You CAN’T Go Home Again
Going to Yale University between 1967 and 1971 was the formative experience of my life. In ways I can’t count, Yale made me who I am. I learned how to read critically, write effectively, and think deeply. The people I went to school with, some of whom are still my closest friends, had a huge influence on what I learned and how I came to see the world. We were at Yale at a very volatile time in America’s history, of course, and that also had a deep impact on my thinking, and how I saw myself proceeding. That half my college career was spent at an “all-male bastion” and the other half in an “experimental” co-educational institution also had ramifications. After my summer working for the Yale Council on Community Affairs (1970), I headed to California for the month of August, where one of my closest high school friends, Gil Schaeffer, had moved after dropping out of Princeton. My parents were concerned that I, like Gil, wouldn’t come back and finish my degree. I never thought twice about not returning. Having already placed a deposit for a cottage on Lake Quonnipaug in North Guilford (CT) with Karl Pavlovic, I totally intended on returning, writing my Intensive Major “thesis” (on Modern American Literature & Mythology), checking out what Skull & Bones was like, and being the first in my (extended) family to get a college degree. Which is pretty much what happened.
One of the things I had relished working at Brown from 1996 to 2007 was that the undergraduate campus life reminded me of my own experience at Yale. Despite it being 25 years (plus) later, Brown’s campus buzzed with undergraduate energy and a sense of exploration and freedom that harkened back to my time in New Haven in the late Sixties. For some reason, I thought that Yale’s campus, in 2007, would also crackle with undergraduate zeal. I was dead wrong. What I found when I began working at Yale was a campus where the undergraduates were “heads-down” serious about their studies (not that Brown students weren’t, but things seemed far more carefree in Providence) and there was an “edge” of competition in everything. The Teacher Prep Program’s offices were, literally, in the shadow of Morse College, my residential home sophomore and junior year, so the contrast to my experience in Sixties New Haven and Nineties Providence felt all the starker.
And then there was the job itself. I had been used to a pretty freewheeling, collaborative environment, working with Larry, Eileen, Yvette, Carin, Romi, and Polly. Things were quite different in New Haven. Jack Gillette was the Director of the Program and not particularly open to my “fast-and-loose” approach to Teacher Preparation. It was also made clear to me, early on, that my “domain” was strictly observing the Undergraduates, and I really had little or nothing to do with the Urban Education Program students. That was a curve I hadn’t expected. At Brown, we made little distinction between our UTEPs and MATs. Linda Cole-Taylor, the Assistant Director, seemed to be in charge of making sure all the students in both programs were on track, academically, and taught some classes, while overseeing the “adjuncts” who taught content-courses in the Education certification process. What became obvious, the more I was there, was that Jack seemed to enjoy his teaching at the School of Management more than pushing an aggressive school reform Teaching Program in New Haven. Needless to say, this led to some friction.
On the home front, I moved into my spacious apartment on Elm Street, a house that bordered the far edge of Yale’s campus as well as the “southern tip” of the Dixwell Avenue ghetto. It made for interesting evenings with lots of noise --- music, arguments, shouting, singing, and only occasional gunshots. Early on, because the kitchen was so large, I bought a five-burner gas stove. My grill and smoker were set up outside my back door (sadly, I couldn’t have a garden) and friends from New York came up for some barbecue cook-outs in that fall. As mentioned, the landlord, Tom and Vickie Applegate, were “sketchy” (they lost the house in foreclosure right after I moved away) and, when their son Bryan was home, Tom had a restraining order to stay away. Since I could take Jack the Dog to my Yale office, the time spent on Elm Street was basically weekday evenings and weekends, so it was livable, if not ideal.
The three fringe benefits living in New Haven were: #1) a regular slate of good, live music at Toad’s Place (formerly Hungry Charlie’s, our favorite burger joint in the late Sixties) and Café Nine, down on State Street; #2) Pepe’s Pizza (the best pizza in the world!); and #3) the presence of Vincent Scully, who was teaching his Introduction to Art History course that Fall. Regarding the first item, I got to see the legendary Johnny Winter at Toad’s, as well as a number of pretty good blues and rock bands at Café Nine.
Pepe’s is legendary and deservedly so. Finally, spending time with Vince and his wife, Tappy Lynn (Catherine Willis Lynn, also an architectural historian), was a pure joy --- as was sitting in on Scully’s lectures in the Art Gallery Auditorium. As when I was an undergraduate, I never attended a Scully lecture without walking away having learned at least one new thing I had never thought of before. He was a remarkable teacher and a remarkable man --- and it was definitely the most “value-added” element of my second tour of duty in New Haven.
On the Teacher Prep front, I was having a fine time observing and de-briefing my student-teachers. The undergraduates were placed all over the city, in an array of subject areas. There were music teachers in a middle school as well as at Wilbur Cross High School. Social Studies and English teachers were at Hillhouse High, New Haven Academy, and, yes, The High School in the Community --- the school I had a hand in creating back in 1970! My connection to the Urban Education Program graduate students was mostly as a “drop-in” advisor and, while I got to “sit in” during the meetings Jack and Linda had regarding the Program, I did not feel like my input was particularly valued. While our work was “cordial,” it was not what I would call “collegial.”
A further negative turn experienced during my year at Yale came when I submitted a proposal to teach a “College Seminar.” The Residential College Seminar program started when I was an undergraduate:
The Residential College Seminar program, instituted in 1968, is devoted to the development of innovative courses that fall outside traditional departmental structures. The instructors for the seminar program are drawn from the University community and from the region, including individuals outside academic life, such as writers, artists, journalists, and participants in government and the public sector.
Since I was “only” a Staff Member and not part of the Faculty, the only way I could teach an undergraduate course would be through the Residential College Seminar Program. The way it works, an instructor submits a proposal to a student committee, which has representatives from each of the (then) 12 Residential Colleges, and the students then request an interview with the instructor to see if they want to offer his/her course as a College Seminar. I interviewed with two Colleges (Berkley and Saybrook), talking up my “White Privilege and Critical Pedagogy” proposal. The students reacted positively and both Colleges wanted to offer it. They agreed to present it to the Undergrads as a “joint” presentation of Saybrook and Berkley. I was excited at the opportunity to work with undergrads who weren’t part of the Teacher Ed certification program. The wrench in the works was that the Masters’ Council --- the Heads of the Residential Colleges --- had to approve all College Seminars. They rejected my proposal. I was not given a reason and could only conclude they didn’t want to touch “White Privilege” or simply had no idea what “Critical Pedagogy” was. Either way, it was a huge pin in my balloon and added to my discomfit and discomfort.
I realized I needed to “move on” from Yale/New Haven when we met to admit the next Urban Education Program class. There was money enough to admit TEN students each year, not a huge number, but the New Haven school district was only 25,000 students. To my mind, that meant the Yale Program could place 50 teachers in the public high schools over the next five years and, if they were prepared to be change agents (as we did at Brown) we could have a real impact on the New Haven schools. The first two cohorts of the Program had only been 7 students and Jack quickly informed me that this year’s would be that size --- or maybe smaller! He told me that he preferred the Program “fly under the University’s radar.” I’m not sure why, but a quote from Jack, after he had become the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, provided deeper insight for me.
Transformation is a term for funders. The reality is that this is a very complex organizational field, ill-designed to do any human development of teachers. No neo-liberal market intervention, no well-designed policy alone is going to be effective. What needs to line up is policy space, tied with huge increases in backroom management competency and innovation.
The buzzwords, for me, are “organizational field” and “backroom management.” Looking back and thinking about how Jack enjoyed his work at the School of Management, I realize that, even though I left Brown because of its shift toward Policy, I had landed at yet another place where policy ruled the roost. The combination of the College Seminar rejection and the Urban Education Program’s lack of commitment to large-scale school reform proved to be the death knell for my time at Yale.
Through some of the teachers at New Haven Academy, I had a lead on a job in New York City. When I was working in Providence, I often visited the City and, as the years went on, I mused that I was “getting too old” to live in New York again --- the pace seemed too fast, the noise incessant. By Spring of 2008, however, I was ready to return to the Big Apple and began considering going back to high school classroom teaching. Having been a "Teacher Educator" for 12 years, I thought it might be good to get back in the classroom to make sure I had been telling my students the truth all these years! Before pulling the trigger on that notion, however, I was given a wonderful opportunity to “test drive” my High School Teaching Chops by way of an ad I found for a San Francisco Video test-prep Company called “Big Tree Learning.”
Our mission at Big Tree Learning is to be the best place to learn in the world. We believe that great learning starts with great teaching. So, we find the best teachers, film them teaching, and build learning solutions around those great teacher videos.
One of the areas Big Tree wanted to offer was Advanced Placement United States History. I applied via email and was scheduled for an online video-chat interview.
Sitting in my “home office” on Elm Street, the interview lasted almost 45 minutes and, when it was over, I was pretty sure I had the job --- and I did! Several days later, I got a call, confirming I would be the AP U.S. History instructor for Big Tree Learning. This entailed spending a week in San Francisco, all expenses paid, plus a handsome stipend. We stayed at the W Hotel, a posh new upscale place off Market Street. The company had rented a suite of offices on Market Street which were set up as “studios.” We put in 8 to 12 hours a day, videotaping our presentations. For my APUSH videos, we moved around the city, shooting a number of outdoor scenes. Presentations were 15 to 20 minutes (I did over 20!) and I earned the nickname “One-Take Willie,” as I never had to re-shoot a segment. Our cohort was about 20 teachers across an array of subject areas and specialties, and the week was fabulous! By the time the videos were released in the Fall, the company had to change its name to Brightstorm, and my videos are still available there (www.brightstorm.com).
The lead I had gotten for a New York City teaching job from the New Haven teachers led to an interview at Essex Street Academy, on the Lower East Side. It was, purportedly, a Coalition School, and I interviewed for positions in both English and Social Studies/History. By the end of the interview I was told I had a job --- and it would be decided, at a later point in time whether I’d be teaching Social Studies/History or English. I didn’t care. I was happy to have a job and be returning to New York. For some reason, I decided I would live in Brooklyn, the Borough of my birth and, in 2008, the “hippest” place to live in New York City. I’d soon learn that I wasn’t all that “hip” and that things could actually be worse than what I was experiencing in New Haven.
Live and learn.