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School Improvement Must Build on Students' Strengths and Moral Consciousness

Kicking off the next six weeks of guest bloggers is John Thompson, a former inner-city teacher and self-described "anti-reformer." In a previous life, John was an award-winning historian before shifting gears to teach high school in Oklahoma City. In 2015, he published A Teacher's Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to our Kids, arguing that test-fueled reform is doomed to fail.

Today, I'll continue with more student stories that didn't make the cut in A Teacher's Tale, a case study of teaching at John Marshall and Centennial High Schools, and the damage done by the deficit-driven reform movement. They help explain why reformers should have offered the supports necessary to teach inner-city kids in a holistic and respectful manner.

My favorite edited-out story was prompted by my worst experience in an otherwise wonderful year. A student, Adam, had said he'd become a drug dealer before accepting a humiliating minimum-wage job. I listened and eventually he got to the point: Adam had been terribly embarrassed as a young child when the police barged into his birthday party and arrested his dad. The day after Adam told me this, his mother burst into class and berated me (apparently because I didn't shut her son down when he mentioned drugs).

The verbal attacks lasted through the passing period and into the next class. My students sat pensively until I finally coaxed the woman out of the room. Though stunned, I could see my students were upset. They had never seen me when I was not in control of a situation. Eunice broke the silence: "Dr. Thompson, yesterday you said we should watch 'Mysterious Universe' on PBS. Tell us about it."

It was a tribute to Eunice's emotional intelligence that she threw that softball across the plate to rebuild my confidence. I was then able to move to one side of the room to demonstrate the "Big Bang" and bound across the room to show how the universe expanded for 15 billion light years. I paced back to demonstrate how, on Earth today, we could ask what happens if we develop a telescope that can see backwards "billions and billions" of years towards creation. Eunice had given me an opportunity to mimic Carl Sagan and ham it up until I had regained my composure.

The next day Eunice said that I always helped them so much and she asked herself what I would do in such a situation.

It wasn't uncommon for a crisis to prompt a class discussion which revealed our kids' hard-earned wisdom. Despite his frequent suspensions, another student, Robert, did well in our class. Arriving late one day due to a meeting with a principal, he was again "working hard and working smart" until his father, angry about being called to the office over his son's infraction, rushed in. After they left, the students commented about the beating that Robert was about to receive. They did not exhibit the jubilant bravado that accompanied a student-on-student "beat down," but expressed sadness for their friend—a friend who never returned to school.

The conversation gradually veered into the issue of Department of Human Services inspections. Several swapped experiences about tactics for avoiding placement in foster care. If you keep your house orderly, several students bragged, you won't be taken from your home. They also recited the phrases that would convince social workers to allow them to stay with their moms.

Someone mentioned a heartwarming story that had been in the news about a poor family taking in a stranger, prompting unanimous agreement that nobody in their neighborhood would do something so nice. Then one student asked, "Sylvia, didn't your mom take in ..." The kids then recalled a long list of random acts of kindness practiced by their families in their notorious neighborhood.

School reformers focused on academics, but had they listened to the students they'd have seen that the smart strategy would have been to build on the kids' strengths. Oklahoma Secretary of State Hannah Atkins, the state's first black woman elected to the House of Representatives, guest lectured on the harm she predicted would be done by welfare reform. She brought detailed information about the specific, unintended effects that the law would have on poor people. The students responded with real-world scenarios that they had lived but that reformers had not.

Mohamed told of a dispute with an administrator who did not want him, as our most militant student, to represent the school in a meeting with Congressman Ernest Istook. He said the rest of the students at the meeting were white suburbanites, and that they repeatedly praised Mohamed for being so knowledgeable about history and politics. The congressman had been equally generous in his praise of Mohamed when they had agreed on the importance of family, faith, and responsibility. Congressman Istook then spoke with the same zeal regarding his own conservative economic beliefs.

Since Mohamed also possessed substantial expertise in economics, he enthusiastically engaged in the exchange with the Republican congressman. Having won over the crowd, Mohamed added that he, a Muslim, and the legislator, a Mormon, had been able to disagree respectfully when discussing God. But why was the congressman so unbending when discussing economics? It was like "the Market" was as much God to him as God was.

Secretary of State Atkins enjoyed the story of Mohamed's debate with Congressman Istook, and was so proud of the students' other efforts, that she revisited our classes every semester. Some readers might challenge Mohamed's opinions or bluntness, but any class which allowed space for his "creative insubordination" would be rewarded greatly.

John Thompson

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