Tag Archives: how teachers teach

Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away (Clay Shirky)

Clay Shirky is a professor of media studies at New York University, consultant on the Internet, and writer. He is writing here about teaching his University courses and a recent decision that he made. The post appeared September 9, 2014.

I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision — I have been teaching classes about the internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required’.

We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.

This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on “declarative memory,” the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

On top of this, multi-tasking doesn’t even exercise task-switching as a skill. A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. (“They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it.) Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.

This is all just the research on multi-tasking as a stable mental phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and phones — the devices on which the struggle between focus and distraction is played out daily — are making the problem progressively worse. Any designer of software as a service has an incentive to be as ingratiating as they can be, in order to compete with other such services. “Look what a good job I’m doing! Look how much value I’m delivering!”

This problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)

Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.

After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction. (This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the rider still a novice.)

Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — its me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions. I have a classroom full of riders and elephants, but I’m trying to teach the riders.

And while I do, who is whispering to the elephants? Facebook, Wechat, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, the list goes on, abetted by the designers of the Mac, iOS, Windows, and Android. In the classroom, it’s me against a brilliant and well-funded army (including, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, many of my former students.) These designers and engineers have every incentive to capture as much of my students’ attention as they possibly can, without regard for any commitment those students may have made to me or to themselves about keeping on task.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Even a passing familiarity with the literature on programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go.

The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.

The final realization — the one that firmly tipped me over into the “No devices in class” camp — was this: screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke. A paper with the blunt title Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers says it all:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

I have known, for years, that the basic research on multi-tasking was adding up, and that for anyone trying to do hard thinking (our spécialité de la maison, here at college), device use in class tends to be a net negative. Even with that consensus, however, it was still possible to imagine that the best way to handle the question was to tell the students about the research, and let them make up their own minds.

The “Nearby Peers” effect, though, shreds that rationale. There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them.

Groups also have a rider-and-elephant problem, best described by Wilfred Bion in an oddly written but influential book, Experiences in Groups. In it, Bion, who practiced group therapy, observed how his patients would unconsciously coordinate their actions to defeat the purpose of therapy. In discussing the ramifications of this, Bion observed that effective groups often develop elaborate structures, designed to keep their sophisticated goals from being derailed by more primal group activities like gossiping about members and vilifying non-members.

The structure of a classroom, and especially a seminar room, exhibits the same tension. All present have an incentive for the class to be as engaging as possible; even though engagement often means waiting to speak while listening to other people wrestle with half-formed thoughts, that’s the process by which people get good at managing the clash of ideas. Against that long-term value, however, each member has an incentive to opt out, even if only momentarily. The smallest loss of focus can snowball, the impulse to check WeChat quickly and then put the phone away leading to just one message that needs a reply right now, and then, wait, what happened last night??? (To the people who say “Students have always passed notes in class”, I reply that old-model notes didn’t contain video and couldn’t arrive from anywhere in the world at 10 megabits a second.)

I have the good fortune to teach in cities richly provisioned with opportunities for distraction. Were I a 19-year-old planning an ideal day in Shanghai, I would not put “Listen to an old guy talk for an hour” at the top of my list. (Vanity prevents me from guessing where it would go.) And yet I can teach the students things they are interested in knowing, and despite all the literature on joyful learning, from Marie Montessori on down, some parts of making your brain do new things are just hard.

Indeed, college contains daily exercises in delayed gratification. “Discuss early modern European print culture” will never beat “Sing karaoke with friends” in a straight fight, but in the long run, having a passable Rhianna impression will be a less useful than understanding how media revolutions unfold.

Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.

This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative—Concentrate, or lose out!—and positive—Let me attract your attention!—I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.

Some of the students will still opt out, of course, which remains their prerogative and rightly so, but if I want to help the ones who do want to pay attention, I’ve decided it’s time to admit that I’ve brought whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and act accordingly.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

The Book That Got Teaching Right (Samuel Freedman)


Samuel G. Freedman has authored seven books one of which is Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School. He is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker.  This piece was published September 1, 2014.

In the course of a few decades, I became separated from my copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” Bel Kaufman’s classic novel about a New York City schoolteacher. So after Kaufman died, in July, at the age of a hundred and three, I felt compelled to reread the book. I called up my neighborhood Barnes & Noble to reserve a copy. Considering the stunning popularity “Up the Down Staircase” had enjoyed—it spent sixty-four weeks on the best-seller list after its release, in 1965, inspired a popular film adaptation in 1967, and ultimately sold more than six million copies—I assumed that the coverage of Kaufman’s death had renewed interest in the book, and that copies would be selling out.


Instead, very much to my surprise, the Barnes & Noble clerk informed me that “Up the Down Staircase” was out of print. Unconvinced, I checked several online booksellers, and, sure enough, no current edition was available. So I grabbed a copy from the library, and as I plunged into it I realized just how sadly appropriate it was that the book had fallen into obsolescence What place can there be for a book about the large struggles and little glories of a teacher, at a time when teacher bashing has become a major strain, even the dominant strain, of what passes for “education reform.”

There is no small amount of autobiography in “Up the Down Staircase.” Kaufman was the granddaughter of the renowned Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, whose Tevye stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.” She came to America as a twelve-year-old immigrant from Russia, and, like many Jewish immigrants, she used public school as a ladder of upward mobility and Americanization. And, like so many Jewish women of her era, she then became a teacher herself. She ultimately spent about thirty years in New York’s public schools, and those experiences deeply informed “Up the Down Staircase.”


Kaufman’s story centers upon Sylvia Barrett, a first-year teacher at a massive public high school named after Calvin Coolidge. At its most straightforward level, the book follows Barrett through one semester, as she learns her own craft through trial and error, and gives up a job offer from an élite private school in order to stay at overcrowded, underfunded Coolidge, where she is so desperately needed. Yet Kaufman composed the book in an almost presciently postmodern style, largely assembling her story through an accretion of found objects: bureaucratic circulars, homework assignments, wastebasket contents, doodles, and interoffice memos among teachers.

Though Sylvia is unmistakably the story’s heroine, Kaufman was no sentimentalist. Coolidge High has dropouts, runaways, mind-numbing rules, a lunchroom riot, intimations of heroin use out in the neighborhood. Sylvia’s students are reading, she estimates, at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. When she pours her attention into a brutish boy with some intellectual talent, he misreads the gesture as a come-on and very nearly rapes her. Another of Sylvia’s students, a sixteen-year-old girl, tries to commit suicide after the male teacher whom she adores returns a love letter she wrote him, line-edited as if it were a term paper. Sylvia’s nickname for her assistant principal is Admiral Ass, and some of her colleagues, she writes, are “the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields,” who “find in the school system an excuse or a refuge.”

I have spent a good part of my journalistic career writing about education, which has involved going into schools and seeing teachers teach. To revisit “Up the Down Staircase” was to find myself in a recognizable and deeply truthful place. And to follow Sylvia Barrett on her exhausting and exhilarating trajectory was to see, in fictional form, many of the teachers I have admired for doing their valiant work in obscurity, at best, and amid societal contempt and scapegoating, at worst.

One reason “Up the Down Staircase” has aged so well has to do with the particular moment in which its story is set. Kaufman’s own teaching career coincided with a golden age in public education, and it was a golden age for some largely ignored reasons. Public schools were only expected to send a small fraction of students on to college. Congress’s restriction of immigration in 1924, not fully lifted until 1965, gave schools two generations to acculturate and assimilate newcomers. The horrific job market during the Great Depression, combined with commonplace sexism of the day, filled public-school faculties with overqualified educators, many of them women with no other career options apart from nursing.

At Coolidge High, though, the ground is beginning to shift. One of Kaufman’s characters is a black student sent there as part of an integration plan. Several others are Puerto Rican. Even before the urban upheavals of the nineteen-sixties, the relaxing of immigration laws, and the white flight from big cities and urban public schools, Kaufman was able to register and record the tremors of change. And she fully grasped the thankless position of the teachers left to impart knowledge and instill citizenship in the face of awesome obstacles.

Around the same time that “Up the Down Staircase” was published, New York City was convulsed by a battle over community control of public schools. The struggle reached its apogee between 1967 and 1968, with the installation of a black governing board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, its dismissal of several dozen white teachers, and a series of citywide teachers’ strikes in response. In retrospect, one of the most significant aspects of the controversy over “decentralization,” as community control was formally called, was how it fostered the idea of teachers as the enemy. Decentralization was the product of an alliance between organizations run by liberal élites, such as the Ford Foundation, and low-income black and Puerto Rican communities. This created a pincer effect, with middle-class white teachers and principals portrayed, from both above and below, as the problem. They didn’t live where they taught; they didn’t care.

The race-baiting element of teacher bashing has subsided over the years, as many nonwhites have gone into teaching. But the alliance against teachers remains intact, and, if anything, it has grown stronger.  Today, the élites are not only foundations but also hedge-fund philanthropists and politicians from both parties. Teachers’ unions are routinely portrayed not as legitimate stakeholders but as nefarious special interests. The mass firing of teachers—whether in Central Falls, Rhode Island, or by Michelle Rhee during her reign as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C.—are widely hailed as an overdue cleansing of the Augean stables. Hurricane Katrina provided a convenient excuse for getting rid of virtually the entire teaching and administrative staff of New Orleans’s public schools.

The antipathy toward teachers is often expressed through extolling the exceptional ones. In the nineteen-eighties, that meant books and films and TV shows about Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins. In the current moment, it means valorizing Teach For America participants, who commit only two years to the job. And it means, as in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” believing that charter schools are the answer precisely because they aren’t in the devious hands of teachers’ unions and career educators. After I finished reading my library copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” I discovered that it is also available as an e-book. So I can only hope that the download generation will discover it. Kaufman did not write a period piece; she wrote the most enduring account we have of teachers’ lives—not naïve, not exculpatory, but empathetic and aware. Early in the book, Sylvia writes, in a letter to a college classmate who is living in the suburbs:

“I’m told that Calvin Coolidge is not unique; it’s as average as any metropolitan school can be. There are many schools worse than this (the official phrase is ‘problem-area schools for the lower socioeconomic groups’) and a few better ones. Kids with an aptitude in a trade can go to vocational high schools; kids with outstanding talents in math, science, drama, dance, music, or art can attend special high schools which require entrance exams or auditions; kids with emotional problems or difficulties in learning are sent to the ‘600 schools.’ But the great majority, the ordinary kids, find themselves in Calvin Coolidge or its reasonable facsimile. And so do the teachers.”


Filed under how teachers teach

A College Professor Teaches History in High School

Not a “man bites dog” media story for sure, but university professors who willingly choose to teach at a high school for a semester or a year, well, that does cause a few heads to turn. Previous posts I have published (see here for a math professor and here for an education professor) raise similar issues to what this history professor learned by teaching for a semester at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh (PA).

I have now been at Allderdice for five months, long enough to see sharp differences between high school and university teaching situations. From the very beginning the sharpest contrast has been in the physical environment and pace. Allderdice crowds into one building 3,200 students while [my university] has about 1,400 spread over 80 acres. The only room available at Allderdice for quiet study is a chemistry storeroom. At [my university] I share an
offiice the size of the men teachers’ room at Allderdice, with one colleague.

Moreover, nothing is leisurely at Allderdice. Clerical chores, opening exercises, and hurried conferences with students and colleagues crowd the hour between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. The five-minute break between classes is far too short to reinvigorate a teacher. Lunch half-hour is a race upstairs in the midst of a throng of students, a contest for a place at the head of the line, a few minutes respite in a crowded cafeteria where masses of students sit within eyesight, and
another dash to oPen the classroom before chaos erupts in the hallway.

Since January, I have been teaching six classes a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in order to be free to teach and observe at other schools on Tuesday and Thursday while my three Allderdice colleagues take my classes. By seventh Period on these crowded days, I teach poorly,
my energy dissipated, and my nerves worn thin. How my colleagues stand a similar pace year after year I do not understand.

My schedule-and the schedule of regular high school teachers-gives me far too little time to see students individually. Sixth period is usually crowded with appointments l can never talk to students over coffee, a happy pursuit which probably occupies far too much of my time at [the university]. Like many of my colleagues at Allderdice, I am unable to give students the individual attention they deserve, except by writing lengthy comments on their essay examinations
and other papers. When will citizens and school boards give teachers time to teach properly ?

If it were not for the excitement of the AP program, the constant stimulation from five colleagues who are teaching AP history in three high schools, and the sharp analytical minds of the 160 students I see one to three times a week, there would be very little intellectual stimulation in my high school job. Except during hectic lunch periods, there is no time to chat with colleagues from other departments.

Historians at [my university] will be surprised to learn that I miss department meetings where we frequently become involved in long discussions I find a half-hour to write and do research only late at night after-pdraeyp,a rations are ready for the next and I miss conversation with
colleagues who are carrying on similar research. High school, therefore, seems much less the free market place in ideas I had come to know at [my university], and opportunities for creative growth and development are not as great, except as one grows as a teacher.

Nor are teachers in high school accorded the considerations as professional people which we know in universities. They are required to be clerks, truant officers, and policemen. Books are chosen for them, and courses of studv are usually  Planned by others, although, of course, every teacher has numerous opportunities to develop original methods of presentation if he wishes to do so.

Frequent interruptions disrupt one class after another. Fire drills, air raid alerts, messages from the office, telephone calls, students distributing
bulletins, early dismissals-there seems no limit io the imaginations of people who disturb teachers. I can remember no occasion in the last five years when anyone has interrupted one of my classes at [the university]. Perhaps these conditions account largely for a significant difference in attitude which I find on the part of a larger percentage of my high school than of my college colleagues. Most of them admit to doing minimal work and to approaching teaching as a job rather than as a cteative intellectual experience. I do not believe that pay differentials account for this attitude….
Far more important, it seems to me, is the fact that high school teachers are unable because of their heavy teaching loads and the burden of their other tasks to do an esthetically satisfying job, except at great personal sacrifice. Many become discouraged, particularly if they are of less than average capability. But despite many handicaps, my high school colleagues are far better at some jobs than college professors.

High school teachers pay far more attention to their students as developing human beings than we do in the universities. One teacher after another has been able to supply me with details about a student’s personal problems and family background which have been most helpful. The counselors, principal, and vice principal, at least at Allderdice, seem to know every child in the school personally and to help them over innumerable hurdles. In coilege, we are more likely to let a student sink or swim unless he is in really serious trouble. Finally, high school instructors teach current events with great skill, while we tend to ignore them in the classroom.

My students at Allderdice are more fun to teach than their counterparts at [university].  Of course, I have only very able history students at Allderdice while many of our mathematical wizards [in the university] have somewhat more limited verbal skills. Ability differences, however, are not the heart of the matter. The more significant difference is that most of my high school students are hungry for intellectual stimulation. They are anxious to examine historical issues in the light of evidence, and they respond eagerly when challenged with a knotty problem of historical interpretation. Moreover, they seem more willing to express personal opinions and to put their opinions to the test of evidence than many college students. The false sophistication which marks many college freshmen and sophomores seems entirely-and happily-absent.

I have also been impressed by the relative intellectual sophistication of high school students. The 60 I know best at Ailderdice are remarkably well read and constantly make reference to leisure reading during class  discussions. They assimilate new ideas with great speed and often have remarkable insights into historical personalities. We are not tapping the potential abilities which lie dormant in many of our high school students. We cannot tap them fully, except in special instances where teachers have the privileges which we enjoy in the AP program, until society makes teaching a true profession offering opportunities to do an esthetically and intellectually satisfying job.

I shall be forever grateful to [my university], the Pittsburgh public schools, The Ford and Mellon Foundations, and my colleagues and the students at
Allderdice for making this year possible. I shall never again teach as poorly as I did before this exciting experience in the public schools. I shall never agaln be as free with my criticisms of public school teachers and courses of study. Nor shall I ever again accepl the argument that little can be done. Endless opportunities for improving course offerings and methods of teaching present themselves daily. I hope to continue to explore these opportunities with my new friends on high school faculties-that is if I survive until June 23!

Ted Fenton taught the first Advanced Placement history courses offered to Allderdice students in 1959-1960. He published this article in the Pennsylvania School Journal (May 1960). He was then at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and taught for one semester. Within a few years, he and other academics passionate about improving high school social studies launched a movement then called the “New Social Studies” following on the heels of the New Math, New Biology, New Physics, etc.

What struck me about the article published in 1960 is Fenton’s  comparisons of university and high school teaching loads, working conditions, and climate of learning that existed in both places then. More than a half-century later, what Fenton wrote describes accurately, in my opinion, what occurs in many high schools today.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Building Better Teachers—-Mastering the craft demands time to collaborate—just what American schools don’t provide (Sara Mosle)

Sara Mosle, who teaches writing at Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., has written about education for The New York Times, Slate, and other publications. This appeared Aug 13 2014 at:  Atlantic Online


Teaching dwarfs every other profession that requires a college degree. Nationwide, 3.7 million schoolteachers serve grades K–12—more than all the doctors, lawyers, and engineers in the country combined. Teacher shortages, once chronic, abated during the recession, when layoffs were widespread, but will soon return with a vengeance. Fully half of all teachers are Baby Boomers on the brink of retirement. Among novice teachers, who constitute an increasingly large proportion of the remaining workforce, between 40 and 50 percent typically quit within just five years, citing job dissatisfaction or more-alluring prospects. Given this drain at both ends of the teaching pipeline, schools will likely need to hire more than 3 million new teachers by 2020. That is an enormous talent hole to fill.

