Last month, I featured cartoons on teaching and learning math. This month I turn to science. Enjoy!
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:
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.
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.
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.
Parents, as usual are caught in the middle. A recent article by Hannah Rosin–a Mom herself–looks into the dilemma facing parents. Called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” Rosin explores the choices that largely educated, middle and upper-middle class parents face when it comes to deciding whether their infants and toddlers should have the devices and, if so, for how long should they be swiping screens each day. (See four minute video in Rosin article).
On the dilemma facing parents and how much time children should be using devices for games, talking, and facing a screen, Rosin opts for parental judgment on a child-by-child basis. She does not see high-tech devices for toddlers and young children as an enemy to be fought and conquered. She does not, however, speak to the plasticity of the brain and the capacities of new electronic devices altering how children learn, what content and skills they retain, and the habits that children accrue.
With the rush to buy iPads for toddlers and kindergartners and the spread of tablets and smart phones among children and youth, can (or should) parents and schools do anything about use at home and school of the increasingly pervasive technologies?
Keep in mind that there are social class differences in how parents and significant adults allow their children use of screen devices. A number of studies have found, for example, that:
*African-American and Latino children ages 0 to 8 spend more time with screen media, including television, video games, and computers than their white peers.
*Rates of bedroom television are more than twice as high among African-American (69%) and Hispanic (66%) children than for white children in the same age group (28%).
*Children from low-income families (less than $30,000 annually) spend more time with television and videos and have bedroom television rates more than three times higher than children from middle- and upper-income families.
Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones and tablets. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events such as unemployment, divorce, illness, death.
And what about school? Consider what Westside Neighborhood School, a private school in Los Angeles, is doing. An NPR reporter described the school and its use of technology recently:
With kids from pre-K through 8th grade, WNS sits tucked into the shadow of a Home Depot in L.A.’s booming Playa Vista neighborhood. It’s close enough to the ocean that the air is more salt than smog.
When talking about screen time and kids’ access to handheld devices, Brad Zacuto, who heads the school, likes to use an old-fashioned analogy: “It’s like putting a child behind a wheel of a car. There’s a lot of power there.”
Think about how dangerous it was back when cars first hit the road, Zacuto says. No traffic lights or street signs. That’s where we are now, he warns, with kids and all this technology at their fingertips. “It’s here to stay. But at some point you have to teach kids how to drive a car responsibly.”
Zacuto’s tech policy begins with a few basics: First, no smartphones till sixth grade. Even then, kids can bring them, but they have to check them at the front desk.
Second, engaging and educating parents: WNS makes them sign a commitment to limit screen time at home and to keep kids off of social media — again, until sixth grade.
Also, at school, no technology until second grade. “We choose to have our youngest children engaged in digging in dirt,” Zacuto says, “and building things and using their hands….”
In second grade, Zacuto says, kids start using classroom laptops. They get some basic lessons in typing and word processing and their first taste of Internet research….
By sixth grade, WNS students may have to check their smartphones at the door, but they get their own school-issued tablets with textbooks on them. Still, Zacuto insists, little valuable class time is spent simply looking down.
When sixth-grade social studies teacher Caitlin Barry gives her students time to read from the textbooks on their iPads, they often do it in pairs, encouraging each other to explore confusing terms or ideas. Some teachers even put short lectures online, for students to watch at home….
“It sort of flips the content,” Zacuto says. “I’d rather be spending my time in school with the teacher, with the kids — doing interactive, collaborative [things], using what we’ve learned.”
The reporter ended her story on WSN by saying: In other words: “using screens at home to increase the time students spend working face to face in the classroom. It’s a delicate dance, preparing kids for both the Digital Age and the social world.”
The dilemmas facing parents, principals, and teachers about children and youth use of technologies won’t go away. They can, however, be smartly managed.
For the past few months, I have posted, from time to time, poems written by teachers and students about schools. This month, I offer a talk on the importance of poetry given by Charles Keller, a historian who created one of the first American Studies programs in the nation and was one of the founders of the College Entrance Examination Board’s Advanced Placement program. This talk was to secondary school principals.
Archibald MacLeish made such a good case for poetry in an interview with a New York Times reporter last year.
“I think you have to deal with the confused situation that we’re faced with by seizing on the glimpses and particles of life, seizing on them and holding them and trying to make a pattern of them. In other words, trying to put a world back together again out of fragmentary moments. And this poetry can do. In fact, the life of our times seen backward is a sort of mosaic made up of the glint and glitter of poems.”
Of that interview, by the way, Mr. MacLeish said in a conversation, “It came out in print just the way I wanted it to come out particularly the part about poems and poetry.”
