kitchen table math, the sequel: from 2008: Phil Holmes in Los Angeles

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

from 2008: Phil Holmes in Los Angeles

I have been meaning to get this story posted for years now. In fact, I've been meaning to track down Phil Holmes to ask whether he'd be willing to share his unpublished textbook with me.
Phil Holmes, one of the great English teachers of his generation, is standing before a class of high school seniors, trampling all over their self-esteem.

It is a Thursday in October, not long into the school year. Holmes gazes out at his class, his proper prep school face set off by white hair and rimless spectacles, and tells his students, all of them black kids from South Los Angeles, that the first grading period is ending "and most of you will be getting Fs."

The students stare, dead silent. For perhaps the first time today, he has their full attention.

"This is not a good start," Holmes continues, his tone stern but even. "But on the other hand, it's not unusual."

Class dismissed.

Holmes spent 35 years building his reputation at Harvard School for Boys and its successor, Harvard-Westlake, which attracted some of the best, the brightest and the richest students in Los Angeles. His teaching methods, his curriculum, his empathy, his intensity, his relentless demand for clear, well-ordered thought, changed kids' lives.

More than that, he shaped wave after wave of young teachers, many of them now working at some of the most influential educational institutions in America.

But when he and a colleague wrote a book describing their teaching method, publishers scoffed. Of course their method worked! Their classes were filled with bred-for-success overachievers! Who couldn't teach them?

So in 2002, at a time when most people his age were sliding toward retirement, Holmes accepted a teaching job at View Park Preparatory High School, at Slauson and Crenshaw boulevards.


View Park Prep is no blackboard jungle. For many View Park parents, the choice was not between the charter and a traditional public school -- say, Crenshaw or Dorsey High -- but between the charter and a private school.

Still, the 15 miles that separate View Park from the rolling Coldwater Canyon campus of Harvard-Westlake might as well be 15,000.

More than 96% of the students at View Park are African American, and studies show that even middle-class black students tend to do worse in school, on average, than comparable students of other races. Moreover, roughly half of the students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

"At first, it was a shell shock," Holmes said, "because of three things. I wasn't prepared for the students to be so far behind in their reading development. . . . We were reading "The Odyssey," and within one or two days I knew we couldn't move through it like we did at Harvard-Westlake. Second, these students had no training in classroom discipline. At Harvard-Westlake, I could ask kids to start writing an essay in class, and I could go upstairs, get my mail and come back and they'd just be quietly working. If I walked out of class at View Park Prep, it would be total pandemonium.


At the center of Holmes' teaching is a slender red-bound book titled "The Uses of Argument," first published in 1958 by British philosopher Stephen Toulmin, which sets out a steel-trap method for structuring an argument.

Creative writing, Holmes believes, is a frill for most high school students. How many, after all, will become poets or novelists? But virtually all will need to write some form of persuasive essay, in college and in their careers. That is Holmes' central focus.

By midyear, Holmes' students were showing progress.

"Can you state," Holmes asked his class one day in January, "what is the writing goal for the whole View Park Prep curriculum?"

Mister Searcy raised his hand.

"Writing a sustained case, free of mechanical errors, in a readable style," he said, repeating the mantra that Holmes has been chanting all year long.

By this time, everyone in Holmes' class knew the formula for a sustained case: Claim, clarification, evidence and warrant, cemented by "backtracking," a practice in which the writer re-reads and challenges his own work and answers any questions that arise.

The method works, as any number of View Park graduates can attest.

Skye Williams, now at Clark University in Atlanta, said Holmes' lessons "really helped us in college -- in history, biology, anything."

Teacher instills a love of words, but the lesson is about life
Los Angeles Times
By Mitchell Landsberg
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 21, 2008
Susan S tells me that her high school uses some version of Toulmin's method, but it's been extremely confusing to deal with. I have yet to read Toulmin myself, sad to say, though I've read several  explanations of Toulmin posted at various college sites over the past two years.

I'm thinking Richard Nordquist's explanation at is probably the place to start if you're curious. George Hillocks' book on teaching argument writing has a section on Toulmin, and Joseph M. Williams' The Craft of Argument (there are 2: a long version and a short one) may be an adaptation of Toulmin's method (not sure).

I find it horrifying that Holmes could not find a publisher for his textbook.

This passage from the article is very nice:
That Thursday in October began with students filing into the 12th-grade English composition classroom that Holmes shares with a younger View Park colleague. He was dressed in a suit, green dress shirt and tie, black loafers, his hair neatly trimmed, his bearing attentive.

Just before the bell, one of his students poked her head in, hoping to get excused from class. "We're taking a makeup test in AP history today," she said. "Do you mind?"

"Yes, I do mind," Holmes said. "We're doing something very important in here."

Holmes had nothing unusual planned. He considers every lesson, every minute of class time, to be important, and, at age 66, he often stays up past midnight preparing for the next day's lessons. There are 26 students enrolled in this class, which was designed to give them the skills they would need to write college papers. All were dressed in some variation on View Park's uniform: khaki pants, a maroon sports shirt.

Holmes asked them to take out a homework assignment -- a critique -- that was due.

The assignment called for the class to analyze a student's college application essay. In the course of the next 90 minutes, Holmes led the class in dismantling not just the essay, but one student's critique of it, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word.

There's a hanging detail, he said at one point -- why is it a problem?

"It's too vague," a boy answered.

"What's vague about it?" Holmes demanded.

The boy couldn't answer at first, but Holmes was relentless, forcing him to think. In the end, they hammered out an answer.

At another point, a single word -- resourceful -- launched Holmes into a discussion of Odysseus, and how his resourcefulness ("He found a way to blind the giant") could be a source of inspiration for the students.

The entire class was like this, Holmes leading a discussion in which no point, no word was insignificant. He could be brutal, dismissing one student's argument as "mindless." And he could be generous, if guarded, with praise.

Outside after class, Khadijah McCaskill said the students don't mind the tough talk, or the tough grades. This is her second class with him.

"His toughness helps the class concentrate and makes it easier to learn," she said.

"He's a phenomenal teacher," she added. "He's phenomenal because everything he does connects together. And even if you don't know it then and there, it will . . . be connected to a larger thing later on."
Authoritative teacher ("his toughness helps the class concentrate"), coherent curriculum (everything he does connects together).

That's the magic.


Anonymous said...

My daughter is a new seventh grader at Harvard-Westlake and I am loving this. The challenging traditional curriculum is exactly why I moved her there from a constructivist school.

FedUpMom said...

Teachers who pride themselves on giving out bad grades give me the creeps. If most of the class is getting Fs, it's the teacher's failure too.

Phil Holmes sounds like one of those charismatic types who winds up being the focus of attention. Everyone admires him, but is he really helping the students, or just founding a personality cult?

Catherine Johnson said...

Teachers who pride themselves on giving out bad grades give me the creeps. If most of the class is getting Fs, it's the teacher's failure too.

Definitely agree ----- BUT 'never say never.'

He's not a personality cult - at least not according to his former students. (I suspect if he WERE a personality cult, he'd have a publisher for his textbook.)

Grades of 'F' can work for a teacher like Holmes....he's obviously got the kids' attention, and he gets them all up to where they need to be.

I personally hate grading...I just wouldn't be capable of giving everyone Fs ---- but that's me, and it's not one of my good points as a teacher.

Phil Holmes, assuming this article is right, is a fantastic old-school teacher, and old-school teaching has always relied on a tough grading system as motivator and as feedback.

Catherine Johnson said...

Anonymous - I would love to know which school you pulled her out of! (Of course that might be giving too much away ---- ?)

We lived very close to Harvard Westlake (in Studio City). Our closest friends in the neighborhood sent their kids to Harvard Westlake eventually, I think. (Or maybe all along --- didn't the school formerly have a lower school associated with it? I remember a bunch of political strife resulting in the two schools ...... splitting??? Or did one close down?)

Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure another one of my good friends in the neighborhood was involved in that situation----

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh gosh - now I remember my friend O. sent her son there, too....

FedUpMom said...

OK, now I really want to see the book Holmes wrote. How much do you want to bet that he can't get it published because it's badly written?

The mantras Holmes came up with that are quoted in the article, "Writing a sustained case, free of mechanical errors, in a readable style," and "Claim, clarification, evidence and warrant", are not exactly models of clarity.

FedUpMom said...

Catherine, I don't think it's a weakness that you hate grading -- I think your gut is trying to tell you something.

Constant grading and ranking don't actually help people learn. It creates an environment where students are constantly worrying about what the teacher wants, instead of engaging with the material.

Grades are way overrated as a motivational tool. For me, and others of my personality type, they are deeply demotivating, not to say depressing.

SteveH said...

"Grades of 'F' can work for a teacher like Holmes....he's obviously got the kids' attention, and he gets them all up to where they need to be."

Only if you have the teaching ability to do it. In my son's AP US History class, the teacher assigns tons of reading and assumes that you will teach yourself. He tests on that material without ever talking about it or what he thinks is important. Apparently, mind reading is one of the skills students are supposed to learn. When many kids flunked one test, he berated them for three days. My son tried to tell him that he told the class the wrong material to read, but that's another issue.

Also, a single 'F' can so screw up your average that it becomes a demotivating factor. It works better if the teacher drops a grade for one of the assignments or quizzes, but I don't even like that. (I've wanted to tell some teachers that if my very studious son ever gets a poor grade, then they should look in the mirror.) Then there was his US Lit teacher last year who proudly proclaimed that he grades 10 points lower than any other teacher. I emailed the head of curriculum telling her that this was counter to written policy, but nothing was done.

I think that there are more effective ways than playing the "F" card. That doesn't mean that I'm against tests and grading. I would not want my son to go to a school with no (or few) grades. However, I don't think the goal is to create a bell curve list of grades. Back when I taught, I told students that my goal was to try to get them all A's. Tests should not be a guessing or mind reading game, and grades should not be used as a motivation tool.

Anonymous said...

Harvard was a boys school and Westlake was a girls school. They merged and made the girls school the junior high, 7 through 9, and the boys school the upper school, 10 through 12.
My daughter was at Turning Point School in Culver City, which has a very constructivist bent with lots of project based learning and emphasis on "21st Century skills". Fit your Don't Press Send post to a T.

Jen said...

Do you think that they should be writing A or B papers by October, "not long into the school year"?

From his description, I've been in classrooms like that. There are kids in there with the ability, but they have none of the basics and in many cases have never been taught to work hard (or to think hard).

I can certainly see if he has certain standards in mind for each grade that kids would be nowhere near it at that point.

I've known plenty of kids who find Cs to be okay and who put in just enough effort to get above a D. If you have those kids, too, imagine how much harder they're going to work in this class -- harder than ever before!

To think that he'd have changed the classroom culture AND raised their grades in what, 5 or 6 weeks, is crazy!

Now, could he have scaffolded standards (first 6 weeks just writing at least 10 complete sentences on a topic = A) -- sure, but as I pointed out, there are lot of kids who decide they're done after that. That A would be the sturdy foundation for their C for the year!

Now if he was telling they were incapable of doing better or something like that, that would be horrible. But as long as he was going to face the wrath of angry parents with the kids...

Catherine Johnson said...

Constant grading and ranking don't actually help people learn. It creates an environment where students are constantly worrying about what the teacher wants, instead of engaging with the material.

Grades are way overrated as a motivational tool. For me, and others of my personality type, they are deeply demotivating, not to say depressing.

Well that's certainly the way I feel about it! (For me as well as for students...)

Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure I've seen 'old school' teachers who make the A-F system not only work, but add a sense of importance and drama to the proceedings.

The grading system I like is the Keller method---LOVE the Keller method.

The one problem with it, though, is that it can produce very serious procrastination----and I'm not sure how to get around that---

Catherine Johnson said...

I never heard of the Turning Point school!