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Great Expectations: An Interview with Teacher/Author Dan Brown

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The Great Expectations School, Dan Brown's harrowing and touching memoir of his first year teaching at an elementary school in the Bronx, has won high praise from heavy hitters in education, including Susan Fuhrman, Randi Weingarten, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch.

Dan recently took the time to speak with me about the lessons of his experience teaching low-income children who could be by turns loving, enraged, vulnerable, brazen, curious and deeply disaffected. He shared his thoughts on the support new teachers need to function in this environment, specific strategies for serving children in poverty, and policy implications of day-to-day challenges in urban schools.

Hear five minutes of highlights from Dan's account of his first year:

Or, listen to about four and a half minutes of highlights from his discussion of education policy:

Transcripts of these highlights are available below.

By the way, Dan did not write The DaVinci Code. By his own admission, he's "ok with that."

Transcript of Teaching Discussion
Do you think it's possible, especially in a school like P.S. 85, where you taught in the Bronx, to provide teachers with better support so they can succeed in that environment?

BROWN: Oh, yeah. Every now and then you hear about some heroic teacher who gives his or her whole life and wakes up at 4:00 a.m. every day. But the fact is, it's an absolutely excruciating job for so many people, and certainly a lot more support could be there.

Don't get me wrong. So many schools do a brilliant job of mentoring and supporting teachers. But I know that it is lacking in many places, and new teachers could be brought along with a lighter teaching load, with co-teaching opportunities, with substantive mentoring, with legitimate professional development.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: When you were describing your own experience at the Great Expectations School, it sounded like a lot of these things were lacking for you.

BROWN: Yeah. There was a [mentoring] structure in place, but it was mostly the rookies banding together and working through it, all of us groping in the dark. I had a mentor. She was a very nice lady, but I'm not sure she really helped me become a better teacher.

But one thing that did happen was that I formed relationships with a few other teachers in the school and, sort of off the record, we helped each other. So breaking the isolation and forming professional relationships among teachers was crucial in finding my own support.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You also describe in the book your experiences with young students who need so much--the fourth-graders in your class--some of whom have violent outbursts on a regular basis, many of whom disappear from the classroom and reappear months later.

Do you have a sense of how schools can try to mitigate the burden of all of those problems these kids bring into the building with them?

BROWN: What I think I found is that lots of acting out in school comes from students not feeling a genuine personal connection with adults or other people in the school. I think establishing that human connection--through smaller, more intimate classes, through mental health support, through school-based health centers--is very, very important.

I know that there are plenty of studies that say class size is crucial, and then there are others that say class size doesn't matter. But being in the classroom…For example, right now I teach at a charter school in Washington, D.C. Last year I taught at a high school in the Bronx. I had 33 students in my English class last year in the Bronx. This year, in the charter school, I have between seven and 20 students in my classes. The difference is profound in terms of forming relationships.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You describe several teachers in the school who seem somehow to be able to--maybe it's the wrong word—“master” these classrooms full of children who bring such need and so many different conflicts with them into class. They seem to get control and seem somehow to create a sense of order in the classroom. Do you think that kind of ability to maintain order in a classroom can cut through all of those other factors?

BROWN: Yeah. There were definitely teachers at P.S. 85 and at every school I've been at that, over shortfalls of resources and whatnot, know how to work with kids in a way that keeps the kids under control and learning. I don't know any of them who were able to do it in their first year, though.

[Teaching is] really a craft that you develop. I feel a lot stronger now than I did my first year, but I recognize I still have a long way to go, in terms of coming anywhere near mastering being a teacher.

I think this is something you can have both ways. [You can] have schools that are adequately staffed, where people are supported, where rookies are groomed to become those excellent teachers and they're not put through a trial by fire that pushes them out the door.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Is there anything now, years after that experience in the Bronx, that you feel somehow still called upon to contend with, to master, to write about, to come to grips with that even the writing of that book didn't manage to--

BROWN: One of the things that really was perspective-altering in that experience is that it can be revealed to you, in the most unexpected ways, at unusual moments, that what you're doing really does matter. There are several students in the book that I profile who I really felt like I wasn't able to get through to, and I didn't know what to do. We were having problems.

But then, in little ways as the year went on, it was revealed to me that while there was certainly no huge victory narrative that would be written at the end, there were things that mattered. More than I'd realized. Some students you never click with, but most of them you do. And the ones that resist and actively attempt to subvert you at times are often the ones that are, below the surface, most interested in making a connection with someone. When that happens it's unlike anything I've experienced in other professional situations. It's extraordinary.

Transcript of Policy Discussion
You have spent some pretty substantial time in urban classrooms. Do you think this gives you a special perspective on education policy, especially the current education policy discussions that are in the news?

BROWN: I became a teacher in 2003, so it was only a little over five years ago that I first stepped in the classroom. My volume of experience really doesn't hold a candle to many people who are in the field. But as far as discussing policy, I stumbled into it because my first year teaching in the Bronx was really a very powerful, perspective-altering experience for me.

I'd come into teaching through an alternative certification program, the New York City Teaching Fellows, [which I] kind of stumbled into post-college. I really discovered a passion for teaching, but it came with a lot of pain. So I started writing when the year was over, and that writing developed into what became my book, "The Great Expectations School," my memoir about my first year [teaching].

At first I was writing just my own experience, because I felt like it's a narrative that isn't really out in the mainstream. What is it really like on the ground at these urban schools? It's so emotionally consuming that I don't think an urban teacher would have time to write stories. The only reason I was able to do it is that I did not teach the year after my first year at P.S. 85. Then I returned to teaching, but I took some time to do writing.

[Thanks to] the attention that the book got, I got an opportunity to join in the discussion about what works in schools, based on my experience and the experiences of my colleagues.

I really believe that there are common rhythms of how schools work and how teachers and students connect with each other. Though my story, "Great Expectations School," was rife with my own idiosyncrasies, it seemed to have really touched a nerve on what's really going on. And what's really going on is not always--in fact, [is] often not--in concert with what's going on in terms of policy discussions or theoretical discussions.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Where do you see some of the dissonance between what you think is actually going on in schools and what's going on in policy discussions?

BROWN: The first issue that really leaped out to me was high-stakes testing. In 2003-2004, there was some shady stuff going on in terms of preparing for the test, at least in my opinion. When the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002, I thought it sounded great. Accountability? Who can argue with that? But when we [the teachers] were explicitly pressured to drop everything else and drill to this test, it was pretty unnerving and not educationally or psychologically healthy for the students, I was convinced.

Compounding that was the debate about social promotion--about whether students should go on to the next grade if they hadn't passed their tests. While social promotion of course sounds bad, [I was seeing that] it's another trip around the track without any supportive services. It was, again, not in kids' best interest.

So the debate about social promotion, which was all over the headlines, made for great sound bites, but it didn't really, I think, take into account the kids who were left behind. In terms of testing and accountability, it sounds good but it really distorted what we were doing, and I felt like something was off.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: To get to the question of high-stakes testing, do you see any other models out there in your own experience as a teacher that are more educationally sound, you think, that can also be used for accountability purposes?

BROWN: Oh, definitely. The idea of portfolios of student work paints a real picture of what a child has achieved, how far they've come, what they've learned, where they're still struggling. Those can be built over time and used in conjunction with standardized tests.

The Coalition for Essential Schools has an exhibition model program that I think is great, where high school students--and it can be done with younger students--do what's essentially equivalent to a thesis project. It's a very student-directed research, multidisciplinary project which they then present, and [it’s] much, much more authentic [than standardized tests] in terms of real-world application.