“The Poets Have Words for It” is the title of my talk-the “it” being education. I have often quoted poems in talks about education. After reading what Archibald MacLeish said, I decided that some day I would let the poets take over. Today is that day. I hope that the poets-some famous, some unknown, even very young people-will say things to you about education. And maybe along the way-every once in a while I’ll venture to say what a poet is saying to me.
Listen first to young people. An eight-year-old whose poem is entitled “Who Am I?”
I have many things I want
to say but-
No one listens.
I have many things I want
to do but-
No one lets me.
I have many places I want .
to go but- .
No one takes me.
And the things I write
are corrected but-
No one reads them.
Who am I?
And there is a ninth grader’s “Imagine.”
A mile wide
And a year deep.
Imagine a chain of sorrow
Linking past with present .
Present with future.
Imagine no one to turn to.
Imagine a never-ending
Search for love
And a God that may not be.
Imagine all the
Here is a poem written by a high school senior.
for we shall some day be men
and we will call a world
a world of tomorrow
built on the dreams of yesterday.
We, the children gone by,
we have laughed, dreamed,
smiled, loved then somehow lost
and now we find ourselves
no longer the children
we once were .
But not yet the men we shall be,
realizing that lollipops and bicycle-scraped elbows
have slowly faded and merely become
an integral part of the mirage we call memories
weeping, for somewhere along the way
we have lost yesterday and are not quite sure
where to find tomorrow.
And here is a student’s response to a challenge set in an interdisciplinary humanities course: “According to your own definition or standard of beauty, discuss the elements in your environment that prevent your concept of beauty from being fully realized.”
is a cool mountain stream
swollen with rain water, bearing speckled fish downstream,
and beauty is a clear memory
of the stream, until the waters seem to flow
inside your head.
Or perhaps it is
the last ray of the dying sun
as it mingles with the light of
a newly-rising moon;
a kiss in an unexpected place,
beauty is the sound of raindrops
splashing on the ground and in my hair,
the pathos of a sweet violin
a new mother hearing her child’s first crying.
I found beer cans floating under dead fish,
and a forest converted to a chemical factory.
An image in the boob-tube
informed me of “100 per cent chance precipitation”
and spoiled the surprise.
I looked for the moon and found Apollo 8,
Telestar, Haley’s Comet, and a Boeing 707.
Beauty is neither electronic nor man-made.
stars are more silver than aluminum, and
wax fruit are blasphemous. Beauty is
that which is natural, original, and unexpected.
I am waiting for the day when computers
and leave us to ourselves, and
I am watching for the day when
the last blade of grass is removed
to make room for a missile factory.
I am waiting for a machine that can
fall in love, and
I am watching for an IBM card for God.
And in an American Studies course for not-go-to college students a young lady wrote:
What is this world coming to
Is there anything I can do .
Will this war ever end
Tell me, why did it ever have to begin
It is wrong for people to hate
Love is something we should make
Calling names and fighting back
Isn’t the way to make an attack.
We are all made of the same thing
A different race, but that’s a common thing
Calling names and making fun of one’s color
Isn’t the way to love thy brother.
Love, love that’s the game
Will it ever be the same
When we die we’ll all go to the same place , ,
So why make fun of each other’s race ,
Red, white, yellow, or black
When you’re on the road of hate.
There’s no turning back….
The poets are saying that we live in troubled times; that people do not know where they are going; that there is much uncertainty in young and old. It is a world whose values must be questioned; it is a world of polarization, particularly of generations and races. There are many questions; there is a search for answers; the question, “Who am I?” is being asked in different ways. A young person has put it gently and beautifully in a strangely-formed poem.
Some day I’m going to elope with a Saturday.
I know there’s one waiting for me.
A Friday told me. Some day when we get together, I’ll play with it on the
beach all day and all night. We will run away from the week days and laugh and rollick in the surf until a
Sunday comes to take us away, back to the days of the week.
But we will dance on the golden silver sand until 12 o’clock
Saturday night, dance into the surf and be swept away from the land, swirling in
It seems to me that in what the poets are saying I hear a call for an education that will help young people to live effectively and responsibly in this world. I hear this call in Robert Frost’s “What Fifty Said.”
When I was young my teachers were the old.
I gave up fire for form till I was cold.
I suffered like a metal being cast.
I went to school to age to learn the past.
Now I am old my teachers are the young.
What can’t be molded must be cracked and sprung.
I strain at lessons fit to start a suture.
I go to school to youth to learn the future….
I began with Archibald MacLeish and his case for poetry. Let me end in the same way.
“I think you have to deal with the confused situation that we’re faced with by seizing on the glimpses and particles of life, seizing on them and holding them and trying to make a pattern of them. In other words, trying to put a world together again out of fragmentary moments. And this poetry can do. Poetry has done it over and over again. In fact, the life of our times seen backward is a sort of mosaic of the glint and glitter of poems.”
