“Education is like Spinach”

On the first day of school the entire system gets together in one place for a big ol’ convocation.  There
is music, dancing, and plenty of speeches.  Towards the end the Wallingford, CT teacher-of-the-year gets up and presents. When the teacher-of-the-year selections started about 6 years ago, the first teacher just stood up and spoke…maybe there was a video.  Then each teacher after her did something “bigger.”  This year Jim Andreson from my school won, and he brought us back to simply powerful words.  He is the guy who one day 14 years ago was at my house for a picnic, on a day in which I decided to leave my old district, said “there is going to be an opening at my school…” and the rest is history.

I was proud to write him a letter of recommendation for the state teacher-of-the-year application, he has helped shape who I am as a teacher. Jim’s presentation was simple and straight forward, just powerful words delivered with powerful passion.  When I arrived for the convocation I immediately was upset for not bringing a video camera to record it!  I asked him if I could re-print it here in its entirety and he ok’d it.

Education is Like Spinach by James Andreson

Spinach is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet.  It’s loaded with fiber, Vitamins A, C, B6, and K, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, protein, and host of other dietary minerals, but it is very low in cholesterol.  Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knows that it’s good for you.  Even kids know that.  However, not everyone likes spinach.  A lot of people actually hate it.  Especially kids.

Education is like spinach.  In school we serve spinach every day: great, big, heaping portions of educational goodness.  Spinach isn’t hard to make, especially if you just boil it and serve it plain.  Since we are all so pressed for time, we teachers often serve boiled spinach.  Even boiled plain, it’s still good for you, and everyone, teachers and students alike, know how nutritious it is.  Most of the recipes for boiled spinach education originated in the 19th century and even earlier.  Yet today, we still serve the same green mush, barely changed in over 100 years.  A 19th century student magically transported into one of our classrooms today would find, for the most part, a very familiar, if bland diet.

What is a boiled spinach education like?  Boiled spinach education is reading a chapter in the textbook or novel, looking up the vocabulary, then answering the questions in the chapter review.  Boiled spinach is the word search or other mass produced worksheet we give our students for homework that goes immediately into the trash after we hand it back.  Boiled spinach is the conventional test we give at the end of the unit to see what the students have learned.  I am not saying that all tests are bad, but I am talking about the tests that the kids cram for on the night before, then mostly forget afterwards.  We have all given such tests.  Many of them.  And we took them ourselves when we were in school.  And so did our parents.

You’d be surprised how quickly people forget what they have “learned” for tests such as these.  Try this experiment in your class this year:  A month or two after giving a test, ask your students a few of the exact same questions that were on the test.  Don’t announce this surprise retest and see how the kids do.  After all, if they have already learned the material, this should be easy for them!  My bet is that you will be shocked, as I was, when even my brightest students explained that they had forgotten the content, because they didn’t “need” it any more.  For me in about 1998, an experience like this provoked an existential crisis in my teaching career.  Is this what I was supposed to be doing?  Was this my life’s calling: teaching my students “disposable” knowledge?  Knowledge whose only purpose was to be regurgitated on a test and then forgotten?   What does it say about the value that students place in the education we provide?

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the metaphor.  How do the kids react to all of this boiled spinach that we serve?  10% of students love spinach and will eat it enthusiastically every day.  Heck, they’ll offer to help you boil it and thank you for the delicious green slime.

50% of students don’t especially like it, but will eat it if the teacher smiles and gives some gentle encouragement.  After all, everyone says it is important for their health.  Some of these kids appear to actually enjoy plain spinach, but look below the surface and you’ll find that they actually hate it, but are afraid to tell you.  Ask them yourself.

30% of students don’t like spinach at all.  You can make them eat it, but you have to scowl, threaten (or actually give out) low grades, call home, give detention, or send them to the office.  In the end, they hold their noses and gulp some of it down.  They leave the rest on their plates, and neither teacher nor student enjoy anything about the meal.  Once the teacher stops forcing them, you can be sure that they will never eat spinach again for the rest of their lives.

The last 10% are more difficult still.  They hate spinach so much that they won’t eat it even after the ordinary threats.  They need to be force-fed, one spoon at a time, if they will eat it at all.  Sometimes they yell and throw the spinach at the wall.  These kids make us pull our hair out.  These are the kids who have experienced failure year after year.  These are the potential dropouts we are targeting in the Wallingford 100 initiative to get 100% of our kids to graduate high school.

