Category Archives: school reform policies

The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).


Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and in the second decade of the 21st century.

Recent posts on the AltSchool (Parts 2 and 3) and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–-a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–-have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective (and deeper understanding) to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of a science of education.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured buildings, teacher performance, and student achievement. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives” and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neo-progressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and more interaction with the “real” world, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to other stations in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade as a new generation of reformers promised “back to basics” (see here).

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” today resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging  cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” (and the many definitions of each) is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Except for  AltSchool and other private schools, tensions arise in public schools over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging academic performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet faced these conflicts in the DNA of this popular reform.

So current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction through use of digital tools combine anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.


*This post is an updated version of the one that originally appeared June 9, 2015.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use, Uncategorized

The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 3)

Located in the South-of-Market district (SOMA) of San Francisco this micro-school of 33 middle schoolers is a few blocks away from Yerba Buena (see Part 2). I spent a morning there speaking with the Head of School, Emily Dahm (who also is in charge of Yerba Buena), observing two lessons taught by “core educators” James Earle (social studies/English) and Eman Haggag (science), and interviewing Katie Berk, a product manager, from the technical side of the “micro-school.”

Facing busy Folsom Street, AltSchool space is divided into four large carpeted rooms two of which were used that morning for lessons (no class I observed was larger than 15). The other two spaces include a room with desktop computers and commons area for the entire school to meet. Software engineers and staff (coders, designers, and product managers) were located in a large space in the back of the building adjacent to the classrooms and commons area.

Each classroom space has wall-mounted cameras and microphones hanging from the ceiling–called Altvideo–that produce data for teachers to view later privately about the lesson they taught.  The technical staff has produced an app that teachers can use to find the precise part of the lesson they want to see. This self-evaluation occurs during the school day and other times.

On November 7, 2016 I arrived at 8:00 AM and interviewed the Head of School and both core educators. School began at 9:00 with a “morning meeting.” There were 21 twelve to fourteen year-olds sitting in a circle with Eman Haggag counting down from 10 to 0 to secure quiet for the “morning meeting” to begin. On a whiteboard are listed announcements:

Good Morning,

How are you? I am quite marvelous. Cupa’ tea?

Few things:

–Feynman bring phones to class powered off (students are in different groups–(the internationally known physicist Richard Feynman)–is name of one group of students)

Field trip Wednesday–Altschool shirts + pencil + paper

–Ceramics class 11/17, 11/18/,11/22

Students ask logistics questions about upcoming field trip, teachers answer their questions.These morning meetings are to inform students of daily activities and build bonds of community among both students and adults.

At 9:10, students go to the Earle’s and Haggag’s spaces. I go to observe a 90-minute lesson in James Earle’s room.

SOMA space.jpgSOMA plaque.jpg


*The camera is a red dot in a small square below “Join or Die” poster; the mics are in the ring suspended from the ceiling.


There are 14 students in Earle’s class, one with desks and chairs along the windows and walls facing the center. The students sit on the desks with their backs to windows and walls and their feet on the chairs.They appear used to the informality of the seating arrangements and easily shift to sitting at their desks later in the lesson.

SOMA Earle.jpg

In his third year at SOMA, Earle taught global cultures using art, literature, history, and science for eight years at a private school in East Hampton (NY). There he used digital tools extensively. He was attracted to AltSchool for its “public mission, inclusivity, and freedom to work on an integrated curriculum.” *

Earle, wearing a checked long-sleeved shirt with a loosened gray tie over jeans, stands in the center of the room ready to launch the lesson on students writing their position papers on the struggle between colonists and Britain over trade, taxes, and loyalty to the Crown.

To pairs of students, he has assigned actual characters who lived in the years before the American Revolution when colonials were divided among themselves as patriots who sought representation in Parliament and loyalists  to the Crown (e.g. British commander Jeffrey Amherst, Admiral Samuel Hood, colonist William Franklin).  King George III and British Parliament were also divided over how to best treat the uppity colonists who didn’t want to pay taxes that would recoup British costs in defending the colonies in an earlier French and Indian War that had lasted seven years.

Students have researched the person about whom they are expected to write a position paper.  Earle had created playlists of sources, video clips, and readings located on students’ Chromebooks covering these years and different individuals he had assigned to pairs of students.  Some members of the class are just beginning to get a sense of their character’s personality; others are at sea and today’s lesson is aimed at answering students questions and get them to dig into the writing.

Earle stresses the importance of students knowing their character’s personality and what positions the person would take on trade with Britain and colonists’ representation in Parliament. He goes over the slide listing instructions on writing a position paper, paragraph by paragraph, and the importance of the students writing an internally consistent paper that reflects who their character is, their personality, and what stands that the person would take in this on-going struggle with the mother country.

After going over the parts of the position paper, Earle then says “Let’s go around and ask questions.” There are many.

One student asks about William Franklin, a colonial Loyalist (and son of Ben) and his personality that she gleaned from sources she used. Earle responds about how to develop a plan consistent with the character each team is going to write about. Knowing their character’s views on trade, for example, become part of the position paper. Another student asks about her character who is a British soldier and how he would address his commander.

Earle interrupts the class for a moment as he sees six students who have opened their Chromebooks and have begun tapping away. He asks them to close their lids for now since the questions others ask can apply to their work. They do.

Students resume their questions. One asks whether they will work on the Island simulation (lessons that Earle created to show students the different factions in the colonies; the simulation has six islands with different resources where competition and cooperation do exist but change over time.  An upcoming debate among the Islands will occur). Earle says they will have the debate. He turns to another student question.

After another few minutes of questions, Earle asks students to now sit at the desks so he can see what they are working on as they begin writing. All of the students either open their Chromebooks to read and re-read sources in their playlists or begin writing. Some students have their partners in the room and some are in the other class with Eman Haggag and even others are at Yerba Buena.

I speak to three students near me and ask what they are doing. One shows me the playlist she has and the video she is watching; another explains to me about the British soldier she is going to write about. One student has William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, and wonders how to address and write a letter as a member of the House of Lords.

Earle goes to each student, listens to what the student is concerned about in the position paper or character he or she has been assigned, and has a mini-conversation before moving on to another student. To one student, he says, “get your fingers moving on the keyboard.” The student does. For the remaining time in the lesson, students are figuring out their character’s positions on different issues roiling colonist-British relations and at various stages of writing their position paper.

I leave the room and  walk a few steps to the open space where Eman Haggag’s science lesson on “Speed Machines”is underway. Part of the lesson is a lab measuring the speed of a marble going down a ramp. The open space is furnished with a series of black-topped lab tables (resistant to stains and flaking) holding three to four students facing the front of the space where there is an interactive white board that shows slides for the lesson.

Haggag came to SOMA this school year. She has taught eight years in charter and private schools in the Washington, D.C. area. In those different schools she had one laptop per students, interactive white boards and a host of digital tools available to her. What attracted her to AltSchool was the concept of experimenting in a “lab school” where different ideas about schools and classroom lessons can be tested. “Here,” she says is the “autonomy I have sought in teaching.”  Moreover, she says: “I feel ownership of what I do. In this lab setting, I can practice what I preach.”

By the time I enter the room, Haggag–wearing an ankle-length black skirt with a flowered blouse over a long-sleeved shirt and a blue scarf—has organized the 13 students into groups of three and four students collecting data on how fast a marble rolls down a ramp. Like Galileo rolling balls down an incline and measuring their speed, this lab sought to  apply the formula:


Students had already constructed an inclined plane out of 2′ X 3′ pieces of hard cardboard and scotch-taped a yard stick, marked off in 3″ segments. The task for each group is to time how long the marble takes to go from the first segment to the second and then from the second until the next all the way to the 10th and last segment.  Each student in the group has a task. One uses her smart phone as a stop-watch; another catches the marble at each segment and another records time and length of drop.

As I walk around the room, these 12 to 14 year-olds are engaged in the doing each step of the experiment and recording the data. Haggag walks to each group, inquires if there are any problems, and answers questions. At one point she says to the class: “You’re getting into the groove. That’s awesome.”

I overhear one student–the marble catcher in a nearby group say to her group -mates: “This is really stressful.”

Haggag asks students to begin looking at the data they have collected and enter it into a Data Table with columns for distance in centimeters (each segment of the yardstick), time, and speed. They are to calculate the speed of the marble for each segment by dividing the distance by the time it took to traverse the distance. Students enter data and have many questions. Some are answered by group members and friends in other groups; others by the teacher who goes to each group and checks on the data they entered. A few students say out loud the mistakes they made in setting up the experiment and executing it.

With about 20 minutes left to the lesson, Haggag stands on a chair with a four foot high “rain stick” that has small pebbles in it. She turns “the rain stick” upside down and the  sound of the pebbles falling inside the stick is a sign that the teacher wants students’ attention. The class quiets down. She then gives students instructions to disassemble cardboards, yardstick, and scotch tape, clean up any debris on floor and reassemble at their lab tables.

The students scurry about, clean up, and sit in their groups at each table.

Haggag then asks the whole group to think about what they learned from the experiment. Some students said that they did too many trials using the marble; others said they didn’t do enough trials. One student said how hard it was to release the marble and get an exact time. In each instance the teacher asked what the student had learned from their mistakes. Carrying off an experiment, one student said, depends on how well a procedure is done. Done poorly, he said, then the data are wrong. Haggag compliments students for their candor in enumerating their mistakes.

The teacher now asks students to calculate the data they collected. Students talk among themselves as they enter the numbers in the Data Table.

After about five minutes, Haggag asks the class to review the data and think about the hypothesis they had from previous lessons and how certain many members of the class were then that “numbers never lie.” She then goes over the estimates of speed that groups had calculated and how much variation existed among the groups using similar ramps, yardsticks, and marbles.

Even with these varying estimates, Haggag wants each group of students to graph the curve of the marble’s speed that they recorded.  She demonstrates on a slide how to put the various points on the grid–one axis is time and the other axis is distance–by counting the little blocks and where to insert a dot that with other dots will eventually produce a curve. She tells students that graph will show the “Speed of a Marble.”


Students work on this in groups as I leave the lesson to have an interview with Katie Berk, a product manager on the technical side of the AltSchool. The technical staff are lodged on the same floor in a large space at the back of the building.

Of nearly 160 employees in the network of “micro-schools” in San Francisco, there are more than 70 educators and about 30 are on the technical staff (they are not teachers) working on products, as coders, designers, and product managers. I interviewed Berk. In her third year at AltSchool, she was previously a Lead Product Manager at Zynga where she led a team that produced games.

At AltSchool, the technology side of the school receives a gigantic flow of data from “network” schools, digests the information, and designs software that solve problems that teachers and students have with current platform and programs while coming up with different ways to help teachers make their work both easier and efficient to reach the goals teachers have set for their students.

Berk tells me that the main job of the technology side is to help teachers teach and students learn more efficiently. They accomplish this, she says, by having close contact with what both teachers and students are doing by having engineers and designers spend time every week watching teachers teach and talking with them..

Teachers, Berk told me, run into problems with certain aspects of the platform used across AltSchool and they want simple ways to do an “end-around” the problem. Also teachers have ideas on what can make lessons, say, in science or math, easier for students to grasp and have an idea that can turn into an item on a playlist or the designer can wrestle with what the teacher wants and figure out a solution that she and her colleagues can create for the teacher. This collaboration between teachers and technical staff at AltSchool was one of the reasons that Berk came to the “network” of “micro-schools.” I thanked her for the time she spent with me and left.


As I drive home after my interview with Berk, I think how unusual this partnership between educators and the technologist side of a school really is. On-site, skilled technical staff that confer frequently with their “users” to come up with solutions to teaching and learning problems while, at the same time, smart, experienced teachers can turn to designers and engineers to try out software ideas that teachers believe might help them teach and students learn is uniquely innovative. That partnership is uncommon in schooling today, both public and private.

Yes, I thought, there are issues of privacy for both teachers and students amid constant surveillance during school hours that still need to be negotiated.  Firewalls to prevent hacking or sharing information have to be strong enough not to be breached. That issue will not disappear.

Another thought occurred to me as I drove south on the freeway. AltSchool was practicing a form of progressive pedagogy that would have had John Dewey nodding in agreement.  Yet, at the same time, AltSchool had married their progressive ways of teaching and learning to the sought-after classroom and organizational efficiencies that new technologies provide in the “micro-school” network. Maybe Edward Thorndike, that early 20th century “educational engineer” who thought everything could be measured and analyzing data would point the way to better managed and efficient schools would, along with John Dewey, be nodding in agreement for the first time (see here).  Bringing together these two wings of the progressive movement a century ago finally  into one network of schools can be done, reformers might conclude, albeit at $26K per student a year.


* In an interview prior to the lesson, Earle succinctly told me how digital tools at the Ross School where he taught previously and here at the AltSchool have helped him negotiate the inherently impossible task of “managing the complexity of teaching.” He appreciates how many decisions, how many activities, how many student psyches come into play with his expertise and personality in a lesson. He seeks to have students acquire the skills and concepts he wants to communicate and have students not only grasp both but also come to understand and use in their school career. Negotiating this daily complexity of teaching is, according to Earle, aided, in part, by the digital tools he has available and uses with his students. Those tools are helpful to “manage the complexity of teaching,” he says, but it is still a high mountain to climb every day.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to the Truth (Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew)

Sam Wineburg is a professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Sarah McGrew is pursuing her doctorate in curriculum and teacher education at Stanford.

This commentary  appeared in Education Week, November 1, 2016.

Did Donald Trump support the Iraq War? Hillary Clinton says yes. He says no. Who’s right?

In search of answers, many of us ask our kids to “Google” something. These so-called digital natives, who’ve never known a world without screens, are the household’s resident fact-checkers. If anyone can find the truth, we assume, they can.

Don’t be so sure.

True, many of our kids can flit between Facebook and Twitter while uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to using the Internet to get to the bottom of things, Junior’s no better than the rest of us. Often he’s worse.

In a study conducted by Eszter Hargittai and her colleagues at Northwestern University, 102 college students went online to answer questions about things that matter to them—like how to advise a female friend who’s desperate to prevent pregnancy after her boyfriend’s condom broke. How did students decide what to believe? One factor loomed largest: a site’s placement in the search results. Students ignored the sponsoring organization and the article’s author, blindly trusting the search engine to put the most reliable results first.

Research we’ve conducted at Stanford University supports these findings. Over the past 18 months, we administered assessments that tap young people’s ability to judge online information. We analyzed over 7,804 responses from students in middle school through college. At every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation: middle school students unable to tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students taking at face value a cooked-up chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee; college students credulously accepting a .org top-level domain name as if it were a Good Housekeeping seal.

