I. The building
Before I got to the classrooms and the teachers, however, I had to enter the building, which is such a depressing monstrosity that I have to write about it briefly before I go on.
The building is of the architectural school called, in a 1966 book, "The New Brutalism."
I daresay my son's school might be one of the most unpleasant and unwelcoming Brutalist buildings ever built. I'm usually not someone who cares much about the quality of the school building (Leafstrewn High is beautiful, but my classroom is largely unadorned, some of my earlier teaching jobs were in pretty run-down environments, and I spent many hours in semi-Brutalist classrooms at MIT and other places), but this building is so oppressively, ostentatiously awful that it's impossible to visit and not venture some interpretation of its awfulness.
This architectural style is famous for seeming, at best, totally indifferent to the human form and scale--and at worst, aggressively, even violently hostile to the unfortunate people who have to live, work, or go to school in them. They're not just inhospitable; it's often not even clear how or where you're supposed to enter them.
Here are some other Brutalist buildings (where's the entrance? where are the people?) from France, Buffalo, and Boston:
Now here's my son's school. The entrance has been painted red, perhaps in an attempt to make it cheery or noticeable, but mainly as if the windowless massif above were crushing the entranceway, and anyone foolish enough to attempt ingress, into a bloody pulp. The signage is appropriate.
If the outside is horrendous, the inside of the school is perhaps even worse. The exterior looks kind of three-dimensional, but once you're inside, beyond the tomb-like lobby, the school is nothing more than one very, very long hallway, and it feels, as my son says, like a jail. In any case, it doesn't seem accidental that this school has over most of its history served a mostly low-income population; its demeaning demeanor may have served to prepare its poor students for their future, and its bunker-like design looks all set to be defended against rioting masses.
Today it has a more mixed student body, and no doubt after the rich parents start complaining the building will change. Fortunately, the school itself seems to be on the right track.
II. Reading Workshop
No matter what happens to the building, the school already seems to have moved in the direction of a fairly enlightened pedagogy--and that's my main subject here. While the school has some of the stylistic fillips of an urban charter school (for instance, the students are called "scholars"), it also retains significant vestiges of the alternative school that was one of its forebears (the teachers are called by their first names). But its most enlightened and, to me, surprising element is its full-on reading workshop model curriculum in the ELA classes.
My son's ELA teacher came from his alternative school (that was merged with three other K-8 upper schools to create this new middle school), but she didn't bring the reading workshop model with her. On the contrary, the reading workshop model was actually imposed on her. At the K-8 school, she worked very closely with the Social Studies teacher to create an integrated "Humanities" curriculum--more or less one class taught by two teachers, apparently in large part on a "Facing History and Ourselves" model. Now, at the new middle school, the ELA teacher has had to radically change her pedagogy, because of a district-wide mandate to use an extreme form of the reader's workshop model.
I don't mean "extreme form" in a pejorative sense--I think this is a great idea! What I mean is, I've never seen or heard of anyone giving their students (or scholars!) as much in-class time to read as this excellent teacher says she is doing. By her account, she spends an average of 25 minutes a day on independent reading. In the words of my son, who is prone to exaggeration: "All we ever do in class is read."
This is unusual, I think. Even the high priestess of reading workshop, Nancie Atwell, only spends, according to her (wonderful) book, The Reading Zone, about 20 minutes of class time a day on independent reading (1)--and Atwell has 80 minute periods, as compared with the 50-minute periods at my son's school. So while Atwell spends only 25% of her allotted time on independent reading, my son's teacher is spending 50%. Half of their ELA time is spent reading. Wow!
Such an emphasis on independent reading does not mean that my son's teacher is giving up on whole class books, but the way she handles whole-class books is also fairly different. Just now, they are reading Animal Farm together. Instead of assigning chapters to be read independently, at home, the teacher is reading it aloud to the class, and while she reads the students are following along in their copies of the book.
That one teacher is pursuing such a radical shift in methods is remarkable; what's really amazing to me is that that shift, as she tells it, is district-wide, and mandated from the top down. This is pretty surprising, not only because such a big shift in curriculum is a huge burden to ask teachers to take on, and I would expect a lot of teachers to be pretty grumbly about it, but also because a shift to a reading workshop model is a shift toward less teacher control and more student autonomy, toward less direct instruction and more independent learning, and a shift away from the kind of short-sighted narrowly test-driven curriculum that a lot of districts are adopting. So, it's surprising, but it's also smart.
Because in fact this kind of ELA class is perfect for this school, and it seems to be working well so far. The students in my son's class vary widely in academic ability and reading level, and independent reading allows them to go at their own pace and at their own level. Reading the Orwell book to them is smart for the same reason, and the teacher says that whereas in other years at least half the class had a lot of trouble staying engaged with the novel and keeping up with the reading, this year almost every single student is following it and enjoying it.
Nancie Atwell's book about reading closes with a passionate appeal to high school teachers to buck what she calls the "secondary English status quo," a "pedagogical paradigm that, in combination with a national standards movement, conspires" to waste teens' time, make them put leisure reading on pause for four years while they "do English" (2). She tells scary stories of students who loved reading in middle school only to graduate to a deadening routine of assigned, lockstep reading, quizzes, vocabulary lists and five-paragraph essays. I think Atwell is largely right, and I'm glad my son's school is letting him read. Now if I can only make it work in my own classroom...
Next week maybe I'll write about what parents' night is like at my own school.
1. Atwell, The Reading Zone, Scholastic, 2007, p. 119
2. Ibid., p. 107