Friday, April 27, 2007

Coach Class

Here is an oped from the NY Sun by one parent who also runs an-arts program for children, about her experiences attending a Reading and Writing Project training session for literacy coaches.

Coach Class

April 27, 2007

Next fall many New York City public school teachers may find their "literacy coach" — most likely a young woman — compelling them to teach reading and writing exclusively by the methods of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

The project, headed by educator Lucy Calkins, was taken on in 2003 by Chancellor Klein in a three-year, $5.4 million no-bid contract to revamp how literacy is taught in New York's schools. Next year, the project will continue to offer services in many schools. Along with onsite labs, leadership seminars, and curricular materials, literacy coaching is a key tool toward fulfilling the Department of Education contract, and Ms. Calkins's desire to "radically transform schools."

I got a glimpse of how the project goes about training these coaches when I attended a free, open-to-the-public workshop last month called, "The Project's Latest and Best Thinking for Literacy Coaches (and Others who Provide Professional Development for Teachers)."

While Ms. Calkins, in a recent e-mail asserted, "We don't regard the work we do as re-training teachers — we provide professional development to interested colleagues," this respectful spirit of collegial cooperation, unfortunately, was not borne out in the workshop.

In fact, beyond all the lingo and sweet talk about "co-authoring" and "co-discovery," the message that came through the loudest was the project's certainty that they knew what was best for teachers, even if teachers themselves didn't. This certainty made it permissible to do whatever it took to get teachers to comply with the project's goals — meaning employing methods that were infantalizing and awkward.

The workshop instructor, an affable and well-spoken woman, tried valiantly to describe the dizzyingly complex apparatus coaches are instructed to use when standing beside a teacher. She sketched out how coaches were to have teachers "copy cat" their "mini-lessons" or "freeze frame" so the coach could "whisper in the moment" — in front of the children — the lesson they wanted teachers to learn.

While trying to grasp all the involved steps that a coach has to implement, an audience member asked a question that seemed to be on everyone's lips: "How do you keep your methods from feeling offensive to teachers?"

The instructor replied by admitting that often teachers did tend to feel offended, and that it was a "perennial problem." But she quickly went on to say, "It's important for principals to tell their teachers that they have to comply; to say, ‘This is the culture of our school now; this is what we do.'" She went on to add a somewhat ominous comment, "a lot of teachers get weeded out," suggesting that those who don't conform are forced out. Although in what way this enforced expulsion occurs was left disturbingly vague.

This kind of hubris is not surprising — it mirrors the attitude of Ms. Calkins herself. Again, looking beyond her fancy rhetoric that promises "dialogue" and "respect," she routinely advocates that teachers "feign interest" in children's stories and has written, "When we assist a writer, it is often helpful if the writer is fooled into thinking she's done the job herself!" Why should we expect her attitude toward teachers to be any less manipulative?

Ironically, the project prides itself in being a champion for helping kids find a "voice" through having them write "stories that matter" — that is, about their own lives. Yet the voices that seem to come through the loudest are those of the project's coaches and administrators.

The notion that a band of experts can come in and re-train thousands of teachers — many of whom are veterans at the job — poses, at best, myriad challenges, from pedagogical controversy to how it's all imparted. Think: a stranger coming into your house and telling you how to run your household.

This isn't to suggest that teachers can't benefit from having time set aside for collaboration, brainstorming, reflection, or supervision. Indeed, who wouldn't want a coach by their side, offering help, encouragement, cheering them on?

Just not these coaches, and not this program. The combination of the project's Byzantine structures, questionable content, excessive self-interest, and willingness to encourage the "weeding out" of those who don't see the world as they do, makes their enterprise an inappropriate choice for New York's schools.

Ms. Feinberg is the author of "Welcome to Lizard Motel: Protecting the Imaginative Lives of Children." The book offers further discussion on the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. My school is one of the few great ones in NYC. We have become entangled in this TC web and it has destroyed the morale of teachers in our building.

Our assigned staff developer is treating our teachers in an extremely unprofessional manner. We have such a great school with great administrators, great students and great students. I feel like this program is going to run it all.

I wish this program was brought to the publics attention it is a terrible waste of tax dollars.