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Why This Ed Reformer Is Returning to the Classroom

• Mary Laura Bragg

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Caddyshack is when Ty Webb (played by Chevy Chase) and Danny Noonan (played by Michael O’Keefe) are playing a round of golf.

Ty blindfolds himself and hits a beautiful shot two feet from the hole. He tells Danny that the key to golf is to “be the ball.”

Be the ball, Danny.

Be the ball.

Yes, I am going to make an analogy to education here.

My entire professional career has been in education (except for my first job out of graduate school, complete with a Masters in History, working in a men’s clothing store). From teaching, to working for a Governor, to working for a non-profit education reform “do” tank, I have tried to be the ball. It has never been easy.

This August, I will return to the classroom to teach 7th and 8th grade American History and Civics. I taught high school for eight years – mainly juniors and seniors, and mainly Advanced Placement and dual enrollment classes.

I chose to teach high school because I love history. I love teaching kids how to think and write and make an argument, to recognize the bias in primary sources and to connect to their past. I also chose to teach high school because if I taught elementary school, I’d have to teach math. And if I taught middle school, I’d have to deal with mean girls. Thanks, Karma.

To be honest, I’m scared of middle school students. I’m scared that they will be woefully disorganized, and that they’ll ask me annoying questions like, “do I have to answer this in complete sentences?” and “is this going to be on the test?” I’m scared that they will be cruel to each other, that they will have a lack of awareness that there is such a thing as personal space, and that they may not have heard of deodorant yet.

But my biggest fear is that I’ll have to “dumb down” how I teach. Will I have to use the text book instead of primary sources? Will these kids be able to convey through writing that they have thought deeply about a concept? Will they be able to understand the “why?” and not just memorize the “what?” I don’t believe in study guides! I don’t believe in fill in the blank and matching and making kids memorize dates! I don’t believe in extra credit and allowing kids to turn in late work! I don’t want to give credit just for showing up!

OMG – how in the world am I going to teach middle schoolers? This is going to be a disaster of epic proportions.

I have gone off the deep end. Clearly, I have forgotten about being the ball. Where is Ty Webb when I need him?

Note to self: my students will be able to do what I expect of them. I must continue to teach the way I always have – push them just beyond what they think they are capable of. If I want my students to connect the Magna Carta to the Mayflower Compact to the U.S. Constitution, then I have to teach them how to do that. Because waiting until high school is too late to get kids ready for college or a career. So my goal is to get my kids ready for high school, where teachers already face enough kids who don’t know how to synthesize large amounts of material or make connections between the French Revolution and the American one. And where many kids have no clue how to study or take a final exam.

So here I am, six weeks away from facing 7th and 8th graders. Scared and anxious and stressed (already), but excited to be back in the classroom.

Once again, I’m trying to be the ball.


About the author

Mary Laura Bragg

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at