Tag Archives: how teachers teach

Building Community in a High School One Teacher at a Time (Jerry Brodkey)

A good friend for many years and guest blogger (see here and here), Jerry Brodkey has taught social studies and math for over 30 years at Menlo-Atherton High School  (MA) in Northern California. He currently teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and Integrated Algebra. Well-respected among his colleagues–he has been a member for many years of the union negotiating team that  bargains with the district when a contract expires–Brodkey sent out the following email to his colleagues last May just before the school year ended.

One of the best parts of the school year for me is after the AP test. In addition to some other activities, each student in my AP Calculus classes is asked to speak for approximately 15 minutes about themselves. They may talk about their families, travels, hobbies, sports, college decisions, etc., Some of these presentations are light-hearted, some very serious.  We all learn about each other in  a gentle, supportive environment.  Students seem to love this, and so do I.

I’d like to try this with staff members, too. Even though I have been here many years, I realize that there are many staff I simply don’t know, and even among the members of my own department,  I’d like to know them at a more personal level. So I’d like to try this.  Some of the best moments I have had at MA have been the results of feeling a sense of community, a deepening of relationships with all who work here.

Although my room is open for students almost every day at lunch, I’d like to dedicate  Thursday lunches to this small initiative.  I’ll simply tell my students that Thursday at lunch I won’t be available. Instead, I’d like to invite all staff to my room  (or some other place ….) for this experiment.  We might have a pretty good crowd, or I might be eating lunch by myself.  If my room is too small we’ll find another place. I’ll be happy to organize a schedule.  Since lunch is short, I think one or perhaps two speakers per week.  No obligation, no memberships, come when you can.  Bring papers to grade if you want. Come late, leave early if you need to.  Classified, certificated, administrative, everyone.

If we need a moderator I’ll be happy to do so.
I am thinking each presenter can begin (if they’d like) by addressing these  questions.

1. Who are you?
2. How did you come to be at MA?
3. Why are you here and what are you trying to achieve?
4. What are your biggest challenges and frustrations?

5. What do you like to do away from MA?
6. How would you hope to be remembered?

So that is my idea. Nothing complicated, nothing to do now. I’ll bring this back up  in August, I just thought I’d present the idea now.

Best wishes for a successful conclusion to this year.

Just a few days ago, Jerry wrote to me this follow-up email on the once weekly lunch-time meetings of teachers held over the past Fall semester:

At the beginning of this school year, we decided to try something new at the high school where I have taught for thirty years, Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California.  We have a very large staff, split into departments, and each of us know little about our colleagues.  We decided one day a week at lunch that one staff member — classified, certificated, administrative — could volunteer to tell about herself.  There were really no guidelines, no obligations, no requirements. I developed an optional series of questions that could be used as desired:  Who are you?  How did you come to be at this school?  What do you like to do when not working?  What are the rewards and frustrations you have teaching/working at Menlo-Atherton?  How would you like to be remembered?  We thought we’d give it a try for a semester, then re-evaluate. I wasn’t sure if on these Thursdays I would be having lunch by myself.

So far, I believe it has been wonderful.  Our attendance has varied from fourteen to almost thirty, with a surprising mix of veteran  and new teachers. There is a core  group of about ten of us who make every session, and another group of maybe twenty-five who come when they can.  At our school, there is a norm that many teachers  welcome students  in their rooms at lunch, so it is hard for many staff to close their classroom doors and slip away. Many teachers also sponsor clubs and are engaged with students,  Next semester, we are switching from Thursdays to Fridays with the hope that more staff can attend.

