From Superhero Teacher to Bad Teacher: Hollywood Films Then and Now

Two weeks ago, I was one of the examiners of a doctoral student’s dissertation. After becoming emeritus professor, I have avoided such tasks but this student’s work captured my attention because it helped unravel a puzzle that had bugged me for the decades in which I had seen Hollywood films about teaching and schools. Like Derisa Grant, the doctoral student whose dissertation I read–she passed the oral examination–I had noticed that Hollywood’s portrayal of teachers had changed over the years. Think Dead Poets Society (1989). Think Stand and Deliver (1988). Now think Half Nelson (2006) and Bad Teacher (2011). By actually counting the Hollywood films made in the 1980s and 1990s and those in the past decade and how they depicted teachers as positive or negative characters, Grant made the point that there was a change in film portrayals of teachers.

From private school teacher John Keating (fictional) to high school math teacher Jaime Escalante (actual person),  superhero film-teachers in earlier decades bent the minds of their students making a profound difference in their students’ lives. Neither Harlem middle school English teacher, Dan Dunne (fictional) nor Elizabeth Halsey (fictional) middle school teacher near Chicago, however, were movie superheroes; they were deeply flawed characters who entered teaching with mixed motives and whose behaviors were closer to immoral than any superhero teacher’s motives and behavior. Why the shift in Hollywood portrayals of teachers?

To be clear, in the two decades mentioned above, Hollywood still pumped out superhero teacher films like Music of the Heart (1999) with Meryl Streep and Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) starring Richard Dreyfus and Erin Gruwell (actual teacher) in Freedom Writers (2007) played by Hilary Swank, there was nonetheless an increase in negative portrayals of teachers. And it is that shift which is puzzling.

Seldom are made-in-Hollywood films about teachers accurate about what happens in schools and teachers; they are not supposed to capture how teachers actually teach or students behave. These films are expected to make money. But they do something else that is less obvious: they express larger social anxieties that Americans feel about education.

Box office revenues matter. They influence the choices studio and independent film-makers make in selecting the stories they want to tell on screen. What did some of the above films earn after being released? The highest money maker* of superhero teachers was Dead Poets Society (1989) with over $180 million (all receipts are in 2015 dollars); second highest was Kindergarten Cop (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger; it grossed $163 million. Bad Teacher (2011) made over $104 million with Freedom Writers (2007) coming in at $41 million. What about Half Nelson (2006)? It earned just over $3 million. The downward trajectory in revenues of Hollywood films about teachers is obvious. That downward slide, however, reflected major changes in the film industry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, fewer Americans went to movies. Home viewing of films proliferated and new technologies with screens of their own cut into Hollywood revenues. To counter that loss of audience, industry film-makers turned to comic book superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men–all of these films grossing $230 to $460 million–doubling to tripling the highest box office hits among teacher films. Out of comic book superheroes, the industry had constructed a money-making machine.

So with films featuring comic book heroes drawing in hundreds of millions of dollars shouldn’t there be more superhero teachers in films in the 2000s? While there were some, negative depictions of teachers increased considerably. Grant argues that the move from superheros to damaged teachers coincided with two changes, one in the film industry’s turn to comic book figures (see above)  and  the unrelenting and decades-long criticism-cum-reforms of U.S. schools.

Harsh and public criticism about failing schools, accompanied by growing centralization of decision-making on schools in state capitols and federal actions, raised serious questions about whether schools are, indeed, social escalators for motivated children and youth to succeed. If U.S. schools are failing and federal intervention is needed, how great can teachers be. A growing social anxiety about teacher and school effectiveness coincided with changes in the film industry. It is in this unplanned intersection of factors that one can come to understand–but not explain–how portrayals of teachers slowly changed. Hollywood films about teachers, then, express the hopes, aspirations, and  yes, the anxieties that screenwriters and audiences feel.

For example, over the past half-century, film-makers and audiences together worried over rebellious teenagers (Blackboard Jungle, 1955) poverty and urban schools (Cooley High, 1975), and uncaring teachers (Bad Teacher, 2011). As Grant put it: “a film provides an arena in which solutions to these cultural anxieties may be considered and reconsidered.”

Because so many factors are involved in figuring out why something happened such as increased numbers of films about damaged, imperfect teachers, the best that any scholar can do is to point out a relationship, a coincidence of factors coming together. It would be foolish to say that one thing or the other caused these negative depictions. What Grant ends up doing is constructing an interpretation of a change she detected in how Hollywood depicted teachers. It is not a cause-effect relationship, it is, well, just a correlation. And I thank her for getting me to think once again about this puzzling change in how teachers have been portrayed in films.

 

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*All statistics come from Derisa Grant’s dissertation, “From Superteacher to ‘Bad Teacher': Goals 2000, Comic Book Films,and Changing Depictions of Cinematic Educators,” June 2015.

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A Plea to Ed Tech Entrepreneurs (Randy Weiner)

Randy Weiner is a co-founder and CEO at BrainQuake, a co-founder at Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, CA and former Board Chair, a former teacher, father to two elementary school-aged daughters. In this post, he uses the phrase “we” to refer to those who, like himself, are high-tech entrepreneurs, start companies aimed at the school market, produce software and “solutions” to educators’ problems, and, in general, want to improve the quality of schooling in the U.S.

Weiner anticipates that some readers will disagree with his definition of ed tech. In comments, if you do disagree, offer your amended or new definition and indicate reasons for changes you would make.

 

Last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for education technology companies to focus on addressing problems that matter. Implicit in the Secretary’s challenge is the assumption that education technology can, in fact, actually have an impact on important education problems and opportunities.

To date, however, precious little efficacy research exists to support this assumption, and it is easy to find data that raises questions about ed tech’s potential.

For example, we ed tech entrepreneurs are flooding schools with ed tech offerings, arguably in a counterproductive manner. Numerous studies and surveys, including Digital Promise’s late 2014 “Improving Ed Tech Purchasing”, find school leaders and teachers are overwhelmed by the number of ed tech offerings foisted upon them, making the task of simply identifying those products that might solve problems that matter unnecessarily challenging.

Also, according to the Annie. E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, between 2005 and 2013, the number of American children living in poverty increased by 3%, from ~13.4M to 16.1M. During roughly that same time period, nearly $2B flowed into ed tech ventures and 2014 alone saw over $1B in U.S. ed tech investment. $2B hardly registers within the context of the U.S. Department of Education budget, but it is roughly one-third of Los Angeles Unified’s school budget and nearly one-tenth of New York City’s Department of Education budget. If one of education’s goals is to increase economic opportunity and lift children out of poverty, ed tech dollars have yet to demonstrate a meaningful impact on children’s prospects.

To rise to the Secretary’s challenge, we in the ed tech community must take a few steps backward to clearly define what we mean by education technology itself.

Ed tech’s fundamental responsibility is to re-imagine the very interface to education. That is, technology, intelligently applied, should reveal insight to previously inaccessible, actionable teaching and learning opportunities that impact student outcomes, whether they pertain to the student, the teacher, the parent, the administrator and/or the community.

We need an ed tech definition that has a sense of pedagogical and education product development history. We need an ed tech definition that reflects an understanding of how to identify and assess a potential innovation related to an education problem that matters. With such a definition, we will improve the probability of aligning technology to opportunities to impact stagnant education problems.

My proposed definition pertains to both existing low tech solutions (for example, Audrey Watters has rightly observed that windows in a classroom ought to be considered instructional technology) that are generally not considered to be “education technology” and future ed tech product development that emphasizes demonstrably improved student outcomes ahead of a product’s codebase.

Education technology is a previously unavailable, best possible and proven interface that increases student achievement on one of the nation’s top three education problems or opportunities.

Let’s take a closer look at the definition’s key components.

*”Previously unavailable”: If your problem is not already successfully addressed by a person, product or service, then you may have an ed tech opportunity.

We in the ed tech community can help simply by checking ourselves: there is no need to develop redundant offerings when schools are already distracted by an overabundance of products.

*”Best possible”: Ed tech developers must force themselves to articulate why the use of technology in their product is unquestionably the absolute best possible choice for impacting student outcomes. Unfortunately, we ed tech entrepreneurs have yet to evolve the following to the cliché it should be: Focus needs to be on problems first, solutions second.

*”Proven” – This word echoes Secretary Duncan’s call for ed tech companies to conduct comparison or control group research – a relative rarity today — to justify a product’s adoption when America’s teachers have not a minute to waste in preparing children to participate in tomorrow’s economy.

*”Interface”: Refer to my initial comments above regarding what it means to view ed tech as an interface to accessing and experiencing education in new ways.

Taken together, “previously unavailable”, “best possible”, “proven” and “interface” combine to form a concise, outcomes-oriented focus for ed tech product development that any education technologist can apply to his or her work.

The last phrase in my definition, “that increases student achievement on one of the nation’s top three problems or opportunities” is equally important.

My own biases suggest that the nation’s top three opportunities include:

1. Future-proofing our children by teaching the concrete creative problem-solving skills and mindsets that consistently produce breakthrough organizations, products and services (non-profit or for-profit

2. Developing a national, lifelong learning culture that imbues children with the creative confidence to change the worl

3. Scaling pedagogy and assessment that recognizes that a “one size fits all” approach may not fit anyone

My point, however, is not to establish that my priorities are correct – of course there will be plenty of disagreement. Rather, the larger point is that we in ed tech should unite to prioritize our efforts so as to minimize redundancy and increase investment focus. Intensely disciplined focus on one to three problems at a time will minimize distractions at the school site and incentivize ed tech entrepreneurs to concentrate on deeply understanding critical problems that limit children’s futures and constrain economic growth.

Fortunately, there is a tool that drives such focus: the X Prize’s community platform, HeroX.

HeroX is not the X Prize, though it is related. HeroX crowdfunds prizes for solutions to problems that matter. At the time of this post, searches for “education technology” and “ed tech” do not yield a single relevant result. The ed tech community could lead by example, banding together to establish a disciplined priority list for U.S. students. Each year a new prize (assuming a past year’s prize has been claimed) could arise to drive focus and innovation on problems that truly matter.

A more focused definition of ed tech can provide guidance for entrepreneurs and stakeholders looking to use technology to improve educational outcomes for children. To date, we in ed tech have flooded the market with unproven products that distract schools from otherwise focusing on serving their children. In doing so, we have attracted billions of dollars that have not changed children’s future at scale. We can do better and we should start with an inspiring definition of and laser focus on what it is we are trying to deliver in the first place.

 

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Cartoons about Blogging and Bloggers

For this monthy feature, it is time to use the sharp pen of the cartoonist on those of us who blog. Teachers, principals, superintendents, academics, and policy analysts blog daily, weekly, and monthly. There are thousands of bloggers out there. Clicking the “publish” button and seeing one’s words out in cyberspace wreaking havoc, being ignored, clamoring for eyes fixed on one’s precious words–well, for those readers who blog, prepare to wince at some of these and maybe, just maybe, smile. Enjoy!

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'I blog, therefore I am.'

‘I blog, therefore I am.’

 

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Coding for Kids: The New Vocational Education

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce

Theodore Search, National Association of Manufacturers, 1898

[K]nowing something about programming makes us competitive as individuals, companies and a nation. The rest of the world is learning code. Their schools teach it, their companies are filled with employees who get it, and their militaries are staffed by programmers — not just gamers with joysticks. According to the generals I’ve spoken with, we are less than a generation away from losing our technological superiority on the cyber battlefield, which should concern a nation depending so heavily on drones for security and electronic trading as an industry.

Finally, learning code — and doing so in a social context — familiarizes people with the values of a digital society: the commons, collaboration and sharing. These are replacing the industrial age values of secrecy or the hoarding of knowledge. Learning how software is developed and how the ecosystem of computer technology really works helps us understand the new models through which we’ll be working and living as a society. It’s a new kind of teamwork, and one that’s under-emphasized in our testing-based school systems.

