Tag Archives: classroom practice,

The Persistent Dilemma of Play, Work, and Testing in Prekindergarten

New York City schools welcomed 50,000 four year-olds to prekindergarten last week. Ginia Ballafante summarized crisply the dilemma facing over 4,000 pre-K teachers:

“How the city’s educators will cultivate an environment of thrilling, digressive learning while aiming to reduce the enormous word deficits many children come to school with and at the same time keep the tensions and pressures of high-stakes testing from filtering down to the world of tiny people with Pixar lunchboxes remains one of the most significant and least explored questions around the expansion of prekindergarten. How they will nurture the distinct kind of teaching skill required to execute play-based learning successfully is yet another.”

And Ballafante is right on the mark. If kindergarten is the new first grade as some progressive critics point out, then prekindergarten threatens to become boot camp for kindergarten.

First, let me establish that kindergarten is, indeed, becoming the new first grade. In a recent study looking back at how kindergartens have changed in the past 15 years under a regime of testing and accountability, researchers found the following:

*The percentage of teachers who indicated that incoming kindergarteners need to know most of their letters or count to twenty doubled. In 1998 less than one-third of kindergarten teachers agreed that children should learn to read in kindergarten. By  2006 that number had more than doubled to 65 percent.

*Time spent on reading and language arts rose about 25 percent or from 5.5 hours to 7 a week.

*There was no change in percent of time spent on math instruction but there were significant drops in teaching time spent on social studies, science, art, and  physical education.

Many urban children come to preschool (and kindergarten) with many strengths (often unrecognized in school settings) and weaknesses such as deficits in words that are the currency of formal schooling. The onset of testing five year-olds has commenced–25 states mandate assessing 5 year-olds. So how to get young children up to speed to do well on these tests has accelerated the move toward academic instruction for kindergarteners with the pressure inevitably seeping down to three year olds.  This shift toward academic instruction has put the spotlight on exactly how much of school experiences for three-to-five year-olds should be play and how much academic work in light of the demands of testing for determining first grade for young children and teacher evaluation.

Two Bank Street College educators (New York City), however, do not see a conflict between work and play for pre-kindergartners. “This is a false choice,” they say. “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.” They continue:

As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time.

What does play look like in a room filled with three- and four year-olds?

When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

 In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.
Work and play become one. “Play,” they say, “has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school.”
During the summer, these pre-K teachers were worried over the impact of testing in kindergarten trickling down into their classrooms in worksheets, drills on words and colors, and group lessons on phonetics and numbers.
kindergarten1
The idea that play and work are intimately connected and in young children learning is not separated into bins–silos are favored academic-speak–but are as one means that there is no dichotomy, no dilemma. It is a classic case of reframing what appears as a dilemma into a problem that can be solved. That is what these educators are trying to do. They end their op-ed by saying:
But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.
So true.

 

 

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Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 3)

It is 8:00AM and the chimes have rung for first class of a 10-period school day. Ninth graders dribble into their world history classroom in ones and twos. They wait to sign in on a sheet located on a desk near the door. The teacher who is standing at the door asked one student to remove his hat. By the time the tardy chimes ring, there are 12 students in the class. In the next 10 minutes, seven more students enter the classroom. Twenty-nine students are enrolled. One student entered using his mobile phone. The teacher said to the student, “we can do this the hard way or the easy way. Put it away now or I will take it and return it to you at 2:30.” The student pockets the phone. [i]

On the front whiteboard, veteran history teacher Gary Hart[ii] has written the following:

*History standard 9.1.C: Analyze the reasons that countries gained control of territory through imperialism and the impact on people living in the territory that was controlled.[iii]

*Read pp. 345-350.

Underneath the History standard are three questions:

  1. What is racism?
  2. What is social Darwinism?
  3. Who is Shaka?

On a bulletin board fixed to the back wall, Hart has posted student papers with perfect scores on a quiz of multiple-choice questions.

The classroom is large compared to most rooms for academic subjects. It was once the Home Economics Clothing room when Greenwich had a full array of vocational courses. Over one door near the teacher’s desk is a closet-size room with a placard saying “Fitting Room.” Student desks are arranged in rows. As students trickled in they sat with friends or alone. The teacher’s desk was in the center rear of the room facing the whiteboards. Except for the laptop on the teacher’s desk, there were no other computers in the room.

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At 8:10, Hart, over 6 feet tall wearing a brown suit with a brown tie on a beige shirt, sits on a stool in the center of room and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please copy down three sentences on the board. They will be on the test Wednesday.” About half of the class takes out a notebook from their backpack or one that they had stowed in the metal rack underneath their desk. Three students ask classmates for sheets of paper and pens. After waiting a few minutes for those students to write down the questions, Hart asks: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, what is the answer to the first question?”

No one responds. He says, “we talked about this on Friday. Look at your notes.” Two students are resting their heads on the desks. On one side of the room, four students are talking to one another as the teacher waits for a response. Hart turns to the four chatting students and asks: “Are we working or talking?” No response from any of the four; they continue to talk.

Hart then asks students to turn to pp. 345-350 of the text (Roger Beck, et. al., Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction, published in 2008). The text is located on metal rack below the seat of each desk-chair. The teacher directs them to answer the three questions on the board and complete a one-page worksheet that he has copied from the teachers’ manual for the text. At this point in the lesson, nearly 15 minutes after the tardy bell rang, and with 25 minutes left to the period, there are 19 students.

Hart passes out the worksheets and three-quarters of the students retrieve their text, open it up to the assigned pages, and begin working on either the three questions on the whiteboard or filling in answers on the worksheet of six questions taken from textbook (“Imperialism Case Study: Nigeria”). In a genial manner, Hart walks around helping individual students. At one point he turns again to the four students chattering to one another and says: “I’m hearing a hen party.” They stop talking and write, resuming their conversation after two minutes. Hart then moves one of the four students—without much opposition from the student–to a desk next to me at the rear of the classroom.

Within five minutes, all of the 19 students, except for the three still talking to one another, are answering questions on the whiteboard and filling in answers to questions on the worksheet. The quiet is shattered by an announcement from the principal’s office about end-of-school day sport activities. After the interruption, Hart threads his way among the rows to see how individual students are doing and if they have questions. Three do. He responds quietly and directly to each of their questions.[iv]

It is now 8:35, and Hart tells the class: “OK, the bell is about to ring in a few minutes. Put your books under the desks.” He repeats this three times. When the chimes do ring, Hart stands at the door collecting completed worksheets and answers to the questions on the whiteboard.

Hart teaches three classes of world history to ninth graders and one of U.S. history between 8:00 and 11:00 AM.[v] He then takes a lunch period and returns to teach two more world history class in the afternoon. He has taught in the [district]  for 16 years, the last eight at Greenwich from which he graduated in the mid-1970s. Between classes, Hart told me about his students and the school. Between his first and second period classes, he said:

“The biggest problem I have is the tardies. There are no consequences for them. They just show up with a pass from the office. Just a few days ago, I called a Mom about her daughter who was often late to class and was acting out in class. She told me that her daughter was my responsibility between 8 and 2:30. She then hung up on me.”

Hart complained about the pressure he feels from the administration on turning in reports—“more paperwork now than ever before”—and the pressure from being evaluated by the principal when he has to teach a lesson and meet with the principal afterwards. He pointed out to me that 50 percent of the evaluation of his performance comes from student test scores on the Ohio Graduation Test.[vi]

He also told me about his four-times-a-year pizza and root beer parties for students that get As and Bs. It is an “invitation only” after-school party. His wife handled pizza and he handled security at the door, he said, where only students with printed invitation could enter.

Part 4 of this series on teaching history in academically low-performing urban schools offers my interpretation of these lessons.

___________________________________________________________

[i] School policy prohibits cell phones in class. That policy is publicized in numerous large wall posters on each floor of the three-story building. Many classrooms also have the No Cell Phone placard. If a student refuses to put it away or give it to the teacher, the teacher can blink and let it go or call a security aide to come to his classroom and take student out because he or she refused to give teacher the mobile. That occurred in the teacher’s third period class when a security aide entered the room and removed a student.

[ii] All names are fictitious. I observed four straight classes that Hart taught on November 13, 2013. The lesson described here is what I saw in one of the four classes. A few of the student and teacher actions described in this vignette, however, occurred in one or another of the three periods I observed (e.g., cell phone occurred in second period; announcements in third period).

[iii] District policy is that every teacher is to list the Ohio state standard for world history that he or she is working on in the lesson. The principal or assistant principal include in their written evaluation of the teacher whether or not the standard appears somewhere in the classroom. Hart explained that procedure to me when I asked about the standard listed on the whiteboard.

