Teaching Biology at Mountain View High School: Technology Integration

As the chime sounds for students to come to their 90-minute Biology I class, Lyuda Shemyakina stands at the door welcoming each student. A “hello,” “good morning,” an exchange of pleasantries or information about homework, quickly passes between teacher and student. It is the morning of September 28, 2016.

These 9th graders enter a large room half of which contains lab tables in the rear and half of which has student desks facing the front whiteboards and teacher’s desk. The front whiteboard is filled with weekly homework instructions for students, the day’s agenda, the lesson’s objective, and upcoming events.



At the beginning of this period every day are the Mountain View High School* video announcements produced and directed by students. The two anchors of the five minute program say that the day is “World Day” (the teacher says that she is wearing her T-shirt from Barcelona). Anchors describe upcoming events, meetings that day, and announcements from various students. As I scan the room, 26 students’ eyes look to the screen. In other schools, announcements come into each room via a loudspeaker and students chat, surf their laptop and tablet screens, or stare into space. Not here.

After the announcements end, Shemyakina turns to the “bell ringer,” an ice-breaker or launching activity, for the hour-and-a-half lesson. On the screen is a slide:

Look back at your model on p. 18**. What were you not sure about? What were you pretty confident about? What questions do you have?


Example: I am not sure I drew the chromosome correctly because ….

In an earlier lesson, students had been asked to draw a model showing how DNA, chromosomes, and genes are related in a cell.

Shemyakina walks around the room checking that students are looking at the models they drew or working on drawing or answering questions on the “bell ringer”slide.

Students around me are at varying stages of finishing up the exercise. Shemyakina announces end of time and moves to the agenda for the day.

*Refine Model

*Introduce/plan Lab

Moving around the room, she uses a clicker connected to her laptop, to project a series of slides asking students to review the DNA model on p. 18, determine where their model was correct and incorrect, what editing does it need, and what new information they want to add.

She then flashes on the screen a three minute animated video on “Genes, DNA, and Chromosomes.” As the video plays, I scan the room and see that about half are taking notes as they watch. I do not see any student that appears to be off-task, looking secretly at smart phone in their laps, etc.

Sensing that the video, while catchy with its animation, may have not stuck with students, she runs it again. Many students are now taking notes. Afterwards, she directs students to speak to their partner and review the models they created with one another and answer questions on slides she showed earlier.

Teacher walks up and down aisles looking at students’ work and asking questions. She asks one student: “Where is your cell?” A quick exchange ensues. After looking at students’ work and listening to back-and-forth between partners, Shemyakina explains about the 23 pairs of chromosomes human beings have and the range of genes in each numbered chromosome. She uses example of Angelina Jolie and the gene (BRCA) for breast cancer that Jolie discovered after a genetic test and then had subsequent surgery. Teacher again distinguishes between DNA, genes, and chromosomes. She asks class if there are any questions. No student responds.

Shemyakina then moves to another task that asks students to show that they understand relationship between DNA, chromosomes, and genes. Asking the students to turn around to face two students behind them and form small groups, she gives each group the task of making up an analogy that shows links between genes, DNA, and chromosomes.

Slide appears on front screen: DNA is like……. A gene is like …… a chromosome is like …. [on the slide, is a box that gives examples of possible analogies: a book, school, USB drive, knit sweater]

I look around the room and see that all of the groups are seemingly working on creating an analogy. Except the one near me. Teacher comes by and asks members of group for ideas they have to show relationship, they volunteer suggestions—Shemyakina mentions another group’s idea that a gene is like a pair of jeans—and this nearby group settles into working on task after teacher goes to another group.

Teacher signals end of analogy task and wants the class to see what various groups came up with. She asks students to take out their tablets and laptops***and puts a slide on the front screen:

Go to socrative.com


Name all members

Submit your analogies

A ding sounds as each group sends in their analogy. Their analogy appears on the screen. Teacher walks around classroom to see that each group sends in their answer. She asks students to read each one and then consider which best gets at the relationship between DNA, genes, and chromosomes. She asks them to vote. After a minute, she shows the top three vote-getters.

She analyzes each of the three for strengths and flaws. For example, Shemyakina elaborates one group’s analogy to a library. The chromosome is the library; the book is the DNA; the shelf is the gene. She agrees with this comparison.

At this point, the teacher segues to an explanation of DNA strands, how long they are, and that they are twisted compactly into double helices. To get at this, Shemyakina shows a brief animated video of a cell, the nucleic zone, and how DNA strands are twisted and densely tied yet can be seen under electron microscopes. She asks students at the end of the video to edit their models, adding or subtracting information that they now have. I see some students doing that; others conferring with partners.