This is an abridged version of a talk that Charles Keller of Williams College and later director of the John Hay Fellows Program, gave to principals in 1970.
How to interpret the three history lessons I watched Mark Allison, a veteran teacher, teach?
Allison had prepared an interactive lesson with a series of slides on the Civil Rights movement. He asked his students to inspect each slide carefully and tell what they saw and speculate, alright hypothesize, about what the facts they see may add up to. He completed the lesson within the 40 minutes allotted to him in the bell schedule.
The lesson reflected his passion for the subject (a glass case filled with civil rights photos along one wall of the room) and for his students (one wall of student photos in his classes). Before during and after the lesson, students responded to his requests and questions. Students did engage in the activities he designed for them. At no time in any of the three lessons I observed were students defiant, unresponsive, or dulled into inactivity. The rapport between teacher and students as he went through the lesson prodding them to apply their present experiences to the past was evident to me.
Were there someone else in the room besides me, say, the principal, a district official, or another teacher there to judge his performance, surely that evaluator could find items to praise and holes in how and what Allison taught in these three lessons.
Perhaps, that observer might have assessed Allison’s performance in the way that Becky Reed, a Delaware social studies teacher did in a comment for this post:
I think this represents exactly how I would have taught a lesson 25 years ago (okay, maybe 15). I would have been very proud of the activity that took me an entire evening to create, time that I could have spent with my family. In reflection (then) I would have thought the lesson was a success; students were engaged, discussion in small groups was apparent, primary sources were used, and students “got” that the Civil Rights Era was about freedom and equality. Sadly, I think that many administrators would have rated this lesson as an excellent lesson. Not only would they have rated it an excellent lesson then, but many would do so today.
Today I am embarrassed that I taught that way. The students weren’t engaged and didn’t care about coming to class (that should have been my first clue), I told them what to think, I never asked them how they knew, or asked what evidence they had to support their conclusions.
I suppose I may be a bit hard on myself, but that was the way I was taught to plan and implement a lesson. There’s no excuse for this today. Where’s the professional development and team planning? Unfortunately I don’t think restructuring is going to make a bit a difference in this school without thoughtful climate changes and increased expectations for students by ALL stakeholders.
Or perhaps Larry Winkler, a former Wisconsin teacher, who gave his view of the lesson in another comment:
Seems like this lesson fits what is recommended by the research, and seems to be high in engagement. So, I’m not following R Reed’s criticism. The method illustrated, as far as it is expressed, seems to nicely follow How Learning Works, a seminal work summarizing current research. I would give it an A+.
Or Michele, a California social studies teacher, who said:
I was not in the classroom to evaluate Allison’s performance in the three lessons. I observed what he did and, in my opinion, given what I know and have seen in classrooms in academically low-performing urban schools over the decades, this teacher was doing far better than average insofar as engaging the students in the content that he was teaching. How much students learned from this lesson, however, no one including Allison, me, or any evaluator could tell.
What most observers and evaluators seldom take into consideration, however, are other factors that impinge on how and what Allison teaches every day in his African American history course. These factors do not diminish what he did but expand the picture in which any judgment of teacher performance has to occur. Too often observers and evaluators of teaching in urban school, especially ones designated as failing, overlook how the macro-context influences, even shapes, the micro-context of the classroom. None of what follows offers “excuses” but simply makes the larger context a factor in judging what occurs in a lesson.
1. Impact of the school organization on the lesson. Classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance (only about one-of-three-students enrolled in each class appeared for each lesson), Allison did reasonably well given the organizational factors in which he labored. School and district policy prevents teachers from factoring in chronic tardiness and absenteeism into any grade–and, of course, the students know this–so low attendance is the norm in all Greenwich classrooms. Moreover, the school has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal have been notified that the school will be restructured which teachers know could mean that they will have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” saps teacher motivation to plan elaborate lessons and the energy to teach them.
2. Impact of student backgrounds on teaching. Nearly all students in the school are eligible for free and reduced price breakfast and lunch–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement because of poor health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences. Yes, students ranged in responses to Allison’s lessons but living in poverty has both short-term and long-term effects on students’ motivation to achieve in school when the horizon for future opportunities appears limited.
Organizational and environmental factors in the macro-context observers often overlook in judging an urban teacher’s lessons–the micro-context. These factors, and others, come into play without even mentioning what students have learned from this lesson on the Civil Rights movement. Anyone allergic to complex situations (or supremely confident in their knowledge of how teachers should teacher), should avoid judging this teacher’s lessons.
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.
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.
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.