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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I'm sure that most of you are familiar with J.D. Salinger's classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, and its memorable protagonist, Holden Caulfield. I was drawn back to the book recently, thinking about the catchers in the rye that I've observed in schools.

Take a moment to revisit Holden's poignant fantasy with me.

. . . I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around -- nobody big, I mean -- except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff -- I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going, I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.

You know, as I do, that there are many teachers who fulfill Holden's dream. They help save kids who are heading toward the edge of the cliff. These are kids who aren't looking where they're going and who, even if not in immediate physical danger, are in danger of following a figurative path of personal destruction.

What I invite you to do is join me in making this post the beginning of nominating "catchers in the rye," individual educators or entire schools that you know from your present role as an educator or as a parent, caring and vigilant protectors who consistently save kids from going over the cliff.

I don't want to monopolize the process or cover my own list of individuals and schools who fit the description, but I would like to give a few amplified examples to get the ball rolling and, perhaps, make the criteria somewhat clearer.

Tough Love

Life Learning Academy (LLA) is a small San Francisco Unified School District charter school for at-risk kids. The 60 or so students have had problems with the law and/or have been in and out of a number of other schools. Many of these kids are headed for the cliff when they first enroll at LLA. Yet each year from nine to fourteen students graduate and go to college, trade schools or job apprenticeships. Many students irreversibly turn their lives around.

How do they do it? In part they do it with tough love. Certainly the most central driving force is the principal, Teri DeLane. On my first visit years ago, I heard her yelling at a kid in her office. "What the devil were you thinking coming to school dressed that way! Get the right clothes on or you're out of here!" What inevitably follows this kind of challenge is a caring dialogue. In their graduation speeches most students say, "You were in my face, Teri . . . you were tough on me . . . but you really cared for me . . . and I love you." Through her toughness and her love and the way she helps the rest of the superb staff create a community of caring, she is in the top echelon of my "catcher in the rye" list.

But here too, a reminder is needed. Despite all the kids Teri and her staff save from going over the cliff, they can't save them all. A few years ago, some students from the school came to meet with my teacher trainees at San Francisco State. One African-American boy was so articulate and so wise in the perceptions he shared that my students were still talking about him the next week. A year later he was killed in a gang-related shooting.

There’s a memorable scene in Dangerous Minds, the film based on the experiences of LouAnne Johnson, in which a very troubled student says to her, "How are you going to save me from my life!?" And despite all her efforts, she ultimately can't.

A Culture of Caring

Still, for every case like that, there are hundreds of cases of kids being saved.

More often, saving students from the cliff is less dramatic. Another image that comes to mind is a more typical one. I observe a teacher in inner city Hayward, California calling a parent on the phone in the middle of the day to find out why her daughter hadn't shown up. The teacher was helping the girl navigate her schoolwork and her life. This same teacher, like some you know, frequently spends lunch hours meeting with students who come to her for personal help.

And a vivid image from Eagle Rock School in Colorado also comes to mind. At this exceptional school for at-risk kids, there are many catchers in the rye. It is my top nomination in the institutional catcher in the rye category. I can't identify a single moment or interaction, because the catching of these kids is continual and an integral part of the school's environment. But I do remember a conversation I had with a young woman who had gone from school to school, restlessly bored and without direction, and who was now writing brilliant essays and headed for college. She was very clear that she would have fallen off the cliff if not for the collective efforts of the staff at Eagle Rock and the environment they had created.

So now please share with us your nominees, your top "catcher in the rye" picks, so that we all can honor them for what they do to keep Holden's dream alive.

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Teresa Ryan's picture
Teresa Ryan
HS Math Teacher/Academic Coach

My Catcher in the Rye has passed away, but his memory lingers in my mind. He is the reason I became a math teacher. Mr. Boyer was the math teacher no one wanted. He was strict, tough, pushed kids to the limit, and made successes of many of us. I first had him for Algebra I, after being told I was not ever going to be a "scientific" kind of girl. I had taken high level math classes in Jr. High and done well, but was not exceptional. Mr. Boyer was there early in the morning, and I spent many mornings in his classroom, re-working problems until they were exactly right. He never tired of questioning me, or encouraging me to think in other ways. I passed his class with 98%, and chose to take him again for Geometry the next year. I received an A+ in geometry, 100%, and he moved me into Honors math from there on. I went on to major in nursing, but 15 years later went back to school to earn a BS in Mathematics, feeling that teaching math was where I belong. I can only hope to have a small piece of the kind of inspiration in someone's life that he gave to me.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger

What a lovely and poignant tribute Teresa.
Thank you for sharing it.

Mark

[quote]My Catcher in the Rye has passed away, but his memory lingers in my mind. He is the reason I became a math teacher. Mr. Boyer was the math teacher no one wanted. He was strict, tough, pushed kids to the limit, and made successes of many of us. I first had him for Algebra I, after being told I was not ever going to be a "scientific" kind of girl. I had taken high level math classes in Jr. High and done well, but was not exceptional. Mr. Boyer was there early in the morning, and I spent many mornings in his classroom, re-working problems until they were exactly right. He never tired of questioning me, or encouraging me to think in other ways. I passed his class with 98%, and chose to take him again for Geometry the next year. I received an A+ in geometry, 100%, and he moved me into Honors math from there on. I went on to major in nursing, but 15 years later went back to school to earn a BS in Mathematics, feeling that teaching math was where I belong. I can only hope to have a small piece of the kind of inspiration in someone's life that he gave to me.[/quote]

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

OLD SKOOL: WAY BACK IN 10TH GRADE

When I was in 10th grade I had American literature for 6th period. Our teacher, Old Errol Sanders, passed out the book we were going to study. It was a book about two street urchins who float down the Mississippi River on a log raft. Oh, boy ... we were going to learn the deeper literary meaning of why two street urchins would want to float down the Mississippi River on a log raft written by a guy who was using a fake name. I wondered how much money my parents were paying for me to go to this nice school.

Old Errol taught the book by standing in front of the class while he read from the book word for word for word. He never wrote anything on the chalkboard. He had three posters on the cinderblock walls. That was it. It was old school.

While he was reading, every once in a while he'd stop and lift his head and pontificate about the literary significance of something in the story like a cow. Then, every once in a while, Old Errol would stop and ask us what we thought of what he just read. We'd wake up and look at each other and giggle. You could tell Old Errol thought the school wasn't paying him enough money to teach at this nice school.

In 12th grade I had Old Errol again for literature. I think it was second period. He read Flannery O'Connor stories to us, word for word, which was fine with me, because Jerry finally got kicked out of school and now I was the class president and a member of the honor council and I was finally flying straight and wanted to get into a decent college. Old Errol said one story of hers was really going to affect you. He read it.

It did.

At the moment of grace in A Good Man is Hard to Find, I discovered what I thought might be my calling--good typing. I had no idea when I'd be called, but I kept my ears open for a long time after that. Thirty-one years later my first novel, Toonamint of Champions, got published. I dedicated it to Old Errol Sanders.

Now I'm a teacher, too, a reunited one, right across the hall from Old Errol, but at a different school way across town, where all day long I can hear him ... still reading good stories.

www.actionjacksonart.com

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

I'm going to be biased and talk about my wife. She's taught for nearly 20 years, first adults and then children, at a handful of schools during that time. They were all good schools, even the ones that weren't, but I'm thinking of one school in particular. It was a school that had too many kids in the classroom and not enough resources; where they taped things together because they couldn't afford better and many of the kids came from gang families.

And yet she showed up every day and did her best. I saw her pour herself into the job, puzzle out what it took to reach each one of those kids, and most times she made it through. The kids got better at their lessons. More importantly, there was genuine wonder and learning and all the good stuff that you hope for as a teacher. There were a few though that she couldn't reach, and she'd worry about where they'd end up. They break your heart, those few.

Some of her students come back to visit her classroom on a regular basis after they moved on. She put them to work: cleaning, organizing, making things for the classroom they left behind.

Now she's starting at new school. Different kids, different classroom, same spirit.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger

Samer:

Thanks for posting that tribute Samer.
Bias can be really good, and deserved.
Related to that, the teacher in Hayward I describe is my daughter! :-)

Mark

Tom Imburgia's picture

In 2006, which was my 6th year as a teacher, I was the recipient of a thank you letter written by a young lady who has gone on to become an English major. As it happens her favorite book was Catcher in the Rye. In her letter, the student used the exact description cited in the post to describe me. She said that she felt that it was really the job of teachers to serve as catchers for students who for whatever reason can be blown off course by the turbulence of high school life, and that until she met me, no other teacher ever fit this description. Although I was not a rookie teacher, I knew I had much to learn, and occasionally felt despondent about my own performance, especially on those overly trying days. This single letter, composed by a 10th grade student, solidified the ground beneath my feet. The letter, which is really my Rosetta stone, has been preserved under glass and continues to serve as a reminder for me about the often unseen impact teachers have on their students.
I am posting this here not to be self serving or to brag, but instead to share my good fortunes with many others who have served as catchers, but may not have gotten such eloquent and heartfelt thanks. Although it might sound cliche and threadbare, the truth is that we really do make a difference.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

When I consider the character Holden Caulfield, I most identify with his utter dislike for phonies. Many of the phonies I know of post to blogs which herald the surrender of our children to a highly tech centric existence. The people who post to these blogs are likely addicted tech junkies who wish to transform another generation into extensions of themselves-- soulless, impersonal, and overly materialistic robots who never question or be skeptical of who dominates our culture, i.e. the agents representing Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue. Holden Caulfield would have held them in contempt because THEY are in that same league of phonies.

It's funny, those same Gen Xers and Millennials who inveigh against the 1% are the same ones blindly surrendering their money to Silicon Valley and whatever pop culture inspired product necessary to "conform."

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