Every presentation has been  a gift. Some have been very serious, others humorous.  Some focus on teaching, others on travels and personal journeys.  One first year teacher and one second year teacher bravely volunteered.One week the principal came and presented, and our District Superintendent spoke one week after I let him know what we were attempting. Each week I learn something new about my colleagues.A new physics teacher was in a rickshaw race across India. A veteran  teacher talked about donating a kidney to help save her brother’s life. Who knew? The Economics teacher once worked at the Federal Reserve.  A science teacher worked across the street as a lab researcher, then one day came to our school to deliver some homework for his daughter and discovered there was an opening for a teacher.  He said he spent the entire summer preparing his first day’s lesson and then was faced with the reality of preparing for 179 more days. He said  he lost thirty pounds the first semester, pulled many all-nighters, but never looked back with regret over his decision.   A new teacher from Romania told us how in her homeland her math teacher routinely slapped students, and if the teacher was too far away to slap a student, the teacher would instruct another student to slap the offending student.  One teacher movingly told us how difficult it was for her to be separated from her children who are far away. Several veteran teachers spoke of the difficulties they faced the first few years, with stress, tears, and self doubts. Only by finding a mentor on the staff and building relationships with their peers were they able to survive.

It is , of course, impossible to measure the benefits of these lunches. For myself, whenever I see one of our presenters on campus I now feel a deeper connection, a broader understanding of who they are.  We are trying to build relationships, strengthen  community, one person at a time. I look forward to our special lunch every week, and find myself slowing down, listening intently. My only regret is that I wish I had started this years ago.


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Classroom Alchemy (Michele Kerr)

Michele Kerr is a math and history teacher at Kennedy High School in Fremont, CA. She also wrote about teaching English and higher standards in previous guest posts. This post comes from her blog.


“Hey, how was Philadelphia?” asked Darius*, as I checked his work (“Sketch a parabola in which b=0″).

“Pittsburgh,” I said, pleased and taken aback. It was Wednesday, first day back after our 4-day Veterans

Day weekend. Sometime on the previous Thursday, I’d mentioned casually I was going back east for my uncle’s 70th birthday. Six days later, Darius remembered my plans.

“The family reunion, right?”

“Yeah. How nice of you to remember. I had a wonderful time.”

I moved back to the front, checking for universal understanding of the impact that b=0 had on the position of a parabola, and then told everyone to sketch a parabola in which c=0.

“Did a lot of people show up?” Darius asked across the room.

“They did! Over 90 people. All my uncles and aunts on my dad’s side, and several of their cousins. Eleven of my fourteen surviving cousins on that side. At least 9 of the next generation–my son’s. And even some tiny members of the generation after that—the great-great-grandchildren of my dad’s parents.”

“Wow. Did you know them all?”

“Some of them I’d never met before, because they hadn’t been born the last time I’d visited. Others I’ve known all my life, like some cousins, and my aunt and uncles. We even had someone from my grandfather’s generation. Aunt Ruth–my dad’s aunt–who is 94, looks fantastic, and just came back from a trip to Paris.”

“Was the food good?” from Harres.

“Outstanding. It was simple, nothing dramatic. They put the food on different tables throughout the room.”

“Oh, I don’t like that,” Darius again. “I always want everything, and can’t decide which table.”

“There was a table with two big haunches of meat. One roast beef, one ham, with really good bread rolls. I had no trouble deciding which table.”

After we finished up c=0 and they were figuring out the significance of a parabola with just one zero/solution, Darius waited again until I was checking on his work.

“Did you talk to people there?”

“Me? Oh, yes. Non-stop talking. There were so many people I hadn’t seen in years, and then others I wanted to get to know. I wish I’d had more time. I need to go back more often. If I wait as long again, I’ll be older than my uncle is now.”

“I went to a family reunion one time.”

“You did? How was it?”

“No one talked to me. I was like this.” and Darius humorously mimed standing all alone, silent, looking about for something to do.

So that’s why he remembered.

“Darius, I can tell you for certain that no one at my family reunion was sitting all by himself. I’m sorry. That probably wasn’t fun.”

“Yeah. It was weird. I didn’t know anyone there, and they were all talking to each other.”

“That would totally suck. I’m sorry. We’d have asked all about you.”

As they worked out the next task, I had a brief moment of introspection. Darius, who’s a cool cat in every sense, is far less likely to be the one sitting alone at a party than, say, me, a cranky introvert who has to brave up for crowds so she can exercise her natural garrulousness. I know that my uncles, or my dad, would have probably joked about a teenaged African American appearing at the party. Some or all of them, egged on by siblings and downstream kin, would one up each other with ribald wordplay and puns about where and who had done what when to add color to the family tree. But they’d have sought him out, gotten him some food, grilled him on his life story, likes and dislikes, found out his plans after high school. Looked for links and common interests, bring in others to get conversation going. But would I have done everything to reach out? Or would I have been too busy enjoying not being the one sitting alone?

As the bell rang, I was actually showing Darius and others some family pictures from the night, which sounds impossibly boring, but they seemed genuinely interested in seeing evidence of my stories.

“I’m really sorry you felt isolated at your own family reunion, Darius.”

“Yeah. It’s always the same. I’m like the whitest person when I’m with my black relatives, and the darkest person when I’m with my white relatives.”

“Well, you’d have been the darkest person at my family reunion, for sure. I don’t think our bloodline moves east of Aberdeen. Maybe London. We’re pretty thoroughly white folks. But even though you felt isolated because of your race, some of it could just be family dynamics. My family’s big, boisterous. Really loud.”

“Everyone here was loud. They just were loud to everyone else but me.”

Kameron* punched his arm lightly. “I hear ya.” At Darius’s look, he elaborated. “I’m half black. My mom’s white.”

“Oh, then you know.”

“Does your black family ask if you’re ‘all-black’?”

“You get that too? Isn’t that idiotic? Like they’re measuring?”

“Well, gee, I guess at least the white side of the family didn’t ask if you were ‘all-white’.” I pointed out, and they cracked up.

“There’s a lot of research and profiles on biracial kids, did you know?”

“Really?” Both Kameron and Darius looked interested.

“Yes, that feeling you both have of not being one nor the other, of being slightly separate, is not uncommon. It’s also not unique to kids with one black and one white parent. Biracial Asians have similar feelings, whether their other parent is black, white, or Hispanic.”

“Huh. Really.”

“Sure. There are some good books that you can read about other teens with the same background. You should check them out. In any case, I promise you, Darius, that you wouldn’t have been all by yourself at our family reunion.”

“So the next one you have, invite me!”

“It’s a deal. Have a good day, guys.”

Such exchanges are classroom alchemy, a magical transformation of mundane, random elements into golden moments. They spring from elixirs of personalities, events, spontaneous conversations, the incidental inspired nudge. They are occasionally unrelated to content knowledge and always irrelevant to test scores. They will never be found in MOOCs, nor in classrooms obsessed with tight transitions. They are criterion deficient; ed schools can, to a limited extent, prepare teachers for such moments only with open-ended assignments that are probably opinion-based.

I don’t confuse alchemy with the meat and potatoes of teaching. Darius and Kameron are both doing very well, improving their competency and fluency in quadratics, modeling real-life situations with algorithms and, importantly, taking on intellectual challenges that don’t immediately hold interest.

But teachers are responsible for more than content, whether we are aware of it or not. We are the first adults students interact with, the first engagement students have with the outside world. Independent of content, we can give students a feeling of competency, of capability, or of frustration and helplessness. We can communicate values both indirectly and directly. We can teach them that work is a serious business, or we can teach them that work can be fun and entertaining—or both. We teach them how to interact with a wide range of personalities, how to ask for help, how to give help. It doesn’t matter if a teacher is determined to convey nothing but content. Simply by the nature of our job, we create an environment that has its own entirely unmeasured learning outcomes.

I am a teacher who focuses primarily on conveying content, as all observers have noted over the years. Yet for a teacher who doesn’t see her job in terms of its emotional impact, I have my fair share of classroom alchemy, the moments of knowing my classroom has been a positive force in the universe, whether for one student, a group, or a class of thirty five.

I never plan these moments. As the great Terry Pratchett noted (with props to Neil Gaiman), you can’t second guess ineffability. It’s just going to come along on its own terms.


*Darius and Kameron both confirmed this exchange as written.






Filed under how teachers teach

The New History in the 1960s (Part 3)

This post is third and final one in series. See here and here.

