Category Archives: how teachers teach

Teaching History at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

This is the third excerpt taken from Kristina Rizga’s new book Mission High. With her permission I have excerpted descriptions of math  and English lessons. In this post, Rizga describes a history lesson that Robert Roth, a long time community activist and veteran social studies teacher, taught.

“Your essay on the Mendez v. Westminster case was so powerful,” Roth says as he rests his arm on Maria’s shoulder in the hallway one chilly winter morning in 2011. “You really nailed it this time.” He concentrates on Maria’s face. Roth is dressed in a black, long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, and black shoes. His closely cropped hair has lost most of its pepper.

“Huh? Me? Thanks, Mr. Roth.” Maria stops for a brief moment to soak in the praise before she walks through the classroom door. Clenching a thick bundle of tissues in her hand, she looks out an open window for a moment, smiling.

The J-Church train outside shrieks along the rails near the school. Maria closes the window before settling into her desk. Propping the classroom door open with his right hand, Roth scans every face in the morning rush of students flowing through the hall.

“Have you been avoiding me, Pablo?” Roth shouts. “I saw you near the cafeteria yesterday and you didn’t even say hello.” Pablo smiles reluctantly. “Am I going to see you after school today to look over your outline?”

“Yes, I will be there,” Pablo heaves a long, dramatic sigh, with arms akimbo.

“How are you doing, Darrell?” Roth turns his head toward a tall student walking into his classroom. “Are you coming to see me after school today for a test review?” Darrell nods in agreement as he joins the rest of the students.

Ten minutes after the bell rings, Jesmyn slowly cracks open Roth’s classroom door, peeking through with one eye before she tip-toes inside. The class is quiet. Students are writing. Everyone is working on the “Do Now,” a fifteen-minute review exercise on topics students studied in the last class. Today there are three “short identifications,” events or ideas students have to describe in their own words in no more than three sentences. There is also a short, one-page essay in which students have to discuss the significance of a historic event and connect it to other topics they have already studied.

“I’m late. I know, I know,” Jesmyn whispers to Roth as she moves toward her desk in the front row. She sits down, planting her legs widely on the floor. She puts her red glasses on and reads the instructions on the board, “Test Review. Twenties and the Start of the Great Depression (15 pts).”

“Look at you, kiddo!” Roth walks over to Jesmyn and says quietly, “Showed up even though you are upset about being late,” he smiles. Her pinched lips relax into a smile.

Roth gives Jesmyn a sheet with instructions and whispers, “Respond to each of these questions. Briefly explain the Scopes Trial, who was Henry Ford, and the assembly line. Then a short essay on who supported Prohibition and why.”

“Whoa, this is too much, Mr. Roth!” she exclaims out loud. “How much stuff do I need to write for each?”

“As short as you can,” he whispers back. “Just include the most relevant information. You can look in the textbook, but you must use your own words. If you copy, you don’t learn. But you don’t need the textbook. Just get started, and you’ll see that you know much more than you think.” Jesmyn exhales a long breath and writes her name on a blank piece of paper. Roth is setting up the projector while students are writing.

“Two more minutes, everyone!” Roth interrupts.

“No!” Destiny and Jesmyn protest.

“See, this is my problem.” Roth enters the middle of the classroom. “You don’t listen to me. I say two more minutes and you say, ‘Leave me alone, I’m writing!’”

“OK, Destiny,” Roth says five minutes later. “Tell me one group that supported Prohibition and why.”

“Women’s groups concerned with domestic violence,” Destiny replies confidently.

“Great. Jesmyn?”



“They didn’t want drunk workers.”

“That’s exactly right. Who else?”

“Church groups, because they felt it was a sin to drink,” Maria adds.

Jesmyn jumps in with her hand up: “Oh, gangsters rise in Chicago because of Prohibition.”

“That’s a really good point. Why is this happening?” Roth probes.

“They get into the business of bootlegs, and Al Capone had the law on his payroll,” Jesmyn rushes to explain.

Darrell raises his hand and adds, “Anti-immigration groups also supported Prohibition.”

“That’s true. Why are they doing that?” Roth inquires.

