Rhetoric or Reality?

Do small schools change teaching practice?

By Linda Christensen

Illustrator: Sergio Ruzzier

Illustration:Sergio Ruzzier

From the beginning of the small schools movement, I’ve listened to the rhetoric about personal relationships; rigorous, relevant teaching; and an integrated social justice curriculum. Since Portland Public Schools’ foray into small schools and my visits to model schools across the country, I’ve discovered that small schools don’t have a franchise on quality classrooms, and that, too often, schools change their structure without changing classroom practice or curriculum.

Sometimes the process of building a small school can distract teachers from thinking about classroom and curriculum issues. Over the last few years, teachers in a number of high schools in Portland, Ore., have packed up their file cabinets and book shelves and moved down the hall or up a freshly painted stairway to a new room and joined a small school. But what’s in the files, on the shelves, and taught in the new room often looks suspiciously like what was taught in the old, big school. And I don’t blame teachers for that. They’ve been kept so busy rearranging schools and schedules, they haven’t had much time to focus on changing their classroom practice.

Small schools do offer possibilities for making significant changes in teaching and learning, changes like El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice’s school-wide integration of a social justice curriculum on sugar [see article on page 35.] or time for teachers to gather and develop curriculum that is rigorous and relevant. Small schools that provide time and support for interdisciplinary planning and teacher teams can facilitate such practices more easily. But they don’t guarantee them.

While changing school structure is no easy task, changing teaching is even harder. Too often as teachers we have a narrow curricular imagination about what and how to teach based on our own experiences. Given that most of us are products of the same schools and curriculum that we’re trying change, we have limited background knowledge about how to create a curriculum that questions the patterns of power endorsed in most textbooks or novels; about ways to examine how our responses to and discussion of student work may push the children we’re trying to teach out the door instead of pulling them in; or about teaching methods that engage students in curriculum that resonates with their lives. For small school reform to move from rhetoric to reality, teachers must rethink and restructure what is taken for granted and assumed normal in our classroom practice.

Teachers Learning Together

The first rethinking or reshaping of my classroom practice happened a little more than 20 years ago at Jefferson High School, located in Portland’s predominantly working-class African-American neighborhood. Bill Bigelow and I talked about teaching together because we realized that we often taught the same eras in U.S. history and were interested in each other’s approach to curriculum. We considered teaching about the Depression or the Vietnam War at the same time, maybe sharing speakers, field trips, or assignments. But these cafeteria conversations never made it to reality. Although we had many of the same students, a significant number had other teachers for history or language arts. Without any common planning time, years of half-hearted attempts passed before we created our class.

In 1985, Jefferson’s administration granted us permission to team-teach a two-period, interdisciplinary class in the coming year: Literature and U.S. History. Before our first summer planning meeting, I gave Bill a list of my class books to read in preparation for our initial discussion: The CrucibleThe Scarlet LetterThe Red Badge of Courage, My AntoniaThe Great Gatsby, and Grapes of Wrath. To be fair to myself, I did insert a Native-American unit and a unit on the Harlem Renaissance, but my attempt at including multicultural literature amounted to tokenism, not a thoughtful weaving of diverse writers.

Bill’s question during that first meeting, “What do you want students to learn from Red Badge of Courage?” was an illuminating moment in my teaching career. I fumbled about for an answer — “the brutality of war. . . .” But to be honest, I taught The Red Badge of Courage and the rest of the books because they were part of the literary canon, acknowledged classics taught or supplied by folks who I figured knew a lot more than I did. After all, I was just a teacher. They were the books I’d read in high school, and the books I studied again as a literature major in college. (And before you begin to email me with a list of reasons why I should teach Red Badge of Courage, I can make the list as well–today.)

At that time, I taught out of tradition and assumptions rather than out of conviction for what I believed students at Jefferson needed to learn. I didn’t have a curricular center, a staging platform of core beliefs to anchor my teaching. Any text can be relevant and rigorous, depending on how it’s taught, but as a teacher I needed clarity around my vision. I followed unexamined assumptions about curriculum because I didn’t feel important enough, smart enough or empowered enough to make those decisions on my own. Instead of leaping from book to book, I have learned from my years of team teaching to construct a curriculum around big ideas that matter, that connect students to their community and world. I learned to pull books, stories, poems, essays that help students critically examine the world rather than consume it one classic at a time.

Team teaching also changed my daily practice. I learned a whole new set of skills and strategies to make my teaching more participatory, more hopeful, and definitely more multicultural and anti-racist. Because my understanding of history was built from a number of multiple-choice, fact-chasing classes in high school and college, I really learned history for the first time, which changed the way I taught all my other classes as well.

But collaborative teaching also gave me someone to talk with about student growth. We looked at student work — from papers to classroom discussions — and sorted out what students learned and what they still needed to study. We also struggled over what we graded and how we graded. We analyzed our teaching after class: What worked? Why did it work? Instead of blaming students, we questioned ourselves when we didn’t get them as far as we wanted them to go.

