Yep, here’s another edition of monthly cartoons. The following cartoons of kids in school (and at home) have tickled me and I wanted to share them with readers. Enjoy!
Taken from “About” in Herman’s blog:
My name is Ellie Herman. If you want to find out what I’m doing here and why, click here on why I’m writing this blog. I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of September….
As for my bio, I’m a writer and English teacher. From 2007 to 2013, I taught Drama, Advanced Drama, Creative Writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.
Before that, I was a writer/producer for many TV shows, including The Riches, Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope and Newhart. My fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.
I attended public schools in Winnetka, Illinois from kindergarten through high school and graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English. I have a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge. My three children attended Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley. My husband, David Levinson, is a writer who runs the non-profit Big Sunday. Our basset hound, Lou, appears ineducable, having channeled all of his energy into his good looks. We live in Los Angeles.
Posted on September 26, 2013
I once ran over a student in the parking lot. Gio was standing in front of my car, waving, grinning and doing a little hopping dance in apparent joy at seeing me, which made no sense because only an hour earlier he had brought my entire class to a standstill by taking a half-eaten pear and mashing it into the floor with his shoe. Obviously, I threw him out of class, though he did not go easily, muttering profanities and slamming the door behind him. The sight of his beaming, delighted mug in my windshield was like a red flag to a bull. Enraged, I gunned the engine and squashed him flat.
Okay, I didn’t. I honked, smiled, waved and drove around him. But in my imagination, I ran him over. Gleefully. Vengefully. Repeatedly. On several other occasions, I mentally strangled him, usually during class when he could not stop pestering the girl next to him by drawing all over her notebook or when he shouted out irrelevant, annoying questions or when he announced loudly that he hated most of the people in the class, especially the quiet, nerdy boy who had been kind to Gio all week.
Gio was that kid. That kid! Every year I had three or four of them, students who occupied about 3% of the actual population of any class but consumed about 50% of my energy. That kid! The one who made my whole body tense up, who could shut down an entire class for minutes at a time with his demands, accusations and outbursts, whose absence, I’m ashamed to say, would cause a wave of relief to wash over not only me but all of the other students in the class when we realized we were actually going to have a Gio-free day.
Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect every teacher at one time or another has that kid. Our school always had a short list of students with extreme behavior issues; they were like mini-celebrities, occupying our lunchtime talk, populating our nightmares, inciting our migraines. In any given year, of my six classes, usually around three of them had at least one kid with extreme behavior issues. I’m not talking about kids who are chatty or can’t focus. I’m talking about kids who aggressively, compulsively and continually seek negative attention. Sometimes you’d have two kids with extreme behavior issues in a class, which really sucked because they’d trigger each other, causing an exponential escalation of problems. Once, I had three in one class, turning it into a Lord of the Flies situation with clusters of high-achieving girls taking me aside in a weeping, enraged circle and demanding that the three boys with extreme behavior problems be removed permanently from the class.
These kids weren’t always boys, though often they were. They didn’t always have learning disabilities, though sometimes they did. Here’s what they always were: smart. Often, these students were especially bright, which is what made them so good at driving an entire schoolful of people completely batshit crazy.
Did they come from terrible home lives? It would be simplistic to say so. Many of our school’s students came from very difficult family situations and the overwhelming majority did not have extreme behavior issues. But for whatever reason, nature or nurture, in my experience, these particular students seemed to be driven by overwhelming feelings of shame, failure and above all, loneliness, making them lash out in ways that cause them to be rejected further, a vicious cycle re-enacted daily. In the inspirational movie version of this narrative, the presence of a stable, caring teacher would break the cycle. Sure, there’d be a few bumps along the way, but by the end of the year, after a lot of weeping heart-to-hearts, a rock-solid behavior plan and some crackerjack lessons in goal-setting and relationship-having, the kid would turn his life around, graduate and go to college.
These turnarounds actually happen. I saw very difficult kids turn their lives around, and these were among the most rewarding experiences of my life. There is nothing on this earth more miraculous—I simply have no other word for it—than to watch a human being find the determination, patience, strength and courage to change.
But. A turnaround like that takes years. Years and years of imperceptible growth, of the kid being thrown out of class every day, of parent conferences and arguments and lost tempers and forgotten promises. Often, as a classroom teacher, you’re not there for all of those years. Sometimes you just see the first year, which feels like complete failure.
And it doesn’t always happen. It’s a sentimental fantasy that every kid’s life can turn around if enough caring adults just stay in the game, breathing deeply and sticking to their values. The rougher truth is that yes, those caring adults can make it possible for a child to make a breathtaking life turnaround.
But the fact that such a turnaround is possible does not make it inevitable. For every Gio who turned his life around, there were other Gios who dropped out and disappeared. I’ll never know what happened to them.
I’m thinking of Gio today because in Cynthia Castillo’s class, I saw a boy who was that kid, acting out, talking constantly, making continual demands. And I braced myself instinctively—a body memory, thinking of Gio and all the others who were that kid. I thought of Fernie, who was kicked out of every single class he ever took, who once called me a fucking bitch right to my face, whose eyes filled with tears when his mother told him for the first time that she loved him, who walked the stage in cap and gown this past June. I thought of gum-chewing Tiffany with the big earrings who couldn’t stop swearing, never did pass a class, and left our school.