“They say immigrants are drunks and are destroying American morals and should not be allowed here,” Darrell explains.

“That’s right,” Roth nods his head.

“Mr. Roth, what’s a bootleg again?” Marvin jumps in.

“Emilio, could you answer Marvin’s question?”

“Selling something illegally.”

“That’s right. And I know that none of you are bootleggers,” Roth smiles. “Oh, no. You don’t copy CDs. No, I’ve never seen that.”

“All kidding aside,” Roth continues, as he moves back to the center of the room again. “We’ve been studying the Twenties for a while, and this will be on the test in a few weeks. Remember, if we are doing something in class, it will be on my test. I’m studying with you. You have my e-mail and my phone number. Come see me after school if you need help with any of these topics we went over today.”

Roth turns on the projector and a black-and-white photograph appears on the projection board: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936).

“What do you see here?” Roth asks while students flex their wrists.

Darrell raises his hand and answers, “A mother who is moving around and struggling to feed her children.”

“There is something very thoughtful about this picture,” Marvin says.

“That’s so true,” Roth chimes in. “What do you see that makes you say that?”

Darrell raises his hand again. “Children are tired and hopeless, but the mother doesn’t look hopeless.”

“What makes you say that?” Roth probes.

“Children turned their heads away, like they are ashamed,” Maria comments. “But the mother is not ashamed. You see perseverance and determination in her eyes.”

“Exactly,” Roth jumps in. “As Maria pointed out, this photo is not exploitative. Lange shows us both the struggle and the inner strength of the mother.” More of Lange’s photographs appear on the projection board. As students take turns describing what they see, Roth reviews previous material—the Dust Bowl, the Bonus Army, the beginning of Social Security—and connects it to the faces students see in the black-and-white stills. After the Lange introduction, he moves into the center of the classroom.

“OK, Emilio, you gotta sit down,” Roth scans the room quickly. “And put the phone away, please.”

“Jesmyn, are you ready to present?” She nods and comes up to the front of the class.

“How many of you have heard of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921?” Jesmyn asks her classmates. Two hands go up. A few weeks earlier, Roth had offered students their choice of preselected research projects that were not in the textbooks or required by the state standards. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 had jumped out at Jesmyn right away. She admired her boyfriend’s grandmother, Edna Tobie, and knew that she was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. So one Sunday Jesmyn had spent the whole day at Tobie’s house talking to her and her sons about life in Tulsa before the violence broke out. Tobie had described how despite the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow laws, black people in Tulsa created a proud, self-sustaining community with jobs, churches, and two newspapers.

The next day Jesmyn had stayed up until 2:00 a.m. summarizing her findings and preparing for the presentation. She wanted her classmates to know that despite centuries of slavery and exclusion, black people always found ways to survive and thrive. She wanted them to care about Edna and the Tulsa community as much as she did after hearing Edna’s story. As she wrote, she looked up more precise words in the thesaurus, trying to craft more moving sentences. She reviewed drafts on lined, three-hole-punched paper and threw them on the floor if she wasn’t satisfied. Each new draft felt a little better, more refined, and engaging, and sounded more like her.

“Tulsa had the second-largest African American community in the United States at the time,” Jesmyn says to the class. “More than ten thousand African Americans lived in the Greenwood District. There were black-owned businesses, two newspapers, churches, and a real sense of pride in people. The riots started with a rumor that an African American man had raped a white woman. These rumors were typical at the time. Hundreds of white men attacked the community. They burned it down. Mrs. Tobie’s mother was ten at the time, but she remembers holding her mother’s hand, looking at their burned-down neighborhood filled with white ash, smoke, and people crying.<el>The local government didn’t come to defend Tulsa residents from the violence. No justice was served then or later. Mrs. Tobie explained to me that because no justice was served, some older folks blame it now for the young men’s distrust of the government. Young men don’t trust that the police are there to protect them either. It made me realize that even though it happened a long time ago, there are deep, deep scars in Tulsa. Mrs. Tobie and her sons couldn’t stop talking about it even though they weren’t even alive then.”