When Bill and I created our Literature and U.S. History class, we taught in a school that supported teacher collaboration and could back up its values with resources. Smaller learning communities create the possibility for changing curriculum and practice in similar ways. Ultimately, if small schools are to live up to their promise, they will have to build consciously on this potential to change classroom practice and curriculum. And that means that the character of collaboration among staff and the nature of the curriculum that results from that collaboration are critical. Again, El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice provides a model of gathering stakeholders to discuss critical issues in the community that all content disciplines can connect with — from asthma to gentrification — and uses those as a launching point for interdisciplinary year-long studies.

Common Literacy Strategies

Smaller learning communities allow for some systemic coherence in classroom practice that would be an overwhelming job in a large school. Too often students leave school without adequate academic skills in either literacy or math. It’s not enough for schools to exhort students to fight for justice if they don’t equip them with the tools they need to critically analyze their daily newspaper, presidential speeches, and school board decisions or figure out mortgage loans. In the past three years, Portland’s curriculum department launched an “academic literacy” campaign in several of our high schools to examine how to teach reading and writing in each content area and to develop some common literacy strategies across grade levels or small schools. These include approaches for building background knowledge prior to entering a new unit through “tea parties,” role plays, “scavenger hunts,” photographs, and writings that pair new concepts or content knowledge with students’ lives. Teachers also use a variety of methods to get students to read texts more closely, like dialogue journals or Socratic Seminars.

This plan has worked better in some settings than in others and has suffered from the overwhelming number of initiatives picked up and abandoned as the next new program surfaces, luring administrators and teachers to follow quick-fix promises that bypass the hard work of examining and changing curriculum and strategies to meet the needs of students in the school.

I also see systemic work on teaching, encouraging, and analyzing student writing as critical and practical in small schools. Many high school language arts teachers and a few social studies teachers have participated in the four-week Portland Writing Project. But writing, like reading, needs to happen across the curriculum. This work is in its initial stages. In one small school, for example, I was invited to work with teachers on examining students’ writing to determine their patterns of errors. I’ve found that in order to help students access the language of power or “standard Eng-lish,” it helps to examine each student’s recurring punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors and to reflect on those in terms in of the student’s home language. During a shared planning time, teachers were to determine which error the student should work on first. Then teachers across content areas would help students correct these errors in their writing. For example, a student might be confused about when to use apostrophes or capitals correctly, so teachers would target one error for the student to tackle.

Ideally, I’d rather work with teachers on how to teach essays, narratives and lab reports. Instead, I get called in to score papers and fix grammatical errors.

But examining student work collectively does provide an opportunity to talk with teachers about how students’ patterns of errors often come as “logical” errors from their first language. I’ve found this activity opens conversations with teachers about language and culture, and how and when to “correct” student work in a way that appreciates students’ home languages while giving them access to academic language. In order to create culturally sensitive classrooms, teachers in all subject areas need to understand the linguistic histories of the students in their school. Too often as teachers we operate on the “good English, bad English” model, instead of investigating why students make “errors.” The “correction” process needs to make it clear that the student isn’t “wrong,” but that each language has its own way of making plurals or using verb tenses. Students need to explicitly learn the differences between their home language and standard English. [See “The Politics of Correction” Vol. 18, No. 1 for an in-depth discussion on this topic.]

At SEIS, a Spanish immersion school on the Roosevelt campus in Portland, looking at patterns of errors provoked an important discussion. Because the majority of SEIS students speak Spanish as their first language, the discussion broadened to include not only “errors” students made in English, but also the “errors” they made in Spanish. Eléna Garcia -Vélasco led us into a discussion about how punctuation differs in the two languages.

Curriculum That Matters

I work with teams of teachers in several smaller learning communities developing interdisciplinary teaching that matters — that encourages students to ask fundamental social questions and to draw on their lives to learn about the world: Whose voices do we hear in the news and in our texts? Whose voices are marginalized? What assumptions does the writer make without explanation? Does the author use labels to discount or discredit the opposition without analysis? Does the passive voice hide the actors and actions?

I’ve been working with a language arts and social studies teacher at two of the small schools located on the Roosevelt High School campus to create a unit on Haiti that we call “From Genocide to Debt” that weaves literature and history together to help students understand the colonial roots to today’s poverty and repression in Haiti. We started with Columbus’s arrival on the island the Taíno people probably called Hayti and Columbus re-named La Española (Little Spain), and used quotes from his journals and photos of contemporary Haiti to get students to pose questions about what happened to the environment and the people during the last 500 years. Our idea was to create a template — a critical framework of questions — for students to ask about any colony or poor country and to examine how the social conditions of a country are reflected in the literature. Dianne Leahy, a language arts teacher at the POWER academy on the Roosevelt campus, created a “tea party” to introduce the novel Taste of Salt and developed dialogue journals, timelines, and historical photo galleries. Keri Hughes, a social studies teacher, and I created a scavenger hunt about historical figures like Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jaques Dessalines, the Duvaliers, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and others to help students make sense of a difficult text. Through role plays, timelines, news articles, and selections from Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! students learned how lingering patterns of colonial domination can hold contemporary countries hostage. [See “Once Upon a Genocide: Columbus in Children’s Literature” in Rethinking Columbus.]

