Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 3)

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:

  1. What is racism?
  2. What is social Darwinism?
  3. 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.

[vi] Details of Cleveland’s teacher evaluation system can be found at: http://www.clevelandmetroschools.org/Page/2767






Filed under how teachers teach

20 responses to “Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 3)

  1. Gary Ravani

    He could have divided the class into groups of three (with one four) and then have them read and discuss one of the questions and develop a consensus answer. Then reconfigure the groups so that you have a person with each of the three “answers” and have the students share answers. The teacher could have acted as the facilitator and moved from group to group checking for accuracy and encouraging thinking. Each group could then complete one worksheet per group (perhaps with “extra credit” for the scribe) to hand in. Rather than constantly fight the student’s tendencies to socialize, use the tendency to drive the lesson. (Humans are social animals.) An alternative would be to have the students prepare a “poster” with a couple of answers written (perhaps with a picture or two to help explain concepts (again with the teacher checking for “general” accuracy) and then report out to the class for further discussion. Then have them complete the worksheet as a group to be used as a kind of “formative assessment.”

    This also cuts down on teacher paperwork load.

    The classroom (based on the given description) sounds dull, as does the “teaching process.” Make it an attractive space as well as place for teenagers to be and the tardies might begin to resolve themselves.

    Also, it is not evident that there has been much in the way of pre-teaching key vocabulary or providing a context for the lesson.

    Just some thoughts if this had been one of my student teachers.

    • larrycuban

      This was a 16 year veteran of the district with the past eight years in this high school. All of your suggestions, Gary, make sense for a beginning teacher but those “could haves” you listed do not for someone who has been around the block many times.

      • Gary Ravani

        That would kind of undercut the possible value of continued professional development and ongoing professional learning wouldn’t it? “Old dogs” can’t learn new tricks? He was teaching as if this were an undergraduate class. (And like many university level classrooms it was not well taught.) It was 9th grade. I had about of decade of teaching under my belt when I became involved with the CA Literature Project which exposed me to collaborative learning and student centered leaning. I too had taught much like I had been taught. Not bad methodology (if not optimal) for the academically oriented, but also not appropriate for other students. I certainly hope that just because a teacher has 16, or 20, or 25 years in the classroom that they are not so hide-bound that they can’t learn themselves.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, Gary.

  2. JMK

    The beginning has the most resonance for me, having just given a test in which I asked the students to identify problems and successes with the Articles of Confederation–something I had just reviewed once again the day before. Most kids left this blank. Argggghhh. They did fairly well when I give them something to read and they have to assess the accuracy or inaccuracy—in writing, or by selecting true responses. I think it has something to do with their ability to produce information “from scratch”.

    I don’t see anything inherently wrong with a worksheet–we all use them sometimes. They can be good study guides for kids who will never, ever, open a book. Engagement seemed high.

    The depressing thing, to me, is that kids don’t necessarily do better on assessments of learning when you engage them in discussions or activities as opposed to giving them worksheets or lectures. You just *feel* better because you’ve engaged kids attention and thoughts for that period of time. And in the end, I’m good with that.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Michele. What I saw in the four lessons I observed was more compliance with task and little engagement in either content or with teacher.

      • JMK

        Well, how is compliance not engagement? I’m asking seriously, not rhetorically. If you tell your students to read a worksheet and answer questions, and they do it, what would “engagement” look like as separate from “compliance”? Some students cared enough to ask questions.

        BTW, I just noticed the pizza party for A students. I wouldn’t do that.

      • larrycuban

        I guess I could figure out a stepladder of engagement from minimal to top-rung, gung-ho involvement by 90 percent of class. In these four lessons I observed, students doing the worksheet in lesson after lesson I considered to be compliance–lowest rung of that stepladder, a minimal form of engagement. A few students asking questions–about what words mean in the textbook from which the worksheet was drawn–is also a form of low-level engagement. But those students talking even after admonished by the teacher, some students not even doing the worksheets, and many students not turning in answers to questions on the whiteboard and worksheet gave me the clear impression of overall academic disengagement. Let me know what you think, Michele. Thanks for commenting.

    • Gary Ravani

      Depends what you mean by “do better” and “assessment of learning.” If you are successful in engaging students in the larding process and it doesn’t show up on the assessment: check the validity of the assessment.

  3. Putting the standard on the board? You have got to be kidding me. Looks like the administration is more concerned with the appearance of teaching that actual teaching. Teaching to a state test sort of makes the administration not responsible for anything that happens in the classroom. Everything is now the teachers fault for not following some procedure. The scary thing is this formalized process is becoming more common. The excessive number of tardies is also an indicator of a weak administration. Why show up on time if there are no consequences. My local public schools have the motto “Graduation Matters”. Principals are graded on graduation numbers, not quality of education or attendance. It is all a numbers game.

  4. Eric

    I’ve been in what one may call a “failing school” in North Carolina for 5 years now. I wouldn’t call it a failing school, but this scenario does mirror my circumstances in some instances.
    We do have laptops, and we have 90 minute block schedule, However, the apathy towards school, the sacrifice of vocational courses, the general confusion of not knowing what is going on due to not studying notes, having to post objectives and “essential questions” in the board is spot on.
    We’re a Title I school (poverty area), as are most schools in the district.

    Much of the problem lies in the fact that schools are attempting to get kids to be “college ready” when many students are not ever going to attend college. They strip away vocational courses that can make kids “career ready” and focus on high-stakes testing (for teachers, administration, and students) to see if the school is doing well or not.

    Anyone in education will tell you that this is not a good way to give incentive to teachers or students. It focuses on “teaching for the test” rather than teaching for understanding. This is one reason why students are not retaining material. They store it in their short term memory so that they can pass a test, and this is killing education.

    I cannot express this frustration with words, and I know that many other educators feel the same way. What is worse is that teachers’ evaluations are focusing on test scores, and this is only putting poorer schools at risk. A school of affluent, well-off students is going to almost always going to outperform poverty schools when it comes to testing. Parent involvement is lacking, and students rarely bother to do homework when parents are unable or unwilling to make themselves available to push their students to succeed. I’m not saying that ALL poverty schools are like that, but it sure is common in my district and the districts that I have teaching colleagues in who are in other states with similar situations.

  5. Pingback: Weekend reads: In favor of testing, but against reading tests | Chalkbeat

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