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?”