Category Archives: school reform policies

The History of the Future of Education (Audrey Watters)

From Audrey Watters’s self-description:

I am an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.

“It’s a long story,” I often say. You can catch snippets of it, if you pay attention. I’ve got a CV if you care about such formalities. And I wrote an FAQ if that helps.

I love science fiction, tattoos, and, some days, computer technologies. I loathe mushy foods and romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit I like ABBA and dislike Tolkien. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve not finished Ulysses, and I’ve never even started Infinite Jest. I prefer cake to pie, unless we’re talking pastry projectiles. I pick fights on the Internet. I’m a high school dropout and a PhD dropout. I have a Master’s degree in Folklore and was once considered the academic expert on political pie-throwing. I was (I am?) a widow. I’m a mom. I have a hard stare that I like to imagine is much like Paddington Bear’s and a smirk much like the Cheshire Cat’s. I am not afraid.

I travel as much as I possibly can. “Home,” at least according to my driver’s license, is Seattle, Washington.

My essays have appeared in multiple places, but mostly I write on my blog Hack Education. I’ve published four collections of my public talks, The Monsters of Education Technology (2014), The Revenge of the Monsters of Education Technology (2015), The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology (2016), and The Monsters of Education Technology 4, as well as a book arguing that students should control their digital identities and digital work, Claim Your Domain. I’m in the middle of writing my next book, Teaching Machines, which will be published by MIT Press.

I was a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University School of Journalism for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Watters’ post on the future of education was a talk delivered at Ryerson University. The post appeared February 19, 2015

It’s a refrain throughout my work: we are suffering from an amnesia of sorts, whereby we seem to have forgotten much of the history of technology. As such, we now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of “disruptive innovation.”

This amnesia seeps from technology into education and education technology. The rich and fascinating past of education is forgotten and erased in an attempt to tell a story about the future of education that emphasizes products not processes, the private not the public, “skills” not inquiry. The future of education technology therefore is the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities because the history of education technology has always been the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities. Or so the story goes.

I’ve been working on a book for a while now called Teaching Machines that explores the history of education technology in the twentieth century. And this year I’ve started a series on my blog, Hack Education, that also documents some of this lost or forgotten history. (I’ve looked at the origins of multiple choice tests and multiple choice testing machines, the parallels between the “Draw Me” ads and for-profit correspondence schools of the 1920s and today’s MOOCs, and the development of one of my personal favorite pieces of ed-tech, the Speak & Spell.) See, I’m exhausted by the claims by the latest batch of Silicon Valley ed-tech entrepreneurs and their investors that ed-tech is “new” and that education — I’m quoting from the New York Times here — “is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology.” Again, this is a powerful and purposeful re-telling and revising of history designed to shape the direction of the future.

Of course, these revisionist narratives shouldn’t really surprise us. We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology — past, present, future — really matter.

I’m particularly interested in “the history of the future of education,” or as what Matt Novak calls his blog, the “paleofuture.” How have we imagined the future of teaching and learning in the past? What can we learn by looking at the history of predictions about the future, in our case about the future of education? Whose imagination, what ideologies do these futures reflect? How do these fantasies shape the facts, the future?

This is perhaps one of the most cited examples of the “paleofuture” of education technology.

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This 1910 print is by the French artist Villemard and was part of a series “En l’an 2000” (“In the Year 2000”) from around the World’s Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes. Here we see the teacher stuffing textbooks — L’Histoire de France — into a machine, where the knowledge is ostensibly ground up and delivered electronically into the heads of students. Arguably this image is so frequently cited because it confirms some of our beliefs and suspicions (our worst suspicions) about the future of education: that it’s destined to become mechanized, automated and that it’s designed based on a belief that knowledge — educational content — is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.

The other prints in this series are pretty revealing as well.

I’m fond of the flying firefighters.

In these images, we see the future imagined as humans conquering the sky and the sea, as more and more labor is done by machine.

It’s worth noting that quite often (but not always) the labor we imagine being replaced by machine is the labor that society does not value highly. It’s menial labor. It’s emotional labor. The barber. The housekeeper. The farm girl. So it’s interesting, don’t you think, when we see these pictures and predictions that suggest that more and more teaching will be done by machine. Do we value the labor of teaching? And also: do we value the labor of learning?

Thomas Edison famously predicted in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – but not because books were to be ground up by a knowledge mill. Rather, Edison believed that one of the technological inventions he was involved with and invested in – the motion picture – would displace both textbooks and teachers alike.

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks,” Edison asserted in 1922. “I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”

100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.

It gets to the heart of that Villemard print too: this question of how we get the knowledge of the book or the instructor into all students’ brains as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The future: cheaper and faster. More mechanized. More technological.

This is the history of education technology throughout the twentieth century. It is the history of the future of education.

Radio. Radio Books. Lectures via television (This image is from 1935). Professor as transmitter. Students as receivers.

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“The Push-Button School of Tomorrow”(from 1958):

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From Popular Science in 1961, a prediction that by 1965, half of all students will use teaching machines.

The Autotutor or “Automated Schoolmarm” (from the 1964 World’s Fair):

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Also from 1964, the Answer Machine:

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From a 1981 book School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow):

“If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. … The computer won’t seem like a machine. It will talk to you just like a human teacher, and also show you pictures to help you learn. You’ll talk back, and you’ll be able to draw your own pictures on the computer screen with a light pen. This kind of homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books. …Eventually, studying a particular subject will be like having the finest experts in the world teaching you. Far in the future, if computers develop beyond humans in intelligence, then the experts could in fact be computers, and not human beings at all!”

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1981. 2015. A very similar fantasy of the future.

I didn’t have this book growing up, but my brother had something similar: The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, published in 1982. We spent hours pouring over its pages, imagining what our “whole future” would entail. Flying cars and moon colonies.

Education is, quite arguably, caught in a difficult position when it comes to these sorts of predictions about the future – and it’s a position that makes education seem intransigent. See, education is – almost necessarily as we have the system constructed today – trapped by being both backwards-facing and forwards-facing. That is, education institutions are tasks with introducing students to domains of knowledge – all of which have history, a past – all the while are tasked too with preparing students for the future – a future in which, according to some stories at least, knowledge is still unknown and undiscovered. As such, there is this inevitable panic and an inevitable tension about education, knowledge, conservation, and innovation.

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This image from 1982 was part of a series about the future of computers commissioned by Alan Kay when he went to work for Atari. Here we see some of the earliest visions from Silicon Valley of the personal computer in the classroom. The future of education here is technological. It is branded. It is game-based. There are still desks in rows and clusters. And students still rebel.

When we look back at all these predictions from the past about the future of education – the history of the future of ed-tech– the point (my point) isn’t that our education systems are reluctant to change. My point is not that schools have failed to fulfill the sci fi imagination. Indeed, I’d argue that schools have changed a lot over the last hundred years thanks to the law, not to technology: mandates for desegregation for example that would not have come from “code.” My point is that the imagination about the future is so very intertwined in our notions of the past and the present. And if we let Silicon Valley, for example, erase the history of education technology, if we allow Silicon Valley to dictate the present terms for education technology, then we are stuck with its future, its corporate, libertarian vision. The same could be said, of course, of the imaginations of other powerful institutions: Hollywood’s vision of the future, Hanna Barbera’s, Harvard’s.

All the visions of the future of education, the future of teaching, the future of work, the future of learning are ideological. They are also political. As we hear the visions of politicians and entrepreneurs, as we listen to the visions of the rest of today’s speakers, we need to remember that. Predictions about the future are not neutral. They are not objective. They are invested. Invested in a past and a present and a future. Invested in a certain view of what learning looks like now, what it has looked like before and what – thanks to whatever happens in the future – what it might look like going forward.


Filed under Reforming schools, research, school reform policies, technology, technology use

Whatever Happened To the Dalton Plan?

When, where, and why did the Dalton Plan arise?

Begin with Helen Parkhurst. A 20th century educator much taken with the Progressive approach to schooling, she designed the Dalton Plan after World War I as a way of organizing instruction consistent with Maria Montessori’s and John Dewey’s ideas of individualizing all academic work and building school community. The core of the Plan was students making contracts with their teachers to study and learn content and skills.

Deeply concerned by the grouping and lock-step movement of children and youth in American schools, Parkhurst sought to reorganize classroom work so that teachers would be able to convert traditional age-graded schools and classrooms where whole-group teaching, 55-minute periods, textbooks, and tests prevailed into laboratories where individual students contracted with their teachers to work on topics that interested them. Students then would have to make decisions on what to study when, finishing assignments, and meeting the terms of the contract to complete the teacher designed work (see below for description of Dalton Plan).

Parkhurst named the Plan after the public high school in Dalton, Massachusetts where it was first put into practice in 1920. She also was the founder of a New York City private school named after the Plan where it was the primary means of instruction for the students. In 2021,The Dalton School charges $55,000 to attend and its headmaster earns $700,000 a year making it one of a score of elite private school (see here and here).

Helen Parkhurst

What did the Dalton Plan look like in the classroom?

Evelyn Dewey described the plan as it would work for a typical student in a school that put the Dalton Plan of instructional organization into practice in the early 1920s.

Horace Marshall is a pupil in the fifth grade in a Dalton public school in the city of ____.

School hours are from 4:00P.M., with an intermission from 1:00 to 2:00P.M.

From 12:00 noon is considered free time. It belongs wholly to the pupil and it is his responsibility to organize it to suit his needs.

The half hour between 12:00 and12:30 is taken up with pupil assembly, special work, or committee meetings. During this time, the academic instructors meet for faculty conference. The following half hour is devoted to group conferences. All the pupils of a grade report to an academic instructor at this time, but they report to a different teacher each day, so that there is a weekly report for each grade in each subject. The remainder of the day may be used for work in art, manual training, recreation or athletics, any work which can be readily handled in grade groups.

The school year is ten months. Horace studies five academic subjects,—history, mathematics, geography, English literature and some form of science. Therefore, Horace has five contract jobs a month, or fifty during the school year. Besides this, he will have a certain amount of work in special subjects—gymnasium, carpentry or art. As far as the school staff permits, this work should also be managed by contract jobs in subject laboratories.

Where such instructors are on part time only, these subjects maybe conveniently handled in groups in the afternoon, or at the close of the morning’s socialized time.

Horace works in all of these subject laboratories instead of in one fifth-grade room.He has a locker for his per-onal school  belongings instead of a desk. His group is under the special care of someone teacher, and will meet in her laboratory for a short period each day, usually at the beginning of the morning. Horace’s advisor talks over class plans and. problems with the children, makes announcements and suggestions to help groups and individuals in planning their day’s work.Then Horace and his class-mates get out their assignment cards. On these cards, they have copied in detail the work of the monthly contract in each subject. There is no times schedule, no bell to summon Horace from one room to another. He determines to work on his geography this morning and so goes to the geography laboratory. His work may be reading references, questions to be answered, maps to be drawn or other pertinent matter. He carries on his work independently, entering and leaving the room when and as he pleases. The time he spends there is determined entirely by his interest-span and his fatigue.

For other fifth-grade pupils are in the laboratory at the same time he may join them. The group is allowed to talk, help each other, exchange books and papers, in fact they should be encouraged to work together. As they work, they make notes on questionst hey cannot answer among themselves or on any point where the teacher’s advice is needed. She is in the laboratory during the whole morning helping groups or individuals, so Horace is free to go to her as he requires assistance. Or she may call his group to her to see what they are doing, discuss difficult questions or make suggestions about better ways of working. Before leaving the laboratory, Horace indicates on the instructor’s subject graph the amount of work completed. If he is in any doubt as to the amount covered, he may ask the instructor to assist him in this. He also indicates the amount he has done by a line on his own contract card. If he leaves before the end of the free laboratory work time, he will select another subject, go to that laboratory and work there as he did in the geography room….

In the afternoon, Horace’s grade will probably have a more regular time-table. Gymnasium, recreation, music and certain kinds of shop work, notably cooking, depend upon organized groups for their value and their success. Part of the afternoon may be spent on a time-table and part in free study for art and carpentry, or allof it may be given over to classes and time found for more than one recitation a week in the academic subjects. … [Evelyn Dewey, The Dalton Laboratory Plan (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1922), pp. 12-16].

One student in a Dalton Plan school said to Dewey, I like this school because each child has ample time to do his work. In other schools,when you go into arithmetic,you have to do arithmetic for half an hour and you have to do so much that you get mixed up. Here, if you begin to get tired and can’t make your mind work right on one thing,you can go into another room and forget all about the first thing,so you don’t get muddled up.Later,you can do the arithmetic.I like it,too,because you can go on and do your work and not be held back by children who are slower. (Evelyn Dewey, The Dalton Plan, 1922, p. 1)

Did the Dalton Plan work?

Two criteria determining whether it worked can be applied to the Dalton Plan: longevity and effectiveness. The overall aim of Parkhurst and followers of the Plan was to upend the age-graded school and its lockstep manner of getting children and youth to learn. For the few years that it was adopted in various places, that occurred. But the age-graded school ended up transforming the Plan. For those scattered and few schools that adopted the entire Dalton approach, the age-graded school was altered substantially. For other schools that selected elements of the Plan, the cardinal features of the age-graded school continued as before. On the criterion of longevity, then, while there are a few instances of the Plan still around in 2021–especially in Europe (see below), it has pretty well disappeared.

And in that disappearance, the dominance of the age-graded school as the primary form of organizing instruction continues. The Dalton Plan failed to upend the prevalent way of organizing schooling in the U.S.

What happened to the Dalton Plan?

Two historians of education wrote that the Dalton Plan spread to a small number of schools in the 1920s and 1930s:

Recognizing that the Plan required dramatic changes in school organization, only a few schools adopted Parkhurst’s reforms wholesale. Many more adopted features piece-meal. By 1930, 162 (2%) of 8,600 secondary schools surveyed in a national study reported that they had completely reorganized their school to conform with the Dalton Plan. Another 486 (6%) of the secondary schools reported that they had a modified version of the Plan in their buildings.

As for the public Dalton High School in Massachusetts that piloted the Plan in 1920, it lasted only a year although features of the Plan lasted for a decade.

For the most part, by the 1950s, the few schools that had embraced the Plan had either abandoned it completely or just retrained the singular practice of teachers and students signing contracts to complete required academic work. Like most innovations, the rhetoric and a few practices continued as other innovations swirled across the U.S. landscape shoving aside older ones like the Dalton Plan. A few schools and some teachers continued “laboratories” in non-science classes to individualize content and skills. Few researchers, parents, practitioners, and administrators in 2021, however, have heard of the Dalton Plan, much less seen it in practice.

Yet the Plan remains alive in 14 nations, including the U.S. with the private Dalton School in New York City. As one would expect after a century of implementing the innovation many modifications have occurred and continue today. Nonetheless, some schools across the world continue to embrace the Plan as they adapt it to their settings. The Netherlands has the largest number of schools following the Dalton Plan (see here).


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Opening Up the Textbook (Sam Wineburg)

Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and history at Stanford University, He along with Susan Ramiraz and Peter Stearns authored Human Legacy, a high school world history textbook.This appeared in Education Week, June 5, 2007

History textbooks have long merited special scorn. Thicker than a Duraflame log (and weighing more), today’s books feature pages that rival news Web sites (think CNN) for busyness and clutter. Artwork with multiple call-out boxes, tricolored pictures with captions of “How to Read Me,” and pointers to end-of-chapter test questions cued to state standards (with special editions produced for your state) dominate the text like the bun that smothered the patty in that famous burger ad.

Years ago, when I first started teaching future history teachers, I urged them to do what I had done as a young teacher: Ditch the book in favor of primary sources. Now, with Google, the job of finding sources is infinitely easier than in my day.

I soon found, however, that of my yearly crop of 30 future teachers, maybe one was practicing anything remotely like what I preached. The vast majority were just trying to survive. Enough desks for each student, a working computer (Apple IIs do not count), a blackboard: This was a high bar. But in 2004, things got better in California. That’s when Eliezer Williams et al. v. State of California, a class action filed on behalf of the state’s poor children, was settled, requiring Sacramento to spend $138 million to buy every child basic learning materials—including textbooks.

I quickly realized that by exhorting my novice history teachers to renounce textbooks, I was failing to teach them to use the one classroom tool—flawed, problematic, overly flashy, and did I mention how heavy they are?—they could expect to find once they got there.

So, I revamped my Methods of Teaching History course. I now begin with a lecture called “Textbooks Are Your Friends.” True, I admit, textbooks are often written in that third-person voice that makes Muzak sound scintillating. But this is not the main problem. Even lively textbooks pose a threat. The main problem of history textbooks is not how they’re written.

The main problem is their very existence.

History’s complexity requires us to encounter multiple voices. A single voice can spellbind us with gripping narrative. But “history” has at its root the Greek istor: to inquire. True inquiry admits no easy answers. The textbook achieves its synthetic harmony only by squelching discordant notes. That’s Muzak, not history.

Which is exactly what I told the two executives from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston who asked me to write a feature called “Reading Like a Historian” for their new high school series. “Well,” I said, munching gnocchi over dinner, “to read like a historian means challenging your book’s narrative. It means uncovering places where interpretations are treated as facts and facts as timeless truths.” Pouring more chianti, I told my hosts that no attempt to teach students “how historians read” can coexist with a textbook’s voice-from-on-high narrator (even higher than mine was at that moment).

My hosts nodded. “That’s why we want you to write it.” I nearly choked on my ciabatta.

Two months later and contracts signed, I got to work. To write these “Reading Like a Historian” essays, one each for every chapter of a U.S. and world history textbook, I drew on 20 years’ experience as a researcher of historical cognition, in which I have spent approximately 1.2 gazillion hours interviewing, probing, taping, transcribing, coding, analyzing, writing about, and generally hanging out with people who call themselves historians. All of this in an attempt to identify something common and generative to how historians—rather than, say, literary critics, electrical engineers, or horse whisperers—read.

Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny.

Together, my 70 essays span 5,000 years of human history. Some directly challenge the main text’s interpretation of key events and offer alternative accounts of, say, the 1929 stock market crash or al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers.

In other essays, I alight on conclusions that the main text announces en passant and ask, how does the book “know” what it claims to know? For example, we are told that skilled Egyptian workers, not Hebrew slaves, built the pyramids. What gives historians the chutzpah to demolish in one sentence 40 chapters of Exodus and three hours and 39 minutes of Cecil B. DeMille?

Still other essays take up the issue of historical argument. (It’s a secret to many students that historians argue. To them history sprouts from the ground. Historians merely transcribe.) For example, the book alludes to views about why the Industrial Revolution occurred in 18th-century England. My essay throws these explanations into bold relief, pitting the now-fashionable “contingency theory” (available coal plus that unique Western ability to colonize, enslave, and reap profit from cheap cotton) against the more traditional “brilliance of the West” theory (Remember? Scientific inquiry, stable legal and economic institutions, a culture that prized initiative, thrift, and powdered wigs). These arguments are never resolved, but become thicker and more nuanced with each pass. This thickening—not consensus—constitutes progress.

What each of my essays tries to do is help students see their textbook itself as a historical source. In order to do this, students have to yank those iPods from their ears long enough to hear how language works, how it massages our understanding even before we’ve reached the first “fact.”

In a chapter on the Crusades, the text describes the contest between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted: “Although Richard won several battles against the Muslims, he was not able to drive them out of the Holy Land or take Jerusalem. In the end, he had to admit a draw and return to England.” Pausing on this sentence, I raise the issue of positionality—not by quoting Derrida to 10th graders, but by taking the concept literally. What direction does the text point you in? With whom are you marching? Positioned at Saladin’s back, how would you change the narrative?

Similarly, I try to get students to think about how narratives begin, for historians know that beginnings shape interpretive structure, and that any story of consequence yields multiple openings. The textbook introduces American involvement in Southeast Asia with the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference. Until then, the narrative suggests, the conflict in Vietnam was largely a French affair.

In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.

My essay provides readers with alternative starting points: January 1944, when, writing to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that “Indochina should not go back to France,” a colonizer that had “milked it for one hundred years”; the foggy days after the Allied victory, when Ho Chi Minh appealed to Harry Truman (by writing eight letters—some not declassified until 1972) expressing a desire for “full cooperation with the United States”; or August 1945, when Truman met Charles de Gaulle and laid the groundwork for $15 million in military aid to an American-advised and American-equipped French force at Dien Bien Phu. Each of these options fundamentally changes the texture of the ensuing story.

The goal of “Reading Like a Historian” is not vocational, but liberal, as in the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. I am most interested in those qualities of mind that history is able to cultivate long after the details of the Tang dynasty or the Treaty of Ghent have faded.

Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny. Stories create entire worlds. But these worlds become oppressive and all-encompassing if we view them as God-given, rather than the products of our own hands and, thus, open to question and scrutiny.

Listen, I have no illusions about the little feature I have written. But I took on this assignment because I believed in its basic idea. Including at least one other voice in the same book—a printed court jester who pokes at readers, reminding them to slow down, to listen to words, to notice how the text spins them, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-like, in a given direction—is more than another frill in today’s frilly world of textbook publishing. When students hear a second voice questioning the first, they learn that maybe their job is not to memorize after all. Maybe their job is to find their own voice.

We live in an information age. But it is also an age of boundless credulity. In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, research, technology use

Teachers I Respect and Admire–Roberta Rabinoff Kaplan

I met Roberta Rabinoff in 1964 after she returned from serving in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in a rural school. She entered the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, a federally funded program located in a nearly all-Black high school taught by a largely Black staff in Washngton, D.C..

The program sought to attract smart, committed college graduates–Rabinoff was valedictorian of her graduating class at Denver University–to train them to develop curriculum materials, new ways of teaching, and to work in the community after school. She and other interns taught two classes of English a day, met afterwards with a master teacher of English and also took Howard University seminars after school to earn a Master’s degree by the end of the school year. After a year, they met all the certification requirements to teach in the Washington, D.C. Schools.

My job in the program was to supervise four history interns, also Returned Peace corps Volunteers, who taught two classes a day, as I did. Rabinoff and I often discussed how the 11th grade American Literature course she taught and the U.S. History course I taught overlapped so we decided to teach jointly an American Studies course for one semester. We taught about the American Revolution incorporating fiction, poetry, oratory of the day with the events typically studied on the run-up to the split from Great Britain, the eight year war with the mother country, and establishing a new government.

Up to that point in my career–I had taught seven years in a Cleveland high school–I had never teamed with another teacher. I found the experience a lot of hard work, learned how to collaborate, and found that our tandem teaching engaged the class in ways that I had not anticipated or seen before. Team teaching was an experience that whetted my appetite for more of it and did so both later in both high school and university classes.

Journalist Dana Goldstein interviewed Rabinoff–now married to Jack Kaplan–about her experiences in the program. According to Goldstein:

The Cardozo Project received federal funding, which meant the interns had their own mimeograph machine and other school supplies veterans often lacked. Interns were young, inexperienced, and mostly white, while Cardozo’s veterans were generally middle-aged and black. Some of the biggest clashes were over the curriculum. In the Peace Corps, Roberta Kaplan had taught African American literature at a private school in Sierra Leone. But when she tried to bring some of the same material to Cardozo, including Black Boy, Invisible Man, and the poems of Langston Hughes, she heard pushback from long-standing members of the English department, who saw a young white teacher assigning black students a second-rate reading list-these works were not yet highly regarded. “They wanted to make sure the kids were exposed to the same classic literature white kids were,” Kaplan told me, works like My Antonia, Willa Cather’s novel about white pioneers in Nebraska. “Even To Kill a Mockingbird was not considered a classic then!”

Rabinoff decided to stay on as a fulltime English teacher at Cardozo and did so for nine years also sponsoring the annual yearbook called the Purple Wave.

Background and Career

Roberta grew up in Denver. She was valedictorian of her South High School graduating class in 1954. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver, graduating valedictorian and also voted Outstanding Woman of her class. She volunteered for the Peace Corps’s first group of volunteers serving two years in Sierra Leone 1962-1964. After working as a reporter for a Honolulu newspaper, she entered the Cardozo Project, became a certified teacher, and stayed at the high school for nearly a decade where she also served as yearbook advisor.

After Cardozo, she freelanced writing and editing for various organizations in the D.C.

Kaplan remained active in Returned Peace Corps activities. One of her former secondary school students in Sierra Leone, Ibrahim Conteh, had become Deputy Chief of Mission for the Sierra Leone Embassy and when he came to D.C., for a Peace Corps event, he asked the staff to locate his English teacher, Roberta Rabinoff. Their reunion marked the first time they had seen each other since Rabinoff’s tour of duty 47 years ago. “I bow to you. I am very grateful. God bless you,” said Conteh as he introduced his former teacher to the audience.”

As the formal ceremonies gave way to informal conversation, Conteh and Rabinoff-Kaplan returned to their days together at the Magburaka Government Secondary School for Boys in theTonkolili District of Sierra Leone. She received updates on the lives of many school officials and students. Conteh recalled when his teacher read out loud one of his particularly good essays and how “the class went wild!” Rabinoff-Kaplan said “it was a most amazing coincidence that he would remember my name and that I would be in DC.”

Teacher and writer

Rabinoff-Kaplan was a teacher I respected and admired. She loved literature and communicated that passion to her students over the years. She listened to what students said and developed close relationships with those students who saw writing fiction or non-fiction as a way of expressing deep emotions. She drew out students rather than poured in content. Her work as yearbook adviser drew her closer to seniors who she had two or three times in English classes. And they responded with both affection and continued contact after they completed college and entered careers. Her love of literature continued as our life paths diverged. Whenever I came to D.C., I had dinner with her and her husband often regaling each other with Cardozo stories. The fact is I miss her since she died over a year ago.



My journal for years 1963-1967

Washington post obituary at:

Western Montana RPCV News, June 2010, p. 4 at:


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Classroom Teaching Then and Now

Most policymakers, researchers, and parents believe that good teachers and teaching are the keys to school improvement yet these very same folks know little about how teachers teach daily. And that is the rub. Good teachers and teaching are the agreed-upon policy solutions to both high- and low-performing students yet reliable knowledge of how most teachers teach and what are the best ways of teaching in either affluent or low-income, minority schools are absent among policymakers, researchers, and parents.

At a time when remote instruction has dominated the practice of teaching during the pandemic year, it is useful to take a moment to consider how teachers have taught for the past century and the traditions of teaching that teachers have straddled since the first age-graded school opened in the mid-19th century.

So how have most teachers taught and teach today?

The long answer can be found in many books such as Mary Kennedy, Inside Teaching (2005), Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (1975), Philip Jackson, The Practice of Teaching (1986), and Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (1984).

The short answer is that teachers today draw from two traditions of teaching.

From the early 19th century, teacher-centered and student-centered traditions have dominated classroom instruction (see photo below of a classroom taught within this tradition a century ago).

The teacher-centered tradition refers to teachers controlling what is taught, when, and under what conditions. Were you to sit for a few minutes in such a classroom you would note that the furniture is usually arranged in rows of desks or chairs facing the front whiteboard, teachers talk far more than students, the entire class is most often taught as one group with occasional small groups and independent work, and students regularly use texts to guide their daily work. Scholars have traced the origins of this pedagogical tradition to the ancient Greeks and religious schools centuries ago and have called it by various names: “subject-centered,” “teaching as transmission,” and “direct instruction.”

Teacher-led high school classroom early 20th century

Student-centered activities in early 20th century classroom

The student-centered tradition of instruction refers to classrooms where students exercise a degree of responsibility for what is taught and how it is learned. Teachers see children as more than brains; they bring to school an array of physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs plus experiences that require both nurturing and prodding. The above photo shows a degree of student-centeredness in an early 20th century classroom with bolted to the floor desks arrayed in rows.

Were you to sit for a while in such a classroom today you would see that the furniture is arranged and rearranged frequently to permit students to work independently or together in large and small groups. Student talk is at least equal to, if not greater than, teacher talk. Varied materials (e.g., science and art centers, math manipulatives) are spread around the room. Guided by teachers, students learn content and skills through different tasks such as going to activity centers in the room, joining a team to produce a project, and working independently. Scholars have tracked this tradition to its historical roots in ancient Greece and labeled it over the centuries as “child-centered,” “progressive,” and “constructivist.”

A 21st century Fairfax County (VA) elementary school classroom

Champions of each tradition believe that all students, regardless of background, grasp subject matter, acquire skills, cultivate attitudes, and develop behaviors best through its practices. Yet the accumulated evidence of actual classroom practices producing desired student outcomes for each tradition has been both mixed and unconvincing. And for good reason. Most observers confuse “good” teaching with “successful” teaching. Moreover, researchers have yet to link ways of teaching to student test performance because so many variables influence achievement such as family background, teacher experience, peers, school safety, and dozens of other factors including, yes, pedagogy.

Lacking evidence to support one form of teaching over another, faith–not facts–has driven proponents of each tradition. Fierce rhetorical struggles over which ways of teaching and learning are best for all or some students—often mirroring larger conservative vs. liberal ideological battles over religion in schools, ending poverty, child-rearing practices, and song lyrics–have ebbed and flowed.

Since the early 20th century, these so-called “culture wars” spilled over newspapers, books, educational conferences, and scholarly journals. More recently, outbreaks of these media-amplified fistfights—again reflecting the ideological divide between political conservatives and liberals have engaged federal, state, and local officials in arguments on over how best to teach reading, math, science, and history. In 2003, for example, New York City Chancellor of schools Joel Klein mandated “Balanced Literacy”—a progressive whole language approach–as the preferred way of teaching children to read in nearly 750 elementary schools rather than a phonics-based approach.

And in the “math wars” between progressives and conservatives, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) issued a report in 2006 urging that math teaching in elementary and middle school concentrate on knowing multiplication tables, how to do division and manage decimals. Yet their 1989 report called for engaging students in learning concepts and applying them to real world situations rather than memorizing rules for adding, subtracting, and dividing and other familiar ways of grasping mathematics. And that struggle continues into 2020.

These historic traditions of teaching practices, then, are alive and well now. Yet these media-hyped “wars” between progressive and traditional ways of teaching have obscured the mixing of traditions. For instance, in the past quarter-century, state standards in math in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Georgia include both traditional and progressive language to describe teaching. Current math textbooks (e.g., University of Chicago School Mathematics Project) blend traditional practices (e.g., whole class drill on math facts) with progressive ones (e.g., connections between math and science, students working in small groups, writing in journals). Ditto for reading and, yes, the use of technology in classroom lessons. Note well the progressive language surrounding “personalized learning.”

My research into teaching over the past century and particularly in classrooms over the past decade that I have directly observed, most teachers have, indeed, blended both traditions of teaching.

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Photos on Schooling during the Pandemic

Meghan Gallagher at The 74 Million gathered photos that capture some of the effects of the pandemic year when schools were shuttered and then slowly reopened. I have selected a few of them for this post. All 52 can be seen here.

Children play in front of a school in Orlando, Florida on March 20, 2020 that was closed due to the coronavirus but will begin distance learning on March 30. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A teacher from P.S. 124 in New York City conducts remote classes on her laptop from her roof. (Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – APRIL 1: High School language arts teacher Emily Olin held her three-year-old daughter Genevieve on her lap as she distance taught her classes from her home in Minneapolis, Minn., on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Olin never imagined life like this “u2013 teaching her students virtually while tending to her own kids at the same time. There is joy, but also great anxiety in making sure everybody gets what they need daily. (Photo by Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – MARCH 29: A child dribbles a basketball at Waterfront Park in downtown on March 29, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Out of the concern of COVID-19 all of the city’s playgrounds are closed until May. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 22 : A young girl sits inside a painted circle for social distancing on May 22, 2020 In Madison Square Park in New York City. New York City is currently in its ninth week of lockdown and governmental guidelines on wearing a mask in public and social distancing are in effect. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA, UNITED STATES – 2020/07/28: A protester holds a placard that says Keep Educators Off Of Ventilators before the Monroe County Community School Corporation school board meeting in Bloomington,Indiana is experiencing a 73-percent increase in new Coronavirus infections, but local schools were due to resume in-person classes next week on August 5th. However, while some want their kids back in school, others fear schools will be a daily super spreader event, and asked the local school board to delay classes until more data is available on the spread of the virus in the community. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Seventh graders (from L) Mia Friedlander, Ella Kingsrud, Taylor Credle, Hannah Cooper and Bella Rocco follow instructions online by tutor Robin Lorch from an iPad placed on a ladder in a home garage on August 27, 2020 in Calabasas, California. – As parents across the United States come to terms with remote learning this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, many are opting for so-called “learning-pods” to help their kids, and themselves, get through the school year. Also known as “pandemic pods”, they are popping up all over the country and consist of small groupings of children typically living in the same neighborhood who gather at each other’s homes to learn together with a tutor or teacher. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Students wearing protective masks have their temperatures checked before entering Logan Jr. High School in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. The Illinois State Board of Education has “strongly encouraged” a return to full, in-person instruction in the fall, as long as the regions are in Phase 4 of reopening. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MILFORD, MA – SEPTEMBER 11: School children are spaced apart in one of the rooms used for lunch at Woodland Elementary School in Milford, MA on Sept. 11, 2020. Milford is one of the first school districts to re-open in the state, with a hybrid model, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCT. 13: Students wear masks while participating in an activity with their dance pod organized by Dance Mission Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, October 13, 2020. Several arts pods have popped up in San Francisco, funded by foundations for low-income kids since COVID-19 pandemic has shut down regular in-person schooling. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
CALABASAS, CA – NOVEMBER 09: Guadalupe Duran at Lupin Hill Elementary School sprays a electrostatic disinfecting solution in the school library between the morning and afternoon “cohorts” at Lupine Hill Elementary School in Calabasas as one of the first elementary schools to open up under in L.A. County. This in the Las Virgenes Unified School District, which was the first public school system in Los Angeles county to win waiver approvals. Lupine Hill Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 in Calabasas, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
PASADENA, CA – NOVEMBER 12: Karen Carter teaches 4&5 year olds at Bushnell Way elementary school in Highland Park. Carter has turned her dinning room into a classroom. Carter holds an online class from home on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020 in Pasadena, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Reiffton, PA – December 11: Exeter High School basketball cheerleaders in the stands wearing masks. High School Boys Basketball, the Berks Catholic Saints vs. the Exeter Eagles at Exeter High School in Reiffton Friday night December 11, 2020. Exeter won 60-49. Everyone, including the players coaches and officials, wore masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 / Coronavirus. At midnight on Friday Pennsylvania will impose statewide restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, including the suspension of high school sports until January 4th. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 17: Parents and students protest at the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 in Santa Monica, CA to demand that the children be let back to school as soon as its safe. They are protesting the decision by the district to not reopen the schools this year even if the COVID-19 case rate drops later this year. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – FEB. 6: Hundreds of people rally outside City Hall after marching to SFUSD, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif. People protested against remote education and demanded schools to reopen in-person education. (Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)


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Teachers I Respect and Admire–Myrtle Davis

In this series of posts on teachers drawn from my 14 years of experience teaching history in three urban high schools between the mid-1950s and early 1970s and my experiences as a district superintendent, I write about teachers who I came to respect and admire. The first post was about an elementary school teacher whose classroom I visited many times while serving as superintendent of the Arlington (VA) public schools. The second post was about music teacher William Appling, a colleague of mine at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) in the mid-1950s to early 1960s. This post recovers an incident that occurred at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C. where I taught history in the early 1970s.

At Roosevelt High School in 1971, I taught five history classes a day—50-minute periods. While I had learned to pace myself much better than when I was taught at Glenville a decade earlier, I still found that teaching five classes with three preparations (sociology, government, and U.S. history) forced me to make compromises in both the what and how of teaching. I had wanted to prepare new materials for at least a few of my classes but the work was too much for me if I wanted a life outside of school–I was married and had two daughters at the time. Nor could I assign essays twice a week in each class, once a week was all I could manage. I could see only a fraction of my 150 students before and after school and during my one preparation period. I saw only those who needed the most help; I practiced educational triage.

What drove me to do more, however, was the students’ response to the history labs (learning centers or teaching stations, as some called them) that I set up once monthly and the new units that I developed on reasoning skills. These units contained lessons on how to tell a fact from an opinion, how to determine what is a reliable source of information, how to judge the accuracy of eye-witness testimony, and so forth. I used these units for the first three weeks in each class. The rest of the semester, while using a textbook or my materials, I would repeatedly apply the half-dozen skills learned in the opening weeks of the class.

What enhanced these efforts was sharing with other like-minded teachers. My next-door neighbor, a new teacher, asked to use my materials and adapted them for his classes. We laughed over the joy of lessons that succeeded and knocked our heads in frustration over those that died in front of our eyes. Carol Carstensten, a former Glenville student who had taken history from me a decade earlier, came to Washington, D.C. with her lawyer husband. She wanted to teach in the District and was assigned to Roosevelt.

Bright, enthusiastic, and very savvy about teaching in predominately minority schools, Carol and I joined forces on a number of student projects. We shared materials and ideas. of how best to connect the past to the present. I didn’t feel isolated, the common workplace hazard for teachers.

A unique skirmish with another teacher during those two years distilled for me both the triumph and despair of teaching in big city high schools in the early 1970s. The prickly exchange between veteran teacher Myrtle Davis and me occurred over a unit on the city in my U.S. history class. I had divided the class into four groups to gather information about urban problems in the early twentieth century and in the 1970s. Each group would then report their findings to the entire class.

One group decided to explore the prevalence of venereal diseases in cities then and now. As part of the information-gathering, they decided to construct a survey of both students and teachers on venereal diseases and means for reducing its spread. We worked together on how to construct questions and how to do a random sample. The one-page survey went out to selected teachers and students in the school. Myrtle Davis, who had taught in District schools before desegregation and had a sterling reputation at Roosevelt for her no-nonsense, demanding approach to teaching, returned her survey with the attached note:

To: Larry Cuban

From: Myrtle Davis

Subject: Survey Form from 5th Period U.S. History Class. What justification is there for a survey of this kind under the banner of American History. These matters should, it seems to me come within the province of the courses dealing with Health and Science.

Moreover, the performance of our students in the social studies, American History, et al. have consistently fallen below acceptable standards. Could it be that each of us working in the field should make every moment of class time count in a concerted effort to bridge this no-information gap in American History?

I sent her a reply the same day.

Dear Mrs. Davis: Our class is studying urban problems past and present. They are divided into four groups. The topics they chose to research were education, housing, venereal disease, and rats. Each group has to make an oral presentation and write a research paper with at least five sources of information. The group dealing with venereal disease researched history books, magazines, and films. They also decided to get knowledge from people. The form that you received was part of the effort.

Since I believe that historical information can be a vehicle to learn skills and not only an end in itself, I feel that the skills students learn from researching, organizing, and presenting an issue they are interested in is far more important than covering information in a textbook. Thank you for your interest. Please feel free to visit the class,speak with students, or observe what is going on.

Before I sent the note to the teacher, I deleted the teacher’s name and read her letter and my reply to my students. The class exploded in anger over the fact that another teacher had criticized what they were doing. A few suggested that the class write a response. By the next day, a few students had drafted a reply to accompany mine again without knowing who the other teacher was.

The reply was signed by seventeen of the nineteen students in class that day.

Dear __________:

We the students of Mr. Cuban’s class feel that we are obligated to write a response to your letter. We feel that your charges are not concrete; by this we mean that you do not have substantial evidence to say that we have fallen below acceptable standards. Your criticism is in the poorest taste, for we are learning. And before you criticize a teacher that is trying and has the interest of his class, check yourself.

Feel free to visit any time!

Fifth Period

I gave the letter to Mrs. Davis that day. The next day she came to my room during my preparation period and asked if she could talk to the class. She wanted to read a reply to their letter. We arranged a time.

Mrs. Davis appeared and read the following letter:

Dear Mr. Cuban and Fifth Period Class:

In response to your letter dated May 10, I feel obligated to make the following comments.

  1. I made no charge against anyone. My statement of fact concerning ‘our students’ referred to students of Roosevelt High School. Whether any of you as individuals were included in the numbers who have taken the various tests, I could not know because I did not know nor did I seek your names as individuals. The matter of fact which I cited was based upon information which had come to me through the counselors. In fact, in one meeting this year, the social studies teachers were admonished by one counselor to the extent that she wondered if we were teaching U.S. History at any time or place in the curriculum.
  2. According to her records, the average score on the College Board Tests in U.S. History ranged in the mid-200s and the highest in the range of 350. The highest possible score is 800. A score from 550 to 750 is considered good to excellent. As late as last week, I learned that only one student at Roosevelt scored up to the cut-off point in the National Merit exams. These facts are on file in the counselor’s offices.

3. I did not criticize Mr. Cuban. I am also a member of the “I Love Larry” club. I did raise what I considered a justifiable question. If to question is to criticize and to criticize is to oppose, then I plead guilty as charged. However, if this be so, the entire course of education and the concept of a free society are already lost.

4. Your suggestion that I check myself first before criticizing anyone suffers from the same shortcoming with which you so glibly charged me. What evidence do you have to indicate that I have or have not “checked” myself? You failed to cite any.

5. As to ‘taste’: this is a matter of opinion. You surely are entitled to your opinion and I am entitled to mine. Having carried this highly professional exchange to the illogical conclusion, I suggest that we continue to devote class time to basic !earnings to help bridge the now developing non-information canyon. I am doing this at home till 8 P.M. However, I do find it odd that a group of young people seem to resent having a question raised concerning a fundamental issue, when in this place and time in history the young are questioning all the time. A practice which I both welcome and encourage. Perhaps a real thorough examination of the basic rights of all people would reveal the truth of the old saying:

‘What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Myrtle Davis, Chief Gander

After she read the letter, she asked if there were any questions. A few students again questioned her right to criticize another teacher. Another asked why she was making such a big deal out of learning facts from textbooks.

She replied: You have to learn these facts so you can do well on tests. If you do well on tests, you are going to get jobs, good jobs. All of us [Davis was black] have to play catch-up. We have been behind so long, we must learn all the skills and knowledge we can. By not getting facts your chances to do well on tests and get into college will be less. We have to catch up.

Davis was passionate in her words. Her voice rose in volume; she occasionally trembled. The high pitch of emotion in the room broke after she spoke. I asked for more questions but nothing was said. Davis left.

As soon as she left, the class exploded, hands were raised and students began calling out. Their emotional temperature zoomed. There was much yelling and anger, but it was mixed with respect for what she said and how she said it. The bell rang.

With only a few weeks before the end of school, the incident was soon forgotten in the rush to complete assignments, tests, and turn in work. What struck me then and even now as I write this, was the seriousness with which Myrtle Dais and I tangled over the subject matter of this class, even in the midst of the new reforms mandated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Open classrooms, teacher accountability, community control, innovative reading programs, new curricula, and dozens of other schemes designed by non-teachers for classrooms were imposed upon elementary and secondary schools by boards of education and superintendents anxious to demonstrate their progressiveness.

In the midst of these feverish efforts to install “can’t-miss” programs, two reasonably intelligent teachers (one annoyed by a colleague’s departure from traditional content for an all-Black class and the other amazed at her affection for test scores debated old but crucial questions in the early 1970s, ones that again have surfaced in subsequent decades and are current in 2021.

Here were two independent, strong-willed individuals, who believed that the basic questions they asked, the content they offered, and the kind of class they created would help students. Each had asked: What is schooling for? What content is worth knowing? What role does a teacher play in learning? Which ways of teaching get students to learn what is important? Does an education for Blacks differ from that given to whites? Not trivial questions by any means, yet few policymakers, researchers, or professional reformers asked them of teachers then or now. And that is why I respected and admired Myrtle Davis.

Davis and I continued to teach at Roosevelt the following year, my last at the school. We differed, but we recognized that there is no one best way to teach history to students or to teach students history.



Personal journal

Correspondence and memos exchanged between Mrs. Davis, myself, and my fifth period U.S. history class.

Account in Managerial Imperative, pp. 105-109


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Teachers I Respect and Admire–William Appling

William Appling taught choral music at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) in the 1950s and 1960s. I met him when I arrived as a novice teacher in 1956. While nearly all students were Black coming from working class and middle-class families in the Glenville neighborhood, only half of the faculty were Black when I began teaching history. A few years older than me, Appling had been at the school directing the choir and building a reputation as a demanding teacher who loved music, performance, and his students.

William Appling teaching choral music in 1965

Decades later, one former student who became a music teacher, Dr. Marsha Kindall-Smith, remembered him in this way:

Appling also composed music, conducted ensembles and orchestras, and performed on piano and other instruments. He became an expert on the music of Scott Joplin.After years of teaching at Glenville and Western Reserve Academy, he moved to Vassar College and later New York City where he continue to compose music and perform. He died in 2008.

While I knew Appling as a colleague, I was not close to him. I knew him best through those students of his who also were students in my U.S. history classes. As in most schools, you learn the strengths and weaknesses of fellow faculty members from their students. What I learned was that Appling worked hard at his craft and was passionate about music. He demanded a great deal of attention and work from his students. He received both and for that I had great respect and admiration for William Appling.

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Teachers I Respect and Admire–Carmen Wilkinson

I was stunned when I walked into the classroom of Carmen Wilkinson at Jamestown Elementary School in 1975 (all names are actual people and places). In my first year as Arlington (VA) school superintendent, I had already seen hundreds of elementary classrooms. This was the only one I had seen that had mixed ages (grades 1 through 4) and learning stations in which 50 students spent most of the day working independently and moving freely about the room; they worked in small groups and individually while Wilkinson–a 27-year veteran of teaching–moved about the room asking and answering question, giving advice, and listening to students. Called “The Palace” by parents, children, and staff, the class used two adjacent rooms. Wilkinson teamed with another teacher and, at the time, two student teachers. She orchestrated scores of tasks in a quiet, low-key fashion. Wilkinson’s informal classroom was unusual at Jamestown–I did discover a few more in other schools–in the 500 other elementary classrooms in the Arlington public schools.

Wilkinson began teaching in Arlington in 1950 and came to Jamestown in 1957. She taught first through third grades. She was one of the first teachers in the County schools to try and then embrace “open classrooms” in the late-1960s. Parents vied to get their children into “The Palace.” Local colleges sent their student teachers to Wilkinson where she trained them in the different ways to construct and run an “open classroom.” Her know-how and commitment to this type of teaching and learning garnered her many requests to lead workshops and seminars both in out of the district. In 1987, Wilkinson was named Teacher of the Year in Arlington.

While I wish I had my smart phone in 1975 to take photos, sadly I have no snapshots of “The Palace.” So here are a few photos of “open classrooms” that exist today that remind me of what I saw decades ago in Wilkinson’s room.

As a superintendent, I was delighted to see Wilkinson’s “open classroom” not only because it was uncommon in the district’s elementary schools but also for making three points which I believed strongly in before I served as superintendent and continue to believe now.

First, in listening to Wilkinson after the lesson and subsequent visits, it was clear that she deeply believed in building and strengthening students’ decision-making skills and giving them choices in what and when to learn, all within a framework of the district’s curriculum standards for content and skills in the primary grades.

Some readers may ask: “I wonder if her students did well on state tests?” In the mid-1970s, state tests were mandated and, yes, her students and those in the entire school did well on such tests. Keep in mind that Jamestown was also a neighborhood school that received students from many white middle- and upper-middle class families.

Second, creating and sustaining an “open classroom” requires a great deal of planning, reorganizing classroom furniture, coordinating a variety of simultaneous activities and constant scrutiny of individual children as lessons unfolded. She teamed with another Jamestown primary teacher of similar beliefs and recruited annually student teachers from nearby colleges who wanted to learn this way of teaching.

Third, gusto for teaching in this veteran teacher–she had been in Arlington classrooms for 25 years when I saw her the first time–was both evident and deeply rooted in convictions of how best to teach young children. After a quarter-century in classrooms, Wilkinson’s enthusiasm for teaching, as I observed over numerous times over the seven years I was superintendent, remained high-pitched. Jamestown parents and former students who visited her often appreciated what she had accomplished in “The Palace.”

Wilkinson believed that reading and writing went together even for the youngest of students. She consistently taught writing to her second graders. A Washington Post reporter watched her teach in 1991 and wrote:

“The children are responsive. They feel they are more successful. They’re enthusiastic; they have more confidence,” said Carmen Wilkinson, 70, Ashley’s teacher, who has been helping children learn to read for 42 years.

An end-of-year project she has assigned her most advanced readers will be a research paper using books from the school library, on the sport of the child’s choice.

At a biweekly writing workshop that Wilkinson runs with second-grade teacher Susan Swift, students write and revise three stories, then “publish” their collected pieces, illustrating and displaying them in the classroom for other students to read.

Wilkinson retired in 1995 and continued to work with student teachers in local colleges while volunteering to teach writing to elementary school students. She died in 2006.

I offer these vignettes of Wilkinson’s teaching in the mid-1970s and early 1990s to underscore her commitment to the “open classroom,” as she defined it. I make the simple point that there are many ways to teach and many ways to learn even within the seemingly inflexible structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

For all of these reasons, I admired Carmen Wilkinson and had the utmost respect for her as a teacher.



*My personal journal of the years I served as superintendent.

*Obituary of Wilkinson in Washington Post at:

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Whatever Happened to Monitorial Schools?

When, where, and why did these schools appear?

Deep concern for the untended and mostly poor English children of factory workers and others flocking to cities for jobs led Joseph Lancaster to found schools that would gather and help the unschooled. Lancaster opened his Royal Free School in London during the 1790s. The dearth of teachers for these students pushed Lancaster to design schools that accommodated large numbers of children in huge rooms under the guidance of one paid teacher who would then supervise older students–“monitors” as they were called–who actually taught younger children. Often called “charity schools,” these early Lancastrian schools, as they became known, spread throughout England and crossed the Atlantic to the U.S, often sponsored by the Society of Friends or Quakers–social reformers of the day both in England and America.

When Lancaster visited the U.S. in 1818, there were many “monitorial schools.” Historian Dell Upton found that “Lancasterianism was adopted up and down the Atlantic seaboard as the official pedagogy of emerging public schools in New York City (1805), Albany (1810), Georgetown (1811), Washington, D.C. (1812), Philadelphia (1817), Boston (1824), and Baltimore (1829)….”

These “monitorial schools,” then, were reform-driven schools aimed at educating poor children in Bible reading, work, and citizenship to lower threats of crime and civil disorder from unschooled children who would soon become adults. Middle- and upper-class families including the Quakers had the funds to educate their own children, however, through tutors and privately-funded academies.

What were monitorial schools like?

There are written accounts of what Joseph Lancaster did in England when he started such schools for poor children in the early decades of the 19th century. When monitorial schools crossed the Atlantic Ocean and opened in U.S., historians have plumbed archives to locate accounts of students, teachers, and visitors to these schools (see here, here, and here). Apart from these historical accounts there are pen-and-ink drawings and paintings of what the school looked like.

By having one teacher supervise a huge room of children through older students (called “monitors”) who themselves had gone through such a school primarily memorizing texts and rote recitation and pursuing the same methods with their younger students, the cost of schooling was inexpensive compared to private instruction at that time.

In the second and third above drawings of monitorial classrooms, note that students have their hands clasped behind their backs. Historian Carl Kaestle quotes a boy in such a New York City school in the 1820s. “The monitors then unanimously gave the order, ‘Hands behind!! One the instant every boy has his left palm enclosed in the right behind his back, in aa sort of hand-cuffed state, and woe be to him who is not paying attention when the order is given, or is tardy in obeying it” (Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, p.43).

Did monitorial schools work?

They surely “worked” in gathering many urban poor children into buildings giving them a taste of literacy for little cost to the community. Philanthropic and religiously-inspired reformers underwrote these “monitorial” schools in the hope that there would lead to social stability in communities avoiding the record of over 100 food riots over the price of flour and essential food that erupted in English cities between the 1750s and early 1800s and occasionally took place in American cities.

What happened to monitorial schools?

Criticism from parents and educators of the day about how little children and youth learned within the monitorial system got harnessed to a growing reform movement in the 1830s and 1840s that looked to schools as an economic and social instrument to make America stronger. A reform-driven awareness grew that all children, not just poor ones, had to master basic skills and literacy in order to enter the workplace and carry out civic duties from serving on juries to voting led to a large-scale and widespread reform movement . School reform was part of larger efforts to improve American society such as crusader-inspired reforms aimed at abolishing slavery, improving prisons (newly created “reform schools” for younger law breakers), extending rights of women, and levying taxes on all families to support a “common school” for all children within a community. By the 1840s, the eight-grade “grammar school,” an organizational innovation imported from Prussia, appeared across New England and slowly spread through pre-Civil War America. Monitorial schools disappeared.


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