What Ted Sizer Taught Me
When I graduated from college, I was preparing for my first job as a teacher. In college I didn’t study education, so my father, then a high school English teacher, handed me three books, The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner, The Shopping Mall High School by Powell, Farrar, and Cohen, and the book that became my favorite, Horace’s School by Theodore Sizer.
Looking back I realize how wise my father was in giving me a series of books that framed an overall theory of education, rather than books with titles like “how to teach English” or “teaching in the first year.” The books he passed on to me were the books he came to after thirty-five years of teaching; the ideas in these books resonated with him, a public school teacher in Indiana, and pointed to the reforms that were necessary in an out-dated educational system and he hoped that with these ideas I might be able to carry on what he started.
In my first year of teaching, a colleague of mine John Hanlon and I shared Sizer’s passages from Horace’s School many mornings over cups of coffee in the teachers’ room. We talked about the teacher Horace in the book, a character Sizer created based on a composite of public school teachers across the United States, and his struggles in the traditional school setting. Through Horace, we imagined different possibilities in our own school. We decided forty-five minute classes were indeed not enough time to deeply engage students in any discipline. We felt it was necessary to combine the separate subjects we taught–literature and history–into an interdisciplinary course called “American Studies.” Of course now none of these ideas are new, and they weren’t even at that time, but in our little school we presented our proposal to co-teach a new course to the headmaster and he approved it. Over the next couple of years our students learned about the interconnectedness of the disciplines–literature, the arts, history–and at the end of each quarter they “exhibited”–to use Sizer’s term–what they knew. They wrote their own “Song of Myself” based on Whitman’s famous poem; they interpreted Michael Hess’s Dispatches and the history of the Vietnam War through a collaborative performance art piece; and yes, they also wrote essays and took exams, but we aimed for depth of understanding rather than a simple recall of facts. Our goal was to wrestle with the interconnectedness of the disciplines and to teach them in-depth, honoring Sizer’s other important principle “less is more.”
Later at Brown I would become one of Ted Sizer’s students. Rather than meet in a classroom at the university, he and his wife Nancy taught their class in their home in Providence teaching me another important principle that wasn’t in any of his books, “education should feel like home.” Later, when I moved to Mexico, my wife and I bought a house and turned it into a school. The living room became a performance space and we transformed the garage into a reception area to welcome parents and students. A carpenter made all of the school’s furniture by hand so that students wouldn’t sit in institutional desks and chairs. A school should feel like home, a place to come together as a community, to exchange ideas, to explore the world, and to take the risks of learning in a safe environment.
With Ted and Nancy Sizer, every week, we woke up at 5am and visited a public school in New England to shadow a student. With our student, we attended classes together and shared lunchtime. This is how we learned about our public schools and our education system, not by reading books about education, but rather sitting next to the students, talking to them, experiencing school like they experienced school. This was another principle of Ted’s not explicitly in his books, “education needs to be out in the world.” We wrote about what we saw in the schools, and when we returned to his home, we sat sharing our writing, creating our own “textbook” for our class from our combined observations.
Finally at the end of the course, I remember distinctly Ted instructing us, “Now it is time for you to show us what you learned. All of you will create a performance together. You are welcome to use our house to plan, we’ll pour the tea.” Sizer writes about an important principle of education he calls, “Student-as-worker. Teacher-as-coach,” meaning the students must be the ones to wrestle with the heart of subject, through discussions, reading, writing, and what Sizer called “exhibitions of learning.” The teacher’s job is to encourage, inspire, and ask questions. This is a stark contrast from the traditional classroom where the teacher gives the students information in a lecture and asks them to recall a series of facts for a test. In Sizer’s model the students become the scientists, the artists, the writers, and the historians, and in his classroom at Brown we became the educators and researchers, and he and Nancy poured the tea.
Today we are losing what Ted Sizer saw as the most important relationship in education, the relationship between the student and the teacher. For the past several years, the United States has been moving away from Ted’s vision towards standardized and antiseptic schools. We give our teachers the same textbooks across all classrooms and ask them to employ identical teaching methods. We administer batteries of state tests to our students. In the media and in policy meetings we sound tough by discussing “accountability” and the need for “urgent change,” encouraging our school administrators to lead with an attitude of going to war rather than educating children. We hold our teachers accountable to state test results forcing all of our teachers to teach to the tests rather than teach curriculums that encourage the kind of in-depth, interdisciplinary thinking that Sizer wrote so eloquently about.
One of the greatest lessons Ted taught us was how to frame policies in ways that are clear and straightforward. He created clear principles for reforming schools that guided the organization he founded at Brown, The Coalition of Essential Schools. These principles embrace complex ideas in just a few words and honor the potential humanity of our schools. They give voice to the teachers and put the students at the center of education. Even though he has left us, it’s time to listen to Ted Sizer again.