Few have inspired as many educators as Herb Kohl. Over the past four decades, Kohl has been a teacher, principal, university teacher educator, social activist and author of more than forty books. His writing emerges from his direct experience in classrooms and challenges us to think about our own practice. He does not shy away from controversy, but appeals to our basic sense of right and wrong.
DA Senior Editor Gary Stager recently had the privilege of sitting down with Herb Kohl to discuss his career and a life well lived. His most recent professional experience was as resident scholar and director of the University of San Francisco's Institute for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice. After two years of exhilarating work, the current political climate and a lack of institutional support ended Kohl's program.
Kohl grew up in the Bronx in the 1940s and '50s. He attended neighborhood public schools and the renowned Bronx High School of Science. Bronx Science was special because of "great teachers," says Kohl. "They were marvelous."
Kohl played a lot of basketball and enjoyed his share of mischief before attending Harvard as an undergraduate and going on to distinguished fellowships at Oxford and Columbia. He remembers always wanting to be a teacher and a writer. He imagined writing "novels and plays and great world-shaking books on philosophy." Despite writing only one early book about philosophy, The Age of Complexity, Kohl says, "Almost all my published work is about education, social change, social justice, things like that." Kohl's second book, Teaching the Unteachable, was published by the New York Review of Books.
Kohl first became a schoolteacher in 1961 at a school for autistic children in New York City but only lasted six months, "because I wasn't any good at it." He then attended Columbia University Teachers College and earned a teaching credential. Kohl remembers, "My first public school job was at P.S. 145 on 106th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and most of my students were Puerto Rican. There were also some Haitian kids and a couple of Irish kids, who were the wildest ones in the class. This was a very homogeneously grouped school and I was the new teacher on the block, so they gave me all the kids nobody else wanted.
"I cut my teeth on that for one semester. I started in January 1961, and the classroom had been stripped bare by the other teachers, so I had to buy everything-you know, from pencils to chalk to everything in order to teach.
"I started out as a very up-in-front-of-the-classroom, full-frontal, authoritarian teacher with the kids. They were throwing stuff around the room, they were dropping off their chairs, banging on their desks, opening the window and threatening to jump out. They had already gone through fourteen subs before I came in January.
"But I wasn't going to be beaten by them," says Kohl, and he developed a strategy for making the learning environment more productive.
"I had finally won the morning, so the kids would stay calm and try to read, and I could teach them a little bit about skills that they had never acquired or had totally lost in the course of bad schooling. But the afternoon I gave up on-completely gave up on it. So I brought in a record player and paints and pastels and chess and checkers and everything I could think of, and shut the door, put a piece of black paper over the glass, and said to the kids, 'The afternoon is yours as long as you clean up afterwards,' and they learned to respect me."
In 1967, Kohl's landmark book, 36 Children, chronicling his first year as an urban educator, was published. The book has been a staple of teacher education courses ever since.
Kohl continued teaching at a couple more New York City schools and then ran a storefront school in Harlem and a high school in Berkeley, California, from 1968 to 1971.
"We had a place called 'Other Ways,' a really interesting, very experimental, very radical high school at a very radical time in not only our society but in that particular city at that particular historical conjuncture. ... We were really pioneering a lot of cross-cultural, multiracial learning; we were pioneering a lot of feminist stuff . It was all beginning to perk up then, and it was pretty wild-a lot of energy and a wonderful staff ." These experiences in creativity, freedom, collaborative teaching, learner-centeredness and respect for individuals inspired a generation of educators who read his book The Open Classroom: A Practical Guide to a New Way of Teaching.
Like many educational innovations, Other Ways proved difficult to sustain. "After three and a half years of working as principal, full-time teacher and fundraiser, I burned out," Kohl says.
Kohl reports that the "kids have done well" and that he still sees former students and colleagues who helped start Other Ways at his book signings.
After Other Ways, Kohl ran a teacher education program for the University without Walls for three years, taught in a one-room schoolhouse, ran another teacher education program at the University of San Francisco for five years, spent a year working at Mission High in San Francisco, taught undergraduates at Swarthmore for a year, and worked for a number of foundations, most notably as a senior fellow in education for the Open Society Institute. In his spare time, Kohl wrote dozens of books, including the 1978 National Book Award Winner, The View from the Oak, a children's book written with his wife, Judy.
Stupidity and Tears
When asked to characterize the current state of public education, particularly urban schools, Kohl expresses the frustration shared by many other educators.
"The state of urban education now compared to when I started has not substantially improved at all. I see the same stuff -the same segregation, the same lack of performance, the same authoritarian idiocy, the same teach-by-the-book procedures, the same madness over testing and grading-that I've seen before.
"And I now see an attitude I haven't seen before, which punishes the people who are not doing well and rewards those who are doing well. This is another part of cynical capitalism from my point of view."
Kohl applauds the money the Gates Foundation has invested in small groups, but he understands why the strategy has not been universally successful. "It just hasn't worked for two reasons," he explains. They underestimated the momentum that oldschool culture holds over the community, over the environment and over the teacher's mentality. Second, too many teachers have been trained by current teacher educational institutions."
He compares teacher education programs to "19th-century lunatic asylums." The institutions he criticizes "think that all of their students are stupid. They try to tell them exactly what to do. ...They try to control all aspects of their future life's work." Kohl stresses the importance of education as a humane process, with respect for teachers and students. He suggests that successful teacher education programs are "subversive," that they "prepare their students to resist No Child Left Behind" and "not succumb to teacherproof curriculum."
Kohl's vision of teacher preparation includes teaching preservice educators "creative techniques-tried and true, old, progressive techniques used in contemporary ways to motivate kids to learn." Such approaches "find creative ways to use computers as proactive tools, rather than as passive instruments of drill and practice."
When asked why programs such as the ones he envisions exist, he suggests that policy makers "were trained in those same places, in those same molds, and they have put up with failure much longer than any adult should put up with failure in the schools. They've been there to see that this stuff didn't work before and doesn't work now." Yet Kohl argues that too many officials are rigid in their thinking and are ill-equipped to make the sorts of cultural changes that make schools what Seymour Sarason, professor of psychology emeritus at Yale, calls "productive contexts for learning."
Herb Kohl does not mince words when he labels many of the people in charge of public education crazy or stupid. Anthropologist Jules Henry's book On Education inspired Kohl's book Stupidity and Tears, in which Kohl describes the current climate of standardization in schools. Kohl makes the case that the system is stupid when he describes practices we know to be all too common, particularly in urban schools.
"How stupid can we get to put a young teacher who really wants to teach, and who's totally bilingual, in front of a group of kids who don't speak English, then force her to give them a test in English that she knows they are going to fail and that they know they're going to fail, and then punish her for their failure? This is bizarre."
Kohl says that his most dangerous idea is to "eliminate the school district and decentralize all services to the schools." He is enormously frustrated by the bureaucracy he finds in large- city school systems, such as San Francisco, where the applications of once enthusiastic teacher candidates are lost in a morass of paperwork and no sense of urgency.
On Great Teachers and the Challenges They Face
In spite of his contempt for the system, Kohl loves and respects teachers who love teaching. I asked him to share some of the features that distinguish great teachers.
"One attribute of a great teacher is the almost insane willingness to be obsessed with the success of your students. I mean, you're going to dream about it and you're going to talk about it. If someone is not doing well, you take the blame. You feel it's your problem, not just the kid's problem.
"I think the other quality of a caring teacher is the absolute capacity to perceive, guess and intuit at what's going on in the minds of the students, and therefore knowing them well enough to do all of that. Looking all the time-you know, eyes in the back of your head, ears on your hands."
On whether this "sixth sense" is teachable, Kohl says, "I think it's tutorable." He continues, "Some people need to hone those senses" or "have things pointed out to them." Kohl claims to have met "maybe a dozen natural teachers" in his life, but he still suggests that a couple of [good methods] classes never hurt" any educator.
Such teaching talent and spirit is jeopardized by external realities beyond the classroom. "I think a lot of teachers have given up on the caring part of their work because they're tired. They're worn out. They've been insulted and humiliated in the press. You can't live on a teacher's salary in San Francisco unless you inherited an enormous amount of money or have a spouse who makes an enormous amount of money-period.
Views on Curriculum
Kohl is concerned that manual labor, art, music and drama have disappeared in favor of courses in entrepreneurship and that even where the arts exist, they have been mechanized so that everyone is doing the same thing.
"Given that we have all these wonderful teachers and administrators and all these schools, we should cluster the schools to share resources and ... put together learning complexes where there's a cluster of computer labs, actual science labs, woodworking shops, auto repair shops, that all of the schools would draw on so that you wouldn't have to duplicate the same thing in each school." Kohl gets excited by the possibilities and suggests that such educational complexes also include a print shop, a lithographic studio and a painting workshop. Students might also tend to school gardens.
Kohl offers advice for textbook publishers as well. "Update the curriculum to live in the 21st century and not the 19th century. That is to really look at all the historical and scientific research and knowledge that has developed over the years and totally redo what are called textbooks so that they represent what it is we know, what we don't know, what we're questioning about. ... Go to the schools, look at some of the textbooks. These kids are getting information that is not only outdated, it's of no use to them. It has no real value."
Kohl stresses the importance of teacher expertise. "I believe very strongly in content knowledge. You have to know something in order to teach anything. So the strength has to be content knowledge, which means you want to learn something or you have learned it and know it already. ... You just can't come in cold, pick up a book and teach out of the book."
He refers to the "madness" that English teachers are being forced to teach advanced math classes because of a shortage of qualified math teachers. He says that some large districts can't employ math teachers because their applications are jammed-up in inefficient human resources departments.
Kohl also longs for the "gentle art of sports, rather than the violent art of sports" he sees in schools today.
Seeking Expertise, Mentors and Community
One of my favorite books, The Long Haul: An Autobiography by Myles Horton and Herb Kohl, tells the story of the Highlander Folk School, an extraordinary learning environment that played an unheralded yet enormous role in the American civil rights struggles in the 20th century. Kohl told me that he learned of Myles Horton's accomplishments and remarkable teaching prowess by reading a book by Frank Adams called Fanning Seeds of Fire. In 1977 there was a large alternative schools conference in Chicago featuring well-known progressive educators John Holt, George Dennison, James Herndon, Miriam Wasserman and Lillian Weber. Kohl lured Myles Horton to the conference by promising him an opportunity to meet Paulo Friere. Soon after, Herb Kohl and his wife Judy visited the Highlander Folk School outside of Knoxville and ultimately helped Horton tell his life story in this book, which I highly recommend.
Personal curiosity coupled with fearlessness led to the learning adventures at the center of Kohl's beautiful new book, Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth (Bloomsbury USA, 2007). In this latest book, Kohl explains, "During hard times I often feel the compelling need for new growth."
One day several years ago, Kohl walked through San Francisco's Chinatown while contemplating his 70th birthday, the destruction of his beloved Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco, and nagging questions about the value of his life's work. During this bout with mortality, Kohl wandered into the Joseph Fine Art School, a storefront art studio. Parsing the name awkwardly, Herb asked to speak with Joseph Fine. After learning of his mistake, he asked the proprietor, Joseph Yan, "Can I take lessons?" After Yan agreed, Kohl explained, "Ultimately, what I want to do is Chinese landscape painting." After a semester of doing simple hand drawings, Kohl was placed in the beginning landscape class.
His adventures did not end there. Upon arriving for his fi rst class, he recalls with a laugh, "I found myself in a class with three 5-year olds and two 7-year olds and one 6-year old." For the first two years of classes, every classmate was Chinese (or Chinese-American). At times Kohl felt awkward, worrying about how parents would perceive of this old white man in a class with little, mostly female students. He also needed to accept his role as a student and resist the temptation to teach. Doing so led Kohl to learn a great deal about teaching from his Taoist instructors, the accomplished Chinese artists Joseph Yan and his wife Janny.
Kohl was learning a new set of skills in an unfamiliar culture and being taught in a way that was dissonant with pedagogical techniques rooted in progressive American education.
The patience and wisdom displayed by his teachers was worthy of contemplation. They did not react reflexively to the whim of students, while at the same time they respected and nourished individuality. Kohl's mentors were master educators and expert artists secure in their abilities and able to breathe new life into a very old cultural tradition.
After more than three and a half years of weekly lessons, Kohl eventually learned to paint Chinese landscapes. He also learned a lot more about himself in the process.
Kohl sums up his latest book in the following manner: "It's a very sweet book. It's probably my calmest and kindest book ever. I was bitter about my experience at USF, but this book is really about the future, and it is about the magic of this kind of learning experience and about learning through different cultural eyes-just seeing things through completely diff erent eyes than I'd ever seen through before."
Painting Chinese is a profound meditation on life, art, teaching and mortality.
Advice for School Leaders
Kohl believes that the qualities that make good teachers are also necessary in school administrators. "Principals have to be available and knowledgeable. They have to know ten times more students than the teachers know. They have to be tuned-in to when something good is about to happen and when something bad is about to happen, because they're going to be in the middle of both situations."
Kohl also feels that administrators need to play a role in creating a culture in which teachers do not lose hope or have their spirits damaged. "I think that the one thing that I found most distressing about educators in the last five or ten years is passivity-the willingness to put up with educational activities and ideas and projects and funding priorities that are against their conscience. So I would urge school leaders to act with conscience and not for utilitarian or pragmatic reasons. Take a hard look at how the federal government was able to push No Child Left Behind down your throat, and see how you can mobilize to undo it based primarily on your own feelings about the best ways in which kids learn and adults teach."
Looking Forward and Back
This past summer, Kohl hosted a reunion of students and colleagues from Other Ways at his home in Point Arena, California. He remains close with students and teachers from throughout his decades in education. He is the editor for a series of fascinating books, entitled Classics in Progressive Education (New Press). This series includes education books written over the past century. Kohl's forewords place these classic and often overlooked books in a contemporary context.
Kohl enjoys communing with nature and painting Chinese landscapes at his home and hopes to write a book about basketball in the near future.