Category Archives: how teachers teach

One Burned-out Teacher’s Journey (Kavitha Cardoza)–Part 1

Kavitha Cardoza, Special Correspondent, WAMU Radio, Washington, D.C. interviewed an experienced District of Columbia high school Spanish teacher. This interview appeared April 3, 2015

Teachers in D.C. schools are under immense pressure to improve students test scores. Their job security depends on it. At the same time, teachers who do well can make tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses. Alli Baugher is dedicated, high-achieving teacher who’s dealing with burnout after just eight years on the job.

Explain what it was like starting at Ballou.

So I remember coming into Ballou my first year this very idealistic, recent college graduate and every year there would be these teachers that would leave and there was always this sense of pride for those of us that had stayed. And even in our first year, when it was just so hard and we were lesson planning till 10-11 p.m. at night and then baking cookies early in the morning for our students and just being ridiculous but we were still like “at least we’re fighting the good fight.” And I always thought it was so funny that in my third year of teaching, I was considered a veteran at Ballou. I was department chair. By my 7th year in a school of over 100 adults working there, there were only 10 that had been there longer than me. And I just found that crazy.

ballou.jpg

 

So tell me what happened

I was very confused. I worked very hard, I’d developed a rapport with my students, I had good working relationships with the other teachers in the building, I trust and respect my principal, and I feel really good about the fact that we have this new building, we have just so many exciting things in our future, but I am miserable. Coming home every day crying. I feel like I can barely do anything but collapse on the couch at the end of the day.

And then I started getting panic attacks during school. But I didn’t know what was happening to me and then it started happening more frequently. I was convinced that I could push through it, that I was a lifer, that I was committed to Ballou and to my students. And so over winter break I saw several therapists. I was very mindful of taking time to relax and to re-energize myself so that I could be a better teacher again when I came back.

Because not only was I having these panic attack experiences, I was also snapping at my students, I was losing my patience and it was almost like there was this little version of me over my shoulder going, “What are you doing? Who is that person, that monster, that you’re becoming with your students?” Because its the last version of myself that I ever want my students to see. I didn’t want them to go home, having not felt like I cared about them, that I thought they were wonderful. That I thought that they were really really capable and smart because so often the teacher is the one person that you can guarantee or hope to guarantee is going to tell them something positive about themselves that day.

And in that first week back at school before class even started, actually it was like 8:40 a.m. in the morning, I had just an awful panic attack that I had to go to the ER. I was able to describe this experience and what happened to me to friends and family that every day as teachers, our students are coming into the classroom with all of this pain and anger and they’re coming in hot with all of this stuff going on in their heads. And the only way to respond to that appropriately as a teacher is soaking it up like a sponge and just responding with kindness and patience and love and I think that my sponge was just really full.

There’s a big difference to me seeing you now and when I saw you in the classroom where you were just glowing. I feel a tremendous sense of sadness from you.

I started teaching at Ballou when I was 21 years old. So it was a quarter of my life. If anyone asked me “Who is Ally Baugher?” I would have said “I am a teacher and I teach at Ballou and let me tell you about all of my children.” Losing Ballou was very much like losing my identity. I felt like I’d let my students down, for some of my children just getting to school it was them overcoming incredible obstacles and I was saying, “I’ve had a couple panic attacks and I’m the one giving up.” I was really really hard on myself.

What we often forget is that teacher retention is also important because so many of the best programs in our schools are teacher driven. One perfect example there was a story probably five or six years ago about a teacher at Ballou who started a lacrosse team and it was this big news and everyone was excited about and the students loved it. And then she left and all of the kids came back the next year saying, “Are we going to have a lacrosse program still? Who’s going to do it?” And they were really still excited about this program but it was discontinued because there was no one there to run it.

When you started feeling the way you did, did you speak to your principal? I think DCPS would say they have several programs to retain teachers, you could teach part time and then do a hybrid model of some kind of management, they pay teachers more compared to a lot of urban school districts, they have recognition ceremonies, what about all those efforts?

 I think that the focus at Ballou, I felt like was so often on struggling teachers. I did reach out to several admins during the fall, and they were supportive, absolutely were supportive and I don’t fault them in any way for my needing to leave. I think one of the problems in the way that we approach teacher retention, one of the programs you mentioned was splitting time between some more leadership position while also teaching, so often our answer, our response, to teacher retention is moving them into non-teaching positions. We want you to be a teacher/mentor and we’re going to move you into an administrative position or a teacher/mentor position or someone leading professional development, that means that those best teachers are no longer in the classroom. And I think for a teacher retention program to truly work, the goal should be to keep our best teachers in front of students for a full schedule of the day. And that’s the big difference.

I think it’s important to note that this is not a story about Ballou, it’s not a story about DCPS, it’s not a story about me. My story is not unique and I talk to teachers time and time again that say, “I need to figure out how to make this job sustainable because I want to keep doing it and I want to keep working with these children. But, I’m tired.”

When so many people ask me about how I handle my job, they would assume it’s because of these “terrible kids” but they are just wonderful, they are my favorite part of my job, was. Any teacher will tell you that working with children no matter how challenging they are is the best part of my job. I feel like in order to improve teacher retention, there needs to be, especially for teachers working in high-risk communities, there needs to be a very deliberate break where teachers have an opportunity to still work in the field of education as a teacher’s assistant. Right? So that I’m given the opportunity to support another teacher and what they’re doing but don’t have the nightly responsibilities of lesson planning and filling out paperwork and making phone calls and all of those things. But also to reinspire them, to reignite them, to send them back to their schools that same idealistic excited change maker person that I was my first and second year.

