English Teacher, Berkeley High School
“And so I want to be a, you know, a revolutionary.”
Berkeley High School (BHS) is the only public high school in Berkeley. In 2000, it was divided into several small schools with different foci. Amy teaches in the Communication Arts & Sciences academy. “[Berkeley High is] a pretty dynamic place.
You have a lot of kids who are coming in who may have attended private school up until high school. The parents decide, well, let’s give them a little public school to get them ready for the real world. Put them at Berkeley High. You also have a large population of kids from other surroundings communities with lesser schools. I’ve had kids who commute daily from Stockton, which is an hour drive. We have an incredibly diverse socioeconomic background, but a lot of families are no longer actually living in Berkeley. Berkeley rents are so high, many families have had a hard time staying here.
Amy is the co-author, with Rick Ayers, of Great Books for High School Kids: A Teacher’s Guide to Books That Can Change Teens’ Lives.
She talks, here, about how and why she sees teaching as a “political act and a way to subvert the system.”
I came to BHS in 1997. It’s changed quite a bit while I’ve been here. A few years before I got here, they had completely tracked classes. English had four different tracks. There was the very low track where there were mostly African-American boys. Absolutely no literature or higher order or critical thinking, it was drill and kill. Things that would just numb anyone’s brain.
Around the time I arrived, there was the Diversity Project. That was a group led by Pedro Noguera and Jean Wing. Both were Berkeley High parents and Pedro also a served on the school board. There was a glaring achievement gap, so they organized a group of community members, post-secondary educators, Berkeley High faculty and staff, and students and family members to really get in there and study what was creating such a pronounced achievement gap at Berkeley High. There was a big effort to understand it, then to make recommendations about what should change. That’s right when I came in.
In my first year or two, I had beautifully balanced classes that were composed of a range of kids. This happened because we had a vice principal who made it her business to perfectly balance every English and history class. She had an algorithm that involved race, ethnicity, gender, Zip code, parent education level, past academic record, grades and test scores. It was amazing.
I think the belief was that – and it’s certainly my belief– that one of the absolute greatest assets that Berkeley has is an incredibly diverse population. What an amazing opportunity to learn about each other and to learn across differences. That was the idea: having this balance of kids would raise everybody up. You have the potential to teach at a higher level, and kids who were struggling would at least be exposed to the critical thinking and the deeper ideas. It was an invigorating configuration for teaching.
During the Bush Administration, with No Child Left Behind, for the most of that time, we had a superintendent who was pretty radical. She implied, “I don’t believe that this is the way to manage our school, so I’ll just ignore it.” She was there for about eight years, and it was roughly during the Bush years. We really didn’t feel the pressure the way others did. My friends who teach in Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco were under incredible pressure.
I couldn’t believe the changes! There was a year when teachers were told they could only teach one book. It could be a play or a novel, but otherwise it was just excerpts and textbooks. That was an edict throughout the district, and it was all about test prep. How are we getting our money? It’s through our test scores, right? But the bottom line is those tests don’t care about kids reading books and loving literature. They care about how they can read a short passage and answer questions. So I saw how horrifying it was for other teachers, and I have to say, comparatively, we were very much shielded. This is Berkeley, and people don’t like to follow the rules.
And yet, judging by the tone of your voice, I sense that you love teaching.
Oh I love my job! I mean, I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out; I wouldn’t want to do this job if I ever figured it all out. Part of why I love teaching is the constant challenge of never knowing what’s going to happen. It’s getting to be a better teacher all the time. I don’t know what else I could be doing that would be this exciting, quite frankly.
What do you struggle with?
I definitely struggle with the politics of schooling. I struggle with the whole idea of schooling. I don’t agree with the model that we use. It’s just ridiculous. I guess it does fit what it’s intended to do, which is to sort people and to set certain people up for ruling and other people up for serving. But I don’t like to be complicit in that. And so I want to be a, you know, a revolutionary.
I definitely see teaching as a political act and a way to subvert the system. But then there’s always the institution and you are part of it. So finding that line between staying fresh and excited and happy because of the actual work I do with kids and also trying to change a really rotten system that is, I think, set up against kids in a lot of ways….Well, that can be exhausting. There’ve been times when I’ve been mostly required to or have chosen to give too much of my energy toward changing the system and not enough to the things that I actually can control: what happens with kids within my classroom or more broadly, my small school.
Do you find yourself trying to fight the system to make change? Or is it, for you, maintaining your own classroom to the best of my ability?
That’s the crux for me. The balancing act. Do you fight to get the resources you need in order to provide a good situation for your kids? Or do you try to fight to make the structure for all the kids in the school better? I find the years when I spend more time trying to change the school, I am more burned out, less happy, and a less effective teacher. And not a very good mom or wife. I’m angry because so much energy is going to these things that are often impervious to my pleas. It’s really hard. It’s the school, it’s the school board, it’s the parent community and their allegiance to certain things. It’s all of that. This is a very cynical and depressing thing to say, but how much can I really change that stuff and still be the kind of teacher I want to be?
What would you identify as the Goliath that you’re up against?
So Horace Mann, revolutionary thinker — (Laughs). I love the idea that every school, every kid deserves access to an education. But this factory system, whereby we are evaluating kids against each other, using false methods of assessing them… I would say that a system that makes some kids feel like they deserve everything and other kids feel like they deserve nothing is terrible, and I want that gone. This is hard, because when I come to work I’m part of it.
What do you see as your own slingshot?
Working with likeminded educators to give kids who don’t see themselves as having what it takes or having opportunities that await them both the belief and the skills to get there. I really feel like what that comes down to is we are in this together. The rhetoric of Race to the Top, are you kidding me? We should try to address education not as a competitive race, but rather a collaborative, cooperative model.
We can all have a better society if we work together, and I feel like we do a great job in our small school. Kids who have come from privileged backgrounds learn so much about what other kids have had to endure. They learn to appreciate what they’ve gotten, and then they really feel a responsibility to go out and do something about it. I want kids to say, “Wow. I’ve got some power, and I have the responsibility to do something positive with it. So how do I do it?”
I try to teach how to write and how to find your joys and how to speak and find the power of your voice, whether it’s verbal or written, as one way that kids will be able to access that power.
The interface with the larger school can be exhausting. And it makes you compromise your own teaching. So I guess the way I think about it is, at the end of the day, where can I have the greatest impact? And I think it’s on the kids who come into my room.
That’s the decision you’ve made, then.
But it’s not a fixed decision. (Laughs)