“I want to be a social worker one day and work in my community,” Jesmyn reflects in the conclusion of her presentation. “It is important for me to understand where deep scars come from.”

1 Comment

Filed under how teachers teach

Teachers Helping Teachers Through the Web

One of the key pieces of wisdom I have learned over my years in classrooms, as a superintendent, and historian of education is that teachers learn most from other teachers they respect.  Not high-priced consultants who fly in, talk, and catch an early flight out. Not software publishers who sponsor 1-day workshops. Not district-led professional development seminars on scheduled days. Just the simple fact of teachers reaching out to peers in their school or across town for help with a lesson, a student, or figuring out a district policy.

Teachers teaching teachers is hardly new. Programs where experienced teachers in a school work with newcomers to the classroom are familiar in most districts. Professional learning communities ( or “communities of practice”) that spring up in schools where teachers of the same subject or at grade levels share materials, experiences, and help one another out.  Instead of being a last-ditch (and inexpensive) effort in districts, smart administrators have cultivated such programs and communities knowing full well that local talent is both admired and respected by teachers in need of help.

Since 2006, a web-based marketplace, TeachersPayTeachers, offers lessons, exercises, and transportable ideas that teachers can review, buy,and share lessons created by other teachers. With Yelp-like reviews from teacher-users, the online market-place has turned some entrepreneurial teachers into money-makers while helping other teachers. Altruism and business sense come together nicely. According to CEO Adam Freed, 12 teachers have become millionaires and nearly 300 teachers have earned more than $100,000. He says that on any given day, according to the article, “1.7 million lesson plans, quizzes, work sheets, classroom activities, and other items [are] available, typically for less than $5.”

Take  veteran teacher Laura Randazzo  at Amador High School in Pleasanton (CA). for example. She has created free and for-sale ready-to-use lessons for other English teachers. She sells and gives away those lessons on an online marketplace called . A recent New York Times article featured a Randazzo question in teaching Othello: “What kind of tunes do you think Iago, the villain … would listen to if he had an iPhone?” The sub-title of her website is: “On a Mission to Prevent English Teacher Burnout.”

“What started out as a hobby has turned into a business,” Randazzo says. She has generated over $100,000 in sales through TeachersPayTeachers.

In response to other teachers who buy and use her lessons she has started a YouTube channel to demonstrate how to teach such concepts as irony. According to Randazzo, her “customers” find her lessons and advice helpful because she faces similar issues in her classroom. “That is what ground-level teachers,” she says, “are able to do that textbook publishers can’t.” And I would add consultants who parachute into districts, out-of-town experts, and vendor-hired specialists to Randazzo’s list.

None of the above is a blurb for either the website or Laura Randazzo. Teacher getting help from other teachers is essential for the improvement of classroom practice. None of the lessons bought or created have been vetted by researchers except for those entrepreneurial teachers who have affirmed that these activities, these exercises, and ideas have worked in their classrooms. Here is the wisdom of practice monetized.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

The Play (Selma Wassermann)

Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. She has been an elementary school teacher and reading specialist for many years in the New York area before earning her doctorate in education. She brought a barrelful of child-centered knowledge and skills to her graduate students—even returning to teach at an elementary school while on a sabbatical. In the late-1960s, she and her family moved to Vancouver, Canada where she became a founding faculty member at Simon Fraser University. She retired nearly two decades ago and has continued to write for Kappan, Childhood Education, and other journals. She has also become a software designer and CEO of Wrinkled Pants creating iPad apps called  the My Word Reader for children. In addition to all of that, she also writes stories about growing up in Brooklyn. “The Play” draws from her elementary school days and the impact that one of her teachers had upon her.

She smiled a lot when she spoke to us, but it was not a smile that showed any human warmth. She smiled for punctuation and for eliciting our choral response.

“Isn’t that nice boys and girls?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.”

“Aren’t you glad about that?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.”

She saw her work with us as her personal burden: training East New York street urchins to use the King’s English.

“Jack in the booox,” I practiced, watching my unruly tongue flick out, off cue, in the little hand mirror. “Awl shuttt uppp tyyytte.” When it was my turn to come up to her desk, her cold hard smile formed around her thin cold lips and I knew I was the source of great displeasure.

