Episode 003 Transcript

Supervision, Feminism, and Poetry with Paula Roy (7/31/17)

[START 00:00]

JOHN M. OPERA [bumper]: Hi, I'm John Opera, and Peter Horn and I met on a boulder in 1985. You're listening to the third installment of the Point of Learning podcast. Let's have a listen.

VOICEOVER (Peter Horn): On today's show, some big ideas about essential questions to ask students.   

PAULA A. ROY: The high school is all about boxes. English, history, science, whatever! To help them make connections across disciplines and across ideas and out into the world. I mean, how does this stuff all connect?

VOICEOVER: How to establish a classroom where student voices are authorized and encouraged. 

ROY: It's not a true democracy. It's your classroom. But you can choose to share some of the power of the classroom with your students. 

VOICEOVER: How to make difficult choices as a supervisor in order to keep kids at the center of your work. 

ROY: We're there to educate kids and someone who's gotten too tired, or too disillusioned, or too negative is not a good influence or a good teacher.

VOICEOVER: And using feminism as an entree to many varied and deep conversations about social justice.

ROY: Feminism to me is social justice, because the idea that women are equal has to open you up to the fact that a whole lot of women are not white, and a whole lot of women are not straight. And so wait a minute--you're not just talking about gender, you're talking about the inclusion of people  who are marginalized for various reasons in the curriculum, and in the in the conversation, and probably in the community in which you live. 

VOICEOVER: Later on we'll even hear a poetic confession. 

ROY: I  have been guilty of just what you described when I first started teaching, because that was what all English teachers did: we killed the poem. We took it apart, and we had no idea how to put it back together again.

VOICEOVER: Stick with us for today's episode of Point of Learning, the show about what and how and why we learn. In this first season of the podcast, I'm continuing to trace early influences on me as an educator. Twenty years ago, I joined the faculty of Westfield High School in New Jersey, in no small part because I wanted to learn from Paula Roy, who was my first supervisor. She retired two years later, but she and I kept in touch. Throughout my education career, she has remained a sounding board, a mentor, and a friend who has never hesitated to challenge my ideas. Paula Alida Roy is a master teacher, writer, and poet. She began teaching English at Westfield High School in 1971 and became Department Chair nine years later. She's been published in education journals and lit magazines, authoring poems as well as articles on feminist teaching, homophobia in the classroom, and teaching about women in literature. She's served as a consultant on gender, race, and class to independent and public schools around the country, and she continues to write and lead writing workshops now. As you will hear, she is wise and reflective, tough but humane, keeping kids and what they have to say at the center of her work as a teacher and supervisor.

[04:22]

ACT 1: Supervision. Twenty years ago, Paula was my first teaching supervisor, so I began our conversation by asking her about her own development as a teacher, and how becoming a supervisor affected the way she thought about effectiveness in the classroom. 

ROY: When I started teaching, I learned a great deal from my peers, and I modeled myself after two or three people who were very influential to me in my early teaching, and whose methods aligned themselves with my pretty progressive view of education at that point. And I became a good teacher. Until I became a supervisor, I thought that the way I taught and the way these other teachers I admired--and I had been in their classrooms by invitation as I was learning--that was the definitive model. When I became a supervisor, I was humbled and enlightened by going into all the classrooms of a pretty large department--I think at that time it was 21 teachers. So I saw all kinds of teaching. I saw bad teaching. I didn't see really terrible teaching, but I saw what I would call mediocre teaching. But I also saw lots of good teaching that didn't look anything like the way I taught. And initially I remember thinking, "Oh, well this teacher has all these kids in straight rows, and you know that's not good." But it was good enough for the teacher.

PETER HORN: Because you're a big fan of circles in discussion.

