the job: “You’re a soft-spoken, highly intelligent W.A.S.P. --- what could be more perfect for Bronxville?” Plus, I said, “What have you got to lose? Send in an application and, I’m betting, if you get an interview, you’ll get the job.” John was not as confident as I, but he did, in fact, apply and, yes, he got the job. Knowing John would be taking the School District helm starting in July 1991 was energizing. The resignation of our Milquetoast principal that Spring allowed John to hire his former Assistant Principal to take over as our High School Principal, so I was more than optimistic about the coming year.
Two highlights of the 1990-1991 school year involved some “authentic” work with students --- directing the Fall Play and advising the Harvard Model Congress contingent in Boston/Cambridge. In both cases, the students (in keeping with my growing commitment to performance assessment) were out in public, “showing what they know” in a setting where they were presenting their work to an audience of adults and peers. In both cases, I was incredibly proud of what the students did.
When I lived in Boston, I had gone to the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge to see the first dramatic production of Don DeLillo’s The Day Room. I was a huge DeLillo fan, having read all of his novels, and was eager to see how his writing transferred to the stage. As noted in Wikipedia:
The play concerns characters in a psychiatric hospital in which the distinctions between patients and staff gradually blur. The play is written in an absurdist style reminiscent of Beckett and Ionesco, and eschews linear plot in favor of a non-traditional exploration of such themes as empathy, personal identity, fear of death, and the seeming impossibility of meaningful communication. In line with the transformation of identities, the eponymous room of the first act becomes a vaguely defined motel room in the second. As a single memorable example of the absurdist tone of the piece, one of the asylum patients of the first act appears in the second act as Figure in Straitjacket, performing as a television set for the bulk of the remaining action.
I was blown away by the A.R.T. production and, when asked to direct the Bronxville High School Fall Play, I decided we would produce it! As luck would have it, shortly after I announced what play we were doing, my “Assistant Director” (a junior who did not want to act but did want to be part of the show) informed me that her mother was a local Real Estate Agent and had just sold a house to Don DeLillo in Bronxville. Really?!? I told Katie to mention to her mother, if she happened to talk to Mr. DeLillo any time in the near future, that we’d appreciate it if he knew we were producing his play --- and I would love to talk to him about it. We got back to work and started to mount the production.
A week or two later (I don’t clearly recall) I was in my New York City apartment when the phone rang. Me: “Hello.” Voice: “Bil Johnson?” Me: “Yes.” Voice: “This is Don DeLillo.” Me: (stammering, like Ralph Kramden) Hum-n-ah, Hum-n-ah . . . Oh, hi, Don….” (gasping) DeLillo: “I hear you’re producing The Day Room over at the high school.” Me: “Yes, yes we are.” DeLillo: “Would you like to meet and talk about it?”
Me: (shocked!) “Sure! Yes!” DeLillo: “You know Pete’s in the middle of the village?” Me: “Yes.” DeLillo: “How about lunch there on Thursday at one?” Me: “Yeah, great.” DeLillo: “Okay. I’ll see you then.” Me: “Yes, yes, of course, Thanks.” DeLillo: “Okay. Bye.” Me: (flabbergasted) “Bye.” I hung up the phone and, once again, couldn’t believe me luck. Talk about right time, right place! Once again, I had “stepped in it" and come out smelling like a rose.
I got “class coverage” in case the lunch with Don ran long (which it did). The meeting lasted almost two hours! During that time, we discussed the A.R.T. and Manhattan Theater Club productions of the play. “Don” was curious as to how I was thinking about staging certain scenes and offered his own perspective on what he liked and disliked about the professional productions. As we wrapped up, I pulled out my hardcover copy of the play (I belonged to the Drama Book Club) and sheepishly asked if he would sign it for me. Graciously, he agreed to. I didn’t read the inscription until I got back to school. Remembering the “play is written in an absurdist style reminiscent of Beckett and Ionesco” --- and I would add Pirandello ---DeLillo had written: “To the man behind the man behind The Day Room. Don DeLillo.”
The Day Room was a big hit at Bronxville. Despite being high school actors, the cast delivered a high-level performance, led by Joanna Lara and Cathy Becket (who played the television set in the second act!). My old high school classmate (and rock’n’roll bandmate!) Bob Dancik, an outstanding Art Teacher at White Plains High School, provided a brilliant lighting design and we were told that Don DeLillo had sneaked in during a performance (he’s very reclusive) and let Katie’s Mom know that he thoroughly enjoyed our show. Who could ask for more?
I’m not sure where I stumbled upon the notice for Harvard Model Congress, but I do know that I was fascinated by the prospect. Run by Harvard undergraduates:
Harvard Model Congress (HMC) is the largest congressional simulation conference in the world, providing high school students from across the United States and abroad with an opportunity to experience American government firsthand. Although HMC is run entirely by Harvard undergraduates, it is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is operated independently of the university.
Talk about an opportunity for “authentic” assessment! I shared the notice with my Department and got the go-ahead --- if I was willing to organize, supervise, chaperone (and recruit other chaperones) --- it sounded like wonderful opportunity for our students. I ran with it.
The basic design of Harvard Model Congress is that high school students (primarily Juniors because they are overwhelming the group taking a course in United States History) are individually given an identity as an actual member of the Senate or House of Representatives. They are informed as to what issues (usually one domestic or one foreign policy) will be on the three-day agenda as well as what Committees they will serve on. It is a very well-planned, authentic recreation of the United States Congress. The students then have three days --- in committees and full sessions --- to craft bills to vote on. It is an incredible experience for the students, and they come away with a genuine understanding of the workings of the U.S. government. I had no problem recruiting a Bronxville delegation and, typical of our community, the PTA and “general fund” provided enough money for us to fly to Boston and stay at the hotel where the conference was taking place. I recruited Mandy Gersten, a fabulous math teacher/Coalition advocate/musician, to chaperone the girls on the trip --- and we were off!
Harvard Model Congress was a great learning experience for our students. It was also fun to do some Boston-history sightseeing during the rare (and short) breaks we had. In all, it solidified my belief in performance-based assessment and got me thinking about writing a piece focused on that topic. As we wrapped up the 1990-1991 school year, I was looking forward to returning to Providence for the summer, where Paula Evans and Gene (now)Thompson-Grove had invited me to work as a Facilitator for summer workshops with the new Citibank Group and visiting schools who were “exploring” joining the Coalition. As I prepared to head off for the summer, I reviewed the year with some satisfaction while looking forward to coming back with a new Administration steering the District into the mid-1990’s.
Next: The Last Terrace
Purgatorio Leads to Paradiso
Since I began with a Dante metaphor, I might as well stick with it. Most folks are understandably unfamiliar with the Divine Comedy. It’s being used broadly here, to illustrate how my journey through the World of School Reform ascended from 1987 (my Inferno) through a transition (the Purgatorio --- from 1989-1993) before “ascending” to a Paradiso during the 1994-1996 years. Before examining those Purgatorio years, though, it’s crucial to mention the importance of my living in New York City at this time. Throughout my (first) tenure as an NYC resident, I lived on the Upper West Side --- the neighborhood I had fallen in love with in the summer of 1986. It was, for me, a perfect match --- easy access to the rest of the city by way of the 1,2,3 trains, rife with diners as well as music and theater venues (The Beacon, The Promenade, Symphony Space), great markets (the first Fairway, Citarella’s seafood) --- who could want more? In the middle of all of it, for me, was Big Nick’s Burger Joint on the west side of Broadway between 76th and 77th streets. Big Nick’s became my touchstone, home-away-from-home and, during my second tenure on the UWS (2009-2014) I actually wrote an essay for a workshop (facilitated by New Yorker writer Ian “Sandy” Frazier) about it. Here’s an excerpt:
When talking to a New Yorker (NOTE: when I use the term “New York” or “New Yorker” I’m talking about Manhattan. Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx residents refer to themselves based on their boroughs…and Staten Island, well, is really part of New Jersey, despite the longest suspension bridge in the world) so, when talking to a New Yorker, two of the easiest and most common topics of conversation are living space and food. For example, “He got a two-bedroom with 900 square feet for only $2500 a month!!” and “Waddaya wanna eat tonight? Italian? Chinese? Thai? Japanese?” And this is why, to me, Big Nick’s epitomizes the New York I know.
Standing on Broadway facing Big Nick's storefront, the green awning clearly announces "Big Nick's Burger Joint" while sporting a gay pride flag on top (“Some of the staff are gay…I support them”). The front of the place foreshadows what is to come. The glass door alone has six different signs on it, announcing "Booths and Tables in the Rear" as well as "No Transfats" ( great, if unlikely, consolation for a Burger Joint?). A red neon sign in the window announces, "Charcoal Prime Steaks and Ribs" and a placard informs you "Breakfast Special 6 am - 12 noon/ Breakfast 24 hours a day/Daily Specials - Pick Up Our Menu". There are no fewer than 11 more signs festooning the 15-foot wide brick face and window.
The menus sport a caricature of Mr. Nick himself (drawn by his wife …”she’s very talented”) , flexing a dumbbell comprised of two large burgers, resulting in an impressive bicep bulge. The cartoon does not particularly resemble Mr. Nick -- not even the Mr. Nick I first met in the late 80's, when his hair was still dark and his height and weight made the appellation "Big" Nick understandable. In those days, as now, he was always a presence overseeing the day-to-day operations of "the Joint." Mr. Nick started the Burger Joint in 1962, with some friends, when the Upper West Side was still “West Side Story” territory and the neighborhood was dominated by Guiseppe Verdi (“Needle”) Park. But the Promenade Theatre was across the street and the actors and theatre goers loved the burgers at “The Big Nick’s.” As more “Burger Joints” sprung up around town, Mr. Nick created the quarter pound “Big Nick” burger and the name for the “Joint” changed. When McDonald’s created their Quarter Pounder, the “Big Nick” went up to a half pound …..and an Upper West Side legend was born.