Yet the United States has, if anything, too many teacher-training programs. Each year, some 1,400 of them indiscriminately churn out twice as many graduates as schools can use. Program quality varies widely, so many would-be teachers don’t suit schools’ needs. In a scathing 2006 report, Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, accused many education schools of being little more than a “cash cow” for their hosting institution. Among the problems he highlighted were exceedingly “low admission standards,” a “curriculum in disarray,” and faculties “disconnected” from the realities of the classroom.

Once hired, many teachers are left to sink or swim. In recent years, several states have adopted controversial accountability measures, known as “value added” metrics, with a view toward winnowing out poor performers who haven’t produced student improvement on standardized tests; helping teachers hone their craft has seldom made it onto the agenda. But perhaps we’re finally ready to focus attention on the far bigger and more important question of how to attract and retain the top teachers we want.

This spring, the Obama administration announced plans to begin rating teacher-training programs. Consensus on what makes an effective teacher, however, remains elusive. Student achievement does not correlate strongly with teachers’ years of experience in the classroom (beyond the initial few) or with the caliber of their preparation—whether they have acquired certification, earned a master’s degree in education, or aced state licensing exams. Even particular personality traits, such as an extroverted willingness to ham it up in the classroom, appear irrelevant. The conundrum doesn’t daunt Elizabeth Green, a co-founder of GothamSchools (a news Web site originally devoted to covering New York City schools that has recently expanded to other cities and been rechristened Chalkbeat). Her book, Building a Better Teacher, couldn’t be better timed.

At the heart of Green’s exploration is a powerfully simple idea: that teaching is not some mystical talent but a set of best practices that can be codified and learned through extensive hands-on coaching, self-scrutiny, and collaboration. Yet her account suggests that implementing this vision may entail a bigger transformation than she quite realizes.

Green begins by profiling an array of educators who have been inspired by Deborah Ball, now the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. In the early 1980s, she was a charismatic math teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, who developed a successful approach to teaching even very young children sophisticated concepts in math. Instead of relying on rote memorization or repetitive skills practice, Ball shepherded children through in-depth discussions of a single mathematical conjecture—for example, do two odd integers always add up to an even number? The students, steered along by their teacher, deliberated together to derive proofs for their various hypotheses. Some of the most exhilarating parts of Green’s book are the detailed descriptions of precisely how, and why, these lessons succeed. Ball helped other teachers adopt her techniques not through the usual education-school lectures, but through rigorous apprenticeship: mutual observation of lessons, followed by intensive dissection of what worked and what didn’t.

Green likens the approach to the Japanese practice of jugyokenkyu. “Lesson study” is the main form of teacher training in Japan, where colleagues routinely sit in on one another’s classes and then scrutinize a single session for hours, extracting general guidance for future instruction. Japan substantially outperforms America in math on international tests, and Green clearly believes jugyokenkyu is a crucial factor in the country’s success. She recounts how some of Ball’s ideas were adopted by the state of California in the mid-1980s but never had a chance to catch on: Teachers were expected to absorb the new policies, outlined in a state “manifesto,” and then revamp lesson plans on their own, with little or no training or ongoing support. Some educators didn’t even see the guidelines—all but ensuring the reforms would fail. The rollout of the Common Core State Standards appears to be replicating this dispiriting pattern in many places.

At first, Green decides that Teach for America and some charter-school leaders are now following in Ball’s and Japan’s footsteps—albeit with plenty of stumbling. She focuses on Doug Lemov, an entrepreneurial-minded educator who started a charter school in Boston in the mid-1990s and later became a managing director and teacher trainer with the Uncommon Schools charter network. As part of his job, he began compiling an inventory of effective teaching techniques. The taxonomy became a book, Teach Like a Champion, and a cause célèbre within the charter movement; videos of sample lessons circulated like samizdat literature. There’s technique No. 2, “Right Is Right”: teachers refuse to accept students’ half-baked responses to questions and insist on well-formulated, and eventually correct, replies. Technique No. 32 is “SLANT,” which stands for “Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, and Track the speaker,” a formula for eliciting attention from students. But the motions of following a lesson, Green soon discovers, aren’t necessarily a sign of genuine engagement.