ROY: I am, and again, I have to emphasize for me, because I've seen good teaching where people were in rows looking at the back of each other's head and where discussion was not the main vehicle of learning, but I still saw good teaching and that was really good for me, because I know that good teaching is not just one model. I know it's much more complex than that, which is why I've always been resistant to these various workshops over the years that we've had when someone comes in with a model where you have to put on the board your objective for the day and then you have to--I can't even remember the rubrics, but there's like a rubric you go through, and they're not bad! I have since come to an idea that there are three kinds of teachers. I know I'm over simplifying or generalizing but--

HORN: Try it out-- 

ROY: Keep that in mind. [1.] There's the there's the OK Teacher: you go into that classroom, you see potential, you know the person is going to need a lot of help, and you also know the person is never going to be a brilliant teacher. But the teacher will be a good enough teacher with enough support and help. [2.] And then this kind of the medium-good teacher, who need support and help, is open to suggestions, tries new things, and does a good job. [3.] And then there are the artists. And they do exist! And there is no template or no format in the world that you should ever impose upon them, because it's almost like it's natural to them to be good teachers. [4.] I sort of left out the really bad teachers that you need to get rid of.

HORN: I was going to say, it seems like there might be a fourth-- 

ROY: No, there is a fourth one.

HORN: You may have read, I wrote about a colleague of mine who's now an interim superintendent in the Duval County [Florida] schools, and she had a line that I love very much. She said, "If you're working with a teacher who's struggling, help them out. But if you work with them, and you work with them, and they still don't get it, and they're not good for kids, then you help them out." So there is a choice that you make at some point. What is your standard? What were you thinking about as you identified a person that you believed "there's no amount of help that I can give that's going to make this person a good fit for the school, for our kids"? 

ROY: It's an area I feel very strongly about, because first I think we're in education for the kids we teach, not for our colleagues. I mean, we may love our colleagues and have great relationships with them as their supervisors and their peers, but that doesn't mean we protect them when they're bad teachers. I feel that someone who cannot relate to kids, who is hostile to kids, and who sees discipline as the main focus of classroom work should be out the first year as far as I'm concerned. That that's never going to work for me. Unfortunately, I have seen in my work in other schools that the emphasis is on the teacher who can control the classroom. And that to me is tragic, because very often behind our highly controlled facade--or front--is someone who is not really a good teacher, who may be a good disciplinarian. So I don't have any issue at all with--I hate to use the phrase "getting rid of"--but I do think that the way to do it is to try to counsel the person into seeing that this is not the right profession, rather than moving him or her along to another school which may then employ him or her. So you know it's something that it's hard to do, that I would try to do gently ... I know I have been sometimes seen as cold-hearted about this; I don't feel that way. I think we're there to educate kids, and someone who's gotten too tired, too disillusioned, or too negative is not a good influence, or a good teacher.  

[11:02]

VOICEOVER: ACT 2: Establishing a safe, yet challenging learning community in the classroom.

HORN: You were able to establish an environment in your classroom where high school students of every level, not just in Advanced Placement classes where some might assume that the kids are hanging out who can handle more involved topics in any English IV classroom, English III classroom that you were in, you had kids engaging with moral and ethical questions and dimensions (usually raised by the texts that you were reading) at a level that a lot of people outside of the school system certainly would assume, "Well, kids aren't talking about that kind of thing, or kids can't talk about, or maybe shouldn't talk about that kind of thing." Could you talk a little bit about why you felt that was important to your practice? -- and maybe share a couple of thoughts about how people who are interested in engaging in those kinds of discussions could think about doing so. 

ROY: I came over the years to realize and think about deeply how difficult and important transitions are. Now if you think of a high school kid's day: they've got eight subjects or seven subjects, you bounce from one class to another. "Ok, now I'm interested in history, or now I'm supposed to be into science, now I'm into math, now I'm into literature," with five minutes if you're lucky in between! 

HORN: And we should say this is a very standard high school model with a 42- or 43- minute period. There are some kind of block variations in places, but still in most high schools around the country we're talking about 40-odd minutes and seven or eight sections of that. 

