Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Berger, R. (2003). An ethic of excellence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

pgs 1-63 (Intro-ch. 2)

Berger's book is of special interest to me because he is interested in the relationship between critique and school culture. He often uses stories, quite successfully, to illustrate his points.  In the introduction to his book, Berger describes the importance of young people creating 'beautiful work:' "they need to be proud of their work and their work needs to be worthy of pride" (2). This is not about false praise. It's about young people doing quality work that matters beyond the realm of the classroom. Berger believes that creating a culture where it is cool to care about school and do good work is essential. A culture is built from the kids, the teaching, the curriculum, and the school conditions all put together. He sees quick fixes to the "crisis in education" as dangerous and deceptive, much like quick weight loss plans. The focus on testing and tracking, he believes, is off-based. Rather, how do we bring the best out in kids? For Berger, it is about creating an ethic of excellence.

I was struck by Berger's precision in keeping, documenting, and caring for models of student work. In the many examples he gave, if it weren't for the models of carefully crafted student work, he could not have convinced his audience of the talents of the young people he worked with. Except it was not about talent, it was about hard work, revision, and peer critique. It was amazing hearing about the audience's disbelief that the models were made by such young people with such care. I was also struck by the significance of the work the young people in his class were doing. For example, when testing sites for radon, he reported: "Sometimes I need to be a tyrant for accuracy and quality in my classroom. Not this time. The students were scared to death. Scared that any possible error in their math would jeopardize the safety of a real family in town...The students checked their math, their spelling, their language and their reasoning twenty times before they rested easy...this was not an exercise. It was real. It was work that mattered to the world. Anything short of excellence would be intolerable" (17). This really drove home the importance of doing work that matters, outside of the classroom and school even, for me. I was also engaged by the fact that the students did not come from privilege, nor were they gifted. The quality of their work came out of the revision process and the expectation they were held to.

As a teacher leader, I was invested in Berger's process in helping a school in dismal conditions with a resistant principle build on what they were already successful at. Berger talks about having the teachers tell their stories-not just the 'war stories' (love this term) but also what's going well, what victories they have had, what excites them. Time and again, across racial and socio economic lines, the biggest obstacle schools must overcome is a culture where it is not cool (in fact social suicide) to care about school. Fitting in is the number one things kids are concerned with. So what if peer pressure could be positive instead of negative? I wonder how you can get kids to care about quality, particularly quality in other students' work, without it being about the grade.

The second piece of creating school culture is to get the community on board. Berger states, "When I've visited effective schools I've been struck with the realization that though the settings and resources are often widely different, every effective school I've seen has a strong sense of community" (41). When Berger talks about building strong school communities, he is insistent that smaller, rather than bigger is better. Smaller schools catch kids who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks and hold both teachers and students accountable. While it might make sense politically and economically to combine schools and create bigger ones, it doesn't make sense educationally. Sense of community only happens in close-knit groups where people know each other. This made me think of Chapin, my school in Princeton of 300 PreK-8, where everyone knows everyone else and there is a sense that the school is like a family. "The loss of community brought on by the "bigger is better" mentality is evolving as a painful chapter for American education (44).
Berger also writes about the aesthetics of schools. When schools are run down, dirty, trash filled places, it teaches children that they are not valued. "When kids walk into run-down, ugly buildings constructed as cheaply as possible and often falling apart, what message do these children get? We don't care about you. We don't value you...Are parents and children less important than business clients?" (46). I was really struck by the honesty of this statement. It's striking to me where we are and are not willing to put effort and money in this country. However, I love that Berger admits that a clean, well-kept building cannot guarantee anything. But it does help build an ethic of care. Berger expresses that what a community values will ultimately affect what school children value.
I am touched by the depth, quality, and care Berger puts into his teaching, and not the least surprised that this is the ethic he passes on to his students.

Other interesting Quotes:
"When considering how to improve education for children, people tend to focus on what's being delivered to students, and how to refine the package. I think it's more useful to consider schooling not as a delivery system but as an experience. What does a student go through in the course of a day? How does a student behave in this school in order to fit in? Where do students feel safe? What are the opportunities for students to contribute, create, and to be recognized for his or her talents or efforts? What motivates a student to care? This exercise is particularly powerful if the focus is on a marginal student, one whose race, background, or academic of physical needs label him or her different, therefore out of the mainstream" (44).

"...positive peer pressure was often the primary reason my classroom was a safe, supportive environment for student learning. Peer pressure wasn't something to be afraid of, to be avoided, but rather to be cultivated in a positive direction" (36).

"If peer culture ridicules academic effort and achievement-- it isn't cool to raise your handc in class, to do homework, to care openly about school-- this is a powerful force" (34).

"I have a particular interest in understanding what it takes to fit in, socially and academically, in different school cultures. I find that students from Kindergarten through high school, seem interested in discussing this question" (35).

I have always realized that the school culture was important in creating quality work, and I have begun to suspect that there is a very distinct relationship between the school's culture and the quality of critique. I am so excited to read the rest of this book. I am very interested in how the culture of the 7th grade, or the culture of the drama room might be shifted to create an ethic of excellence.

Other Resources:
Steve Seidel
A Culture of Quality, Annenberg Foundation publication, 1996
Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound school network
Scott Hartl, Kathy Greeley, Steven Levy

1 comment:

Mindy A. said...

I agree with your thoughts on the connection between school/classroom culture and critique. Students need to feel safe in their environments to both give and get critique.

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