Posts Tagged 'Dennis Sparks'

Ch. 10: Euphoria fades as reality sets in

re·al·i·ty noun
the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them

In August 1972 the Board of Education in Livonia, Michigan approved a small, experimental alternative high school that a team of 3 teachers and a counselor, myself included, had spent the summer designing. 

Our excitement about creating a school of which we were proud, at least on paper, was immediately tempered by the start-up problems we were now facing in September.

Two of us, an English teacher and me, a social studies teacher, would staff the school in its first year.

An opening date of October 1 had been selected which gave us a month to find a location for the school, to equip it with furniture and other necessities, and to select books that “disaffected” students would find so compelling they would not be able to put them down, the start-up task I most enjoyed.

Most important of all, we selected our first 40 students, 20 of whom in the first month of school were already in trouble with the school system’s new, more stringent attendance policy (as I recall, a school could drop students from classes after 7 unexcused absences), and 20 who had not run afoul of the policy but were attracted to the school’s design and opportunities. 

The approach we chose to use regarding various behavioral issues that would arise with students throughout the school year was based on William Glasser’s book, Reality Therapy.

While we didn’t see our school as “therapeutic,” we did agree with Glasser’s view that many problems in life were caused by “irresponsibility,” and that the solution required focusing on specific plans for future responsible behavior for which students would be held accountable rather than extended discussions during which students sought to excuse their misbehavior.

As a result, there was no “blaming and shaming” regarding rule or agreement violations, but instead a repetition of the question, “What is your goal and your plan?” Which meant that because many of our students had well-established habits of irresponsibility, it was a process that we applied until students (and sometimes their parents) understood that it was easier to be responsible than to repeatedly meet with their teachers to make new plans.

“Reality” was always the agreements students made with staff members and the unwavering expectation that they would keep their promises, that is, to behave responsibly.

This approach was applied to a wide range of problems and behaviors, beginning with attendance.

Prior to enrollment we met individually with students and their parents to explain the program’s features and our attendance policy—there would be no unexcused absences without consequence, a surprising policy to many students and parents given student problems with absenteeism in their home high schools.

We asked students and parents to sign an agreement stipulating that they understood the policy and would abide by its terms.

In the event of an unexcused absence students were required to meet with teachers, and perhaps their parents as well, to determine ways to address the problem and to create a new plan.

Our view was that because students were given a great deal of flexibility about when and how they learned, they could not unilaterally forfeit on the promises they made regarding their academic goals and daily participation in a tightly-focused two-hour skill development “workshop” designed to create a cohesive and mutually-supportive community of learners. 

For us, the attendance policy was a means to teach students about responsibility and integrity—that is, to consistently do what they said they would do.

But those were only our initial challenges, with new ones arising from unexpected sources, problems for which we as staff members proved to be ill prepared.

What methods did you or do you find most effective in addressing chronic behavior problems?

(In 1978, Mike Abbott joined the ALPHA staff where he taught until his retirement in 1994. Our decades-long friendship began then and has grown over the decades as we continue to meet on Saturday mornings for long walks and breakfast.)

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Everyone has an important story to tell

lis·ten verb
take notice of and act on what someone says
make an effort to hear something; be alert and ready to hear something

sto·ry noun
an account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something

Since 2012 I have published some version of this essay to recognize StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening.

What I said then is as important today as it was 7 years ago:

Everyone has a story to tell, and, given an opportunity, we all want to share the important stories of our lives, stories that explain who we are and where we came from, that prove we existed and mattered, that demonstrate our resilience, and that reveal the people and events that affected our lives.

And we can all learn important lessons from one another’s stories.

StoryCorps’ “National Day of Listening” provides an opportunity to evoke those stories.

On the day after Thanksgiving, StoryCorps asks everyone to take a few minutes to record an interview with a family member or friend.

You can use recording equipment that is readily available to you such as a computer, smart phone, tablet, or other voice or video recorder.

StoryCorps provides a free Do It Yourself Instruction Guide.

The lesson that everyone has an important story to tell has been reinforced time and again for me as a hospice volunteer who has been privileged to record dozens of hospice patients discussing their lives in conversations with family members.

All that is required of us is to extend the invitation and to listen deeply without interruption to those stories.

Once the conversation begins, it’s likely to proceed almost effortlessly, at least in my experience.

Some possible questions include:

• What elders or events influenced the person you’ve become?

• How would you like to be remembered?

• What advice would you like to pass along to your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, or others in your life?