ROY: That's right. So I think that two things came into my teaching as a result of thinking about that. First, at the beginning of the year, a student is coming into a brand new teacher and a brand new classroom seven times in that day. And the model is: read them the rules, give out the textbooks--I mean, for good teachers, I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad model, but I think interrupting models is a good way to start off. So I never started that way. I started with a conscious attempt to build a classroom community. And I did it in a number of ways--using poetry, usually. One way was to ask kids to write--using poetry and writing--to ask kids to write about a First Day of School memory or sometimes I would say "the earliest one you can remember" or "describe the first classroom you remember"-- something that took them back into their school experience, and then we would share those. And it was interesting to see that many of them were negative memories--not all, but some of them. And so then, in some form or another, I would ask them to think about how they wanted this classroom where we would be together for a year to be run. That there has to be some kind of--I don't want to call them "rules"--guidelines for how we work together for a year. And I have mine, and I'm going to participate in this exercise, but I want you, the students, to right now write down five guidelines, and then I would put them into groups and have them hash out which ones were more important. This whole thing took maybe three or four days of the first week of school, and I would use poetry about school and learning as part of it, and writing. And so together we would hammer out in each class, if I were teaching two--or, before I was department chair, four--classes, we would have four--they were always similar but we would have four [sets of guidelines] that would be posted on the bulletin board. And things that were important to kids--most of them, many of them were important to me as well--like, We shouldn't have to raise our hands all the time. You know, If we want to go to the bathroom, it shouldn't be such a big deal. People shouldn't interrupt all the time. So we were able--and I would add the things that were important to me: what was I going to do about late assignments, what was I going to do about missing assignments--you know, they wanted to know that, and I would lay out some guidelines about that. One of the guidelines that either came from me or other kids, depending on the group, but it was always there, was that we were going to respect one another in discussion and this was going to be a classroom of tolerance and understanding, and that there would be very little that would be acceptable, but I would make clear that no one could be talked about in a derogatory way. No group, no person: people couldn't be made fun of. Often they would say that themselves--probably from kids who had had that experience. That I would not use sarcasm, and that I would expect that we would all respect one another. But I didn't lecture that; it evolved. So they never needed for me to give a list of rules. We developed the guidelines together, and then we would begin a regular study of the year. And I don't mean to sound like I'm the best disciplinarian in the world; I can remember maybe four (in the course of almost 30 years) what I would call "discipline problems" in the classroom. One in my second year when two young men went at each other (physically) and a couple of others when I lost my temper, you know, threw a kid out. I mean you do it. That's the other thing: You have to be a human being as a teacher. You come back the next day and apologize, or write a letter to the class, saying, "Look what happened yesterday. None of us is happy about that. This is how I feel. How do you feel?" It's a dynamic environment of human beings who come together every day for a hundred and--I don't know how many--80 days? And it's valuable as a community to teach communication skills. It's not just pie-in-the-sky "I'm being nice. This is a loose environment." It's teaching communication skills, and group interaction skills--all of which are in all of the guidelines that get published by state departments about how to teach, what you should teach. And it didn't work. I mean, it worked in general. We  all violated the rules, but they were up on the wall and usually some kid would say, "Hey I thought we said we weren't going to interrupt." I think the building of community, however you do it, is very important. So you're not being the dictator from the top right away. I believe in a democratic classroom, but you always have the great book, you're always having to grade them. So it's not a true democracy. It's your classroom. But you can choose to share some of the power of the classroom with your students.

HORN: And of course what you say, in terms of establishing the classroom dynamic, aligns with the most current research on building effective teams--in any kind of environment, a corporate environment, a political environment where you have people working together. You begin with establishing a clear elevating purpose--What is it that we are here to do? But then very soon, if not immediately, you establish some norms: Here are the expectations about when we show up, and what we do when we show up, and how we treat each other, and have permission to call each other out, or not, according to ideas that we come up with together. And of course you add to that the special bonus that kids feel when so often in schools they are restrained and constrained and presented with rules and guidelines that are given to them that were developed at some other point in time maybe for some other class--to be asked to share in that process and say, "OK, let's think about this together." It can be an excellent exercise. 