I thought of Peter, my most difficult student ever, who alternated between charming conversation and uncontrollable, profanity-laced outbursts of rage, who once shoved a teacher into a wall and who, God help me, was in three of my six classes one year. By some miracle, Peter managed to graduate. After graduation, though, he floundered. I know this because he continued to visit me. As far as I could tell, all he ever did was work out; though he’d been a lanky beanpole as a teenager, as an adult he bulked up and became gigantic. He never signed up for community college but hung out at home, breaking his hand one day when he punched his fist through a wall after a fight with a family member.
Last year, my father died after a brief illness, and in the weeks after his death, I found myself working late night after night in a vain, numbed-out attempt to catch up with the paperwork I’d missed. One evening around 5:30, Peter walked into my classroom.
I could hardly bring myself to feign enthusiasm. He was the last person I wanted to see. But I knew the bus ride from his house had taken at least half an hour. “What’s up?” I said, managing a faint smile.
“I heard your dad died,” he said. “I just wanted to give you a hug.” For a long moment, he enveloped me in an enormous, silent, heartfelt bearhug. “Okay,” he said. “That’s it. You probably wanna be alone.” And then he left.
I think of the Rumi quote: “out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
I think of my most difficult students, and how that field might be where I need to meet them. Maybe learning involves a growth in knowing but also at times an embrace of not-knowing, of accepting, even in the absence of evidence, that a human connection is of infinite, indescribable value. “Teaching,” Cynthia Castillo told me, “is an act of faith.” I remember. I hope to get there.
Every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons.
From widespread adoption of Common Core standards, to the feds funding “Race to the Top” to get states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give tablets to each teacher and student, these policies contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about outcomes that supposedly will occur once those new policies enter classrooms.
And one of those key assumptions is that new policies aimed at the classroom will get teachers to change how they teach for the better. Or else why go through the elaborate process of shaping, adopting, and funding a policy? Unfortunately, serious questions are seldom asked about these assumptions before or after super-hyped policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) entered classrooms.
Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as cure-alls for the ills of low-performing U.S. schools and urban dropout factories:
1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., Common Core standards. turning around failing schools, pay-for performance plans, and expanded parental choice of schools) get fully implemented?
2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?
These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policies. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “charter schools outstrip regular schools,” “online instruction will disrupt bricks-and-mortar schools”) from policy action (e.g., actual adoption of policies aimed at changing teaching and learning) to classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers actually teach everyday as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students actually learned from teachers who teach differently as a result of adopted policies).
Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.
1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?
For schools in Auburn (ME) to Chicago to Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is “yes’ and “no.” The “yes” refers to the actual deployment of devices to children and teachers but, as anyone who has spent a day in a school observing classrooms, access to machines does not mean daily or even weekly use. In Auburn (ME), iPads for kindergartners were fully implemented. Not so in either Chicago or LAUSD.
2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
For Auburn (Me), LAUSD, and all districts in-between those east and west coast locations, the answer is (and has been so for decades): we do not know. Informed guesses abound but hard evidence taken from actual classrooms is scarce. Classroom research of actual teaching practices before and after a policy aimed at teachers and students is adopted and implemented remains one of the least researched areas. To what degree have teachers altered how they teach daily as a result of new devices and software remains unanswered in most districts.
3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
The short answer is no one knows. Consider distributing tablets to teachers and students. Sure, there are success stories that pro-technology advocates beat the drums for and, sure, there are disasters, ones that anti-tech educators love to recount in gruesome detail. But beyond feel-good and feel-bad stories yawns an enormous gap in classroom evidence of “changed classroom practice,” “what students learned,” and why.
What makes knowing whether teachers using devices and software actually changed their lessons or that test score gains can be attributed to the tablets is the fact that where such results occur, those schools have engaged in long-term efforts to improve, say, literacy and math (see here and here). Well before tablets, laptops, and desktops were deployed, serious curricular and instructional reforms with heavy teacher involvement had occurred.
4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?
Determining what students learned, of course, is easier said than done. With the three-decade long concentration on standardized tests, “learning” has been squished into students answering selected multiple choice questions with occasional writing of short essays. And when test scores rise, exactly what caused the rise causes great debate over which factor accounts for the gains (e.g., teachers, curricula, high-tech devices and software, family background–add your favorite factor here). Here, again, policymaker assumptions about what exactly improves teaching and what gets students to learn more, faster, and better come into play.
Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.
I wrote this post four years ago. With graduation ceremonies in K-12 and college occurring now and in the next few weeks, and so much in the news about the quality of teaching and how to capture it, I thought I would run the post again.
A dear friend and I exchanged emails recently and she mentioned that she had heard from a student she had in 1960. She had taught in the New York area for a number of years before returning to graduate school but recalled with much warmth how fine a group of sixth graders she had that particular year. The then 11 year-old, now a grandma, had stayed in touch with my friend over the years. She had become a teacher and had just retired and was now writing about the adult lives of classmates.
I began thinking of the often unspoken psychic rewards that accrue (in business terms, I would call it: the return on investment) to experienced teachers who have had many groups of students pass through their classroom over the years and how some of those students (such as Steven Strogatz) make a point of visiting, writing, and staying in touch with their former teachers. Fortunately, that has happened to me when a few former students at Glenville High School in Cleveland and from Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. have stayed in touch. Ditto from some former Stanford graduates. When letters or pop- in visits occur, I get such a rush of memories of the particular student and the class and the mixed emotions that accompany the memories. Teaching is, indeed, the gift that never stops giving.
