Teaching English at Las Montanas: A “Good” Lesson?

Ms. Sandy Demeter sat at her desk in the front of the room as the 27 ninth grade students filed in English 1 before the tardy buzzer sounds. Desks were arranged in clusters of three facing the teacher and whiteboards.

Demeter’s laptop sat next to the LCD projector. According to Learning Materials Center records (a.k.a.the library), she often brought her class there to work on projects with their laptops or 25-plus iMacs already in the Center.

After the buzzer sounded, Demeter settled students down. She asked the class to begin 15 minutes of Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) and to write a reflection on what they have read. Students took out their reading materials. After about ten minutes, some students began typing on their laptops. Chimes on Demeter’s desk sounded ending SSR; students closed their laptops.

The teacher reviewed the week’s assignments listed on the whiteboard. She then turned to the structure of the haiku that they began yesterday. She went over the 17-syllable haiku by pointing to the one on the whiteboard that she had written:

“Ms D’s wild class room (5)

stares at the computer screen (7)

eyes going glassy” (5)

She then asked each student to create two haikus in the next 15 minutes. Because desks were clustered in trios, there was a great deal of talk among students both on- and off-task.

Demeter walked to each cluster of desks to check on student-written haikus, to quiet students, and to answer questions. She asked three female students to put away their make-up kits. Some students who had finished their haikus walked around talking with other students. She asked two students to write their haikus on the white board. As room noise rose, Ms. D cautioned them with “Ladies and gentlemen, pleaseeeeee.”  Noise fell.

After 20 minutes and review of student-written haikus on whiteboard, teacher said: “Let’s turn to p. 422, and iambic pentameter in poems.” Students opened their textbooks.

Demeter diagramed iambic pentameter on the whiteboard. She used a line from a Robert Frost poem on p.422. She then stamped her foot to beat out the rhythm of the line. Many students stamped along with her. They tried another line together and practiced the rhythm.

About four minutes before the period ended, some students put their laptops and textbooks in their backpacks as they got ready for the buzzer. Noise level rose until buzzer sounded.


For well over a century, a perennial dilemma has haunted (and taunted) teachers of high school English, social studies, math, and science. Should they teach students existing subject-matter  (e.g., know key dates and people, geometry proofs, and Periodic Table of Elements in Chemistry) or should they focus on students’ deep understanding of concepts and learning how to inquire, think, and problem-solve (e.g.,teach critical thinking skills in history and English, use Geometric Supposer software that allows students to move figures, estimate changes in quadrangles, circles, etc. and construct their own understanding of concepts).

With the onset of electronic technologies, using high tech devices has become entangled in that perennial curricular dilemma of content vs. skills: should new technologies help teachers transmit the existing curriculum or should new technologies shift traditional ways of teaching subject matter toward ambitious classroom practices of building students’ creativity, inquiry skills and problem-solving.

Of course, I pose these as mutually exclusive issues but when policymakers consider stakeholder interests, political context, (e.g., the current press for test-based accountability and Core Curriculum Standards) and available resources–compromises get made and hybrid policies emerge melding the two positions in practice. Everyone graduating high school ready for college and career is the current policymaker mantra, for example, as Common Core standards, career/technical academies, and other options for youth pop up daily.

Even with these hybrid policies, strongly-held beliefs about knowledge, teaching, and learning have divided policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers into different camps for decades and go well beyond the usual labels of “progressives” vs. “traditionalists.” Thus, a “good” lesson has different meanings, depending on which views of content and skills one holds.

So, where does this lesson in English that I observed fit into the perennial dilemma about absorbing content knowledge and understanding ideas and skills of inquiry? And does Demeter’s  seemingly effortless integrating of new and old technologies in one lesson make it “good?”


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

11 responses to “Teaching English at Las Montanas: A “Good” Lesson?

  1. Having observed many lessons, I know how difficult it is to comment based on just a transcript like this, but apart from the use of the projector instead of chalk and a timer on the PC instead of a watch and voice, is there anything here which requires technology? The lesson seems to me to exemplify the way so much teaching has lost its way. Was the student’s initial reading in any way connected with the work on rhythm? I doubt it. It was almost certainly just a “starter” activity designed to quieten the class and gain control.