[20:12]

VOICEOVER: SIDEBAR: Sarcasm versus humor. As she was discussing class guidelines, you may have noted that Paula specified sarcasm as something she wouldn't use in class. Based on my experience teaching and working with teachers, I thought we should clarify this point. What gets confused sometimes is that in everyday use people sometimes say something like, "That guy is so sarcastic!" when they really just mean, "That person is funny." What I'm advising against is sarcasm as the specific type of humor that quickly becomes a liability in a mixed setting. Broadly speaking, humor can be magical in class. It's important for teachers to model that learning is fun, charged with delightful surprises. Opening yourself and your kids up to what's funny makes the often difficult work of teaching and learning lighter, and easier to bear. As you may guess, I'm not a fan of that strange old-school notion that teachers shouldn't smile until Thanksgiving. That's no fun for anyone, besides kids usually know when you're fronting. One of my own best high school teachers, Chuck LaChiusa, once said, "A good class isn't a great class without a belly laugh." In my early years of teaching especially, I'd often work up a two- to three-minute monologue to break the ice on Monday mornings after I'd asked how everyone's weekend was. Still, the belly laugh is hard to plan for, so it's critical to stay open to funny moments that might get everybody laughing and loosened up to do some harder thinking. That's humor in general. Sarcasm, on the other hand, swims close to the bottom of the great barrel of comedy. It's an easy formula: Change your tone of voice, and say the opposite of what you mean. See Chandler's zingers on the old TV show Friends for 1000 examples. It's a cheap trick, but the real problem is the cutting effect: Sarcasm comes from the word sarx, the Greek root for "flesh." Sarcasm is a form of humor nearly sharp enough to cut flesh, that is, quite risky for classroom use. Sarcasm can cut at the expense of an entire group, or just as bad, an individual kid in your class. Now maybe that one kid you know pretty well can take a public joke, but your classroom audience includes other students who may not get it, or worse, feel uncomfortable or hurt by something the teacher assumes everybody should be okay with. As we talked, Paula followed up with a few thoughts on the danger of sarcasm, and the potential of humor for a variety of classroom purposes. 

ROY: I would make clear when I said that what I meant by sarcasm. And I will illustrate that by talking about conferences with teachers after I've observed a class, and suggesting to a teacher that he or she was sarcastic and having the teacher say, "Oh that was just a joke." I think there's a very blurry line and unfortunately a lot of classroom "It's-just-a-joke" from the teacher's point of view is very often hurtful--maybe not to all the kids, but to some of the kids. I think that humor is very important and humor is an extremely effective way to defuse potentially difficult situations in the classroom--not to laugh at the person, but to laugh at yourself. We never know where kids are coming from and what they're bringing into the classroom. Instead of getting mad because the kid just said something disrespectful to you, instead of throwing him out, or making a big discipline thing--to just walk really close to the kid and say, "I'm sorry. You know, if I said something that bothered you. I'm sorry." It just completely takes the air out of the situation 90% of the time. So: laughing at yourself, saying you're sorry, suggesting that maybe you misunderstood. You don't lose power when you do that; you you gain trust! Trust goes a long way for a classroom environment to not have scenes or disciplinary actions or somebody feeling humiliated.

[25:05]

VOICEOVER: Act 3. The F-Word: Feminism. (What'd you think I was going to say?) 

HORN: One of the labels that many adolescents resist--and perhaps it has to do with the way that they understand it--is the label of "feminist," which of course, can and should be applied to people of any and all genders who take women seriously. You began your career as a teacher in 1971. This was a modern moment of feminism at the same time that critics like Adrienne Rich were establishing new ways of critical discourse thinking about roles typically assigned to males and females. Can you talk a little bit about feminism, and the way that you've taught about it and thought about it with kids? 

