It is 8:00AM and the chimes have rung for first class of a 10-period school day. Ninth graders dribble into their world history classroom in ones and twos. They wait to sign in on a sheet located on a desk near the door. The teacher who is standing at the door asked one student to remove his hat. By the time the tardy chimes ring, there are 12 students in the class. In the next 10 minutes, seven more students enter the classroom. Twenty-nine students are enrolled. One student entered using his mobile phone. The teacher said to the student, “we can do this the hard way or the easy way. Put it away now or I will take it and return it to you at 2:30.” The student pockets the phone. [i]
On the front whiteboard, veteran history teacher Gary Hart[ii] has written the following:
*History standard 9.1.C: Analyze the reasons that countries gained control of territory through imperialism and the impact on people living in the territory that was controlled.[iii]
*Read pp. 345-350.
Underneath the History standard are three questions:
- What is racism?
- What is social Darwinism?
- Who is Shaka?
On a bulletin board fixed to the back wall, Hart has posted student papers with perfect scores on a quiz of multiple-choice questions.
The classroom is large compared to most rooms for academic subjects. It was once the Home Economics Clothing room when Greenwich had a full array of vocational courses. Over one door near the teacher’s desk is a closet-size room with a placard saying “Fitting Room.” Student desks are arranged in rows. As students trickled in they sat with friends or alone. The teacher’s desk was in the center rear of the room facing the whiteboards. Except for the laptop on the teacher’s desk, there were no other computers in the room.
At 8:10, Hart, over 6 feet tall wearing a brown suit with a brown tie on a beige shirt, sits on a stool in the center of room and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please copy down three sentences on the board. They will be on the test Wednesday.” About half of the class takes out a notebook from their backpack or one that they had stowed in the metal rack underneath their desk. Three students ask classmates for sheets of paper and pens. After waiting a few minutes for those students to write down the questions, Hart asks: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, what is the answer to the first question?”
No one responds. He says, “we talked about this on Friday. Look at your notes.” Two students are resting their heads on the desks. On one side of the room, four students are talking to one another as the teacher waits for a response. Hart turns to the four chatting students and asks: “Are we working or talking?” No response from any of the four; they continue to talk.
Hart then asks students to turn to pp. 345-350 of the text (Roger Beck, et. al., Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction, published in 2008). The text is located on metal rack below the seat of each desk-chair. The teacher directs them to answer the three questions on the board and complete a one-page worksheet that he has copied from the teachers’ manual for the text. At this point in the lesson, nearly 15 minutes after the tardy bell rang, and with 25 minutes left to the period, there are 19 students.
Hart passes out the worksheets and three-quarters of the students retrieve their text, open it up to the assigned pages, and begin working on either the three questions on the whiteboard or filling in answers on the worksheet of six questions taken from textbook (“Imperialism Case Study: Nigeria”). In a genial manner, Hart walks around helping individual students. At one point he turns again to the four students chattering to one another and says: “I’m hearing a hen party.” They stop talking and write, resuming their conversation after two minutes. Hart then moves one of the four students—without much opposition from the student–to a desk next to me at the rear of the classroom.
Within five minutes, all of the 19 students, except for the three still talking to one another, are answering questions on the whiteboard and filling in answers to questions on the worksheet. The quiet is shattered by an announcement from the principal’s office about end-of-school day sport activities. After the interruption, Hart threads his way among the rows to see how individual students are doing and if they have questions. Three do. He responds quietly and directly to each of their questions.[iv]
It is now 8:35, and Hart tells the class: “OK, the bell is about to ring in a few minutes. Put your books under the desks.” He repeats this three times. When the chimes do ring, Hart stands at the door collecting completed worksheets and answers to the questions on the whiteboard.
Hart teaches three classes of world history to ninth graders and one of U.S. history between 8:00 and 11:00 AM.[v] He then takes a lunch period and returns to teach two more world history class in the afternoon. He has taught in the [district] for 16 years, the last eight at Greenwich from which he graduated in the mid-1970s. Between classes, Hart told me about his students and the school. Between his first and second period classes, he said:
“The biggest problem I have is the tardies. There are no consequences for them. They just show up with a pass from the office. Just a few days ago, I called a Mom about her daughter who was often late to class and was acting out in class. She told me that her daughter was my responsibility between 8 and 2:30. She then hung up on me.”
Hart complained about the pressure he feels from the administration on turning in reports—“more paperwork now than ever before”—and the pressure from being evaluated by the principal when he has to teach a lesson and meet with the principal afterwards. He pointed out to me that 50 percent of the evaluation of his performance comes from student test scores on the Ohio Graduation Test.[vi]
He also told me about his four-times-a-year pizza and root beer parties for students that get As and Bs. It is an “invitation only” after-school party. His wife handled pizza and he handled security at the door, he said, where only students with printed invitation could enter.
Part 4 of this series on teaching history in academically low-performing urban schools offers my interpretation of these lessons.
[i] School policy prohibits cell phones in class. That policy is publicized in numerous large wall posters on each floor of the three-story building. Many classrooms also have the No Cell Phone placard. If a student refuses to put it away or give it to the teacher, the teacher can blink and let it go or call a security aide to come to his classroom and take student out because he or she refused to give teacher the mobile. That occurred in the teacher’s third period class when a security aide entered the room and removed a student.
[ii] All names are fictitious. I observed four straight classes that Hart taught on November 13, 2013. The lesson described here is what I saw in one of the four classes. A few of the student and teacher actions described in this vignette, however, occurred in one or another of the three periods I observed (e.g., cell phone occurred in second period; announcements in third period).
[iii] District policy is that every teacher is to list the Ohio state standard for world history that he or she is working on in the lesson. The principal or assistant principal include in their written evaluation of the teacher whether or not the standard appears somewhere in the classroom. Hart explained that procedure to me when I asked about the standard listed on the whiteboard.
[iv] Public announcements—PAs for short—occur throughout the 10 period school day. During a 10-minute homeroom period (10:08-10:18 which is part of the 3rd period) students and administrators cluster their announcements about after-school club meetings, varsity sport games, deadlines for submitting college applications, etc.
[v] The U.S. history class of 29 students focused the entire 40-minute period going over vocabulary, concepts, sample questions, and critical thinking skills that have been on previous years’ Ohio Graduation Test (OGT). They would take OGT in the spring. From OGT manual:
The OGT in social studies contains 32 multiple-choice, four short-answer and two extended-response test questions that measure student achievement
related to the seven academic content standards (see: http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Testing/Ohio-Graduation-Test-OGT/2011-Family-Guide.pdf.aspx.
In an interview with a central office administrator in charge of social studies, the supervisor told me that the main job social studies teachers have is “ to teach what is on the OGT. State standards tell teachers what content and skills to teach and the OGT covers the standards.” Interview with administrator November 14, 2013.