When we were well into the spring of the school year, she told us we were to give a play, so that she might show off to the rest of the school her success in teaching us to speak. We sat very still, sweaty hands folded politely, as she explained behind the joyless smile that every one of us was to have a part.

“And who would like to play the King?” Sweaty hands danced in the air and collapsed, deflated, after she named her choice. “Bobby will make an excellent King, don’t you think, boys and girls?” Smile.

“Yeeeeeeeesssss, Miss Stellwagon.” But none of us had truth in his or her heart.

“And now, who would like to play the part of the fairy godmother?” Smile.

I thought I would explode with longing, as my had shot up, waved and then fell with my hopes, as Shirley Laskin was named. I felt my overweight body, dressed in Irma Kelbanoff’s cast off clothes, like a pennance and knew that I’d never be named. Never.

She continued to name the characters in the play, and selected the most attractive children first, from a flurry of handwaving hopefuls who didn’t have a chance because her mind had been made up long in advance. She knew who she wanted but continued to tease us with the possibility that we might be chosen. We, unsuspecting, continued to play her cruel game.

The characters with speaking parts had now all been chosen and I sat nervously, my ugly brown shoes tripping on Irma’s too long dress, biting my thumb nail, hoping for a miracle. To be unchosen is the great pain of Grade 4. The unchosen were the detritus of classroom life.

“Now, who wants to play the role of the announcer?” Smile.

Melvin Taub and I were the only ones who would brave yet another rejection. We shot our hands up. She took all of me in, from Irma Kelbanoff’s sagging dress, down to the world’s ugliest brown shoes, and without smiling, turned to Melvin. It was my last chance to be chosen and I’d have cheerfully knocked Melvin off to increase my chances to move out of the rejects.

Her eye fixed on me again.

“Do you think you can do this? It’s an important part you know. Smile

I almost cried out loud with my reassurances. I could. I could. Oh, please. I could.

“You need a white blouse and pleated skirt for this part. Do you have one?”

“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Yes. I have one.”

“All right then.”

I never gave another thought to Melvin, who landed up as one of a large chorus of elves, that nondescript group of back-stage castoffs. As it turned out, a far luckier fate than mine.

That afternoon I told my mother the hard news. I had a part in the class play. The Announcer. I had to have a white blouse and a pleated skirt. The teacher said so.

My mother fell into her quiet fury, the worst expression of her anger. There was no money. There could be no blouse and skirt. I would have to give up the part and the teacher would have to choose someone else.

She didn’t understand that that was impossible. To give up after having been chosen was simply, totally impossible. I cried. I wailed. I sulked. Never did I think that the cost of a new white blouse and pleated skirt was a week’s food budget; that we ate lung stew because lung cost five cents a pound and that was what we could afford. So we went to war, my mother and I, using every verbal weapon we owned. I told her that she was a bad mother. She said that I was too fat to wear a pleated skirt and would look like a baby elephant. We knew exactly where to aim — the most vulnerable and tender parts of the psyche. When my father came home, we were both casualties.

My parents spoke quietly for a long time and after supper my mother took me to the shop around the corner and outfitted me in a week’s food budget worth of white blouse and pleated navy skirt.   She was right about one thing. I did look like a baby elephant.

The next day at school the class went in a long, single line to the auditorium for the first rehearsal. Miss Stellwagon, pinching an edge of cloth from the shoulder of the leader’s dress, held her at arm’s length as she led the file down to the front of the hall. We occupied the two first rows on the right, just under the permanently fixed sign: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Miss Stellwagon organized a tableau of look-alike, gunny-sacked elves rear stage and admonished them in advance about any bad behavior. Walking authoritatively to centre stage, she pointed her index finger at me and beckoned me with it to come up and begin the announcement.

With equal amounts of nervousness and eagerness to please, I rushed from my seat toward her, the toe of my brown shoe catching the lip of the platform step. In a thud that echoed in my heart for the next twenty years, I fell face down at the feet of my fourth grade teacher, pleats billowing, rump exposed.

She looked down at me, her eyes cold and unforgiving. The words, carefully chosen and precisely formed in perfect King’s English fell from that cold, hard mouth, like stones. “Get up and return to your seat. You could never be the announcer for our play. Suppose you fell during the actual performance? You would make the entire class a laughing stock.”

I watched from my seat as Melvin Taub replaced me, my humiliation packed in my suitcase, to last for all time.


Filed under how teachers teach

Research Influence on Classroom Practice (Part 2)

Educational researchers have debated among themselves for decades the degree to which past and current studies have had an impact upon how teachers have taught and students have learned. Such debates over research findings reshaping practical work have not occurred among physicians or engineers, for example. Those who work daily with patients can see how research studies and clinical trials have influenced their diagnoses and treatments of illness. Research results have also had profound effects on how engineers solve problems and make new products. So what is it about educational research and the practical art and science of teaching that seemingly makes it impervious to the plentiful studies completed by researchers?

Many scholars have investigated the answer to the question and have come up with very different answers. Educational psychologist Robert Travers, for example, studied the past century of research and practice and with great certainty entitled his book: How Research Has Changed American Schools (1973). Yet his earlier and contemporary fellow psychologists (e.g., E. L. Thorndike, W.W. Charters, Julian Stanley), as Mary Kennedy points out, expressed deep disappointment of how little research had affected schools and classroom practice. Historian Carl Kaestle’s “The Awful Reputation of Educational Research” is another chord in that melody. This back-and-forth over the value of educational research to working teachers continues today. When it comes to teachers over the past generation, however, it presents a puzzle.

Over half of U.S. public school teachers have master’s degrees. Many courses that these teachers took to earn their degrees in disciplines or in education included reading and analyzing research studies. And many of these teachers wrote a master’s thesis or research papers to complete the requirements for the degree. For those teachers without an advanced degree, most have been exposed to recent research in their discipline or educational specialty through professional development workshops, media articles, or may have even participated in classroom research projects. So most teachers have been either consumers or creators (or both) of research.

But that familiarity with research seldom stills the frequent and intense rhetoric from policymakers, researchers, administrators, and lay reformers who ask teachers to use “evidence-based practice” identified in research studies. They want teachers to incorporate results of scientific studies into their lessons on fractions and decimals, phonics, photosynthesis, and the causes of the Civil War.

Yet in light of so many teachers exposed to research in their graduate programs, an expanding empirical base for effective programs, and a large population of teachers familiar with the ins-and-outs of research, so little of that knowledge has filtered into classroom practice. Decade after decade, critics have characterized teacher use of research as sparse.

This marginal use of research by classroom teachers, however, has not occurred for lack of trying. State, federal, and private efforts over decades have spread the results of research studies to teachers. Consider, for example, the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) that began in 1966. It contains over a million documents most of which are studies freely available to anyone. The National Diffusion Network (NDN) disseminated research on programs that worked in classrooms between 1974-1995. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) started its Educational Research and Dissemination program for classroom teachers in 1981.

Here, then, is a puzzle. Highly educated teachers familiar with research joined to mighty efforts to change that situation over decades, and yet the bulk of the nation’s teacher corps seemingly ignore scholarship easily accessible to them.

There are reasons galore for why this puzzle exists. For some critics of academic research, the primary reason is that most studies answer questions teachers seldom ask. So many studies are largely irrelevant to those issues that bite at teachers daily. Other critics see the reason located in teachers themselves who are so immersed in a culture of practice where experience and stories carry far more weight than findings from scientific studies. And then there are those who point to the age-graded school and the structural constraints (e.g., tight schedules that leave little time for teachers to meet and discuss instructional issues, number of students taught) that fix teachers’ attention on daily logistics rather than applying results of scientific studies. Age-graded schools are largely inhospitable places to apply research. Whatever the reasons, most teachers, critics say, ignore the fruits of research studies that could be used to enhance both teaching and student learning. Instead most teachers rely on experience-based practice, that is, the authority that comes from their knowledge and skills gained through prior experience and the wisdom of respected colleagues.