Those former students who stay in touch over the years, I have found, attribute far too much to my teaching and semester- or year-long relationship with them. Often I am stunned by their recollections of what I said and did. In most cases, I cannot remember the incidents that remain so fresh in their memories. Nor had I tried to predict which of the few thousand high school students I have taught would have reached out to contact me, I would have been wrong 75 percent of the time. My flawed memories and pitiful predictive power, however, cannot diminish the strong satisfaction I feel from seeing and hearing classroom tales from former students.
However policymakers and researchers define success in teaching or produce pay-for-performance plans the hard-to-measure influence of teachers upon students turns up time and again in those graduates who reach out to their former teachers. Those graduates seek out their former teachers because of how they were pushed and prodded, how intellectual doors were opened, how a ready ear and kind words made possible a crucial next step for that young man or woman. Student test scores fail to capture the bonds that grow between experienced teachers and children and youth who look for adults to admire, adults who live full, honest, and engaged lives. Am I waxing romantic about the currently unmeasurable results of teaching and the critical importance of retaining experienced teachers? No, I am not. I have a point to make.
My friend’s story of her former 11 year-old student still staying in touch because the relationship forged in 1960 between a group of sixth graders and a young teacher has resonated in a handful of graduates’ lives for many years. Something beautiful and long-lasting occurred when those bonds were forged in that Long Island elementary school, something that eludes current reformers eager for getting new teachers into classrooms and not worrying too much if they leave after two years since a new crop of fresh newcomers will replace them.
Turnstile teachers cannot forge those lasting bonds with students. Staying at least five-plus years give teachers the experience and competence to connect with classes and individual students. For those students lucky to have experienced teachers who had their older brothers and sisters, whose classrooms they want to eat their lunches in, whose reputations for being tough, demanding, caring, and a dozen other admirable traits draw children like magnets to their classrooms, the impressions and memories of these teachers will serve as guideposts for the rest of their lives. These are the teachers, district, state, and federal policymakers need to retain through mindful policies that encourage, not discourage teachers–policies that spur teacher growth in what and how they teach, foster collaboration among teachers, and motivate teachers to stay at least five-plus years in classrooms.
Were such thoughtful policies to be adopted, the chances of alumni students returning to tell their teachers how much they appreciated their help would increase and not become just a fleeting memory of some former teachers like me and my friend.
*I thank Selma Wassermann for converting the commercial one-liner for a credit card company into an ad for teaching
One constant in K-12 and higher education reform has been policymakers adopting policies they say will make fundamental changes in their institutions and seeing those efforts scaled back to become incremental changes or disappear completely (see here, here, and here).
Higher education reformers, for example, touted Open Admissions at City University of New York in 1970 as a fundamental change in higher education (any graduate of a New York City high school could enter CUNY, tuition-free; the number of students entering CUNY especially black and Hispanic jumped dramatically). Yet within a few years, a fiscal crisis led to altering the program. Another fiscal crisis two decades later led to CUNY charging tuition and dropping Open Admissions.
Or consider the introduction of small high schools (or schools-within-a-school of 400 or so students) in urban districts in the early 1990s. Top policy makers and enthusiastic donors believed that small high schools would restructure large (1500-plus students) comprehensive high schools leading to improved curriculum, instruction, and student academic performance. It did not happen. What did happen is that many urban districts created portfolios of schools that included large comprehensive high schools and smaller charters and magnet schools. Small high schools became an incremental change.
Again and again, the dream and rhetoric of fundamental reform gets down-sized into smaller bite-sized policy chunks.
And that is the unfolding story of MOOCs.
Where are MOOCs Now?
On the Hype Cycle, three years after they went viral I would put MOOCs into the Trough of Disappointment but slowly inching up the Slope.
Rather than recount the history of MOOCs (see here, here, and here) since their inception in the U.S. (but earlier in Canada), I want to concentrate on one claim that has been made repeatedly: MOOCs will revolutionize teaching and learning in U.S. higher education (see here and here). They have not even come close to either.
And they won’t for three reasons:
1.The pattern of down-sizing reforms intended to revolutionize an institution into becoming an incremental change is already underway with MOOCs.
MOOCs are peripheral at most selective residential colleges and universities. Few award credits to students taking these courses. Often at such places like Stanford, Harvard, and other elite institutions institutions, they have been folded into prior distance learning platforms.
Community colleges and lower-tier universities where teaching is primary mission, however, will increasingly adopt MOOCs as money-saving enhancements of their offerings. Nonetheless, MOOCs will remain marginal to their overall operations
2. The fundamental error in policymaker thinking is that teaching is solely delivering subject-matter to students. There is far more to teaching that content delivery such as creating a learning culture in the classroom, organizing lessons involving students in tasks that build understanding of what is supposed to be learned, and applying and practicing newly-learned knowledge and skills.
3. The absence of evidence for students actually learning and applying the content of MOOCs is startling.
I have tried to keep abreast of the literature on MOOCs and repeatedly I have struck out in finding studies–anecdotes there are, to be sure–that demonstrate MOOC students have learned the content of the course and applied it.
Given these reasons, for universities and colleges, then, to adopt MOOCs wholesale, at a time when top policymakers–including President Obama–press for rating systems and more accountability for students’ performance (and debt load), would be somewhere between wacky and idiotic.
And that is why MOOCs will fall far short of transforming higher education and eventually settle into an incremental change of marginal proportions in higher education.
Taking pills and sprays to remedy illness is ubiquitous in the U.S. Ah, if there were only such quick cure-alls for lousy teaching. Say, like aerosol cans that can spray “good” teaching into a classroom.
Or maybe principals can ship cans of breakfast food to certain teachers’ homes.
Contrary to this magical thinking, first-rate teaching takes a lot of smarts, time, energy, and determination, not sprays or cans. In this post, I will describe one example of what I consider “good” teaching based on my recent observation of the teacher and his class in a history lesson in a minority-dominated high school on the East coast.**
Burt Taylor* is completing his fifth year as a world history teacher at Charlotte Forten High School (CFHS). After graduating college, he served in the U.S. Army for over three years. While serving in Afghanistan, his mother sent him Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man and urged him to consider teaching after he left the service. He did. In 2007, He joined Teach for America. After his five weeks of training in Philadelphia (which he found of little use in his first year as a teacher), he was sent to a large Eastern urban school district. He began teaching world history there in 2009.
While he did not major in history as an undergraduate, he does have (and did enjoy) a “passion for reading and studying history since I was a kid.” The African American and Latino high school students he faces for 80- and 90-minute courses four times a day, while coming to school with “many challenges,” has made teaching at CFHS “rewarding.”
Finishing his fifth year, Taylor remembers well the turmoil in the school since he began teaching. The turmoil, however, came not from students but from the district office. Because of persistent low test-scores on standardized tests, poor attendance, high numbers of dropouts, and a graduation rate of just over 50 percent, district administrators “restructured” CFHS twice, meaning that the first “restructuring” didn’t work and meaning that Taylor had to reapply to teach history each time and a new principal had to decide whether to hire him.
I observed Taylor’s world history class for 70 minutes and interviewed him afterwards. In the class of 25 who are enrolled, 15 were present sitting at pods of three desks clustered around the spacious room. Student were 10th and 11th graders, many of whom had failed the course in the previous year. The lesson I observed, student attendance for that class, materials Taylor used, and participation were, in his word, “typical” of other classes he has taught.
The materials Taylor used was drawn from a pool of lessons available online from the project “Reading Like a Historian.” He has used other lessons offered by the Stanford History Education Group. I asked: how did he come to this website? From district or school professional development? From a fellow teacher? No, he said. He had stumbled over the website, liked it for the focus on concepts and the work of historians, and ended up adapting lessons to his classroom.
The lesson I observed was the “Invasion of Nanking.” Basically, Taylor used the source material–photos, one excerpt from a Japanese textbook and one from a Chinese text on the invasion and then a final selection from an eminent historian of Chinese history on what happened in the city in 1937–to get across the idea that textbooks are biased, have points of view and, like a detective, it is critical to figure out the perspective buried in the text.
On the whiteboard in front of room, Taylor had listed each activity the class would do with times allotted for each one. An alarm on his desk would ding to end activity. Here’s how Taylor unfolded the lesson on the invasion of Nanking.
+ For the “warm-up” activity as students entered the class and settled into their seats, Taylor had a photo with no caption on his “smart board” with questions for the students to answer about the photo (“List what you see in photo. What questions do you have? What conclusions do you have?”).
+He walked around the room to see what students were writing and marked each student’s “Daily Participation Grade” sheet which they had picked up on entering room. The sheet has a section set aside for “Warm Up” and two boxes for teacher to mark: “Partial” and “Good To Go.”
+Teacher then compiled on “smart board” what students have written down about the photo. He called on students by name and a few raised their hands (no questions to entire group with choral responses from students). From clues in the photo, students realized that it showed a post-battle scene in an Asian city many years ago.
+Taylor then told students that the scene in the photo occurred in Nanking in 1937 after the Japanese invaded China. “We are,” he said to class, “going to figure out what happened in Nanking in that year.” In a mini-lecture–he asked students to take notes–he gave them the background of the invasion and what happened in the 1930s in Japan. Of the 15 in class, 13 were writing as Taylor lectured for about ten minutes. He then told the class that they will read two different paragraphs from textbooks about the same event–the invasion of Nanking–and challenged them to detect which description came from a Japanese text and which from a Chinese text.
+To insure that students knew the geography of the photo and sources, he had them go to a shelf holding a classroom set of world history texts and turn to page 594 to see map of Japan, China, and region. He asked questions about location of countries. He then told class that he will ask a “trick question” about the photo and the excerpts from the texts. So they “should pay attention” to what he says and what they read.
+Each three-person pod was a small group made up of a “reader,” “materials manager,” and “discussion leader.” He called on “material managers” to come up to desk and get textbook excerpts. They did. Taylor then instructed “readers” to read aloud to their group each excerpt, labeled A and B. For words students did not know, they were to underline them and try to figure out what they mean. The “reader” in the group near me stumbled on the word “atrocity” and was discussing it when Taylor, carrying a clipboard to assess each student’s participation, came by.
+Afterwards, he asked each group to decide whether A and B were from either a Japanese or Chinese text. “Discussion leaders” in each group worked to get agreement about texts–one group was excited enough to give each other fist bumps on completing their choices.
+Taylor then recorded the student votes for text A coming from a Japanese text (8) and (7) voted for B excerpted from Chinese text. He then asked individual students to give their reasons why they voted as they did using the text for evidence supporting their answer. After the back-and-forth of this discussion, Taylor offered the students another chance to vote and many crossed over from their original vote, agreeing that A came from a Japanese textbook.
+The teacher then asked: “Which of these two textbook accounts do you trust?” Students raised hands and Taylor also called on students who had not participated in whole-group discussion. Students largely agreed that you cannot trust either one because each side wanted to portray the Nanking invasion as either common in wartime or that it was a massacre. When the teacher asked what they had learned so far, many responded with variations of: there are at least two sides to listen to when something occurs; you cannot believe that textbooks tell the “truth” of the past.
+Then, Taylor called for “materials managers” to come up to desk to get a final excerpt written by a historian of Chinese history. They did. “Readers” sprang into action, and the “discussion leaders” led exchanges in the group to determine what the historian contributed to their earlier decision on Text A and B. For the 10 minutes of this final activity, Taylor, carrying his clipboard, listened in to each group, asked and answer student queries, and jotted down notes.
+Finally, Taylor asked students what they learned from reading the historian’s account and Text A and B. Answers varied a great deal from those who raised their hands to reply. The teacher also called on a few students who did not raise their hands. Students felt that the historian’s view of the invasion of Nanking was most accurate because the historian used Chinese, Japanese, and non-Asian sources who were there at the time. Taylor nodded his head and said the historian “corroborated” his account of what happened with other sources, an essential in writing about the past.
I had to leave the room to observe another teacher as Taylor was winding down the lesson.
I felt that Taylor demonstrated much planning, extraordinary management of the material and class organization, and was constantly assessing what students were doing and their level of understanding of the questions and tasks he had assigned. For me, this lesson was stellar.
Note to Readers: Burt Taylor told me in a subsequent phone interview that he would be leaving CFHS in June to take a position in a federal agency. When I asked him whether he plans to return to teaching history at CFHS or any high school, he said, he probably would not.
*I promised confidentiality to teachers in this study so individual and school names in post are pseudonyms.
**Note carefully that this instance of “good” teaching is a hybrid of teacher-centered and student-centered traditions in instruction(see here). Note further that I will not determine whether the teacher is successful (see Part 1).
How can “stellar teaching” and “failing schools” be in the same sentence?
Failing schools have been defined as ones with low test scores, attendance, and high school graduation rates. They also include high numbers of dropouts and disciplinary referrals with frequent turnover in principals and teachers and presence of far more inexperienced than experienced teachers. Over decades of being in such schools I observed many traditional and non-traditional lessons. Some were forgettable not only by students but also by me–although I kept notes to remind me how the low-level content and skills were taught and how classroom management was, at best, uneven and, on occasion, chaotic.
But I do not want to describe forgettable lessons in low-performing schools. Such examples have been noted often by reformers usually omitting, however, that such teaching also occurs in schools serving upper-middle income neighborhoods. Readers can recall such teaching that echo the caricatured history teacher who droned on and on about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The frequency of poor teaching, however, occurs much less often in these predominately white, middle-class schools than in the urban ones labeled failing.
What I do want to describe are the handful of urban teachers in schools labeled as failures who teach superb lessons often, are respected by their students, and have stayed in these failing schools year in and year out. There are scores of low-key Jaime Escalantes, Rafe Esquiths, and others who have gone unrecognized and unfilmed. Such teachers do not write books or articles about their teaching. Nor do songwriters, film producers, or journalists feature them in their songs, movies, and stories. Yet, they have earned the respect and admiration of their students, peers, and principals who enter and exit these schools.
The truth is that these teachers seldom form a critical mass in a failing school. Nor does their influence spill over to the rest of the school. Nonetheless, non-super star but highly competent teachers are often overlooked when state and district policymakers restructure schools by firing all teachers and the principal. These teachers are lost in the rush to transform failure into success–an outcome that requires collaboration between the principal, a majority of teachers, and most students while building a vital connection with the community. Such a process takes years and only occasionally happens because of the continuing turbulence that rattles reconstituted schools like tremors following an earthquake.
OK, a reader may say, I get the part of islands of excellent teaching in schools that are failing by current metrics. So what do you mean by stellar teaching?
Keep in mind that there are competing definitions of “good” teaching ranging from the Teaching and Learning Framework that the Washington, D.C. public schools use for evaluating teachers to lists of behaviors that top-notch teachers exhibit (see here, here, and here). And, for me, there is the crucial but often ignored distinction between “good” and “successful” teaching, a difference that I and others have written about often.
To be clear, then, when I say a teacher is teaching a “good” lesson I refer to both traditional (teacher-centered) and non-traditional (student-centered) approaches. Of course, there are hybrids of both (mini-lecture, worksheet, small group work, individual work at learning stations)–all in one lesson. There is, then, no single definition of first-rate teaching that cuts across different students, different subject matter, and in different situations. I do not refer to student outcomes of the lesson, i.e., “successful” teaching either since there is no single definition of “successful” (or “effective”) that cuts across all students, academic content, and settings. Sure, the current constricted definition is standardized test scores constructed by top policymakers but, over the years, other definitions of student “success” have been constructed by administrators and teachers in different fields such as improved student writing, math problem-solving, acquisition of particular critical thinking skills, etc.
Still, even with the distinctions I have drawn there are common elements to “good” teaching across the many differences noted above: stellar teaching requires teachers to plan, manage their students to keep them involved in lessons, and assess what students have learned. Keeping in mind the variety of differences that teachers must finesse along with common features that generically define superb teaching makes describing high-performing teachers in low-performing schools a slippery task especially when”good”teaching get continually overlooked in failing schools. Why does that happen again and again?
The neglect of first-rate teaching occurs in low-performing schools because of the myopic approach to school improvement (and teacher evaluation) currently in vogue among policy elites.
The near-sightedness begins in figuring out why schools fail. Different explanations for the problem of failure arise. Political muscle determines which explanation gets converted into solutions and then receive attention and resources. Three explanations have historically appealed to policymakers:
1. The problem is that adults in the school are to blame for failure. The solution: change people (e.g., draw recruits from new and different pools of teachers and administrators, get rid of those who have been around a long time without schools improving) and school success will follow. For decades, this has been the dominant explanation for failure in not only schools but also, sports teams, businesses, higher education, and federal and state governments.
2. The problem is that existing structures (e.g., age-graded schools, departmental organization in secondary schools, size of school, how time is spent daily) are to blame for failure. Change the structures (e.g., install testing and accountability, create charter schools and small schools, reorganize K-5 into K-8) and low-performance will metabolize into high-performance.
3. The problem is the process of schooling (e.g., how teachers teach and how they are evaluated, the lack of a learning culture in the school, how adults connect to students in and out of classrooms) Change the process (e.g., concentrate on better ways of teaching and evaluation, develop new school-wide norms and rituals, experiment with different forms of grouping in and out of classrooms) and better schools will emerge.
While every reform movement in the past century has defined the problem and solutions differently thus creating their own mix of (i.e., changing people, structures, and process) the current business-oriented reforms over the past three decades have had sufficient political clout and near-sightedness to focus mostly on changing people, occasional dabbling with structures, with hardly any attention to process except for using new forms of teacher evaluation as a way of getting rid of teachers.
For example, restructuring, reconstitution, or any “re-” has come to mean in current reform lingo that teachers and principals must be replaced and new ones chosen to turnaround the failing school.This blame-driven, myopic “solution,” largely funded by federal (Race to the Top) and state initiatives prevail among top policymakers.
That dominant logic is deeply flawed. First, there are many factors that go into a school failing beyond the adults licensed to teach and administer schools. Of course, teachers and principal are part of any failure but not entirely since other highly important factors are involved: principal and teacher turnover every few years, more inexperienced teachers assigned to schools designated failing than to schools deemed “effective,” lack of district-level support, high student mobility–students entering and exiting– and, yes, the help (or lack of it) that students receive at home from parents and extended family.
Second, policymakers crunch “good” and “successful” together into one concept–especially when it comes to teacher evaluation. This is a mistake that teachers pay for, not policymakers.
Third, even in those failing schools there are some teachers who are tough, demanding, and superb in their teaching. And they get disappointed, some even cynical, as they go ignored in the sweeping removal of all teachers and their re-applying for jobs within which they have been perceived and evaluated as “effective.”
Part 2 describes a “good” lesson in a school that has been reconstituted not once but twice. And the teacher was re-hired twice for the job. But now, sad to say, that teacher, has decided to leave the profession.
At a time when Big Data rules, I look for small answers to big questions about how policies get translated into classroom practices. Big Data can be seen in massive surveys when thousands of teachers respond to questions that pollsters ask. And yes, there are huge data sets derived from major projects that video teacher lessons as well as from students who answer questions about their teachers when taking national and international tests.
But if you really want to know and understand teachers, teaching, learning, and students, one must spend time in classrooms listening and watching the key actors who create good-to-poor lessons. Big Data go for the generalization overlooking the particular that often matters to policymakers, researchers, and practitioners.
Classroom research is crucial to understanding how policymaker decisions aimed at improving instruction and curriculum (think Common Core Standards, 1:1 tablets for kindergartners, judging teachers on the basis of student test scores, and new courses teaching children to have “grit”) get put into practice. Unfortunately, as I scan the current research terrain, such labor-intensive research–such Small Data–is done less and less. In this post, I want to describe how I do (and have done) classroom research and why, I believe, it is important to do so.
I have been a social studies teacher for 14 years and a district superintendent for seven. While superintending, I visited classrooms two or more days a week. As a professor for 20 years, I went into schools and classrooms to complete research projects time and again. I have come to know a great deal about how teachers teach and students learn within age-graded schools from kindergarten through high school. Yet even with all of those experiences, I still have unanswered questions about teaching and teachers.
For example, for the past few months, I have sat in teachers’ classrooms observing how they teach history. Why history classrooms?
I taught history in three high schools located in two cities a half-century ago. I am reconstructing how I and many other history teachers taught in the late-1950s until the early 1970s through documents, surveys, artifacts, and dozens of other primary and secondary sources. No Big Data–just a steady and persistent accumulation of fragments to create a blurry snapshot of history teaching, one with insufficient pixels to give crisp resolution to what occurred in classrooms when students studied U.S. history, world history, and similar courses decades ago. Such a snapshot may not be worth a thousand words but it is more than policymakers, researchers, and practitioners know about history teaching in those years.
That snapshot would be of what happened in classrooms then. What about now? To capture how teachers teach history in 2014 has meant that I return to those high schools, interview teachers and sit in their classrooms to get a current picture that can be compared and contrasted to the reconstructed snapshot that I took a half-century ago. Here is what I do and why.
Consider how many ways there are to document how teachers teach history: videoing lessons; trained observers completing protocols of teacher and student behaviors as classroom activities unfold; experienced observers writing a running report of teacher and student behaviors and activities during the lesson; interviewing teachers how they teach; asking students how their teachers teach; and other ways as well. Each approach combines objectivity with subjectivity in capturing what happens in a classroom and making sense of what has been recorded (see here, here, and here–e0b4951dee530973a3).
I have used all of the above over the years, but have relied most on being in the classrooms and writing out in longhand or typing on my laptop what teachers and students do during the lesson. Each sheet of paper or laptop screen is divided into a wide column and a narrow column. In the wide column I record every few minutes what the teacher is doing, what students are doing, and teacher-directed segues from one activity to another. In the narrow column, I comment on what I am seeing. They include connections (or lack of connections) I see between what teacher says and what students do. I comment on whether students are on- or off-task and my sense of how attentive students are to what is happening in the lesson.