One task asked students to determine the trustworthiness of material on the websites of two organizations: the 66,000 member American Academy of Pediatrics, established in 1930 and publisher of the journal Pediatrics, vs. the American College of Pediatricians, a fringe group that broke with the main organization in 2002 over its stance on adoption by same-sex couples. We asked 25 undergraduates at Stanford—the most selective college in the country, which rejected 95 percent of its applicants last year—to spend up to 10 minutes examining content on both sites. Students could stay on the initial web page, click on links, Google something else—anything they would normally do to reach a judgment.

More than half concluded that the article from the American College of Pediatricians, an organization that ties homosexuality to pedophilia and which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a hate group, was “more reliable.” Even students who preferred the entry from the American Academy of Pediatrics never uncovered the differences between the two groups. Instead, they saw the two organizations as equivalent and focused their evaluations on surface features of the websites. As one student put it: “They seemed equally reliable to me. … They are both from academies or institutions that deal with this stuff every day.”

Ironically, many students learned so little because they spent most of their time reading the articles on each organization’s site. But masking true intentions and ownership on the web has grown so sophisticated that to rely on the same set of skills one uses for print reading is naive. Parsing digital information before one knows if a site can be trusted is a colossal waste of time and energy.

This became clear to us when we gave our tasks to professional fact-checkers. Three strategies separate checkers from the rest of us:

  • Landing on an unfamiliar site, the first thing checkers did was to leave it. If undergraduates read vertically, evaluating online articles as if they were printed news stories, fact-checkers read laterally, jumping off the original page, opening up a new tab, Googling the name of the organization or its president. Dropped in the middle of a forest, hikers know they can’t divine their way out by looking at the ground. They use a compass. Similarly, fact-checkers use the vast resources of the Internet to determine where information is coming from before they read it.
  • Second, fact-checkers know it’s not about “About.” They don’t evaluate a site based solely on the description it provides about itself. If a site can masquerade as a nonpartisan think tank when funded by corporate interests and created by a Washington public relations firm, it can surely pull the wool over our eyes with a concocted “About” page.
  • Third, fact-checkers look past the order of search results. Instead of trusting Google to sort pages by reliability (which reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how Google works), the checkers mined URLs and abstracts for clues. They regularly scrolled down to the bottom of the search results page in their quest to make an informed decision about where to click first.

None of this is rocket science. But it’s often not taught in school. In fact, some schools have special filters that direct students to already vetted sites, effectively creating a generation of bubble children who never develop the immunities needed to ward off the toxins that float across their Facebook feeds, where students most often get their news. This approach protects young people from the real world rather than preparing them to deal with it.

After the vice presidential debate, Hillary Clinton’s campaign tweeted, “Unfortunately for Mike Pence and Donald Trump, Google exists (and we aren’t stupid).” Yes, Google puts vast quantities of information at our fingertips. But it also puts the onus for fact-checking on us. For every political question swirling in this election, there are countless websites vying for our attention—front groups and fake news sites right next to legitimate and reliable sources.

We agree with the tweet from the Clinton campaign. We’re not stupid. But when we turn to our screens for information and answers, we need to get a lot smarter about how we decide what’s true and what’s not.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

What I Learned about Computers and Paper in My Classroom (Steve Cannici)

Steve Cannici introduces himself:

“Originally from northern New Jersey, I earned my undergraduate degree from the University of Rhode Island as a double major in secondary education/chemistry. From there, I was offered a position at Middlebridge School in RI. Middlebridge has been built from the ground up to work with students diagnosed with learning disabilities. It was their first year in existence and they needed a science teacher. I was the first and only science teacher there for the first four years. Over the past eight years, in my role as a science teacher, I’ve helped build the school from 21 students to 75. In the summer of 2016 I completed my Master’s degree through Montana State University, a Master of Science in Science Education (MSSE).”

For readers who wish to contact Steve to ask questions, his email is:

I teach at the Middlebridge School in Rhode Island and work with a unique population. All are high school students diagnosed with some type of learning difference. Their areas of challenge are numerous and include time management skills, organization, cause and effect relationships, and almost anything you can imagine related to executive function skills.

So I decided we should run a science fair with them every year.

The same problems showed up year-after-year as I ran the project with them. Students frequently lost notes, could not keep track of all the moving parts associated with designing a science experiment, procedure were very general if they got completed. So, I designed a series of worksheets for them to work through one-at-a-time to help step them through the planning process, essentially following a version of the scientific method.

That worked pretty well for a while! Students still lost stuff and had trouble organizing, but they got the projects done and were often pretty proud of their work and themselves. But, on my side, I was collecting these mounds of paper, giving feedback, organizing them, carrying them back-and-forth between school and home, it was messy. I thought there had to be a better way, which is when I started trying to work out a solution using technology with the hopes of reducing all the paper. This is where my master’s degree project came in. I attempted to break the process down and design a system that would work for both the student and the teacher using existing technology solutions.

First, I attempted to define what the action steps were that students and myself needed to go through before an assignment was deemed “completed”.  I was able to describe these steps for short-term (classwork or homework, essentially) and long-term assignments (like a science fair). I called it the “workflow” and it consisted of seven steps (steps contained within parentheses are action steps that students are responsible for).

distribute -> (store -> retrieve -> produce output -> submit) -> generate feedback -> return feedback

Here, the workflow is presented linearly. However, it does not need to be executed linearly, which is what allows the process to  be applicable to long term assignments as well. The long-term assignments are what I am more interested in, since my students really tend to have challenges there.

I took a longitudinal approach, so there were four phases that stretched across several months. These phases alternated between students using the technology solutions I mentioned (Google classroom to manage distribution and submitting of assignments, Google Docs to produce output, and Google Drive to store and retrieve assignments) and just using worksheets, binders, pencil, lined paper, etc. to work through assignments. The treatment was applied during phases one and three.

I created my own instruments. So, similar to Larry’s, mine have not been tested for validity or reliability. I created a survey to gather information on student attitudes towards the use of a computer for work completion in class. It also assessed student attitudes towards use of a pencil and paper. In addition, I created a form to track the methods that students were using to organize artifacts within Google Drive and within their binders during the separate phases. This form also helped me time how long it took students to retrieve their work from the storage location the artifact happened to be in.

I’ll spare people the numbers, but can provide the actual paper if any one is really interested. It turned out that students were able to retrieve artifacts more frequently and more quickly compared to when they had to use a computer, accessing Google Drive for instance. It wasn’t even close either. Artifacts from a binder were retrieved in seconds compared to minutes with Google Drive (if they were retrieved at all). Here’s the kicker, the survey results showed that most students preferred using the computer and felt they worked more efficiently with it. Go figure…

A few things to consider for sure…I, in no way, consider this a perfect study. There are some interesting tidbits that emerged if anybody wants to read the full paper.

For the start of this year, I’ve been using paper handouts. Students are working really well with them. But, I still have that dream of a system that just replaces all the paper and works really well. Mostly, it should make LESS work for the teacher and students as opposed to MORE, which is what most technology seems to be doing these days.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Teaching 8th Grade Science: Technology Integration

The hour-long science class at Jordan Middle School* that I observed October 13, 2016 began with the daily video announcements produced by Jordan students about the weather, upcoming events, and a segment on the new bike lanes around the school including an interview with an adult crossing guard. I looked around the room and saw that most students were attentive and enjoyed seeing classmates doing announcements.

After the announcements, Erica Goldsworthy launched the lesson for the day. She has taught six years at Jordan and, as she told me, “ I have the hang of it now.”

There are 24 eighth graders sitting four to five students at joined tables facing one another. On each combined table sits a cup filled with markers, colored pencils, and rulers.

erica room.jpgerica agenda.jpg

erica poster.jpg

Wearing a gray sweater over knitted white blouse and dark slacks, Goldsworthy directs students’ attention to the slide on the interactive whiteboard (IWB):

Bell work: day 3

1.Do you think gas molecules move differently if they are cold or hot? Explain your answer.

  1. What is the phase change from solid to gas called?
  1. When does thermal apply in our phase change cartoons/story?

As I scan the class, I see most students writing answers to the questions in their notebooks. A special education teacher is also in the room for the half-dozen students with disabilities. She goes from table to table to see how these mainstreamed students are doing on the questions.

After five minutes, Goldsworthy begins review of student answers to questions, calling on students who raise their hands by name.

On the first question about hot and cold molecules moving differently, one 8th grader says hot molecules move faster and gives as his reason kinetic energy. Teacher explains difference between thermal and kinetic energies and compliments student—“great answer, Michael.”

After finishing the Bell Work questions, teacher says:

“I am going to segue into our storyboard conversation—I checked off your storyboards—you need to double-check—look at your rubrics that I passed out on your tables”

Goldsworthy and her next-door colleague have teamed up in designing a “Phase Change Project” to understand how a solid changes into a liquid and then into a gas (e.g., ice, water, vapor). Concepts of thermal and kinetic energy are central in explaining how solids go to liquids and then gases (see here for slides that elaborate on the project).

The project requires each student to:

Create a cartoon or story about a substance going through a series of phase changes (solid to liquid to gas) to show how energy affects the phase that substance is in.

They are into day 3 of the project. The teachers have each day’s work broken down into a series of activities in which students work. The class has been working on drafting their storyboards and cartoons by hand and today they will complete a draft of storyboard, decide whether to do a final copy by hand, use a computer to type their text and add cartoon panels and even go further by making a video out of cartoon they have created. These student decisions are governed, in part, by the categories in the rubric called “above and beyond.”  See below.**

Above and Beyond

Meeting Requirement – Computer generated cartoons.

Above – Paper or computer generated cartoons with YOUR OWN pictures (either computer generated or hand-drawn).

Beyond – Creating a video that includes voice and your own pictures.

*All categories must meet all requirements listed*

Goldsworthy is ready to have the class working for the rest of the period on the project. Students vary in what stage they are in completing the project; some are drafting their storyboard; others are typing in text and putting their cartoon on the computer and some are figuring out how to do a video.

Before launching into a work session, Goldsworthy says: “Be mindful how you are completing your work” She gives example of how to make project look professional by using a ruler. She gives another example by pointing to student and saying if “Leo wanted to make a stop/motion video of his cartoon, he can do it on the computer.” She finishes by saying: “If you are not sure of what meets a standard check with us. Tomorrow we have Science Friday.

“OK, get started,” Goldsworthy says.

Students go to cart to get a iPad or laptop and return to their table. Students confer with one another and look at each other’s draft of storyboard, cartoon figures in each box and after a bit of shushing from teacher, get down to work. Teacher circulates through room asking and answering questions from individual students.

I look around the room and see all students writing, showing their storyboard to table-mates, or tapping away on their device. Low-level murmuring envelops the class. I do not see anyone off-task.

I go around to various tables asking students to see their storyboards. One student showed me her storyboard cooking with coconut oil . Then she showed me the final product of cartoon panels that she was typing into her iPad. After she finished, she told me, she would compare her cartoon of cooking oil as it went from one phase to another, to the standards in the rubric in assessing her work to see what she needs to add or amend before turning it in.

Another student is working on final storyboard that he will turn in. It is a one-foot square white laminated board showing how a solid—ice—turns to water and then evaporates. He is going to go “above and beyond” by making a video. He has looked at the rubric and wants the highest grade the teacher can give.

As I look around the room, there is a noticeable quiet, a purposeful silence with a few murmurs from students showing one another what they are doing. Many students have pencils and colored markers in hand; others are tapping away on devices (at least half of the class is working in laptops or tablets. Here is a combination of low- and high tools in use for this teacher-chosen project. Students easily shift back and forth between paper, iPads, and storyboards. I see one 8th grader holding an iPad in his left hand and with the right hand draws with colored markers on his laminated story board what he sees on the device.

The teacher announces that: “You have 20 more minutes left in class.”

Both Goldsworthy and the special education teacher move from table to table inquiring of each student if he or she needs help or materials and answering questions.

Some students confer with one another, others laugh and speak softly in showing their storyboards. A few go to Goldsworthy to ask questions.

I see one student working on an iPad and ask him what his storyboard is. He shows me a series of cartoon panels of a man—solid—who goes to a sauna and turns into a liquid. He then goes to a doctor who lowers his temperature to zero degrees so that the man can return to his solid state.

At this point, Goldsworthy tells the class, “we have 3 minutes so it is time to clean up. Put away your rulers, colored pencils. We will work on this tomorrow.

Students with devices return them to the cart. Others pick up paper off the floor and put rulers back into cups on the table. In a few moments the whispering turns into open talking among students. The teacher says “if you are cleaned up please be quiet in your seats.

Buzzer sounds but the teacher doesn’t release students. They wait until she looks around to see that chairs have been returned to their places at the tables and the floors under the table are clean. Teacher lets students go to their 15-minute brunch recess and wishes them a good rest of the day.


* Jordan Middle School is one of three 6th through 8th grade schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The school (2015) has over 1100 students of whom 52 percent are white. The largest minority is Asian (30 percent); Latino (9); African American (3); multi-racial (5). Seven percent of the school is classified as “disadvantaged”, meaning that they are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Five percent are English Language Learners and 11 percent are classified as special education.

On state test in language arts, Jordan students score almost twice as high as students across the state in meeting or exceeding state standards and in math, nearly two and half times more that state figure in meeting state standards (see here)

** I asked Goldsworthy about the rubric and the “above and beyond” category. She told me that her students felt that if they completed the work as assigned they should get an A+ . The teacher felt that completing the work minimally was satisfactory, a C. So she developed in the rubric that meeting the standards was adequate but not “above and beyond,” work that merited the highest grades. She then laid out those specifications.


Filed under how teachers teach, raising children, technology, technology use, Uncategorized

Teaching Geometry at Mountain View High School*: Technology Integration

It is 8:00 AM and a few 9th grade students slowly enter the classroom. Music is playing, ballads and songs from an earlier decade—I recognized “Hotel California.” Brendan Dilloughery , working on his laptop at his desk, welcomes each student by name and they sit in their pod of desks, some slowly unpacking their notebook and laptop or tablet (this is a Bring-Your- Own-Device district**) from their backpacks. Other students put in earbuds to listen to their favorite music or program, and a few   just stare into space.

A veteran teacher of nearly a decade in international schools in Ecuador, Switzerland, and other places, Dilloughery is in his second year at Mountain View. He teaches geometry and computer science. Tall, energetic—constantly on the move even before the buzzer sounds for the geometry 1 class to begin—the teacher has the agenda for the lesson on the white board. Trimmed beard, mustache, and goatee, the teacher is wearing a maroon long sleeved shirt and dark slacks. He gazes around the room seeing pods of 3-4 desks scattered across the medium sized classroom slowly filling with students.

The buzzer sounds at 8:10 (the period will end at 8:55) and Dilloughery gets the 19 students’ attention. He asks them to take out their homework—three students sitting near me tear out a written page from their notebook —and tells the class that he will come around and stamp their homework (the stamp is a large checkmark). Dilloughery walks around as students place their homework next to their laptop or tablet which they open and go to Google Classroom where they access the homework assignments and geometry proofs for the day (all students have a textbook at home from which the teacher assigns homework).

The “agenda” for the day is on the whiteboard:


–Blue Angels tomorrow at lunch

–Review homework

–Proofs -big picture

–IXL-C 8

BD clssrm.jpg

After stamping homework, the teacher asks students to close their lids at a 45 degree angle (after all, it is geometry, I think to myself). Students do. At the front whiteboard, Dilloughery then proceeds to go over step-by-step a problem that requires a logical proof. Students are encountering proofs for the first time in the course and the teacher is both explaining the steps and giving them practice. On the whiteboard is the following:

2.6 Prove Statements about segments and angles

Prove that the distance from the restaurant to the movie theater is the same as the distance from the cafe to the dry cleaners

Givens: TS-CF


Prove ?

Teacher goes over each part, interspersing his explanation with questions for students (“what was the postulate from yesterday?” “Why is this last statement transitive property?”). He calls on students by name. After finishing, he says:

“Now, we are going over the homework. What questions do you have from your homework?”

Students call out three problems from text that they had to do for homework; teacher jots down the numbers and puts up the homework problems on the screen. In a question-and-answer format with class, Dilloughery goes over each of the problems students asked for help.

I look around the class and all students appear to be listening or taking notes. No one I can see is obviously off task, that is, looking at computer screen or cellphone.

In breaking down each problem into parts and getting at concept of congruence in a proof, the teacher dramatizes what he is doing by stretching out arms, bending legs, making side comments to the class, and moving around the front of the room. The class seems used to this kind of teacherly enthusiasm since some students smile and others watch carefully what he does at the whiteboard. ***

He moves to the other problems that a few students said were hard for them. They are two-column proofs.

BD WB problem.jpg

Teacher calls on student: “what am I going to write for step 1?” Student answers correctly. Dilloughery then goes to next step and says this could be a postulate involving angles and adding angles together. “What would that be?,” he asks. One student answers and the teacher, in a positive burst of happiness at the answer, says “Oooh.” Then he acts out the answer by taking a long step forward on the floor in front of the whiteboard. Students around me break out in smiles.

Dilloughery walks the class through the other problems that students had raised with homework. He encourages members of the class to call out answers—usually he names students when he calls on them—as he finishes this portion of the lesson.

Teacher then segues to next and final activity. He directs students to begin practicing with a partner two-column proofs on IXL, an online math software program that the teacher uses for geometry.

Holding blue note cards with student names in his hands, he shuffles the deck of cards and makes up pairs randomly. He comments on who the partners are going to be, pointing out their strengths. Some students laugh. Because the names are paired randomly, students take their tablets and move to different pods in the room to sit with their partner. Dilloughery announces that partners will spend 15 minutes on the two-column proof. He turns on the music and it plays softly.

After a few minutes, I look at three pods near me and see pairs of students are looking at one screen and discussing what they need to do to complete the two- column proof..

While students are working on the task, the teacher moves from pair to pair asking questions, looking at their screens to see what the partners have typed. He has a comment for each pair. For the entire activity, Dilloughery moves swiftly from pair to pair seldom stopping more than a minute or two as he quizzes the partners and listens to their answers. For one set of partners, I hear the teacher say, “you got it” complimenting them on their work. At another pod of four desks, two pairs are having some problems. Dilloughery stops there and goes over what the students have done, asks for their reasoning, raises questions, listens to student answers, and points out glitches in partners’ reasoning—all in a few minutes before moving to another pair.

Teacher alerts students that the bell will ring in less than a minute and they should pack up. Buzzer then sounds and students  slowly leave the room. These 9th graders are finished with geometry for the day.


* Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has  just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21,  African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16

**BYOD began two years ago in the District.

*** Dilloughery told me that his principal joshed him by saying, “I think I could plug into your enthusiasm and run for a couple of days.”

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Teaching Science at Jordan Middle School: Joint Planning and Technology Integration

Team planning can be mandated by a principal or can happen naturally between like-minded teachers. At Jordan Middle School*, two science teachers in rooms adjacent to one another began slowly but steadily a few years ago to plan units of instruction for their 8th graders. A generation apart in age, these two teachers, one in her sixth year at Jordan, and Sue Pound, a New Zealand native and late-comer to teaching–she is in her 18th year of teaching–have planned units together.  The team has planned many units together including the lessons I observed two consecutive days. In connecting rooms, I saw both teachers, come and go into each other’s rooms, checking on students and materials for their jointly prepared lessons.

The state-approved physical science text they have for their students is outdated and soon to be obsolete with the state-approved Next Generation Science Standards for grades 5-8. These new standards concentrate on integrating concepts across science disciplines rather than content of each subject as in physical science, a course that both teachers have been teaching for years. The jointly-planned unit project is on Phase Changes and what I describe here is consistent with these new standards.

These two teachers, then, have managed over time to cobble together readings, worksheets, exercises, and examples gotten from many sources including colleagues and the Internet, an alternative text that would be consistent with the new science standards,

The hour-long lesson I observed Sue Pound teach on October 15, 2016 was on the jointly-planned project about Phase Changes of solids, liquids and gases.

The spacious room is furnished like her team-mate’s: tables seating 3-5 students facing one another with containers of rulers, colored pencils, and markers distributed on counter tops in front and back of room.

Pound room Jordan.jpg

By the time the buzzer sounds to begin class, 19 eighth graders are in their seats. Pound taps her laptop and two Jordan students come on-screen to make announcements for the day, give a weather report, and tell Jordan students of upcoming events.

“Talking needs to stop to hear announcements,” Pound says. Quiet descends for a few moments until these 14 year-olds recognize classmates on the screen making announcements. Laughter breaks out and the class looks at and listens to Jordan students.

After the video ends, Pound puts up a slide on an interactive whiteboard (IWB) showing the day’s agenda—“Work on Phase Change Project and Science Friday”and “Bell Work” questions. Noise in classroom leads teacher to say, “All eyes on me,” and begins to count 3, 2, 1. The class hushes.

She tells students to have their Phase Changes Worksheet on the table for her to check and then points to slide saying that for the next few minutes they are to write out answers to the Bell Work” questions.

Pound Jordan.jpg

On p. 44 (refers to notebook that she and colleague have created for every student in place of outdated textbook)

1.What is the difference between boiling and evaporation? Explain and give examples

2.What happens to molecules when they undergo a change from liquids to solids?

Teacher walks around room glancing at homework students show her; she stamps each one. There is also a special education teacher, wearing a head scarf and long dress, who works with the mainstreamed students in the room to see if they have done their homework and answer any of their questions.

As a I look around the room, I see nearly all students working on questions with much whispering and talking. Pound stops her stamping of worksheets and says: “Focus on the questions.” Class gets quiet.

After a few minutes, the teacher goes around to each table and finds out how many have answered the two questions.

After Pound is satisfied that nearly all students have finished, she asks the class:

“What is difference between boiling and evaporation?” Students raise hands and she calls on each one. At no point does she say whether the answer is correct or incorrect. She listens to answers and elaborates on a few of the student responses. Then she asks the class: “What other things that have not been mentioned did you write down?” A few raise their hands to answer. She extends a few of the students’ answers such as: “When we talk about vaporization it means when liquid turns to gas.” Pound gives examples of hot springs as instance of geothermal energy.

Teacher turns to second question about hot and cold molecules and listens to student answers, again letting students’ answers stand on their own legs, permitting some to build their answers on what class-mates say. She asks if there are any other questions or comments on these Bell Work questions. No one raises hand.

At this point, Pound lays out in detail what the students will be doing for the rest of the period combined with a warning. “If you take the time to chit-chat you won’t need the extra day for your project. I will check at the end of the period. Show me that you are using the time well.” She shows slide of “Above and Beyond” from rubric that she and colleague had created. “Any questions?” None from the class.

She tells students to get devices from carts, rulers, markers, etc. “OK, let’s get to work.”

Students leave their seats to go to different parts of the room to get materials for their project. Eight students get devices from the cart. Students settle into working at their table, occasionally conferring with or showing class-mate what they are doing. Pound walks around to each table and asks if there any questions, probes at what some students are doing, and compliments a few.

I go around and check with 17 students where they are in the project. All have storyboards in various stages. Some have written out text; some have already drawn cartoons; and a few are considering making an iMovie. All but one student is using ice as the example of moving from solid to liquid to gas.

One student did not have a storyboard; she had her head down on the desk. She spoke to Pound and then returned to her desk. Teacher tells me after class that student was very discouraged since she discovered that her storyboard and how it should look was not what the teacher had directed the class to do. The student was blue and annoyed with herself but did promise the teacher to work on it later.

I look across the room and see that all students are working. Even the one who had laid her head down on the table was looking at her neighbor’s storyboard.

Pound walks around to each table to see what students are doing, asking questions of students and giving encouragement: “Terri, how’s it coming?,” she asks one student.

Two other science teachers come into room. Pound confers with her co-planner and the other teacher picks up some materials he needs for a lesson.

Pound interrupts the class and says that they have a few minutes left and it is time to logout from computers, return them to cart, take rulers and markers back to their containers and pick up paper off the floor around tables. She asks how many students need more time to work on project on Monday. Many students nod and a few yell out “yes.” Pound says she can give students Monday to continue working on project.

The buzzer sounds. Teacher checks each table and floor beneath it and then excuses class.


* Jordan Middle School is one of three 6th through 8th grade middle schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The school (2015) has over 1100 students of whom 52 percent are white. The largest minority is Asian (30 percent); Latino (9); African American (3); multi-racial (5). Seven percent of the school is classified as “disadvantaged,” meaning that they are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Five percent are English Language Learners and 11 percent are classified as special education.

On state test in language arts, Jordan students score almost twice as high as students across the state in meeting or exceeding state standards and in math, nearly two and half times more that state figure in meeting state standards.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use