The First Law of Educational Inefficacy

When I started teaching, I had a noisy and boisterous 7th grade class as my homeroom (I also taught them science).  We were told, in the before-the-school-year meeting for all teachers, that homeroom– which lasted from 8:40 to 9:00, but in practice went from whenever the kids finished at their locker until the bell rang at 9:03 and the attendance sheet was picked up– was for silent reading, and only silent reading. So a few kids would show up at 8:32, sit at their desk, get out their silent reading book, and start reading The Giver or the Life Story of Derek Jeter or whatever, but within a few seconds another louder kid would come in, or slam their locker outside, or stand outside the room eating a bacon-egg-and-cheese from the bodega across the street, until all the kids who had been reading would explain that they hadn’t eaten hardly anything for breakfast and gosh were they hungry, and finally the more wiseguy kids (who knew we weren’t allowed to mark them late until 9:00 on the dot) would stroll in right before the bell, glancing contemptuously at those poor suckers still clinging to their assigned reading book, and comment how good the bacon-egg-and-cheese had been. While I, inexperienced and inefficacious, was more incompetent at keeping my homeroom reading than most of the teachers in the school, it was clear I was hardly alone, since within a week or two the principal would come on the loudspeaker and demand “SILENCE FOR SILENT READING,” several times a morning, which had the few remaining literateurs looking up in dismay, wondering if they were in trouble and if they hadn’t been silently reading silently enough, and only gradually getting back to their books.

Meanwhile, however, the school– a hulking yellow overcrowded block of cinderblock that squatted on its South Bronx hillside like a Vogon spaceship demolishing the Earth– had decided that it was going to disintegrate into Small Learning Communities. Small Learning Communities– theme-based schools-within-a-school where a group of teachers would teach a common group of students and even follow them across the grades– were all the rage then, and so big signs were hung on each floor– “Media and Communications,” “Professions and Careers,” “Performing and Visual Arts,” and so on, as the theme for the new schools-within-a-school. Almost immediately, Media and Communications realized that they needed to be producing Media, so the obvious implication was made and a different group of kids from the third floor would trot down to the Main Office every morning and start producing Media over the loudspeaker: reading the weather report, announcing birthdays, giving shout-outs to their friends. A generally good time, but the last straw for the few kids trying to learn the details of Derek Jeter’s 1997 season, who would resignedly look up at the loudspeaker, their face in their palm, and  listen. Even this was not consistent, however, since occasionally the group of kids from the third floor wouldn’t be sent down in time, so instead we’d get “SILENCE FOR SILENT READING” just when we were waiting for the weather report.

This is the First Law of Educational Inefficacy: Any Educational Agenda will Cause an Equal-and-Opposite CounterAgenda to be Formed. The Agenda and CounterAgenda mingle, interact, make noise, and then dissipate in a cloud of photocopied handouts.




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