The major advantage of this approach is being in the room and picking up non-verbal and verbal asides of what is going on every few minutes as well as noting classroom conditions that often go unnoticed. I, as an experienced teacher familiar with schooling historically and the common moves that occur in lessons, can also assess the relationship between the teacher and students that other observers using different protocols or videos may miss or exclude.
The major disadvantage of this way of observing history lessons is the subjectivity and many biases that I or any observer brings to documenting lessons. So I work hard at separating what I see from what I interpret. I describe objectively classroom conditions from student and teacher desk arrangements through what is on bulletin boards and chalkboards and which, if any, electronic devices are available in the room. I describe, without judging teacher and student behaviors. And I observe more than one lesson. But biases, as in other approaches researching classroom life, remain.
After observing classes, I sit down and have half-hour to 45-minute interviews at times convenient to the teachers. After jotting down their history in the district, the school, and other experiences, I turn to the lessons and ask a series of questions about what happened during the period. I ask what teachers’ goals were and whether they believe those goals were reached. Then, I ask about the different activities I observed during the lesson.
In answering these questions, teachers give me the reasons they did (or did not do) something in lessons. In most instances, individual teachers tell me reasons for doing what they do, thus, communicating a map of their beliefs and assumptions about teaching, learning, and the content they teach. In all of the give-and-take of these discussions with teachers I make no judgment about the success or failure of different activities or the lesson itself.
No Big Data will come out of my research about the then and now of teaching history. But the Small Data will generate new and different questions about teaching and learning while offering glimpses of how teachers put into practice policymaker decisions.
The historical record is rich in evidence that research findings have played a subordinate role in making educational policy. Often, policy choices were (and are) political decisions. There was no research, for example, that found establishing tax-supported public schools in the early 19th century was better than educating youth through private academies. No studies persuaded late-19th century educators to import the kindergarten into public schools. Ditto for bringing computers into schools a century later.
So it is hardly surprising, then, that many others, including myself, have been skeptical of the popular idea that evidence-based policymaking and evidence-based instruction can drive teaching practice. Those doubts have grown larger when one notes what has occurred in clinical medicine with its frequent U-turns in evidence-based “best practices.”
Consider, for example, how new studies have often reversed prior “evidence-based” medical procedures.
*Hormone therapy for post-menopausal women to reduce heart attacks was found to be more harmful than no intervention at all.
*Getting a PSA test to determine whether the prostate gland showed signs of cancer for men over the age of 50 was “best practice” until 2012 when advisory panels of doctors recommended that no one under 55 should be tested and those older might be tested if they had family histories of prostate cancer.
And then there are new studies that recommend women to have annual mammograms, not at age 50 as recommended for decades, but at age 40. Or research syntheses (sometimes called “meta-analyses”) that showed anti-depressant pills worked no better than placebos.
These large studies done with randomized clinical trials–the current gold standard for producing evidence-based medical practice–have, over time, produced reversals in practice. Such turnarounds, when popularized in the press (although media attention does not mean that practitioners actually change what they do with patients) often diminished faith in medical research leaving most of us–and I include myself–stuck as to which healthy practices we should continue and which we should drop.
Should I, for example, eat butter or margarine to prevent a heart attack? In the 1980s, the answer was: Don’t eat butter, cheese, beef, and similar high-saturated fat products. Yet a recent meta-analysis of those and subsequent studies reached an opposite conclusion.
Figuring out what to do is hard because I, as a researcher, teacher, and person who wants to maintain good health has to sort out what studies say and how those studies were done from what the media report, and then how all of that applies to me. Should I take a PSA test? Should I switch from margarine to butter?
If research into clinical medicine produces doubt about evidence-based practice, consider the difficulties of educational research–already playing a secondary role in making policy and practice decisions–when findings from long-term studies of innovation conflict with current practices. Look, for example, at computer use to transform teaching and improve student achievement.
Politically smart state and local policymakers believe that buying new tablets loaded with new software, deploying them to K-12 classrooms, and watching how the devices engage both teachers and students is a “best practice.” The theory is that student engagement through the device and software will dramatically alter classroom instruction and lead to improved achievement. The problem, of course–sure, you already guessed where I was going with this example–is that evidence of this electronic innovation transforming teaching and achievement growth is not only sparse but also unpersuasive even when some studies show a small “effect size.”
Turn now to the work of John Hattie, a Professor at the University of Auckland (NZ), who has synthesized the research on different factors that influence student achievement and measured their impact on learning. For example, over the last two decades, Hattie has examined over 180,000 studies accumulating 200, 000 “effect sizes” measuring the influence of teaching practices on student learning. All of these studies represent over 50 million students.
He established which factors influenced student learning–the “effect size–by ranking each from 0.1 (hardly any influence) to 1.0 or a full standard deviation–almost a year’s growth in student learning. He found that the “typical” effect size of an innovation was 0.4.
To compare different classroom approaches shaped student learning, Hattie used the “typical” effect size (0.4) to mean that a practice reached the threshold of influence on student learning (p. 5). From his meta-analyses, he then found that class size had a .20 effect (slide 15) while direct instruction had a .59 effect (slide 21). Again and again, he found that teacher feedback had an effect size of .72 (slide 32). Moreover, teacher-directed strategies of increasing student verbalization (.67) and teaching meta-cognition strategies (.67) had substantial effects (slide 32).
What about student use of computers (p. 7)? Hattie included many “effect sizes” of computer use from distance education (.09), multimedia methods (.15), programmed instruction (.24), and computer-assisted instruction (.37). Except for “hypermedia instruction” (.41), all fell below the “typical ” effect size (.40) of innovations improving student learning (slides 14-18). Across all studies of computers, then, Hattie found an overall effect size of .31 (p. 4).
According to Hattie’s meta-analyses, then, introducing computers to students will fall well below other instructional strategies that teachers can and do use. Will Hattie’s findings convince educational policymakers to focus more on teaching? Not as long as political choices trump research findings.
Even if politics were removed from the decision-making equation, there would still remain the major limitation of most educational and medical research. Few studies answer the question: under what conditions and with which students and patients does a treatment work? That question seldom appears in randomized clinical trials. And that is regrettable.
Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching. He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011. Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries. He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University. He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.
While the title for this post does not always ring true, in my few years teaching at Title I schools, it often reflects reality. In fact, rarely does a day go by where no student disrupts the classroom learning environment for one reason or another. As a fifty-something, I knew this going into teaching; what I did not know was how deleterious these disruptions are to continuity, sanity, and in the limit: opportunity, for my students, not me. As someone in the classroom every day, hoping above all hope that my students can break out of their behavioral binds, it challenges my every fiber of existence to keep the class focused on our learning objective(s) for the day.
Troubled youth make for troubled learning, not only for themselves, but also for everyone in the classroom. It is a huge force multiplier of the negative type. In spite of what is heralded as the balm for these troubles, compassion, empathy, and other soft moves are frequently insufficient to overcome years of ingrained indifference, frustration, anger, resentment, or a host of other emotions, feelings, or attitudes that have overtaken an adolescent overwhelmed by his or her circumstances. The older the youth, the more deeply embedded the issue or issues. Now, extend these to one or more adolescents in a classroom, and you get a snapshot of teaching in a Title I school.
A few days ago, for instance, I taught three block periods: two of which are split into two sections apiece of algebra 1 and remedial mathematics, and one AP Calculus section. The split sections are my attempt to support students who do not possess the arithmetic skill or understanding needed to succeed in algebra. Fortunately, my administration and the district office support me in this effort.
The AP Calculus students are rarely “egregiously” troublesome, aside from the fact that they have yet to realize that frequent side conversations among the eight groups of four students each frequently distracts others. At times, when teaching these students, it feels as if I am an onstage performer at a dinner theater with the audience commenting back and forth to each other about their meal, the show, or what not. Periodically, I tell them that the classroom is not their living room, or a movie theater, where they freely watch or chat as they see fit during “the show.” They seem a bit startled when I make them aware of their behavior, which puzzles me even more; it is as if I am the first and only teacher to ask them to consider their impact on a classroom. Notwithstanding their surprise, I persist, as I do not believe college professors will tolerate their behavior any more than I do, for the majority of my calculus students are college bound this fall.
Yet, this is not a post about my privileged students, who make up most of my calculus students. For they, mostly, are buffered, or far removed, from the intense psychosocial trauma faced by many low-income families. Simply put, they live free from most of the burdens of poverty. Burdens, which manifest themselves in low-income families, that inhibit attaining outcomes at the same level as those more privileged for the same level of effort.
My most challenged students, behaviorally and academically, frequent my algebra sections. Their presence cannot be missed: whether visually or aurally. While it only takes one student to derail the trajectory of a class, it is a rare day, indeed, when only one student in a class acts to call attention to themselves. The duration, intensity, and frequency of the derailments vary based on the class composition.
In the face of these ever-present disruptions, I have to: keep students’ attention focused on moving forward with their learning; address the momentary outburst and its subsequent ripples throughout the classroom; all the while doing my best to stay passionate, motivated, and encouraging without having a mental breakdown. I say that somewhat tongue in cheek. However, it is not too far from reality. Whoever mentioned that a teacher has nearly as demanding a job as an air traffic controller was pretty close to the truth.
Which brings me to the student who inspired this post. John rarely participates positively in class. He seems to possess a boundless ability to draw negative attention to himself throughout a class period. He failed first semester and is on track to do the same this semester. I hope with all of my heart that he wakes up soon and understands how important it is to his future that he pay attention in class, attempt some of his homework, and learn as much as is humanly possible, for he is quite intelligent in spite of what he may believe.
John reminds me of how my younger brother, now deceased, might have been in school. My brother was often truant. He ran with the wrong crowd, experimented with things I never knew existed at his age, and dropped out of high school shortly after starting. My brother may have been one of the silent ones, the student who attempts to disappear among the thirty or so classmates. He might have giggled frequently chatting away with his classmates. Regardless, he did not learn. He missed out on that opportunity, as he was deeply troubled. I will not go into details except to say that his burdens were too much for him. They may have been too much for his teacher, if they manifested themselves while in school: I simply do not know. What I do know is that I became a teacher, in part, to help those like my younger brother, of whom this one student reminds me. .
I will not hold my breath for John. I will encourage him as often as possible, in between addressing his behavioral shortcomings, for they do impact the class. His mother is at her wits end and unsure what to do about him. I believe my parents felt similarly some thirty plus years ago. Life is amazingly complex. Teaching is crazy hard. It drains me nearly every day. Yet, there is rarely a day I leave home headed to my classroom not eager to teach. Yes, some troubled youth await me; they are whom I most hope to help. Yet, I only can do my part to work toward keeping them on a path to graduate; they need to do their part as well. Time will only tell.