Glenn's Soil Analogy

Glenn Liebeck joined our school in 2003. He taught biology. I worried that he'd be a wild card. He was really strong with kids, no question. But he'd been at another charter school that went through some messy leadership turnover. I wondered if he'd built up any scar tissue. Might mess up our faculty mojo.

Nope. Glenn was great at building our teacher culture. He'd fire up the other teachers, particularly around being consistent with kids. Here's an email from that fall:

I am really proud of our staff for cracking down on infractions and not only catching students, but holding them accountable. Each week I am keeping track of how many infractions each teacher records and celebrating them. It’s NOT a negative -- but a positive step towards a culture of excellence!

He'd walk right up to the toughest kid, get in his grill, and give him the tough love pep talk. Kids loved him. You'd ask sophomores "What's your favorite class?" and hear: Bio. Bio. Bio. Bio. This was a typical comment from a student evaluation about Glenn:

Mr. Liebeck is very strict and I respect him for that. He is very straightforward and consistent with the rules. I feel that he is an excellent teacher. He sets the highest standards for his students. He is that way because he cares.

Teachers respected him, too. Plus he made up funny nicknames for them. Little stuff like that. Part of his charm. Glenn was able to rally teachers in a way different from our principal, Charlie. He'd say to other 10th grade teachers stuff like:

Guys -- what’s going on with the detentions? Cluster 9 is kicking our asses! We are supposed to be the hard core trend leaders! Let’s pick up our game and get on some detentions! Let’s be hard asses!

In a football locker room, there are certain things that a player can say to another player -- along the lines of "let's buckle down" -- that are 5x more powerful than when it comes from a coach. Sports teams pay a premium for "locker room" presence.

Same thing in a school. When a teacher is able to push peers, wow. That's unusually valuable. I'm not sure teacher evaluations -- current or proposed -- factor this in particularly well.

Glenn was able to start a "peer rounds" where teachers critiqued one another. Not b.s. Legit critique. Many teachers said it was the best P.D. they had. When he moved back to NYC, "peer rounds" died after a while. Also, so did our epic ping pong battles: Glenn had a nasty backhanded serve.

Well, anyway. Glenn's involved in this start-up. He left an interesting comment the other day on this blog, so I thought I'd turn it into a post.

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Glenn writes:

I was having one of those, “How do we save the world of education” conversations in someone’s garage the other night and I realized that the difference between suburban success and urban struggles isn’t a disparity in the quality of teaching, and we know that its not an intelligence issue. Its an issue of simple GARDENING.

Yup -- gardening. By gardening, I’m specifically talking about the depth of the soil and the seeds that we plant in it. In my crazy analogy, soil isn’t basic academic skills. Nope. It's the academic working expectation of the individual student. The normality of 8 hrs of intense school followed by 3-4 hrs of homework, and accompanied by reading for actual pleasure. It's the capacity to work hard intellectually for long stretches of time EVERY DAY. It's the expectation that this is what the life of a student is. That is deep soil.

So many of our kids, however, simply don’t have the deep soil beds. They go to school for those 8 hours, but miss a day 1-2x/month. They schedule appointments during school time. During those 8 hours, they make as many bathroom trips as they will be afforded and the concentrated work windows max out at 13-18 minutes followed by 70-80 min of off-task but unobtrusive “chill’n”. (This is mostly due to us allowing and planning for this).

In my crazy analogy, the seeds are educational “best-practice” pedagogy. It's the teacher side of education -- the masterful techniques that we interweave to make the learning experience “richer” for them. It's the thoughtful and intentional group work, the graphic organizers, the data-driven instruction, the thoughtful guiding questions, the intentional sparked debate. As for those well-to-do successful suburban teachers: their seeds aren’t any stronger or fruitful than ours. Their pedagogical teaching skills aren’t any more powerful than ours. Our seeds grow just as many roots as theirs do.

So what’s the problem? What’s the difference?

The trouble is that the roots below ground of a plant growing in 2″ of soil simply aren’t strong enough to withstand the weight and flex that the plant above ground exerts on them. Who really cares how many roots a seed sprouts if a simple wind or casual foot traffic pulls them out of the ground?

Who really cares if a kid understands the factors of a 5-paragraph essay if they never suck it up and sit down for the 4-5 hrs that it takes to write a good one? Who cares if a kid remembers the formula for acceleration 15 minutes after they wrote it down on a piece of paper that will be lost in 20 minutes and they will never actually practice using because their neighbor just got a new Wii?

Aren’t we wasting our time looking for the best seeds when its actually the depth of the soil bed that’s simply too shallow? Why should we constantly be reinventing the wheel on how to get the kids to interact with the material differently, when those interactions are actually mere blips in time.

Shouldn’t we first build the soil beds and nourish that ground so that the seeds that we’ve been working so hard to plant (over and over again) actually have the opportunity to mature? Shouldn’t we concentrate on teaching kids HOW to learn before we concentrate on specialized methods of skill acquisition?