Tag Archives: 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.

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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.

 

 

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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:

Teacher,

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:

Teacher,

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.

 

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Persistence in Math Teaching Patterns: Deja Vu All Over Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

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Poems about Teaching

With this post, I begin a monthly feature about teaching written by teachers, students, and others who bring precise and vivid language in expressing the emotional life of what it is like to be a teacher or student.

Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for the articles and books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. It is aimed at the brain, not emotions.

Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel when in classrooms in ways that exposition cannot.

I am neither a poet or an aspiring one. I offer these as ones I liked that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.

 

The Hand

Mary Ruefle, 1996

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

Reprinted from Cold Pluto: by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press © by Mary Ruefle 1996.

 

Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School

Christopher Bursk

 

Because one day I grew so bored

with Lucretius, I fell in love

with the one object that seemed to be stationary,

the sleeping kid two rows up,

the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.

While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun

of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,

I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.

Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl

to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic

composition of smoke and dew,

and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,

the calves’ intriguing

resiliency, the integrity to the shank,

the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.

Light falling through blinds,

a bee flinging itself into a flower,

a seemingly infinite set of texts

to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms

who was given a name at birth,

Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,

his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters

seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly

of matter that had the goodness to settle

long enough to make a body

so fascinating it got me

through fifty-five minutes

of the nature of things.

From The Improbably Swervings of Atoms by Christopher Bursk © 2006. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

 

 

Poem for Christian, My Student

Gail Mazur

He reminds me of someone I used to know,

but who? Before class,

he comes to my office to shmooze,

a thousand thousand pointless interesting

speculations. Irrepressible boy,

his assignments are rarely completed,

or actually started. This week, instead

of research in the stacks, he’s performing

with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.

Kids danced to his music

and stripped, he tells me gleefully,

high spirit of the street festival.

He’s the singer, of course—

why ask if he studied an instrument?

On the brink of graduating with

an engineering degree (not, it turned out,

his forte), he switched to English,

his second language. It’s hard to swallow

the bravura of his academic escapes

or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.

Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon

he’d picked on campus; once, a poem

about an elderly friend in New Delhi

who left him volumes of Tagore

and memories of avuncular conversation.

My encouragement makes him skittish—

it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics

of despair. And I remember myself

shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,

the prospect of effort-drudgery.

Success—a threat. A future, we figure,

of revision—yet what can the future be

but revision and repair? Now, on the brink

again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant

thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.

“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak

it up and write my paper in a weekend,”

he announces in the Honors office.

And, “I want to be a bum in daytime

and a reggae star at night!”

What could I give him from my life

or art that matters, how share

the desperate slumber of my early years,

the flashes of inspiration and passion

in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool

myself or anyone, no one could touch

me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy

Houston Monday, he appears at my door,

so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him

now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.

“Write a poem about me!” he commands,

and so I do.

Gail Mazur, “Poem for Christian, My Student” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

 

Mrs. Kitchen

Ann Staley

 

Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment

Mrs. Kitchen

…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,

both working for the American Red Cross.

They returned to suburban Harrisburg

and began the next chapter of their lives.

Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.

Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,

which opened so you could hear recess voices,

and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.

We were seated, not in usual rows,

but in a square “u” of desks.

We were allowed to sit with whomever

we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted

by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).

Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.

She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.

She loved all of her students, but had,

I realized even then, a soft spot for me.

I didn’t understand why and still don’t.

Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,

she read aloud to us–from books

on the New York Times Bestseller list.

 Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.

Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,

believing that eight-year-olds could understand more

than the 1950s psychology books expected.

This was her great gift to her fortunate students.

We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,

then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.

One day when I’d finished my work early,

she sent me to the library, alone, saying,

 Get whatever book you want, Ann.

That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,

about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,

where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.

I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,

tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.

Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,

no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.

Jeans–never!

One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office

without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,

a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.

She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.

After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to

sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.

She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening

to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.

My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.

I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement

and began, in earnest, my professional life.

 

In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author

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Asking the Right Questions for Getting School-Driven Policies into Classroom Practice

Every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons.

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From widespread adoption of Common Core standards, to the feds funding “Race to the Top” to get states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give tablets to each teacher and student, these policies contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about outcomes that supposedly will occur once those new policies enter classrooms.

And one of those key assumptions is that new policies aimed at the classroom will get teachers to change how they teach for the better. Or else why go through the elaborate process of shaping, adopting, and funding a policy? Unfortunately, serious questions are seldom asked about these assumptions before or after super-hyped policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) entered classrooms.

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Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as  cure-alls for the ills of low-performing U.S. schools and urban dropout factories:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., Common Core standards. turning around failing schools, pay-for performance plans, and expanded parental choice of schools) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policies. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “charter schools outstrip regular schools,” “online instruction will disrupt bricks-and-mortar schools”) from policy action (e.g., actual adoption of policies aimed at changing teaching and learning) to classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers actually teach everyday as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students actually learned from teachers who teach differently as a result of adopted policies).

Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?

For schools in Auburn (ME) to Chicago to Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is “yes’ and “no.” The “yes” refers to the actual deployment of devices to children and teachers but, as anyone who has spent a day in a school observing classrooms, access to machines does not mean daily or even weekly use. In Auburn (ME), iPads for kindergartners were fully implemented. Not so in either Chicago or LAUSD.

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

For Auburn (Me), LAUSD, and all districts in-between those east and west coast locations, the answer is (and has been so for decades): we do not know. Informed guesses abound but hard evidence taken from actual classrooms is scarce. Classroom research of actual teaching practices before and after a policy aimed at teachers and students is adopted and implemented remains one of the least researched areas. To what degree have teachers altered how they teach daily as a result of new devices and software remains unanswered in most districts.

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

The short answer is no one knows. Consider distributing tablets to teachers and students. Sure, there are success stories that pro-technology advocates beat the drums for and, sure, there are disasters, ones that anti-tech educators love to recount in gruesome detail. But beyond feel-good and feel-bad stories yawns an enormous gap in classroom evidence of “changed classroom practice,” “what students learned,” and why.

What makes knowing whether teachers using devices and software actually changed their lessons or that test score gains can be attributed to the tablets is the fact that where such results occur, those schools have engaged in long-term efforts to improve, say, literacy and math (see here and here). Well before tablets, laptops, and desktops were deployed, serious curricular and instructional reforms with heavy teacher involvement had occurred.

4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?

Determining what students learned, of course, is easier said than done. With the three-decade long concentration on standardized tests, “learning” has been squished into students answering selected multiple choice questions with occasional writing of short essays. And when test scores rise, exactly what caused the rise causes great debate over which factor accounts for the gains (e.g., teachers, curricula, high-tech devices and software, family background–add your favorite factor here). Here, again, policymaker assumptions about what exactly improves teaching and what gets students to learn more, faster, and better come into play.

Public Education Today

Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.

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