[iv] Public announcements—PAs for short—occur throughout the 10 period school day. During a 10-minute homeroom period (10:08-10:18 which is part of the 3rd period) students and administrators cluster their announcements about after-school club meetings, varsity sport games, deadlines for submitting college applications, etc.

[v] The U.S. history class of 29 students focused the entire 40-minute period going over vocabulary, concepts, sample questions, and critical thinking skills that have been on previous years’ Ohio Graduation Test (OGT). They would take OGT in the spring. From OGT manual:

The OGT in social studies contains 32 multiple-choice, four short-answer and two extended-response test questions that measure student achievement

related to the seven academic content standards (see:            http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Testing/Ohio-Graduation-Test-OGT/2011-Family-Guide.pdf.aspx.

In an interview with a central office administrator in charge of social studies, the supervisor told me that the main job social studies teachers have is “ to teach what is on the OGT. State standards tell teachers what content and skills to teach and the OGT covers the standards.” Interview with administrator November 14, 2013.

[vi] Details of Cleveland’s teacher evaluation system can be found at: http://www.clevelandmetroschools.org/Page/2767

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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Poems By and For Teachers: What Teachers Make (Taylor Mali)

The following brief resume is taken from Taylor Mali’s website:

Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching everything from English and history to math and S.A.T. test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society.

Mali is the author most recently of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” (Putnam 2012)….

 

What Teachers Make

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.

Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

You can watch Taylor Mali recite his poem on YouTube.

**************************************************************

Kevin Hodgson, an elementary school teacher in Southampton (MA) had this to say about the poem:

A few times a year, I play poker with a group of lawyers, businss owners, federal government employees and software developers. No long ago, one of them turned to me and asked: “So, what’s it like to be a public school teacher?”

The question was asked innocently enough, but the emphasis on “public” and the unspoken meaning–“Why would anyone be a public school teacher?” –thre me off balance. I would have loved to have had the wit of poet Taylor Mali and launched into a ferocious comeback worthy of his poem “What Teachers Make.”

I didn’t.

Instead, I gave a passionate defense of the impact I have on the lives of young people every single day and then proceeded to win a few rounds of cards. Still, I could hear Mali’s poem ringing in my ear.

I’ve shared Mali’s poem with other educators in many professional development sessions, and I’ve given the poem as a gift to colleagues. With it defiant tone, the poem becomes a token of solidarity, and I am reminded of a quote from Charlie Parker that I use as a tagline for my blog: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” The poem resonates with a similar message: as educators, we need to be proud of what we do and boldly confront misconceptions that surround us.

It’s almost as important as the work we do each and every day in the classroom.*

 

*Both the poem and Hodgson’s remarks come from Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner (Eds.) Teaching with Heart: Poetry That Speaks To The Courage To Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), pp. 18-20

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September 9, 2014 · 6:46 am

Robo-teachers?

In the recent film “The Robot & Frank,” an elderly Dad, played by the fine actor Frank Langella, is slipping into dementia so his adult son and daughter debate how best to help him out: get him into an assisted care facility, says daughter. Get him a domestic robot, a caregiver that cooks, cleans up and converses with Frank, says son.

Son wins and brings a robot to his Dad’s home to start care-giving. The sharp tensions between Frank and the mechanical caregiver dissolve as Frank realizes that he can resume his previous career as a cat burglar with the aid of the robot. So with this comedic story-line dominating the film, the serious moments of Frank realizing that he will no longer be the person he was—-Langella captures those emotions without saying a word–are lost. Thus, what could have been an insightful film, a study of the crushing  consequences of dementia on a person and family get twisted in the writers’  failure to decide whether they were doing a comedy or serious film.

But that film is not the point of this post.

The point is that while there are tasks that robots can do to help infirm elderly, ill patients, and students the connection between a machine and human being cannot replicate the fundamental cognitive and emotional bonds between humans that sustains caregiving, doctor-patient and teacher-student relationships.

And robo-caregivers, robo-doctors, and robo-teachers have surely entered the world of elderly care, medicine, and education.

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Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sherry Turkle, has written often about machine-human interactions in articles and books (see here). She has raised questions about robots as caregivers and was called by one writer a “technology skeptic.” She responded in a letter to the editor in the New York Times.

I had written that after a 72-year-old woman named Miriam interacted with a robot called Paro, Miriam “found comfort when she confided in her Paro.”