The situation, however, is not as grim as critics would have it. Those familiar with the history of teaching know that certain ideas baked in academia, have, indeed, been sold and adopted by teachers and put into practice in their classrooms. From teaching young children to read to the National Writing Project to  Success for All, instances of academic research sorted and installed into teachers’ repertoires shreds the claim that educational research has no influence on practice. And that fact is an important clue to unraveling the conundrum.

Consider the work of Jack Schneider, a historian of education who wrote From the Ivory Tower to the School House (2014). In this book*, he does what gifted songwriters do: create a new melody or rearrange a familiar one, add fresh lyrics and end up enthralling listeners. He does so by artfully building an original interpretation about teacher use of research. His “song” will surprise teacher educators, policymakers, researchers, and lay reformers baffled over the puzzle of teachers knowledgeable about research yet seldom adopting scientific findings to improve their classroom practice.

The central question that drives the book is straightforward: what explains that some scholarly ideas, and not others, appeared in classrooms practices? He answers that question by examining Bloom’s Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, The Project Method, and Direct Instruction, concepts stamped made-in-academia. Schneider travels back and forth in time from a century ago to the recent past to identify the features of those ideas that made them accessible and useful to teachers in their daily work. Four factors distinguish those research findings that enter classrooms: teachers see the significance of the concept and studies for their students; the research findings accord with teachers’ beliefs and aspirations for their classrooms; the results of the research can be put into practice in their classrooms now not in the distant future–what Schneider calls “occupational realism”; finally, the new ideas harvested from research are “transportable,” they can be conveyed in plain language and the new structures called for are do-able within the confines of the classroom. In making the case for the essential features that he identifies, Schneider also recognizes that luck is an ingredient to the success story—being in the right place at the right time.

Not only does Schneider make the case for the key features of those four ideas that tie together their successful research-to-practice journey, he also takes four very similar research-driven concepts—The Affective Taxonomy, Triarchic Intelligence, Project-based Teaching, and Behavioral Analysis also baked in and sold from the ivory tower—that missed their way into classrooms. He shows that some features of research characterizing the successful transplanting of ideas and practices were missing-in-action in these comparable ventures.

The author also makes clear that the journey from robust research findings into teacher repertoires often get translated and adapted into versions that range from recognizable to distorted fun-house mirrors. Unintended consequences also flow from the zig-zag path that these ideas take from academia to the classroom.

So this is where I end up in the century-long debate over the influence of educational research on classroom practices. Yes, university-generated research has, indeed, influenced teaching practices to a degree but far from what has been promised or intended. Were reform-minded researchers and policymakers, however, to consider carefully teacher beliefs, aspirations, and questions, the conditions under which they work, and then join teachers to build cooperatively further knowledge and skills—then the chances of researchers’ answers to teacher questions might have an easier journey into classrooms.


*Full disclosure: I wrote the Foreword for Schneider’s book from which a few of the above paragraphs were taken.


Filed under how teachers teach

Teaching English at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

This is the second post (see here) drawn from journalist Kristina Rizga’s account of teaching and learning at San Francisco Unified School District’s Mission High School. Rizga is a journalist who spent four years observing and interviewing teachers and students at Mission High School in San Francisco. Her book, 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 accountability-driven 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. This post describes an English lesson taught by Pirette McKamey, a 25-year veteran of classroom teaching.

“I want to say something important about writing,” Pirette McKamey tells her English class one Tuesday afternoon in October 2012. “Writing is very, very hard, and it’s never finished. I’ve re-read some of my essays twenty times and I still go, ‘I can’t believe I made this mistake or that mistake.’ So, this is a long, difficult process.” Dressed in white cotton pants, a patterned shirt, and black leather loafers, she is standing in front of twenty-five seniors.