To sum up, we have the vast majority of students eating reluctantly, some not finishing their greens, and a recalcitrant few who resist every attempt at good nutrition.  So how can we get more students to eat their spinach?  Believe me, I have served plenty of plain, boiled spinach in my career, but over time I have developed many other ways to prepare it.  My recipes have gradually gotten more elaborate.  First I just added some oil and lemon.  Then I stepped up to imported Greek olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar.  Eventually I discovered that you don’t even have to boil it!  There are other ways to prepare it.  I branched out into spinach omelets with feta cheese and vine ripened tomatoes and delicious salads with raw, baby spinach, walnuts, cranberry-raisins and an orange vinaigrette.  When I feel daring, I’ll even make a crown roast with a wild mushroom, crab, and spinach stuffing.

As my cooking repertoire grew, what did I discover?  Well, for one thing, the kids ate less spinach than before, but what they ate, they digested more thoroughly and enjoyed more deeply.   They have richer palettes and have learned to discern more subtle flavors. Many of them have found that they really like spinach after all, and they’ll eat it without any prodding.  As I improvise in my kitchen, even though the food doesn’t always turn out right, I find that I am more satisfied, and my cooking has steadily improved.  The kids are deeply engaged in their learning and enjoying it, too.  You wanna hear something really crazy? Sometimes I even let the kids cook for themselves!

Many of our students, even our most successful ones, are starving for the lack of real application for their learning.  They want to use what they learn to do real things for real people.  They are bored with disposable knowledge that they don’t need any more after the test.  They are disillusioned with school assignments and homework that have no real audience, other than the teacher, which are destined for the trash can, the recycling bin, or that messy pile at the bottom of their lockers.  Students want more choice in what they learn about, how they will learn it, and how they can demonstrate that they have mastered a topic.  They are gorged on simple recall, the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  They crave the higher levels that are lacking in their diets: They want to combine ideas to synthesize new ones and use their developing values to judge the quality of ideas.  Students are tired of marching in unison, with the whole class doing exactly the same thing at the same time, following a recipe written by their teachers.  They want true differentiation, an education that is custom tailored to each individual.

I know that there are many people telling you how to cook in your classroom, each with his own recipe for you to follow.  National standards, the state department of education, and our own administration.  The truth is, no one can become a master chef following someone else’s recipes.  A master chef has to consider the unique needs of the kids in front of him, and look within to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the chef himself.  There is no easy solution, no cookie-cutter recipe that works for all teachers and all students all of the time.  Do what you have to do to meet the requirements imposed upon you, but save at least some of your time and your very best efforts to experiment with your own gourmet cooking.

Let me close with some acknowledgments.  First, Julie Foss and Joe Piacentini, the best two administrators I have ever worked for.  They combine competence, open mindedness and a deep concern for kids.  Just as a good teacher fosters confidence in his students, Joe and Julie have supported me and made me feel that I could achieve anything.

Next, I’d like to thank  Nancy Harrington and Karen Ripa, my STEP colleagues.  I couldn’t imagine anyone more supportive to work with.  Together, we make quite a team.

Joe Schweighoffer, Moran’s previous teacher of the year has been a mentor and an inspiration to me since I met him more than fifteen years ago.  He is not only an effective teacher, but such a positive presence at Moran that he deserves to stand on this stage and receive this honor far more than I do.

For Wallingford’s best kept secret, Paul Bogush, I am not sure that this stage and this honor are equal to his stature.  His innovation and effectiveness as a teacher has no match.  I would not be surprised to see Paul emerge as a national expert on teaching and learning.  More than any other mentor, Paul has engaged me in a multi year dialog that has expanded my mind, challenged my beliefs, and made me a better teacher.

Finally, I’d like to thank all of the teachers in this room for the warm welcome you have given me this morning.  The greatest honor for a teacher of the year, by far, is the acknowledgment of one’s peers.   I will try to serve as an effective spokesman about everything that is good and right about Wallingford and this noble profession.  I can’t afford to give each of you a chef’s hat, but I wish you all the best this year as you cook up an amazing education for your students.  Make it a great year!

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