I’m currently working with Santha Cassell, a language arts teacher, and Sarah Epstein, a social studies teacher, to create an interdisciplinary unit on World War II. Santha is using memoirs ( Farewell to Manzanar and Nisei Daughter), first-person poetry, drawings, and interviews to teach about the Japanese-American internment and to look at the intersection of history and our personal lives. In Santha’s class, students created a timeline about the historical events that impacted their lives and wrote a memoir about one of those events.

Sarah, working with the same pool of students during her class, drew on historical documents from the same period to examine U.S. foreign policy — from Pearl Harbor to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Students separated government propaganda from historic facts as they examined speeches, news accounts, and other primary sources, including choice points about when the U.S. government responded to German, Japanese, and Italian aggression and when it did not; when it interned Japanese Americans; as well as when it bombed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After students read and discussed background information on the bomb, Sarah delivered President Truman’s speech describing and rationalizing the bombing of Hiroshima. Students portrayed reporters, dissecting the speech, and raising questions that poked holes in generalizations and inaccuracies. In this unit, as in the unit about Haiti, students learn how to ask big questions about U.S. foreign policy, historical documents and news coverage of contemporary events by closely examining a critical period in history. This kind of collaboration be-comes easier in a small school structure, but it takes the intentional efforts of teachers, administrators, and perhaps district support personnel to make it happen.

Time to Plan and Collaborate

Embedding collaborative planning time in the school day and keeping it sacred is essential if teachers want to create interdisciplinary units, common literacy practices, or classroom rituals. Al-though common planning time pops up as a necessity in every small school meeting I’ve attended, collaboration time is frequently sliced away because of schedule constraints, usurped by administrative agendas, or frittered away by streams of outside agencies who all want a piece of the community time. At one high school, teachers started on one reform agenda — ninth-grade communities — and before the year was out, they were asked to use their planning time to help create 10th grade academies. The next year, they were asked to use their planning time to move to small schools. Because the reform target keeps moving, the same teachers don’t get in the same room at the same time to work on changing curriculum. If where we put our time tells students and teachers what matters, lack of time for curriculum development implicitly says curriculum doesn’t count. This theft of planning time combined with top-down standardization of curricula can steal the very substance of what transformative small school reform should be about.

At the district level we’ve held “curriculum camps” during the past five summers. Initially, the intent was to crack open the canon to include more multicultural literature that both engaged students and that helped them make sense of the world. Since the small schools movement has come to town, the goal of the camp is to bring interdisciplinary teams of teachers from different schools to create multicultural, social justice units that can be shared across the district. Teachers may choose to be paid their hourly wage or to earn graduate credit for their work. Because of my experience with interdisciplinary teaching, I know that creating these units takes time: time to read background material — in the case of Haiti, books like C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins and Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti ; time to find the right readings; time to talk about which strategies to use, about what we hope students will learn.

A few units have emerged. A group of language arts and social studies teachers developed an interdisciplinary unit based on Fast Food NationNickel and DimedLegacy of Luna and others. Last summer, a multidisciplinary team developed a unit centered around the novel The Secret Life of Bees. While language arts teachers focused on the novel, social studies teachers developed a curriculum around the civil rights period, and a biology teacher created a unit on bees. The summer institutes gave us practice in thinking about curriculum in exciting, interdisciplinary ways. Efforts like this give us ideas about what could happen.

My frustration with most of the small school reform I’ve seen so far is that too often it has focused on changing school structure without giving teachers adequate time or resources to change their classroom practice. If we really want to create schools that are “equitable, personalized, and intellectually vibrant” as the Coalition of Essential Schools asserts, then we need to move away from the segmentation of knowledge into 50-minute bites, break down content walls, and develop curriculum in every content area that lives those ideals. Real change means focusing on the classroom and creating glimpses of the kind of society we could live in, where students learn the academic and critical skills needed to make it a reality — hammering out and sticking with an agenda until change occurs — instead of jack rabbiting after the next quick fix.


Bigelow, Bill. “Once Upon a Genocide: Columbus in Children’s Literature.” Rethinking Columbus(Rethinking Schools, 1998).

Christensen, Linda. “The Politics of Correction,” in Rethinking Schools Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall 2003.

Christensen, Linda. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up:Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word (Rethinking Schools, 2000).

Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1 (Rethinking Schools, 1994).

Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 2 (Rethinking Schools, 2001).

Linda Christensen (lchrist@aol.com) is language arts coordinator for Portland Public Schools and a Rethinking Schools editor. She is author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and  the Power of the Written Word and co-editor of Rethinking School Reform.