“I’m going to read Jamal’s essay as a model today,” says McKamey, who reads students’ work at the beginning of each class as a way to honor their craft and effort. “I like his essay because of the heft of its content. It also feels real. It was written with real engagement and honesty. That makes it worth reading.” In his essay Jamal has compared his life ambitions with the goals of two other people he has chosen from the many real and fictional people the students have studied in a five-week-long “quests” unit in which students considered the deeper meaning behind different types of individual journeys while developing their reading and writing skills. Jamal has picked Jackson Jackson, the main character from Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” and Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A month later Jamal uses this essay as a foundation to develop a ten-page research paper entitled “Black on Black Violence,” which examines the root causes of homicides in his community.

“‘A successful quest requires support, yearning, and perseverance’,” McKamey begins, reading Jamal’s words. “‘Everyone experiences some kind of a quest in their lifetime. Some take longer than others, some are more important than others, and some are not even intentional, but are a part of our everyday life. Some quests are very internal and personal. Others are external, rooted in collective memories and yearnings.’” As she reaches the end, five minutes later, she looks up from the paper and asks, “What did you like about the essay?”

“I love how Jamal brought three parts and three very different people together,” Alex jumps in.

“I liked that a lot too,” McKamey responds. “What else?”

“His connections and transitions from one person to the next were really good,” says Ana a little more hesitantly, glancing at the teacher for affirmation.

“That’s true,” McKamey replies.

“I felt passion and enthusiasm in his essay,” Roberto comments. “Passion that fuels a bigger purpose is the theme that drives the essay—in making music, in searching for your past, in wanting more freedom for your country.”

“Exactly,” she responds. “That’s a really good observation.”

As the discussion winds down, Max Anders—the student teacher McKamey is coaching this year—passes out a handout titled “Punctuating Titles: Underlines or Quotation Marks?” Meanwhile, McKamey explains to me that when she and Anders graded everyone’s essays yesterday, they noticed one common mistake: despite previous practice, students still weren’t always sure which titles needed to be underlined, italicized, or put in quotation marks. Anders has created a short guide using real examples from student work and a worksheet for students to practice some of these skills.

Students then get to work while both teachers walk around to answer questions.

After a brief punctuation lesson from McKamey, Anders steps up to the front of the room. “Last class we learned about the Vietnam War, and we focused on Vietnamese history,” he says. “Today we will continue by reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the American perspective.” The students read a chapter titled “The Man I Killed.” When they’re done, Anders asks them to pick out a quote they found intriguing, to be analyzed collectively.

“Let me remind you what analysis is,” McKamey says, standing in front of the class. “When I was little, I remember I used a hammer and screwdriver to crack a golf ball open. I really wanted to see what was inside. As I cracked that glossy plastic open, I saw rubber bands. And I went, ‘Ha! I didn’t know there were rubber bands in golf balls. I wonder what’s inside other balls?’ It made me curious about the world. So, we are doing the same thing. We’ll analyze the author’s words to dig in deeper. That will allow us to engage with the text on the author’s terms.”

David raises his hand. He reads a line from the chapter:

He was a slim dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.

“What do you notice in this passage?” McKamey probes.

“The man the narrator killed is the same age as him,” Roberto comments.

“Exactly,” she replies. “Now you are one step deeper. What do I feel inside when I think of that?”

“Guilt, regret,” Ajanee jumps in.

“That’s right,” McKamey comments. “I personally would use the word compassion. But what you said is 100 percent correct. It’s just that all of us will use different words to analyze this. And what does that do when we realize that this man is the same age as us?”

“It makes me think that he’s young, likes girls, probably doesn’t want to fight in a war,” Robert says.

“Exactly. Now, take that even deeper.”

“It’s like he is killing himself?” Roberto asks.

“Perfect! Now you made a connection,” McKamey says, excitement in her voice. “That’s what this quote is really about. Now, why is O’Brien saying ‘star-shaped hole’? Why not ‘peanut-shaped hole?’”

“That’s very unusual,” Irving comments.

McKamey nods. She remains quiet for a minute, looking around the class.

Ajanee raises her hand and offers an answer, “The image in his mind is burned.”

“Exactly!” McKamey replies. “O’Brien wants us to keep that same image in mind that he had as a young soldier in his mind. It’s the kind of image you never forget. That’s what writing is really about.”


*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.

Leave a comment

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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.



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.


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?”


“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.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies