Many Houston-area educators know author Marvin Hoffman as a teacher, education professor, and former director of the School Writing Project based at Rice University. Hoffman's latest work, "'You Won't Remember Me': The Schoolboys of Barbiana Speak to Today", is part of the "Between Teacher and Text" series from Teachers College Press. Hoffman's inspiring book interprets the 1967 text "Letter to a Teacher" written by the Schoolboys of Barbiana and offers a vision of what schools should be like to train students for citizenship.
Hoffman's volume contains much of the original text of "Letter to a Teacher" who these Tuscan peasant boys wrote to the teachers that had pushed them out of school before they began attending a remote school run by a demanding priest, Don Lorenzo Milani. Their letter addresses a wide range of topics including economic class, tracking, the school calendar, and the curriculum. Although the Italian school system labeled them as drop-outs, by age fifteen, these boys "were seasoned teachers, accomplished writers, professional researchers, and firebrands for justice."
How did the teacher and his students accomplish this? School was in session ten hours a day for 363 days of the year - only Christmas Day and Easter were holidays. As important as the longer hours was a curriculum focused on only two subjects - researching and writing. For example, reading the newspaper aloud to students took up 1-3 hours of the day and was "a major component of the focused instruction the priest had substituted for the state curriculum." The boys write, "While cramming for [your] exams we would steal a couple of hours every day to read the paper, overcoming our stinginess. Because nothing is found in the newspaper that could help us pass your exams. This proves again how little there is in your school useful for life."
Hoffman's commentary ties the Schoolboys' words to his own history as an American Civil Rights worker and teacher. This text would be an excellent choice for a Critical Friends Group or book study group that wants to think deeply about the very purpose of education and look at issues of equity and excellence through the eyes of students.
Reading about the Schoolboys of Barbiana may re-inspire you to look closely at student work and listen for the students' voices. The Student Work Gallery is a process that helps a group become familiar with the kind of work that is being done by many participants' students. By having participants circulate through several pieces of work and write "I wonder. . ." questions on post-it notes, it gives everybody at least some feedback since there is no way all the student work brought to a single session can be the subject of an in-depth look using a protocol. The Student Work Gallery might work well in a department meeting or vertical team meeting so teachers could see what is expected and valued at all grade levels.
Dear Donna: My group has set norms, but we tend to stray from them quite a bit. Whenever we try to revisit the norms, I always ask, "Does everybody agree with this?" Yet, our meetings still get off track with people talking more than listening, cell phones ringing, participants leaving early, etc. Do you have any suggestions?
Dear Flustered: It sounds like you haven't really set norms—just produced a wish list of behaviors that not everybody has bought into.
Here's a tip that I learned from my colleague Tim Martindell. Instead of asking "Does everybody agree with these norms," ask, "Is there anyone who cannot agree to follow what we have posted?" This is called a negative poll. Notice that it uses the word "anyone" instead of "everybody," so the responsibility for responding is placed squarely on each individual. Since none of us is a mind-reader, we can’t truthfully respond to the prompt when it is phrased as "Does everybody agree with this." The tendency is for group members to think "I don't know" and just sit around waiting for somebody else to object. A small change in phrasing can make a big difference in how people participate.
Tim learned this tidbit of facilitative nuance at a workshop led by the Interaction Institute for Social Change.
If you have questions for Dear Donna, send them to CFGCoach@houstonaplus.org. Donna Reid is a Houston-based National CFG Facilitator and a consultant with Houston A+ Challenge.