Even before the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, university professors in math and science were building the New Math, New Biology, Chemistry, and Physics materials to transform traditional curricula. After Sputnik, public and private money flowed into the math and sciences to get more U.S. students to become mathematicians, engineers, and scientists to compete with its Cold War enemy. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.

As with math and science, a few years later, academic experts led the movement to revitalize the teaching of history and other social studies courses. They created “new” texts for high-achieving students and piloted the materials in schools where eager teachers would try out the experimental materials in their classrooms. The New Social Studies was a latecomer to the movement. But in the early 1960s, it made up for lost time.

Historians Edwin Fenton and Richard Brown along with cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, and other academics received federal, state, and private funding to develop new courses, instructional materials, and ways of introducing experienced and novice teachers to the discipline. And they were prolific.

By 1966, there were over 50 social studies projects (history, economics, political science, geography, sociology, and psychology) aimed at K-12 public schools’ “able” students funded by the federal government, National Science Foundation, corporations, professional associations, and private donors. Creating instructional materials, training teachers, piloting lessons in classrooms and entering agreements with publishers, these projects sought to transform traditional fact-after-fact history teaching through lectures and use of a textbook into new courses characterized by engaging materials where teachers used methods of inquiry to get students thinking, seeing, and writing about the past beyond reliance on the textbook. They wanted to get at the very structure of history and teach it in ways consistent with how historians approach the past.[1]

Fenton, for example, describes a lesson in the 10th grade European History course that he and colleagues developed in Pittsburgh in the mid-1960s.

For the third lesson, students read two accounts of the Hungarian Revolution. One is from Radio Moscow; the other from TIME. We tell them to pretend that these two pieces of evidence are all that remain after a nuclear holocaust and that they have just landed from a spaceship with the ability to read both Russian and English. What happened in Hungary?

We make two points with this lesson. First, we ask students to try to agree on three pieces of data from the two accounts which they will accept as facts. They quickly isolate three on which both accounts agree. This procedure leads to a discussion of the criteria which historians use to test the credibility of data…. We then list three facts about Russian and American society which we gleaned from the documents. This enables teachers to return to the point previous made [in prior lesson] about the way in which a person’s frame of reference determines how he classifies data.[ii]

Richard Brown, a historian in charge of the Amherst Project in American History, also caught up in the national mood among so many academics that their time—historians, that is—had arrived. The Amherst Project focused exclusively on history, Brown, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, pointed out the distinction that he and his colleagues made about what students need to learn from history:

We were committed to the idea that ‘history’ is primarily a way of learning and secondarily a body of knowledge…. To be sure, we agreed that history as a body of knowledge is also important—the more that one knows of the past the better one’s ability to ask good questions of it—but nonetheless, we viewed the body of knowledge as essentially a treasure trove to be used rather than ‘mastered’ as an end in itself….

And what students had to master was how to make sense of different sources, the use of evidence, and the asking of questions. Those questions would come out of their experiences.

The polestar of the Amherst Project was the idea that student learn best when they are acting as inquirers, pursuing into evidence questions that grow out of their own lives….We thus viewed history in the classroom as essentially utilitarian, not something to be ‘learned’ as an end in itself but as a body of experience to be delved into by students learning how to learn while growing in the process…. The focus of [our work] was on critical inquiry…. The teacher’s role was to pique the curiosity, to aid, abet, and guide, and to be a role model of inquiry rather than the answer-giver.

Brown gave as an example of the Amherst approach to history in a unit that I and hundreds of social studies teachers used in their classrooms in these exciting years of the New Social Studies, “What Happened on Lexington Green: An Inquiry into the Nature and Methods of History.”

…[T]he student is faced with conflicting eye-witness accounts of a dramatic modern confrontation [e.g. an urban riot] and asked how one knows what happened about anything in the past. Using the Battle of Lexington as a case study, he or she confronts eyewitness accounts of what happened, moves on to conflicting historical interpretations of the same evidence, analyzes several examples of how modern textbook writers recount what happened, and ends up with Plato in the cave reflecting on the nature of truth and reality. [iii]

The Amherst project completed 70 units for 11th grade U.S. history (most of which were aimed at college-bound students with a few slated for “slow learners”). They conducted workshops for hundreds of teachers in the writing and teaching of these units. Unlike Fenton, they did not create new textbooks. Their federal funding ended in 1972.

By that year, the entire New Social Studies was in decline. Except for the public turmoil generated by one of the projects led by Jerome Bruner and a team of academics and specialists. Called “Man: A Course of Study” (MACOS), the uproar over the anthropological content of the material about the life of Netsilik Eskimos triggered yet another social studies war over content. The flaming end of the New Social Studies was spectacular but it was the end nonetheless. The curtain fell on the third act of that drama.


[i] Edwin Fenton, “The New Social Studies: Implications for School Administration,” Bulletin of National Association of Secondary School Principals, March 1967, 51 (317), pp. 62-76; Edwin Fenton, Teaching the New Social Studies in Secondary Schools: An Inductive Approach (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966); John Haas, The Era of the New Social Studies, (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., 1977).

[ii] Edwin Fenton, “Curricular Experiments in the Social Sciences,” Proceedings of the Regional Conference on the Social Sciences in College Education, University of California, Los Angeles, November 7, 1964, p. 7.

[iii] Richard Brown, “Learning How to Learn: The Amherst Project and History Education in the Schools,” The Social Studies, 1996, 87(6), pp. 267-273.


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Content vs. Skills Again and Again (Part 2)

The either/or conundrum pops up again. Across science, math, English, and social studies, classroom teachers weigh in on whether they are content-driven or skills-driven in teaching. The dichotomy afflicts all academic subjects and it is, of course, a false one but one that generates far more emotional heat than clear-sighted light, nonetheless.

The last post describing Will Colglazier’s lesson on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 (and a previous lesson on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression) seemingly focused on the skills historians use in examining a primary source for bias and close reading of a document. Yet both lessons were chock-full of content. Thus, content vs. skills offers a false choice. The more appropriate question about teaching an academic subject like history is: where on a continuum of content at one pole and skills at the other pole, would you place yourself?

Some teachers would be smack in the center, equally dividing their lessons into mixes of both depending on the topic they were teaching; other teachers would tilt toward the skills or content side. All teachers would have a center of gravity along that continuum. I, for one, would place myself on near the center but clearly on the skills side of the continuum.

In comments on the description of Will Colglazier’s lessons, a few illustrate the mix of both content and skill and how it differs among teachers. Here’s one comment from a teacher who teaches both math and  history.


… I’m a fan of primary sources. But I’m not so much a fan of the “what do you think” form of history…. I don’t think asking kids to decide “who is more believable” or “which side is responsible” is a useful way to teach history. I’m not creating historians. I’m teaching history and–hopefully–showing kids that history isn’t just a case of “what happened”.

Yesterday, I gave them a map of the states broken up by acquisition (original US, Louisiana Purchase, Mexican Session, Oregon Territory), and on the flip a list of states in order of joining (up through the Civil War. They were to simply put the date of statehood and “F” or “S” (free or slave) on each state. The point (which worked) see the pattern of joining–one slave, one free, and when that pattern broke.

So one kid, who is severely ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to the point that I have to stand over him to convince him to work,  crinkled his brow, and asked “So what if a slave escapes to a free state? Is he then free?” .A couple minutes later, one of my top kids said “Hey, is this date for California a typo? It’s way out of whack. How did it become a state so much earlier than Nevada?”

Both great questions, unforced, solid lead-ins, and much more authentic than when given as part of an assignment to “think critically”. I’d rather teach a more authoritative version of history and let these arise naturally from genuine interest….

As you know, I believe strongly in teaching content while also teaching skills–particularly reading. And despite the occasional problems, the reading is going very well. I hope they remember the content, but I know they are spending more time actually reading.

A few weeks ago, I saw the above teacher teach four classes in a row, three of advanced math and one U.S. History. Recalling how she taught, I would guess that she would be close to the center of the above continuum but clearly tilting toward the skills side of the spectrum. I do not know where she would place herself.

Wherever she or I would place ourselves on that continuum, the stark and simplistic question of content vs. skills will arise again and again even though it ignores the obvious differences to where teachers are in managing both content and skills. Asking whether a teacher is content or skill-driven distorts the thinking process of those who  wrestle with how best to teach a subject. The false dichotomy is a simple-minded way of avoiding the complex decisions that knowledgeable and skilled history, science, English, and math teachers go through in planning the next day’s lesson.

Such decisions about teaching a subject are hardly new. Earlier generations of history teachers used primary sources, read documents carefully, found corroborating evidence for the source and worked their students as if they were historians. Will Colglazier’s lessons were preceded by a movement called The New Social Studies in the 1960s where much of what Colglazier was doing in his lessons happened a half-century ago.

The next post deals with that earlier movement to teach students how to read and think like a historian.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

History Lessons a Year Apart (Part 1)

Over a year ago, I posted a  journalist’s description of a history teacher at Aragon High School. She watched him teach a lesson on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression in the 1930s that drove farmers off their Midwestern farms. Here are a few paragraphs of that journalist’s account.

In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein famously plays a high school teacher who drones on about the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act while his students slump at their desks in a collective stupor. For many kids, that’s history: an endless catalog of disconnected dates and names, passed down like scripture from the state textbook, seldom questioned and quickly forgotten.

 Now take a seat inside Will Colglazier’s classroom at Aragon High School in San Mateo. The student population here is fairly typical for the Bay Area: about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Asian and 40 percent white. The subject matter is standard 11th grade stuff: What caused the Great American Dust Bowl?

 Tapping on his laptop, Colglazier shows the class striking black-and-white images of the choking storms that consumed the Plains states in the 1930s. Then he does something unusual. Instead of following a lesson plan out of the textbook, he passes out copies of a 1935 letter, written by one Caroline Henderson to the then-U.S. secretary of agriculture, poignantly describing the plight of her neighbors in the Oklahoma panhandle. He follows that with another compelling document: a confidential high-level government report, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decrying the region’s misguided homesteading policies.

 Colglazier clearly is a gifted and well-trained educator, a history/economics major and 2006 graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. But what sets this class apart from Ferris Bueller’s is more than the man; it’s his method—an approach developed at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education that’s rapidly gaining adherents across the country….

 Sitting back at his desk after the bell rings, Colglazier says he can’t imagine teaching history any other way. “It’s so powerful to give these skills to students at a young age,” he explains. “I easily could have told them in one minute that the Dust Bowl was the result of overgrazing and over-farming and World War I overproduction, combined with droughts that had been plaguing that area forever, but they wouldn’t remember it.” By reading these challenging documents and discovering history for themselves, he says, “not only will they remember the content, they’ll develop skills for life.”

The journalist had visited Colglazier’s class in early 2013. Last week, I sat in his college prep U.S. history class and watched him teach a lesson to 38 students on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 (outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) using two primary source documents. The strike led to violence when private security hired by the company to permit strikebreakers safe entry to the plant clashed with striking workers causing ten deaths on both sides.

The first document was a memoir written thirty years after the strike by Emma Goldman, a a pro-union activist. She described what happened during the strike. The second document was a newspaper interview with Henry Frick, the chairman of U.S. Steel, describing what happened a few days after the violence.

Colglazier asked the class: “Whose fault was it that people died during the strike?

To answer the question, he began the lesson with two skills that students had learned  earlier in the  semester: sourcing and close reading of a  document. On a LCD projector, Colglazier went through Emma Goldman’s  account projected on a screen and marked it up as he did a Q & A with the class on each sentence to get at the credibility of the source and bias (e.g., a memoir written three decades after the event), and close reading—examining each sentence and underlining those words that were emotionally loaded, slanted, etc.–to get at the degree of confidence each student would have in what Goldman wrote.

After completing the Goldman document, he then asked students to closely read the  interview between Henry Frick and a reporter a few days after the ten men were killed. Colglazier asked students to work individually and then pair up with neighbor to go over each one’s analysis. As students worked at their desks, the teacher walked up and down the aisles checking to see how each pair was doing and answering student questions. I scanned the classroom and saw no students off-task

He then moved back to LCD projector and asked students to parse each sentence of the Frick interview. He called on students whose hands were not raised and called on students who waved their arms to answer.

With a few minutes left in the period, Colglazier asked: “Whose description of the strike is more believable?” Again the teacher mixed cold-calling with responding to arm-waving students. After each student answered he asked for evidence drawn from the documents. No consensus emerged from discussion other than both accounts were flawed for different reasons. The buzzer sounded ending the lesson.


When Colglazier first came to Aragon eight years ago (see video clips of his teaching here and here) he began used this approach to teaching history from lessons developed by the Stanford History Education Group on “Historical Thinking” and “Reading Like a Historian.” Watching Colglazier teach U.S. history raises questions—Has this way of teaching history occurred before? Should history be taught primarily for content or skills?–that I want to address in subsequent posts.


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MOOCs Carve Out a Narrow Niche in Higher Education: A Familiar Story for K-12 Use of Educational Technology

So many hopes, so many promises, so many disappointments about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in the past three years.

Hopes for expanding enrollments to anyone in the world with an Internet connection and downsizing tuition costs have shrunk.  Consider that the average MOOC student is not the hoped-for rural Indian villager but a white American, 20-something male with a college degree. While there is much talk about $10,000 bachelor degrees from online courses, only one university thus far has offered such a degree.

Yet after shrink-wrapped hopes have been put away and with disappointing outcomes including high dropout rates (over 80 percent) and many students failing MOOCs when they replace traditional college courses (25 to 50 percent), MOOCs are still around. They have found a niche as online courses for self-starting students inside and outside the university.

As one recent article put it, MOOCs are slowly becoming institutionalized in higher education as offerings to highly motivated students from small business entrepreneurs to seasoned graduate students. For many adults, MOOCs have become “just-in-time” education fitting busy schedules where chunks of knowledge and skills can be acquired.

Take Leo Cochrane, who already has a bachelor’s degree but took a free online class from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business to help expand his start-up air-purifying business. The course was perfect for the time-pressed entrepreneur. He had little inclination or money to follow a path that would take him to a traditional campus or even to an old-fashioned online course, with its rigid deadlines for lectures and completing assignments. With a MOOC, he could watch video lectures on his iPhone while running on a treadmill and pick and choose what he needed to learn from the syllabus. MOOCs put students in control. Students can do as much or as little as they want at any time, one reason that many never complete the courses. Roughly one in 10 finishes.

From universities to community colleges, MOOCs are now finding a small niche in higher education by offering access to knowledge much like adult education did a few generations ago.

In just three years MOOCs, a star-burst of hope for higher education to be extended to everyone in the world at knocked-down prices or even free, has settled into a familiar within a university’s portfolio of choices available to part-time and full-time students.

The journey of this falling star is familiar to anyone aware of the history of technological innovations. Consider the road traveled by teachers and students from the earliest desktop computers in the 1980s to tablets and smartphones now. From an average of over 125 public school students per desktop computer in 1983 to 3:1 (2008) to even a lower ratio in the past few years, devices dot exurban, rural, suburban, and city schools with nearly universal wireless connections making the Internet accessible at a click. Cell phones are ubiquitous.

The hype surrounding the introduction of desktop computers into public schools in the early 1980s promised a transformation in students’ academic achievement, how teachers taught, and access to jobs in an increasingly changing economy. Districts mandated keyboarding classes, set up computer labs, and gave professional development to teachers after machines were deployed. By the late-1990s, Internet connections spread to most schools and in the next few years, wireless became standard. In the early 2000s, 1:1 laptops were introduced and spread.

Every few years, states and districts, with funding help from various grant-givers including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bought and deployed new desktops and eventually laptop computers to schools and classrooms.

By 2014, school laptops and tablets are commonplace. Yet had academic achievement improved as a consequence? Had teaching and learning changed? Did use of devices in schools lead to better jobs?