Sadly, Big Nick’s has gone the way of Upper West Side gentrification, priced out of the neighborhood. It was the place I always took my NYC visitor/tourist/out-of-town friends to, so they would get the “real feel” of The City. Big Nick’s represented everything I loved about living in New York City --- it was bustling at all hours, it had numerous characters from Central Casting sitting at the counter, its walls were adorned with autographed photos of the (very) young David Letterman and Mike Tyson, as well as a million “stars” from the neighborhood --- actors and athletes who were in plays and commercials, singers and record producers --- you name it, the Upper West Side had it! The energy and excitement of living in New York City in those years was infectious and primed me for my first summer in Providence in 1990.
The First Terrace
Where the Inferno is a series of “circles” where sinners reside, the Purgatorio is composed of “terraces” Dante and Virgil ascend (each Terrace represents one of the Seven Deadly Sins). What distinguishes the residents of the Purgatorio from those in the Inferno is that those in the Circles are damned, while those on the Terraces have hope for redemption. So, while they may be guilty of pride, envy, wrath, or sloth, for instance, they can be saved! I’m pretty sure that analogy works for how I viewed School Reform in 1990. There were the “non-believers” (some of whom actively worked against reform efforts) --- I believed they were damned But there was also a vast mass of teachers and administrators who exhibited some aspect of those Deadly Sins (particularly pride or sloth) but might well be capable of coming around and achieving School Reform redemption. Whatever the case, I headed for Providence, Rhode Island eager to meet the “Virgils” who would guide me, providing instruction on how to save those souls who were wandering in the Purgatorio but might, with the proper intervention, see the light of the Paradiso. (We won’t discuss how the Sin of Pride may well have infected me at this time . . . but I’m sure the Reader can judge for her/himself!)
If you have visited Providence in the 21st century you undoubtedly have a positive view of the place. It is, indeed, a picturesque city with great hotels, prestigious institutions of Higher Education (Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales), fabulous restaurants, terrific hotels, the Trinity Repertory Company and a new Performing Arts Center, a great “local” sports scene (college basketball & hockey squads, as well as Boston’s top “minor” league franchises in both hockey and baseball), and, in the summer, access to fabulous beaches (Rhode Island is, after all, “The Ocean State”). That was not the case in 1990. When we arrived in late June of 1990, I was shocked that I was in the State Capitol. As I told Paula Evans, the Director of the Citibank Teacher Program, “There’s no downtown downtown!” There were few decent places to eat, nothing scenic to look at, and only two hotels in the whole city! Luckily, our cohort of teachers spent almost all our time on “College Hill,” where Brown University is located.
The First Cohort
Under the outstanding leadership of Paula Evans, ably assisted by (the equally outstanding) Gene Thompson, and held together by Program Administrator Kitty Pucci, the first cohort of 15 Citibank Teachers were in great hands. It was an outstanding group, assembled from all over the country. There were teachers from Arkansas(2), Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, California, Iowa, Texas (2), Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York (3). Paula and Gene quickly created a “team” from this disparate group of “like-minded” teachers. We were all living in a student dormitory north of the Main Campus, in a building whose architecture can best be described as “neo-penal.” Even that helped create a wonderful rapport among “the troops.”
Our days were packed with activity. There were two segments to our daily routine. In the mornings we were teaching at Brown Summer High School (BSHS) --- a laboratory school created every summer on the Brown campus to give aspiring teachers in the Brown University Education Department’s Teacher Preparation Program an initial “real world” teaching experience. 400 students from the Providence City school system enrolled in BSHS, which met from 8:00 a.m. until 12 noon each day, with two “Class” blocks (8:00 to 9:50 a.m. & 10:10 until noon. It was not a “credit-bearing” Summer School (although some students, who needed credits in certain subjects could “negotiate” with their school’s Guidance Counselors and receive credit from BSHS --- but they were the rare exception, not the rule). The student teachers worked in teams of 2,3, or 4 and the “courses” were built around Essential Questions, rather than “content” to be “covered.” As experienced teachers, Citibank “Fellows” taught our class solo but did design the curriculum around the same Essential Question the student-teachers in our discipline were using. We each taught in one of the blocks and observed our colleagues, or the student-teachers, in the other block. A wonderful, eye-opening experience.
In the afternoon we met as a large group first, to work through the 9 Common Principles and clarify our understanding about them, and then we would often break into smaller, “working” groups wrestling with how we would “consult” with teacher practitioners. The goal for the Citibank cohort was to create a cadre of Classroom Teachers who were not only working on implementing Coalition Principles and reform in their own classrooms and schools but could also visit other Coalition schools and serve as consultants/coaches for the teachers in those schools. This perfectly fit into the basic philosophy of the Coalition --- teachers would be the fulcrum to lever change in schools.
Our group was exceptional --- intelligent, thoughtful, professional on every level. The summer was a formative experience and, by early August, we were ready to leave Providence and not only return to our schools “re-charged” and ready to go, but also prepared to begin working with other practitioners in Coalition Schools all around the country. Returning to school in September, I believe I felt like Dante facing the terraces of the Purgatorio. As noted by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:”
It is a spiritual journey towards light through darkness,
marked by meetings with the damned, who confess their sins
and remember their lives with pain, pride, regret and longing.
Remembering how Herndon and Sizer both likened the Public School to a secular church, the parallel to The Divine Comedy struck a responsive chord.
Next: Citibank Boots on the Ground
The Second Circle
1. One Door Closes
The 1987-88 school year at Bronxville High School was characterized by chaotic energy. Typical of any school reform effort, there were fits and starts. “Judy’s” teachers were aligned in interdisciplinary teams (English/Social Studies/Art) and scheduled with back-to-back classes, allowing for “blocks” of teaching time. We also had “planning” periods scheduled at the same time, to better organize our interdisciplinary units. This was all well and good, but it essentially meant we were operating as a “school-within-a-school,” hoping (vainly?) that our model of collegiality and curriculum/assessment development would enlist others to jump on the Coalition reform bandwagon. Few did. I became interested in the fledgling Student-Faculty Legislature (the student government) and pitched Judy and Sherry an idea about developing “advisories” that were tied to the SFL. They liked it and told me to come back with a fleshed-out plan. Before my plan was finalized for submission, we were all hit with some shocking news: Judy was leaving Bronxville to take a job at Pasadena High School in California. Needless to say, there was a mixed reaction to this from the staff --- the Coalition advocates were “concerned”, and Judy’s opponents were cheering! The reform group hoped (against hope) that Sherry King would be promoted to Principal, but she was too closely associated with Judy’s sturm und drang --- the Board of Ed looked for a candidate who was not “in-house.” The 1987-1988 school year concluded with not an “up in the air “ feeling as well as a “when’s that other shoe going to drop” sense of dread.
I distracted myself from all of the end-of-year drama by getting Bronxville to pay for a summer course in creative writing at NYU, focusing on playwriting. I was, by far, the oldest “student” in the class and it was energizing and insightful to work with people who were older than my students but (far) younger than I. It offered perspective on who my students might become in a few years --- and their critiquing of my writing was excellent --- focused, constructive, apropos. I spent the summer reading plays and books about playwriting, only focusing on teaching/learning as August dwindled, not knowing what the coming academic year might bring.
2. Another Door Opens
The School Board, in its infinite wisdom, consciously picked a Principal they clearly believed would not “make waves.” To my mind the new (male) Principal was Casper Milquetoast incarnate and I worried for our staggering school reform efforts. Sherry, trouper that she was, remained as Assistant Principal (hoping, I’m sure, to protect and advance our Coalition goals) but it was clear that she’d be gone by the end of the 1988-1989 year. We started the Academic Year in transition.
My proposal to develop an “Advisory” system was moving through the bureaucracy and looked as if it would see the light of day by the following Fall. My idea was that “Advisories,” facilitated by classroom teachers, would replace “Homerooms” (which only served an attendance-taking purpose) and not only meet with their teachers every morning and afternoon (for 5 to 10 minutes) but also have one or two full periods per week, where they would be used as: a) plenary groups for the Student-Faculty Legislature (each Advisory would send a Representative to the weekly SFL meetings) and b) be a place where students discuss Common Principle issues like “tone of decency,” “student-as-worker/teacher-as-coach,” “less-is-more,” and “exhibitions of mastery.” The idea was to make the students integral to the school’s operation and philosophical tenets. The faculty generally supported the concept --- with one condition: they wanted to be given a curriculum to implement. No one wanted an additional “course” requiring lesson plans, etc. I was more than happy to oblige and, with the staff behind it and the administration re-designing our schedules, it was a “Go” for 1989-1990. Baby steps toward school reform?
Our 9th and 10th grade Interdisciplinary teams were intact throughout 1988-89 and we were starting to develop some very effective “student-as-worker” projects, as well as pretty “cool” (we thought) performance assessments. Sherry King was instrumental in all of that work. I can’t give her enough credit for accelerating my personal growth not only as a classroom practitioner but also as a thinker, regarding reform issues. Even though Judy’s departure had staggered us, we seemed to be up off the canvas for the next round. We were even regaining a little spring in our step.
3. Out in the Hallway (between those doors!)
The 1989-1990 school year proved pivotal in my development as a school reformer. My Advisory Program was initiated in close coordination with the Student-Faculty Legislature and looked as if it might actually work. I had gone to some “professional development” workshops facilitated by Grant Wiggins and was developing a much clearer sense of “how to” implement project-based learning and performance-based assessment. Despite having only tacit Administrative support (Judy and Sherry were now both gone) the bright side of that coin was that I was pretty much allowed to do and try whatever I wanted --- and there was still a solid core of teachers (from our original “band,” plus some new recruits) who were excited about working on new ideas.
In early November 1989 I had driven to Newport, Rhode Island, for the second Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum --- a gathering of “like-minded” education professionals interested in implementing thoughtful, systemic school reform. Once again, I got to work with Grant Wiggins on curriculum and assessment but the real highlight of that Fall Forum, for me, was meeting Ted and Nancy Sizer. I had gotten on an elevator with Judy Codding at the Viking Hotel (we were “catching up” on her year in Pasadena) when Ted and Nancy stepped on. Judy introduced me and Ted indicated that my “reputation preceded” me. I assumed that was a good thing (it was!) and I had a chance, later in the weekend, to talk with Ted and Nancy (you can’t mention one without the other) about what was going on in Bronxville --- and get some thoughtful advice about how I might proceed to be a more effective “change agent.” Ted also told me to keep my “eyes open” for “professional opportunities” that may be emerging in the Coalition in the coming months.
4. Right Place, Right Time (AGAIN) & Opportunity Knocks!
An important element in my professional growth during this period was the Coalition’s newsletter Horace (link: http://essentialschools.org/volume/vol23-issue3/). It published about every two months and was generally a 4-page broadside that focused on one aspect of Essential School philosophy (Essential Questions, Assessment, Scheduling, etc.). In the early years of the Coalition Grant Wiggins was the Editor-in-Chief but, after his departure (his need for a “solo” career reminded me of the classic rock’n’roll band breakups of the late Sixties), that task fell into the able hands of Kathleen Cushman, a longtime Sizer comrade and an excellent writer (who would later play a crucial role in my school reform career). At this point, I was consuming everything I could read about “alternative” assessment, “block” scheduling, “project-based” learning and so on. What Horace did, that proved invaluable, was provide examples of practitioners from around the country who were actively working at implementing Coalition Principles in their schools. We were not alone!
As Spring 1989 unfolded, we received word of an exciting opportunity. Citibank, the giant financial services company, was giving Ted Sizer $3 million dollars for the Coalition of Essential Schools (part of a larger $20 million 10-year grant to “improve schools” around the nation). As the New York Times reported (May 16, 1990):
One such effort, to which Citibank will devote $3 million over three years, is based on the ideas of Theodore Sizer, chairman of the department of education at Brown University. The Sizer philosophy envisions students not as vessels into which teachers pour information but as active participants in deciding what and how they are to learn. It recasts teachers from authority figures to coaches. . . . The coalition's budget is about $3 million this year, coming mostly from private sources, Dr. Sizer said. The Citibank grant, which will increase that sum by $1 million a year over the next three years, is to be used for training large groups of teachers at a summer school at Brown.
This was the “opportunity” Ted had told me to “look for” at the Fall Forum! Before the NY Times article even appeared, Coalition Schools across the country (there were between 50 to 100 at this point) had received a “Request for Applications” in late April, announcing the plan to develop a cohort of 15 “Citibank Teachers” starting in the summer of 1990 and increasing the numbers over the following two years.
No one else at Bronxville seemed interested in applying (it required a 6-week summer commitment and most of my colleagues had families, etc.). I leapt at the opportunity and gleefully received my acceptance into the program by early June 1990. It was still unclear as to what, exactly, this “Citibank Teacher” Program would entail but I was definitely ready for whatever it was --- and it meant a summer (with pay!) in Providence, Rhode Island --- a city I had only been to once, as a freshman football player at Yale (our first game of the season --- I had three interceptions --- a place I always thought fondly of after that). I started packing my bags right away, eager to become a willing pioneer in a new school reform effort.
Next: Providence, Citibank, and "the Territory Ahead"
School Reform Inferno
(The Bronxville Years: 1987-1993)
1. Formative Texts
In preparing for life in the “New World” of Coalition of Essential Schools reform, Judy Codding had advised me to go back and re-read Horace’s Compromise, which I did (as well as re-reading How to Survive). As I went through Horace, with its proposals that schools restructure, that teachers needed to remember that students were the center of the educational process, and that exhibitions of mastery were far more important than “objective” testing I was reminded of my teacher preparation program in Hamilton, New York 15 years earlier, so I scrambled over to my bookcase and dug out two formative tomes: Carl Rogers’s Freedom to Learn and Paolo Friere’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. When I first read those books, in the summer of 1972, they were still “new” (Rogers’s work was published in 1969, Freire’s in 1972). Like Sizer, they emphasized the importance of “liberating” students (and teachers) from an oppressive system.
In Freedom to Learn Carl Rogers uses several case studies to focus on what he believes are the most important principles of teaching/learning. His descriptions of the journey of a sixth-grade teacher and a college professor still ring familiar bells for me and, upon re-reading them now, in 2019, I realize how, like Herndon, they were clearly deeply embedded in my teaching consciousness and fit perfectly with Ted Sizer’s notions of school reform. In Freedom to Learn, Rogers’s 6th grade teacher’s journal recounts her “experiment” with student-centered learning, group work, “contracts” (essentially IEP’s!), and the resulting “coaching” (Sizer’s term) she got to do. As the teacher notes “I had much more time, so I worked, talked, and spent time with individuals and groups.” (p. 11) Later she says, “They have learned that they can teach themselves (and each other) and that I am available when a step is not clear or advice is needed.” (p.15) In the professor’s case, Rogers’s says: “he has, for years, created an island of opportunity --- of freedom to learn --- for his students.” (p.29) Most significantly, Rogers points out that the professor clearly discovered “A disparity between academic and rigor need not exist.” (p. 30) In fact, what Freedom to Learn emphasizes is the teacher’s agency in creating vibrant and engaging environments for his/her students. This fits hand-in-glove with Sizer’s emphasis on the role of teachers in school reform.
Rogers’s professor mentions the “mug-jug” analogy I referenced earlier, but Freire’s “banking” analogy was one that became embedded in my own practice as my years as a Coalition practitioner proceeded. Freire’s focus on “liberation” of the learner from the systemic oppression the existing structures imposed requires that teachers stop seeing their students as “receptacles” that need “deposits” --- only to be emptied in a year-end “withdrawal.” He also emphasizes how essential “reflection” is (p.53), echoing another of Sizer’s crucial points. In all, Sizer, Freire, and Rogers became the formative texts that guided my years not only at Bronxville from 1987 to 1993 but throughout the rest of my teaching career.
2. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t enter the Inferno: The First Circle
The first Tuesday after Labor Day in 1987 I arrived at Bronxville High School to meet the full faculty, expecting to find a staff that was raring to go regarding school reform. Having given my extremely laudatory interview about Judy Codding and Ted Sizer to the local newspaper, many of the staff had a pretty good idea where I was coming from. What I learned, rather quickly, was that, basically, Judy had her Assistant Principal, Sherry King, and what I can only describe as a “band” of school reform advocates on her side. The majority of the faculty seemed to have a “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude and a solid group of (distinctly male) faculty clearly loathed Judy and Sherry. It was neither easy nor pleasant that first year.
I arrived at Bronxville High School as a “smoker,” having acquired the habit as a bartender starting in 1984 (never having smoked before that --- not even a puff!). By Labor Day, 1987, I was smoking two packs of unfiltered Camels a day. I bring this up because in 1987 teachers could still smoke in the Faculty Room/cafeteria at BHS. In fact, there were two Faculty “Lounges,” one for smokers, one for non-smokers. Even though I already knew quite a few of the men who were coaches at BHS (some of whom were smokers) I quickly discovered who rigid the lines were drawn between “Judy’s” teachers and the rest of the staff. None of the “band” of teacher advocates were smokers, therefore my time in the Smoker’s Faculty Lounge was spent sitting totally alone for that first year at the school! The guys I knew from coaching would hardly talk to me and there was a distinct “us/them” division on the staff.
While Judy and Sherry were implementing changes in school structure and introducing the 9 Common Principles* of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a significant number of the faculty were digging their heels in against the move. As they saw, Bronxville was an “excellent” school, its best students were accepted at all the elite schools and the rest of the graduates all got in somewhere (many, for some reason, in various something-Wesleyan colleges). Whyi was there any need to change the place? In my zeal to convert the “non-believers” I was an abrasive zealot (I see in hindsight) and only furthered the divide. It took time for me to “soften” my approach and attempt to win people over through thoughtful conversations and not confrontational arguments.
An incident that best typifies just how divided the faculty was at this time involved a workshop we did with Grant Wiggins, the first Director of Research for the Coalition and a beacon of thoughtfulness (his Understanding by Design text --- with Jay McTighe --- and consulting firm became a mainstay of progressive education reform until his untimely death at the age of 64 in 2015). Grant was a master at facilitating workshops, particularly regarding “authentic” performance-based assessment. He visited Bronxville at Judy’s request to lead a workshop on the concept of “Less is More” and “Student-as-worker, Teacher-as-Coach” and, after what seemed like hours of intense opposition (and haranguing) from the Faculty, totally blew up --- and stormed out, swearing never to work at Bronxville again! It was a disturbing moment, to say the least.
So, there we were in 1987-1989, my first two years at Bronxville (and Judy’s last two, as it turned out. She left after the 1988-89 year to become Principal at Pasadena High School in California). In Dante’s Inferno two of the circles of hell are Anger and Heresy and that’s would be my overall characterization of that time. I certainly was an angry (somewhat young) man who wanted school reform now! Many of my faculty colleagues seemed to believe that changing Bronxville was heresy and should be fought to the death. It was not a fun time, overall, except for a brief escape on Columbus Day weekend, 1987.
3. Dr. Gonzo goes to Caracas
Before everything hit the fan, I did have a moment that harkened back to Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Bil --- an adventure without the substance abuse ( I was regularly attending AA meetings in NYC) but was certainly worthy of Fear and Loathing. In August 1987, as I was writing my one-act play for the NEH and reading Sizer & Freire & Rogers, I got a phone call from my childhood friend, Bill Harrison, who lived on Long Island. “Johnson, do you have a Passport?” Me: “No.” Harrison: “Get one.” Me: “Why?” Harrison: “A guy just backed out of fishing trip I’ve got planned for Columbus Day weekend, so you are going to take his place. You only have to pay for plane fare.” Me: “Where are we going?” Harrison: “Caracas, Venezuela. Flying out Friday night of Columbus Day weekend.” Me: “Okay.”
As I discovered, the planned weekend was to run from Friday night until Tuesday morning, meaning I would not be able to attend school right after the Columbus Day long weekend. I asked Judy and Sherry if that was okay and they said, “No.” I also asked if I could leave school early that Friday because my plane out of JFK was leaving at 6:00 p.m. for Caracas and I was going to have to “take the train to the plane” --- a New York City trek that also involved a bus transfer from the subway stop to the airport. If you ever lived in New York there are several things you know are several implacable laws. You can never be too rich; you can never be too thin; you can never leave enough time to get to JFK!
I left school at 3:00 pm on Friday, raced home in my leased Plymouth Sundance, grabbed my bag and jumped on the subway, which dragged its way out into Queens. I then transferred to the JFK bus, frantically looking at my watch as the time sped closer and closer to 6:00 pm. I finally hit Saarinen’s gorgeous TWA terminal at about 5:30 pm, ran to the “check-in” (thank god we hadn’t been terrorized yet) where I was told that everyone was on board and they were preparing to shut the cabin door. Doing my best O.J. Simpson impression (older folks will remember those Hertz commercials where Simpson dashed through airports, before he became a double-murderer) I sped down the jetway, where Harrison, always the lawyer, was convincing the flight attendant not to close and lock the cabin door yet! I made it. But that was just the beginning.
We got to the Hotel Macuto-Sheraton around midnight. Lugging two huge plastic tubes (that held Harrison’s deep-sea fishing poles), we reached the front desk, where we were informed that, in fact, there were no reservations for Mr. Harrison on the books! We also discovered, in that moment, that Columbus Day Weekend was the biggest holiday in Venezuela and there were NO rooms available for us! (I couldn’t make this shit up) So, there we are, two bedraggled gringos, holding their huge plastic tubes and not speaking one word of Spanish. As luck would have it, though, the ever-resourceful Mr. Harrison called the folks he chartered the fishing trip with, and they just happened to have built several motel-like rooms right on the dock we would be leaving from on Sunday morning. We could catch a cab and stay at their place for the weekend. And that’s when I learned how deep-sea fishing works.
Saturday morning broke and our hosts (their names escape me now) had a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit and juice waiting for us by their pool. It was a glorious morning and, after some discussion with the fishing charter captain, Harrison arranged for us to get a local “tour,” back into the rainforest, etc. By 10 a.m. we were in a jeep, guided by (no kidding) Juan and Juan. Their English was only a little better than our Spanish but we set off for our day of adventure. First we visited a coastal beach and then headed inland, toward the mountains and the rainforest. We saw some lovely waterfalls and small rivers and then Juan and Juan decided to drive deeper into the forest. As we drove under an ever-darkening canopy of trees we began crossing a series of small streams --- each a bit wider, and deeper than the last. Bill and I recommended we turn around (“now”) but Juan and Juan had a destination in mind. We proceeded to ford a stream/river that lapped over the hood of the vehicle --- not good. We did make it to the other side but the Jeep dropped dead.
I’m picturing a Monday or Tuesday New York Times story (around page A7 or A8) with the headline “Two Men Lost in Venezuelan Rainforest Outside Caracas.” As we contemplated our fate, I told Harrison, “Maybe it’s the points. Maybe they’re wet. I’ll take a look.” I asked Juan and Juan if they had a tool kit. They indicated they did not. So, using only my Swiss Army Knife (the Philips Head screwdriver unit), I took off the distributor cap and used my bandana to dry off the points and the inside of the cap. I screwed it back in place and told Juan to “turn it over,” still imagining the NY Times headline. But the Jeep fired up! Amazing Grace!
We found a safer return crossing, discovered a local village, ate a fabulous lunch of fresh fish and returned to our dockside abode late in the afternoon, happy to be “home” safe. We had dinner at local restaurant and retired to our room where we were able to watch a television (with periodic “snow” interference) broadcast the Major League Baseball Playoffs (Detroit was playing Minnesota & St. Louis faced off against the Giants). It didn’t matter that the narration was in Spanish --- baseball is baseball and just a year earlier we had actually attended the World Series. We were happy campers.
Sunday morning, we set sail on the Caribbean Sea in search of marlin. We had a more than competent crew (as far as I could judge) and it was fun, if a little scary, to sail out beyond the sight of land. Flying fish and dolphin entertained us until we reached a spot the Captain thought would provide us a chance to catch some fish.
I had never been this far out in any Ocean before , much less “deep-sea fishing,” but I had seen footage of people catching swordfish and marlins, where the fish leaps high out of the water and the fisherman rapidly reels it in. What I didn’t know was that, as the fisherman was reeling in the airborne fish, the boat is quickly moving (in reverse) to shorten the distance between the prey and predator, decreasing the time one was engaged in this aerial aquatic ballet. I learned about that on Sunday, when the pole I was sitting next to began swaying, the reel singing and its line shooting out into the Caribbean! Before I quite realized what was going on, a crew member had me standing up and was sliding a leather vest over my shoulders, so I could put the butt of the fishing pole in its waistline holder --- and wait for the fish to leap. Harrison was instructing me as all this went on and, before I knew it, we had a 125-pound White Marlin on the deck, where I was kneeling next to it, getting my picture snapped. It was an exciting moment but a bit of blur, even at the time and, while a 125-pound fish is substantial, the crew was pretty nonchalant about it (they’d seen plenty of 125-pound White Marlins before, apparently). Nonetheless, it was the only fish we caught that day.
After another evening of watching baseball on our snowy screen, we left the dock around 9 a.m. on Columbus Day morning and chugged back out into the Caribbean. More flying fish, more dolphins, and, around 10 a.m., as I was writing in my journal, “Looks like we might have a beautiful slow day sailing . . . . “ my reel began singing again! Unlike Sunday, I knew what to do this time and quickly stood up, put my arms out, and the vest slid on. As I began to grab my rod and place it in the waistband holder one of the crew members on the bridge began shouting and pointing: “Grande Azul! Grande Azul!” Unlike Sunday, I had apparently landed a Blue Marlin this time --- and a big (“Grande”) one! And that where this story takes an interesting turn.
The first time the Grande Azul leapt, I began reeling in (as I had been instructed), I heard the engines below me fire up, to accelerate in reverse toward the big fish ---- and then, BLAM! --- a minor explosion. The boat came to a sputtering halt. The fish was back in the water, I was holding the taut line and, within a few minutes I was told that one of the engines had blown a gasket. The boat would not be able to move in reverse while it was being repaired. As a result, it was me against the fish until we were up and running again. I asked Harrison how long that might be. “Twenty minutes,” he said. Okay….I’ll hang on and reel in when he leaps.
There was a 250-pound Blue Marlin on the other end of my line --- and he was, quite literally, fighting for his life. In October of 1987 I probably weighed 175 pounds soaking wet and, while wiry, I needed all the help I could get if I were going to reel this guy in. I hung on, variously standing and sitting in the bolted deck chair, with my thumb on the line. I kept asking, “How much longer?” and kept being told “Twenty minutes.” By the end of the first hour the fish was still at least one hundred yards from the boat and the engine wasn’t fixed. He was still fighting. My thumb could now feel his vibration as he accelerated underwater and I was beginning to be able to anticipate his leap, preparing myself to reel in. The battle lasted well over two hours. By the time the engine was finally working the Big Blue was right next to the boat, exhausted. He had swallowed the hook. If he hadn’t (he was going to die of internal bleeding) I would have let him go. A crew membered conked him on the skull with a mallet (it sounded like one of David Letterman’s rooftop watermelon drops) and he was dead when they lifted him onto the deck.
There was a strange mix of emotions in that moment --- exhilaration from “winning” the battle and intense sadness, as if I had lost a friend. I’ve always described the fishing line connection as “umbilical” and, even as I posed for a classic “Hemingway” dockside pose with the fish I felt badly for him. The crew was more than happy to butcher him and have him for dinner --- I couldn’t. It would have felt cannibalistic.
When I returned to New York (having missed school on Tuesday!) I pulled “The Old Man and the Sea” off my book shelf and tore through it. I also got a copy of the Gregory Peck version of Moby Dick and watched it. The Caracas trip was a signal moment, a memorable one, and I immediately connected it to literature, to texts, upon returning to the “Real World,” where my school reform crusading would now continue.