 

Part 2 of this post raises issues of what can be done to reduce such losses to students and the community.

3 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Teaching Math at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a journalist who spent four years observing and interviewing teachers and students at Mission High School in San Francisco. Her book called Mission High (New York: Nation Books, 2015) contains descriptions of both students and teachers inside and outside classrooms.* Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.

What distinguishes Rizga’s book from so many journalist and researcher accounts about high schools with largely minority and poor students are two facts: First, she spent four years–a life time to researchers–at the school. Few researchers or journalists ever spend more than a year in a high school. The second fact is that Rizga addresses a long-time paradox buried at the core of  U.S. schooling in an age of reform when federal and state mandates (No Child Left Behind) label many schools as failing. The paradox is straightforward. Mission High School had been tagged as a failing school–“low performing” is the jargon of the day–and had been a step away from being shut down through No Child Left Behind rules. Yet 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, attendance rates have risen above the district high school average and suspensions have fallen between 2008 and 2014 nearly 90 percent. As one student put it: “How can my school be flunking when I am succeeding?”  Indeed, the contradiction of a school labeled by authorities as failing, succeeding with students beyond what other district high schools achieve is the puzzle that Rizga unravels in this book.    

With Rizga’s permission, I offer here descriptions of lessons in math, social studies, and English. The first is a math lesson taught by Taica Hsu, a seven year veteran teacher.

 

 

Taica [Hsu] came to Mission High right after graduating from Stanford in 2007 and has been teaching math for seven years he says, sitting in front of a large bookshelf that contains a small microwave, a sewing machine, and rows of books on algebra, CI math, statistics, and precalculus. He taught math more “procedurally” in the first two years at Mission and then more “conceptually” in the last five. Taica is convinced that the approach he learned at Stanford — which also informed the new Common Core Standards — is a better way to learn math and help more students like the subject.

“Approaching math conceptually is not just about doing calculations quickly or memorization,” Hsu explains. “You are still learning procedural fluency, but you are also seeing connections, patterns, choosing your own strategy in solving something and justifying it. You are seeing how it interprets and explains the world around you. It allows students to develop a more intuitive understanding and a deeper connection with math.”

It is nearly ten in the morning at Mission High, and a stream of eighteen freshmen has just entered the classroom for their Algebra I class. Rasheed, a tall young man with a head full of long, black braids, drops his backpack on the table. The desks are organized in rectangles, and students sit in groups of four. Rasheed sits down near Jenny, who noticed her friend as soon as he walked through the door.

Jenny is wearing thick sweatpants over her light blue jeans on this cool, grey February morning in 2011. She has been out sick for a week and has asked Brandon to help her finish her homework. “I believe you multiply first before you add here,” Brandon is explaining patiently while writing out every step of the solution on a separate piece of paper. “Jenny, you are really smart,” he adds. “You can do it. You just need to take your time.” Joaquin, a young man with a pink, boyish face partially covered by an oversized “Golden State Warriors” hat, walks in and stretches out on the two chairs at his desk. He puts his hat over his face and closes his eyes. Joaquin is about two heads shorter than Rasheed, who is a about a foot taller than the rest of his ninth-grade classmates.

Warm and charming, Rasheed is a formidable social force in the classroom. He can pull his friends away from work in an instant, but when class is in session, he uses that power to engage them with math. For now, before the bell rings, Rasheed puts his large headphones on Jenny’s ears and plays some songs for her. Shipra is trying her earrings on Jenny’s ears. Brandon throws a little paper ball at Shipra’s head and turns away sharply to hide his prank. Unlike their peers in the twelfth grade across the hall, these freshmen are buzzing with electricity as they are settling in their seats—shouting, joking, flirting, and fidgeting.

“And that was our bell,” twenty-seven-year-old Hsu says as he starts the class. He is dressed in a grey T-shirt, dark blue jeans, and turquoise Puma sneakers. “Happy Friday, everyone,” he greets the class as the noise drops. “I want to thank many of you who came to see me after school if you had any questions. I really appreciated that.”

“Please sit at the same table as on Wednesday,” he continues. “Start with the ‘Do Now’ and then continue to work on the ‘group challenge’ from last week. Remember, everyone needs to participate in the challenge. What are some ways in which we participate?”

“Asking questions,” students take turns answering. “Justifying steps. Answering questions of others. Asking for help. Plugging in numbers. Using resources from previous classes. Listening to someone else’s ideas.”

“Smart, smart, smart! Let’s get to work,” Hsu responds and starts walking around the classroom, gliding between the desks. Hsu’s colleague, special education teacher Blair Groefsema, checks in with the other tables that need attention. This class has seven students with special needs, including one student in a wheelchair who communicates through a voice-activated electronic device.

Within a few minutes, Hsu notices a common error as students work through the ‘Do Now’ exercise, in which they are reviewing skills and knowledge from their previous lessons. Several students have mixed up distribution steps today and solved 3(x+2) incorrectly, as 3x + 2. Hsu sits on the edge of his desk and reviews the correct sequence of the steps with his students. Joaquin gets up to view what Mr. Hsu is demonstrating more closely.

As the students get back to work, Hsu continues to move around the classroom quickly, with a calming presence—asking questions, naming different skills students are exercising, praising effort. “I see Jenny and Brandon are drawing boxes,” Hsu comments. “That’s a really good technique. I really like how Irene is referencing her homework to help her solve this problem.”

“Check your answers with everyone in the group before you finish,” he reminds them.

