How Have U.S. Public School Teachers Taught? (Part 1)

The following series of posts come from a chapter in my next book.

Historian Wayne Fuller describes a reading lesson that a rural Illinois county superintendent observed in a one-room schoolhouse. [i]

…[S}hortly after his entrance to into one schoolroom, he heard the teacher say to the leader of the fifth-reader class: ‘Mary, your class may read.’ Whereupon, Mary, followed by four girls and a boy, moved to a crack in the floor that served as a recitation line. There they faced the school and each read a stanza from the ‘Mariners’s Dream.’ When the students stumbled over a word the whole class pronounced it aloud, but when the class was finished reading, no questions were asked and no explanation given.

At that point, the county superintendent took over and asked one of the girls to begin at a certain point and read to the first period. Instead, almost without stopping to catch a breath, she read to the end of the paragraph and the boy’s hand went up to correct her.” She did not stop at ‘Hindoostan,’ he said.

Selma Wassermann remembers her first grade classroom in the New York City Public Schools, 1939[ii]

Miss Stellwagon, my first-grade teacher was my “first teacher.”* She taught me about favorites (I was not one) and about talking in class (I was one). She taught me about keeping young children at arm’s length, lest their poverty rub off on the teacher’s middle class self. She taught me that discipline meant humiliation and loss of self-esteem, which diminished you. She taught me that even if you tried to please the teacher, unexpressed standards and expectations would kill your chances of being chosen for a part in the play. She taught me that what I enjoyed most (reading) could be made excruciatingly painful, when the same story was read orally, line by line, up one row and down the other, until all meaning and pleasure were extinguished. She taught her slum children “the King’s English….” She taught us to sit still without moving, for 3 hours in the morning and 2 in the afternoon no matter what physical urges came upon you—for to move, or speak, or ask to go to the bathroom would incur a wrath that was terrifying. We waited for spring, for the trees to bloom, for the windows of the classroom to be open, for the end of the term, for the end of Miss Stellwagon.

“And now, boys and girls, I have some very good news for you. Guess who your teacher is going to be next term?”

“Who?” we shouted in excited anticipation.

“I am,” she said, her mouth forming into that bird’s beak smile.

“Aren’t you pleased?”

“Yeesss, Miss Stellwagon,” we chanted, our hearts sinking. Two years with Miss Stellwagon left such an imprint that I can remember it still—the smell of the room (chocolate-covered graham cracker cookies mixed with chalk dust), the bleak beige of the unadorned walls with only back-and-white alphabet cards to divert the eye, the steam coming in staccato spurts out of the vent on the radiator, the perfect handwriting on the blackboard, the door with the little window, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the outside, where real life ran counterpart to our still-life experiences. I didn’t know it then but Miss Stellwagon’s teaching would be pivotal in my own professional development, my loathing of her so intense that I could only become her antithesis.

I observed Gabriel Stewart, U.S. History teacher, at Los Altos High School, in 2016Stewart, wearing a maroon polo shirt over a muscled upper body with dark slacks, is a 19 year veteran teacher* at Los Altos High School** (and baseball coach). In this hour and a half lesson, he had set aside time to give a practice 75-item multiple choice test on early 19th century political and social changes and then rehearse a Document-Based Question (DBQ) in the remaining 45 minutes. The Advanced Placement course is geared to the spring exam.

The furniture arrangement is five rows of desks facing the front whiteboard with the teacher’s desk in one corner. Bulletin boards are filled with newspaper articles, maps, announcements and photos. On one side of the room, sheets of paper carried previous AP classes’ records in passing the AP exam (getting a three or higher).

During the practice test, students filled in a Scantron sheet recording their answers to multiple choice questions. Stewart walks around the room and from time to time tell students how much time remained to finish the test. Early finishers turned in their filled-out Scantrons and worked on laptops at their desks. After 45 minutes, Stewart asks for sheets from a few remaining students.

The school’s student-produced video announcements come on the screen and for next five minutes those in the class are rapt and listening, laughing at the student anchor’s one-liners and funny events scheduled for the next week. 

After the announcements Stewart asks students to take out their devices and go to the DBQ they will work on for the rest of the period.  When he starts speaking there is a rising level of talk, and a few students say “shush” and the class quiet’s down.

There are six documents in this DBQ that the students are examining.  The task is for the class to write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement: “Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals.”

The documents students analyze are quotes from leading figures in various early 19th century reforms such as Charles Finney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Lloyd Garrison, a chart about growth of political parties in the first half of 19th century, and a contemporary political cartoon on the temperance movement.

I scan the class and do not see any students off-task.

The teacher asks the class to work on filling in the DBQ practice chart with each document. “See if you can knock out the 6 items in 10 minutes.” Students turn to a partner sitting next to them or across a row and begin reading each excerpt and filling in chart. Teacher walks around to check what pairs and trios are doing on their screens.

After about ten minutes, Stewart takes some student questions about the timed AP exam next semester.  The teacher says that time is crucial, he begins snapping fingers in time, saying: “Remember you are paying $93 and you spend four hours taking the test.”

Now, Stewart turns to next task of writing a “coherent essay.” He asks them to begin with a thesis statement for the essay. Again, he stresses the importance of time and how each student has to figure out how long it will take to read the document, get at its essence, and begin writing a sentence that summarizes the excerpts. “You can work together,” he says.

Stewart then asks students to write thesis statement for the essay: “Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals.”

I scan the class and see that all pairs and trios are talking to one another, clicking away on their screens, and occasionally asking the teacher a question as he walks the perimeter of the class.

A few minutes later, school-wide chimes sound ending the class period and Stewart reminds class of assignment as students pack up and leave. Three students linger and ask content questions about the various reformers. Stewart listens and comments. Students exit after five minutes.


[i]Wayne Fuller, The Old Country School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 203.  A book rich in first-hand accounts of rural one-room schoolhouse teachers is Barbara Finkelstein, Governing the Young: Teacher Behavior in Popular Primary Schools in 19th Century United States (Philadelphia: The Falmer Press, 1989).

[ii] Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. A former New York City classroom teacher and reading specialist, the following excerpt comes from her book, This Teaching Life (Teachers College Press, 2004)

[iii] I have known Gabriel Stewart since he was student in my social studies Curriculum and Instruction course in the Stanford University  university teacher education program nearly 25 years ago. I have not seen him teach since he was in that program although we have seen one another on occasion since we live in the same neighborhood.  When I visited Los Altos high school in 2016 to see other teachers, I had stopped into his classroom to say hello. Hearing about my observations, he then invited me into his AP U.S. History class.

Los Altos high school has over 1900 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Latino 28, Asian 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 45 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 22 percent. Fourteen percent of students are learning disabled and just over four percent of LAHS students are English language learners. See here, here, here, here, and here.

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