There’s no gift human beings can give one another that is more important and precious than our undivided attention and genuine interest in the stories we all have to tell.

When that attention promotes storytelling that is preserved with video or audio recordings, it is a gift that benefits future generations for decades to come.


How have stories and storytelling shaped your life?

To whom would you like to reach out—an elder, a family member or friend, a veteran, a colleague, or a neighbor, for example—to invite his or her storytelling?

Ch. 9: We built it, but will they come?

hope noun
a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen

In the summer of 1972 our team of four relatively young and inexperienced (although we didn’t see ourselves that way at the time) high school teachers was given the opportunity to design an alternative high school, which would later be known by the acronym ALPHA (Alternative Learning Program for the High School Age). (See previous post for more details.)

In the design we would present to the school board, students would be offered a variety of learning options, including independent study with the guidance of an adult, usually a teacher or other expert in the subject matter. They could also attend one or more carefully-selected traditional high school classes with the permission of their schools.

In addition, students would be required each semester as a group to select, plan, and implement a community service project.

One of the few “givens” as we began our planning was that half of our students would be those removed from two traditional high schools because of chronic attendance problems, which meant they would likely bring with them a host of negative attitudes about learning, school, and themselves.

We wanted to balance their views by recruiting other students who were academically capable and efficacious and who would be attracted by ALPHA’s unique learning opportunities. 

To that end we incorporated into our design a daily 2-hour required “workshop” in which groups of 20 would meet for academic and personal goal setting and planning, the identification of strengths, the clarification of values, and the teaching of various interpersonal skills essential to success in school and beyond.

We believed that these skills would also enable students to trust and support one another and, when appropriate, to confront their peers’ self-defeating behavior.

We would start small, which meant 40 students, half of whom would have attendance problems and the other half selected by a lottery because we believed that this school would attract a wide-variety of students who would far exceed in number the slots we had allocated for them.

While at the time we didn’t realize it, we had created a school that in many respects would have pleased John Dewey based on this description by Larry Cuban:

“The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets. Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change.”

In August the Board of Education approved our plan, and immediately we had to make our first important decision—who among the four of us would be the two teachers to initially staff the school.

We were all surprised to learn that all of us for various reasons wanted to stay in our current teaching positions. For me, teaching psychology to seniors, which was how I spent most of my day, was a dream job.

Finally, two of us (me and a teacher from the other high school) succumbed to the reality that if we didn’t volunteer for this new and uncertain assignment the school would not open and our summer’s work would be for naught.

There would, however, prove to be unknown and unintended consequences in accepting the position that would affect both my personal and professional lives for decades to come. I’ll have much more to say about that in the near future.

But in the fall of 1972 I could only see the challenges that lie immediately ahead, challenges that would stretch me in both expected and unexpected ways.

The first of those was implementing what we had created, which meant coming to terms with what the plan would require of us in the weeks and months ahead.

Have you ever accepted, perhaps with ambivalence, a new position that stretched you in both expected and unexpected ways, and, if so, with what consequence?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 8: Inventing a school

in·vent verb
create or design (something that has not existed before); be the originator of

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of experimentation, both socially and educationally. 

The book Summerhill about an experimental British school was popular, “open classrooms” were becoming more common, and high schools like my own were experimenting with teaming and various forms of scheduling. 

Nonetheless, the boundaries of what could be done were always being pushed.

By my 4th year of teaching I was being introduced as the “local irritant” by the principal to the frequent visitors who came to see our school’s innovations,

I took that as a compliment, both in that he wanted visitors to meet me, and because he took my frequent “suggestions” with a grain of humor.

So when my principal was asked by system administrators to select two teachers to join two teachers from another high school to plan a vaguely-formulated “alternative school” for students who were likely to run afoul of a new, tighter, and more punitive attendance policy, my name came to mind.

In the summer of 1972 our team of four—a social studies teacher (me) and a guidance counselor from my school, and an English and math teacher from the other school—began to design a school with just two “givens”—that it would serve at least 20 students from each of the two sending high schools and that it would require school board approval before opening in the fall.

We were minimally supervised by two district administrators who put no restrictions on what we would create, and we were paid for our time, with no limits placed on the number of hours we worked.

In one sense, we were in way over our heads. We had no experience in designing anything larger than a course, and we were relatively inexperienced, with three of us in our 20s and another in his mid-30s. 

But our lack of experience also meant that we weren’t weighed down with tradition about how things should be done.

And we were free to invent with few restraints.

Imagine that you were given such an opportunity, to create a school without any restrictions other than the political reality of school board approval.

How would you begin, and what would you write on the blank slate you were handed?

For reasons I don’t recall now, but perhaps because of my experience the previous school year with the power of my principal’s beliefs, our team of four began by listing our most important beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications for our school. 

That discussion took several days, but it was time well spent because once we had reached a deep and shared understanding of our common beliefs and their implications for our work, all the other decisions were much easier to make.

Now, decades later, I am disappointed that I cannot find this list, but it likely included statements such as these:

Because we believe that students learn best when they feel known and respected, we will create a close-knit community of learners who will support one another in meeting high school graduation requirements and in achieving other important goals.

Because we believe that classrooms are not the only place in which important learning occurs, we will incorporate the larger community into the curriculum through independent study and community service.

Because we believe that students have unique learning interests and strengths, we will offer a variety of options to meet high school graduation requirements.

And, in retrospect, the most important belief of all:

Because we believe students learn significant lessons from one another, we will ensure through our selection process a diverse student body, particularly in their attitudes about learning and school.

That belief was included because we knew that there was little chance of success if the school’s student body was composed entirely of students removed from the traditional school due to poor attendance, which was the primary impetus for our work.

As a result, we stipulated that no more than half of our students could enroll due to the new, more restrictive attendance policy. The others would volunteer to enroll, we hoped, because they would be attracted to the school’s learning goals and methods.

While inexperienced, we knew that should the school board approve our plan the biggest challenges lay ahead—filling in the program details that would make the school appealing to a broad cross-section of students and enable them to meet graduation requirements.

What would you write on the blank slate of a school you were charged with inventing?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 7: The power of beliefs

be·lief noun
something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction

In 1972, during my fourth year of teaching, the curriculum department of my school district offered a two-day workshop on “mastery teaching.”

As I recall I was the only teacher from my high school to attend, but I remember little else about the workshop other than that by its conclusion I was convinced that student learning would improve if I changed a few things in my classroom.

Basically, I came away from the workshop convinced that if I gave students more opportunities to learn in different ways and multiple opportunities to demonstrate that learning, almost all of my students would learn virtually everything I wanted them to know.

I remember telling my students about what I had learned and of my newfound belief that they could become more successful in my class than any of us had previously thought possible.

I also remember one of my more astute students asking if their improved learning would be reflected in better grades, say As or Bs. Because I couldn’t recall grading being discussed in the workshop, I made up an answer on the spot – yes, they would receive As and Bs if they learned the appropriate amount of content. Put another way, I would be grading based on demonstrated competence rather than on “the curve” or any variation of it.

But by the end of that day I realized I had a problem, and that problem was my principal’s belief that the job of a teacher was to shift the normal curve of distribution (“the curve”) in a positive direction, which meant that there would be more As and Bs than Ds and Fs, but that there should continue to be some students who received low grades.

These low grades, my principal believed, would reflect a teacher’s high standards.

So I made an appointment with my principal to discuss the problem. He expressed skepticism that all students could learn enough to pass no matter what methods teachers used, but he allowed me to experiment for the few remaining months of the school year if I agreed to bring him samples of my students’ quizzes, tests, and other work so that he could be assured I had not lowered my standards.

And that’s the way it was for several months until the conclusion of the school year. I brought him my students’ work, and he grudgingly let me continue, at least until our next meeting.

That was the first time, but not the last, I would experience the power of leaders’ and teachers’ beliefs to positively or negatively affect teaching and learning in their schools or classrooms.

But in June an unexpected and once-in-a-career opportunity arose when that same principal invited me to join three other teachers in creating an alternative high school, which I’ll say more about next time.

What was or is your experience with the power of beliefs to positively or negatively affect student learning?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 6: Crossing the line into controversy

con·tro·ver·sy noun
disagreement, typically when prolonged, public, and heated

Civil Rights issues and the Vietnam War dominated the 1960s and early 1970s.

Sit-ins and other protests and white backlash to them led the evening news.

The 1967 Detroit “riot,” or “insurrection,” occurred just a year before I began teaching in a primarily white suburban Detroit high school.

And in the early 1970s a federal court was deciding whether the school districts of Detroit and its suburbs would be racially integrated by involuntary busing. Some white parents and others protested, and school buses were burned in one community.

With that backdrop, the high school in which I taught decided to offer a pilot course called “Minority Group Relations,” and teachers were recruited to teach it.

I don’t recall if I volunteered or was “recruited,” but I soon found myself with another inexperienced teacher team teaching a course which had no predetermined curriculum and for which we had no professional preparation.