Douglas Rushkoff, author, teacher, film-maker, 2012

 

Beginning in 1917 and continuing through the 1960s, the federal government appropriated monies for states to spend on vocational training for industrial and commercial jobs. This support made the NAM version of vocational education dominant in public schools for three-quarters of a century. Since the 1980s, however, vocational education has largely disappeared as a formal choice in the curriculum. Career academies and scattered high school courses do pinch-hit and offer some choice to those students uneager to spend four additional years sitting in college classrooms. With the disappearance of the “old” vocational education, a shiny new one is being touted to replace it. Yes, I refer to the shrill cries for more computer science and the teaching of coding to children and youth. Enter the “new” vocationalism.

You do not need a Ph.D. to figure out that the past thirty years have forged strong links between the economy and public schooling. The primary purpose for K-12 schools in recent decades has been crisply defined as preparing each child for college and career. Completing college, of course, is basically geared to getting decent paying jobs. So becoming college-ready means that higher education is really a vocational school. Advocates for coding and requiring computer science as a subject seek to expand the K-12 curriculum (or replace other content and skills) by adding a C to the three Rs.

Let’s say that champions of coding and the subject of computer science succeed in lobbying policymakers to mandate the teaching of programming in elementary and secondary schools. And, further, they strike gold in getting policymakers to insert coding into the national Common Core standards and state graduation requirements. Their success would be unstoppable were a coalition of coding supporters to hit the even larger political jackpot. That is, adding new multiple choice questions to state tests that ask students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in programming a piece of software. In an already jam-packed curriculum of reading, math, social studies, science, foreign language–don’t forget those prerequisite courses in middle school that put students on track to take math, science, and history Advanced Placement courses in high school–what would get less class time or is dropped completely? Those opposed to dropping required subjects for graduation could then–in concert with coding champions call for a longer school day by adding an hour to the daily schedule. By now, readers should get the picture of growing support for a “new” vocational education.

Public schools, then, have experienced two spasms of vocationally-driven reform. One created the  “old vocational education” in the early 20th century endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers and now the “new vocational education” nearly a century later, endorsed by high-tech CEOs spreading the gospel for teaching children to code and take computer science courses. Then and now, policymakers saw an intimate connection between a strong economy and strong schools. And that is why Theodore Search and Douglas Rushkoff could easily have sat down and had a cold beer together.

 

 

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The Day of Three Miracles (Education Realist)

 For over thirty years, market-driven policies to improve schooling in the U.S. such as standards, testing and accountability have had at their core the belief that both academic excellence and equity–two prized values in this culture–can be achieved at the same time. From No Child Left Behind to Core Curriculum standards, these values advance this belief that both are simultaneously achievable. What Jack Schneider calls “excellence for all” approach to school reform. When value-driven policies meet school and classroom practice, when resources are limited and choices have to be made, however, dilemmas occur because values often conflict and resources are limited. Choices have to be made. Education Realist describes such tensions when academic excellence and equity collide in this story about a high school math department.

Education Realist is a math and history teacher. I have visited this teacher’s classes in math and history on two occasions, and have come to respect the method and curriculum I’ve observed. Education Realist, who wishes to remain anonymous, is also one fine writer who explores tensions and dilemmas that teachers face. Here is one.

A colleague who I’ll call Chuck is pushing the math department to set a department goal. Chuck is in the process of upgrading our algebra 1 classes, and his efforts were really improving outcomes for mid to high ability levels, although the failure rates were a tad terrifying. He has been worried for a while that the successful algebra kids would be let down by subsequent math teachers who would hold his kids to lower standards.

“If we set ourselves the goal of getting one kid from freshman algebra all the way through to pass AP Calculus, we’ll improve instruction for everyone.” (Note: while the usual school year doesn’t allow enough time, our “4×4 full-metal block” schedule makes it possible for a dedicated kid to take a double year of math if he chooses).

Chuck isn’t pushing this goal for the sake of that one kid, as he pointed out in a recent meeting. “If we are all thinking about the kid who might make it to calculus, we’ll all be focused on keeping standards high, on making sure that we are teaching the class that will prepare that kid–if he exists–to pass AP Calculus.”

I debated internally, then spoke up. “I think the best way to evaluate your proposal is by considering a second, incompatible objective. Instead of trying to prepare every kid who starts out behind as if he can get to calculus, we could try to improve the math outcomes for the maximum number of students.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could look at our historical math completion patterns for entering freshmen algebra students, and try to improve on those outcomes. Suppose that a quarter of our freshmen take algebra. Of those students, 10% make it to pre-calc or higher. 30% make it to trigonometry, 50% make it to algebra 2, and the other 10% make it to geometry or less. And we set ourselves the goal of reducing the percentages of students who get no further than geometry or even, ideally, algebra 2, while increasing the percentages of kids who make it into trigonometry and pre-calc by senior year.”

“That’s what will happen with my proposal, too.”

“No. You want us to set standards higher, to ensure that kids getting through each course are only those qualified enough to go to Calculus and pass the AP test. That’s a small group anyway, and while you’re more sanguine than I am about the efficacy of instruction on academic outcomes, I think you’ll agree that a large chunk of kids simply won’t be the right combination of interested and capable to go all the way through.”

“Yes, exactly. But we can teach our classes as if they are.”

“Which means we’ll lose a whole bunch of kids who might be convinced to try harder to pass advanced math classes that weren’t taught as if the only objective was to pass calculus. Thus those kids won’t try, and our overall failure rate will increase. This will lower math completion outcomes.”

Chuck waved this away. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing incompatible about increasing math completion and setting standards high enough to get kids from algebra to calculus. We can do both.”

I opened my mouth…and decided against further discussion. I’d made my point. Half the department probably agreed with me. So I decided not to argue. No, really. It was, like, a miracle.

Chuck asked us all to think about committing to this instruction model.

Later that day, I ran into Chuck in the copyroom, and lo, a second miracle took place.

“Hey,” he said. “I just realized you were right. We can’t have both. If we get the lowest ability kids motivated just to try, we have to have a C to offer them, and that lowers the standard for a C, which ripples on up. We can’t keep kids working for the highest quality of A if we lower the standards for failure.”

Both copiers were working. That’s three.

**************************************************************

I do not discuss my colleagues to trash them, and if this story in any way reflects negatively on Chuck it’s not intentional. Quite the contrary, in fact. Chuck took less than a day to grasp my point and realized his goal was impossible. We couldn’t enforce higher standards in advanced math without dooming far more kids to failure, which would never be tolerated.

Thus the two of us collapsed a typical reform cycle to six hours from the ten years our country normally takes to abandon a well-meant but impossible chimera. …

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High School Student Use of Computers: A Survey

Getting data from high school students on what computer devices they have, how often they use them, and for what purposes is uncommon.

In 2014-2015, a Northern California high school teacher, Sara Denniston (pseudonym), (see here and here) surveyed 211 of her history students about their daily use of computer devices, the devices they use, and whether they like to read online. For questions on the survey she constructed the choices that students picked. She gave me permission to use the results of her student survey. All numbers below are percentages.

How many digital devices do you have access to? (desktop, laptop,smart phone, tablet, iPod Touch)

one         two          three           four          five

6               33              36              16             8

Of those digital devices, 84 % of the students had smart phones.

 

Your attitude toward reading online?

 “I prefer reading online” “Reading online is OK but I prefer reading on paper”    “I hate reading online
               35            60                   5

 

How much time do you spend online each day ?

Less than an hour 1-2 hours 2-4 hours Five or more hours “too many”
4 30 40 10 15

 

How comfortable are you with finding info online and navigating websites?

Very competent/comfortable Somewhat comfortable Not comfortable at all
84                  15               1

 

 

What do these data tell me?

First, are the responses from 211 students representative of all high school students? This Northern California high school has nearly 1800 students with about half white and half minority (Asian and Latino). Nearly 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 95 percent attend college after graduation. About one-third of the students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent of test-takers qualifying for college credit. So the students surveyed here represent high-performing students from middle- and upper-middle-class families determined to see their sons and daughters get a college degree. But what about students who attend academically low-performing schools in largely poor communities?

And that is my second point. Were this high school teacher’s survey given to students in schools that are de-facto segregated and poor what might be the results? A recent Pew Research Center survey of teenager use of devices, for example, found:

Nearly three-quarters of teens have or have access to a smartphone and 30% have a basic phone, while just 12% of teens 13 to 17 say they have no cell phone of any type. African-American teens are the most likely of any group of teens to have a smartphone, with 85% having access to one, compared with 71% of both white and Hispanic teens. These phones and other mobile devices have become a primary driver of teen internet use: Fully 91% of teens go online from mobile devices at least occasionally. Among these “mobile teens,” 94% go online daily or more often. By comparison, teens who don’t access the internet via mobile devices tend to go online less frequently. Some 68% go online at least daily. African-American and Hispanic youth report more frequent internet use than white teens. Among African-American teens, 34% report going online “almost constantly” as do 32% of Hispanic teens, while 19% of white teens go online that often.

Does the high use of hand-held devices among minority teens, then, mean that the digital divide outside of schools no longer exists? Maybe. Yet in most of these schools–but not those that have Bring-Your-Own-Devices (BYOD)–you see the common sign in hallways and classrooms:

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In most urban, low-performing schools, administrators and teachers see hand-held devices as serious distractions to the central task of improving academic achievement. Thus, de-facto segregated, low-performing schools are unready for BYOD. Unready also for another reason.

That reason is my third point. Do students learn more, faster, and better with BYOD? Cost-efficient as BYOD may appear to be does not mean that it is cost-effective. Advocates of BYOD cannot say with any degree of confidence that students learn more by having 1:1 access to their devices in classrooms. What is of greater importance, of course, are those crucial factors that come into play in determining whether students have learned: the teacher’s expertise and experience, her pedagogy, the socioeconomic background of students, the culture of the school and other influences. With all of the pluses and minuses accompanying 1:1 laptops and tablets, researchers and practitioners still tiptoe around the unanswered question: How much and in what ways do these devices contribute to students’ academic achievement?

Learning about students’ ownership of devices, how often they go online, what they like and dislike about using mobiles and tablets through surveys is helpful information to teachers. But such helpful information does not touch the important issues of how best to integrate devices and software into daily lessons and whether such integrated use increases students’ academic achievement.

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Shadowing Students: Lessons a Veteran Teacher Learned (Part 2)

The following account was posted on Grant Wiggins’ blog October 10, 2014. It comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Learning Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid Wiggins kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different from his experiences or my own experience in sitting in high school classes in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Moreover, I, Craig Peck, and Heather Kirkpatrick shadowed 12 high school students for a study of classroom technology use in 1998-1999. Since then I have shadowed three students in 2010 for another study of high schools. My experience in shadowing (and interviewing) the students is consistent with this teacher’s account.

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year. My job is to work with teachers and admins. to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Geometry

9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: World History

1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Math

9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: English

1:25 – 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things:

  • mandatory stretch halfway through the class
  • put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play
  • in the first and final minutes of class
  • build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.

Key Takeaway #2

High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test. So, I don’t mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes. But still, hand in hand with takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students’ day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
  • set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
  • Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.

Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, “OK, once again, let me explain…”

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
  • I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
  • I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

 I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.

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GRANT WIGGINS’ COMMENTS ON THIS POST:

“Wow. The response to this post has been overwhelming – over 150,000 page hits so far – and over 800 emails to me requesting further info.

So, instead of replying by email, my response and resources I promised can now be found below:

AE Student Survey 2014-15

AE Shadow Student

Survey Letter 2014

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