Next: The Second Circle - 1988-1991
Summer 1986: Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude
The summer of 1986 marked the beginning of several new directions. A DUI arrest and night in a local lockup jolted me into sobriety and the NEH Summer Seminar in New York City allowed me to quit the bartending job. The Modern Drama course at Columbia was scheduled for six weeks starting in late June and running through early August. I sublet an apartment on West 111th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, from a Manhattan School of Music teacher for two months, bookending my seminar with two “free” (extra) week in Manhattan. Being raised as a suburban kid on Long Island, my parents’ take on NYC was shrill and foreboding. My experience, as a boy, entailed visits to family in Brooklyn and a rare foray into Manhattan on school “field trips” (the Circle Line, the Museum of Natural History). In 1964 the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow was serviced by the Long Island railroad. I had finished my freshman year in high school and my parents thought it was okay for me to catch the train to the Fair on weekends (they had fond memories of the 1939 Fair in Flushing) --- and so I took advantage of their “permissiveness” and visited the Fair numerous times. As I look back on my life, I realize that I didn’t consider living in New Haven “city life” as the only City any New Yorker acknowledges is the Big Apple. I can see now, though, that the move to Boston was a stab at a “practice” city and the summer of 1986’s residency sealed the deal for me --- I had to move to New York by September 1987.
The summer of ’86 was glorious. Once again, I was surrounded by interesting people/teachers from all over the country and Howard Stein, our professor/guide/coach, knew everyone in New York theater. We saw 16 productions during our 6 weeks in session, we traveled up to New London to tour Eugene O’Neill’s home, we met with Jerry Zaks, who had just become the resident director at Lincoln Center. In our off-hours there was even more to see and do --- hell, it was New York City!
Living in the shadow of St. John the Divine on West 11th Street placed me five local One Train stops away from one of my best friends from Yale, Jay Fasold, which added to the fun of the summer. Excursions to Yankee Stadium, walks around the city, just hanging out in the comfortable environs of the Upper West Side, sold me on my “next stop.” One of my Seminar colleagues, Marilyn Elkins, a teacher from New Orleans, took us downtown to hear the music of Ellis Marsalis (pater familias of the prolific musical clan) where we were invited to stay “after hours” to listen to Ellis not only play but discuss teaching music to generations of New Orleans musicians. (Marilyn has since gone on to become an award-winning professor and author of literary criticism). It was a spectacular summer and I returned to Boston with a “three-pronged” plan. First, I needed to get a job in Westchester County (so I could afford to live in New York City); second, I wanted to find a place to live on the Upper West Side; and, third, I had to figure out a way to wrangle money from somewhere so I could, essentially , take the summer “off.” With that in mind I returned to Winchester High School, intent on making 1986-1987 my last year in Boston.
Basking in my “Golden Apple” glow, the school year got off to a good start and was, once again, asked to produce/direct the Fall play. There was definitely a “desire” (on the part of the school administration) for me to find a play that would employ a far larger cast than Buried Child. I thought that might be fun, so I decided we’d do Thornton Wilder’s 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Skin of Our Teeth. The play requires anywhere from 40 to 60 people as cast members so my challenge was simply to find the students who could best fill the roles of the lead characters and assign the rest parts as “conveners” or “drum majorettes” or “chair pushers.” No one had to be cut.
The Skin of Our Teeth opens, in the original script, with a radio broadcast. Since we were producing the play in 1986, we updated those scenes to a t.v. anchor man sitting in front of a huge screen with televised images to illustrate his dialogue. Between acts we ran footage from the film Koyaanisqatsi, to emphasize the themes of war and the hardships man inflicts upon himself and the natural world. (Koyaansqatsi was released in 1983, directed by Godfrey Reggio with Philip Glass music. It created quite a stir at the time.) Wikipedia describes Koyaansqatsi thusly:
Drawing its title from the Hopi word meaning "life out of balance,"
this renowned documentary reveals how humanity has grown
apart from nature. Featuring extensive footage of natural landscapes
and elemental forces, the film gives way to many scenes
of modern civilization and technology. Given its lack of narration
and dialogue, the production makes its points solely through imagery
and music, with many scenes either slowed down or sped
up for dramatic effect.
The video was powerful, and the production was a big success. Once again, Dave Miller and John Fusco (the I.A. teachers) put together an incredible stage crew that built fabulous sets and our huge cast had a great time performing for two nights of packed houses.
My first and foremost concern in the Spring of 1987 was to set my “three-pronged” plan into action. I applied to the NEH for an Independent Study Fellowship (submitting a proposal entitled “Wellspring and Crucible: The Family in Modern American Drama”) and scoured the Sunday New York Times “Jobs in Education” offerings looking for “perfect” match in Westchester County. In the meantime, I continued to teach my classes and, as Spring rolled in, got to coach tennis yet again. We didn’t have quite as strong a lineup as the previous year, but I knew we’d be competitive and, given a break here or there, could win another League title.
By early April I was getting concerned about my “Master Plan,” when there it was! An ad in the Sunday Times for a Social Studies teaching position in Bronxville, New York. I was familiar with Bronxville from my teaching/coaching days at Blind Brook. What made this ad seem fortuitous, though, was that it said to apply to the school Principal, Judy Codding. I knew Judy since my summer at Harvard in 1981 so, before even sending in a resume. I called her at home that night. She told me someone was in line for the job (it was a one year “leave replacement” position) but if I could get to Bronxville by tomorrow (Monday!) for an interview, she could run me by the Superintendent, several Board Members, and the head of the Department --- and I’d have the job.!
It went like clockwork. I got to Bronxville by Monday morning, ran through my paces and, as I left, Judy assured me I’d be replacing a woman I had actually student-taught with in Greenwich 15 years earlier --- and that there would be a new position to fill by the time I was ready for a second year. Phase One of my three-pronged plan was now a reality. As soon as I got back to Boston, I called Jay Fasold and told him to alert everyone he knew to help find an apartment on the Upper West Side asap. By the second week in April I got confirmation in writing about the Bronxville job, I received a letter from the NEH accepting my Independent Study proposal and Jay’s friend, rock’n’roll lawyer Judy Tint called, informing me her friend on West 75th Street was leaving for L.A. at the end of June and needed someone to sublet his studio apartment. Bada-Bing, Bada-Boom! The three-prong plan was complete, and I informed the folks at Winchester that I’d be leaving for New York as soon as the school year ended.
People in Winchester were disappointed I wouldn’t be back (I had just been given tenure!) but understood the allure of New York City and wished me well. The tennis team exceeded all expectations, finishing 18-0 again with another League title. We lost, once again, in the State Championship Semifinals to Weston (whose coach cheated and rigged his line-up to win). Despite that loss, I was named “Spring Coach of the Year” in the local press, leaving on a high note. At the end of June, I packed up my apartment and drove to New York City, ready to start a new chapter.
One of the bonuses of joining the Bronxville teaching staff was the school’s participation in Ted Sizer’s fledgling Coalition of Essential Schools reform initiative. The school was one of the “charter members” of the group and, as I saw it, on the cutting edge of erasing Horace’s Dilemma in exchange for the New World of Education. I spent the summer in the New York Public Library and out in Riverside Park, reading and researching the works of Thornton Wilder, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Sam Shepard, putting together my ideas about the “Family in Modern American Drama” for the NEH.
At some point in late August I got a call from Bronxville’s local newspaper asking for an interview, explaining they wanted to “introduce” me to the community since they had heard “great things” about me from Principal Codding. During the interview I waxed poetic about Ted Sizer and how exciting it was going to be to work with Judy, how much I was looking forward to implementing “real” school reform in the coming year. Little did I know that the Bronxville staff was seriously divided over school reform issues and the older, male members of the faculty, in particular (many of whom I knew from my coaching days at Blind Brook), were not at all pleased with their female Principal and what they felt was her “top-down” strategy for change. By the time I set foot in the building, I was already “Judy’s Boy” and had alienated a number of faculty.
So, I finished my NEH Independent Study, submitting a one-act play (in which the “characters” were Wilder, O’Neill, Miller, Shepard, and a “Man(me),” who come and go around a kitchen table discussing their dramaturgical views of “family” embedded in “drama.”) It was pretty clever by half and I was proud of my work. No one at the NEH ever commented about it, but they did send me the second half of my stipend money by September 1st, as promised. At that point I walked into the Snake Pit that was the Bronxville Faculty, naively thinking I was entering School Reform Nirvana and quickly discovering I had passed through the School Reform Hell portal.
Boots on the Ground
Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Bil
Track One: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
Life away from Winchester High School from 1984 to 1987 had a definite Jekyll/Hyde quality to it, particularly over the weekends. And it was there that another formative text reared its (Ugly? Crazy? Insane?) head. If you have never read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971)I highly recommend it. As a piece of literature, it is unique and groundbreaking. As a blueprint for a lifestyle, it is borderline criminal/suicidal! Thompson was part of the “new journalism” literary movement that began in the mid/late 1960s, featuring Tom Wolfe (the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip) and Norman Mailer(Armies of the Night, Why Are We in Vietnam?). As an undergraduate Literature “concentrator,” I was taken with not only the pure energy of the writing but also the fine subjective/objective line the authors tight-roped. Fear and Loathing grabbed me from its opening sentence: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . . “ (p.3) The entire book reads like a novel and it is hard to distinguish what’s real/true and what is the product of Thompson’s (admitted) drug/alcohol addled imagination. At the heart of it, though, was this: “we’re on our way to Las Vegas to find the American Dream.” (p.6) The book is uniquely American and, as a product of the 1960s “drug culture,” there was a level of visceral, careening muscularity to its prose.
While I was not much of a drug user in college (to this day, marijuana repulses me….the aroma is gross & its effects on me were always negative --- muscle aches, paranoia, etc.) I did “experiment” with LSD enough to appreciate Thompson’s imagery and colorful descriptions in Fear and Loathing. Living in Boston my “experimental” tastes shifted to alcohol (Scotch & champagne) and Peruvian Marching Powder (as Jay McInerney labeled it in Bright Lights, Big City) ---but only from Friday night to Sunday night! All the discipline I had formerly used in sports and academics was now applied to my emulation of Thompson and Dr. Gonzo during my weekends in Beantown.
Track Two: Annie B’s & Catering with Kayo
Those weekends, bartending at Annie B’s on Boylston St. primarily, are a bit hazy as I look back now. One interesting aspect to the job was that I was the only straight man on the staff --- a new experience for me --- but one that certainly expanded my view of the world (for the better!). Two other experiences that I do remember clearly are meeting Jim Koch (pronounced Kuk), the founder of the Sam Adams Brewery and working with Brazilian chef Kayo (pronounced Kye-Oh) D’Olivero. In Koch’s case, it was 1984 and he had just started his brewery, reviving a family business. He was actually walking from bar-to-bar all across Boston, trying to convince bars/restaurants to stock his new beer. Showing great foresight, our restaurant manager agreed to feature the new brew (thinking it might bring in business) and I actually still have a lovely ceramic stein that Koch gave to all our bartenders marking the first anniversary of the brewery.
Kayo D’Olivero was a wiry, bearded, energetic chef --- a magician in the kitchen. A quiet, kind soul, we hit it off from Day One. While he often feuded with the owners of the restaurant (they were control freaks) he loved working with (and feeding) the staff. In short order, Kayo began a catering business and, once it became popular in Boston, he left Annie B’s. Before leaving, though, while still the head chef at the restaurant, he hired me as his bartender on catering jobs and it was some of the most fun I had in those years. We catered small parties on sumptuous boats in Boston Harbor and huge wedding and birthday parties for Russian Orthodox Jews in Brookline (where I was simply a “server,” because we put a half dozen bottles of alcohol on each table). Sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes we’d recruit a waitress from the restaurant to work with us, but it was always fun --- and profitable (something I needed to support my growing alcohol/substance abuse problem). Flashing back to “Dr.” Thompson, I think Kayo and I saw what we were doing as:
A classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in
the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic
possibilities of life in this country --- but only for those with true grit.
And we were chock full of that. (p.18, Fear and Loathing)
Track Three: The Beantown Music Scene
In the 1980s Boston and Cambridge had a thriving music scene. Growing up in the Sixties, music was integral to our lives. The British invasion, started by the Beatles, of course, built on the rich Motown sounds we were already addicted to. The Ed Sullivan Show became “must-see-t.v.” on Sunday nights as band after band made appearances. I went to my first “big” concert in February 26, 1966 at the Island Garden in Hempstead, New York to see Bob Dylan (backed by the future The Band musicians in the second half of the show). My brother and I (and three friends) drove upstate on a Wednesday to attend Woodstock (which started on Friday!) in August 1969. By 1984, I was playing the guitar a lot and had recently picked up plunking around on the piano (Winchester had a “faculty room” that was used as storage space for the Music Department, so I had access to an upright piano and an upright, acoustic double bass during my free periods). One of my apartment neighbors on Commonwealth Avenue was in a rock/punk band that played the local clubs and the Boston Phoenix newspaper and radio station provided all the music news anyone needed. As noted by Peter Vigneron in the November 27, 2012 Boston Magazine:
Thirty years ago, the Phoenix was the essential paper for a new generation of readers: those interested in a smart, countercultural alternative to the offerings of the mainstream press. Its writers and editors, many of whom are now among the most distinguished in American journalism, surveyed the landscape here in the city and created an enduring body of work in culture, the arts, politics, even sports. Its music section was read nationally, exerting—along with the Village Voice and Rolling Stone—a powerful influence on early rock criticism. The Phoenix helped develop an entire genre of writing, media criticism, that is now a staple in most papers and magazines.
There were jazz and rock clubs all over Boston and Cambridge. Landsdowne Street had the Avalon and Axis, Harvard Ave. in Allston featured Bunratty’s, and there was great jazz at Paul’s Mall right on Boylston Street in Back Bay. ManRay in Central Square, Cambridge (easily accessible on the “T”) was another great venue. There were also great concerts on the Boston Common in the summer, where I saw Don Henley, the Eurhythmics, and Howard Jones. Rock “luminaries” of the time like Peter Wolf (of the J.Geils Band) and Dan Fogelberg were “quasi-regulars” at Annie B’s and once, again, “Dr.” Thompson captures the feeling of that era in Fear and Loathing. “Turn up the radio. Turn up the tape machine. Look into the sunset ahead. Roll the windows down for a better taste of the cool desert wind(or cool Harbor breeze, in my case). Ah, yes. That’s what it’s all about. . . Tooling around the Main Drag on a Saturday Night.”
I don’t think I’m alone, as a Sixties Survivor, who recalls much of his past by evoking a “soundtrack” from a particular era. My mid-Eighties life in Boston is remembered with music from McCoy Tyner, Michael (as well as Joe )Jackson, Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits --- and probably hundreds more (remember MTV was a media phenomenon at the time!). There’s lots of music you have time for when you’re burning the candle at both ends from Friday night to Sunday night!
Track Four: Beantown Sports
It was tough being a New York sports fan living in Boston. The Red Sox had one good season when I lived there but, happily, lost to the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series (I attended one game in NY and one in Boston --- the Mets lost both. So, when offered a ticket to Game Seven in NY, I turned it down, thereby winning the World Series for the New York team!). The Celtics, on the other hand, were dominant in the NBA (the Knicks sucked!) and, aside from seeing them practice at Hellenic, one of my Social Studies colleagues got tickets to the old Boston Garden, so I saw several games over those years. Bird, Parrish, McHale --- one helluva team, for sure. The Patriots were in the Super Bowl my first year in Boston and I gleefully watched their dismantling against the Bears. The Mets win was big but the New York Football Giants winning the Super Bowl on January 25, 1987 was my sports highlight during my “exile” in Boston, 1984-1987.
Track Five: Writing
Throughout my years in Boston I never lost my desire to become a writer. I cranked out short stories (which I shared with my students) and I attended workshops. One of the first I went to was a two-day screenwriting clinic led by Syd Field whose book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting was considered a “classic.” Two other participants at that workshop were Steven Wright, the comedian who went on to win a 1989 Oscar in the “Best Short Film, Live Action” category and Craig Lambert, a Deputy Editor of Harvard Magazine. Despite loving Wright’s comedy, I never even struck up a conversation with him (he didn’t seem “approachable”) but Dr. Lambert and I hit it off famously and began a friendship that encompasses writing, sports, and cultural criticism to this day. Craig, aside from being a fine journalist (Sports Illustrated, Town & Country, New York Times) and writer/editor for Harvard, has published two books (Mind Over Water and Shadow Work). He has always been a reliable sounding board on a range of topics, even beyond writing.
As a result of our writing workshops I managed to write two screenplays and one stage play (finished after leaving Boston, in an NYU workshop in the summer of 1988). All of that work presently sits in a file drawer (along with the 415-page novel) in our upstairs office --- waiting to be discovered posthumously, as I see it.
Track Six: Coda
My life in Boston was a raucous roller-coaster of a time and, looking back, my non-Winchester life echoes with sounds of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing. As such, it is his summary (of a different place and time) that best reflects my own feelings of Boston, 1984-1987.
It seems like a lifetime, or at least, a Main Era --- the kind of peak that
never comes again. San Francisco in the middle Sixties (Boston in the
middle Eighties) was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe
it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation,
no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing
you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever
it meant. . . ( pp. 66-67)
My Boston “Album”
Dr. Gonzo meets Dr. Sizer
The second year in Boston/at Winchester High continued at a breakneck pace. As the 1985-1986 school year began, an Assistant Principal approached me, asking if I would be interested in directing the Fall play. (yes, but I insisted on producing/directing Sam Shepard’s Buried Child). Around the same time, the Athletic Director inquired as to whether I would want to coach the boys' tennis team in the Spring (Yes, I’d love to!) All the while I was still bartending on Thursday/Friday or Saturday/Sunday Brunch, creating a seriously bifurcated life! Unlike Rye Brook, where I socialized with my colleagues (and some of the parents in the community), my life in Boston was sharply divided between the professional (teaching) realm and my personal (non-teaching) affairs. Dr. Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise became “the text” that guided my classroom practice, while “Dr.” Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas provided the “soundtrack” for my personal life. 1985-1986 became a bizarre, self-produced “concept album.” Side One was Dr. Sizer & Mr. Johnson and Side 2 was Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Bil . And that’s where we pick things up as the needle drops on 1985-1986.
Dr. Sizer and Mr. Johnson
Track One: Horace’s Compromise
Published in 1984, Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise entered my life at some point during my second year at Winchester and it struck a number of responsive chords. There were philosophical echoes of Herndon while focusing disciplined school reform proposals in a manner our Sixties “alternative school” movement never did. Sizer creates “Horace Smith,” a veteran English teacher in a suburban high school as his vehicle for examining the state of high schools across the United States in the early 1980s. In his introduction, Sizer notes: “This book urges renewed public attention to the importance of teaching in high schools and to the complexity and subtlety of that craft.” (p 4) AMEN!, I thought. Sizer echoes Herndon by declaring, “High school is a kind of secular church, a place of national rituals that mark stages of a young citizen’s life.” Needless to say, I was sold on Sizer right from the start.
The author then takes us through Horace’s day, the rhythms and patterns clearly recognizable to anyone who has been a teacher. Sizer also notes this about his character:
Horace is a gentle man. He reads the frequent criticism of his profession
in the press with compassion. Johnny can’t read. Teachers have low
Graduate Record Examination scores. We must vary our teaching to the
learning styles of our pupils. We must relate to the community. We must
be scholarly, keeping up with our fields. . . . Horace is a trouper; he hides
his bitterness. Nothing can be gained by showing it. . . . He will go with the
flow. What alternatives is there? (p. 19)
And that’s where Sizer elucidates how Horace Smith, in order to do his job and still be able to look at himself in the mirror, must make compromises.
Even after adroit accommodations and devastating compromises --- only
five minutes per week of attention on the written work of each student and
an average of ten minutes of planning for each fifty-odd minute class ---
the task is already crushing in reality a sixty-hour week. . . . Furthermore,
none of these sixty-plus hours is spent replenishing his own academic
capital. That has to be done in addition, perhaps during the summer. (p.20)
Indeed, this was not unlike the position I found myself in teaching English at Winchester High School! Happily, as the book proceeds, Sizer makes a compelling (and persuasive) case for student-centered teaching/coaching, as well as a much larger scale school reform proposal (which would enter my life in a big way sooner than I expected!). Encouraged by the text, I charged ahead, holding my students to high expectations, breaking kids into small groups, and, most importantly, listening to their ideas! I was an anomaly at WHS but, like Horace Smith I was trying to get by with the fewest compromises while being able to look at myself in the mirror each morning.
Track Two: In the Classroom
My degree from Yale was in American Studies (an interdisciplinary major) but my “area of concentration” was Literature, so I relished the opportunity to (finally!) teach English. I discovered Winchester had more than enough copies of Hemingway’s In Our Time and Stephen King’s Nigh Shift --- the first collections of short stories from both authors and perfect material for my (supposedly “low track”) students. I supplemented those authors with the short stories of Breece D’J Pancake (a little known but brilliant short story writer). The students ate it up. The stories were, indeed, short (On the Quay at Smyrna, Hemingway’s opening stories is only two pages! --- but brilliant), the language was easily accessible, and the students had lots of ideas about symbolism, character, and all the “classic” elements of literary analysis. What sent the class into overdrive, though, was my sharing a couple of stories by Josh L. Brounwin, an unpublished author. (If you re-arrange the letters of “Josh L. Brounwin” you get “Wilbur Johnson” --- a device I learned from researching Vladimir Nabokov in a course at Iona College). When the students were told this was my fiction, they got excited about writing their own short stories, and we were off!
In much the same way, my Senior Elective in T.V./Media became a great deal of fun once it was turned over to the students. We had a basic (read “primitive”) television “studio,” with two cameras and a control board that could switch from camera to camera and do some limited “special effects.” After studying commercials, the students reveled in making their own satiric versions of what they had seen on t.v. Fabulous and fun! At the same time, my Sophomores quickly got the hang of the Macintosh computers and were busy either writing assignments for other classes or creating their own fiction. I was beginning to really understand Ted Sizer’s notion of “teacher as coach” as a result of the classroom work at Winchester High School.
Track Three: Buried Child
Having accepted the assignment of producing/directing the Fall Play --- on the condition I could do Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child --- I quickly found myself holding auditions. Winchester had a tradition of doing Fall plays that included rather large casts produced what I saw as “hackneyed” material (I told someone,” No one needs to see Arsenic and Old Lace again.”). I also saw using Shepard as an opportunity to make the play another “class” for the students. Let’s be clear here, though --- I had never produced/directed a school play before. Having gleaned a great deal from watching the work of my brilliant Blind Brook colleague, Peter Tarshis, I dived into the task with great energy and a headful of ideas. The work of Viola Spolin and Sandy Meisner proved essential to working with my young actors and the Industrial Arts teachers (Dave Miller & John Fusco) and their stage crew created a beautiful set for the play. I winnowed out the seven actors needed for the drama and then chose seven understudies (who would have their own performance as a Saturday matinee --- a first for Winchester). Our numbers were small, given Winchester’s Fall Play history, but the talent was enormous, and both casts provided wonderful performances.
Track Four: Tennis
As springtime rolled around, tennis season was on the horizon. Unlike the drama production, I did have experience coaching tennis, having served as the Boys Varsity Coach at Blind Brook for five or six years. It goes without saying that affluent suburbs invariably have good tennis teams and, indeed, my Blind Brook teams were more than competitive (only Bronxville stood in our way of the League title year after year). Winchester, though, was another level altogether. There was aa array of banners in the gymnasium heralding Tennis team League Championships going back to the early 1970s. I told the Athletic Director that I feared a blank space or a banner saying “Johnson F-ed Up” being raised if I didn’t come through. Luckily for me, I was blessed with some really great players and we went 13-0 in League play, 18-0 for the season, and made it to the semifinals of the State championship before finally losing. Led by Senior captain Shawn Herlihy and some sterling underclassmen (Joe Palumbo, Gavin Barton, Scott Herlihy) the team was a pure joy to work with, far beyond the winning.
Track Five: The Golden Apple
During my first year at Winchester someone (the PTA? Administrators? Department Chairs?) thought it would be good idea to “recognize” teachers by giving an award in the Spring. It was called “The Golden Apple” and the student body voted on it and, after administrative approval, a teacher was “recognized” at the Spring Awards Assembly. It was a very well-kept secret with people on the Faculty speculating as to who the recipient might be. My first year, having created sufficient “buzz,” I thought it would be very cool to win the Golden Apple --- but how many Rookies win the MVP (very few)?
In 1984-1985 the award went to a colleague in the Math Department and, to the credit of the Faculty, there was no gossip or backbiting about the winner. By my second year, the students were assuring me that I would be the Golden Apple recipient. I, of course, knew better than to believe student scuttlebutt and actually believed my Department Chair when she told me I had to accompany her to the Spring Awards Assembly because, as the least senior member of the department, it was “my turn.” That, of course, was a ruse and, to my delight and surprise, I actually did win the Golden Apple! It was gratifying, even if it seemed to be a “popularity” contest. My English Department colleagues seemed pleased that we had wrested the award away from those math barbarians, so that also made it a fun “win.”
Track Six: The NEH Application
As the second semester began in early 1986, I went online and found the list of NEH Summer Seminars for Secondary Teachers offerings. What immediately caught my eye was a seminar at Columbia University on Modern American Drama taught by Howard Stein, the first permanent chair of the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theater Studies, and the head of playwriting at the University. No-brainer. I had to wait until almost April to find out if I would be included in the group of 15 selected to study in New York City. My classes and tennis coaching proved a suitable distraction --- though I wanted this second NEH more than I had the first. Happily, in early April, I was accepted, and I began looking forward to what I thought would be an exciting summer --- little knowing that it would actually be a life-altering experience!
Flip it over!
Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Bil
My first year in Boston was a blur. Despite getting the teaching job in Winchester I kept my bartending gig, usually working Thursday night, Friday and/or Saturday night, and Sunday brunch. Even though that would be a “full plate” for any “normal” person, I also took a part-time position at Hellenic College, a Greek Orthodox institution in Brookline, teaching United States History on Monday, Wednesday, Friday afternoons from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. (with the fringe benefit of watching the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics practice in the Hellenic gym!) I’d be less than honest to not note here that my weekends (following a strict Friday night through Sunday night regimen) were classic examples of drug/alcohol excesses. Like any good addict, I denied having a “problem” and it was a crazy, careening three years that, naturally, ended with a (rather anticlimactic but predictable) crash and burn. In spite of my “bad behavior,” my time at Winchester was wildly successful, a veritable highlight reel while it lasted.
The first weekend I lived in Boston I took the “B” line from the stop in front of my apartment building in Brighton to Kenmore Square and walked over to Fenway Park, where I bought a bleacher seat ticket and took in a Red Sox game. It was a beautiful July afternoon and, at that point, I was still adjusting to the move. One of the most immediate challenges I faced was understanding the natives! The famed Boston accent required some getting used to and I spent at least three or four weeks saying, “Excuse me?” Once I began teaching I encountered the same problem with my students. “Hey, Mr. Jawn-son, are you gonna potty this weekend?” Quizzically, I’d ask, “Potty? Potty? Like go to the bathroom?” “No!” they’d howl, “No! You know, potty . . . like drink beer, and all …” I’d feign that I finally understood, “Ah, you mean party! Why can’t you guys speak English?” They’d howl with delight and continue to make fun of me and my crazy accent that insisted on pronouncing the letter “R.”
It was during this year that Herndon’s Notes from a School Teacher was released and, naturally, I gobbled it up. The timing seemed fortuitous. How to Survive appeared just before my teaching career began and now, pausing to restart my career, a new Herndon book. While Notes echoes some of the basic ideas of How to Survive (particularly regarding school structure) it also reflects the shifts that had occurred across the educational landscape over those dozen-plus years . Writing in the early 1980s, as the President of his Local Union, Herndon takes on the hot issues of the time: “standards,” “time on task,” “merit pay,” and “teacher evaluation.” The last one particularly irks the author, as it seeks to quantify what he believes is essentially unknowable.
Herndon frames his discussion of teacher evaluation using the merit pay issue, quoting AFT President Albert Shanker:
The idea that if you’re paid more you’ll work harder may apply
to selling encyclopedias. If you’re a lion-tamer, you’re not
going to work any harder just because you’ll be paid more. The
job of a teacher is more like a lion-tamer, I think.
As Herndon describes it:
You begin to teach as a lion-tamer, to be sure, and if not
eaten up, go on to ask other teachers what they do here
and there, what “works” for them, and quite soon, by some
curious amalgam, you develop a way to work in the classroom,
which suits you and which you think is best . . . best, considering
the various and vast distances between what you must do, want
to do, and can do. (p. 83)
At Blind Brook I had been a Humanities teacher, a Social Studies teacher, an American Studies teacher, a History teacher, an Ethical Issues teacher --- but never a full time English teacher, which is what I was now in Winchester. My teaching assignment was: “lower” track Juniors ( U.S. Literature and Poetry); A T.V./Media course (for “low track” Seniors); and one group of “challenged” Sophomores, for a writing class using our shiny new Macintosh computers. After several weeks working with “my kids” I realized that everything I believed about tracking was true, particularly about expectations. My students had been told they were “low-achievers” and therefore became low achievers. I wasn’t having any of it. From the start I let them know that I thought they were pretty smart and could, if they put their minds to it, easily achieve success in my classes --- if they met me halfway and worked at it! It took some time (lion-taming) but, in relatively short order, they were doing great work and, more important, we were having fun.
Winchester High School was a world away from Blind Brook. It was four times as big, in terms of number of students and physical size. To me it was a throwback --- much more like the Bay Shore High School I attended in the mid-Sixties than the Blind Brook of the mid-1970s/early 1980s. Winchester had not been touched by the Sixties “school reform” movement but it was sensitive to the Federal rumblings bubbling up in the mid-1980s. In Notes from a School Teacher, Herndon writes that public education has been subjected to periodic pendulum swings, starting with the Committee of Ten in 1893, followed by the Carnegie Foundation Reports (around 1910), then Dewey’s Progressive movement promoted by Columbia University in the 1930’s --- with the Sputnik Revolution shifting our educational focus in 1957. The late 1960s saw the advent of the “school reform/alternative school” movement and, by the mid-1980’s Herndon rails about the Committee on Excellence and their recommendations. His point is: the pendulum swings from left (progressive) reforms to right (conservative) reforms but very little actually changes for the classroom teacher. So, while still deeply interested in genuine school reform I figured the best I could do, for the time being, was teach as a subversive activity (thank you, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner), introducing Winchester High School to some new ideas inside my classroom.
This created some “buzz” at Winchester High. While I only taught about 125 kids (out of a student body of approximately 1600) they were the “middle/low track” kids and, therefore, part of the numerical majority of the student body (AP & “Honors” students comprised not more than 20% of the student population). Anyone who has worked in a school knows how quickly news/gossip spreads and, before I knew it, random kids were popping into my room during free periods to check out the "new guy." My students thought I was a “good” teacher, apparently, and pretty “cool,” at that (I was conversant in the popular music of the day, sports talk, movies & tv --- “popular culture” --- and tied that into school as much as possible). My Dad always said the only ones who could judge whether he was a good father or not were me and my brother. I figured the same held true about my teaching (only my students could really judge) and that brought me back to Herndon.
Considering the question of what “makes” a great teacher, Herndon says:
Are the great teachers more entertaining? Have they better intellectual command
of their subjects? Have they greater rapport with their students? Are they more
efficient, provide more time on task? Are they more aware of their students’ ethnic
backgrounds, social class, personal or family problems? All of the above? Well, some
of the above? No one knows. Does anyone know whether students actually learn
more from great teachers, if you could ever find out who were the great teachers?
No one knows that either. (pp.84-85)
I have no idea how good a teacher I actually was at Winchester High School, but I did know that focusing on my students, working at engaging them seemed to hit a responsive chord. The first year at Winchester flew by and my whirlwind lifestyle as the “hip, young (Bartending) Teacher” wrapped up.
Still hoping to become a writer, I also took a couple of workshops on screenwriting and actually found a writing partner (a customer from the bar!) and headed into the summer (and full-time bartending) hoping to write the Great American Screenplay, but still looking for how to get back on that school reform bandwagon. And that’s when Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise entered the picture.
Pause, and Reset
(1984 to 1987)
In the spring of 1981 David Schein informed me of a unique opportunity for summer professional development --- and it paid! Basically, there was a Federal Grant available that would fund schoolteachers to attend Harvard University for four weeks (and 8 graduate credits) and work with renowned Professor Lawrence Kohlberg to develop an Ethical Issues in Decision-Making syllabus for K-12 students. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity and won one of the grants (just before the Reagan Administration drastically slashed Education funding). I got to live in Cambridge for four weeks, study with Kohlberg (and leave with not only 8 graduate credits but also a complete one-semester course for my students!), become friends with Judy Codding, the Principal of the Scarsdale Alternative School who was an assistant to Kohlberg, and would later become a very important figure in my life, and got paid. The only negative of that summer was that Major League Baseball was experiencing its first “modern” labor dispute and the players were on strike --- depriving me of my first opportunity to go to Fenway Park. What I also learned, though, is that there were professional development summer opportunities for teachers and that would prove incredibly important in my future growth as an educator.
By the spring of 1983 David Schein was no longer the Principal at Blind Brook High School and we had a new District Superintendent who was more a Corporate Manager than an Educational Leader. On the heels of a life-altering personal setback (I had blown up my marriage & my wife had moved out) I was finishing that school year with questions about whether I should stay at Blind Brook or not. What made my last year (1983-1984) in Rye Brook workable was that my antenna was up in Spring 1983 and I applied for an inaugural National Endowment for the Humanities Seminars for Secondary Teachers being offered on 15 campuses around the country. The brainchild of Secretary of Education William Bennett:
A Seminar for School Teachers enables 15 NEH Summer Scholars to explore a topic or set of readings with a scholar having special interest and expertise in the field. The core material of the seminar need not relate directly to the school curriculum; the principal goal of the seminar is to engage teachers in the scholarly enterprise and to expand and deepen their understanding of the humanities through reading, discussion, writing, and reflection.
Basically, the NEH was going to pay a tidy sum (about $3000 to $3500 for 4 to 6 weeks) for selected teachers to be students during the summer. Too good to pass up. It happened that one of the 6-week seminars offered that first year was being run by Professor Michael Cooke at Yale. I applied. I got in. I spent the summer living in New Haven and working with Professor Cooke and 14 other teachers from all over the country. It was exhilarating! Two of the teachers were published poets (one was Prince’s high school English teacher!) and the others were from all over the U.S. Cooke was a brilliant professor and we read Conrad, Ellison, and Garcia-Marquez, dissecting the texts during our five to six-hour daily seminars Monday through Thursday. Friday was a morning session, a group luncheon, and the weekend off.
The value of treating high school teachers like thoughtful, intelligent professionals can’t be overestimated. I returned to Blind Brook in September 1983 with renewed energy, even as I knew it was going to be my last year at the school. What was lurking in the back of my mind was that in three years (1986) I would be eligible for another NEH fellowship --- and that became crucially important in my professional “reset.”
As it happened, I wrapped up the school year as the Graduation Speaker for the Class of 1984 and, on July 1st, moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Commonwealth Avenue, along the “B” Line, in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. I didn’t have a teaching job. In fact, I didn’t have job at all. My “plan” was to find a bartending job and get serious about being a writer (I had already written a 415-page novel --- back in 1979, as I turned 30 --- it was sitting in a folder). Right after the 4th of July weekend I literally hit the street, putting in bartending applications all over Boston. Within a couple of days, I was hired at Annie B’s, a chi-chi bar/restaurant on Boylston Street across from the Boston Public Library and Copley Square. It was a fun job but the money wasn’t great and, by late August, I realized I was going to need to find a teaching job if I was going to pay rent, keep gas in my car, and eat. I picked up the Boston Globe and started looking for teaching jobs. On the Friday before Labor Day weekend I was hired to teach 11th grade English at Winchester High School, 12 miles north of my Brighton apartment --- an easy commute in my Datsun F-10.
So, the Tuesday after Labor Day I met my colleagues at Winchester High, a 1600 student public school in a fairly affluent town (Yo-Yo Ma and former CIA Director William Casey lived there) that had a “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood bordering the town of Woburn. My Department Chair, an ensconced spinster who loved that I had gone to Yale, apologized that I would, as the last hired and least “senior” in the Department of 16 teachers, have to teach the “low track” students. Typical of my “Pro’s from Dover” attitude (which hadn’t faded over the years) I simply said, “Great, I think the best teachers should work with the kids who are most challenged by being in school.” So, even though Winchester wasn’t a new or innovative school, I was going to be able to find my inner-Herndon working with kids the school had written off.
In 1979, as I was about to turn 30 years old, I panicked that I wasn’t “famous” yet, particularly as a writer. An aspiring author, I had yet to publish anything and couldn’t believe I was now turning 30! So, I proceeded to write a 415-page novel entitled “No Deposit, No Return,” about a 30-ish schoolteacher named Wiley Baer and his (mis)adventures as a teacher/interim Dean of Students at Delham High School, a Boston suburban educational institution. Thinking I was writing a satire, I described my fictional school this way:
Symmetry. Look at it. I bet this corridor can hold the entire student
body. A big Mother corridor with all its babies suckling off it. Here’s
the English baby, with Social Studies right across. Wings. What a
concept. Schools with wings --- never getting off the ground. (p.2)
Winchester High School didn’t have “a big Mother corridor” with Departmental wings suckling off of it but the school was designed so that each department did have its own set of classrooms with Departmental offices and conference room located there. Not exactly what I had imaginatively created but pretty close. In fact, the Departments at Winchester were insular and territorial --- and my habit of having lunch in the Faculty lunchroom (with Math teachers, coaches, administrators, et al) was questioned early on in my tenure at WHS. Despite that, my Yale pedigree, great rapport with the “difficult kids,” and ability to teach writing on the 20 brand-new Macintosh computers (no one else in the Department had any facility on the new machines) quickly made me the Department Chair’s “fair-haired boy” --- much to the chagrin of several of the veteran members of the staff.
So, starting in September 1984 I began my “new” career, living in Boston, teaching at Winchester, bartending at Annie B’s and still believing that I was going to become write the Great American Novel, an aspiration that wouldn’t be fulfilled (sort of) until a decade later.