The Power of a First Grade Teacher (Selma Wassermann)

So many adults can remember public school teachers who have had super-sized influence on them in elementary and secondary school classrooms. Stories of how teachers turned around an ill-behaved young child in the second grade or an algebra-hating student into young man pursuing a math major at a university are legion. Such stories resonate with teachers, parents, and policymakers since they refresh our beliefs in the power of an individual teacher making a hefty difference in the mind and heart of a child or youth.

But what about stories of teachers who have ill-effects on students? Not necessarily on their test scores or even on grades but whose non-academic collateral lessons hurt children. Along with those goose-bump renditions of teachers who made a positive difference in a child’s life are the less-told tales of teachers who squelched students. Yet those very same intimidated students turned out to be gifted teachers decades later. Here is one such story.

Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. She has been an elementary school teacher and reading specialist for many years in the New York area before earning her doctorate in education. She brought a barrelful of child-centered knowledge and skills to her graduate students—even returning to teach at an elementary school while on a sabbatical. In the late-1960s, she and her family moved to Vancouver, Canada where she became a founding faculty member at Simon Fraser University. She retired nearly two decades ago and has continued to write for Kappan, Childhood Education, and other journals. She has also become a software designer and CEO of Wrinkled Pants creating iPad apps called  the My Word Reader for children.

The following excerpt comes from her book, This Teaching Life (Teachers College Press, 2004) where she records her memories of one first grade teacher in the mid-1930s who had a profound effect on her life. *

Miss Stellwagon, my first-grade teacher was my “first teacher.” She taught me about favorites (I was not one) and about talking in class (I was one). She taught me about keeping young children at arm’s length, lest their poverty rub off on the teacher’s middle class self. She taught me that discipline meant humiliation and loss of self-esteem, which diminished you. She taught me that even if you tried to please the teacher, unexpressed standards and expectations would kill your chances of being chosen for a part in the play. She taught me that what I enjoyed most (reading) could be made excruciatingly painful, when the same story was read orally, line by line, up one row and down the other, until all meaning and pleasure were extinguished. She taught her slum children “the King’s English….” She taught us to sit still without moving, for 3 hours in the morning and 2 in the afternoon no matter what physical urges came upon you—for to move, or speak, or ask to go to the bathroom would incur a wrath that was terrifying. We waited  for spring, for the trees to bloom, for the windows of the classroom to be open, for the end of the term, for the end of Miss Stellwagon.

“And now, boys and girls, I have some very good news for you. Guess who your teacher is going to be next term?”

“Who?” we shouted in excited anticipation.

“I am,” she said, her mouth forming into that bird’s beak smile.

“Aren’t you pleased?”

“Yeesss, Miss Stellwagon,” we chanted, our hearts sinking.

Two years with Miss Stellwagon left such an imprint that I can remember it still—the smell of the room(chocolate-covered graham cracker cookies mixed with chalk dust), the bleak beige of the unadorned walls with only back-and-white alphabet cards to divert the eye, the steam coming in staccato spurts out of the vent on the radiator, the perfect handwriting on the blackboard, the door with the little window, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the outside, where real life ran counterpart to our still-life experiences.

I didn’t know it then but Miss Stellwagon’s teaching would be pivotal in my own professional development, my loathing of her so intense that I could only become her antithesis.

______________________

*Selma Wassermann has been a long-time friend. I wrote the Foreword for This Teaching Life.

3 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

Superintendents and Test Scores

Amid media stories about the Atlanta (GA) Public School administrators and teachers going to trial for cheating and the El Paso (TX) superintendent convicted of the same charge and in prison, the generally accepted idea that district superintendents can pump up student  achievement has taken a serious hit. Cheating scandals across the country have turned the belief in superintendents raising test scores into something tawdry.

For decades, many superintendents have been touted as earnest instructional leaders, expert managers, and superb politicians who can mobilize communities and teacher corps to improve schools and show gains in students’ test scores. From Arlene Ackerman  in Philadelphia to Joel Klein in New York City to Kaya Henderson in Washington, D.C., big city superintendents are at the top rung of those who can turn around failing districts.

Surely the Atlanta cheating scandal and others around the country have tarnished the image of dynamic superintendents taking urban schools from  dumpsters to $1 million Broad Prize winners. A tainted image, however, will not weaken the velcro belief that smart district superintendents will lead districts to higher student achievement. Just look at contracts that school boards and mayors sign with new superintendents. Contract clauses call for student test scores, graduation rates, and other academic measures to increase during the school chief’s tenure (see here and here).

Then along comes a study that asks whether superintendents are “vital or irrelevant.” Drawing on state student achievement data from North Carolina and Florida for the years 1998-2009, researchers sought to find out how much of a relationship existed between the arrival of new superintendents, how long they served, and student achievement in districts (see PDF SuperintendentsBrown Center9314 ).

Here is what the researchers found:

  1. School district superintendent is largely a short-term job. The typical superintendent has been in the job for three to four years.
  2. Student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service within their districts.
  3. Hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.
  4. Superintendents account for a small fraction of a percent (0.3 percent) of student differences in achievement. This effect, while statistically significant, is orders of magnitude smaller than that associated with any other major component of the education system, including: measured and unmeasured student characteristics; teachers; schools; and districts.
  5. Individual superintendents who have an exceptional impact on student achievement cannot be reliably identified.

Results, of course, are from only one study and must be handled with care. The familiar cautions about the limits of the data and methodology are there. What is remarkable, however, is that the iron-clad belief that superintendents make a difference in student outcomes held by the American Association of School Administrators, school boards, and superintendents themselves has seldom undergone careful scrutiny. Yes, the above study is correlational. It does not get into the black box of exactly how and what superintendents do improves student achievement.

Ask superintendents how they get scores or graduation rates to go up.  The question is often answered with a wink or a shrug of the shoulders. Among most researchers and administrators who write and grapple with this question of whether superintendents can improve test scores, there is no explicit model of effectiveness.That is correct, no theory of change.

How exactly does a school chief who is completely dependent on an elected school board, district office staff, a cadre of principals whom he or she may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins–raise test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase college attendance? Without some theory by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores going up or down remain a mystery or a matter of luck that the results occurred during that school chief’s tenure (I exclude cheating episodes where superintendents have been directly involved because they have been rare).

Many school chiefs, of course, believe–a belief is a covert theory–that they can improve student achievement. They hold dear the Rambo model of superintending. Strong leader + clear reform plan + swift reorganization + urgent mandates + crisp incentives and penalties =  desired student outcomes. Think former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, ex-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew, ex-Chancellor of Washington D.C.and ex-school chief Alan Bersin in San Diego. Don’t forget John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District.

There are, of course, other less heroic models that mirror more accurately the complex, entangled world of moving policy to classroom practice. One model, for example, depicts indirect influence where superintendents slowly shape a district culture of improvement, work on curriculum and instruction, insure that  principals run schools consistent with district goals, support and prod teachers to take on new classroom challenges, and communicate often with parents about what’s happening. Think ex-superintendents Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) and Laura Schwalm in Garden Grove (CA). Such an indirect approach is less heroic, takes a decade or more, and ratchets down the expectation that superintendents be Supermen or Wonder Women.

Whether school chiefs or their boards have a Rambo model, one of indirect influences, or other models, some theory exists to explain how they go about improving student performance. Without some compelling explanation for how they influence district office administrators, principals, teachers, and students to perform better than they have, most school chiefs have to figure out their own personal cause-effect model, rely upon chance, or even in those rare occasions, cheat.

What is needed are GPS navigation systems imprinted in school board members’ and superintendents’ heads that contain the following:

*A map of the political, managerial, and instructional roles superintendents perform, public schools’ competing purposes, and the constant political responsiveness of school boards to constituencies that inevitably create persistent conflicts.

*a clear cause-effect model of how superintendents influence principals and teachers to do better.

*a practical and public definition of what constitutes success for school boards, superintendents, principals,teachers, and students.

Such a navigation system and map are steps in the right direction of  answering the question of whether superintendents can raise test scores.

18 Comments

Filed under leadership, school reform policies

Looking at Children Use of Technologies at Home and School

Parents, as usual are caught in the middle. A recent article by Hannah Rosin–a Mom herself–looks into the dilemma facing parents. Called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” Rosin explores the choices that largely educated, middle and upper-middle class parents face when it comes to deciding whether their infants and toddlers should have the devices and, if so, for how long should they be swiping screens each day. (See four minute video in Rosin article).

On the dilemma facing parents and how much time children should be using devices for games, talking, and facing a screen, Rosin opts for parental judgment on a child-by-child basis. She does not see high-tech devices for toddlers and young children as an enemy to be fought and conquered. She does not, however, speak to the plasticity of the brain and the capacities of new electronic devices altering how children learn, what content and skills they retain, and the habits that children accrue.

With the rush to buy iPads for toddlers and kindergartners and the spread of tablets and smart phones among children and youth, can (or should) parents and schools do anything about use at home and school of the increasingly pervasive technologies?

Keep in mind that there are social class differences in how parents and significant adults allow their children use of screen devices. A number of studies have found, for example, that:

*African-American and Latino children ages 0 to 8 spend more time with screen media, including television, video games, and computers than their white peers.

*Rates of bedroom television are more than twice as high among African-American (69%) and Hispanic (66%) children than for white children in the same age group (28%).

*Children from low-income families (less than $30,000 annually) spend more time with television and videos and have bedroom television rates more than three times higher than children from middle- and upper-income families.

Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones and tablets. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events such as unemployment, divorce, illness, death.

And what about school? Consider what Westside Neighborhood School, a private school in Los Angeles, is doing. An NPR reporter described the school and its use of technology recently:

With kids from pre-K through 8th grade, WNS sits tucked into the shadow of a Home Depot in L.A.’s booming Playa Vista neighborhood. It’s close enough to the ocean that the air is more salt than smog.

When talking about screen time and kids’ access to handheld devices, Brad Zacuto, who heads the school, likes to use an old-fashioned analogy: “It’s like putting a child behind a wheel of a car. There’s a lot of power there.”

Think about how dangerous it was back when cars first hit the road, Zacuto says. No traffic lights or street signs. That’s where we are now, he warns, with kids and all this technology at their fingertips. “It’s here to stay. But at some point you have to teach kids how to drive a car responsibly.”

 Zacuto’s tech policy begins with a few basics: First, no smartphones till sixth grade. Even then, kids can bring them, but they have to check them at the front desk.

Second, engaging and educating parents: WNS makes them sign a commitment to limit screen time at home and to keep kids off of social media — again, until sixth grade.

 Also, at school, no technology until second grade. “We choose to have our youngest children engaged in digging in dirt,” Zacuto says, “and building things and using their hands….”

 In second grade, Zacuto says, kids start using classroom laptops. They get some basic lessons in typing and word processing and their first taste of Internet research….

By sixth grade, WNS students may have to check their smartphones at the door, but they get their own school-issued tablets with textbooks on them. Still, Zacuto insists, little valuable class time is spent simply looking down.

When sixth-grade social studies teacher Caitlin Barry gives her students time to read from the textbooks on their iPads, they often do it in pairs, encouraging each other to explore confusing terms or ideas. Some teachers even put short lectures online, for students to watch at home….

“It sort of flips the content,” Zacuto says. “I’d rather be spending my time in school with the teacher, with the kids — doing interactive, collaborative [things], using what we’ve learned.”

 The reporter ended her story on WSN by saying: In other words: “using screens at home to increase the time students spend working face to face in the classroom. It’s a delicate dance, preparing kids for both the Digital Age and the social world.”

The dilemmas facing parents, principals, and teachers about children and youth use of technologies won’t go away. They can, however, be smartly managed.

 

4 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

The Poets Have Words For It (Charles Keller)

For the past few months, I have posted, from time to time, poems written by teachers and students about schools. This month, I offer a talk on the importance of poetry given by Charles Keller, a historian who created one of the first American Studies programs in the nation and was one of the founders of the College Entrance Examination Board’s Advanced Placement program. This talk was to secondary school principals.

Archibald MacLeish made such a good case for poetry in an interview with a New York Times reporter last year.

“I think you have to deal with the confused situation that we’re faced with by seizing on the glimpses and particles of life, seizing on them and holding them and trying to make a pattern of them. In other words, trying to put a world back together again out of fragmentary moments. And this poetry can do. In fact, the life of our times seen backward is a sort of mosaic made up of the glint and glitter of poems.”

Of that interview, by the way, Mr. MacLeish said in a conversation, “It came out in print just the way I wanted it to come out particularly the part about poems and poetry.”

“The Poets Have Words for It” is the title of my talk-the “it” being education. I have often quoted poems in talks about education. After reading what Archibald MacLeish said, I decided that some day I would let the poets take over. Today is that day. I hope that the poets-some famous, some unknown, even very young people-will say things to you about education. And maybe along the way-every once in a while I’ll venture to say what a poet is saying to me.

Listen first to young people. An eight-year-old whose poem is entitled “Who Am I?”

I have many things I want

to say but-

No one listens.

 

I have many things I want

to do but-

No one lets me.

 

I have many places I want .

to go but- .

No one takes me.

 

And the things I write

are corrected but-

No one reads them.

 

Who am I?

 

And there is a ninth grader’s “Imagine.”

Imagine tears

A mile wide

And a year deep.

Imagine a chain of sorrow

Linking past with present .

Present with future.

 

Imagine no one to turn to.

 

Imagine a never-ending

Search for love

And a God that may not be.

 

Imagine all the

Wonderment and

Confusion .

 

Imagine me.

Here is a poem written by a high school senior.

Watch

for we shall some day be men

and we will call a world

ours,

a world of tomorrow

built on the dreams of yesterday.

We, the children gone by,

we have laughed, dreamed,

smiled, loved then somehow lost

and now we find ourselves

no longer the children

we once were .

But not yet the men we shall be,

realizing that lollipops and bicycle-scraped elbows

have slowly faded and merely become

an integral part of the mirage we call memories

weeping, for somewhere along the way

we have lost yesterday and are not quite sure

where to find tomorrow.

 

And here is a student’s response to a challenge set in an interdisciplinary  humanities course: “According to your own definition or standard of beauty, discuss the elements in your environment that prevent your concept of beauty from being fully realized.”

Beauty

is a cool mountain stream

swollen with rain water, bearing speckled fish downstream,

and beauty is a clear memory

of the stream, until the waters seem to flow

inside your head.

Or perhaps it is

the last ray of the dying sun

as it mingles with the light of

a newly-rising moon;

a kiss in an unexpected place,

beauty is the sound of raindrops

splashing on the ground and in my hair,

the pathos of a sweet violin

a new mother hearing her child’s first crying.

 

 I found beer cans floating under dead fish,

and a forest converted to a chemical factory.

An image in the boob-tube

informed me of “100 per cent chance precipitation”

and spoiled the surprise.

I looked for the moon and found Apollo 8,

Telestar, Haley’s Comet, and a Boeing 707.

Beauty is neither electronic nor man-made.

stars are more silver than aluminum, and

wax fruit are blasphemous. Beauty is

that which is natural, original, and unexpected.

 

I am waiting for the day when computers

program themselves

and leave us to ourselves, and

I am watching for the day when

the last blade of grass is removed

to make room for a missile factory.

I am waiting for a machine that can

fall in love, and

I am watching for an IBM card for God.

 

And in an American Studies course for not-go-to college students a young lady wrote:

What is this world coming to

Is there anything I can do .

Will this war ever end

Tell me, why did it ever have to begin

It is wrong for people to hate

Love is something we should make

Calling names and fighting back

Isn’t the way to make an attack.

We are all made of the same thing

A different race, but that’s a common thing

Calling names and making fun of one’s color

Isn’t the way to love thy brother.

Love, love that’s the game

Will it ever be the same

When we die we’ll all go to the same place , ,

So why make fun of each other’s race ,

Red, white, yellow, or black

When you’re on the road of hate.

There’s no turning back….

 

The poets are saying that we live in troubled times; that people do not know where they are going; that there is much uncertainty in young and old. It is a world whose values must be questioned; it is a world of polarization, particularly of generations and races. There are many questions; there is a search for answers; the question, “Who am I?” is being asked in different ways. A young person has put it gently and beautifully in a strangely-formed poem.

 

Some day I’m going to elope with a Saturday.

I know there’s one waiting for me.

A Friday told me. Some day when we get together, I’ll play with it on the

beach all day and all night. We will run away from the week days and laugh and rollick in the surf until a

Sunday comes to take us away, back to the days of the week.

But we will dance on the golden silver sand until 12 o’clock

Saturday night, dance into the surf and be swept away from the land, swirling in

the sea.

 

It seems to me that in what the poets are saying I hear a call for an education that will help young people to live effectively and responsibly in this world. I hear this call in Robert Frost’s “What Fifty Said.”

 

When I was young my teachers were the old.

I gave up fire for form till I was cold.

I suffered like a metal being cast.

I went to school to age to learn the past.

Now I am old my teachers are the young.

What can’t be molded must be cracked and sprung.

I strain at lessons fit to start a suture.

I go to school to youth to learn the future….

 

I began with Archibald MacLeish and his case for poetry. Let me end in the same way.

“I think you have to deal with the confused situation that we’re faced with by seizing on the glimpses and particles of life, seizing on them and holding them and trying to make a pattern of them. In other words, trying to put a world together again out of fragmentary moments. And this poetry can do. Poetry has done it over and over again. In fact, the life of our times seen backward is a sort of mosaic of the glint and glitter of poems.”

_______________________________________________________

 

This is an abridged version of a talk that Charles Keller of Williams College and later director of the John Hay Fellows Program, gave to principals in 1970.

3 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

Teaching U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 2)

How to interpret the three history lessons I watched Mark Allison, a veteran teacher, teach?

Allison had prepared an interactive lesson with a series of slides on the Civil Rights movement. He asked his students to inspect each slide carefully and tell what they saw and speculate, alright hypothesize, about what the facts they see may add up to. He completed the lesson within the 40 minutes allotted to him in the bell schedule.

The lesson reflected his passion for the subject (a glass case filled with civil rights photos along one wall of the room) and for his students (one wall of student photos in  his classes). Before during and after the lesson, students responded to his requests and questions.  Students did engage in the activities he designed for them. At no time in any of the three lessons I observed were students defiant, unresponsive, or dulled into inactivity. The rapport between teacher and students as he went through the lesson prodding them to apply their present experiences to the past was evident to me.

Were there someone else in the room besides me, say, the principal, a district official, or another teacher there to judge his performance, surely that evaluator could find items to praise and holes in how and what Allison taught in these three lessons.

Perhaps, that observer might have assessed Allison’s performance in the way that Becky Reed, a Delaware social studies teacher did in a comment for this post:

I think this represents exactly how I would have taught a lesson 25 years ago (okay, maybe 15). I would have been very proud of the activity that took me an entire evening to create, time that I could have spent with my family. In reflection (then) I would have thought the lesson was a success; students were engaged, discussion in small groups was apparent, primary sources were used, and students “got” that the Civil Rights Era was about freedom and equality. Sadly, I think that many administrators would have rated this lesson as an excellent lesson. Not only would they have rated it an excellent lesson then, but many would do so today.
Today I am embarrassed that I taught that way. The students weren’t engaged and didn’t care about coming to class (that should have been my first clue), I told them what to think, I never asked them how they knew, or asked what evidence they had to support their conclusions.
I suppose I may be a bit hard on myself, but that was the way I was taught to plan and implement a lesson. There’s no excuse for this today. Where’s the professional development and team planning? Unfortunately I don’t think restructuring is going to make a bit a difference in this school without thoughtful climate changes and increased expectations for students by ALL stakeholders.

Or perhaps Larry Winkler, a former Wisconsin teacher, who gave his view of the lesson in another comment:

Seems like this lesson fits what is recommended by the research, and seems to be high in engagement. So, I’m not following R Reed’s criticism. The method illustrated, as far as it is expressed, seems to nicely follow How Learning Works, a seminal work summarizing current research. I would give it an A+.

Or Michele, a California social studies teacher, who said:

This is timely for me; I am teaching US History for the first time (I have credentials in three subjects but usually teach math). I am absolutely loving it…. Now I’m back to teaching kids from all spectrums, from highly skilled kids who just didn’t want to take A[dvanced] P[lacement] to kids with 6th grade or lower reading skills.

I want my students to become better readers, writers, and thinkers, but I want them to do so in the act of acquiring specific content knowledge about US History–that is, while critical thinking is important, knowing the content is more so.

I”m not sure what I think of the lesson. I’ve never had that kind of difficulty with attendance–and let’s be clear, 7 or 8 out of 20 is not “the kids don’t find the class useful” but “the school is out of control”.

I was not in the classroom to evaluate Allison’s performance in the three lessons. I observed what he did and, in my opinion, given what I know and have seen in classrooms in academically low-performing urban schools over the decades, this teacher was doing far better than average insofar as engaging the students in the content that he was teaching.  How much students learned from this lesson, however, no one including Allison, me, or any evaluator could tell.

What most observers and evaluators seldom take into consideration, however, are other factors that impinge on how and what Allison teaches every day in his African American history course. These factors do not diminish what he did but expand the picture in which any judgment of teacher performance has to occur. Too often observers and evaluators of teaching in urban school, especially ones designated as failing, overlook how the macro-context influences, even shapes, the micro-context of the classroom. None of what follows offers “excuses” but simply makes the larger context a factor in judging what occurs in a lesson.

1. Impact of the school organization on the lesson. Classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance (only about one-of-three-students enrolled in each class appeared for each lesson), Allison did reasonably well given the organizational factors in which he labored. School and district policy prevents teachers from factoring in chronic tardiness and absenteeism into any grade–and, of course, the students know this–so low attendance is the norm in all Greenwich classrooms. Moreover, the school has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal have been notified that the school will be restructured which teachers know could mean that they will have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” saps teacher motivation to plan elaborate lessons and the energy to teach them.

2. Impact of student backgrounds on teaching. Nearly all students in the school are eligible for free and reduced price breakfast and lunch–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement because of poor health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences. Yes, students ranged in responses to Allison’s lessons but living in poverty has both short-term and long-term effects on students’ motivation to achieve in school when the horizon for future opportunities appears limited.

Organizational and environmental factors in the macro-context observers often overlook in judging an urban teacher’s lessons–the micro-context. These factors, and others, come into play without even mentioning what students have learned from this lesson on the Civil Rights movement. Anyone allergic to complex situations (or supremely confident in their knowledge of how teachers should teacher), should  avoid judging this teacher’s lessons.

 

 

 

13 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Teaching U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 1)

I observed this teacher teaching three history classes a few months ago in a persistently low-performing high school on the cusp of being “restructured.” All names are fictitious.

Standing in the hallway outside of his classroom—a school policy as students move from one class to another–Mark Allison sports a gray-flecked goatee, mustache, and a ponytail of braided dreadlocks. He is wearing a lavender tie on a light, patterned purple shirt with dark-gray cargo pants. A man in his mid-50s he is friendly with students as they pass by calling many by name or “sister” and “brother.” Most of the students say “hi” back, wave, bump fists or shake hands.

Allison teaches African American history and U.S. government. A veteran teacher, he has taught in the District 36 years of which 28 have been at Greenwich High School.

As the tardy chimes sound for the 40 minute period to begin, Allison closes the door and enters a bright, large classroom. On the wall behind the teacher’s desk in one corner of the room (a laptop, the only computer device in the room, sits on Allison’s desk) is a large bulletin board filled with photos of students in his classes. On the opposite wall is a glass-enclosed case displaying famous photos of individuals and events of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Student desks are arranged in a horseshoe with Allison sitting at a student desk in the center of the horseshoe with a slide carousel projector ready for the day’s lesson.

photo 12

There are three students in the class. Within 10 minutes there are four more. Five minutes before the end of the period, another student enters.

The lesson I observed was part of the unit he teaches on the Civil Rights movement. He begins with the three students by passing out four cards to each one with questions and answers on events during the 1950s and 1960s.

In a game he invented, one student asks a question and another student has to figure out which of the answers he or she has on the four cards is the correct one. As a tardy student entered, Allison paused and said: “are you ready to learn, brother?” He then gave the latecomer the four cards and explained the game quickly. The students were immediately involved and the group expanded to six as latecomers arrived. All six used the Q & A on the cards in their hands as they traded questions and answers (according to Allison’s records, 20 students are enrolled in the course).

Allison sits close to the students listening and, from time to time, coaching those who were having difficulty in either providing an answer or matching the right one to the question asked. For example, one of the questions on the card asks about affirmative action and students were stumped. Allison then gives an example of one of his students who applied to Clark University in Atlanta (GA), a historically black institution, and Akron University. A largely white institution, Akron had encouraged blacks to apply and, in the past decade, had selected more and more black applicants. One student grasps the example and answers “affirmative action” on one of his four cards. In the midst of the game, a PA announcement interrupted the lesson telling teachers that they must turn in a letter of commitment that day if they want to re-apply for their position next year. After the interruption, the game continues.

With the six students—the seventh arrived just before the bell rang—Allison turns to the slide carousel. The first slide he projects on a pull-down screen in the front of the room was labeled: “You Can’t Kill an Idea.” In rapid-fire questions, Allison asked: “What does that mean?” Few scattered responses and Allison tries another question: “What one word captures the Civil rights movement?” Students yell out answers such as: “Marches.” “Protests.” “Freedom.” “Riots.” “Equality.” “Rights.” “Prejudice.” Allison picks “freedom” and “equality” and says that is what the movement was about.

He then pushes the carousel button and a photo of a bus with mostly empty seats comes on the screen with one black woman sitting on the bus. The teacher asks: “What is this picture about?” Students offer different details of the black woman (age, color, tired look on her face, etc.), and a white bus driver (age, color, facial features, etc.) and the fact that no one else was on bus. Allison then asks one student: “Sister, what is this picture depicting?” Before she could answer, he admonished the others: “No one else help her.” She mentions the phrase “bus boycott” and teacher smiles.

He then goes to next slide which shows a photo of angry white women, men, and students yelling at and spitting upon 15 year-old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who was trying to enter Little Rock High School (ARK) in 1957. Allison asks the seven students what the photo depicts. Students call out: “She looks calm,” “white people are sure angry at her,” “except for her, there are no other black people around.” Allison points out that Eckford was their age. He keeps students’ attention focused on photo as they supply additional details. He then asks class: “What would you do if there were hundreds of people screaming and spitting at you?” Students’ choral responses range from running away from crowd to fighting back to crying to doing what Eckford did.

The teacher runs through a series of slides—one of which shows James Meredith entering the University of Mississippi (none of the students recognized Meredith) another shows a white child in a small crowd holding a sign that says: “Who Needs Niggers?” The same sign had a painted swastika and Confederate flag. One of the students asks Allison about the swastika. He explains the symbol. Then he asks about the flag. No one in the room could identify the flag.

One slide shows a black woman being arrested for entering a “whites only” library. Teacher says to class: “Listen, I can’t get you to go to the city library which is free and open to everybody.” Another slide features two black athletes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with raised fists in a black power salute. Most of the students recognize the photo. A photo of Rosa Parks, all students identify. Ditto for the mug shot of Malcolm X. When the photo of the 1963 event appears on the screen, students yell out in chorus “the March on Washington”. As a follow-up on that photo, Allison asks the seven students what the obelisk was behind the marchers. Some students shrug; others said, “I don’t know.” No one identifies the Washington Monument.

For each slide, Allison poked, prodded, and pushed students to offer details in the photo and then segued to questions that sought the meaning of these different events during the Civil Rights movement. Effortlessly, he gave present-day examples that could tie his students’ experiences and knowledge to events a half-century ago.

Just before the period ended, a PA announcement interrupted the lesson. The principal reminded teachers to turn in their applications should they want to teach at Greenwich in the Fall. Here was the newest reform in the district: low-performing schools will be restructured into better schools. For this to occur there will be a new principal and current Greenwich teachers will have to reapply for their positions. The lesson resumed.

By the end of the 40-minute period, all of the students including latecomers were thoroughly engaged with the Q &A over the slides. After the chimes rang two students went over to see the photos in Allison’s glass case.

photo 14

In the two other classes I observed Allison teach, there were 12 and 22 students. He basically used the same techniques of cards with questions and answers at the beginning of the class and the photos in the slide carousel. The level of student engagement, the repartee and rapport with students, and prodding them to think about what they said were just as evident in these lessons as the period that I observed with seven students.

How can I and readers make sense of Mark Allison’s three lessons that I observed? Part 2 answers that question.

 

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools

“Please to God, if you are going to send … [new teachers] into urban schools, prepare them a bit better than I was prepared.” (quoted in Bethany Rogers, pp. 353-354)

If I asked you to guess when this novice teacher said the above words, a good guess might be last week, last month, or last year. Actually, it came from a new teacher who had graduated from a university-based teacher education program in 1967.

I am reminded of this nearly half-century ago quote after reading Dana Goldstein’s book, Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession . In one chapter, Goldstein does a balanced job of reporting on Teach for America, a quarter-century effort that has brought liberal arts graduates from top colleges and universities into teaching. She points out the negatives (five weeks of summer training before assuming a full-time post in an urban school; only a two-year commitment to teach; high attrition rates after two years are completed) and positives (TFA secondary school math teachers outperformed a matched group of regular teachers as measured by standardized test scores; the funneling of TFA graduates into policy posts since the early 1990s). She sums up her experiences as an education reporter by saying:

Teach for America recruits are neither the saviors nor the banes of public education. Rather, like novice educators I’ve observed and interviewed, they run the gamut from talented and passionate to lackluster and burned out. What corps members share is the experience of being introduced to teaching through a truncated training process that stresses strict discipline and quantifiable results (p.197).

I had reached a similar conclusion.

Goldstein then goes on to recommend residency programs where newcomers to the profession are supervised by experienced teachers equipped with the expertise to model effective teaching and skills and be both sandpaper and a pillow to novices. Immersion into full-time classrooms is measured and monitored each step of the way over one to two years. These residencies—Goldstein notes that there are now 18 such programs from Memphis to Boston—make a great deal of sense to her, given her rich reporting on teachers and teaching over the past two centuries. And I agree.*

I would like to add another to her list of sensible ways of preparing teachers for urban schools. Look at the largest charter organization in California, Aspire Public Schools. The first 18 highly selective Aspire Teacher Residents in 2012 completed their first year of a four year stint–sounds like medical residents– of a closely supervised internship that includes a stipend of $13,500 and health insurance.

Fifteen have been hired to work full-time in the schools in which they were trained. Aspire has a network of 34 schools. They now step into the classroom as the teacher-of-record with a preliminary credential from the University of the Pacific and a Masters degree while continuing to work closely with a mentor who is paid a stipend to coach. And this support continues in subsequent years with Aspire teacher-coaches working with them until the residency is completed. Here is a district-based teacher training program–as opposed to a university-based program–that is smart.

Why smart?

Because they ask for a four-year commitment from novices rather than two in Teach for America. No novice has a prayer of mastering the complexities of teaching in two years–four years is closer to the norm of becoming a competent teacher.

Because support from mentors and peers–they are part of a cohort that meets periodically –during those years they are sailing solo in their classroom– strengthens the chance that such teachers will master the intricacies of the craft and become mentors themselves. After completing the four year residency, they can consider other posts in Aspire network such as Lead Teachers, Model Teachers, or administrators.

Because Aspire trains and inducts teachers into their expectations (e.g. all poor and minority students will go to college) and standards of teaching and student learning (e.g. how to teach, motivate, and evaluate students) in 34 charter schools. They do not depend wholly on university-based teacher education programs that provide generic course work with a brief time in actual classrooms.

Because the residency program is geared to pay for itself once foundation funding ends unlike similar programs elsewhere in the nation.

There is another reason I resonate to district–based (with affiliation to local university) internships and residencies is my experience in Washington, D.C. a half-century ago.

Surely history does not repeat itself since contexts then and now differ, but it comes close sometimes. In the early 1960s, I was a Master Teacher of History in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching that took returned Peace Corps Volunteers and trained them in one year to become urban teachers. Federally funded by the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the model of a district-based program of teacher education located in a high school (and later in junior high schools and elementary schools) with second-year residencies created during the program attracted national attention for taking young, determined novices and helping them learn to teach in urban classrooms.

In 1966, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson sponsored the National Teacher Corps bill and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. The NTC went through many changes in its life span of 15 years in 700 sites across the nation recruiting and inducting thousands of new teachers to work in low-income minority schools (see National Teacher Corps 1966-1981 ) Many of those NTC teachers went on to become master teachers, principals, superintendents, and academics. Many stayed in the classroom. The experience left them changed people.

And in Washington, D.C., the Cardozo Project morphed into the Urban Teacher Corps that between 1967-1971 recruited and inducted hundreds of college graduates into D.C. classrooms before it was shut down by a new superintendent (see “Personal Odyssey: Becoming a Teacher and Reformer in the 1950s and 1960s,” February 27, 2011).

The D.C. schools scarf up Teach for America novices–recall that Chancellor Michelle Rhee was a TFA-er before serving as head of the district between 2007-2010. To my knowledge, there is no residency program in the district now.

So even with a score of teacher residency programs available now across the country, they are but a drop in the bucket of novices entering urban schools in 2014. Most newcomers come from conventional teacher education programs. The plea of that new teacher in 1967 was not hollow then nor is it now.

____________________

*To be clear with readers, Goldstein interviewed me about my experiences with the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching and I provided a back-cover blurb for the book.

19 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies