Teaching History in an Academically Failing High School

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe how I taught history and social studies in the 1960s in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School).  I returned to those very same high schools in 2014 where I observed and interviewed four history teachers at Glenville and three at Cardozo. Some of those 2014 teachers,  in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here ). Here is oneof the three teachers at Cardozo who I observed.


On the front wall above the “smart board” Mike Topper (a pseudonym) had posted classroom rules on the first day of the semester for the 9th graders in his world history course:

  1. Be Respectful!
  2. Work Hard!
  3. Keep Head Up and Off Desk!
  4. Raise Hand to Speak One at a Time, and Stay on Topic!

Just to the side and below the “smart board” or interactive whiteboard (IWB) the teacher has printed out in large black letters a list of rewards and penalties for behavior. The title is “Four Token System.” The following items appear:

*Keep all of your tokens to receive daily rewards, weekly positive phone calls, and monthly prizes.

*Loosing [sic] tokens results in negative consequences as follows:

1st token lost—warning.

2nd token lost—no rewards. Written up in Discipline and Behavior Log.

3rd token lost—phone call home or home visit. Student completes Behavior Reflection.

4th token lost—Referral to administration.

Before the 90 minute period began, I asked Topper about the token system and he told me that it is really a “warning” system for misbehavior. He does not use tokens anymore.

The IWB is in daily use. For example, on the “smart board” is the “warm up,” an activity that the district expects its academic subject teachers to begin a lesson, often uses a question, puzzle, or proverb. As students enter the room, they know that they are supposed to take out paper and begin writing in their notebooks.

After the opening “warm up” activity, Topper told me that he usually moves into a 10-minute lecture. During the lecture, Topper said he often flashes slides from his laptop onto the IWB to illustrate points in lecture; he also would display text and worksheet assignments on the “smart board.” [i]

Today, however, there is no “warm up” exercise. The IWB contains announcements and an agenda for the lesson in a unit taken from the textbook called *Reunification of China:

*Test tomorrow

*Read ‘Print Invention’ on p. 249. Do 3-2-1

*Read ‘Young People in China’ section and answer the three questions on the page.

*Read p. 266 and do 3-2-1.”[ii]

To the side of the front “smart board” on a whiteboard are listed the daily lesson objectives, the world history standard under which the lesson falls, and what students will be able to know and do as a result of the lesson.[iii]

In the rear of the room on a sidewall is a large poster showing a pyramid with levels of cognitive skills drawn from Bloom’s Taxonomy.[iv] Next to it is a bulletin board displaying student work that received a score of 100%. On the floor next to the opposite wall sits a large box holding “interactive notebooks” for each of the students. When students enter they take their notebook from the carton; at the end of the period they put it back. Along the rear wall of the classroom sit five new desktop computers with chairs and desks.

The teacher has arranged the classroom furniture into rows of desks facing the front of the room. The teacher’s desk, with an open laptop is in a corner at the front of the room near the “smart board.”

Twelve 9th graders arrive before tardy bell. Topper, a thin young man about 5 feet 7inches is wearing a sport shirt with a multi-colored tie and dark pants He tells students in a crackly voice that he will lock the doors now because a “hall sweep” is occurring. Such “sweeps”—particularly in the week before a holiday—happen when security aides, uniformed and in civilian clothes, round up students in corridors after the tardy bell has rung. These aides take the late students to the cafeteria where an administrator records their name and then issues a pass to class. Being caught in sweeps repeatedly can lead a student to be suspended from school.[v]

After pointing to the IWB about the day’s lesson, Topper says: “Listen up! Still a little sick from yesterday and throat is sore, so don’t let me talk over you.” He continues: “The questions in the textbook you will answering are level 1 questions, not application or evaluation.”[vi]

He then looks at one student and says: “Mr. Washington, help me out and take off your hat.” He addresses all students “Mr.” and “Miss.” Student takes off cap. [vii]

Topper directs student attention to IWB and addresses each item on the lesson agenda including the test tomorrow. He asks if there are any questions. There are none. He reminds students that they will write in their interactive notebooks on clean pages and at the end of the period will turn in answers to the questions and 3-2-1s.

Eight students rise and get textbooks sitting on a shelf at the side of the room. The rest sit and chat. As students turn to textbook pages and begin writing in their interactive notebooks, a few yell out questions about items they will have to work on. One student calls out, “Topper, I need help.” The teacher walks over and listens to the student and then answers questions. Another student walks over to door, slips the wooden “bathroom pass” off the wall hook and exits classroom. A hum from students talking to one another rises in volume. Two of the chatting students have yet to retrieve a textbook. Topper tells them to begin on assignment. They begrudgingly get a text while whispering to each other as they return to their desks and open the books. Another chatting 9th grader balks and says to Topper: “Leave me alone.” He does. The student who took the bathroom pass earlier returns; another student takes the wooden pass from that student.

Thirty minutes after tardy bell all of the students are seemingly working on reading the text and writing the 3-2-1s. In the next 25 minutes, Topper takes a cell phone call by walking out of room into the hallway. When he is out of the room, seven students stop reading or writing and begin talking to one another. When Topper returns in two minutes, he walks around the room checking to see if students are on task, writing in their notebooks, and if there are any questions.

The bell rings for the daily homeroom period that occurs during this period. Homeroom is a 10-minute intermission in the school day for the principal, other administrators and students to pipe in announcements of the day’s activities, upcoming events, and names of students who must report to the office. As the words pour out of a wall-mounted speaker, few students pay attention to the announcements. When the PA system came on, Topper returned to his desk at the front of room and worked on his laptop.

After announcements end, Topper asks students to resume their work. He reminds the group that there will be a test tomorrow and that answering all of the questions will help them on the test. He tells them that their notebook pages will be collected before the bell rings ending the period. It is their Exit Pass, he says. [viii]

About five minutes before the bell, Topper says to the class to return the textbooks and interactive notebooks to the cartons on the floor near the sidewall. After returning to their desks, students get their backpacks and belongings together as they await the bell. When it rings, eight of the twelve hand in pages torn out of their notebooks to Topper who reminds them of the test the next day.

Since completing a semester of student teaching and graduating college in a nearby city, Mike Topper entered Cardozo as a first-year teacher of history. In the World History I syllabus, Topper wrote the following for the course:

The purpose … is to view civilizations from the Fall of Rome to the Age of Revolutions and think historically about how such civilizations impacted the development of the world. We will continually wrestle with questions that cannot be easily answered. In order to do so, we will develop a toolbox of ‘historical thinking skills’ that will be useful for everything inside the classroom and for being a powerful citizen outside of the classroom.[ix]

The three goals and objectives for the course would make any partisan of the historical approach beam with pride.

  1. Formulate (develop) historical questions and defend answers based on inquiry and interpretation.
  2. Communicate findings orally in class and in written essays.
  3. Develop skills in reading strategies, discussion, debate, and persuasive writing.

Topper specifies in the syllabus which historical thinking skills he seeks to develop in his 9th graders such as: being able to explain “historical significance,” find and use evidence, analyze primary sources, and figure out what is the “cause and consequence” of a significant event.

These are ambitious goals for a first year teacher anywhere, much less at Cardozo. He told me that he likes it at Cardozo “because expectations for academic work are higher than [the city where he did his student-teaching].” “Here,” he said, “administrators come into your classroom and observe what you are doing. Also ‘master educators’ [former teachers hired by the district to observe and evaluate other teachers] have already come by a few times. Here, you really need to work with kids.”


[1] As part of the district instructional guidance for and evaluation of teachers, called the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework Resources Overview, there is a template for every lesson taught in a District of Columbia classroom. See here.

In the framework, the template for the “warm up” says: “Teacher hooks students to the content, activates students’ prior knowledge, and introduces the objective.” P. 13.

[ii] The text the class uses is the 1100 page World History: Modern Times (2005) written by Jackson Spielvogel. The book contains many graphics, photos, charts, and sidebars with vignettes of historical personalities. Accompanying each unit in the book is a “Primary Source Library.” There is a classroom set of the texts along one wall for students to use when the teacher assigns pages to read and questions to ask in a lesson. The 3-2-1 is an acronym for a teaching technique that gets students to summarize a reading and think about its meaning. Students were familiar with the technique and had used it for readings in the text and in primary sources. Each student would write on one sheet of paper: “Three things you learned from reading; two things you have found interesting; one question you still have.”

[iii] When I asked two other Cardozo social studies teachers (there are four in the department) why the curriculum standard, daily objective, and what teacher expects students to learn was written on all of their whiteboards, each one independently told me that the District requires these to be listed. The lesson template mentioned above states that teachers must have the curriculum standard and daily objective displayed for all students to see. When evaluators—the school principal or D.C. “master educators” entered the room—either arranged beforehand or unannounced–it is one of the items that these evaluators expect to see.

[iv] Bloom’s Taxonomy is part of the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework (see pp. 4-6). The district expects all academic teachers to sort out the content and skills they teach and use the language of the taxonomy in stating their daily objectives.

[v] A student sitting next to me explained what the “hall sweeps” were. I confirmed this with Topper and other teachers.

[vi] Level 1 questions—factual recall of dates, events, and people—refer to Bloom’s taxonomy levels of which a poster is on a wall in the room. I assume that he has taught the levels to students earlier in the semester. Whether the students understand the clarification about the questions they are expected to answer, I do not know.

[vii] Cardozo school rules call for no cell phones during class lessons, no hats to be worn in classrooms, and students to have uniforms. Gray Polo tops and khaki pants or skirts for grades 6-8, purple Polo tops and khakis for grades 9-10, and black Polo shirts and khakis for seniors. No street clothes allowed—there are loaner shirts available to students who break rules. In the two weeks I was in the school, I noted that about half of the students wore uniforms. See Cardozo website at: http://www.cardozohs.com/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=207589&type=d&pREC_ID=408163

[viii] Exit Passes are ways that teachers can determine quickly and briefly what students know and understand in the lesson. As a form of assessment, it is often used by teachers to see whether what has been taught has been learned.

[ix] Mike Topper (pseudonym), Department of Social Studies, 9th Grade Academy, “Syllabus for World History I, 2013-2014,” p. 1. In author’s possession. I cannot give web link to syllabus because it would reveal actual name of the teacher.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

12 responses to “Teaching History in an Academically Failing High School

  1. Michael Kalmes

    Overall, a mixed picture. As you point out, the teacher’s goals are ambitious (though I think I hear the distant voice of a teacher preparation methods professor in the syllabus if not Sam Wineberg). Clearly the district and teacher are trying to implement policies associated with effective instruction, though that appears to be mostly a top-down and piecemeal affair. But, as always, the curriculum is what actually happens in the classroom and that’s not encouraging. He’s trying but the instruction described doesn’t seem to match the goals. There are other sour notes: if I were a student I think I would feel more like a prisoner than a learner in a school implementing hall sweeps as described. Like a prisoner, I’d simply try to get through the day as it seems some of the students in Mr. Topper’s (Potter’s? See below.) classroom seem to do.

    I’m sure someone has already pointed out that you rename Mr. Topper once, calling him Potter within the segment marked by footnotes iv and v.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much for catching my mistake, Michael. I have corrected it. The gap between what he wants to do and what occurred in the lesson I observed is there. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Wilson Lambert

    Hi Larry
    One thing is for sure, and that is the “Hunterization” of Washington DC Schools (Madalyn Hunter). Do not get me wrong, I believe in posted learning objectives so that kids can clearly see what the lesson goals are. But it is still window dressing, as most urban students can still not break down non-fiction text, and struggle with decoding skills, and cannot read proficiently. But dare not make the mistake of a missing learning objective on the blackboard, “excuse” me, I’m sorry, I meant to say “whiteboard or smart board?

  3. We live in an era when lawmakers wish to make curriculum uniform across the whole nation, hence NCLB and Common Core. Yet I’d wager that what you saw in this classroom is very, very similar to what you’d observe in Dubuque or Seattle or Charleston. The same attempts to create order (no hats; tardy sweeps); the same mandated procedures (the warm up, the exit ticket); the same struggles to “cover the material”. All this is so familiar, I suspect, to anyone who has visited high schools around the US.
    My question is, how did this uniformity occur (long before NCLB)? Why do the history classrooms in my school look so much like the one you describe despite the fact that we are separated by thousand of miles and dozens of state borderlines?
    One question: you said you saw 50% compliance on uniforms. Do you mean that half the kids thumbed their noses at the uniform rule?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment and questions. The last question you asked, Jerry, is the easiest. I made the estimate of half of the students wearing uniforms and it was for the four days I was in the school. What was also obvious is that a far higher percentage of ninth graders, maybe 85% did wear the prescribed slacks and polo shirt while seniors were ones who followed the uniform code far less. As for the other question on what you call standardization of teaching across time and location, well, there are competing explanations. Some social scientists see the uniformity as a function of top-down policy (depending on time period) while others ascribe the similarities that you noted to the nature of the age-graded school workplace for teachers and students–I fall into the latter group. I am sure there are other explanations. What’s yours?

  4. It has to be that we are all responding to the same ‘stimuli’. I was blown away years ago when I read Stigler and Hiebert’s book, The Teaching Gap. The idea that we teach the way WE were taught, that it’s culture that controls. Pity all those folks who yearn to improve American education through one or another public policy. They ain’t got a chance against the monumental weight of American culture. The English teacher in Maine and the history teacher in Louisiana have the same narrative in their heads. Just about every newbie teacher I’ve ever spoken to begins their career bent on giving their students something THEY never got–kindness, passion, inventiveness, concern for the lowliest–yet 90% end up like the fellow you observed, trying to survive the disappointments of every day school life. Want to sell books? Write a cook book or a book on how to maintain ‘control’ of your classroom: both are sure to find an audience.
    I don’t think any policy, top down or otherwise, accounts for this American school culture. And if I could change one thing about our system it would be to abandon the age-graded classroom, but that isn’t going to happen because, of course, we teach the way we were taught.
    I’m nearly 70 years old and I tell all my colleagues that San Leandro High School circa 2015 is almost identical to West Babylon (NY) High School of 1963.

    • larrycuban

      Looks like we agree on the power of the age-graded school structures and culture to shape daily teaching, Jerry. Most policymakers, however, would probably say nay to that. Yet there are changes that occur in schools and in classrooms.There is a zone of discretion that teachers have to depart from the norm and vary lessons. I would guess that your self-awareness of the history of school reform as a teacher of English has led to variation from the norm in your classroom. My hunch is that you do not teach today as you did in the first five years of your career. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. JoeN

    I read this with sadness more than anything else. As others have noted, it’s a familiar picture, although from a UK perspective there is one distinctive difference I think I can detect from the subtext. (Spend enough time in schools and you learn to deduce things quite accurately from certain indicators.)

    Pupils and teachers need to respect the school they belong to. When they don’t: the smallest details accumulate to undermine the whole enterprise. No amount of homogenising the activities in classrooms can counter that fundamental weakness where it’s present.

    Students need “scholars” more than they need “teachers” and what kind of scholar would ever wish to teach like this?

    • larrycuban

      Ah, respect, you say, Joe. I surely know it when I see it in a school but it is so hard to create and sustain. Thanks for the comment.

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