The taxonomy includes plenty of useful, even commonsense, advice. Yet Green reveals how, in practice, Lemov’s early acolytes in the charter world became obsessed with a disciplinary approach that dictated no talking in hallways, silent lunches, and skyrocketing suspensions for even minor infractions. What at first appeared to be a huge success—Lemov’s school initially posted impressive test scores—turns out to be a more complicated story. Green finds that out of some 55 students who started at the school in seventh grade, only 11 made it to their senior year, an astounding rate of attrition. A later class began with 100 sixth-grade students and was winnowed to 30 by graduation.

Japanese “lesson study,” she observes, was premised on the notion that “children needed structured opportunities to talk in order to learn.” Lemov banked on a rather different principle: that “learning first required the foundational ability to be quiet and listen.” As Green concludes, Lemov had built a vocabulary that Deborah Ball might admire for describing precisely what teachers should do in the classroom, but applied it to “a sort of teaching that she didnt do.” Green ends up saluting Ball and Japan for getting the balance between classroom discipline and student engagement right.

But Green’s account cries out for a look at the bigger picture. She is absolutely correct about the importance of self-critical reflection and collaboration. What she is not the first, or I’m sure the last, to miss are the structural obstacles to importing such an apprentice-style ethos into American teachers’ experience. As it happens, an administrator introduced lesson study as part of the staff’s professional development at a school where I’ve worked. There was just one problem: we teachers—juggling tutoring before and after school, supervising clubs, or coaching sports—had only one period a week to meet as a group. It would be generous to say lesson study didn’t work; it never got off the ground. There typically isn’t time in American teachers’ workdays for this kind of collaborative enterprise.

That lack of time is an American anomaly, and it is key. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been overseeing tests of 15-year-olds every three years among its members. The PISA exams, as they’re called, show that American students’ performance is barely above average in reading and trails substantially in math. The tests also record other information about classroom instruction around the world, and American researchers, policy makers, and pundits have pored over the results for clues to improving our schools. For example, the United States falls roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to class size. Countries with far larger classes than we have, such as South Korea, outperform us. So do countries, like Finland, with smaller ones. Not surprisingly, some reformers have concluded that reduced class size isn’t the secret to student success.

But class size is a crude measure of a more important, encompassing concept that is worth attending to: teacher workload. How much time do teachers spend on classroom instruction, and how much time do they have outside of class to devote to the other considerable, less visible aspects of the job: lesson planning, paper grading, conferring with students, calling parents, meeting with colleagues to discuss methods and goals. Here, the PISA results are not ambiguous. Every single country that outperforms us has significantly smaller teacher workloads. Indeed, on the scale of time devoted by teachers to in-class instruction annually, the United States is off the charts. We spend far more hours in the classroom on average, twice and nearly three times more in some cases, than teachers in any other OECD country save Chile. Finnish high-school teachers, for example, clock 553 hours in the classroom each year. In Japan, home of jugyokenkyu, that number is 500. In the U.S., it’s 1,051. (Figures for elementary and middle school show roughly the same skew.)

In practice, this means that most teachers in this country have zero time to work together on new pedagogical approaches and share feedback in the way Green advocates in her book. They rarely have an opportunity to watch other teachers teach, the single best kind of training, in my experience; they’re too busy in their own classrooms (not to mention outside them).

A big problem with American education, in other words, is how we conceive of the job. Green is right: there’s much about teaching that isn’t instinctive, and as her book usefully shows, learning how to perfect the art is demanding. It is high time to correct a common misimpression: teaching isn’t the relatively leisurely occupation many people imagine, enviously invoking a nine-to-three school day and long summer vacations, which in reality seldom exist. We think of no other white-collar profession in terms of a single dimension of job performance. We don’t, for example, regard lawyers as “working” only during the hours they’re actually presenting a case before a judge; we recognize the amount of preparation and subsequent review that goes into such moments. If teaching is such a plum post, we might ask ourselves why attrition rates are so high.

In closing, Green decides to teach a lesson herself and is thrilled to find that it goes well, thanks to so many of the techniques she learned in her reporting—and, it’s worth noting, thanks to plenty of planning. She recounts spending hours getting ready for this one lesson, selecting readings, conferring with a seasoned teacher, and rehearsing how she would present the material to the class. All this, and she wasn’t grading a single paper or speaking to parents or meeting individually with students. Such work constitutes a large portion of what teachers do each day. It’s why the job, done right, is so hard and burns teachers out so fast.

The goal isn’t to lighten teachers’ load but to redistribute it. At one point, Deborah Ball remarks that what she loves about teaching is that it is so hard—by which she means intellectually challenging and rewarding. Teaching is all-consuming, and that absorption is part of the joy of the job. But if teaching is to be a profession of the mind (as well as of the heart) that retains top talent and delivers results on the same level that other countries boast, the people who spend hours with our children in the classroom also need what they currently don’t get: the hours with peers and mentors that are essential to improving their craft.




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

More Poetry on Teachers and Teaching

Last month I began a feature on poetry about teachers and teaching. Poets who write about teaching are educators, students, and non-educators. Across the globe, they share a common experience of being in classrooms for years. Capturing the feelings, thoughts, and special moments of teaching and studenting in vivid, crisp words and images is the province of poets. Here are some poems that struck me sufficiently to stop and ponder about something I thought I knew so well after decades of teaching and learning.


Forty-Seven Minutes*

by Nick Flynn

Years later I’m standing before a roomful of young writers in a high school in Texas. I’ve asked them to locate an image in a poem we’d just read—their heads at this moment are bowed to the page. After some back & forth about the grass & a styrofoam cup, a girl raises her hand & asks, Does it matter? I smile—it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we’ve landed in the unanswerable. I have to admit that no, it doesn’t, not really, matter, if rain is an image or rain is an idea or rain is a sound in our heads. But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does.


* Thanks to Ann Staley for sending this along



Mrs. Krikorian
by Sharon Olds
She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade,
a known criminal, the new teacher
asked me to stay after school the first day, she said
I’ve heard about you. She was a tall woman,
with a deep crevice between her breasts,
and a large, calm nose. She said,
This is a special library pass.
As soon as you finish your hour’s work

that hour’s work that took ten minutes
and then the devil glanced into the room
and found me empty, a house standing open—
you can go to the library. Every hour
I’d zip through the work in a dash and slip out of my
seat as if out of God’s side and sail
down to the library, solo through the empty
powerful halls, flash my pass
and stroll over to the dictionary
to look up the most interesting word
I knew, spank, dipping two fingers
into the jar of library paste to
suck that tart mucilage as I
came to the page with the cocker spaniel’s
silks curling up like the fine steam of the body.
After spank, and breast, I’d move on
to Abe Lincoln and Helen Keller,
safe in their goodness till the bell, thanks
to Mrs. Krikorian, amiable giantess
with the kind eyes. When she asked me to write
a play, and direct it, and it was a flop, and I
hid in the coat-closet, she brought me a candy-cane
as you lay a peppermint on the tongue, and the worm
will come up out of the bowel to get it.
And so I was emptied of Lucifer
and filled with school glue and eros and
Amelia Earhart, saved by Mrs. Krikorian.
And who had saved Mrs. Krikorian?
When the Turks came across Armenia, who
slid her into the belly of a quilt, who
locked her in a chest, who mailed her to America?
And that one, who saved her, and that one—
who saved her, to save the one
who saved Mrs. Krikorian, who was
standing there on the sill of 6th grade, a
wide-hipped angel, smokey hair
standing up weightless all around her head?
I end up owing my soul to so many,
to the Armenian nation, one more soul someone
jammed behind a stove, drove
deep into a crack in a wall,
shoved under a bed. I would wake
up, in the morning, under my bed—not
knowing how I had got there—and lie
in the dusk, the dustballs beside my face
round and ashen, shining slightly
with the eerie comfort of what is neither good nor evil.


The Poet Dreams of the Classroom**

by Mary Oliver

I dreamed

I stood up in class

and I said aloud:


why is algebra important?

Sit down, he said.


Then I dreamed

I stood up

and I said:

Teacher, I’m weary of turkeys

that we have to draw every fall.

May I draw a fox instead?

Sit down, he said.



Then I dreamed

I stood up once more and said:


my heart is falling asleep

and it wants to wake up.

It needs to be outside.

Sit down, he said.


**Taken from Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, Teaching with Heart: Poetry That Speaks To the Courage To Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), p. 125.



Filed under how teachers teach

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.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

The Kid I Didn’t Kill (Ellie Herman)

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.



Filed under how teachers teach