“Mr. Hsu, are these ‘like’ terms?” Jenny asks with her hand raised.

“Yes, they are. Can you combine them?”

“Yes.”

“What do you think you should do here, Joaquin?” Hsu walks over to the next table. “How did you get that answer?”

After the exercise, Hsu moves on to the group challenge, a multistep, “open-ended” math problem that students are asked to solve in a workshop-style group of four. Such exercises may or may not lead to a single answer, but they always allow for different paths to various solutions. Hsu says that open-ended problems illustrate the real depth of math for students and show them that math—like most things in the real world—requires multiple skills and approaches. “If you are only solving for ‘x,” Hsu explains to me after the class, “the problem has only one path and one solution. Students who get stuck on one, small step throw their hands up and say that they are not good at math. In open-ended group problems, students are more likely to keep trying. They realize that there are many ways to approach problems, and if you are not good at one part of math, it doesn’t mean that you are not good at all of it.”

Today’s group challenge is asking students to analyze and graph different types of lines—parallel, perpendicular, and intersecting—and solve for points of intersection. Students are asked to interact with each line as multiple representations—as a graph, equation, and a table—as well as to make a connection between solutions and visually represented points on the graph. The same lesson in a traditional classroom would be taught in narrower way, Hsu notes. Students might be asked to memorize the equations of the lines and a few conclusions without visualizing them as multiple representations. When students are only asked to solve the equation, they may not completely understand all of the connections. When students don’t make such connections, Hsu says, they are not learning deeply, but simply memorizing equations that are mysteries to them. Such knowledge is more likely to fade quickly.

Following the group challenge, students do individual exercises in which they are asked to practice their skills and knowledge. As students do the work, Hsu walks around and provides personalized coaching. Individual practice time in Hsu’s classes is typically followed by a low-stakes “mini-quiz” without any help from the teacher. He reviews these quizzes at the end of each day to make notes on which students need extra help and adjust his lesson plans for the next day.

Traditional classrooms typically don’t follow this format. In most American classrooms, students watch their teachers lecture and model exercises at the front of the room. After a lecture or demonstration on the blackboard that many don’t fully absorb, students are then asked to practice tasks individually, some in class but most at home… Students who can get help with homework at home usually progress smoothly. Students whose parents work long hours or who can’t afford expensive tutors typically fall behind.

Such teaching allows for an efficient delivery of the standardized content. The problem is that this standardized approach doesn’t work, because no one is “standard,” Hsu argues. That’s why Hsu—along with his co-chair of the math department, Mary Maher, and other math teachers—has spent the last several years working to update the traditional script. Hsu’s classrooms function more like group-style workshops than like lecture halls. Students spend most of the time producing work, alone and in groups, talking about math to their teacher and peers, while Hsu provides individualized coaching.

“Who would like to present their findings?” Hsu asks.

The students in Rasheed’s group raise their hands.

“First of all,” Rasheed begins, pointing to equations on the projection, “how did we know that these lines are perpendicular? We saw that the line is crossing. Second thing we noticed is that slopes are switched around.”

“What’s the only solution?” Hsu asks.

“Four and minus one,” Jenny answers.

“Why?” Hsu probes.

“It’s the only place where the lines cross,” she adds.

“How did you know to go down three, and over two?” Joaquin asks.

“This part of the formula,” Rasheed points at the board.

“Does this make sense? Are we convinced?” Hsu turns to the class.

“Yes,” several students respond.

“Does anyone disagree?” he asks.

No hands go up.

“Time for a quick, individual check-in, everyone,” says Hsu, who calls tests and quizzes “check-ins” to help ease the testing tension.

“I’m not prepared for this test,” Shipra admits, clearly upset.

“I’ve seen you do these problems many times, Shipra,” Ms. Groefsema reassures her.

The students get to work. A young man trained in working with students who use electronic devices for communication, is helping a student in the wheelchair.

A few minutes later Jenny exclaims that she is done. So does Rasheed. Hsu walks over to them. Joaquin gets stuck and asks for help. He has forgotten how to pick numbers for the table to draw a parabola. Ms. Groefsema reminds him with a series of questions. He gets back to work. Hsu looks over Shipra’s quiz. She has mixed up the steps: added first, rather than multiplied, he tells me quietly. She was asking for help more than anyone today. She will need extra one-on-one work with Hsu and a lot more individual practice to help her develop self-reliance and more confidence.

The bell rings, and Hsu finishes collecting the rest of the quizzes.

“I am so smart, I can teach this class,” Rasheed says with a slight smirk on his face, as he looks back at Jenny.

_______________________

*Full disclosure: for this book, Rizga and I had several conversations about the history of school reform past and present. I also visited Mission High School for one day, saw three lessons, and interviewed the principal.

8 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Policy Influences Practice But Does Practice Influence Policy?

The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again”) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With No Child Left Behind and its coercive accountability mandates, teaching has surely been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.)  in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring.  Now with Common Core standards, the push to standardize math and language arts instruction in K-12 (e.g., close reading for first graders) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching lead paradoxically, to more, not less, variability in lessons. But this increased variation in teaching seldom alerts policymakers and donors in their offices and suites to reassess the policies  they adopt.

The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts.  The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new  textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.

David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball  led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.

Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.

Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs,
and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.

Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is tinged with irony.

Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students. Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey. Few policymakers understand that. Studies of classroom lessons implementing Common Core standards, I believe, will also show wide variation not uniformity.

Teachers are policymakers

As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in teaching daily lessons. Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher wherewithal and judgment are crucial ingredients to successful student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked,  purposely ignored, or under-funded.

As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation. It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.

The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing again and again that teachers act as policymakers. That path should be a two-way thoroughfare.

5 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

A Puzzle in the Teaching of History

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe teaching history and social studies in the 1960s and in 2014 in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School) In the 2014 section of the book, I observed and interviewed three teachers at Cardozo who, in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here and here). In another academically failing D.C. high school not far from Cardozo, I watched even another teacher who taught in that same tradition. Here is Kyle Greer’s  60-minute class that I observed in December 2013.

_____________________________________________

At 8:50, 10 of the 25 enrolled students were present. By 9:40, all but two of the students were at their desks. Because many students travel cross-town to reach the high school, late-comers are the norm. The course is District of Columbia history On the whiteboard are listed the agenda for the hour-long lesson, the standard that the lessons will be addressing, and the “warm-up” exercise–all required by the district administration as criteria for an “effective” lesson. Kyle Greer (a pseudonym) is a five year veteran at this high school and serves as head of the three member department (there are just over 450 low-income, minority students in the high school).

For the lesson, Greer has the students reading and annotating a journal article from Washington History entitled “D.C.’s Dual School System, 1862-1954.” He passes around a bucket of marker pens for students to use as they closely read and take notes. He tells the students: “we will model underlining main ideas,” and taking notes. He begins reading a paragraph in the middle of the article and asks after pausing: “Can we figure out the time period?”  A few respond with words and phrases that suggest World War I and what happened at the prestigious Dunbar High School in the “colored” division of the de jure segregated school system.

Then students take turns reading paragraphs with Greer interjecting questions about what each sentence means, what should be underlined (and why), and notes that students could write in margins of the handout. One student asks Greer what does it mean that the “colored”schools had double- and triple-sessions? He tosses back the question to the rest of the students and one comes up with the answer of overcrowded “colored” schools. In some of Greer’s responses to student answers, he occasionally pushes back and asks student to support what they say with evidence from the journal article.

Toward the end of the lesson, he asks students to contrast the first-hand accounts they have read about “colored” students and teachers in the DC schools during World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II with this secondary source–the journal article–written by a historian in 2005. Three students offer what they recall of the primary sources they read, particularly in 1939 when the school board banned black singer Marian Anderson from  singing at all-white Central High School (which would have brought together an interracial audience); the concert was rescheduled for the Lincoln Memorial and students recalled what Anderson herself had said.

In scanning the class, I note that nearly all of the students, even latecomers, are reading the article–about one-quarter volunteer to read paragraphs–and using markers to underline and make notes in the margin of the handout. During the period, a wall-mounted speaker interrupts the lesson four times with announcements from the main office.

As the hour draws to a close, Greer asks the students: “what is the take-away from this article on nearly a century of segregated schools in DC?”  A handful of students respond, two reading from notes they had jotted down on their handout. Greer listens and then asks the rest of the class for their thoughts on these “take-aways.” Three respond, the last interrupted by the bell ending the class.

________________________________________________

Why did these four teachers in two academically failing high schools in the same district teach in the historical tradition? Without any evidence that the four received direct training in teaching students to read, think, and write like historians, attributing their common use of primary sources and other approaches to district professional development is a non-starter.  And since they did not know one another except in passing, they had not collaborated removing that possible explanation. It could be a rare coincidence but is highly unlikely. One possible explanation, however, is that the district’s focus on standards and the linkage between teacher evaluation and sticking to standards influenced what these four DC teachers did.

The DC schools’ IMPACT evaluation scheme laden with rewards and penalties and visits by social studies “master educators” with follow-up conferences may have tilted history teachers toward the Social Studies Standards for their D.C. high schools. These standards include many references to historical evidence, use of primary and secondary sources, critical thinking skills, etc. (See “District of Columbia Social Studies, Pre-K through Grade 12,” pp. 29 for grades 3-5, p. 48 for grades 6-8, p. 88 for grades 9-12, at: http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/DCPS-horiz-soc_studies.pdf )

When I interviewed the teachers in the two different high schools, each one mentioned the fear they felt about the multiple observations by “master educators” (all four teachers, by the way, received favorable evaluations, one of them sufficient to earn a salary hike). Three of the four expressed anger at the unfairness of the evaluation process because their students generally scored poorly on the DC test and student scores for the entire school were counted as a factor in being judged “effective.”

This is all guesswork, of course. Without further data on more DC history teachers in other high schools, what I observed in the classrooms of these four teachers in two different high schools could simply be an anomaly. Until such data become available, however, these similar lessons across two low-performing high schools remains puzzling.

4 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Here Again: The Old Chestnut about Technology Increasing Student Achievement

There are many reasons why school boards buy hardware and software (see here)  still the old chestnut that “students will achieve more academically with ________ (put your device or software du jour here) lingers on in the minds of enthusiasts as a sweat-filled dream. Sure, vendors and consultants paid by high-tech companies produce “white papers” or research studies that tout gains in students’ academic performance. No longer authoritative reports, “white papers” have become marketing tools. Like sponsored advertising in the media, such “white papers” want to sell readers on the merits, not the complexities of either teaching or learning in using devices. And there are reports by professional associations that cherry pick individual studies.  Yet those policymakers, superintendents, district administrators, principals, and teachers who swear that their decisions are driven by evidence and research embrace a desert mirage whenever they  cite a “white paper” or say “research shows” or the “evidence is clear” in buying the newest device or software. Over the years, I have seen fewer such claims by educators but they still exist.

Although some sellers of more technology in classrooms have retreated in their claims that students will get higher test scores if this or that is bought, a new bait-and-switch approach exists. Now, vendor claims are that tablets, for example, and the software loaded on those devices will “engage” students.

using-technology-to-increase-student-engagement-in-math1-2-638

Motivating students through new hand-held appliance, i.e., engagement, has become a code word for higher achievement. But “engaged” students may or may not learn what is intended or score higher on standardized test scores (see here). “Engaged” students is surely one ingredient but in the complexities of classroom teaching, other factors enter the equation and need to be weighed. Consider the structure of the classroom, teacher relationships with students,  varied ways of teaching, students’ individual grit,  and other factors–parents’ socioeconomic status–account for higher (or lower) academic achievement. Anyone who says publicly that student engagement triggered by new hardware and software will produce higher achievement is selling snake oil.

An earlier comprehensive review of journal articles and conference presentations on the use of tablets in schools (see here)  concluded that:

upon reviewing a large body of studies and research work, no solid evidence decisively confirms that the iPad has a positive academic effect on the learning outcomes. This is mainly due to the scarcity of pedagogy-wide and long enough research works.

Now comes another comprehensive, independent, and critical review of 33 studies that focused on tablets used in K-12 schools across the curriculum and around the world. See: Hassler_Major_Hennessy_2015._Tablet_use_in_schools_A_critical_review_of_the_evidence_for_learning_outcomes-FC4

Of the 23 studies included in the final tally covering different subjects and different grade levels:
• 16 reported positive learning outcomes;
• 5 reported no difference in learning outcomes; and
• 2 reported negative learning outcomes.

Because of the disparate nature of the studies, sample size, and other factors, the authors pessimistically concluded:

While we hypothesise how tablets can viably support children in completing a variety of
learning tasks (across a range of contexts and academic subjects), the fragmented nature of the
current knowledge base, and the scarcity of rigorous studies, make it difficult to draw firm
conclusions. The generalisability of evidence is limited and detailed explanations as to how, or why,
using tablets within certain activities can improve learning remain elusive.

Many practitioners familiar with the use of new devices in schools have said repeatedly that such studies reveal little because student academic achievement and other important student outcomes are not about gadgets but is about the teacher and how she or he uses these devices in lessons. Unfortunately, such on-the-ground wisdom seldom infiltrates policymaker decisions. The old chestnut of technology improves engagement and achievement continues to live  regardless of the evidence. For those champions of tablets and other hand-held devices with their associated software who pride themselves on using only the “best practices” anchored in research and data-driven decisions, well, they best ignore these studies in their “white papers” and find other reasons to boost new devices in schools.

 

 

10 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Politics In The Classroom: How Much Is Too Much? (Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy)

In an earlier post, I pointed out the obvious fact that tax-supported public schools were political institutions. Not in the partisan sense of Republican and Democrat but in serving the community politically in socializing community values in the next generation .  The following post comes from nprED showing another aspect of the political role that classroom lessons play in the U.S. 

Steve Drummond interviewed Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy on their new book on Politics in the Classroom. It was published August 6, 2015.

 

The Confederate flag. The Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Policing minority communities. Nuclear weapons and Iran. Summer often brings a lull in the news, but not this year. And, come September, students are going to want to talk about these headlines.

But how should teachers navigate our nation’s thorny politics?

Do politics belong in the classroom at all, or should schools be safe havens from never-ending partisan battles? Can teachers use controversial issues as learning opportunities, and, if so, to teach what? And then, the really sticky question: Should teachers share with students their own political viewpoints and opinions?

In their book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy offer guidelines to these and other questions, using a study they conducted from 2005 to 2009. It involved 21 teachers in 35 schools and their 1,001 students. Hess is the dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and McAvoy is the program director at UW-Madison’s Center for Ethics and Education.

Schools, they conclude, are and ought to be political places — but not partisan ones. I talked with them recently about how, in today’s highly polarized society, teachers can walk that very fine line.

 

Sometimes it seems there’s a belief that schools should be political … sort of. With students taking on issues – like smoking – that are political but not too political. Did you find that in your study?

Hess: You’re absolutely right, there are a number of schools that encourage students to get involved in political campaigns, but they tend to be political campaigns that really aren’t very controversial. They’ll encourage kids to form a campaign about something that everyone agrees should be done. For example, that we should clean up the litter that’s around our school, or that it’s important for people to eat healthy food…

We have evidence that kids learn a lot from doing that. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing. My view is that if you’re going to have students involved in authentic politics, then it’s really important to make sure you have issues for which there are multiple and competing views, and you don’t give students the impression that there’s a political view that they should be working toward.

McAvoy: How political do we want students to be? That’s really a question that a lot of communities struggle with and a lot of teachers struggle with. And the point of the book is to say that, in general, to be able to talk about politics is a skill that people need to learn. And it would be great if it were learned in school because these are great moments in which you bring a group of young people together who are forming their political views. They can really learn to engage across their differences and to start to see that political conflict is a normal part of democratic life.

A key point in your book is that, while teachers are teaching about the issues – immigration or same-sex marriage — they’re also teaching students how to have these discussions. They’re teaching the process of democracy.

McAvoy: Right. The “political classroom” is a classroom in which young people are learning to deliberate about political questions. It really is the process of deliberation that is the major skill being taught. And then, through deliberation, students are learning about the issues. They’re learning how to form arguments, how to weigh evidence. So there’s social studies content that is being learned in a process that is, at its heart, democratic.

Are there issues that are, or should be, completely off the table?

Hess: One of the things we talk about in the book is the distinction between issues that we called “settled issues” and issues that are “open”…

It’s a little complicated, but, in a nutshell, we suggest that there are some issues that are settled and should be taught as settled and to not do that is being dishonest with young people. For example, the question about whether climate change is occurring — that’s a settled issue. The question is, What to do about climate change? That’s an open issue.

We wouldn’t suggest that teachers engage kids in talking about whether climate change is occurring, but we strongly encourage teachers to engage in discussion about what should be done about climate change.

You mention in your book policies that might allow students to opt out [of a controversial topic or discussion]. Which raises questions about whether that’s a good thing, to just allow students to sit out.

McAvoy: The philosopher in me thinks there’s not a really good way to defend the view that students should always be able to opt out. We don’t allow students to opt out of writing essays because they don’t like writing essays.

At the same time, democracies allow us, when we’re in the public sphere, to walk out of a discussion if we don’t like what’s happening or if we’re being offended. Classrooms are unusual in that we’re compelling students to be there. Teachers do need to weigh [whether] there might be times when a particular student has a good reason for wanting to pass on a comment…

Opting out because I feel uncomfortable sharing my views or talking out loud in class is a skill that can be taught and overcome. Opting out because this discussion is really hard for me given my religious background — that might be a reason that you let a student pass on a discussion.

You note the challenges and dangers of teaching both in mixed classrooms – with students of varied racial and economic backgrounds — and homogenous classrooms. How should teachers adapt to these different scenarios?

Hess: In many ways the more difference you have within a classroom the better. We want to make sure that we have as many multiple competing views as we possibly can … So difference is a good thing, something that can be used and primed as opposed to something to be feared and quelled.

One of the challenges of lots of difference is, difference often causes high emotions and often can cause breaches of civility. So teachers who are in classrooms that have lots of naturally occurring difference often have to go to great lengths to make sure that

students understand what it looks like to participate in a civil manner…

In classes where there’s a lot of sameness, the first thing we learned is that, though it might appear that there’s a lot of sameness, there’s always some difference. So when teachers say, “Well all these kids think alike,” we’re almost sure — all the time — that the teachers are wrong, that in fact not all the kids do think alike.

That being said, there are classes that are more similar than they are different, and teachers have to use a lot of strategies to bring differences into the discussion. Those strategies might include bringing in guest speakers or making sure the materials the kids are using to prepare for discussion are full of multiple and competing ideas.

Students really seem to like this stuff – to engage in issues that are current and relevant to their own lives.

Hess: Absolutely. There are two things going on here: In many schools, students still spend most of the day listening to teachers talk. One reason we think kids like [these issues] is they finally get a chance to talk themselves. More than that, we did find that the content of these political issues was really interesting to kids. Especially when they were hearing multiple and competing views. Students would report that in discussions where there was a lot of shared opinion, those were not as interesting as in discussions where there were differing views … They were really responding to the fact that it’s quite interesting to hear what your peers think about things. And not just that they have different points of view but what they’re supporting those points of view with.

What advice do you have or does your study have for teachers considering how to talk about [breaking events such as] Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri?

Hess: One of the problems with discussing events that just happened is that often we don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a distinction between current events … and discussions about controversial political issues where kids are preparing in advance and being deliberative. In the best-case scenario, teachers are able to take advantage of current events and use them as opportunities to get kids to talk about controversial political issues. There’s a big difference in talking about, “What do you think happened?” and talking about a policy issue like “Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?”

McAvoy: Young people need to see these as moments within their historical context – need to understand some of the history. It’s difficult to have those materials at the ready when things sort of erupt as they have in the last year or so with Baltimore and Ferguson. Good teachers start building curriculum about the history of redlining in cities or how cities become segregated. [To] put these moments within the context is much better than having young people just reacting to “What do you think about what you’re seeing on television today?” Young people really need to study these issues in depth.

OK, the big elephant in the room: the question of whether teachers should talk about their own personal beliefs to their students. Should they?

Hess: What we found is that there were teachers who were doing an excellent job who shared their own views with students, and there were teachers doing an excellent job who didn’t share their views. So we don’t believe that there is one right answer to this. And we think empirically we can show that there’s not.

That being said, we think that there are times when it’s probably better for teachers to share than other times when it’s better for them not to share. That depends in large part on the context — on who’s in their class and what their goals are.

One thing we were really intrigued by was that a lot of the teachers we interviewed talked about changing their minds on that question over time. Some of them would say, “Well, it used to be that I would never share, but now I do only in these circumstances.” Other teachers would say, “I used to be really prone to share a lot, and now I don’t and here’s why.” We think it’s all a matter of professional judgment. Teachers need to think about this very carefully…

I sometimes worry that, even though there can be really good ethical reasons for teachers to share, in a very polarized time that sharing can be misinterpreted. And if it’s misinterpreted by the public or by parents as teachers trying to get kids to adopt their beliefs, then I think we could have a big problem.

That being said, we have no evidence from the study of teachers who were actively and purposely trying to indoctrinate kids to a particular point of view…

We think that this feeling that the public seems to have that teachers by definition are trying to push their political views on students is just false.

You were critical of the notion – that teachers would do that.

Hess: What we learned from students when we interviewed and surveyed them is that they make a really clear distinction between a teacher sharing his or her own view and a teacher trying to push his or her own view. Students not surprisingly report that they don’t like being pushed.

You seem to draw a pretty firm line that teachers should not be advocating for their own beliefs.

McAvoy: What we argue in the book is that what’s most important is that teachers create a culture of fairness in the classroom. That means being fair and reasonable to all the competing views that are in the classroom and that are being represented in the public. The practice that we found most troubling, from the study, is what we referred to in the book as political seepage: teachers who make sarcastic comments, who use partisan humor. It’s these offhanded comments that are sort of biting and mean-spirited about the political climate that I think is problematic. Because it creates a climate not of fairness, but it creates a kind of insider/outsider feeling. If you get the humor that I just said or, “Do you agree with me that that politician’s a big idiot?” That invites the most divisive parts of the partisan climate into the classroom.

Leave a comment

Filed under how teachers teach

Teaching History in an Academically Failing High School

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe how I taught history and social studies in the 1960s in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School).  I returned to those very same high schools in 2014 where I observed and interviewed four history teachers at Glenville and three at Cardozo. Some of those 2014 teachers,  in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here ). Here is oneof the three teachers at Cardozo who I observed.

 

On the front wall above the “smart board” Mike Topper (a pseudonym) had posted classroom rules on the first day of the semester for the 9th graders in his world history course:

  1. Be Respectful!
  2. Work Hard!
  3. Keep Head Up and Off Desk!
  4. Raise Hand to Speak One at a Time, and Stay on Topic!

Just to the side and below the “smart board” or interactive whiteboard (IWB) the teacher has printed out in large black letters a list of rewards and penalties for behavior. The title is “Four Token System.” The following items appear:

*Keep all of your tokens to receive daily rewards, weekly positive phone calls, and monthly prizes.

*Loosing [sic] tokens results in negative consequences as follows:

1st token lost—warning.

2nd token lost—no rewards. Written up in Discipline and Behavior Log.

3rd token lost—phone call home or home visit. Student completes Behavior Reflection.

4th token lost—Referral to administration.

Before the 90 minute period began, I asked Topper about the token system and he told me that it is really a “warning” system for misbehavior. He does not use tokens anymore.

The IWB is in daily use. For example, on the “smart board” is the “warm up,” an activity that the district expects its academic subject teachers to begin a lesson, often uses a question, puzzle, or proverb. As students enter the room, they know that they are supposed to take out paper and begin writing in their notebooks.

After the opening “warm up” activity, Topper told me that he usually moves into a 10-minute lecture. During the lecture, Topper said he often flashes slides from his laptop onto the IWB to illustrate points in lecture; he also would display text and worksheet assignments on the “smart board.” [i]

Today, however, there is no “warm up” exercise. The IWB contains announcements and an agenda for the lesson in a unit taken from the textbook called *Reunification of China:

*Test tomorrow

*Read ‘Print Invention’ on p. 249. Do 3-2-1

*Read ‘Young People in China’ section and answer the three questions on the page.

*Read p. 266 and do 3-2-1.”[ii]

To the side of the front “smart board” on a whiteboard are listed the daily lesson objectives, the world history standard under which the lesson falls, and what students will be able to know and do as a result of the lesson.[iii]

In the rear of the room on a sidewall is a large poster showing a pyramid with levels of cognitive skills drawn from Bloom’s Taxonomy.[iv] Next to it is a bulletin board displaying student work that received a score of 100%. On the floor next to the opposite wall sits a large box holding “interactive notebooks” for each of the students. When students enter they take their notebook from the carton; at the end of the period they put it back. Along the rear wall of the classroom sit five new desktop computers with chairs and desks.

The teacher has arranged the classroom furniture into rows of desks facing the front of the room. The teacher’s desk, with an open laptop is in a corner at the front of the room near the “smart board.”

Twelve 9th graders arrive before tardy bell. Topper, a thin young man about 5 feet 7inches is wearing a sport shirt with a multi-colored tie and dark pants He tells students in a crackly voice that he will lock the doors now because a “hall sweep” is occurring. Such “sweeps”—particularly in the week before a holiday—happen when security aides, uniformed and in civilian clothes, round up students in corridors after the tardy bell has rung. These aides take the late students to the cafeteria where an administrator records their name and then issues a pass to class. Being caught in sweeps repeatedly can lead a student to be suspended from school.[v]

After pointing to the IWB about the day’s lesson, Topper says: “Listen up! Still a little sick from yesterday and throat is sore, so don’t let me talk over you.” He continues: “The questions in the textbook you will answering are level 1 questions, not application or evaluation.”[vi]

He then looks at one student and says: “Mr. Washington, help me out and take off your hat.” He addresses all students “Mr.” and “Miss.” Student takes off cap. [vii]

Topper directs student attention to IWB and addresses each item on the lesson agenda including the test tomorrow. He asks if there are any questions. There are none. He reminds students that they will write in their interactive notebooks on clean pages and at the end of the period will turn in answers to the questions and 3-2-1s.

Eight students rise and get textbooks sitting on a shelf at the side of the room. The rest sit and chat. As students turn to textbook pages and begin writing in their interactive notebooks, a few yell out questions about items they will have to work on. One student calls out, “Topper, I need help.” The teacher walks over and listens to the student and then answers questions. Another student walks over to door, slips the wooden “bathroom pass” off the wall hook and exits classroom. A hum from students talking to one another rises in volume. Two of the chatting students have yet to retrieve a textbook. Topper tells them to begin on assignment. They begrudgingly get a text while whispering to each other as they return to their desks and open the books. Another chatting 9th grader balks and says to Topper: “Leave me alone.” He does. The student who took the bathroom pass earlier returns; another student takes the wooden pass from that student.

Thirty minutes after tardy bell all of the students are seemingly working on reading the text and writing the 3-2-1s. In the next 25 minutes, Topper takes a cell phone call by walking out of room into the hallway. When he is out of the room, seven students stop reading or writing and begin talking to one another. When Topper returns in two minutes, he walks around the room checking to see if students are on task, writing in their notebooks, and if there are any questions.

The bell rings for the daily homeroom period that occurs during this period. Homeroom is a 10-minute intermission in the school day for the principal, other administrators and students to pipe in announcements of the day’s activities, upcoming events, and names of students who must report to the office. As the words pour out of a wall-mounted speaker, few students pay attention to the announcements. When the PA system came on, Topper returned to his desk at the front of room and worked on his laptop.

After announcements end, Topper asks students to resume their work. He reminds the group that there will be a test tomorrow and that answering all of the questions will help them on the test. He tells them that their notebook pages will be collected before the bell rings ending the period. It is their Exit Pass, he says. [viii]

About five minutes before the bell, Topper says to the class to return the textbooks and interactive notebooks to the cartons on the floor near the sidewall. After returning to their desks, students get their backpacks and belongings together as they await the bell. When it rings, eight of the twelve hand in pages torn out of their notebooks to Topper who reminds them of the test the next day.

Since completing a semester of student teaching and graduating college in a nearby city, Mike Topper entered Cardozo as a first-year teacher of history. In the World History I syllabus, Topper wrote the following for the course:

The purpose … is to view civilizations from the Fall of Rome to the Age of Revolutions and think historically about how such civilizations impacted the development of the world. We will continually wrestle with questions that cannot be easily answered. In order to do so, we will develop a toolbox of ‘historical thinking skills’ that will be useful for everything inside the classroom and for being a powerful citizen outside of the classroom.[ix]

The three goals and objectives for the course would make any partisan of the historical approach beam with pride.

  1. Formulate (develop) historical questions and defend answers based on inquiry and interpretation.
  2. Communicate findings orally in class and in written essays.
  3. Develop skills in reading strategies, discussion, debate, and persuasive writing.

Topper specifies in the syllabus which historical thinking skills he seeks to develop in his 9th graders such as: being able to explain “historical significance,” find and use evidence, analyze primary sources, and figure out what is the “cause and consequence” of a significant event.

These are ambitious goals for a first year teacher anywhere, much less at Cardozo. He told me that he likes it at Cardozo “because expectations for academic work are higher than [the city where he did his student-teaching].” “Here,” he said, “administrators come into your classroom and observe what you are doing. Also ‘master educators’ [former teachers hired by the district to observe and evaluate other teachers] have already come by a few times. Here, you really need to work with kids.”

_________________________________________________

[1] As part of the district instructional guidance for and evaluation of teachers, called the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework Resources Overview, there is a template for every lesson taught in a District of Columbia classroom. See here.

In the framework, the template for the “warm up” says: “Teacher hooks students to the content, activates students’ prior knowledge, and introduces the objective.” P. 13.

[ii] The text the class uses is the 1100 page World History: Modern Times (2005) written by Jackson Spielvogel. The book contains many graphics, photos, charts, and sidebars with vignettes of historical personalities. Accompanying each unit in the book is a “Primary Source Library.” There is a classroom set of the texts along one wall for students to use when the teacher assigns pages to read and questions to ask in a lesson. The 3-2-1 is an acronym for a teaching technique that gets students to summarize a reading and think about its meaning. Students were familiar with the technique and had used it for readings in the text and in primary sources. Each student would write on one sheet of paper: “Three things you learned from reading; two things you have found interesting; one question you still have.”

[iii] When I asked two other Cardozo social studies teachers (there are four in the department) why the curriculum standard, daily objective, and what teacher expects students to learn was written on all of their whiteboards, each one independently told me that the District requires these to be listed. The lesson template mentioned above states that teachers must have the curriculum standard and daily objective displayed for all students to see. When evaluators—the school principal or D.C. “master educators” entered the room—either arranged beforehand or unannounced–it is one of the items that these evaluators expect to see.

[iv] Bloom’s Taxonomy is part of the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework (see pp. 4-6). The district expects all academic teachers to sort out the content and skills they teach and use the language of the taxonomy in stating their daily objectives.

[v] A student sitting next to me explained what the “hall sweeps” were. I confirmed this with Topper and other teachers.

[vi] Level 1 questions—factual recall of dates, events, and people—refer to Bloom’s taxonomy levels of which a poster is on a wall in the room. I assume that he has taught the levels to students earlier in the semester. Whether the students understand the clarification about the questions they are expected to answer, I do not know.

[vii] Cardozo school rules call for no cell phones during class lessons, no hats to be worn in classrooms, and students to have uniforms. Gray Polo tops and khaki pants or skirts for grades 6-8, purple Polo tops and khakis for grades 9-10, and black Polo shirts and khakis for seniors. No street clothes allowed—there are loaner shirts available to students who break rules. In the two weeks I was in the school, I noted that about half of the students wore uniforms. See Cardozo website at: http://www.cardozohs.com/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=207589&type=d&pREC_ID=408163

[viii] Exit Passes are ways that teachers can determine quickly and briefly what students know and understand in the lesson. As a form of assessment, it is often used by teachers to see whether what has been taught has been learned.

[ix] Mike Topper (pseudonym), Department of Social Studies, 9th Grade Academy, “Syllabus for World History I, 2013-2014,” p. 1. In author’s possession. I cannot give web link to syllabus because it would reveal actual name of the teacher.

12 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies