by Richard L. Curwin
Reviewed by Dave Orphal
World History Teacher (CA)
TLN New Millennium Initiative
Richard Curwin kicks off his advice book for urban teachers with a story about a king looking for a teacher for the young Prince. After testing all of the teachers in the land, the king selects the three finalists. One has the best content knowledge; another has the strongest classroom management and discipline. You have probably already guessed that it is the third teacher who wins the job — not the strongest in either category but an individual who combines great skills with the philosophy that it is a teacher’s role to serve and guide, on behalf of both the pupil and society at large.
Curwin’s summary conclusion: Teachers, including those in urban schools, are charged with helping our students learn and find a love of learning. To accomplish this, the co-author of the widely discussed Discipline with Dignity (1988, 2008), makes five recommendations for teachers and those who support them:
First, curriculum should be tailored to meet each child’s individual needs. Teachers should use diagnostic evaluations to assess a child’s knowledge and skills on any given topic, then guide that child toward increased knowledge and stronger skills. Here, Curwin challenges current-trend thinking that says that curriculum should be more closely articulated, so that teachers in a similar discipline are teaching nearly the same material on a given day, enabling those teachers to later collaborate on student results. Curwin’s counter argument is not to challenge the data that is driving this current trend, but rather to trouble that way of thinking with the query: “Maybe it does work, but at what costs?” Curwin wants teachers, administrators, parents and law makers to wonder, “Is getting high test scores worth it, if learning is forgotten or if children learn to hate learning?”
Second, expectations should be high, but attainable for every student. Expectations that are too high lead to frustration and failure for struggling students. They learn to dislike the subject and many decide to misbehave as a result. Curwin imagines a child thinking, “If I am so bad at being good or smart, then at least I can be really good at being bad.” Conversely, expectations that are too low lead to boredom.
Third, evaluations should diagnostic in nature. Little is accomplished, Curwin posits, when we use summative evaluations to rank children, rewarding the best and punishing the worst. In fact, he argues, this approach runs contrary to motivation. Those students who need little motivation get lots of encouragement from the rewards, and those who need motivation rebel against the punishments.
Fourth, everything a school does should be geared toward getting kids to want to learn. Contained within this concept are Curwin’s theories about discipline and classroom/school management. If the point of school is for children to learn, then it makes little sense to remove a child from a learning environment if the child is misbehaving. Instead, Curwin advises teachers to refer children to the principal only as a last resort. Curwin offers numerous tips and ideas about how to redirect misbehavior and offers perhaps his most interesting idea: the Altruism Consequence. Consequences are not punishments, Curwin states. Rather, they are the natural outcome of actions. When we hurt someone, the consequence is doing something nice for that person or for the class/school. Curwin believes that giving difficult youth opportunities to be good and help others will, in turn, heal the hurt and lead to higher levels of motivation for school.
Fifth, students need freedom and flexibility to explore their strengths and needs. In traditional schooling, adults decide on how children will spend their time, and how they will compete against one another for rewards and grades. Here, Curwin argues that some learning is better than no learning. There is little to be lost when a teacher lowers the bar for a child who has been stubbornly refusing to jump at all. Curwin believes that schools are currently over-emphasizing achievement, which ranks and kills motivation for low-achieving students. Instead, he thinks that teachers, principals and schools should emphasize effort, because achievement is the outcome of effort and, Curwin surmises, effort is the only factor that we can really control.
While many of Curwin’s ideas and strategies would work in any school, his focus is on low-achieving, unmotivated urban youth. He is not arguing that urban youth are necessarily low-achieving or unmotivated, nor does he argue that there are no low-achieving or unmotivated youth in the suburbs and the country. Instead, he recognizes that there are some conditions exasperated by urban poverty and violent neighborhoods. He recognizes that many students living in urban poverty have lost hope that their lives can be better than they are — that their lives can be better than the lives their parents live — or that education may be a way to pave a road to a brighter future.
David Orphal teaches World History at urban Skyline High School in Oakland (CA) Unified School District. He also serves as a mentor for the Center for Teaching Quality’s New Millennium Initiative in the San Francisco Bay area.