After about five minutes, Shemyakina shifts attention to the question: “What’s bigger—a gene or chromosome?” Students listen as she explains that the average human has 23 chromosomes; the smallest chromosome has 200 genes. Each parent contributes 23 chromosomes to a baby. One student asks question about the Y chromosome and determining sex. Another student asks similar question. Teacher points out that these are fine questions and the class will take sex determination up in a later unit.

With about 35 minutes left in the 90-minute class, Shemyakina segues to the impending lab on cell size. The next half-hour is preparing students for the central lab question: Is it better for cells to be small or big? Why?

Students assigned as “material managers” pass out orange worksheets**** that will guide the lab they will prepare for now and do in the next lesson. She asks students to work with their partner in answering the first question about the size of the cells in the largest mammal—the blue whale—and the smallest mammal, the pygmy shrew. The worksheet question not only asks for an answer but also asks student to write down their reasoning behind what they answered (see below, first page of worksheet)

Name: _________________________________Period: _______Date: _______________

Cell Size Investigation:

Is it better for cells to be small or big? Why?

Introduction, part 1

The blue whale is the largest mammal in the world. The pygmy shrew is one of the smallest mammals in the world. How does the size of average cells compare between a blue whale and a pygmy shrew?

  1. The average cell of a blue whale is smaller than the average cell of a pygmy shrew.
  2. The average cell of a blue whale is larger than the average cell of a pygmy shrew.
  3. The average cell of a blue whale is about the same size as the average cell of a pygmy shrew.

I think answer ____is correct. My reasoning is ___________________________________________



Introduction, part 2

In this lab, you will investigate whether big or small cells are more efficient at taking in materials and removing waste.  All cells need materials, like sugar and oxygen, to function properly. Similarly, all cells produce waste, like heat, carbon dioxide, and lactic acid, that must be removed from the cell.

To visualize this, imagine running at full speed. When you run that fast, your cell start to produce lactate (also known as lactic acid), and after 10-20 seconds, you start to feel burning in your arms and legs. Lactate causes this burning. Lactic acid is a waste product that cells produce when they’re burning sugar and making energy very quickly. If cells couldn’t get rid of lactic acid, they would become too acidic to function! So, we come back to these questions: is it better for (muscle) cells to be big or small? Will a big or small cell get rid of lactic acid faster?  (to read more about lactic acid and sore muscles, go to tinyurl.com/Lactate123).

I think __________________ (small or large) cells can rid of lactic acid faster.  My reasoning is ______




Shemyakina circulates through classroom asking partners what their answers are about cell size in blue whale and pygmy shrew. She asks about their reasoning. She tells class that if they want to revise their answer, they should do so. After about five minutes, she directs the class to the second question on whether big and small cells are more efficient in feeding and eliminating waste. The handout has an example of a person running and building up lactic acid that causes burning in muscles. She asks partners to help one another in answering question of whether small or large muscle cells can get rid of lactic acid faster. Again the handout asks students to give their reasoning.

I look around the room and see nearly all students working with partners or shifting to small groups of four to discuss their answers and reasoning. Shemyakina goes up down aisles checking what small groups and partners are writing and discussing.

After alerting students they have a minute to finish up answer, she moves to final activity in preparing for lab that will answer the question about cell size. On each of the lab tables are small potatoes, a metric ruler, string, and thermometer (see above photo).

For next 15 minutes, Shemyakina explains how measuring the size of anything is complicated. She uses slides to show that in measuring the size of humans, you can measure top of head to toes or hand to hand with outstretched arms. She gives similar examples for weight and surface area of a person. Then she shifts to potato and says: “You must have some way of measuring the size of your big and small potatoes.”

A slide shows ways of capturing measurements through mathematical equations or written words.

She asks students to begin answering the lab question on big vs. small cells on their worksheets. A few students go to the lab tables and pick up potatoes, rulers, and string to figure out how best to measure the vegetable. Partners and small groups, as I look around the room, are engaged in the task. I do see a few of the 15 year-olds off-task for a minute or two and then re-engage with small group. Shemyakina cruises through the room asking questions of students and listening to partners as they explain what they are doing. She tells one small group that they should check pages 7 and 11 in their notebook to get help on what they are doing now.

With a few minutes left, Shemyakina asks for “eyeballs up here” and goes over what is due for their next class—turning in completed worksheet–and upcoming dates for work to be turned in.

Chime sounds to end Biology I class. I stay a few minutes longer—it is 15-minute brunch time in the schedule—to ask Shemyakina a few final questions about the lesson. I thank her for inviting me into her class.


* Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16

** The page number refers to a notebook that each student has filled with worksheets and handouts the teacher has given students for daily lessons. So “p. 18” refers to the DNA lesson (including the lab exercise) that the class is currently working on.

***Two years ago, after teacher-led- pilot programs, the district required high schools to use a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) program where students brought from home their tablets and laptops. For students who did not have a home computer or what they had broke down, the school made chromebooks available.

****According to Shemyakina, five biology teachers designed this worksheet. After meeting face-to-face, they collaborated further by using Google Docs. They did this for all parts of the unit so teachers were using the same lab and could compare what students were doing in each lab.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Cartoons about Teachers and Little Kids in and Out of School

For this month, I have collected a bunch of cartoons about pre-school, kindergarten, and family interaction with young children. Some made me laugh out loud and some made me smile. Whatever your reaction, enjoy the cartoonists’ pens as they capture feelings, ideas, and complaints that articles and books cannot. Enjoy !













Filed under Uncategorized

Why Is Schooling, After Adopting Computers, Yet To Be Transformed?

Today, robots build autos, assemble electronic devices, put together appliances, and make machinery. Automation has eliminated most bank tellers, white collar clerks and secretaries, salespersons, and dozens of other occupations. U.S. Agriculture has become industrialized and family farms have largely disappeared in the last two generations. Whole industries have been transformed by the advent of the computer. Moreover, from drafting plans for buildings to doing legal research to managing insurance claims, computers and software algorithms have either replaced people or reduced numbers of employees. Business leaders of large and mid-size companies seek increased productivity and lower costs in producing products and services. None of this is new. Greater efficiency, higher productivity and increased profit margins. But not in schools.

Surely, since the early 1980s when desktop computers appeared in public schools, administrators have applied business software to personnel, purchasing, transportation, food services, and assembling big data sets for managers to use in making decisions. And, yes, cuts in school employees have occurred. But these efficiencies have yet to transform classrooms.

If the inner workplace of schooling, the classroom, came late to the surge of automation, robots, and personal computers, then that helps to explain, in part, why so many teachers and principals in the past have perceived these powerful devices as an add-on to their work, something else that policymakers, parents, and administrators expected teachers to do in classrooms. The advent of higher curriculum standards, high-stakes testing, and coercive accountability since the mid-1980s pressured teachers to concentrate on content and skill standards that were tested. I said, “in part,” because this perception of an additional task (OK, burden) differs greatly from private sector employers who eagerly automated occupational tasks and transformed professional work (e.g., engineers, architects, financial analysts, online marketers).

Beyond the perception of a burden foisted onto teachers as a partial explanation, surely, minimal student access to computers in the 1980s and much of the 1990s also accounts for the snail’s pace of adoption and use. Yet many teachers and principals were early adopters and enthusiasts for applying new technologies to classroom tasks. Much evidence from teacher surveys, direct observation of lessons, bloggers, and researcher accounts clearly establishes that, as hardware and software became available in classrooms, many practitioners became regular users of new technologies in their classrooms.

What puzzles many policymakers, reformers, and vendors, however, is that while computer accessibility and use have spread, no transformation in teaching and learning has occurred leaving contemporary classrooms seemingly similar to ones a half-century ago.

I have some thoughts on why this slowness of change and the deja vu feeling of classroom familiarity over decades is puzzling.

First, districts, schools, and classrooms are not command-and-control organizations (e.g., NASA, IBM, U.S. Army) where top leaders decide policy, employees put policies into practice pronto, and crisp outcomes measure effectiveness. Schools are complex, relationship-bound networks of adults and children seeking multiple goals (e.g., literacies, socializing the young into community values, civic participation, vocational preparation, and solid moral character). They are loosely coupled organizations—the journey from school board policy to a kindergarten classroom is closer to a butterfly path than a speeding bullet. In such organizations,savvy about how the system works, subject and skill expertise and trust are essentials to the building of relationships and getting things done from the classroom to the superintendent’s office. Well-intentioned reformers seldom see these organizational differences between command-and-control companies and schools as important. They are.

Second, public schools are not profit-seeking organizations. They are community-building institutions that not only perform crucial social and political tasks for the larger society but also promise parents an individual escalator for their sons and daughters to acquire success. Organizational cultures that pervade the best schools (e.g., intellectual achievement, caring, collaboration) differ dramatically from for-profit companies. Change-driven reformers overlook these cultural differences.

Third, teaching is a helping profession. Doctors and nurses, teachers, social workers, and therapists are helping professionals whose success is tied completely to those who come for their expertise: patients, students, clients. All patients, students, and clients enter into a relationship with these professionals that influence but do not determine the outcomes either in better health, learning, and personal growth. Professionals depend upon those who they help for their success–no doctor says I succeeded but the patient died. No teacher says that I taught well but the student didn’t learn. No therapist says that I listened well, gave superb advice but the client didn’t improve. Both need one another to reach goals they both seek. And it is the relationship between the professional and patient, student, and client that matters. Not net profits at the end of the fiscal year. Policymakers and high-tech companies eager to transform practice through new technologies ignore the essential fact that these professionals are not there to become rich or famous, they are there to help others.

And this is how I am beginning to make sense out of the puzzle why new technologies, successful in overhauling many industries, have yet to transform teaching and learning.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Teaching Advanced Placement U.S. History at Los Altos High School: Technology Integration

I observed Gabriel Stewart’s 90-minute class on September 15, 2016. Stewart, wearing a maroon polo shirt over a muscled upper body with dark slacks, is a 19 year veteran teacher* at Los Altos High School** (and baseball coach). In this lesson, he had set aside this period to give a 75-item multiple choice test on early 19th century political and social changes during the first half of the class and then do a practice Document-Based Question in the remaining 45 minutes. The AP course is geared to the spring exam. Stewart alerts students often during this class about the importance of being aware of time in answering questions and knowing basic knowledge of the period under study. The text for the course is American Pageant by Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy.

The furniture arrangement is five rows of desks facing the front white board and teacher’s desk in one corner. Bulletin boards are filled with newspaper articles, maps, announcements and photos. On one side of the room bulletin board sheets of paper carried previous AP classes’ records in passing the AP exam (getting a three or higher).


During the test, students filled in a Scantron sheet recording their answers to such questions as

9. John C. Calhoun’s “South Carolina Exposition” was an argument for:

a. Secession.

b. Protective tariffs.

c. Majority rule.

d. States rights

23. As a cure for the panic of 1837, the Whigs recommended all of the following measures except:

a. Expanded bank credit

b. Higher tariffs

c. Subsidies for internal improvements

d. The “Divorce” bill.

74. Most of the utopian communities in pre-1860s America held ______ as one of their founding ideals.

a. rugged individualism

b.cooperative efforts

c. capitalism

d. opposition to communism

During the test, Stewart would walk around the room and from time to time tell the students how much time was remaining to finish the test. Early finishers turned in their filled-out Scantron forms and worked at their desks using their tablets and laptops, reading, etc.

After 45 minutes, Stewart asks for sheets from few remaining students. The student-produced video announcements come on the screen and for next five minutes those in the class are rapt and listening, laughing at the student anchor’s one-liners and funny events scheduled for the next week.

After the announcements Stewart asks students to take out their devices and go to the DBQ they will work on for the rest of the period. When he starts speaking there is a rising level of talk, and a few students say “shush” and the class quiet’s down.

There are six documents in this DBQ that the students are examining. The task is for the class to write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement: “Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals.”

Stewart directs the class to use the template that he has used with class before in analyzing each document and then begin writing “a coherent essay” about the six excerpts from primary sources.

The practice guide students use has the following directions:

For each DBQ document fill out the columns of the chart [see below]. Then write a thesis/introductory paragraph for the DBQ.  After completing the first two tasks complete the chart by filling in your examples of outside information (the last row).

The three columns are labeled: Document, Context of Document, How will you use the document/outside info in your answer?

Below the three columns, the DBQ practice template leaves space for each student to write a thesis paragraph.

The documents for the students to analyze are quotes from leading figures in the various reforms in the early 19th century such as Charles Finney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Samuel Morse, William Garrison, a chart about growth of political parties in the first half of 19th century, and a contemporary political cartoon on the temperance movement .

As he moves swiftly through questions on practice chart, he salts his sentences with “homeboy,” “dude,” and “my bad.” On one question about the Seneca Falls Declaration (1848), he asks what the word “domesticity” means. One student offers an answer and then without saying that it was correct, he calls on another student who says that Mary “nailed it” and she doesn’t want to add to it.

I scan the class and do not see any disengaged students, or ones off-task.

The teacher asks the class to work on filling in the DBQ practice chart with each document. “You can work together,” he says. “See if you can knock out the 6 items in 10 minutes.” Students turn to a partner sitting next to them or across a row and begin reading each excerpt and filling in chart. Teacher walks around to check what pairs and trios are doing on their screens.

After about ten minutes, Stewart takes some student questions about the timed AP exam next semester. The teacher says that time is crucial, he begins snapping fingers in time, saying: “Remember you are paying $93 and you spend four hours taking the test.”

Now, Stewart turns to next task of writing a “coherent essay.” He asks them to begin with a thesis statement for the essay. Again, he stresses the importance of time and how each student has to figure out how long it will take to read document, get at its essence, and begin writing a sentence that summarizes the excerpts. He asks students to “estimate how long it will take you to write a thesis statement .” Students respond with different amounts of time. Stewart listens and say let’s take 10 minutes to write the thesis statement. “You can work together.”

Before releasing students to the task, teacher says “let’s go over these ‘dudes.’ “ For the next 10 minutes, Stewart asks who each person is, what reform movement they were involved in and the connections between the reform and democracy in early 19th century U.S. For example, when Stewart comes to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, he asks class what “compact” means in excerpt. Student says the correct answer, “the Constitution.” This back and forth teacher guided discussion of the facts embedded in each excerpt including the cartoon continues for about 10 minutes.

Interspersed in the exchanges between teacher and student are references to the AP exam, in particular the importance of putting in details they know outside of the document. One student mentions the Masonic political party and Stewart says that such a detail may well convince the readers grading the exam that student is knowledgeable about this period.

“Can anyone think of outside details that can be brought in and discussed that would show you know this stuff?” Students mention Brook Farm, Transcendentalism, literature of the day. Another student offers example of Webster-Hayne debate over tariffs. Stewart adds in other topics such as states rights and nullification. “ You know a lot so remembering what you know when you are writing an essay is important.”

Stewart then asks students to write thesis statement for the essay: “Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals.”

I scan the class and see that all pairs and trios are talking to one another, clicking away on their screens, and occasionally asking the teacher a question as he traverses the perimeter of the class.

A few minutes later chime goes off and Stewart reminds class of assignment for next class meeting and students leave. There is the scheduled brunch break for 15 minutes. Three students linger and ask content questions about the various reformers. Stewart listens and comments. Students leave after five minutes.


*I have known Stewart since he was student in my team taught social studies Curriculum and Instruction course in a university teacher education program nearly 20 years ago. I have not seen him teach since he was in that program although we have seen one another on occasion since we live in the same neighborhood. When I visited his high school to see other teachers in September, I stopped into his classroom to say hello, hearing about my observations, he then invited me into his AP U.S. History class.

** Los Altos high school has over 1900 students (2015) and its demography is mostly students of color (in percentages, Latino 28, Asian 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 45 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 22 percent. Fourteen percent of students are learning disabled and just over four percent of LAHS students are English language learners.

Academically, 99 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 20 AP courses—37 percent of the student body take at least one AP course and of those students taking AP tests– 83 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. LAHS has been rated repeatedly as one of the top high schools (52nd out of over 1330 in the state and 339h in the nation’s 26,000 high schools). The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). See here, here, here, here, and here.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Policy-to-Practice Metaphors: Chain of Command, Pasta, or Medley Relay Races?

Metaphors can get people to think about the essence of organizations and how they work.

Take the U.S. Army’s command-and-control structures, generals believe that their decisions can steer what infantry platoons do in the field. Yet the metaphor of the “fog of war” and a history of misunderstanding orders at the company and platoon levels during battles suggest that even in command-and-control structures,decisions moving down the chain of authority may turn out far differently than intended. Novels and memoirs from War and Peace to Jarhead, films from The Longest Day to Platoon, and officer and enlisted men reports make that point.

School district organizational charts resemble military organizations with structures showing authority flowing downward from the board of education to teachers. Here also, the belief that policymakers can frame problems, adopt solutions, and steer classroom practice prevails. Yet school districts are hardly command-and-control operations since new policies get interpreted and re-interpreted by different actors at each link of the supposed chain of authority as they proceed downward into classrooms.

And it is in classrooms where teachers make decisions about what the policy is and which parts, if any, get implemented. What was intended by policymakers may well turn out to be something quite different. The metaphor of a linked chain for putting educational policies into practice is inapt. A better image than links in a chain is pasta to represent the policy-to-practice journey. Consider the following two examples.

Mrs. O., a veteran California second grade teacher in the late-1980s had embraced a new math curriculum aimed at replacing students’ rote memorization with mathematical understanding. A researcher observed Mrs. O teach and interviewed her many times. She saw herself as a success story, a teacher who had revolutionized her mathematics teaching. But classroom observations revealed that her practices were really old wine in new bottles. Yes, Mrs. O was now dividing students into groups–an innovation–but the groups memorized rules taken from the new text. In short, Mrs. O’s blended traditional and innovative practices to create lessons that transformed the state policy directive into something quite different from what policymakers had intended.

