Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 4)

In earlier posts, I have described and interpreted how a high school history teacher taught history in a failing school (see here and here). In Part 3, I described a veteran history teacher in the same school and the four lessons he taught when I observed him in November 2013. Gary Hart (a pseudonym) taught world and U.S. history. In all of the lessons I watched, the sequence of activities unfolded in the same order: students signing in when they entered, sitting and talking until Hart caught their attention directing them to answer questions on the white board, the teacher supervising their  answering questions with scattered students chatting and having to be admonished repeatedly before settling into the task. In each class, Hart used worksheets drawn from the textbook covering particular pages and then supervised students by walking around as most (but not all) students completed the task. At the end of the period, Hart collected  both students’ answers to questions on the whiteboard and the worksheet. Occasional interruptions for dealing with cell phones and PA announcements jiggled the routines during the four lessons. Nonetheless, the activities occurred in this sequence.

Overall, what I saw in the four lessons I can sum up briefly.  Most students were disengaged from the content of the world history unit on late-19th century imperialism in Africa. A climate for learning content and skills of thinking was absent in each and every class I observed. A few students would answer questions asked by the teacher but the Q & A was, at best, dispirited. Surely, except for occasional disruptions, there was compliance; most of the students did as he directed. There is no question in my mind that the teacher had prepared lessons drawn from the textbook and knew that content thoroughly. His skills in managing the class were evident although there were moments, especially over cell phone use and persistent chatting, that became dicey.

If Mark Allison, his veteran colleague, (see here) went beyond the textbook and engaged his classes in African American history and they responded to questions on the photos he presented even asking questions from time to time, I saw no such engagement in these four world history and U.S. history lessons.  Clearly, these two teachers got compliance from their students, at least the ones that attended, and one of them went beyond compliance by creating a reasonable facsimile of a learning climate and interest in the Civil Rights movement.

So what sense do I make of what I observed? As in an earlier post, I return to contextual factors that I believe influenced Hart’s teaching.

First, the contextual factors. In Part 2 of these four posts,, I laid out how student backgrounds come to influence in positive and negative ways how students respond to history lessons. Nearly all students in the school, for example, are eligible for free and reduced price meals–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement. Ill health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences take their toll. Poverty is not an excuse for either behavior or achievement; it is, however,  an abiding factor that cannot be ignored.

Also the organization of Greenwich as an age-graded high school with departments and its place in the district affected what happened in classrooms.

For example, classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance, Hart did reasonably well given the organizational factors within which he labored. School and district policies made low attendance and high tardiness a school norm. Moreover, Greenwich has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal had been notified that the school would be restructured which meant teachers that teachers  would have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” often erodes teacher motivation to teach at the top of his or her game.

There is another contextual factor that matters for Hart and his colleagues. The state has adopted the federally funded Race To The Top program of teacher evaluations in order to secure additional monies. And that means 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation depends on the student standardized test scores.

That bothered Hart a great deal. He complained about the unfairness of a system that based half of his evaluation on student test scores. Because Greenwich students did poorly on these tests year after year there was no way that he could reach the highest category (“Accomplished”) when the principal evaluated him  even if he taught stellar lessons. For Hart, the evaluation system was skewed against him and his fellow teachers.

While these contextual factors surely played a part in what and how Hart taught, there were individual factors that mattered also. Hart claimed that he rewarded students with pizza parties and displayed work of successful students. That he did all of that, I have little doubt. However,  in the four lessons I observed, he lacked passion for the lesson content and the activities that he designed. In every lesson, he marched the group mechanically through routines in which students were clearly disengaged. The 40 minute lesson was something both students and teacher endured.

For 2014-2015, the “reconstitution” year, the principal chose Mark Allison and not Gary Hart to teach at Greenwich.


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15 responses to “Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 4)

  1. JMK

    I wouldn’t be tempted to draw any conclusions. Obviously, you might know something. But principals can be extraordinarily biased. In another school, Hart would have been kept and Allison dumped, for reasons as varied as Hart was a football coach or the principal liked worksheets.

    Also, Allison seemed to be teaching seniors (not a tested group) while Hart was teaching…sophomores? At least in California.

    Did I prefer Allison’s lessons, as you described them? Sure. And I don’t think pizza parties for As is a good idea. But teaching history requires more than engagement. It requires getting kids to sit, read, think—things that low achieving kids won’t do on their own.

    I just spent three days getting my kids to read and summarize articles on various points of early US history. It was an extraordinarily successful lesson that undoubtedly looked like pulling teeth and obedient silent compliance (15 minutes of focused reading, no notes, no questions, just absorbing information). One of my special ed kids who usually sits and chats endlessly during class still, to an outsider, seemed to be chatting endlessly. Yet he read quietly, accurately defined the surface, and sentence by sentence (me checking in each time and setting the next task). At the end of today’s class, I called him over to tell him how well he’d done over the last three days.

    “Yeah,” he said. “I really think this sitting and reading without doing anything else really helps. I got it. Then I could annotate and think about what to write.”

    That alone would have made it a gold star day, but I also began to understand that one of my other students who always seemed willing to work hard but understood nothing was an *incredibly* slow reader, which she confessed to me when she said that 15 minutes wasn’t enough time. So I set her aside, told her to put on her headphones, and read until she was done.

    The top and mid kids all did very well, too.

    Because I did this sequence just as you’ve been writing about these history lessons, I wondered the whole time–if you’d stopped by those days, would you have seen compliant kids at best, often off-task, who had to be pulled across the finish line? Certainly, many other days you’d have seen the kind of engaged kids you prefer, with an Allison-like lesson–although still some kids would have been merely compliant.

    I’m not feeling defensive. I’m secure enough in my teaching and your observation skills to see the subtle differences between just pushing out worksheets and what I was trying to achieve. Would everyone, though?

    • larrycuban

      As always, Michele, your comments get me to thinking. Thank you.I do wish I were there in class observing the history lesson that you described went well. I trust my observation skills and the back-and-forth we would have had between classes or after you taught to sort out some of the issues you raise about compliance. I watched Gary Hart teach four straight lessons and Mark Allison three in a row. I learned a great deal just by watching and listening carefully to what each teacher said and how students responded to their teachers. If you are saying that I should have observed more lessons than one day’s worth because what I saw may have been unrepresentative of the lessons each teacher taught, you might be right.Experienced observers, like myself, usually get the mood of the class, relationships between teacher and students, sense of the content and direction of a lesson within an hour or so. Follow up conversation with teacher about what he or she did and why adds important details what I gathered by observing. The issue is not whether worksheets were used or whether kids were doing what you asked or chatting. The issue is capturing all of the above aspects of a lesson that come together
      in drawing conclusions. And you are right, in my judgment about the variation among principals and observers who would step into your classes.

  2. JMK

    Well, thank you for the fine compliment!

    (btw, it should be purpose, not surface. No idea where that mental typo came from.)

    I was not saying you should have watched longer.

    I think my observation, or at worst, mild critique, would be this: you made it an easy dichotomy in your presentation. Mark, the engaged teacher who calls his kids “my brother”, who “keeps it real”, who keeps poor kids focused with lessons and people that are relevant to their interests, who was teaching African American history, after all. Then Gary, the teacher by rote, who gives his kids work sheets that they complete, who teaches about colonialism and Nigeria, something far from their interests, a class with strict requirements and an end of year test. (By the way, is it my imagination or is Mark black and Gary white?)

    So one teacher is Exhibit A in Why Teachers Today Suck, and the other is the ideal progressive teacher, the one offering a class rich with fodder for observers looking for engaged, thinking kids.

    But did you ask, for example, if Mark ever asked his kids to write or read, in class or out? I wonder if he would have readily acknowledged that his kids would have looked just like Gary’s if he had, so he chooses to keep them engaged and thinking. I understand that tradeoff very well. Similarly, do you think Mark would have had an easy time rapping with the cards and questions if he had a class of 19 and was focusing on Nigeria and imperialism? I wonder if he would have fudged on the strict standards in favor of engagement, or if he, too, would have been worried about his end of year test scores. And if he had fudged on standards in favor of engagement–for example, made some activity that vaguely referenced imperialism but got kids thinking and talking–reformers would be using him as an example of teachers who do “history-lite” rather than giving kids the skills they’ll need for college.

    So here’s a question for you–what does it look like, when a history teacher seeks to give a reading or writing lesson to high school students who read at a 4th grade level?

    I hope I don’t sound hostile–just energized by this topic. And if you’re back in California, come on down and watch my classes sometime. I’d love feedback.

    • larrycuban

      You ask fine questions, Michele. I understand why you think I set up a dichotomy but I think both teachers and their lessons were more complicated than a thousand words permitted me to lay out. Your final question asking how a high school history lesson looks when students read at the fourth grade level is one that that both Gary Hart and Mark Allison answered in their own ways to 9th and 10th graders. It remains a central question that few experts in teaching history wrestle with, unfortunately.

      By the way,Gary Hart, like Allison, is African American.

      Give me a couple of dates to visit your history class.

  3. JMK

    Fascinating that they are both African American–that is, that I wondered if one of them was white. Sad, given the very few black high school teachers in the country, that either of them was fired.

    It’s not that I think you deliberately set up that dichotomy. You never present things as “easy”, so I shouldn’t have used that word. But I wonder if many readers might see it that way.

    I will email you!

  4. EB

    This set of examples (and I include JMK’s examples) is, most obviously, about methods and habits of instruction. But it’s also about momentum and the ability/willingness to vary one’s plan. And behind that — where does the momentum come from? what are the conditions that squelch momentum? clearly, fear of your students’ performance on standardized tests could be a reason for Mr. Hart’s dogged adherence to a set of activities that doesn’t seem to have much traction (but which at least in theory cover the material that will be tested) , while Mr. Allison’s activities seem to pull much more thought out of the students. But for my money, JMK’s classroom is the one I’d want to be a student in, even if as she points out there are long periods that don’t convey the impression of “engagement,.” She is helping the students gain ownership of what they are learning.

  5. Reblogged this on Le Didacticien and commented:
    La conclusion de cette série d’articles est bonne! Surtout le troisième paragraphe en partant du bas…

    Aaaah les examens standardisés.

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