ROY: I think the first thing that's important is when you self-identify as a feminist--because kids would would say, "Are you really a feminist?" or they would say to each other, "You know, Ms. Roy is really a feminist"--like, "You guys better be careful"--is to make clear that that's not about being anti-male, of course. I mean, you're always fighting that cliché, but when you're teaching English--or any subject, but I taught English--we talk about categories of analysis, and the way we teach kids to look at texts through different lenses. And the well-established lens when I came into the classroom was, I'll call it the "Hemingway lens." We were always interrogating the myths of manhood--which we probably still do, should do--and not just Hemingway. Most of the protagonists were male. There was war literature, and there was love literature, and we were looking at male protagonists. Well, it's very logical and easy to see that that is incomplete. So the first way to deal with gender is adding gender as a category of analysis, so when you're looking at a text you are looking at both men and women, whether the woman is a protagonist or not, she's still in there or she's not. That isn't all one does, but one opens up the classroom to include those. In the classroom itself you have men and women and the American Association of University Women did that quite famous study and follow-up study--the years escape me right now. 

VOICEOVER: I remembered these reports making news when I was in high school, but I went back to check exact titles and dates. The first study was called "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America" in 1991; the following year was "How Schools Shortchange Girls." There's a link to these and other studies in the AAUW research archive on the show page for this episode. 

ROY: Well they conducted a series of observational tests in classrooms, recording the amount of time that boys and girls, men and women, got to speak, and who the teacher called on, and what got the most attention, and it was not a surprise to me but it was still somewhat startling and they did it from elementary young grades on up, that boys got more attention, for good and bad reasons. They talked longer. They were surer of themselves, etc. etc. It's kind of old news now. But I became very aware of that in my classroom as well, using various strategies--actually talking to the kids about it themselves. That's the other thing: talk to [your students] about what you're working on. You know, make them part of the discussion.

VOICEOVER: I'm popping in here again to underscore this point: Including your students and your thinking about what matters, what concerns you right now, and asking for their thoughts is an organic strategy to bolster their participation as citizens of the learning community you're trying to foster. With luck, and eventually, they will more regularly consider themselves citizens, period. 

ROY: Feminism to me is social justice because the idea that women are equal has to open you up to the fact that a whole lot of women are not white and a whole lot of women are not straight. And so wait a minute you're not just talking about gender, you're talking about the inclusion of people who are marginalized for various reasons in the curriculum, and in the in the conversation, and probably in the community in which you live. To me, that community makes it even more important that you bring in voices from the margins into the center of the curriculum. That is my feminism. My feminism is not separate from my working with homophobia, working with racism, working with any kind of injustice. Because I'm an old-fashioned feminist. I want to take apart the patriarchy. I don't want to replace it with a matriarchy; I want to look at my Senate and see more or less 50/50 representation. You know, women and men need to learn to work together. And men and women of all colors, and ethnicities, and backgrounds need to learn to work together. My feminism embraces all of that.

[31:18]

VOICEOVER: The Last Act. Using poems to make connections. 

HORN: Why don't we riff on poetry for a second, because you are a maker of poems--you are a published poet yourself. But you also used poetry I think more often than the average bear. You know, in some stretches, I think probably daily, but in some ways that I think are different than most people's experience of having poetry used in the classroom. For example, I think it's a common idea from people's high school English experience that they would walk through a poem line by line and have it explained, at least according to the teacher's idea of what it is that "the poet was really trying to say" and it didn't really line up with the surface meaning of what was happening there and certainly wouldn't line up with a kid's impression of how it was supposed to go and so many kids--I know I was one of them in high school--came back with the idea that that's just wrong and I wasn't any good at this, at making sense of it. Will you talk a little bit just about some of the ways that you've thought about and used poems in class? 

ROY: I have been guilty of just what you described when I first started teaching because that was what all English teachers did: We killed the poem. We took it apart, and we had no idea how to put it back together again. There is value in using poetry as a tool for teaching analysis. Poetry has the distinct value in the literature world of being short. Not all poetry, but there's plenty of short poetry. So everybody is sure to have read it because you can read it together. So yes, I have done that and I never completely stopped doing it. There were times when we studied poetry as a form, but the way I used poetry--to go back to the idea of classroom community and transitions--at the beginning of almost every class in my last 10 years of teaching, I would have a home available. And it usually--because this is the other advantage of poetry: there is no topic or "theme," as we like to say in English classrooms, that does not have a bunch of poems about it. So the poem would be related to what we were studying if we were studying a love story. Or let's say we were reading Ibsen's A Doll's House. There are a million marriage poems. So that kind of a poem read twice--once by me, once by a student volunteer--and then three or four minutes of writing in the journal that I asked my kids to keep (that I actually provided for them at the beginning of the year). Just as a way to settle down, get your mind into what's going on in here, what we've been talking about ... How can you remember? You've just had three other classes and you're supposed to remember that yesterday we were asking if Nora should leave or not? You know, it doesn't work that way in the brain! I found it extremely effective. The other backdoor effectiveness thing about it: Every kid does not come to your class with the assigned reading read the night before. So now you have a text that everybody--

HORN: Wait, what? 

ROY: I'm sorry. I don't want to disillusion you, but this is true.

HORN: My word!

ROY: Now you could give a terrible quiz--which of course accomplishes nothing, I don't give quizzes, I didn't give quizzes at the end of my career--or half of my career. So the poem puts everybody on the same page to begin with. And then you get some discussion going and then bring it to what you've been talking about. You help them make that connection. I think what I think is the most important thing in a classroom is to help kids--one of the most important things--see that It's all connected. The high school is all about boxes: English, history, science, whatever! To help them make connections across disciplines, and across ideas, and out into the world. Now how does this stuff all connect? That became one of my mantras: Make connections. What can you connect this to? What can you connect this to in your life? What can you connect this to in any other course you're taking in this school? You're taking foreign languages, do you see any language in here that connects? You're taking history, how does this connect with the stuff you've learned in history? I've had kids say to me after reading Beloved, or during the study of Beloved, Toni Morrison's novel that locates itself in slavery and the resistance to it. Kids loved it. People said, "You can't teach it in high school!" Well, you can teach it in high school. And at some point someone would say, "Boy I never really understood slavery!" Well, when did you study it? Let's go back to what you already know from your history courses-- and you'd have to sort of tease them into making the connections and then I would say, "Take that connection back to the history course." Frankenstein and science! I mean it's not the individual teacher's fault, it's the way we construct school systems, the way we set up learning. And it's now reified you know that's the way it is. You have these different courses in how we do it even earlier; we put the sixth graders in it!

HORN: But there was a very good committee established in 1892 to decide what subjects should be taught in secondary school. Are you saying that those evaluations should be reconsidered just 125 years later? That's what you're saying?

VOICEOVER: The show page has a link to an article on what is known as the Committee of Ten and their efforts to shape the curricular subjects that are still pretty much standard in U.S. education. As dessert for today's episode, Paula reads a favorite school poem.

[Paula reads "In a Classroom" by Adrienne Rich] 

ROY: Perfect poem! Yes, Adrienne! May you rest in peace! She was such an influence on my life! 

VOICEOVER: Amen, and I know what you mean! That's it for today's show. Special thanks to Shayfer James, who has provided instrumental tracks from several of the songs on his album Counterfeit Arcade for use in the podcast. His fierce music struck me as a particularly apt match for the badassery of Paula Roy. If you like what you've heard, treat yourself to the album, which includes his remarkable lyrics, and his own inimitable voice. Big thanks to you as well for listening, for subscribing to the podcast through iTunes, to the Point of Learning YouTube channel, and for spreading the word about this show to everyone you know interested in what and how and why we learn. 

ROY: We were so-- No, I'm not going to apologize for that, because I think kids can understand anything! 

[END 40:04]

Peter Horn