Teaching U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 2)

How to interpret the three history lessons I watched Mark Allison, a veteran teacher, teach?

Allison had prepared an interactive lesson with a series of slides on the Civil Rights movement. He asked his students to inspect each slide carefully and tell what they saw and speculate, alright hypothesize, about what the facts they see may add up to. He completed the lesson within the 40 minutes allotted to him in the bell schedule.

The lesson reflected his passion for the subject (a glass case filled with civil rights photos along one wall of the room) and for his students (one wall of student photos in  his classes). Before during and after the lesson, students responded to his requests and questions.  Students did engage in the activities he designed for them. At no time in any of the three lessons I observed were students defiant, unresponsive, or dulled into inactivity. The rapport between teacher and students as he went through the lesson prodding them to apply their present experiences to the past was evident to me.

Were there someone else in the room besides me, say, the principal, a district official, or another teacher there to judge his performance, surely that evaluator could find items to praise and holes in how and what Allison taught in these three lessons.

Perhaps, that observer might have assessed Allison’s performance in the way that Becky Reed, a Delaware social studies teacher did in a comment for this post:

I think this represents exactly how I would have taught a lesson 25 years ago (okay, maybe 15). I would have been very proud of the activity that took me an entire evening to create, time that I could have spent with my family. In reflection (then) I would have thought the lesson was a success; students were engaged, discussion in small groups was apparent, primary sources were used, and students “got” that the Civil Rights Era was about freedom and equality. Sadly, I think that many administrators would have rated this lesson as an excellent lesson. Not only would they have rated it an excellent lesson then, but many would do so today.
Today I am embarrassed that I taught that way. The students weren’t engaged and didn’t care about coming to class (that should have been my first clue), I told them what to think, I never asked them how they knew, or asked what evidence they had to support their conclusions.
I suppose I may be a bit hard on myself, but that was the way I was taught to plan and implement a lesson. There’s no excuse for this today. Where’s the professional development and team planning? Unfortunately I don’t think restructuring is going to make a bit a difference in this school without thoughtful climate changes and increased expectations for students by ALL stakeholders.

Or perhaps Larry Winkler, a former Wisconsin teacher, who gave his view of the lesson in another comment:

Seems like this lesson fits what is recommended by the research, and seems to be high in engagement. So, I’m not following R Reed’s criticism. The method illustrated, as far as it is expressed, seems to nicely follow How Learning Works, a seminal work summarizing current research. I would give it an A+.

Or Michele, a California social studies teacher, who said:

This is timely for me; I am teaching US History for the first time (I have credentials in three subjects but usually teach math). I am absolutely loving it…. Now I’m back to teaching kids from all spectrums, from highly skilled kids who just didn’t want to take A[dvanced] P[lacement] to kids with 6th grade or lower reading skills.

I want my students to become better readers, writers, and thinkers, but I want them to do so in the act of acquiring specific content knowledge about US History–that is, while critical thinking is important, knowing the content is more so.

I”m not sure what I think of the lesson. I’ve never had that kind of difficulty with attendance–and let’s be clear, 7 or 8 out of 20 is not “the kids don’t find the class useful” but “the school is out of control”.

I was not in the classroom to evaluate Allison’s performance in the three lessons. I observed what he did and, in my opinion, given what I know and have seen in classrooms in academically low-performing urban schools over the decades, this teacher was doing far better than average insofar as engaging the students in the content that he was teaching.  How much students learned from this lesson, however, no one including Allison, me, or any evaluator could tell.

What most observers and evaluators seldom take into consideration, however, are other factors that impinge on how and what Allison teaches every day in his African American history course. These factors do not diminish what he did but expand the picture in which any judgment of teacher performance has to occur. Too often observers and evaluators of teaching in urban school, especially ones designated as failing, overlook how the macro-context influences, even shapes, the micro-context of the classroom. None of what follows offers “excuses” but simply makes the larger context a factor in judging what occurs in a lesson.

1. Impact of the school organization on the lesson. Classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance (only about one-of-three-students enrolled in each class appeared for each lesson), Allison did reasonably well given the organizational factors in which he labored. School and district policy prevents teachers from factoring in chronic tardiness and absenteeism into any grade–and, of course, the students know this–so low attendance is the norm in all Greenwich classrooms. Moreover, the school has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal have been notified that the school will be restructured which teachers know could mean that they will have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” saps teacher motivation to plan elaborate lessons and the energy to teach them.

2. Impact of student backgrounds on teaching. Nearly all students in the school are eligible for free and reduced price breakfast and lunch–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement because of poor health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences. Yes, students ranged in responses to Allison’s lessons but living in poverty has both short-term and long-term effects on students’ motivation to achieve in school when the horizon for future opportunities appears limited.

Organizational and environmental factors in the macro-context observers often overlook in judging an urban teacher’s lessons–the micro-context. These factors, and others, come into play without even mentioning what students have learned from this lesson on the Civil Rights movement. Anyone allergic to complex situations (or supremely confident in their knowledge of how teachers should teacher), should  avoid judging this teacher’s lessons.






Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

13 responses to “Teaching U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 2)

  1. When I originally read this the first thing that jumped out at me was the 40 minute periods. Is it possible to really do something in 40 minutes considering time is lost to taking roll, dealing with tardy slips, getting kids seated, handing out hand outs and the other little time gobblers during a class? I have taught 50, 60 and 90 minute periods. 50’s were workable but still rushed. 90’s are luxury. In a 90 you actually have time to explore, breakout the laptops and work on a spreadsheet in class or do some on-line research and discuss it during that class. Ten 40 minute periods just seems cramming as much as possible at the kids with out regard to if they are actually learning anything. How does a kid, even a smart kid from a good home environment, handle homework from 10 classes a day?

  2. JMK

    I’ve taught modified block, full metal block (4 classes a semester) and traditional (60 minutes). As a math teacher working with unmotivated kids, I find modified block the most brutal–long classes, lots of subjects. I enjoyed traditional 60 minutes more than I thought I would, and when teaching algebra I it’s my first choice. I now teach full-metal block, 90 minutes and 4 classes, and while coverage is an issue, I really like the long classes when the kids only have 4 topics at a time.

    40 minutes, though, my goodness. I can’t imagine.

    Sign me on for everything you’ve said. Teaching low-incentive, high poverty kids with relatively low abilities is a tough job. I would even argue that it’s a *different* job from teaching kids that are ready to learn content at the level taught, as we’ve discussed before.

  3. I’m not sure who thinks ten 40-minute periods is a good way to organize a young adult’s day. I’m open to hearing the argument. However, consider how much time is spent in transitions, and how much time students often lose in the minutes at the beginning and ending of class, just because the mind is somewhere else. True of adults too. Glad you’re raising the question of how the external factors shape the teaching. That’s the type of thinking I hope to bring to more positive results in my new project. I’m out of the classroom this year, traveling around California to see good teachers and schools. My goal is not to hold them up for imitation or adulation, but rather to shine a light underneath the good work to see what makes it possible for anyone to develop their own best practices. Interested? Check out the video about the project on my Kickstarter page:

  4. Alice in PA

    Thanks for changing the conversation from the traditional “was this a good lesson” to a deeper exploration of the entire context. Discussing lessons is a great springboard to discussion of classroom, school and culture factors that often go unnoticed or unchallenged by all but have large effects. I will add another set – where was this lesson situated within the curriculum? What happened in the days before and after? What were the classroom norms/expectations?

  5. “Organizational and environmental factors in the macro-context observers often overlook in judging an urban teacher’s lessons–the micro-context. These factors, and others, come into play without even mentioning what students have learned from this lesson on the Civil Rights movement. Anyone allergic to complex situations (or supremely confident in their knowledge of how teachers should teacher), should avoid judging this teacher’s lessons.”

    Amen, Larry. Too many observers, rubric in hand, myopically view teaching as conforming to a narrowly defined set of moves independent of student-associated factors, or teacher pedagogical preferences, whereas effective teaching recognizes reality, whether politically correct or not, and seeks to engage students in ways that leave them more capable, -learned, or -curious than when they entered the classroom.

    I’m way behind in reading and writing blog posts. My new prep this semester opened a can of worms, of which I will relay when the dust settles, multiple, but not mixed, metaphors notwithstanding.

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