    If the objective was to get the class to assimilate the rhythm of an iambic pentameter, then stamping out the iambic pentameter was probably the most effective strategy here. But then you have to ask why teach them this anyway? Are they going to write their own verse? Is she going to get them to the point later when they can look at the way Shakespeare brilliantly exploits basic iambic rhythm for multiple dramatic reasons and effects? Because if the objective was any of the last two then the discussion, the communication, the exchange of ideas and language used…the “teaching” is pretty much everything that matters.

  2. Sounds like the teacher found 3 activities in a book somewhere and made copies for the class. Poor learning strategies if any (I just see unrelated activities), lack of any authenticity and relevance, and a poor use of technology..why bother. On the other hand, I think its a more common example than not. We have forgotten the teacher as instructional designer and now are left with a McDonalds drive through, menu driven style of lesson planning.

  3. Bob Calder

    What Bob said is along the lines of what I thought. Maybe it’s our name. 😉 But I thought that the haiku lesson could use some juice and time in order to make it stick.
    If it was a project-based science lesson, it would have to be bookended. First a brief prep on principals, second, the project/lesson an exploration involving self-constructed learning, and finally, a reflective discussion that embraces the principle learned in the project. The missing reflective discussion is what characterizes a deficit in middle school science teaching in the US. Is that reflected here?

    I can envision using paper airplanes to send poems back and forth between competitors with a time limit for composition as an activity.

  4. Cal

    I have credentials in math, history, and English. In my view, English is by far the most difficult subject in which to cover “content knowledge”, because there is so little agreement on what the “content” is. Is teaching content merely covering the form of a sonnet, Petrarchan vs. Shakespearean, or does it also involve knowing the most important sonnets? Is it knowing how to write an expository essay, or knowing that Orwell wrote some of the best essays in the language? This brings us right to the “dead white guys” debate, and to avoid it, we broaden the literature base so widely as to be nearly meaningless. Locally, I’ve noticed that To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, and Of Mice and Men are pretty standard, and there’s nothing to complain about there. But there’s little agreement on the “diversity” literature component, and it’s clear the students don’t take those books nearly as seriously. I also notice that grammar isn’t covered much anymore, although it is tested.

    History, in contrast, is primarily content that students are then asked to think critically about. I find many history teachers neglect llinear content in favor of giving their students isolated incidents that they are then to “think critically about” (and any student can tell you that they’d best think just the way the teacher expects), but that’s a choice, not a structure imposed by the subject.

    Math is probably the easiest to find the balance. While the Who of math courses is heavily political (who should take what, when), the actual content is far less politically or ideologically driven than either history or English. And it’s fairly easy to find a balance between covering content and giving students problems that aren’t merely a matter of plugging in the numbers.

    In terms of her lesson:

    By having the students throw out some words that meet the form criteria, she’s cheapening poetry and conflating a lesson on the structure of different poetry forms with the act of creating a poem. I find students are far more responsive to literature if the teacher clarifies the difference between content and creation. She could have used the technology to bring up recitals of the poems, and maybe even shown how different readings can affect how we hear a poem. By focusing on content–that is, the different structures of poems, she might have gotten more engagement. She also would have given the students a clearer idea of what they were supposed to get from the lesson.

    • larrycuban

      With credentials in three different subjects, Cal, I found your thumbnail summaries of each discipline as taught in secondary schools fascinating, given your experiences. And your comments on Sandy Demeter’s class. Thanks.

  5. Cal’s observations about politicised subjects reminded me of one the most outstanding English essays I ever marked by a pupil. He was a sixteen year old Asian boy and had to respond to an examination essay title about the experience of sitting an exam. He chose to describe the experience of sitting a maths exam, in which he leapfrogged the actual maths by working out the politics behind each question. e.g. “Philip has fourteen white sweets and three back sweets and Sanjay has twelve white sweets and six black sweets. How many sweets must Philip give to Sanjay to…” The essay got steadily funnier and funnier as he realised the answer to every question had a political, not a maths purpose. Quite brilliant for a sixteen year old.

  6. Skola Engleskog

    I wander which English school is the best in the world? I guess that best are in UK and US, but who knows?

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