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"