Is there a difference between progressive and traditional teachers?

Bird Droppings March 10, 2022
Is there a difference between progressive and traditional teachers?

In a ninth-grade literature class that I happened to co-teach many years ago, I was introduced to Freedom Writers Diary and the film based on the book. In some ways, the story is similar to the story of Foxfire. Erin Gruell, a first-year brand new teacher in an inner-city school circa 1992, is baffled about approaching literature with her classes. Elliot Wiggington in 1966 was just as baffled as a new teacher of literature in the mountains of Rabun County, Georgia. I recall my own first-time teaching verbal students; I should add that I taught for several years working with severe and profoundly disabled students who were nonverbal. My earliest teaching experiences with non-verbal students instilled in me an appreciation for empathy and intuitiveness. That first verbal student class picture is on my wall in my room today from 1976.

Over forty years ago, I saw the same issues Wiggington and Gruell faced walking into a class of students who did not want to be there. Lesson one is always the hardest.

“The work teachers and students do together enable learners to make connections between the classroom work, the surrounding communities, and the world beyond their communities.” Foxfire Core Practice three

I was given a class of thirteen, and I was told that they were learning disabled students. As day one progressed, I found someone put down the wrong disability on most of these kids. My principal emphasized reading, and I quickly found that the highest reading level in the entire class was three or four years behind. I was not privileged to see students’ folders; I only knew they were learning disabled. Our readers were the Dick and Jane type books from first grade, and my youngest student was twelve. I learned on day one that these books we were reading would not work, period after one nearly missed my head. At least my teacher’s podium was not set on fire, as happened to Elliot Wiggington back in his first teaching job. When I went home that night, I swore day two would be different.

“Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Or’s, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities. When forced to recognize that the extremes cannot be acted upon, it is still inclined to hold that they are all right in theory but that when it comes to practical matters, circumstances compel us to compromise. Educational philosophy is no exception. The history of educational theory is marked by position between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without, that it is based upon natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.” John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938

So many college education programs across the country teach a classroom should be like this with a picture of rows of desks all neat in a row and board in front and so forth like so many classrooms we all have seen. Dewey labeled this traditional education and pointed to the industrial revolution as the basis. In current educational reform, which in effect does not reform in terms of improving education for children but an effort to streamline and make the education processes more efficient for corporations now buying into education through charter schools. In effect, even a stronger sense of traditional education except now imagine the ideal reform classroom banks of computer carousels with students focused on screens room after room and somewhere a “teacher” monitoring programming of computers. No longer would certified teachers be needed, only a programmer. Room after room, all sitting in rows focused on the screen. Not the classroom I would want for my kids or grandkids.

“From the beginning, learner choice, design, and revision infuse the work teachers and learners do together.” Foxfire Core Practice one

This is why perhaps I am drawn to John Dewey’s writing. At the turn of the century, he knew education was the key to democracy and the future. Dewey set up a lab school at the University of Chicago that still is operating. After several years and a graduate school course, Elliot Wiggington realized he was using ideas from John Dewey.

“The work teachers and learners do together clearly manifest the attributes of the academic disciplines involved, so those attributes become habits of mind.” Foxfire Core Practice two

I found on my own it was about learner choice and interaction between students and teachers that learning occurred not in some magically programmed curriculum guide. I asked on day two what my students liked to read, and nothing was the basic answer from all of them. So, what do you like to do was question two. Now we started to get some answers. A rush of favorites started spilling out wrestling, cars, girls, fast cars, baseball, football, and it snowballed. So, on day three, I brought magazines about cars and wrestling and left playboy at my house, but I was tempted. By the end of the year, reading levels soared, and my principal was so excited she ordered the next set of Dick and Jane books.

As I watched the film Freedom Writers, my thoughts went back to why this teacher succeeded and why Wiggington succeeded. As I looked up information on the Freedom Writers, I found a list of teachers on the Wikipedia page in the references. Listed in the references and for further information Ken Carter, education activist and former high school basketball coach portrayed in the 2005 film, Coach Carter, Joe Louis Clark, high school principal portrayed in Lean on Me (film), Ron Clark (teacher), portrayed in the 2006 film, The Ron Clark Story, Pierre Dulaine, dancer and dance educator, Jaime Escalante, high school teacher portrayed in the 1988 film, Stand and Deliver, Marilyn Gambrell, parole officer-turned high school teacher portrayed in the 2005 Lifetime movie, Fighting the Odds: The Marilyn Gambrell Story, and Louanne Johnson, writer, teacher, and former U.S. Marine featured in the 1995 film, Dangerous Minds. All of these teachers also were successful in their classes. Why were these teachers successful and others perhaps trying to emulate have not succeeded?

“As Foxfire grew and gained national recognition, beleaguered teachers all across the country looked at The Foxfire Magazine and saw an opportunity to change things. They started producing their magazines in an attempt to “do Foxfire.” Most of these teachers met with partial or little success because they had missed the very heart of why Foxfire succeeded—student choice.” Foxfire Fund website

After ten summers of Foxfire teacher’s courses, I have found only a few teachers use the ideas and are successful, and it comes back to allowing students to take some ownership.

“The success of the Foxfire program was largely due to the fact the students chose to create a magazine. Since the magazine was their choice, the students were deeply invested in the work of creating it. Many teachers thought that the magazine product itself was not the solution to classroom woes. Kaye Carver Collins, an early magazine student and later a Foxfire staff member for 13 years, explained the problem like this: ‘It seemed that people couldn’t understand the importance of the difference between the magazine, which was the choice we made, and the fact that we made a decision.’” Foxfire Fund website

After being in education and training for nearly fifty years, I have found it easier to ask someone to do something than tell them. I have found it is easier if it is of interest to that person and applies to that person outside of educational settings even easier to teach.

“The classroom work serves audiences beyond the teacher, thereby evoking the best efforts by the learners and providing feedback for improving subsequent performances.” Foxfire Core Practice eight

Hanging on my wall over my head in my office, the Foxfire Core Practices and another poster of children learning what they live. The Foxfire poster shows me I am a learner and a teacher, more a facilitator. Dr. Laura Nolte’s poster shows me to set the example the children are watching. So progressive versus traditional, where does this lead?

“The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity. The gap is so great that the required subject matter, the methods of learning, and of behaving are foreign to the existing capacities of the young. They are beyond the reach of the experience the young learners already possess. Consequently, they must be imposed, even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition to relieve it of obviously brutal features.” John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938

Teaching should not be simply a control issue. Education needs to be less of a prison and more oriented around creating an atmosphere of learning. Down through history, developmentalists including Piaget and Erickson have shown that children are learning differently than adults and are developing in their learning styles and means. Yet we assume they operate on an adult level almost from day one. I have brought up several issues why some progressive teachers are successful and others not and why traditional education is not succeeding but simply staying almost on a level progression. Even reformers’ ideas are not impacting just making someone somewhere wealthy. I have wandered a bit today and will clarify in days to come to raise some questions. As today progresses, please keep all in harm’s way on your minds and in your hearts and always give thanks namaste.

My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,
Mitakuye Oyasin
(We are all related)

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