Category Archives: how teachers teach

On Getting an Award

On October 25, 2019, I received an award from the Alumni of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education for Lifetime Achievement. Three other graduates of GSE received awards for Excellence in Education. Here is what I said upon receiving the award.

I thank my family and friends who have come out tonight.

Two people who I wish were here tonight are not. They helped me become the person I am today: Barbara Cuban and David Tyack. I miss them a great deal.

In these brief remarks I want to talk about my career as a teacher/scholar, what the award means to me, and the importance of knowing about the past particularly when it comes to school reform.

1. My career path since I began teaching in 1955 has been unplanned and uncommon.

I had been a high school history teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. for 14 years. While I have never been a school principal, I did work as an administrator in the D.C. district office. In that position I came in frequent contact with the superintendent. I learned a lot about leadership and bureaucratic decision-making and slowly came to realize that I could do the work of a superintendent, a job that I had once thought was well beyond my grasp as a teacher. But I needed an advanced degree.

So at the age of 37 my family and I came to Stanford. I came for only one reason: I wanted to be a superintendent and needed a doctorate. David Tyack made it possible for Barbara, my daughters, and me to come here. Living in Escondido Village were great years for my family. David Tyack was my adviser. Under him, I researched and completed a dissertation on three big city superintendents and in 1974 got that degree.

I then applied for superintendencies. After 50 rejections, I was finally appointed superintendent in Arlington (VA). I served seven years in one of the most exhilarating and exhausting jobs I have ever had. Then I returned to Stanford to teach, do research, and write. I did all of that for five years and then applied for big city superintendencies across the nation. I was a finalist time and again but was not chosen. Failing to become an urban superintendent, I remained at Stanford to teach, advise doctoral students, write, and publish.

What ties together my zigzag career path is the teaching I did in high schools, the teaching I did as superintendent, and, of course, the teaching I did as a professor.

I describe my unplanned and uncommon career path because of the award I receive this evening. My students in the decades that I taught here have honored me with awards as a teacher.   

This award for lifetime achievement, however, recognizes my scholarly work, advising students, and real-life school experiences. I see myself today as a teacher/scholar.  Teaching, researching, and publishing have been central to my journey. Particularly around the issue of school reform. A few words about that never-ending American effort to improve schooling.

2. David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform for a decade. History was central to our work because we believed that not knowing of past efforts to alter public schools is similar to individuals having amnesia. Forgetting your past and how you became the person you are is a tragedy. Not knowing how earlier generations of well-intentioned reformers tried again and again to improve public schools is a forgetfulness, an intellectual disaster that blinds and deafens those who think they know best how to make schools better. But teaching such a history to those who see themselves as future reformers has a downside.

Idealistic graduate students eager to improve schools often told us at the end of the course that studying decades of failed efforts to reform schools depressed them and battered their idealism.  

They would often ask David and me: Are you pessimistic about improving public schools? My answer was always no. I do have hope for the future of public schools. My optimism, however, is tempered and realistic.

I would ask our students to compare improving schools to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible climbers would want a guide who has climbed the mountain before and can point out the crevices and where to step carefully. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, candor, and humility are as crucial to reaching the summit as they are in making a school reform work.

Hope for success in both climbing a mountain and converting reform policies into classroom practices rests in expertise, problem solving, courage, and yes, a touch of luck. But–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain is still worth the effort even if success is not achieved. Being realistic about the task is crucial. Realism and hope, then, are married in my mind. 

Although the history of reform shows clearly that schools cannot transform society, competent and committed teachers can influence their students’ minds, hearts, and actions. They can and have helped the young grow into adults who can work to reduce societal ills. That is the tempered, realistic optimism that I continue to have after six decades as a teacher/scholar.

So thanks to all of you who have made possible this award.


Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, research, school reform policies

The Case for Teaching about Sharks and Mummies, Not Captions and the Main Idea (Natalie Wexler)

This article appeared August 6, 2019 in Chalkbeat.

“How do students best learn to read? Equally important, how do students learn to love reading? The Common Core emphasizes reading comprehension skills, like identifying the main idea of a text. Yet in her new book, “The Knowledge Gap,” Natalie Wexler argues that teaching those skills in a vacuum, rather than centering instruction around interesting and rigorous content knowledge, hurts both student achievement and engagement.

In the excerpt below, Wexler observes two elementary school classrooms, each one taking a different approach to teaching reading.”

On a sunny November morning, Gaby Arredondo is trying to initiate twenty first-graders into the mysteries of reading.

Today’s particular mystery is captions. Ms. Arredondo recently gave a test that asked her students to identify a caption, and — even though she had spent 15 minutes teaching the concept — many chose the title of the passage instead. Her goal today is to show her students that what makes something a caption isn’t where it appears on the page or what it looks like but what it does: it’s a label that describes a picture.

“What is a caption?” Ms. Arredondo begins brightly to the five students gathered before her at a semicircular table. As she speaks, she writes caption on a whiteboard next to her chair. No one answers. Ms. Arredondo writes a second word: label.

“It’s a label,” volunteers one girl.

“What kind of a label?” Ms. Arredondo prods.

A boy chimes in: “It’s a label that describes things.”

“What kinds of things? Does it tell us the author or the title?”

“It tells us the author and the title,” the boy repeats dutifully.

“No,” Ms. Arredondo says. “It tells us about the picture.”

She shows them a photo from a book called “Mothers,” which has the words “daughters,” “mother,” and “son” superimposed in the appropriate spots. “So, what is a caption?”

“Words?” a girl named Nevaeh ventures.

As Ms. Arredondo goes through other books with subsequent small groups, the children pepper her with questions about the pictures — what a shark is eating, or whether a planet is Mars or the moon. She deflects them. The point of this lesson isn’t to learn about sharks or planets. It’s to learn about captions.

– – – –

In a first-grade classroom in another school, teacher Adrienne Williams is about to read aloud a book on mummies. But first, she asks the kids what they already know about the subject—or what they think they know.

“They chase you!” says one.

“They don’t exist.”

“They walk like they’re crazy!”

“They’re wrapped in paper.”

“They kidnap you.”

“You all have a lot of ideas about mummies,” Ms. Williams says calmly. After taking some questions (“Are they real?” “What do they do?”), she puts the book into a projector so the kids can follow along.

“Eww!” they chorus delightedly, as the screen reveals a photograph of a mummy with its hands pressed to its cheeks, its teeth fixed in a ghoulish smile.

The children are rapt as Ms. Williams reads about how mummies are dead bodies that have been preserved, sometimes for thousands of years, and the things that scientists can tell about them: that one ancient man used hair gel, that another’s last meal was vegetable soup.

Along the way she casually points out the “text features” that, in a typical elementary classroom, would be the focus of instruction: the table of contents (“So if I want to make a mummy, what page do I go to? … Yes, page 18, ‘How to Make a Mummy’”), and a text box that contains a definition of bacteria (“You already know about bacteria after studying germs,” she reminds them). There’s a picture of a sarcophagus. “We’re going to learn that word,” she says.

– – – –

Both Ms. Williams and Ms. Arredondo were teaching at schools serving low-income populations on a first-come, first-served basis. Both were considered effective and well-trained teachers. Ms. Williams is naturally gifted, but the fact that her lesson was so much meatier and more engaging was largely a matter of luck: her school happened to be using a curriculum that emphasized building knowledge. A few years before, Ms. Williams’ school had used the kind of curriculum used by Ms. Arredondo — which is the norm — and she could see that her students weren’t particularly engaged. “It was just an isolated set of skills,” she says. “There was no bigger context.”

The theory that has shaped the American approach to elementary education goes like this: Reading comprehension is a set of skills that can be taught completely disconnected from content. Teach children to identify captions in a simple text — or find the main idea, or make inferences, or any one of a number of other skills — and eventually they’ll be able to grasp the meaning of any text put in front of them.

But cognitive scientists have known for decades that the most important factor in comprehension isn’t a set of generally applicable skills; it’s how much background knowledge the reader has about the topic. If you don’t have enough knowledge and vocabulary to understand the text, no amount of “skills” practice will help. Given the lack of attention to building knowledge in school, the system ends up further privileging the kids who are already privileged — those who have highly educated parents and are more likely to pick up sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary at home.

Another widespread belief among educators is that history and non-hands-on science are inappropriate for young children. That, too, is not supported by the evidence — including the anecdotal evidence from Ms. Williams’ classroom. The fact is, history is a series of stories. And kids love stories. The same is true for science topics that don’t lend themselves to hands-on activities. It’s ironic that truly abstract concepts like captions are considered appropriate for six-year-olds, but informational tales about history, science, and the arts are not.

When young children are introduced to history and science in concrete and understandable ways, chances are they’ll be far better equipped to reengage with those topics with more nuance later on. At the same time, teaching disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories. In effect, kids are clamoring for broccoli and spinach while adults insist on a steady diet of donuts.

The good news is that a growing number of elementary schools, like the one where Ms. Williams taught, are recognizing that it’s not only OK to focus on building children’s knowledge, it’s vital to their chances of success. And that kids love it.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Teaching at D.Tech High School: Government (Part 4)

Spencer is doing his three-minute talk. Since the semester began, every one of the 30-plus seniors in Government signs up for a day to talk about topics important to them. Topics range from singing, sharing art work, dancing, and similar interests.

Spencer chose to talk about himself. Eyes focus on Spencer as he tells about his family, life before and during high school, favorite foods and drinks (some of which he brought to share with class), and other topics. Then Spencer asks for questions. One student asks: “What is your ethnicity?” Spencer replies: “Three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Korean.” Another student asks about the paper straw that he is using. “Do you want me to use a metal straw,” Spencer asks questioner. Laughter ripples across the room.

The three minutes are up. Spencer then asks the class for feedback on what he said and brought. A bunch of students compliment Spencer for his clarity, humor, and self-confidence in talking about himself. Spencer thanks the class and then asks for students to evaluate his introduction by raising their hands. Four is the top evaluation of performance and one is the poorest. Spencer calls out the each number and nearly all hands go up for a four. He returns to his seat and the teacher informs the next day’s student to be ready for tomorrow’s class.

Welcome to Ken Klieman’s Government class this late-September morning in 2019. The 32 seniors are sitting at tables facing the front of the room where the teacher’s table holding the LCD projector and white board are located.

Klieman, wearing a green polo shirt, grey chinos , tennis shoes, and what looks to me like a Greek sailing cap, has been at for the past two years arriving at the school in 2017. Although new to the school, he brought a quarter-century of teaching experience in Bay area middle schools.

The lesson that I observe following Spencer’s three-minute Introduction is nearly all focused upon the process of teaching and learning over the past six weeks in the class. I noted that a number of teachers I observed mention that they will be evaluating their classroom work using students’ anonymous responses to teacher-constructed surveys.

Klieman started off the lesson by having students look at scatter plot graphs that he had created from student responses to a survey about how the class operates (e.g., “Do You Know What Assignments Are and Expectations?” “Is Workload Do-able?,” class discussions, tests, teacher’s grading of students’ performance, etc.). The teacher had arrayed the graphs on tables outside of the classroom. He had also included questions that students had asked to be posted . Klieman asks students to look at their classmates’ responses, take notes, and be prepared to discuss their interpretations of the scatter plots when they return to their seats. They leave the room.

After 10 minutes, student return to their tables with post-its and scraps of paper with their notes. Klieman directs the class to take out their notebooks and title a page “Understanding Data” and put their name and date on it (they will turn this sheet in later). But before launching into students stating their views of the scatter plots, Klieman says “I am going to babble for a few minutes”

Leaning against the LCD stand, he talks about what the class has covered thus far in content and how they have worked on homework, projects, and essays. He says that in his opinion students have not experienced or are ready for academically rigorous courses in college. Deadlines are missed, extensions are continually requested to get extra time to complete essays, research papers, or projects. Other teachers, he remarks, too often say: “take more time to finish up.” He says the school has “coddled” students.

According to Klieman, he was trying to convey the importance of raising their standards through self reflection. He told me: “I often say ‘I cherish the 72 year old you, that is why I have high standards for the 17 year old you. I want the future you to have a beautiful life.’ “*

He acknowledges that there are difficulties that students experience during a major move across the entire high school from a traditional grading system to a system of grading fitted to competency based learning. Recognizing the occasional confusion and glitches in grading, he still wants students to better self-manage themselves insofar as assignments and time they allot to work on them. A few students chime in responding to the teacher’s comments. Of these, some agree with what teacher says but most keep quiet.

Klieman then returns to the task of interpreting scatter plots. He asks students to pair up and exchange observations. He directs them to write their thoughts and interpretations on the sheet of paper they titled “Understanding Data” particularly on how much and in what ways they are learning content and acquiring skills in the class so far this semester. Scatter plots offer a basis for making statements about the entire class.

After about ten minutes, the teacher segues into a whole group discussion with some students raising their hands to contribute and others entering the discussion during pauses. Klieman records what students say on a pad he is holding.

Klieman then summarizes what he has heard from students about particular Government assignments. He projects a slide onto the front whiteboard showing all of the assignments they have worked on during the semester. He stands up on his desk and asks students which of the assignments listed on the slide didn’t work and for what reasons. A number of students raise their hands and point to particular homework and essays that were unclear in what the teacher expected and also required heavy time commitments. They express concern for how grades are calculated as the competency-based learning system kicks in. As one student says: “Grades do matter.”

At the table where I am sitting, the three students there identified two assignments and write it into their notebooks. As I look around the room during this whole group discussion, nearly all of the students are either writing in their notebooks, offering suggestions or listening to what they classmates say.

As the discussion trails off, Klieman says that he will take their feedback seriously and integrate it into future assignments and workload. There are a flurry of student comments about the existing deadline of midnight to electronically submit assignments. The teacher makes clear that the deadline will move from midnight to 10PM.

Klieman says: “I care about the whole you. I want you to get sleep. Having a midnight deadline is not in line with the central value of nurturing good life habits. That is why I am non-negotiable on 10 p.m….. I am not going to bend.” The teacher ends this segment of the interactive discussion by saying: “Hey, I’m your third base coach urging you to get to home plate safely.”

As the period is coming to an end, he asks students to hold up one-to-five fingers (more fingers, more positive rating) as to the worth of looking at scatter plots, discussing workload and particular Economics assignments, and offering suggestions. He then asks students to turn in the sheet of paper they filled out.

After the class packs up and leaves, three students stay behind and they sit with Klieman to discuss particular assignments and upcoming projects. After another 10 minutes, they leave. He and I discuss a few items I did not understand about the lesson. I thank him for letting me observe the lesson.


*This sentence comes from Klieman after he reviewed the draft I had sent him.

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Teaching at D.Tech High School: Chemistry (Part 3)

I enter the classroom after Greg Fenner has begun the lesson. Thirty-one students sit at eight scattered tables in a large room adorned with the essential Periodic Table of Elements. A cart filled with tablets sits at one side of the room. Each table seats four students comprising a team for activities and homework that the teacher assigns during a lesson.

Sporting a trim beard and mustache, Fenner wears jeans, blue T-shirt and tan desert boots. He also has a cloth shoulder strap holding a small pouch.  Perched on his head is a pair of goggles. A graduate of a Bay area university’s teacher education program, this is Fenner’s fourth year at He lives in San Francisco and often bikes to the city train station, rides to a stop a few miles away from high school and completes the commute on his bike.

Today is lab day.  Students will be studying chemical reactions using hydrochloric acid and baking soda. They follow instructions in their textbook, Chemistry in the Earth System, a text linked to Next Generation of Science Standards adopted by California.

Lab workbook exercise

A table near where I am sitting holds eight lab trays filled with a thermometer, flask, measuring cylinder, filter paper, beaker, and one pair of goggles. Fenner explains what the strength of the acid is and the importance of being careful when using it in the experiment. He explains students will mix it with sodium hydrogen carbonate (baking soda). He gives safety instructions to the class before one student from each team comes up to get a tray to bring back to the table. As team members come up to the table, he repeats that students carrying trays should say aloud “I am behind you” and not to make sudden moves.

There is also a Teacher Assistant in the class who is a senior. John took the course last year and wants experience helping students in the course as they do lab experiments. He is seeking a summer internship in a university chemistry lab. As Fenner does, John moves from table to table to see that students have all of the equipment for testing the interaction between acid and a carbonate. They answers student questions about the experiment.

Within a few minutes each team is at work as outlined on the sheet in the book. At a table near me, one student dons the goggles, another picks up the flask of hydrochloric and measures the temperature of the acid. Another does the measuring of the hydrocarbonate. One student takes notes that will be used to complete the assignment. They follow the step-by-step instructions determining the reactions, weight, and temperature of the mix of two ingredients.

Fenner and John move from table to table observing each team’s progress in following directions. They ask and answer questions. As I scan the class, every team seems engaged in carrying out the assignment.

Fenner interrupts the teams to put on whiteboard the chemicals being used, their interaction using familiar equations. He explains the rationale for the experiment and its linkage to the rest of the unit on mass and energy. Many students jot the equations down.

Teams return to task and I watch another table near me as students complete each step, write down the answers, discuss among themselves what the reactions were and any changes they noticed. I do not see any cell phones being used or students off-task.

Fenner reminds students to turn in electronically the results of each team’s investigation. Students pack up and leave class. There are no chimes or bells. A few students linger to ask Fenner questions. I move onto the next teacher’s lesson.


Filed under how teachers teach

Students in History Class Debate Impeachment (Burch)

Journalist Audra Burch sat in a world history class recently and described history teacher Chris Dier’s lessons on impeachment. The article appeared October 23, 2019. I follow this description of the lesson with some questions that occurred to me.

It was impeachment day in Mr. Dier’s world history class at Chalmette High School. Andrew Johnson, the first impeached president, was on the lesson plan. So was Richard M. Nixon, who avoided facing such a fate by resigning. Bill Clinton, who also was impeached but never convicted, was part of the discussion.

But most of the class was centered on the latest president to face possible removal from office: Donald J. Trump, who is on social media just as much as some of Chris Dier’s students.

At Chalmette High, located in a conservative Louisiana parish, the students in Mr. Dier’s class recently confronted the merits of the case against Mr. Trump, who stands accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate his chief Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Dier saw the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against Mr. Trump as an opportunity: a real-time lesson in civics and political science for his students.

So, for two 90-minute class periods, Mr. Dier’s seniors pretended to be members of Congress, but without the bluster and sniping — dutifully obeying the signs on the walls about how to respectfully agree to disagree.

“We have never studied anything that was unfolding live,” said Grace Bartholomae, one of the students. “This is history.”

To help his students understand the details of the inquiry, Mr. Dier assembled a bit of a crash-course lesson plan, including an excerpt from the whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s 30-minute phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, along with a reconstructed transcript of the conversation.

The idea was to try to answer the same questions voters are asking themselves about potential impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.

Is Mr. Trump being unfairly cast as corrupt? Has he brazenly weaponized his office for personal gain? Did he seek the aid of a foreign power to interfere in the next election? What are high crimes and misdemeanors anyway?

And is the rarest of constitutional consequences, impeachment by the House and then possible conviction and removal from office by the Senate, worth the trouble a year before the next election — the first in which the students in Mr. Dier’s class, most of whom are 17 years old, will be eligible to vote?

Chalmette High is in St. Bernard Parish just southeast of New Orleans, along the Mississippi River. Surrounded by water and built largely upon fishing and oil refineries, the parish lost more than half of its population after Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly every home. The rebuilding brought more diversity, and today, of the 1,972 students at Chalmette High, about 52 percent are students of color.

Mr. Trump handily carried the parish in 2016 with about 65 percent of the vote, but the students in Mr. Dier’s class did not always share their parents’ conservative views.

Mr. Dier, 31, teaches in the same classroom where his mother, also a world history teacher, taught five years before. He had planned to tackle impeachment later in the semester, but when the Democrats began an inquiry last month, he moved those lessons up on the calendar to follow a study of the Vietnam War.

He said the point was not just to study this particular impeachment inquiry, but to push his students to engage as informed citizens at a time when many Americans do not understand basic civics.

Only 39 percent of adults can name all three branches of government (a jump from 32 percent last year) and 25 percent can name only one branch, according to a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This year, congressmen in Florida and Georgia introduced a $30 million bipartisan bill to improve the quality of civics education in elementary, middle and high schools across the country.

Another challenge for teachers, Mr. Dier said, is the fear of being accused of bringing too much politics into the classroom. His has shelves stuffed with books on political science and history, and posters of Ben Franklin, Helen Keller and Malcolm X.

“I think social studies teachers are hesitant to teach controversial topics, past and present, due to hyperpolarization or pushback from parents,” he said. “Almost all of my students will be voting in the next election; they deserve teachers who do not shy away from current events because of our partisan climate.”

If anything, Mr. Dier added, “our partisan climate means students need to be challenged more to learn how to navigate it.”

He figured the best way to explore impeachment in a neutral way was sticking to the Constitution and the established facts of Mr. Trump’s actions. That meant having the students, in a condensed version of the impeachment process, study how the founding fathers framed impeachment and the step-by-step procedures in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Mr. Dier divided the class into four groups and instructed them to read the material they had been given, including the call transcript and the whistle-blower complaint.

The students huddled in separate corners of the room reading aloud. Before long, “bribery,” “treason,” “quid pro quo” and other impeachment watchwords floated above the din of the discussions.

The students did not share the same opinion on the matter. To some, the phone call was a clear violation; others struggled with the degree of wrongness. A handful of students — a number that would grow by the end of the lesson — fully supported Mr. Trump.

“Abuse of power is subjective,” insisted Hunter Wheaton, who questioned whether the country was ready for the ugliness of impeachment, which would require majority support in the House.

Even though she felt impeachment and removal from office was unlikely, Jenna Riess said that the inquiry would reveal what the president had done wrong, and that voters would “use that in the next election and vote for a better candidate.”

After the discussion, Mr. Dier polled the 21 students. This time there were three groups: those who supported impeachment (12), those who did not (four) and those who remained undecided (five).

The undecideds sat quietly in the center of the classroom, and the two opposing groups prepared their strongest arguments.

Chance Beck, speaking for those who supported impeachment, said Mr. Trump’s action set a bad precedent. “It’s not morally or politically correct for a president to be able to use national power or national aid that we give to Ukraine for a personal favor,” he said. “I believe he should be impeached and convicted and removed to make the case that this will not be tolerated.”

Trinity Frey, representing those against impeachment, argued that it was not clear the phone call was inappropriate and that it was unrealistic to expect enough of the real-life Republican senators to support Mr. Trump’s removal.

Though what he did might be considered morally wrong, she said, it was simply not severe enough for him to be taken out of office.

After hearing from both sides, the undecideds had to make their move.

“Centrism is canceled,” cracked Ms. Bartholomae, in the lightest moment of the exercise.

One by one, each of the five students joined one of the two groups, greeted by cheers.

Three of the five joined the anti-impeachment group. They said the stakes were too high and the evidence was too thin. “Show me where this says it’s illegal,” said Jihad Thabata, who questioned whether the call amounted to misconduct.

In a closing statement about whether Mr. Trump should stay in office, Alexis Resendez coolly argued that members of Congress should respect the choice made by voters in the 2016 election.

Ayla Hoey rebutted that the transcript may seem subtle, but Mr. Trump “knew the power he had over other countries. Even if it seems like Ukraine is not being pushed, he knew what he asked for was going to get done.”

In that final round, a two-thirds majority voted in favor of removing Mr. Trump.

The tally: 14 to 7.


Some questions that occur to me after reading this article.

*Most history teachers steer clear of controversial subjects especially current issues such as the House impeachment hearings of President Trump. Considering what Chris Dier did in his lessons on impeachment, according to this reporter’s account, were they nonpartisan? If yes, how so. If no, what sections were partisan?

*Should history teachers keep politics out of the classroom?

*Should teachers worry about pushback from parents?


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Teaching at D.Tech High School: English (Part 2)

Wearing a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks, Nathan Pierce, a veteran of 19 years in classrooms of which the last  four have been at, begins his senior English class with digital slides on one of the walls in a spacious room holding 30 students. He directs his students to look at agenda for the day and the upcoming project of shadowing someone in the middle of their career.

Desks are pushed together to form a long row on both sides of the room with a space in the center where a podium/table with Pierce’s LCD and class handouts are piled. Students face one another allowing for much interaction in this horse-shoe arrangement of furniture and space.

It is first period of the day, following the Advisory when students met with their teachers between 8:45-9:15. No bells or chimes mark beginning or end of the period.


Welcome to Design Tech High School, hereafter, in the San Mateo Union High School District.  Authorized as a charter in 2014, the school has moved quarters three times, the last occurring in 2018 when they leased a new building located on the campus of Oracle, a for-profit technology company.  The high school cost $43 million to build and Oracle agreed to rent the building to the charter school for one dollar a year. While has its own school board and is independently operated, this is the first public high school located on a corporate site.

The building houses about 550 students. Admission to the school is by lottery with priority given to families residing in Sequoia Union and San Mateo Union high school districts. For students living outside of those districts, a waiting list is available.

Demographically in 2018, the largest racial group is white (48 percent) followed by Asian and Filipino (24 percent), Latino (14 percent), African American and multi-racial (13 percent). Females are 42 percent of the enrollment. Fifteen percent of the students are poor as measured by families eligible for free and reduced price lunch. Ten percent of students are identified as special education. I could find no data on percentage of students who are English Language Learners.

Insofar as academic achievement on standardized tests, data are limited. On state standardized tests, students scored 71 percent proficient (state average is 49 percent) and in math students were 62 percent proficient (state average 38 percent). For the two standardized tests for college admissions, the average highest score for the SAT was 1270 and for the ACT was 26.  Seventy-seven percent enter four-year institutions and 16 percent go to two-year community colleges.

What draws students to this charter school is its commitment to design principles anchored in intellectual analysis of problem finding and solving and empathy for those who seek solutions to their problems.’s mission is clearly stated:

We believe that the world can be a better place
and that our students can be the ones to make it happen.

And design thinking makes that mission concrete, according to Ken Montgomery, co-founder and Executive Director of the school,

“Design Thinking is not just a human-centered problem solving process. It is also a capacity building strategy. By teaching design thinking all four years at, students are able to identify and solve problems, develop a sense of optimism and self-efficacy, and have creative impact on their environment to make the world a better place.”


Return now to Nathan Pierce’s senior English classroom. The lesson I observe on this late-September morning moves swiftly over the 54-minute period. All students have Chromebooks at hand. Some lids are open; some are not. Cellphones are on desks or in pockets.

In this lesson, there are three parts. The first section of the period is about the Career Shadow project due in December. The first page of the handout describes the project.


Pierce goes over each piece of information on the above first-page of the hand-out. He points out experiences of last year’s class who did this very same project. He describes how one student shadowed an airline pilot; another a trainer of guide dogs.  Teacher emphasizes that who each student chooses may lead to an internship of a possible summer job. He then asks: “Is there a way to game the assignment?” A student responds: “Shadow your parent.”  Or, Pierce, adds: “Pick someone you have known for years.”

Pierce then goes on to say that if students try to “game” the project, they should know that “I talk with each student about who they are shadowing and I can tell whether you are gaming the assignment or not.” He then points out the importance of trying to meet someone in a career they know little about but tickles their interest. “Meeting a stranger,” Pierce says, “is hard but past students have done so and learned a great deal.”

Then teacher brings lecture/discussion to a close by urging students to pick someone soon and begin scheduling the shadow. A student asks if they can do the shadow on a school day. Pierce says: “Yes and no”. On regularly scheduled days filled with academic classes, shadowing wouldn’t work but on Lab Days when students schedule their own time slots for working on assignments that is a possibility, he says.

Pierce then segues to second part of lesson by saying: “Let’s switch gears. I’ve been talking too long.” He directs class’s attention to the ongoing unit for students on writing a screenplay. He has laid out a detailed unit outline–a tutorial– filled with with videos to watch on each step of writing a script, assignments to turn in, and where to find answers to their questions (see here). All of these directions and assignments and playlists are loaded onto students’ tablets. How the unit will be graded is also included:

The Basics of grading this assignment

* The Script (20pts – you and I grade)
*Collaboration(20pts – production team grades)
* Production (20pts – I grade)

Pierce is ready to show a video “Spec Scripts” and tells students to watch an “Indy Mogul 101” tutorial. The video begins. Students appear to be engaged as the video goes over each step of formatting the script. When montages are described, Pierce stops the video and  explains further what it is with examples. Video resumes and discusses action scenes. Teacher stops the video and says when it comes to action scenes “keep it simple and easy to read.” Pierce points out that the upcoming 101 video blogger (see above) recommends Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill as examples of action scenes. The video continues with the actual formatting of a screen play. Pierce asks for questions and a few students ask about further details on parts of screen play. He answers them.

The final part of the lesson is independent work time. After student questions are answered, Pierce tells students that the rest of the period is for them to work on their screen play or plan for Career Shadow assignment. About a dozen students leave the room and got to hallways or alcoves to work by themselves or in pairs or trios.

I leave classroom and go into alcove where a trio is working and ask them what they are doing. One replies that they are figuring out which of the story lines for their screen play they should choose. They had presented the three to the class last week and got feedback so now they have to decide. I then move to a student who is working alone and ask her what she is doing. She has decided for her screen play to use a heroic archetype–she shows me sheet where 12 kinds of heroes are used in screen plays. her story, she tells me, is of a poor boy who wants to become rich. He goes fishing with his father and one of the fish he catches (and secretly keeps for himself rather than share with father) is a magical one.  The fish can fulfill the boy’s wishes. There is a demon, however, who also wants that very fish too. The demon comes after the boy and there is a struggle. She tells me that is as far as she has gotten so far. I ask her, what kind of hero is the boy–there are 12 archetypes. She tells me he is a “transcendental,” explaining that he is a hero with a tragic flaw.

Just after 10:10 these students in hallway and alcove pack up and students in the room leave for their second period class. I thank Nathan Pierce and ask if he could send me links to videos, handouts, and description and requirements for screen play project. He does send me the links that evening.

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Hooked on Social Media, the Brain, and School Lessons

…the typical social media user spends 10 to 20 minutes on an app after opening it. With 56% of respondents claiming they log onto Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and other networks more than 10 times per day, that means half of America could be spending more than three hours of their day on the networks.


And not only teens or millenials. Also the much older Baby Boomer generation. Sounds addictive yet researchers have not helped us answer the question: why?800-2.png

On the one hand, neuroscientists and journalists have argued that unrestrained access to information and communication have rewired the brain. The brain is plastic altering itself  in response to the environment and creating new neural pathways that ancestors lacked. So multi-tasking has become the norm and, better yet, we are more productive and connected to people as never before.

On the other hand, there are those neuroscientists who concur that the brain is plastic but it has hardly been rewired. Instead, complete access to information and people–friends, like-minded enthusiasts, and strangers–unleashes brain chemicals that give us pleasure. Or as one psychologist put it:

What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that … can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences. These are experiences our brains did not evolve to prefer, but [they are] like drugs of abuse….

To these researchers and journalist, the Internet and social media are addictive.

So these are competing views emerging from current brain research. Most studies producing these results, however, come from experiments on selected humans and animals. They are hardly definitive and offer parents and educators little about the impact on children and youth from watching multiple screens hours on end.

And nothing is mentioned about the  issue that both neuroscientists and philosophers persistently stumble over. Is the brain the same as the mind? Is consciousness–our sense of self–the product of neural impulses or is it a combination of memories, perceptions, and beliefs apart from brain activity picked up in MRIs? On one side are those who equate the brain with the mind (David Dennett) and on the other side are those who call such equivalency, “neurotrash.”

Yet even with the unknowns about the brain, its plasticity, and the mind, much less about what effects the Internet has upon young children, youth, and adults–“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” asked one writer–many school reformers have run with brain research with nary a look backward.

Consider those school reformers including technology enthusiasts who hate current school structures with such as passion that they call for bricks-and-mortar schools to go the way of  gas-lit street lights and be replaced by online instruction or other forms of schooling that embrace high-tech fully. Cathy Davidson, Duke University professor, to cite one example, makes such a case.

[T]he roots of our twenty-first-century educational philosophy go back to the machine age and its model of linear, specialized, assembly-line efficiency, everyone on the same page, everyone striving for the same answer to a question that both offers uniformity and suffers from it. If the multiple-choice test is the Model T of knowledge assessment, we need to ask: What is the purpose of a Model T in an Internet age?

Others call for blended learning, a combination of face-to-face (F2F in the lingo) and online lessons.

There’s this myth in the brick and mortar schools that somehow the onset of online K-12 learning will be the death of face-to-face … interaction. However this isn’t so — or at least in the interest of the future of rigor in education, it shouldn’t be. In fact, without a heaping dose of F2F time plus real-time communication, online learning would become a desolate road for the educational system to travel.

The fact is that there is a purpose in protecting a level of F2F and real-time interaction even in an online program…. The power is in a Blended Learning equation:

Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment

Then there are those who embrace brain research with lusty (and uncritical) abandon.

Students’ digitally conditioned brains are 21st century brains, and teachers must encourage these brains to operate fully in our classrooms…. If we can help students balance the gifts technology brings with these human gifts, they will have everything they need.

So where are we? In an earlier post I quoted  cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a frequent blogger and associate editor of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education. He offered three bullet-point facts for those educators caught up in brain-based research*:

#The brain is always changing

#The connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious.

#Deriving useful information for teachers from neuroscience is slow, painstaking work.

Willingham ended his post by asking a key question:

“How can you tell the difference between bonafide research and schlock? That’s an ongoing problem and for the moment, the best advice may be that suggested by David Daniel, a researcher at James Madison University: ‘If you see the words ‘brain-based,’ run.’ “


*The link to the Washington Post op-ed no longer works; the article has been deleted. I apologize to readers for not being able to supply link. However, Willingham has an article where he cites the myths about connections between neuroscience and schooling (see here).


Filed under how teachers teach, technology, technology use