Because the course was widely perceived to be as much a “rap group” as an academically rigorous course of study, teachers, counselors, and students saw it as appropriate for a wide range of students.

That meant the course enrolled students of varied academic ability and views on emotionally-charged issues. 

It was clear from the beginning that free wheeling discussions uninformed by reading and study of the issues we were discussing would lead, at best, to the sharing of ignorance and, at worse, to unproductive name calling.

Once the course began we tried to identify student interests to which we could attach the academic content while simultaneously developing awareness of the broadness of the term “minority,” which in the minds of many students referred exclusively to race.

To that end we frequently invited guest speakers to talk about their experiences, a net we cast quite widely to include a rabbi, representatives of the Detroit Hare Krishna Temple, and a Black power speaker, among others.

These guest speakers, however, sometimes took us into the new and unfamiliar realm of public controversy that extended beyond our classrooms.

And because we were new to teaching, our schools, and our community, we didn’t always know when we were crossing the line, although whenever possible we sought to use the intended or unintended controversy as a just-in-time teaching tool.

Once, I recall, a student told her parents about an upcoming speaker, which caused the alarmed parents to call the superintendent. That a parent could and would talk with the superintendent of a large school system was a surprise to me, as was his response that the student didn’t have to attend the class, and, if she did, she could bring a tape recorder to share the content with her parents.

We told the speaker he was being recorded, and while the presentation and discussion were lively, it drew no further scrutiny from the parent or superintendent. 

There were few schools then, and are probably fewer now, where teachers would have that degree of freedom in raising potentially controversial issues with students. 

And then and now many new teachers, like myself, are likely unaware and often naive about how what they do each day fits into the larger social and political context of their community and the larger world.

It was my first, but not last, encounter with controversy and the politics of teaching and of public education.

Looking back now I can see that “inventing” was emerging as an important theme during my first years of teaching—inventing the content of an already established psychology course with no prescribed curriculum and then the creation of a new and controversial course, Minority Group Relations.

These experiences, however, proved to be just a practice run for inventing a new school that would stretch me and several colleagues well beyond what we could have imagined when we accepted the invitation to participate.

But first there was yet another important lesson for me to learn that would inform the inventing of a new school and much of the remainder of my career. More about that next time….

What themes ran through your early years of teaching, and what impact did they have on your career?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 5: Learning to collaborate

col·lab·o·rate verb
work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something

I don’t remember the details of the conversation.

I only remember that the three of us were sitting in a small conference room adjacent to a teacher workroom. We were planning lessons for the upcoming week for the 10 or more sections of the psychology course we collectively taught.

I had been intuitively drawn to this high school because of the opportunity it provided for the flexibility of modular scheduling and the collaboration of team teaching, although I knew little about either.

Modular scheduling involved teaching different groupings of students on different days for different purposes. That meant we worked with various sized groups across a weekly schedule.

Team teaching simply meant that two or more teachers who taught the same subject would together plan lessons, design tests, review the progress we were making, and share teaching responsibility when our sections of 30 or so students were combined for weekly large-group lectures.

Teachers’ offices were in the Social Studies Resource Center where students could come for source materials and individualized assistance.

Unfortunately, I had not experienced team teaching nor modular scheduling as a student, and I had not learned about navigating their unique challenges in my undergraduate teacher preparation courses. 

My high school required that new teachers teach in a traditional way their first semester to get their teaching feet beneath them before adding the complexity of team teaching and working with various-sized groups.

From that semester onward for the next 10 years I never worked alone, which meant I never experienced the professional isolation that is a part of many teachers’ work lives.

And because from the beginning of my career I worked closely with others in the give-and-take relationships that team teaching required, I never feared the loss of autonomy that many teachers associate with such cooperative arrangements.

Teacher evaluation at that time involved an annual visit by the principal or assistant principal who had had no prior experience with the unique challenges of team teaching and modular scheduling, which meant we were assessed by a traditional checklist during the lessons we taught individually to our own sections of the course. In addition, because our evaluators had little understanding of the subject matter we were teaching, the observation and resulting conversation were superficial and generally unhelpful.

To a large extent my first years of teaching required learning to work in productive ways with colleagues and students and becoming more fluent with the content that I taught.

And, too soon, I had to learn to work with controversy within the broader political context of the late 1960s, a responsibility for which I felt particularly ill prepared.

As a beginning teacher, did you work alone or closely with others? What were the benefits and drawbacks of how you learned to teach and work with others?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

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