Category Archives: how teachers teach

Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

Let’s face it, in the U.S. change is far sexier than stability. Words like “innovation,” “revolution,””disruption,”and, of course, “reform” have replaced the 19th century common word of “progress.” With so much evidence about war, civil war, torture, poverty, in the world, the concept of “progress” is a hard sell. But not the idea of change. Especially, technological change. From iPhones to Chromebooks to driverless cars to controlling all home appliances with clicks on smart phones, Americans will line up outside stores days in advance to buy the next new thing.

Stability, continuity, day-after-day routines hardly excites Americans or makes films (except perhaps Andy Warhol creations). Stability is, you guessed it, ho-hum, prompting open-mouth yawns. No pizzaz, no cheerleaders, no drum rolls accompany calls for more stability in daily routines or in life. Political leaders from U.S. presidents to local school board members promise to turnaround the status quo. Particularly, when the topic is tax-supported, compulsory public education for children and youth ages 6-16 across the U.S. For the past thirty years, civic, business, and philanthropic leaders have targeted U.S. public schools for their mediocrity, as compared to international economic competitors. Calls for “transformation” of school governance, curriculum, organization, and instruction have rolled off the tongues of politicians, CEOs, and superintendents. What policymakers,  practitioners, parents, and researchers too often overlook or ignore is the dual purposes (and paradox) of compulsory public education in a democracy. Tax-supported public schools are expected to conserve and change.

Consider public opinion polls on what schools should do for U.S. children and youth. One illustrates the rich array of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five purposes were as follows:

*Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;

*Help young people become economically sufficient;

*Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*Promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*Improve social conditions for people.[i]

The numerous and competing goals would not have surprised education scholars who have documented these public expectations for children attending schools. In the late 1970s, John Goodlad and associates conducted a major study involving 38 urban, suburban, and rural schools in seven states across the country. Their “Study of Schooling” examined the historic goals of U.S. schools and those they found stated in district, state, and school documents. There were 62.[ii]

Of course, I do not need to lean on public opinion polls to assert that public schooling’s socializing role remains a powerful expectation among parents and taxpayers since schools historically have been agents of preserving civic and moral values. Go into any preschool or kindergarten classroom and see how the teachers train young children to take turns, wash their hands before eating, to talk things through rather than hit one another–you get the picture. For older students, what they should learn in class has prompted battles over school prayer and ugly spats over whether “creationism” or “intelligent design” should be taught in high school science courses.

Historically, public schools have been expected to both conserve community values and traditions while simultaneously giving children and youth the knowledge and skills to make changes in their lives, communities, and yes, in those very values and traditions they absorbed. Some commentators see this as the ongoing conflict between the school’s traditional purpose of transmitting the dominant culture and the purpose of becoming a modern institution in step with the ever-changing society. That dual purpose of public schools has been often lost in current and past reformers’ enthusiastic embrace of schools becoming modern change-agents solving grave national problems.

This conflict in values prizing both continuity and change help explain the laundry list zealous reformers and ardent supporters of the traditional purposes have compiled about change and stability in public schools.
*Schools are resistant to change;
*Schools adopt one fad after another
*Schools change at a glacial pace;
*Schools move at warp speed in embracing innovations.

The contradictory complaints go to the paradox of what parents, voters, policymakers, and practitioners expect of schools and what seems to happen after reform-driven policies are adopted. Even after many changes are introduced into districts and schools, abiding routines and practices persist. Some social scientists call this phenomenon “institutional stasis” and “dynamic conservatism” where the Siamese twins of change and stability keep the organization in balance. In public schools it is not change or stability; it is both at the same time. Coping with this paradox of reform requires policymakers and practitioners to recognize the conflict embedded in the two-fold function of tax-supported public schools and then to—I use a metaphor here–master the art of jiu-jitsu in bringing opposites into harmony in a gentle, supple, and gradual way, a task that few policymakers achieve.

Educators often get flummoxed when they are expected to preserve community and national values while simultaneously being asked to make changes in school organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to solve larger economic and social problems harming the nation. Repeated criticisms of public schools over decades arise from this misunderstanding among fervent reformers of the public school’s basic role to both conserve and change.

Transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than “disrupting,” transforming,” and “revolutionizing,” public schools.

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[i] Lowell Rose and Alec Gallup, ” The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”Phi Delta Kappan, September 2000, p. 47.

 

[ii] John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), pp.50-56.

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Kids as Tour Guides: Integrating Student-Created Media into History Class (Kerry Gallagher)

Kerry Gallagher , a veteran middle school and high school history teacher posted this project she did with her ninth graders. It appeared Feb 20, 2015 on EdSurge.

Why do we travel? How do we choose a place to put down roots? What draws us there? Today, when we plan to travel or relocate, we do research. We find out about the climate, people, culture, and economy that we are about to dive into.

I wanted my students to experience that kind of research process, and to arrive at an answer relating the question of why people are drawn to places. After all, project-based learning should allow students to experience authentic processes while learning content. But I also wanted them to show their learning through a product that professionals typically publish: tourism commercials.

And so, that is what we did.

Step 1: Frame the Task

In our early North American colonies unit, students learned about the cultures and economies of the 17th century colonies. What was the draw? Why did Europeans take the risky trek across the volatile Atlantic Ocean to put down roots in a place so far away? It was time for my students to start investigating.

First, I showed the ninth graders real tourism advertisements I found on YouTube; they watched clever ads from across the continent in California and from their home turf in Massachusetts. Then we talked, in small groups and as a class, about what made each place attractive. Some of the items on the list had to do with the places themselves: lots to do, beautiful scenery, welcoming people, while other students mentioned aspects of the video production: bright colors, upbeat music, cheerful narrative script.

Step 2: Start the Research

Small groups of 2-3 students chose an early North American colony from New York in the North to Georgia in the South, and started digging for information about founding leadership, religion, economy, climate, and culture. Students used articles from our school subscription databases and books from the classroom and school libraries.

When students gathered their information in Evernote or Google Drive, they shared it with me for extra input and approval. Once I reviewed their work and pushed them deeper with some guiding questions, a real vision of their colonies became clearer.

Step 3: Pulling it Together

This next step is a great opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, for those teachers who are interested in it.

As students began writing their scripts, they were instructed to use what they learned about persuasive techniques from their English classes. My colleague Kate Crosby even pointed me toward a handy guide to the Aristotelian Appeals ethos, pathos, and logos they’d used in her freshman English class, making this a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. They also had to consider who their commercial might target: families? young men just starting out? the wealthy? the religious?

Once the script was crafted, students looked for images to represent their colony and used iMovie to put together their commercial and Airdrop to share it with me. Finally, I uploaded the videos to my YouTube channel, specifically created for student projects.

Step 4: Hosting a Viewing Party

Students showed their final commercials to one another in the classroom. No information was given to the audience prior to the screening, but while watching, other students were given varying information to look for: economy, culture, religion, leaders, and method of persuasion utilized. The audience told the creators what they learned from the video, and the creators confirmed or clarified the details.

Step 5: Reflect, Report, Publish

Any great project can’t be complete without reflection, so my students share their learning on blogs. The benefit of this medium is that the final work can be a mix of written expression illustrated with images and video clips.

  • Kirsten’s post about her New Jersey ad is a great example. She wrote about the process we went through in class, what she learned about New Jersey, embedded her video, and concluded with an analysis of persuasive techniques employed.
  • Olivia’s post on Georgia was also well put together and her group’s video production quality was perhaps the best of the class. See the video below. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SJxYaDpSL4

This journey brought my students through required curriculum, but also gave them experience with the real process people must go through before traveling to a destination or developing marketing material. When real world skills are combined with rich content, the best of project-based learning happens.

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You Cannot Tell Wisdom: What You Don’t Learn in Teacher Education Programs and Teach for America

By the fifth year of my teaching in Cleveland’s Glenville High School in the early 1960s, I had learned one of the most important lessons a teacher can learn in an urban high school. I carried the precept with me to Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in Washington, D.C., and any teaching I have done ever since, including Los Altos and Menlo-Atherton high schools in northern California and, yes, Stanford University.  That lesson was not in the curriculum of the undergraduate teacher education program I had taken. Nor can that lesson be easily learned in  the two-year stint  that Teach for America novices serve.

OK, what is that lesson? Never ask permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.

With mindful experience in classrooms, teachers learn that they are gatekeepers to what enters and exits their rooms. While there is so much that teachers have no control over in teaching such as the students they have, the room within they teach, the schedule they follow through the school day, events occurring inside and outside the school, and school organization–they do have a  margin of precious autonomy once they shut the classroom door. As gatekeepers to the classroom, teachers learn in fits and starts, by trial and error, that they determine what and how content gets taught. They learn to convey attitudes and values about life and learning within the confines of that 900 square feet classroom. Yes, that freedom is constrained. Nonetheless, that autonomy can make teaching influential in the lives of children and youth, jump-start learning for both teacher and students, and fashion the art of performance in classrooms.

And in learning how to teach and work with colleagues in my schools over the years and extract a small measure of freedom outside of my classroom, my hard-earned organizational lesson came into play.

As I taught history to five classes a day in the initial years at Glenville High School, it became clear to me that I needed more than what the school and district could supply me with–reams of paper, machines that would make copies of readings for my students, and access to people who could help me reach my students in ways that I could not. I began to locate paper, machines, and people, sweet-talked my way into gathering them by bending school and district rules. A case in point, I found reams of paper unused in another department’s store room at the end of the school year and appropriated them for my Fall classes. After school began, the principal called me into his office and showed me telephone messages and memos he had received from district officials demanding an explanation for my “unprofessional behavior.”

My relationship with the principal was a warm, supportive one in which he judged me as a hard-working teacher who was part of a cadre in the urban school that helped students graduate and enter college. So he faced a dilemma in having to do something stern without alienating an entrepreneurial teacher, given all of the district complaints about my “unprofessional behavior.” I, too, faced a dilemma. In a scarcity economy which is what urban schools are insofar as supplies and resources, teachers had to be enterprising beyond dipping into their wallets to buy things for their classes. I scrounged, begged, and borrowed to the hilt with colleagues but it wasn’t enough. And yet I didn’t want to stop because what I was doing with my classes seemed to be paying off in increased attendance and motivation. Yet my boss was upset.  I had to mollify him and the district officials pestering him to do something to stop my apparent “unprofessional behavior.” So after much thinking about how schools worked and what I had learned about authority structures in schools and districts, I asked the principal to forgive my indiscretion.

I apologized after the fact for not asking permission. He reported to his superiors that I had apologized for my actions and that ended the incident.  And that lesson I learned from my experiences over five years as a teacher I continued to practice when working in urban schools, as a superintendent, and professor. I consider that lesson wisdom I had gained from teaching at Glenville.

Sure you can tell such wisdom to novices but they lack the organizational savvy to make sense of it. They lack the mindfulness drawn from pondering one’s experiences in a school and classroom. And I would guess that TFA-ers don’t learn that lesson in their summer training or in the two years they spend as classroom teachers. What a powerful lesson I learned as a young teacher: do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.

 

 

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The Striking Similarities between Teachers and Start-up CEOs (Aaron Schildkrout)

Aaron Schildkrout is a former Codman Academy charter school teacher in Boston and technology entrepreneur in creating a dating website, HowAboutMe. He is currently Entrepreneur in Residence at RRE Ventures in New York City. This post appeared February 9, 2015.

In this post he compares being a teacher to being the CEO of a start-up company, two positions that he has held. Explicitly, Schildkrout says that both roles, one public and the other private, are “strikingly” similar. Implicitly, however, in bridging both the private and the public sectors, he asks readers to take away a deeper lesson.  The dissimilar purposes of running a for-profit business and the purposes of teaching youth in a tax-supported public school are, he says, of little consequence. What really matters, according to him, is not toward what ends but how the job gets done.

When, six years ago, I made the switch from high school teacher to start-up founder I thought I was in for a rather dramatic change.

On the surface, the two vocations could not be more divergent: non-profit v. for-profit; public institution v. free market; chalkboard & textbook v. google analytics & expansion playbook; curriculum building v. consumer product design; and so on.

And yet, I’ve come to see that teaching is a lot more like being a start-up CEO than our teacher-degrading, CEO-fetishizing society wishes to know.

Here are some of the striking similarities between running a classroom and running an early stage company…

 Create an Unforgettable Experience

Guide them into the experience. Clarify their purpose. Hint at the great value that lies ahead if they stick with the process. Assure them that they have everything they need to succeed. Don’t clog the experience with superfluities and distractions; focus on the essential thing. Make the process itself delightful. Engage curiosity. Build them up through small victories and motivate them through moments of profound, perceived value. Release them from any scaffolding you’ve constructed so they experience their own self-sufficient competency. Understand and evaluate their success in order to further refine the experience. Individualize things. Promote collaboration. Reward them for contributing value to the ecosystem and express gratitude for their participation. Inspire them to share unabashedly with anyone who will listen. Find the very best among them and let them go wild. Make it real. Make it matter!

These are instructions in product design — a core competency of the start-up CEO.

These are also instructions in curriculum design—the essential skill of the modern teacher.

 Get Out of the Way

Getting a group of tremendously smart, motivated, skillful, sleep-deprived adults to rapidly deploy, iterate on, and market multiple product lines amidst fierce competition and an unpredictable and fickle market is approximately as hard as getting a group of disgruntled, previously poorly-educated, sleep-deprived, profoundly curious young people with hearts of gold to learn something of genuine import.

Surprisingly, key to both is getting out of the way.

I once mentored a gifted student teacher who decided to apply for a full-time teaching role at our school. As part of her interview she taught a “sample class” in a structure called Literature Circles in which students talk in small groups about a book they’re reading. The kids came in. She said, “Ok, Literature Circles, get to it.” And for the next hour she walked around the classroom with a clipboard silently watching the students as they talked about Native Son. She was essentially unnoticeable.

What was noticeable was the students. By the end of the class each student had been assessed by their group on about ten individual metrics (e.g. using examples in discussion, reading for details, etc.). They had engaged in a thematic, in-depth dialogue of a difficult novel. They had practiced specific skills (e.g. noticing metaphors) They had collaborated in teams. And there was palpable excitement about the protagonist Bigger and his disturbed journey. It was a killer class, so to speak.

To the untrained eye, the teacher did almost nothing. But every teacher knows that behind each minute of classroom fluidity lies hundreds of hours of preparation: building processes, setting expectations, clarifying vision.

It’s no different as a start-up CEO. They say the three jobs of the CEO are to make sure there is cash in the bank, to hire great people, and to define the vision. I’d add to that: to build a culture of intense productivity and efficiency. If you achieve these four things, you will have nothing to do. (Obviously this isn’t true, but you get the idea…) Hire amazing human beings, give them the resources they need, make the goal clear and inspiring, get everyone on the same page about how all the parts work together to ensure maximum productivity—and then get out of the way.

Measure it, or it Won’t Happen

Data-driven companies are all the rage. Precisely the same principles apply to the classroom.

I became a data-driven teacher long before I was a data-driven start-up founder. By my last year of teaching, I was often giving students dozens of quantitative grades during every class. I would put a spreadsheet transparency on an overhead (yes, back then) and would add micro-grades to it throughout the class. I would then add the grades to our school’s online grading system; the students got addicted to checking — and improving — their grades. I had essentially created a transparent, real-time metrics dashboard for my students — and for me. (Honestly, I might have gone a bit overboard.)

It’s the same for the CEO. You want every person in your company to qualitatively understand their goals and their progress towards these goals. When you measure things and make the goals quantitatively clear and attainable, people rally around them and make things happen. When you don’t, everything floats in a dangerous land of vagueness. If the goal is to improve conversion rates they will stay flat; if the goal is to move conversion rates to 15.4%, they will get there.

The teacher and the CEO both need to set clear, smart goals and ensure that data is transparently and accurately available about the degree to which these goals are being realized. Then magic happens — and everyone knows damn well it isn’t magic.

 Cherish Innovation (and Failure)

The teacher and start-up CEO are each solely responsible for the success of the processes they are overseeing. This means that failure holds a special place in both of their hearts — its dark side and its importance.

As a teacher, a mistake means classroom hell. And classroom hell is a special kind of hell that you want to avoid at all costs. There’s a reason they say you should never smile till Christmas — and it isn’t because you’re holding out for presents. If you err in October, you’re going to have a very very long year. As a CEO, a mistake means company hell — also to be aggressively avoided. Both the teacher and the CEO understand well the adage: never f&#$ the same thing up twice.

The other side of this dangerous coin is that failure is the necessary fuel of success. This is particularly true for teaching and early stage company-building because in both settings it’s so unclear what’s going to work. You have to fail in order to get anywhere. Failure is the bedrock of learning.

This is obvious for the start-up CEO. A huge percentage of new companies fail; that is, you must risk failure in order to succeed. Indeed, a striking number of successful companies find success after various earlier struggles. Innovation, by its very nature, is a flirtation with failure. You have to break the rules of prior success in order to make something truly new.

This is less obvious for teaching, which people think of as a by-the-book vocation—as though a single winning curricular formulation might solve the multitude of micro challenges that pave the path to substantive learning in each unique child. Consider this: how many really good teachers did you have in the first 18 years of your life? Certainly fewer than five. Maybe just one. Maybe zero. Sounds a good bit like the ratio of successful companies to failed ones. The book on great teaching is not written. State standards are, at best, a series of guiding cairns. As a teacher, you are inventing it as you go. A hundred times a week. And so, like an inventor, you learn via failure.

For the CEO and teacher, every failure is both wrenching and precious.

 Start Inside

Finally, both the CEO and teacher create value by helping people understand and realize their unique potential. That is, the process of value creation starts inside.

As a teacher, over time I came to see that my fundamental task wasn’t to teach American History— but to teach young people about who they were, how their minds worked, how they could realize and unlock their huge potential. American History was the excuse, the context — and it was critical; without a rigorous learning experience, the deeper learning would end up groundless. But without the deeper learning, the American History learning would be superficial and ultimately deadening.

This will become increasingly the case as curriculum design becomes commoditized by the Internet; the teacher will become, more and more, the teacher of the child as human rather than as repository of information and skills.

Likewise, part of your job as CEO — an important part , particularly in the early stages— is to build a work culture that inspires your team to be great. Obviously, right? Your employees are spending the majority of this part of their life working in your company, and we each only have so long on this planet. So, everyone’s experience of work — including your own! — should be more than just productive. It should be personally transformational. Said otherwise, as a CEO your company culture should be as magical and value-creating as the products you make for consumers.

It’s no mistake that Jack Ma, the CEO of the company with the most successful IPO ever, was first a teacher.

At root, the early-stage CEO and teacher share an unquenchable drive to create deep value for humans. They have a unique, inspired vision that they need to share—be it with children or consumers.

Collectively, we are doing a tremendous job honoring and supporting our early-stage CEOs. Indeed, as an increasingly start-up and entrepreneur-obsessed culture, we’re coming to recognize CEOs as conductor’s of our culture’s creative progress.

But we still have a disturbingly long way to go until our teachers feel that society is rooting for them. Teachers—the people who are taking care of our most important asset, the people who come to work each day with a task equal in so many ways to our CEOs—do not feel that we are behind them.

While we pay lip service to the importance of education and the nobility of teachers, we don’t come close to offering them the concrete manifestations of honor that we afford our CEOs.

Luckily, being a teacher — like being a start-up CEO—is profoundly fulfilling independent of compensation and status. Luckily, because the job is lonely and humbling. It puts a mirror in front of you that you can’t avoid. It requires that you understand your unique vision and that you fight tooth and nail to pass this vision on to the world, day in and day out.

Even so, every bit of support from the outside helps. Every cheer matters. Every dollar—the most concrete manifestation of our collective respect— makes it more likely that each of our teachers becomes better and better, that our great teachers stay teachers, and that our great students at least consider becoming great teachers.

 

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Evidence for Textbooks? Evidence for Classroom Computers?

In the three part series on evidence for use of computer devices in classrooms I posted recently, one reader highly supportive of classroom technology questioned my focus on evidence by pointing out on his blog that  no studies had been done when textbooks were introduced so why should the introduction and use of electronic devices and their software be held to that standard. Here is, in part, what the reader said:

For instance, we spend a lot of money on textbooks. Is there evidence, research based, that paper textbooks are an effective teaching tool with today’s students? How about pencils? Pens? Air conditioned classrooms? The point is, there are lots of things we spend great deal of money on in education without asking if there is evidence to show that the program works. I have NEVER, in all my years in education, ever heard any school board or state legislator ask if textbooks are worth the money that is spent on them. And I would venture to say, that along with technology, textbooks are perhaps the most expensive purchase that school districts make. Do they make a difference, especially in the connected wireless world where the exact same information is available for free on the internet?

This is a familiar rebuttal from advocates of using new high-tech devices for classroom lessons. They  believe that it is unfair to expect researchers, including both academics and teachers, to investigate the worth of district investments in classroom software and hardware when the value of so many low-tech devices (e.g., the slate blackboard, pencil, paper, textbooks)  used for centuries have not been either researched or evaluated.  Why pick on use of software and hardware, they ask?

Here are two answers to the question.

First, when different groups inside and outside schools compete for limited resources at a time of high-intensity accountability, demands for data-driven decisions and asking for evidence of worth are as obvious and necessary as rain during a drought. But what is obvious and necessary give way to political choices since high-tech software and hardware compete for those scarce dollars with other highly-valued alternatives such as smaller class size,  teacher professional development, and school security. Faddish as they may be such phrases as “evidence-based practice” or “best practices” at least contain a non-political response that raises the standard for school decisions higher than pointing to strong political support for new technologies from parent surveys, top policymakers, vendors, and others who have unvarnished faith in the students being exposed to the next new thing.

Second, there is a historical answer. Two hundred years ago, the most basic tools for teaching reading, math, writing geography, and history in mostly one-room public schoolhouses with students ranging in age from four to twenty-one were in very short supply. Before children had individual textbooks filled with the knowledge and skills they were expected to learn, the teacher had a book–the Bible, Webster’s Speller, or similar texts–and told students everything that was on the page that they had to learn. Initially before the Civil War, parents had to buy books for their children to attend school before some city schools (e.g., Boston, New York City) began to buy textbooks for all children attending school. From the 19th century until the mid-20th century,  textbooks were the computers of the day giving students access to basic knowledge.

So questions of whether or not to have textbooks are moot. It is (and was) taken-for-granted that every student has to have access to community-sanctioned knowledge and textbooks are (and were) the answer. Even today when some districts buy licenses to load current textbooks on tablet computers or laptops, it is the text that remains central to most, but surely not all, teachers’ lessons.

As blackboards have given way to whiteboards and now smart boards, as pencil and paper–still in much evidence in schools–slowly give way to the keyboard, low-tech devices and high-tech devices will continue to compete for dollars in a district’s budget. Policymakers will continue to decide what gets funded based on tradition, available data, and community values. Tax-supported public schools have been political institutions from their very birth in the early-19th century. Decisions made to buy iPads or air-conditioning are, in effect, political decisions subject to social beliefs, whims, and available data. Recognizing the political nature of schools does not mean, however, ignoring or dispensing with evidence when decision-makers decide among competing choices.

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After 20 years, a Teacher Reinvents Her Classroom Using Technology (Nichole Dobo)

Nichole Dobo, a reporter, writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a journalist has focused on education. This post appeared on October 15, 2014. The Hechinger Institute is a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education

Teacher Valyncia O. Hawkins knew she needed extra time with students who arrived in her classroom behind grade level, but slowing down the whole class risked boring the more advanced students. But even after 20 years as a teacher, Hawkins still didn’t have a good method to keep everyone moving forward. The 21 children in her classroom at Anne Beers Elementary School shared the label of fifth grader, but they arrived with different needs. It was clear she was losing some of them. It was disheartening.

“When I would stand and talk they would be bouncing off the walls,” Hawkins recalled.

Convinced there had to be a better way, this D.C. Public Schools Teacher took a fellowship with the CityBridge Foundation in 2013 to research and develop a new teaching method. She traveled to see other schools in states such as California and New Jersey, and she noticed technology offered a solution. It inspired her to create a new method of instruction. And in the process she found her zeal for teaching returned.

Today, she is no longer standing in front of the room for a whole class period, trying to keep everyone on the same page. She developed a new style of teaching that gives students a mix of technology and small-group instruction. Online tools, most of them free, helped her customize lessons for students. She periodically checks progress through the year to adjust.

“I am meeting them where they are,” she said.

That’s not to say she found a method that is easier. It requires a lot of advance planning. She must craft several lesson plans for one class period.

On a recent day, when students arrived the first task was correcting the punctuation on two sentences projected on a smart board. Everyone gathered at the front of the room, composition books in hand, and they got to work fixing run-ons. They had four minutes to do it. Hawkins knew some students would move quicker, and her new teaching method meant she was prepared for it.

After answering correctly, students grabbed laptop computers and got to work on more challenging problems provided by online lessons that allowed them to work at their own pace.

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This allowed Hawkins to work with students who took longer to arrive at the right answer.

“After we add a period is the ‘I’ lowercase?” Hawkins asked the smaller group who remained.

“No,” a student responded, a few moments later.

“Right, it is capitalized because you are always important,” Hawkins said.

A blended learning classroom gives children a mix of online and in-person instruction, and some say it offers more personalized learning. There are many ways teachers can do it, but Hawkins created something that is her own model. There is a lot of movement in her classroom, with many students breaking off to work on lessons at their own pace after the starting the class together. Groups of desks offer places for children to gather to work on laptops. A small couch near the front allows for comfy seating for small group-instruction at a smart board. Singular desks in corners welcome children who seek solitude while they work.

The children are often allowed a measure of independence. For instance, they can choose from several vocabulary lessons. They can wear headphones. Or not.

Student JaNaia Jackson, 10, said her favorite lessons in English are finding the theme and main idea, she said. She notices that some of her peers like to take the computers off and work quietly on their own. Others like to stay near each other. There are other perks, such as getting to write with a tool that is preferred over a pencil and paper.

“I love to type,” she said. “I just love to work on typing.”

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Right now, Hawkins is the only educator using this model of teaching in her school. In other D.C. schools, the district is coordinating blended-learning experiments.

Hawkins has noticed students are more engaged and there are fewer behavioral issues, something other D.C. educators said they have noticed with this model of instruction. The novelty of the technology isn’t the only factor, Hawkins said. Personalized instruction that allows students some freedom to explore keeps them from getting bored or frustrated.

“It just helped me feel like I was contributing to the learning of the students,” Hawkins said. “It helped address those students who don’t necessarily follow the norms.”

That’s not to say the transition was easy or the results perfect. Hawkins considers her classroom a work in progress. She continues to remodel it to fit the needs of the school day and her students.

This year, for example, she had to re-organize her blended classroom because she now teaches English language arts to all fifth graders in the school. Before, she taught multiple subjects to the same 20 students all day. The new schedule means she has more students, so she is customizing plans for about 63 children who transition in and out of her room for English class. The new schedule has also shortened the class-time window. (That’s not to say there is less time for English and language arts at the school — writing instruction is now included across other subjects, such as science class.)

Another challenge: Managing the multiple online platforms, such as quizzes, learning games and online grade reporting for parents. Data on the websites she uses aren’t connected so Hawkins has to juggle them to monitor how her students are progressing.

But those obstacles haven’t sent Hawkins back to the familiar way of teaching. She continues to find a way to navigate, and it often means finding low-cost, or free, help.

Volunteer students from Georgetown University spend time in her classroom as aides to help with things like transitions between the groups and the inevitable technical issue, such as a misplaced log in for a computer. And plastic milk crates Hawkins snagged in the cafeteria are the perfect size for storing student folders that organize personalized learning materials. To organize online resources, she puts links on a free website that she’s used for the classroom for a long time. Students are in one of five groups based on their ability level. Each group has a “playlist” of lessons. They access it in the classroom, and it’s available at home for the students who have Internet access.

On Tuesday, most students worked independently on computers in the classroom to answer a question about the class word of the day, “persistence.” Meanwhile, Hawkins stood in front of about 10 students with the word projected on a smart board. The students were asked to define the word. They wrote in composition books, pencils in hand and dictionaries by their side.

Hawkins challenged students to explain how the word “persistence” was subtly different than the examples they were giving, which would better fit the word “repetition.” She called the entire classes’ attention, including the faster-moving students who had been working independently. They had a joint class discussion, and together everyone arrived at the answer.

“Even though you know there is trouble ahead you have persistence,” Hawkins said.

 

 

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Here Comes The Classroom Observation and My Slim Chances of Being Rated a Top Teacher (Becca Leech)

Tennessee teacher Becca Leech has been, in her words,a special educator since 1991, with experience teaching infants to young adults in rural, suburban and urban communities, and in both private and non-profit school settings. I currently coordinate an alternative graduation program for students with mild disabilities who are most at-risk for dropping out of high school.

Her blog entry for September 27, 2014 shouts out the unfairness of using student test scores to evaluate a teacher’s performance for either being retained or receiving additional pay. Often called Value-Added Models, the inherent inequity in the scheme in Tennessee and across the nation, apart from all of its methodological problems (see here and here), came up in interviews I had with teachers in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. again and again last year.

This week, a fellow special educator will serve as my administrative observer for the classroom observation portion of my Teacher Effectiveness Measure. This represents a first in my career, so I should be rejoicing. After all, my previous observers have included former coaches and PE-teachers-turned-administrators, a former Science teacher, and a Dual Enrollment History teacher. These observers had no idea of the overall mission of my classroom or any understanding of the strategies and groupings I use to teach multiple subjects to groups of students with different abilities in the same room. I could tell that they simply rated me to produce a slightly-higher-than-average score that might not cause controversy. So I should be holding high hopes that, if I plan very hard and manifest all the teaching skill I have carefully honed over the years, an observer with experience in special education will grant me top scores.

Still, a reading of the Brookings Institute’s May 2014 report entitled “Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations – Lessons Learned in Four Districts” confirms my suspicions that, as a special education teacher who teaches the lowest achieving students in a nontraditional classroom, I have little chance of rating top scores no matter how I try. And I know that my observer will be under pressure to rate me within the same range as previous observations so that inter-rater reliability will be preserved.

I empathize with my students who, knowing that they have no chance of scoring proficient on state exams, simply bubble pretty patterns on their answer sheets during the test. So, I’m off to doodle a pretty little pre-conference record form and make sure I employ the strategy for saving face that I’ve learned from my students: I’ll ensure my mediocre score appears to be due to lack of effort rather than try my best only to expose my fragile ego to the judgement that my teaching is simply mediocre.

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Whitehurst, G., Chingos, M., & Lindquist, K. (2014, May). Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations – Lessons Learned in Four Districts. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2014/05/13 teacher evaluation/evaluating teachers with classroom observations.pdf

“We believe this represents a very serious problem for any teacher evaluation system that places a heavy emphasis on classroom observations, as nearly all current systems are forced to do because of the lack of measures of student learning in most grades and subjects. We should not tolerate a system that makes it hard to be rated as a top teacher unless you are assigned top students. “

 

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