But I still believe that robots are inappropriate as caregivers for the elderly or for children. The robots proposed as “caring machines” fool us into thinking they care about us. Maintaining eye contact, remembering our names, responding to verbal cues — these are things that robots do to simulate care and understanding.

So, Miriam — a woman who had lost a child — was trying to make sense of her loss with a machine that had no understanding or experience of a human life. That robot put on a good show. And we’re vulnerable: People experience even pretend empathy as the real thing. But robots can’t empathize. They don’t face death or know life. So when this woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn’t find it amazing. I felt we had abandoned Miriam.

Being part of this scene was one of the most wrenching moments in my years of research on sociable robotics. There were so many people there to help, but we all stood back, outsourcing the thing we do best — understanding each other, taking care of each other.

Now consider robots and teaching. There are tasks that robots can do to help teachers teach and children learn (see here, here, here, and here). But these tasks, as important as they may be in helping out homebound students or grading simple five-paragraph essays, such tasks and others do not add up to what is the core of teaching: the emotional and cognitive bonds that grow over time between teachers and students and are the basis for learning not only what is taught in the classroom but also learning close and personal–beg pardon for using an outdated word– the virtues (trustworthiness, respect, fairness, reliability, loyalty) of  character. And, yes, the flip side of those virtues can be learned from a few teachers as well. That is the personal side of teaching that “social robotics” cannot capture. In short, teaching is far more that seeing children and youth as brains on sticks.

David Kirp, professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, made a similar point in a recent op-ed piece.

Every successful educational initiative of which I’m aware aims at strengthening personal bonds ….. The best [schools] …  create intimate worlds where students become explorers and attentive adults are close at hand…. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder, then, that the business model hasn’t worked in reforming the schools — there is simply no substitute for the personal element.

Amen.

 

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Persistence in Math Teaching Patterns: Deja Vu All Over Again

Math instruction took another big hit recently. “Big” because the New York Times,  one of the top U.S. newspapers ran it as a cover story of its magazine section. So here again, amid the Common Core standards in math that ask teachers to go beyond the “right” answer and periodic efforts over the past century (yes, I mean “century”) to move math teaching away from learning the rules of arithmetic, algebraic equations, and geometry proofs, comes another blast at how teachers teach math.

Elizabeth Green’s well-written article (drawn from a forthcoming book) on persistent patterns (mostly ineffective) in teachers implementing the New Math of the 1960s, the New NEW math of the 1980s, and now the math Common Core standards shines yet another light on the puzzle of why teachers teach as they do. And why policy after policy adopted to change math instruction has failed time and again in practice leaving each generation innumerate. Green has her own answers which to my experience as a teacher, historian, and researcher make a great deal of sense.

Moreover, as Green braids many threads together to explain persistence in poor math teaching, she also identifies others that begin to capture the complexity of  teaching. Her answers as to what to do are, however, largely unsatisfying because she excludes pieces necessary to complete the puzzle. Without the full puzzle picture on the jigsaw box, glomming onto a few pieces risks even yet another failure to remedy the puzzling persistence of poor math instruction.

Green does not blame teachers. She points to state and federal policies, teacher education institutions, and the taken-for-granted way that new teachers have learned about teaching from watching a few feet away how teachers have taught them for 16-plus years. All of this captures important threads in unraveling the puzzle of persistent failure in routine, teacher-centered math instruction focused less on understanding deeply and practically math concepts and more on knowing the rules to get the right answer. But not all of the threads.

Nowhere does Green mention the power of the age-graded school to influence how teachers teach.

The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, has become an unquestioned mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers and voters have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a success it is the age-graded school. Consider longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Or consider  effectiveness. The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school Or adaptability. The age-graded school exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban districts.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by their ages to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks to be annually promoted.

The age-graded school is also an institution that has plans for those who work within its confines. The organization isolates and insulates teachers from one another, perpetuates teacher-centered pedagogy,  and prevents a large fraction of students from achieving academically. It is the sea in which teachers, students, principals, and parents swim yet few contemporary reformers have asked about the water in which they share daily. To switch metaphors, the age-graded school is a one-size-fits-all structure.

Why have most school reformers and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children? Dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about a “real” school, that is, one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive report cards, and get promoted have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a new school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together. Sure, occasional reformers create non-graded schools, the School of One, and particular community schools but they are outliers.

These familiar age-graded schools–don’t ask fish to consider the water they swim in–are missing in unraveling the puzzle of persistent ways of teaching math that Elizabeth Green has so nicely laid before us.

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies