Teaching English at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

This is the second post (see here) drawn from journalist Kristina Rizga’s account of teaching and learning at San Francisco Unified School District’s Mission High School. Rizga is a journalist who spent four years observing and interviewing teachers and students at Mission High School in San Francisco. Her book, Mission High (New York: Nation Books, 2015) contains descriptions of both students and teachers inside and outside classrooms.* Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.

What distinguishes Rizga’s book from so many journalist and researcher accounts about high schools with largely minority and poor students are two facts: First, she spent four years–a life time to researchers–at the school. Few researchers or journalists ever spend more than a year in a high school. The second fact is that Rizga addresses a long-time paradox buried at the core of  U.S. schooling in an age of accountability-driven reform when federal and state mandates (No Child Left Behind) label many schools as failing. The paradox is straightforward. Mission High School had been tagged as a failing school–“low performing” is the jargon of the day–and had been a step away from being shut down through No Child Left Behind rules. Yet 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, attendance rates have risen above the district high school average and suspensions have fallen between 2008 and 2014 nearly 90 percent. As one student put it: “How can my school be flunking when I am succeeding?”  Indeed, the contradiction of a school labeled by authorities as failing, succeeding with students beyond what other district high schools achieve is the puzzle that Rizga unravels in this book.    

With Rizga’s permission, I offer here descriptions of lessons in math, social studies, and English. This post describes an English lesson taught by Pirette McKamey, a 25-year veteran of classroom teaching.

“I want to say something important about writing,” Pirette McKamey tells her English class one Tuesday afternoon in October 2012. “Writing is very, very hard, and it’s never finished. I’ve re-read some of my essays twenty times and I still go, ‘I can’t believe I made this mistake or that mistake.’ So, this is a long, difficult process.” Dressed in white cotton pants, a patterned shirt, and black leather loafers, she is standing in front of twenty-five seniors.

“I’m going to read Jamal’s essay as a model today,” says McKamey, who reads students’ work at the beginning of each class as a way to honor their craft and effort. “I like his essay because of the heft of its content. It also feels real. It was written with real engagement and honesty. That makes it worth reading.” In his essay Jamal has compared his life ambitions with the goals of two other people he has chosen from the many real and fictional people the students have studied in a five-week-long “quests” unit in which students considered the deeper meaning behind different types of individual journeys while developing their reading and writing skills. Jamal has picked Jackson Jackson, the main character from Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” and Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A month later Jamal uses this essay as a foundation to develop a ten-page research paper entitled “Black on Black Violence,” which examines the root causes of homicides in his community.

“‘A successful quest requires support, yearning, and perseverance’,” McKamey begins, reading Jamal’s words. “‘Everyone experiences some kind of a quest in their lifetime. Some take longer than others, some are more important than others, and some are not even intentional, but are a part of our everyday life. Some quests are very internal and personal. Others are external, rooted in collective memories and yearnings.’” As she reaches the end, five minutes later, she looks up from the paper and asks, “What did you like about the essay?”

“I love how Jamal brought three parts and three very different people together,” Alex jumps in.

“I liked that a lot too,” McKamey responds. “What else?”

“His connections and transitions from one person to the next were really good,” says Ana a little more hesitantly, glancing at the teacher for affirmation.

“That’s true,” McKamey replies.

“I felt passion and enthusiasm in his essay,” Roberto comments. “Passion that fuels a bigger purpose is the theme that drives the essay—in making music, in searching for your past, in wanting more freedom for your country.”

“Exactly,” she responds. “That’s a really good observation.”

As the discussion winds down, Max Anders—the student teacher McKamey is coaching this year—passes out a handout titled “Punctuating Titles: Underlines or Quotation Marks?” Meanwhile, McKamey explains to me that when she and Anders graded everyone’s essays yesterday, they noticed one common mistake: despite previous practice, students still weren’t always sure which titles needed to be underlined, italicized, or put in quotation marks. Anders has created a short guide using real examples from student work and a worksheet for students to practice some of these skills.

Students then get to work while both teachers walk around to answer questions.

After a brief punctuation lesson from McKamey, Anders steps up to the front of the room. “Last class we learned about the Vietnam War, and we focused on Vietnamese history,” he says. “Today we will continue by reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the American perspective.” The students read a chapter titled “The Man I Killed.” When they’re done, Anders asks them to pick out a quote they found intriguing, to be analyzed collectively.

“Let me remind you what analysis is,” McKamey says, standing in front of the class. “When I was little, I remember I used a hammer and screwdriver to crack a golf ball open. I really wanted to see what was inside. As I cracked that glossy plastic open, I saw rubber bands. And I went, ‘Ha! I didn’t know there were rubber bands in golf balls. I wonder what’s inside other balls?’ It made me curious about the world. So, we are doing the same thing. We’ll analyze the author’s words to dig in deeper. That will allow us to engage with the text on the author’s terms.”

David raises his hand. He reads a line from the chapter:

He was a slim dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.

“What do you notice in this passage?” McKamey probes.

“The man the narrator killed is the same age as him,” Roberto comments.

“Exactly,” she replies. “Now you are one step deeper. What do I feel inside when I think of that?”

“Guilt, regret,” Ajanee jumps in.

“That’s right,” McKamey comments. “I personally would use the word compassion. But what you said is 100 percent correct. It’s just that all of us will use different words to analyze this. And what does that do when we realize that this man is the same age as us?”

“It makes me think that he’s young, likes girls, probably doesn’t want to fight in a war,” Robert says.

“Exactly. Now, take that even deeper.”

“It’s like he is killing himself?” Roberto asks.

“Perfect! Now you made a connection,” McKamey says, excitement in her voice. “That’s what this quote is really about. Now, why is O’Brien saying ‘star-shaped hole’? Why not ‘peanut-shaped hole?’”

“That’s very unusual,” Irving comments.

McKamey nods. She remains quiet for a minute, looking around the class.

Ajanee raises her hand and offers an answer, “The image in his mind is burned.”

“Exactly!” McKamey replies. “O’Brien wants us to keep that same image in mind that he had as a young soldier in his mind. It’s the kind of image you never forget. That’s what writing is really about.”

______________________________

*Full disclosure: for this book, Rizga and I had several conversations about the history of school reform past and present. I also visited Mission High School for one day, saw three lessons, and interviewed the principal.

Leave a comment

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Burned Out Teachers (Part 2)

There are three ways to reduce the kind of burnout that so many K-12 teachers, particularly in low-income minority schools such as Spanish teacher Alli Baugher at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. experienced. Change the work conditions or change yourself (or both).

Change working conditions. The age-graded school was a mid-19th century innovation imported from Prussia and planted in the U.S. Within a half-century, the innovation slowly and irrevocably replaced the one-room schoolhouse throughout the nation. Erecting a “grammar school” housing eight grades with separate classrooms where teachers teach six year-olds in one room and ten year-olds in another reorganized the very nature of schooling in the U.S. The principal and teacher would determine whether each student had learned that portion of the curriculum allotted to that grade in one year’s time most often through tests. If the student passed the various tests he or she advanced to the next grade; if not, the student was held back for another year or assigned to a different room.

The age-graded school has defined “normal” academic progress within elementary school, junior high school (now middle school) and high school ever since. The age-graded school also  has shaped how teachers taught. By the 1930s, for example, in the high school the daily workload of teachers was to teach five or six 45-60 minute classes of 25-30 students. Thus, this organizational innovation embedded within ever larger brick-and-mortar buildings has had enormous influence on how students learn and how teachers teach.

Since the 1980s, school reform has focused on raising curriculum standards and graduation requirements, increasing standardized testing, and imposing accountability rules that contain both rewards and penalties. All of these reforms have intensified teachers’ intellectual, emotional and physical workload leading to high attrition rates among teachers, especially in urban districts threatened with school closure or state takeover.

