Johnson College Prep has been raved about and critiqued. A few years ago both the New York Times and Huffington Post wrote about the Nobel Network here in Chicago (1,2). The degree to which the students are being disciplined shows results for college acceptance, but my personal feelings on the matter put aside (for now), it seems that the teachers are very appreciative of the structure. Peter Lee is teaching his first year at JCP, the first year JCP has had an art class. He has three years experience teaching high school art, the other two at a comparatively low-income neighborhood in Milwaukee, WI. Mr. Lee studied drawing and graphic design as well as a obtaining a degree in education. Since it’s the first year for the art program at JCP, Mr. Lee is teaching the same class to four different periods of sophomores and juniors, rotating daily for a total of eight different classes.
My first observation experience was presented with a bit of a shock. Mr. Lee and a co-teacher have homeroom everyday before and after classes. I walked in to a voice level of instruction I was not used to. The teachers were speaking very loudly and frankly, almost like a drill sergeant would. The kids I observed at that moment seemed unfazed, used to duties of homeroom. Later on I asked Mr. Lee about it, and he said that it’s important to have the students attention, and that they can easily slip into something else. I heard that tight reigns at first could be loosened, but I don’t think that applies to me. Over the next few days of observation I saw that this was, and Mr. Lee mentioned, the way in which the school would support their teachers. Communication is part parcel to JCP; the students must know the rules and the teachers must carry them out, without leniency.
I asked Mr. Lee about his approach and he said that communication is most important to him. He wants to gain a trust with the students; he wants to be able to talk about what’s going on with the student instead of giving demerits. Though even Mr. Lee will receive a demerit, which is called a YBTT (You could do Better Than That), if he doesn’t give out demerits to students. For example if a fourth period teacher catches a dress code violation that the student had in Mr. Lee’s second period, Mr. Lee could be docked points (which is actually money). I was also surprised to learn that if a teacher is late to a meeting, for instance Mr. Lee was “one minute late”, and received that YBTT. As strict as the rules are, Mr. Lee wants to have a relationship with the students and feels that if they trust him and are able to open up to him, everyone is better off, even if it means bypassing the demerits, just momentarily. He says, “If you have a relationship with the students it’s easier to hold them accountable.”
The Nobel Network has been very supportive towards the art program. Mr. Lee has said that so far most of his requests for materials and classroom tools have not been turned away. He says the administration is always on his side, and they want to work together, with the support of counselors, to get the students to the next level. Mr. Lee is responsible for one standard, SUP601, reading comprehension. The school is very goal oriented, and to fulfill this standard Mr. Lee has a short reading and questions quiz most everyday in class. Of course Mr. Lee would like to teach some practical art concepts, like perspective, and his ideal classroom would open with this concept and have the students work on their own works throughout the period. Though the students who last semester had the class said in a survey they enjoyed the class most because they were able to talk and listen to music, for a lot of these students this time may best be used for a safe and relaxing space.
As an observer and after talking with Mr. Lee, it seems that the difficulty for students in his art class is the belief that they can do it. Most of the students complain that they can’t draw this and can’t make that. During studio time in class, Mr. Lee and I walked around class consistently helping students having trouble in this sense. This is the frustration for Mr. Lee, and although Mr. Lee and I agreed that ability praise is not the best the best feedback, the class is guided by students’ best work and Mr. Lee’s novice examples. I believe process praise works best, but when the target of the class is to have your work look exactly like something else without going over the construction of the drawing, I feel like students would have trouble finding their zone.
Observing at JCP was a very beneficial experience. Mr. Lee was a delight to work with. I can imagine the difficulties that come with education in inner city schools, but I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. I would like to see a classroom be more productive in a creative sense, instead the students came in, sat down, read for a min, drew or constructed some light task for the rest of the time. There was little engagement, no moving around, no theory to process concepts. It looked like a well-groomed lesson. Mr. Lee would love to have more of a creative spirit in the class, but compared it to his other school where he was able to teach certain concepts he wasn’t able to teach here. Frustration comes full circle.