School Change/School Reform
I believe Herndon’s Explanatory Note #5 was the most impactful advice I gleaned from How to Survive --- and I can see, in retrospect, how it colored my approach to changing/reforming schools during my career. Initially, the efforts were scattershot, as so much of the late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s “movements” were. It takes time for seminal ideas and philosophy to take root, requiring deeper thought and articulation to clarify ideas, to winnow out the excesses, to focus the task. So, in the Spring of 1971 I was really only armed with Herndon’s notion of change but it was, for me, powerful and exciting.
Explanatory Note #5: Four- or Five-minute Speech for a Symposium on American Institutions And Do They Need Changing Or What?
The first characteristic of any institution is that no matter what the inevitable purpose for which it was invented, it must devote all its energy to doing the exact opposite. Thus, a Savings Bank must encourage the people to borrow money at Interest, and a School must inspire its students toward Stupidity. (p. 109)
The second characteristic is that an institution must continue to exist. Every action must be undertaken with respect to eternity. (p. 110)
By Spring 1971 I had experienced seventeen years of formal education. Because I attended Yale between 1967 and 1971 I was able to view, first-hand, how a venerable institution dealt with change. During my four years Yale changed its grading system (from a 0-100 scale, with 70 as the “fail” line to a “modified” Pass/Fail system, which included “Honors” and “High Pass” --- essentially an A,B,C, F scale), it also reduced the number of courses required for graduation (from 40 to 36) and, halfway through my time there, admitted women --- making my graduating class the first co-educated undergraduates! Those are all, on the surface, significant changes. And I’m sure, to the “Old Blue” alumni Yale did, indeed, seem to be a different place. Being in the midst of it all, we simply believed we were the “wave of the future” and that Yale would be forever “different” because of those changes. Yet, when I worked at the University in 2007-2008, co-education was something the students thought “had always been there” and the grading system was a fairly common A,A-, B+, B, B-, etc., and the course requirement for graduation was now 32. More shocking, and distressing, to me was how conservative the student body seemed to be --- all nose-to-the-grindstone and depressingly competitive. Having spent 12 years working at Brown University --- where the undergraduate atmosphere strongly resembled my Yale late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s vibe --- I was taken aback in New Haven. But then I remembered what Herndon had told me in Explanatory Note #5: “An institution loves change and criticism. It adapts. It endures. (p.110)” By 2007-2008, though, Yale’s retreat to a former incarnation (an earlier version of the institution) proved Herndon’s idea that “institutions” endure and adapt. It also spoke to another part of Explanatory Note #5 that had informed my career as an educator --- and proved equally important in my work. In looking at the ability of institutions to change and adapt, Herndon said:
The public school is the closest thing we have in America to a national established church. Getting-An-Education the closest thing to God, and it should be possible to treat it and deal with it as the church has been treated and dealt with. The treatment has not changed the existence . . . but it has allowed the growth of alternatives to it.
It is so. The American Public School (and even old private Universities) require legitimate alternatives if we are to initiate any genuine change. As my career progressed, I realized we could never topple The Public High School but we could, if we were creative and courageous, create alternatives that were more effective and humane than the current system, just as Luther and other Protestants created alternatives to the Pope and Roman Catholicism. Luckily for me --- and as so often been the case in my rather charmed life --- I was in right place at the right time.
Graduating on Flag Day (June 14th) 1971 with an American Studies (Intensive) degree ( “area of concentration:” Literature), I spent several months casting about as a vagabond house painter and then a carpenter’s apprentice on Long Island until the weather turned wintry and I visited the Main Office at Bay Shore High School where Mrs. Eileen Swital (who had been the Principal’s secretary when I was there, 1963-1967) assured me I could substitute teach (for $25.00 a day) without certification because (wink, wink) she wouldn’t be able to find a “qualified” certified teacher for that day. As a result, I worked almost daily from Pearl Harbor Day (December 7th) 1971 until about June 1st 1972, when I left for Hamilton, New York, and Colgate University’s Master of Arts in Teaching Program.
While substituting at my old High School and Junior High there was little of Herndon’s advice I could readily implement but what I did learn was that I loved being in the classroom, I related well to adolescents, and everything felt natural. It sealed the deal, regarding going to graduate school in 1972-1973 to get a Master’s degree in teaching (I had already applied to Harvard and Colgate). Harvard admitted me with zero financial aid and Colgate gave me a boatload of money (including a paid internship!) so there was no question as to where I was going. Once again, right place, right time.
Three factors at Colgate perfectly integrated my Herndon ideas with my classroom practice and my budding school change/school reform crusade. First and foremost was my Social Studies Methods course professor, Bill Moynihan. Tall, thin, bespectacled (he reminded of Syracuse’s basketball coach, Jim Boeheim) Bill was a low-key, brilliantly thoughtful educator. He knew what was important about teaching in secondary schools and he transferred that knowledge in a seamless, supportive way. It was Bill who contributed the second crucial building block to my career: he assigned Paolo Freire’s just published Pedagogy of the Oppressed ---one of the first books that began to “clarify” a process for harnessing the entropic energy the Sixties brought to school change. Freire’s notion of critical pedagogy, student-centered classrooms, and active learning built logically and incrementally on John Dewey’s progressive education philosophy. Finally, my first semester (paid) teaching internship placement was at Greenwich High School in Connecticut --- an affluent New York City suburb where the 2800 student high school was divided in 4 “Houses” (creating four smaller, 700-student schools, each with its own “Housemaster”/Principal and teaching staff). The school operated with a “modified-block” schedule (not your usual 7/8 period day): teachers met classes four times a week (not five) and two of those meetings were 66 minutes (the other two were 44 minutes each) --- providing a chance to do far more than “squeeze in” subject content. It provided me space to learn “how to” apply Freire and Herndon in a real setting, and it was great!
All this set the stage for the beginning of my career in September 1973 at the newly created school in Rye Brook, Westchester County, New York --- Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School. It all started in the Spring of 1973 with an ad I saw in “The Teacher Drop-Out Newsletter,” a publication that advertised teaching positions in “alternative” schools around the country. Blind Brook had placed an ad and I called and got an interview. That was April of 1973 and it changed my life.
Next: Explanatory Note #1 – Find a Good School and Send Your Kid There