Altering the age-graded organization and teachers’ working conditions conditions is one way of reducing large numbers of teachers exiting schools, especially in low-income, largely minority schools. Abolishing age-gradedness—having K-3 units for children ages 5-9—grouping and re-grouping children by performance in math, reading, and academic subjects rather than age–means that students’ mastery of knowledge and skills determines progress in school, not sitting at a desk for 36 weeks. While it may appear obvious, few efforts, if any, have occurred over the past century to alter the age-graded school. In the 1960s, non-graded elementary schools sprouted across the country with “open” classrooms and “open-space” schools. The sprouts shriveled, however, within a few years and migration back to the traditional organization occurred. Today, enthusiasts for online courses tout the benefits of students learning at their individual speed and not bend to the demands of a “normal” school year. Yet even these cheerleaders for online instruction accept the age-graded structure.

The fact is that moving away from the age-graded school would have an enormous influence on teacher working conditions and how students learn. Few such efforts, however, are on reformers’ agendas. Which means that avoiding burnout and exiting the profession is up to the individual teacher.

 Individual teacher renewal. Effectiveness in every people-serving occupation (e.g., teaching, therapy, nursing, clinical medicine) requires developing relationships with those served be they clients, patients, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth are essential for student learning. Such work, over time, while satisfying and rewarding drains one’s  energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.

Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. Each day teachers spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that they have accumulated over the years on their students. Because of that loss in capital, teachers need to re-invest in themselves by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.

Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little intellectual growth, diminished enthusiasm for students, even a slow slide into habits that get teachers through the day.

For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions.

Changing the organization of the age-graded school is not on the agenda of the current generation of efficiency-driven school reformers. Current reforms from Common Core standards to charter schools to accountability, if anything, reinforce with steel rebar the age-graded school. Thus, sad to say, it is up to individual teachers to take charge of their personal renewal.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

One Burned-out Teacher’s Journey (Kavitha Cardoza)–Part 1

Kavitha Cardoza, Special Correspondent, WAMU Radio, Washington, D.C. interviewed an experienced District of Columbia high school Spanish teacher. This interview appeared April 3, 2015

Teachers in D.C. schools are under immense pressure to improve students test scores. Their job security depends on it. At the same time, teachers who do well can make tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses. Alli Baugher is dedicated, high-achieving teacher who’s dealing with burnout after just eight years on the job.

Explain what it was like starting at Ballou.

So I remember coming into Ballou my first year this very idealistic, recent college graduate and every year there would be these teachers that would leave and there was always this sense of pride for those of us that had stayed. And even in our first year, when it was just so hard and we were lesson planning till 10-11 p.m. at night and then baking cookies early in the morning for our students and just being ridiculous but we were still like “at least we’re fighting the good fight.” And I always thought it was so funny that in my third year of teaching, I was considered a veteran at Ballou. I was department chair. By my 7th year in a school of over 100 adults working there, there were only 10 that had been there longer than me. And I just found that crazy.

ballou.jpg

 

So tell me what happened

I was very confused. I worked very hard, I’d developed a rapport with my students, I had good working relationships with the other teachers in the building, I trust and respect my principal, and I feel really good about the fact that we have this new building, we have just so many exciting things in our future, but I am miserable. Coming home every day crying. I feel like I can barely do anything but collapse on the couch at the end of the day.

And then I started getting panic attacks during school. But I didn’t know what was happening to me and then it started happening more frequently. I was convinced that I could push through it, that I was a lifer, that I was committed to Ballou and to my students. And so over winter break I saw several therapists. I was very mindful of taking time to relax and to re-energize myself so that I could be a better teacher again when I came back.

Because not only was I having these panic attack experiences, I was also snapping at my students, I was losing my patience and it was almost like there was this little version of me over my shoulder going, “What are you doing? Who is that person, that monster, that you’re becoming with your students?” Because its the last version of myself that I ever want my students to see. I didn’t want them to go home, having not felt like I cared about them, that I thought they were wonderful. That I thought that they were really really capable and smart because so often the teacher is the one person that you can guarantee or hope to guarantee is going to tell them something positive about themselves that day.

And in that first week back at school before class even started, actually it was like 8:40 a.m. in the morning, I had just an awful panic attack that I had to go to the ER. I was able to describe this experience and what happened to me to friends and family that every day as teachers, our students are coming into the classroom with all of this pain and anger and they’re coming in hot with all of this stuff going on in their heads. And the only way to respond to that appropriately as a teacher is soaking it up like a sponge and just responding with kindness and patience and love and I think that my sponge was just really full.

There’s a big difference to me seeing you now and when I saw you in the classroom where you were just glowing. I feel a tremendous sense of sadness from you.

I started teaching at Ballou when I was 21 years old. So it was a quarter of my life. If anyone asked me “Who is Ally Baugher?” I would have said “I am a teacher and I teach at Ballou and let me tell you about all of my children.” Losing Ballou was very much like losing my identity. I felt like I’d let my students down, for some of my children just getting to school it was them overcoming incredible obstacles and I was saying, “I’ve had a couple panic attacks and I’m the one giving up.” I was really really hard on myself.

What we often forget is that teacher retention is also important because so many of the best programs in our schools are teacher driven. One perfect example there was a story probably five or six years ago about a teacher at Ballou who started a lacrosse team and it was this big news and everyone was excited about and the students loved it. And then she left and all of the kids came back the next year saying, “Are we going to have a lacrosse program still? Who’s going to do it?” And they were really still excited about this program but it was discontinued because there was no one there to run it.

When you started feeling the way you did, did you speak to your principal? I think DCPS would say they have several programs to retain teachers, you could teach part time and then do a hybrid model of some kind of management, they pay teachers more compared to a lot of urban school districts, they have recognition ceremonies, what about all those efforts?

 I think that the focus at Ballou, I felt like was so often on struggling teachers. I did reach out to several admins during the fall, and they were supportive, absolutely were supportive and I don’t fault them in any way for my needing to leave. I think one of the problems in the way that we approach teacher retention, one of the programs you mentioned was splitting time between some more leadership position while also teaching, so often our answer, our response, to teacher retention is moving them into non-teaching positions. We want you to be a teacher/mentor and we’re going to move you into an administrative position or a teacher/mentor position or someone leading professional development, that means that those best teachers are no longer in the classroom. And I think for a teacher retention program to truly work, the goal should be to keep our best teachers in front of students for a full schedule of the day. And that’s the big difference.

I think it’s important to note that this is not a story about Ballou, it’s not a story about DCPS, it’s not a story about me. My story is not unique and I talk to teachers time and time again that say, “I need to figure out how to make this job sustainable because I want to keep doing it and I want to keep working with these children. But, I’m tired.”

When so many people ask me about how I handle my job, they would assume it’s because of these “terrible kids” but they are just wonderful, they are my favorite part of my job, was. Any teacher will tell you that working with children no matter how challenging they are is the best part of my job. I feel like in order to improve teacher retention, there needs to be, especially for teachers working in high-risk communities, there needs to be a very deliberate break where teachers have an opportunity to still work in the field of education as a teacher’s assistant. Right? So that I’m given the opportunity to support another teacher and what they’re doing but don’t have the nightly responsibilities of lesson planning and filling out paperwork and making phone calls and all of those things. But also to reinspire them, to reignite them, to send them back to their schools that same idealistic excited change maker person that I was my first and second year.

 

Part 2 of this post raises issues of what can be done to reduce such losses to students and the community.

3 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Teaching Math at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a journalist who spent four years observing and interviewing teachers and students at Mission High School in San Francisco. Her book called Mission High (New York: Nation Books, 2015) contains descriptions of both students and teachers inside and outside classrooms.* Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.

What distinguishes Rizga’s book from so many journalist and researcher accounts about high schools with largely minority and poor students are two facts: First, she spent four years–a life time to researchers–at the school. Few researchers or journalists ever spend more than a year in a high school. The second fact is that Rizga addresses a long-time paradox buried at the core of  U.S. schooling in an age of reform when federal and state mandates (No Child Left Behind) label many schools as failing. The paradox is straightforward. Mission High School had been tagged as a failing school–“low performing” is the jargon of the day–and had been a step away from being shut down through No Child Left Behind rules. Yet 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, attendance rates have risen above the district high school average and suspensions have fallen between 2008 and 2014 nearly 90 percent. As one student put it: “How can my school be flunking when I am succeeding?”  Indeed, the contradiction of a school labeled by authorities as failing, succeeding with students beyond what other district high schools achieve is the puzzle that Rizga unravels in this book.    

With Rizga’s permission, I offer here descriptions of lessons in math, social studies, and English. The first is a math lesson taught by Taica Hsu, a seven year veteran teacher.

 

 

Taica [Hsu] came to Mission High right after graduating from Stanford in 2007 and has been teaching math for seven years he says, sitting in front of a large bookshelf that contains a small microwave, a sewing machine, and rows of books on algebra, CI math, statistics, and precalculus. He taught math more “procedurally” in the first two years at Mission and then more “conceptually” in the last five. Taica is convinced that the approach he learned at Stanford — which also informed the new Common Core Standards — is a better way to learn math and help more students like the subject.

“Approaching math conceptually is not just about doing calculations quickly or memorization,” Hsu explains. “You are still learning procedural fluency, but you are also seeing connections, patterns, choosing your own strategy in solving something and justifying it. You are seeing how it interprets and explains the world around you. It allows students to develop a more intuitive understanding and a deeper connection with math.”

It is nearly ten in the morning at Mission High, and a stream of eighteen freshmen has just entered the classroom for their Algebra I class. Rasheed, a tall young man with a head full of long, black braids, drops his backpack on the table. The desks are organized in rectangles, and students sit in groups of four. Rasheed sits down near Jenny, who noticed her friend as soon as he walked through the door.

Jenny is wearing thick sweatpants over her light blue jeans on this cool, grey February morning in 2011. She has been out sick for a week and has asked Brandon to help her finish her homework. “I believe you multiply first before you add here,” Brandon is explaining patiently while writing out every step of the solution on a separate piece of paper. “Jenny, you are really smart,” he adds. “You can do it. You just need to take your time.” Joaquin, a young man with a pink, boyish face partially covered by an oversized “Golden State Warriors” hat, walks in and stretches out on the two chairs at his desk. He puts his hat over his face and closes his eyes. Joaquin is about two heads shorter than Rasheed, who is a about a foot taller than the rest of his ninth-grade classmates.

Warm and charming, Rasheed is a formidable social force in the classroom. He can pull his friends away from work in an instant, but when class is in session, he uses that power to engage them with math. For now, before the bell rings, Rasheed puts his large headphones on Jenny’s ears and plays some songs for her. Shipra is trying her earrings on Jenny’s ears. Brandon throws a little paper ball at Shipra’s head and turns away sharply to hide his prank. Unlike their peers in the twelfth grade across the hall, these freshmen are buzzing with electricity as they are settling in their seats—shouting, joking, flirting, and fidgeting.

“And that was our bell,” twenty-seven-year-old Hsu says as he starts the class. He is dressed in a grey T-shirt, dark blue jeans, and turquoise Puma sneakers. “Happy Friday, everyone,” he greets the class as the noise drops. “I want to thank many of you who came to see me after school if you had any questions. I really appreciated that.”

“Please sit at the same table as on Wednesday,” he continues. “Start with the ‘Do Now’ and then continue to work on the ‘group challenge’ from last week. Remember, everyone needs to participate in the challenge. What are some ways in which we participate?”

“Asking questions,” students take turns answering. “Justifying steps. Answering questions of others. Asking for help. Plugging in numbers. Using resources from previous classes. Listening to someone else’s ideas.”

“Smart, smart, smart! Let’s get to work,” Hsu responds and starts walking around the classroom, gliding between the desks. Hsu’s colleague, special education teacher Blair Groefsema, checks in with the other tables that need attention. This class has seven students with special needs, including one student in a wheelchair who communicates through a voice-activated electronic device.

Within a few minutes, Hsu notices a common error as students work through the ‘Do Now’ exercise, in which they are reviewing skills and knowledge from their previous lessons. Several students have mixed up distribution steps today and solved 3(x+2) incorrectly, as 3x + 2. Hsu sits on the edge of his desk and reviews the correct sequence of the steps with his students. Joaquin gets up to view what Mr. Hsu is demonstrating more closely.

As the students get back to work, Hsu continues to move around the classroom quickly, with a calming presence—asking questions, naming different skills students are exercising, praising effort. “I see Jenny and Brandon are drawing boxes,” Hsu comments. “That’s a really good technique. I really like how Irene is referencing her homework to help her solve this problem.”

“Check your answers with everyone in the group before you finish,” he reminds them.

“Mr. Hsu, are these ‘like’ terms?” Jenny asks with her hand raised.

“Yes, they are. Can you combine them?”

“Yes.”

“What do you think you should do here, Joaquin?” Hsu walks over to the next table. “How did you get that answer?”

After the exercise, Hsu moves on to the group challenge, a multistep, “open-ended” math problem that students are asked to solve in a workshop-style group of four. Such exercises may or may not lead to a single answer, but they always allow for different paths to various solutions. Hsu says that open-ended problems illustrate the real depth of math for students and show them that math—like most things in the real world—requires multiple skills and approaches. “If you are only solving for ‘x,” Hsu explains to me after the class, “the problem has only one path and one solution. Students who get stuck on one, small step throw their hands up and say that they are not good at math. In open-ended group problems, students are more likely to keep trying. They realize that there are many ways to approach problems, and if you are not good at one part of math, it doesn’t mean that you are not good at all of it.”

Today’s group challenge is asking students to analyze and graph different types of lines—parallel, perpendicular, and intersecting—and solve for points of intersection. Students are asked to interact with each line as multiple representations—as a graph, equation, and a table—as well as to make a connection between solutions and visually represented points on the graph. The same lesson in a traditional classroom would be taught in narrower way, Hsu notes. Students might be asked to memorize the equations of the lines and a few conclusions without visualizing them as multiple representations. When students are only asked to solve the equation, they may not completely understand all of the connections. When students don’t make such connections, Hsu says, they are not learning deeply, but simply memorizing equations that are mysteries to them. Such knowledge is more likely to fade quickly.

Following the group challenge, students do individual exercises in which they are asked to practice their skills and knowledge. As students do the work, Hsu walks around and provides personalized coaching. Individual practice time in Hsu’s classes is typically followed by a low-stakes “mini-quiz” without any help from the teacher. He reviews these quizzes at the end of each day to make notes on which students need extra help and adjust his lesson plans for the next day.

Traditional classrooms typically don’t follow this format. In most American classrooms, students watch their teachers lecture and model exercises at the front of the room. After a lecture or demonstration on the blackboard that many don’t fully absorb, students are then asked to practice tasks individually, some in class but most at home… Students who can get help with homework at home usually progress smoothly. Students whose parents work long hours or who can’t afford expensive tutors typically fall behind.

Such teaching allows for an efficient delivery of the standardized content. The problem is that this standardized approach doesn’t work, because no one is “standard,” Hsu argues. That’s why Hsu—along with his co-chair of the math department, Mary Maher, and other math teachers—has spent the last several years working to update the traditional script. Hsu’s classrooms function more like group-style workshops than like lecture halls. Students spend most of the time producing work, alone and in groups, talking about math to their teacher and peers, while Hsu provides individualized coaching.

“Who would like to present their findings?” Hsu asks.

The students in Rasheed’s group raise their hands.

“First of all,” Rasheed begins, pointing to equations on the projection, “how did we know that these lines are perpendicular? We saw that the line is crossing. Second thing we noticed is that slopes are switched around.”

“What’s the only solution?” Hsu asks.

“Four and minus one,” Jenny answers.

“Why?” Hsu probes.

“It’s the only place where the lines cross,” she adds.

“How did you know to go down three, and over two?” Joaquin asks.

“This part of the formula,” Rasheed points at the board.

“Does this make sense? Are we convinced?” Hsu turns to the class.

“Yes,” several students respond.

“Does anyone disagree?” he asks.

No hands go up.

“Time for a quick, individual check-in, everyone,” says Hsu, who calls tests and quizzes “check-ins” to help ease the testing tension.

“I’m not prepared for this test,” Shipra admits, clearly upset.

“I’ve seen you do these problems many times, Shipra,” Ms. Groefsema reassures her.

The students get to work. A young man trained in working with students who use electronic devices for communication, is helping a student in the wheelchair.

A few minutes later Jenny exclaims that she is done. So does Rasheed. Hsu walks over to them. Joaquin gets stuck and asks for help. He has forgotten how to pick numbers for the table to draw a parabola. Ms. Groefsema reminds him with a series of questions. He gets back to work. Hsu looks over Shipra’s quiz. She has mixed up the steps: added first, rather than multiplied, he tells me quietly. She was asking for help more than anyone today. She will need extra one-on-one work with Hsu and a lot more individual practice to help her develop self-reliance and more confidence.

The bell rings, and Hsu finishes collecting the rest of the quizzes.

“I am so smart, I can teach this class,” Rasheed says with a slight smirk on his face, as he looks back at Jenny.

_______________________

*Full disclosure: for this book, Rizga and I had several conversations about the history of school reform past and present. I also visited Mission High School for one day, saw three lessons, and interviewed the principal.

8 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Cartoons on Life and Technology

For this month’s cartoon feature, I have gathered cartoons that poke at our workday lives, family, and  habitual love/hate for technology. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have.

1889.strip-respect

 

Liam-Walsh-Cartoon-New-Yorker

 

 

kids texting

 

111003_cartoon_048_a15959_p465

 

computer-repair-cartoon

 

DoggieCartoon

 

BhsSo1kIEAEbXWs

 

 

meaning-of-life

 

images

 

o-NEW-YORKER-570

funny-cartoon-pictures-2

 

 

cartoon6063

 

4 Comments

Filed under technology use

Policy Influences Practice But Does Practice Influence Policy?

The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again”) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With No Child Left Behind and its coercive accountability mandates, teaching has surely been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.)  in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring.  Now with Common Core standards, the push to standardize math and language arts instruction in K-12 (e.g., close reading for first graders) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching lead paradoxically, to more, not less, variability in lessons. But this increased variation in teaching seldom alerts policymakers and donors in their offices and suites to reassess the policies  they adopt.

The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts.  The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new  textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.

David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball  led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.

Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.

Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs,
and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.

Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is tinged with irony.

Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students. Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey. Few policymakers understand that. Studies of classroom lessons implementing Common Core standards, I believe, will also show wide variation not uniformity.

Teachers are policymakers

As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in teaching daily lessons. Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher wherewithal and judgment are crucial ingredients to successful student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked,  purposely ignored, or under-funded.

As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation. It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.

The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing again and again that teachers act as policymakers. That path should be a two-way thoroughfare.

5 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

A Puzzle in the Teaching of History

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe teaching history and social studies in the 1960s and in 2014 in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School) In the 2014 section of the book, I observed and interviewed three teachers at Cardozo who, in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here and here). In another academically failing D.C. high school not far from Cardozo, I watched even another teacher who taught in that same tradition. Here is Kyle Greer’s  60-minute class that I observed in December 2013.

_____________________________________________

At 8:50, 10 of the 25 enrolled students were present. By 9:40, all but two of the students were at their desks. Because many students travel cross-town to reach the high school, late-comers are the norm. The course is District of Columbia history On the whiteboard are listed the agenda for the hour-long lesson, the standard that the lessons will be addressing, and the “warm-up” exercise–all required by the district administration as criteria for an “effective” lesson. Kyle Greer (a pseudonym) is a five year veteran at this high school and serves as head of the three member department (there are just over 450 low-income, minority students in the high school).

For the lesson, Greer has the students reading and annotating a journal article from Washington History entitled “D.C.’s Dual School System, 1862-1954.” He passes around a bucket of marker pens for students to use as they closely read and take notes. He tells the students: “we will model underlining main ideas,” and taking notes. He begins reading a paragraph in the middle of the article and asks after pausing: “Can we figure out the time period?”  A few respond with words and phrases that suggest World War I and what happened at the prestigious Dunbar High School in the “colored” division of the de jure segregated school system.

Then students take turns reading paragraphs with Greer interjecting questions about what each sentence means, what should be underlined (and why), and notes that students could write in margins of the handout. One student asks Greer what does it mean that the “colored”schools had double- and triple-sessions? He tosses back the question to the rest of the students and one comes up with the answer of overcrowded “colored” schools. In some of Greer’s responses to student answers, he occasionally pushes back and asks student to support what they say with evidence from the journal article.

Toward the end of the lesson, he asks students to contrast the first-hand accounts they have read about “colored” students and teachers in the DC schools during World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II with this secondary source–the journal article–written by a historian in 2005. Three students offer what they recall of the primary sources they read, particularly in 1939 when the school board banned black singer Marian Anderson from  singing at all-white Central High School (which would have brought together an interracial audience); the concert was rescheduled for the Lincoln Memorial and students recalled what Anderson herself had said.

In scanning the class, I note that nearly all of the students, even latecomers, are reading the article–about one-quarter volunteer to read paragraphs–and using markers to underline and make notes in the margin of the handout. During the period, a wall-mounted speaker interrupts the lesson four times with announcements from the main office.

As the hour draws to a close, Greer asks the students: “what is the take-away from this article on nearly a century of segregated schools in DC?”  A handful of students respond, two reading from notes they had jotted down on their handout. Greer listens and then asks the rest of the class for their thoughts on these “take-aways.” Three respond, the last interrupted by the bell ending the class.

________________________________________________

Why did these four teachers in two academically failing high schools in the same district teach in the historical tradition? Without any evidence that the four received direct training in teaching students to read, think, and write like historians, attributing their common use of primary sources and other approaches to district professional development is a non-starter.  And since they did not know one another except in passing, they had not collaborated removing that possible explanation. It could be a rare coincidence but is highly unlikely. One possible explanation, however, is that the district’s focus on standards and the linkage between teacher evaluation and sticking to standards influenced what these four DC teachers did.

The DC schools’ IMPACT evaluation scheme laden with rewards and penalties and visits by social studies “master educators” with follow-up conferences may have tilted history teachers toward the Social Studies Standards for their D.C. high schools. These standards include many references to historical evidence, use of primary and secondary sources, critical thinking skills, etc. (See “District of Columbia Social Studies, Pre-K through Grade 12,” pp. 29 for grades 3-5, p. 48 for grades 6-8, p. 88 for grades 9-12, at: http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/DCPS-horiz-soc_studies.pdf )

When I interviewed the teachers in the two different high schools, each one mentioned the fear they felt about the multiple observations by “master educators” (all four teachers, by the way, received favorable evaluations, one of them sufficient to earn a salary hike). Three of the four expressed anger at the unfairness of the evaluation process because their students generally scored poorly on the DC test and student scores for the entire school were counted as a factor in being judged “effective.”

This is all guesswork, of course. Without further data on more DC history teachers in other high schools, what I observed in the classrooms of these four teachers in two different high schools could simply be an anomaly. Until such data become available, however, these similar lessons across two low-performing high schools remains puzzling.

4 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies