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.