Interactive whiteboards. Replacing traditional classroom chalkboards, TV monitors, and DVDs, these wall-mounted electronic devices connect a desktop computer and projector to a whiteboard where teachers can click keys to show videos, visit websites immediately, and call upon other sources of information. A stylus permits teachers and students to write on the whiteboard to do math problems, point out aspects of lava flows from erupting volcanoes, and allow teachers to record their lessons as digital video files for students to review at a later time.

Promoters have hailed interactive white boards as a technology that will transform teaching and learning.

A reporter described Spanish teacher Crystal Corn’s high school class in Cumming, Georgia: “[Corn’s students] … use a stylus at the whiteboard to match pictures and vocabulary words, they use it to visit Web sites that feature news from Spanish-speaking countries, and they even made a music video and played it in class on the whiteboard. This school year, Corn plans to use the interactive whiteboard to hold videoconferences with classes in other countries.”

Sounds terrific. But over years, I have observed nearly 30 classrooms using interactive whiteboards in different districts. I saw versions of Mrs. O again and again. Consider the dozen high school math teachers that I observed using whiteboards daily. Nearly every one began the lesson with a “brain teaser,” or “warm-up,” reviewed homework problems, had students use the stylus on the whiteboard to show how they solved particularly difficult ones, introduced new material, asked if students had any questions, then assigned new problems for homework. In short, these math teachers in different cities used traditional math lessons with an innovative high-tech device. Yet those teachers spoke rapturously about how these interactive whiteboards had enhanced their teaching. Hello, Mrs. O.

So what if the policy-to-practice continuum is best captured by the image of spaghetti than iron-welded links in a chain? The answer is again found in the four questions I have raised in previous posts:

  1. Was the policy aimed at altering how teachers teach fully implemented?
  2. Did teaching practices change as a result of the implementation?
  3. Did those changed teaching practices lead to changes in student performance?
  4. Did those changes in student performance achieve school and district goals?

There is a catch, however, to answering the second question. I do not know if Mrs. O and those math teachers using their interactive whiteboards captured their typical teaching practices before the researchers sat down in the back of their rooms. Perhaps the new curriculum policy and high-tech device did. We won’t know until more systematic classroom observations occur. Very little occurs now in districts. School policymakers facing their own “fog of war” can only guess how teachers teach daily.

Yet teachers make daily policy decisions in their classrooms. When teachers work collaboratively within schools and districts, when policymakers work closely with teachers to make decisions that touch classrooms, when teachers run their own schools as in Minnesota, links-in-a-chain and pasta metaphors are inappropriate. More apt may be metaphors of organizational collaboration such as a team white-water rafting or a medley relay of swimmers in a meet. Seldom are those images used.

Links in a chain? Pasta? Medley relays? Without more documentation of that journey from policymaking suites to, say, a 5th grade classroom lesson, rival metaphors will continue to vie for attention in capturing truly what happens in schools.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Teaching Spanish at Mountain View High School: Technology Integration

The 50-minute Spanish 2 Honors class began September 27, 2016 with a “bell ringer” exercise. The teacher has a slide on the screen with 10 sentences. The task is for students to put the verb into the past tense (Pon la forma del verbo en el preterito Pon la forma del verbo en el preterito).The class had worked on conjugating verbs and the past tense during the previous class. The 29 students have their laptops and tablets out and are working at their desks for the first 10 minutes.*

Desks in the room are arranged in a horseshoe with two rows on each side and in the middle leaving a large open space where the teacher stands. The teacher’s desk is in the front of the room where whiteboards and screen are located. Walls have posters of artist Diego Rivera, a toreador, and other art objects. On the ledge above the front whiteboards are paper mache figures of dogs, parrots, and a crocodile.












David Campbell has taught 16 years, the last eight at Mountain View** High School. Tall and confident in demeanor, he is wearing dressy dark jeans and a light blue shirt with a multi-colored bow tie (he tells me that “it’s bow tie day at the school). The class, except for a few instances, is conducted entirely in Spanish.


Campbell signals the 10th and 11th grade students that the opening exercise is over. He asks students to lower the lids of their devices. They do. Then he goes over each sentence with the class—using a laser pointer to hit each sentence on the screen—focusing on the correct past tense of each verb. The teacher asks choral questions, that is, ones that are undirected to particular students. Many, but not all, students quietly, almost murmuring, answer. This call-and-response pattern of questioning continued throughout the lesson. Occasionally he will direct a question to a certain student who answers. Often, Campbell says “excelente” and “muy bien” to both class and individual responses.

The teacher then segues to another activity. Using the game-based software Kahoot, students open their devices to the program and click to the slide on their screen that is exactly like the one showing on the screen in front of the room. This is a timed exercise. A bouncy tune starts and students go over 10 sentences selecting from among multiple choices the correct past tense for a regular or irregular verb. A countdown of how many seconds are left to complete the exercise shows on screen. As students tap in their answers, the number of students who submitted answers hits 10, 18, and then 29. All of this appears on a slide on the screen as well as the teacher’s laptop where he can see each of his student’s answers. When all students have submitted their responses, Campbell taps a key and a bar chart of the students’ responses appears on the front screen (there are no names) showing how many students have picked the correct answer and how many erred. For most of the sentences, around 20 members of the class got the correct answer. For a few sentences, less than half of the students did. In all instances, Campbell would explain what made the answer correct and go over the wrong answers, explaining why they were incorrect. In effect, the teacher was re-teaching the rules for determining the past tense for regular and irregular verbs. Below is an example of the series of exercises Campbell used with students.

Pon la forma del verbo en el pretérito

  1. Yo (cerrar) las ventanas anoche.
  2. Los estudiantes (escribir) las respuestas en la pizarra.
  3. María y yo (nadar) en la piscina el sábado.
  4. Tú (vivir) en la casa amarilla, ¿no?
  5. Mis abuelos no (gastar) mucho dinero.
  6. Enrique no (beber) ni té ni café.
  7. ¿(Tomar) tú la última galleta?
  8. Todos los jugadores (oír) las malas noticias.
  9. Yo (decidir) comer más frutas y verduras.
  10. Ellos (olvidar) la dirección de la tienda.

Then Campbell shows a scoreboard on the screen of how many points individual students accrued in each exercise. The class watched eagerly to see who got the highest number of points. There would be much buzz and murmuring and even a few handclaps for the winner. The teacher gave the student with the highest score, a rubber eraser.

For the next 15 minutes, this flow of activities continued. Foot-tapping tune—some students would sway to the melody or move their feet—10 or more sentences with multiple choices for which verb was stated correctly in the past tense. Then bar charts showing the class’s answers followed by the teacher’s explanation of both correct and incorrect answers. Finally, the scoreboard appears with first names of those students with the highest scores.

After closing this activity, Campbell asks all of the students to stand. They do. Then on another slide is a set of verbs that students conjugate in a ditty and clap at the end of each line. It is a song exercise that these 10th and 11th graders are familiar with and seemingly enjoyed.

Fui – ser

Fui – ir

Di – dar

Vine – venir

Tuve – tener

Hice – hacer

Puse – poner

Estuve – estar

Quise – querer

Pude – poder

Supe – saber

Dije – decir

Traje – traer

Vi – ver

Anduve – andar

After sitting down, the teacher moves to the next activity, again another way for students to practice using the past tense for regular and irregular verbs. He uses a software program called Pear Deck; students’ screens show the verbs—some accompanied with photos) as they also appear on screen in front of room. He asks students to talk to their partner and run through the conjugation of the verb ( e.g., boot) in the question (habla con tu vecino y explica que es un verba de bota (ejemplos)

Campbell follows up each slide with choral questions, students responding in unison and explanations for each verb. He then asks individual student to conjugate the verb, returning to choral questions.

For only time in lesson, he speaks in English to differentiate between regular and irregular verbs.

Campbell then returns to Kahoot with its catchy tunes, lists of sentences with verb that has to be converted into past tense, multiple choices for students to click onto, bar charts for class answers, and the piece de resistance, the scoreboard revealing top scorers.

Examples of these sentences students had to parse:

Senor Campbell (leer) los libros de Harry Potter

Las dos chicas quebradas (servir) la comida anoche

In looking around the class periodically, it seemed to me that nearly all of the students compete with one another and are engaged in the tasks the teacher has directed them to complete. The degree of understanding students had of regular and irregular verbs was less clear for me to determine since most questioning called for choral student responses.

Class worked right up to the chime sounding the end of the class. Students stowed  their devices in backpacks and shoulder bags and left the room.


*Bring-Your-Own-Device began two years ago in the District after teacher-led pilot projects at the two high schools demonstrated its viability.  For students who do not have a device at home or when one breaks down, the school provides chromebooks.

**Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly students of color (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21,  African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16


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Teaching Senior Civics: Technology Integration

Actors Morgan Freeman and Leonard DeCaprio, and the character from TV comedy The Office, Michael Scott, were nominees for U.S. president in the Senior Civics course I observed on September 12, 2016. The district requires the one-semester course for high school graduation. The unit was on political campaigns for the presidency and these actors were candidates that three of the five groups of 27 seniors had nominated. Each group, clicking away on their laptops and tablets while talking to one another were coming up with party labels, nominees and were working on writing a platform. As part of the unit, they would also be creating posters and video ads–all to get their candidate into the White House in November. I was watching a simulation of a presidential campaign .

Sarah Denniston (pseudonym) had invited me to visit her Northern California high school. Hacienda High School (pseudonym) has over 1900 students divided about half white and half minority (Asian and Latino). About 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. Sarah Denniston teaches AP European history and Senior Civics. A graduate (and track star) of the high school in which she now teaches, Denniston has been teaching 10 years at Hacienda.

The high school became a Bring-Your-Own-Device school two years ago. The district adopted BYOD following teacher- and administrator-initiated pilot projects that established nearly all students had laptops or tablets they could use for their classes and enough teachers were sufficiently skilled to integrate the hardware and software into their daily lessons. For students who lack a device, forget theirs, or if one dies suddenly in school, Chromebooks are available in the school’s Book Room. Teachers decide how to weave technologies into their lessons; there is no district prescribed one-best-way for teachers to use the devices.

I observed the Senior Civics class between 8:10-9:00AM. The classroom had pods of four desks scattered throughout the room. Walls were adorned with assignments, photos, posters on critical thinking skills, and student work. There is a hardbound text (TCI, Government Alive: Power, Politics and You) used by students to read excerpts from different chapters assigned by Denniston.



After the tardy bell rang, Denniston , wearing a white shirt-blouse and dark blue slacks, immediately got the students’ attention by flashing on the white board CNN anchors reporting on the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns over the weekend. She spoke about each of the campaigns and connected the campaigns of the Republican and Democrat parties to the unit they were working on. She then has students plunge into the task for the day: divide into groups and each one create a party, name it, decide who the nominee will be, and begin writing the party platform.

Before students went into self-chosen groups, Denniston pointed out that they should choose carefully because political values differ in the class and if you go with your friends you may discover differences arise that you did not know about and things may become difficult. She then directed students to choose their groups. Students milled about, for a few minutes deciding among themselves, and went into five groups. They moved desks to form circles.

Even though it is the fifth week of the semester, as seniors, they seem to know each other well enough so I did not hear any introductions. Each group begins discussing the name of their party, who they will nominate for president, and what will be in their platform. Denniston walks around the room checking on what each group is doing.

As I scan the class, I see all five groups talking to one another. Each group has a template for writing a party platform on their screens that they use. Denniston gave me a  copy (see below)

Political Party Platform Questions

Directions: Go to GOP, DNC, Tea Party, Green Party, communist party etc and examine their platforms. Answer the questions below based on the platforms you find. Use a color key to code your responses; red is for GOP, Blue for DNC, Green for Green Party, etc.


  1. What kind of economic growth will you promote? How?
  2. How will you reduce poverty?
  3. How will you reduce unemployment?
  4. What will you do with taxes?


  1. How will you deal with climate change?
  2. How will you protect the natural environment?
  3. What kind of energy policy?


  1. How will you improve the educational system?
  2. Will you shift to a voucher system?
  3. Will you increase standardized testing?
  4. Will you make higher levels of education free?

Health Care

  1. What will you do to promote new medical research?
  2. What will you do to make healthcare more accessible to more people?

Domestic Social Issues

  1. Do you support abortion? Do you support gay marriage?
  2. Do you support affirmative action programs?

National security

  1. What will you  do to make our country more safe and secure?
  2. What is your policy about border control


  1. Will you tighten or loosen immigration standards?  How?
  2. Will you promote the Dream Act?
  3. Will you have different standards for immigration from different nations?


  1. What will you do to fight crime?
  2. Will you expand or shrink the police force?  Why?
  3. Will you expand or shrink the prison system?  Why?
  4. Will you legalize certain drugs? If so, which ones?  Why?
  5. Do you support the death penalty?  Why or why not?

Foreign Policy

  1. How do you think the US should relate to the larger world?
  2. What should we do about the war in Iraq?

According to Denniston, each group decides who does what to complete group tasks. There are no formal roles but there is a group contract that each student signs (for copy of contract, see here).

There is much laughing and back-and-forth joshing among the students in the group as they talk about party names and nominees. In two groups adjacent to me, I note that one student in each group dominates the exchanges and one student in each group hardly speaks at all. Another student in one of the groups eyed photos for a few minutes and then shifted back to task.

After about 15 minutes of groups working on tasks, I walk around to ask questions about nominees of the groups. Three groups have chosen theirs (see nominees above); the others have not. Other groups have party names and are just beginning to write platforms. I did not see any obvious off-task behavior in any of the groups. Participation of group members, as I listened and watched, varied a great deal over the 30 minutes they were in groups.

Denniston checks in with groups in the last 10 minutes of the period, asking and answering questions.

The bell rings ending the class. The 27 students leave the room.


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