What Is Good Teaching? Classroom Management Helps, but It's Little Taught
Nocera, Joe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)
In 2006, an idealistic New York public school teacher named Kevin Greer joined the faculty of an idealistic new high school, Brooklyn Community Arts and Media. Mr. Greer had previously taught English to 12th-grade honors students at Dewitt Clinton, a huge high school in the Bronx.
At BCAM, which hoped to inspire students with an arts-driven curriculum, he would be teaching ninth-graders. Most of the students had not chosen BCAM but had simply been assigned to the school. They weren't nearly as self-motivated as Mr. Greer's former students. Many if not most of them read below grade level.
Mr. Greer's first approach to teaching these students was to refuse to concede to their obvious difficulties. He taught Plato and lectured about such things as "the rhetorical strategy of repetition of a phrase at the beginning of clauses. We call it anaphora." He seemed distant from the students, and they reacted in kind, yawning or talking among themselves. Mr. Greer knew he was not getting through to them. He was frustrated.
Three years later, when members of this first BCAM class were seniors, Mr. Greer decided to teach a poetry class revolving around William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience." This time, his demeanor was completely different. He engaged the students by asking them what their own definition of poetry was - and they responded eagerly. He was more relaxed and more confident.
"I had to learn how to really break things down," he told me recently. "I had to learn to work on several levels at a time." Because, after all, he had students of various abilities in his classes.
I know these details about Kevin Greer's classroom performance because I recently saw a documentary about BCAM that has been passed from teachers' group to teachers' group, from reformers to union executives, like samizdat. The film, called "The New Public" and produced and directed by a filmmaker named Jyllian Gunther, tracks that first BCAM class in both the class' first and last years at the school.
Once she finished the film, Ms. Gunther sent it around the various film festivals. None of them bit. "The New Public" was shown once on PBS, but aside from that, it has not been seen widely. Instead, teachers - as well as those who teach teachers - have slowly found out about it and have embraced it.
Partly this is because it is the rare film that sympathetically conveys how hard it is to be a teacher in an inner-city school. …