These questions get at the inflated  promises school officials made prior to purchasing new technologies and what happened after states and districts adopted such policies. The answers to the above questions are no, no, and don’t know (see here, here, and here). Like MOOCs going from the purple rhetoric of inflated hopes to finding a small niche where online courses can be taught to motivated adults and students, the journey of desktop computers to hand-held devices in K-12 schools has certainly entered most classrooms as teaching and learning tools but has hardly transformed age-graded schools into those dream-like scenarios that champions of new technology promoted.

Nonetheless, most K-12 teachers use these devices in different ways every week. Lessons using software on, say, the five desktops in the room or the 30 laptops or tablets on the cart, are common across elementary and secondary schools. Yet these powerful computers have hardly altered the prevailing ways of teaching that have gone on for years. What has  occurred is that teachers have expanded their teaching repertoire to incorporate software and hardware. New technologies have found a niche in classrooms far smaller than the promises that originally accompanied new technologies.

And locating in small niches is what has happened time and again to new technologies such as MOOCs and computers in K-12 classrooms.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Secret Lives of Teachers (Steve Drummond)


So where do they go, all the teachers, when the bell rings at 3 o’clock?


When you’re a kid, you don’t really think they go anywhere. Except home, maybe, to grade papers and plan lessons and think up pop quizzes.


And when you find out otherwise, it’s a strange experience. Many people remember it vividly: the disorienting feeling of encountering your teacher in the grocery store, or in the line at McDonald’s, talking and acting just like other grownups. A jarring reminder that they have lives outside the classroom.

But of course teachers go off and do all sorts of things: They write books and play music and run for office and start businesses. For some, a life outside the classroom is an economic necessity. In many states, more than 1 in 5 teachers has a second job.


For others, it’s a natural outgrowth of their lives as educators: the drama teacher performing in community theater, the history teacher/Civil War re-enactor, the music teacher onstage at open-mic night.

And still others have some private passion that has nothing to do with teaching or school — it may be the thing that keeps them fresh and fired up when they are in the classroom.


So where do they go when the 3:00 bell rings?….


‘Art Brings Me Back’

For Mathias “Spider” Schergen, his Secret Life plays out in a one-car garage out back of his house in Southwest Chicago.

He turned it into a studio, a crowded place full of lumber and wood and paint and scrap metal and odd things like shoes and fabric. Stuff that he fashions into art.




“The art brings me back to my thinking and reflection,” he says.


Schergen, 61, is slender and muscular — his most notable feature, perhaps, his tattoos of spiders. They’re part of a persona that he has created — “Mr. Spider” — that year after year his students at Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts find mysterious and fascinating.


He has taught there for 21 years, through good times and bad. Once, the school stood in the shadow of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects in one of the city’s most violent and dangerous neighborhoods. Now, the projects are gone and the school is surrounded by new developments.

Still, it draws many children from the surrounding neighborhood: 98 percent African-American, 96 percent (low income) free and reduced lunch.


I first met Schergen seven years ago, on a reporting trip for a story about great teachers and how they keep their teaching fresh year after year. In class, he has a persona: He exudes coolness and confidence, joking with the students, firmly keeping them on task.


Over dinner at his home, he’s a different guy. Quiet, soft-spoken, deferential.


“I’m a loner kind of guy,” he says. And he needs the time in his studio to square those two sides of his personality.”As my life has changed, and I’ve found I’m not so harried, my interest and my aesthetic have reflected that.” He’s now making work that’s more colorful and more connected to other people.


He recently started transforming objects that other people have discarded or overlooked. He wants to tell the stories that might be hidden in a forgotten shoe or a child’s headboard covered in stickers.


He says he can’t remember a day when he didn’t spend time in his studio. When he’s there, cutting and clipping and gluing and assembling, time doesn’t exist. “If we didn’t call him inside, he would never come in,” says his wife, Vanessa.

He says his time in the studio has a strong connection to his time in the classroom.

“The relationship is symbiotic,” he explains, “they both affect one another and they both affect me.”


He carries his thoughts from Jenner with him when he works out back. “I can usually work out issues I’ve been having during school,” he says. “I think of different ways to look at something, and I often realize there’s a completely different approach I should be taking with a student.”


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach