Spotlight on English and Education Instructor and Student Lance Witt Ozier ☆

Lance is a Ph.D. candidate in English and Education and is a research associate with the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST).  He is an instructor in teacher education at Teachers College and at The City College of New York.  Lance was a founding advisor at the National Academy for Excellent Teaching (NAfET) and is a long-time coordinator of education programs at Morry’s Camp.  He received his Bachelor’s from Oglethorpe University and his Master’s in Sociology and Education and English Education from Columbia University.

How did you get hooked on teaching?  And what’s been your experience in the field?

I grew up on a little Georgia farm near the Alabama state line and come from a long line of teachers.  My great-great-grandmother was a college professor of Greek and Latin.  My great-grandfather was a teacher, as were two of my grandparents and my father.  Everybody taught until they had to come back and work on the farm.  I am the first to get to continue on an educational track and break that tradition.  I always knew I wanted to be a teacher and resisted it for a long time!

My Bachelor’s is in Education, which is virtually impossible to achieve now.  My minor is in Urban Leadership.  I taught first grade for two years in Atlanta and ended up at TC.  I did the MA program in Sociology and Education Policy, and met Ruth Vinz during that first year.  I started working with her on several projects in middle schools in Harlem and the Bronx.  I did some teaching again here in NYC middle schools and Ruth talked me into coming over after I finished the Masters to the English Ed. program and worked on a Master’s there while continuing to work in schools.  By that time, I had transitioned into high schools and worked in high schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx.  Now I’ve transitioned into the doctoral program and am hopefully finishing this year.

Teaching first grade is the hardest job in the world.  I was lucky to have taught next to a woman who was in her twenty third year of teaching first grade, and she said it’s the hardest job you’ll ever do.  And she was right.  Especially now in hindsight, I’ve taught in high schools and middle schools, and I still think teaching first grade is the hardest for a variety of reasons.  I happened to have enjoyed all those reasons.  I was single, I was young, and I had nothing else to do but marry myself to those kids and that classroom.  But it would be a difficult choice to make now.  To do it well, you give up everything.  I really enjoyed it.

A lot of the work you’ve done seems motivated by social justice.  How do you suppose that sensibility developed?

It’s always been a little spark that flames inside of me that drives the work.  I don’t know that I wear it on my sleeve, though; along with anything else about me I think it is important that people notice it without you telling them.  I don’t think I brand my work with those words or make demands that my work be recognized as such.  I think it comes from, as with anything in our lives, the way we were brought up and the things we experienced and the things we are curious about.

When I applied to school here I asked my college professors to write recommendations and I remember them being very specific about saying, “Lance, you have to show them that you made efforts to teach in places that are very unlike your upbringing and your experiences.”  I never thought about that being an important element before.  I was just always curious about a world I wasn’t a part of–about people who lived different lives and had different experiences, and wanted to understand why they didn’t have the same opportunities I did and figure out ways to remedy that. When I taught in Atlanta public schools, all of my students were immigrant and refugee kids from families who had transitioned here for a variety of reasons.  It became very clear that my students all wanted to do the same things that I wanted to do as a kid, but there were obstacles and barriers to the opportunities they were going to have:  Issues of citizenship, affordable housing, family and social networks, etc.  I didn’t think a lot of it was fair or right, so I came upon the Sociology and Education program here at TC mainly because I wanted help in understanding some of those things that I was noticing.  You can get frustrated and angry about it, or you can figure out the reasons and causes and help find ways to do something about it.

Tell us about your experience in the research and policy-shaping side of education.

While I was doing my Master’s work, I was a coach for NAfET (National Academy for Excellent Teaching) and was in classrooms every day, working with kids and teachers.  I led workshops, did co-teaching and curriculum design.  NAfET was a program directed by Ruth Vinz and Jackie Ancess.  We worked on policy from the standpoint of restructuring large public high schools transitioning into small learning communities, or in some cases autonomous schools within a larger school building. In large high school configurations, you have a model that doesn’t always recognize individual students.  When you break that down into smaller communities, what are the components and configurations that will allow a kid to get the kind of attention they need?

In addition to working with individual schools and teachers, NAfET created literature to support others in this work specifically around supporting new teachers, principals and school wide literacy initiatives.  For instance, you can work on whole-school literacy practices so you have time for teachers to plan together in ways that they might not have otherwise in large school structures.  Then, what are the kinds of structures, routines and rituals that teachers can institute so that literacy has a life within this world that you’ve created?  When kids are moving from classroom to classroom, are there common practices that they are experiencing, such as reading in class daily?  That’s the policy standpoint:  How do you create systems and sustainability that make sense for all the stakeholders involved?

My current position is with TC’s NCREST (National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching), which is associated with the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) and their work with small schools to promote college and career readiness. I manage the ISA writing assessment program, collecting data on student writing in about 80 schools across the country. I try to do something different each time I have the opportunity to do so, which is why I’m not in the classroom.  Teaching led to a different kind of experience, and none of them have duplicated themselves.  They’ve all been related in some ways and have built on each other.

Are you making as much of a difference doing what you are doing now, as when you were in the classroom?

I don’t think anything replaces contact with students.  The space that you create in classrooms with other human beings—that’s something you can’t replace.  In terms of differences that you can make with individual lives, I think that’s reserved for classroom teaching.  The opportunity in the other work becomes enhancing the teaching in multiple classrooms so that teachers can enhance the type of relationship building that I’ve described.  I wouldn’t dare claim responsibility for the different kinds of differences that teachers are making through the kind of work we were doing to support them. Now I work to increase student performance and writing in 80 schools, where I have very little contact with teachers.  It’s not the intimate kind of contact I had with teachers at NAfET.  And certainly not the kind of intimate contact I had with kids when I was teaching.  So this is like the third degree of separation now, and I guess the impact is greater in some ways, but not as intimate.

You’ve run educational components for a summer camp, Project Morry, for 15 years now.  What’s the camp about, and how does it fit into your picture?

Project Morry has been a consistent thread for me.  We start with nine year olds and take them through high school graduation with a progam that combines a summer camp experience and school year program.   We make a promise to kids and their families that we will support them to graduate from high school.  There is a summer camp component, then a year-round component that provides learning opportunities in ways that school can’t (that’s my dissertation).  At any given time, we have about 400 kids in the program.

The components of the program are leveled into a progression:  The youngest kids come for about three and a half weeks over the summer, they have school year meetings once a month.  When they begin high school, they have an extended stay over the summer, longer meetings during the school year and weekend retreats.  Later, they have a seven-week stay during the summer, and in addition to their monthly meetings during the school year, we match them with mentors for two years. The summer camp component is a traditional, residential summer camp program. It looks and feels like camp—we have a hidden educational curriculum.  The site is in upstate New York, near Port Jervis.

I’ve always been interested in the way kids learn outside of school as well as in school.  Even now, as I’m working with teachers where certain reading and writing practices seem to be privileged in classrooms, to have them consider that there are reading and writing practices that kids are engaged with and enjoy that exist outside of school will probably enhance kids’ learning experiences when we honor those inside of school.  That’s how it all fits together.

What did you get at TC that you couldn’t have found elsewhere?

This place has changed my life in a lot of ways.  There’s really a spirit here because of the history and the people who have been a part of it who have shaped its mission and goals—you really feel that.  The institutional memory of people who’ve gone before is really palpable.  The spirit of Maxine Greene that embodies this place, the energy that Ruth has, Hope Leichter’s work here for decades:  Those are the people who have been most influential in my work.  I’ve really tapped into resources that I know exist here and nowhere else.