This post is a series of photographs of classrooms taken in 17 countries to mark UNESCO-sponsored World Teachers’ Day (October 5, 2015). Instead of my offering commentary on these diverse photos, I ask viewers to offer their impressions of these classrooms around the world. I look forward to reading your comments. Thank you.
Category Archives: how teachers teach
In 2009, I tried to peek around the corner and predict what classrooms and technologies use might look like in 2020. That post forecasted a few changes that I then saw emerging. So there is nothing magical about that or what I predicted. The questions I asked at the end of the post, however, I still believe are most relevant in 2021.
I offer this twelve year-old post simply because re-visiting what I predicted can keep one humble. I have been way off on many earlier forecasts and laughed at how narrowly I looked ahead to the spread of classroom technologies, especially during the 2020-2021 pandemic–a traumatic event that appared in no one’s crystal ball.
However, on a few occasions, I was accurate. At least in part.
I just read a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them (of course, in an ecologically correct manner). Still the number of high-tech machines and applications that hit their expiration date so quickly stunned me.
Then I read another list of high-tech predictions for 2020 that was equally entertaining about the future of schools, well, not schools as we know them in December 2010. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such lists (here) for years with high-tech devices having different names but a glorious future just around the corner. Last year, I posted my predictions for high-tech in schools in 2020. Here is, in part, what I said in 2009.
“Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are hand-held mobile devices (iPhone, Blackberry, e-book variations) and online learning (distance education).”
Handhelds will permit the digitizing of texts loaded on to the devices. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their Blackberries, iPhones, etc.
Based on current Twitter and other future social networking traffic, shorter and shorter messaging will also become a mainstay of teacher-student communication. Some sample Twitter messages:
*In a college course on consumer sciences, the professor asked his 250 students to post questions on Twitter. On the topic of car insurance for those under 25 years of age, a student asked: ‘What happens if you get married and then get divorced at 24? Would your insurance go up?’ ”
*In the same course, during an exam, a student tweeted a fellow student and asked for the answer to a question. Teacher caught the student because although the software said “anonymous” on the handheld, the name of the student showed up on the teacher’s screen.
Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade. Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.
The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.
So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.”
Of course, I could be just another one of those benighted folks who predicted that automobiles, planes, and television were mere hype and would never replace horse-drawn carriages, trains, and radio. Here is a list of those failed predictions to chuckle over as you ring in the new year.
Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2020, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students. No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.
Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy–what knowledge is most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning? These questions, in turn depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how does one live a useful and worthy life. When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their proper role in schools and classrooms.
First things first. To most Americans, how teachers teach and what they include in daily lessons once the classroom door is closed remains as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle.
Well, not quite since every American knows from childhood and teen years what a classroom is like, what teachers typically do, and how schools smell. Yet beyond remembrances of classroom lessons–not many, however, since memories of particular lessons disappear swiftly–there has been (and is) little direct observation of what elementary and secondary school teachers do in any of the many lessons they teach over the course of a school day. Hard to believe that what we know about teaching daily often comes from our dredged-up memories, what our children and friends’ children recount of their days in school, and, finally, rumors of what is taught and how it is taught. Moreover, not too much comes from educational researchers, except for occasional surveys of teaching practices (see here and here)
I state all of this because of the recent brouhaha over “critical race theory” being taught in classrooms. Instigated by mostly Republican national and state political leaders (see here and here), there is no there, there. Largely because there are no data, past or present, on what content teachers do actually teach daily in schools, districts, and states. Statements about actual teaching of the theory are no more than hot air and excited panting.
Sorry, but I have to repeat that: there are no data, past or present on what content teachers do actually teach daily in schools, districts, and states.
Finding teachers who have taught “critical race theory” is nearly impossible not because of fear but simply because it seldom appears in actual lessons.
Surely, teachers refer to state and district curriculum guides, use textbooks, and assign homework that give clues to what content and skills they include in their lessons, but beyond that, all we know is what teachers say they are teaching, students recollect from lessons, and administrators aver is being taught. And “critical race theory” whatever it is (see here and here), rarely, if at all, enters teachers’ vocabulary much less the content of a lesson. In the hundreds of classrooms I have observed in the Bay area over 20 years, maybe one, perhaps two, came even close to mentioning or discussing it in a lesson.
Many times in the past have deep cultural splits among Americans, in this instance about race, been fought out within the nation’s public schools (see here and here). Until evidence of teaching practices are collected about whether or not or to what degree “critical race theory” is taught in U.S. schools, the current hysteria about the theory being actually taught is no more than another instance of political bluster wrapped around another educational kerfuffle.
Over the past decade, thoughtful observers seeking improvement in public school teaching and student learning have advanced concepts of “ambitious teaching” and “deeper learning” (see here, here and here). Both raise the low bar that earlier reformers had set to initiate and adopt reforms aimed at classrooms such as adopting new reading programs, using innovative textbooks, or loading on student computers dazzling pieces of software. It was a low bar to these advocates because they sought a more thoughtful form of teaching that gets students of all ages to inquire, question, and poke at contradictions across all academic subjects. These champions of ambitious teaching and deeper learning believed that lessons, be they teacher- or student-directed, can go beyond the superficial and stimulate students’ curiosity and achieve learning goals heretofore thought impossible.
What is ambitious teaching?
A phrase that cropped up often over the past decade, ambitious teaching comes out of earlier reform traditions when teachers aspired to elicit and develop student ideas out of the content and skills regularly taught in lessons. Getting students to think aloud, take on difficult academic tasks, and investigate the world outside of school walls were aims. In such lessons, teachers not only elaborated student ideas but also applied them to practical situations in which they were familiar. All of this is packed into the phrase, “ambitious teaching.”
A more formal (and obtuse) definition comes from three scholars:
Ambitious teaching requires that teachers teach in response to what students do as they engage in problem solving performances, all while holding students accountable to learning goals that include procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive dispositions.”
What problems does ambitious teaching solve?
Reform-minded teacher educators and scholars of critical thinking believe that expecting teachers to teach ambitiously would result in fewer textbook-driven lessons which leave many students bored and compliant, leading, many observers believe, to underlying schoolwide problems. What adherents of ambitious teaching seek are more lessons that question textbook statements and explore and explain contradictions between what students know, what they experience and what they are expected to learn. Too many lessons, reformers claim, are dull, mechanical, and result in fake student responses that teachers label as “learning.”
What does ambitious teaching look like?
Researchers offered this example of ambitious teaching:
Imagine walking into a middle school classroom where students are working on a statistics unit in which they are investigating patterns of association between two quantities. While students enter the classroom, the teacher gives each student a sheet of paper that contains [a detailed photo of a] shoeprint….
The teacher explains that when investigators find shoeprints at the scene of a crime, forensic scientists can use the prints to identify suspects. She asks students to consider how a footprint could help someone solve a crime. After a brief discussion, students conclude that a shoeprint can indicate the type of shoe that a suspect wore, as well as the size of the suspect. The teacher explains that the students are going to investigate the relationship between shoe size and height so that they can determine the height of the suspect. While students work in pairs, measuring each other’s height and shoe length, the teacher monitors the activity and asks and answers questions as needed to support students’ efforts. When pairs finish measuring, they add their data (red dots for girls and green dots for boys) to a large graph—with the x-axis labeled as shoe length and the y-axis labeled as height—posted in the front of the room. When all the students have added their data points to the graph, the teacher asks students to talk with their partners about the patterns that they notice. After a few minutes, the students share their observations, which the teacher records: for example, no two people have the same shoe size and height, most girls have smaller feet and are shorter than the boys, tall people have bigger feet than short people, the data go up from left to right, and the data are kind of linear. The teacher tells students that their next step is to find a line that models these data—a line of best fit. She directs students to a Web-based applet, where they plot the class data in two-pair teams, guess at a line of best fit, and check their guesses. (An applet that supports this investigation is at http://illuminations.nctm.org/Activity.aspx?id54186.) The class concludes with a lively whole-group discussion, during which teams share their findings regarding the line of best fit, discuss the meaning of the slope and y-intercept in context, and consider how confident they are that the equation will be a good predictor of a person’s height based on a shoeprint. In the final five minutes of class, students complete an exit ticket in which they indicate how tall they think the suspect is and present their reasons.
Does ambitious teaching work?
While some evidence appears to support the correlation between ambitious teaching and higher achievement test scores, there is very little evidentiary support for such labeled practices primarily because the phrase has varied definitions and researchers often pick and choose among the diverse definitions for this form of teaching. At best, the answer to the question is: “perhaps.” See here and here.
What happened to ambitious teaching?
While less cited in the general literature on teaching, it remains strong within the math and science academic community and occasional groups of practitioners. In surveying the landscape of ambitious teaching, it appears to me that it is far more apparent among university and college teacher educators than rank-and-file district administrators and teachers. So the dream of ambitious teaching lives on but has yet to be widely shared or practiced within U.S. public schools.
A Year Behind the Mask: As This School Year Draws to a Close, Educators Reflect on Teaching without Face Time (Colleen Connolly)
Heather Meier teaches band to students in 6th to 8th grades in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado
Band practice in Heather Meier’s middle school class looked quite a bit different this last year than it did in the past. First of all, she estimates that the class of sixth graders was about half the size it usually is. “There might have been some parents who were like, ‘no, that doesn’t seem like a good idea this year,’” Meier said.
Students and staff in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Firestone, Colorado, had to wear masks at all times while at school — including when they were playing their instruments. Luckily, scientists at the nearby University of Colorado Boulder conducted a study last fall about aerosols and instruments, and their findings helped Meier come up with ways to teach students in person safely.
Flutes could slide through the side of a mask, though it was a lot harder to play that way. For the rest of the wind instrument players, Meier cut small slits into surgical masks — just big enough to fit the instrument through. Bell covers were placed over horns or other openings to prevent COVID from spreading that way.
The safety measures worked out relatively well, but sometimes Meier had to revert back to video, particularly when it came to assessment. “So much of learning a band instrument is being able to see the way your lips and your mouth are shaped to make the instruments work, to make sure they aren’t playing it incorrectly or forming bad habits,” she said.
The school district hasn’t announced whether masks will be required next year, but Meier hopes it will be safe enough to go without — unless kids are feeling sick. Now that they have the bell covers and special masks, she wonders if they should keep them around for occasional use.
“I was in Japan a couple years ago as part of a band thing, and the culture of mask-wearing as a courtesy to others is kind of a nice thing,” she said. “I’d be OK if that stuck around. But I certainly hope that if enough people are vaccinated, and it’s safe to do so, it would be nice to teach band in a way that is more rewarding for the kids.”
Kathryn Vaughn teaches art to pre-K to 5th graders at Brighton Elementary in Covington, Tennessee
One of the only problems Kathryn Vaughn encountered from wearing a mask as an elementary art teacher was that her students couldn’t always hear her. The mask muffled her voice.
But early on in the pandemic, she had an exchange on Twitter with Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter. The two started talking, and Cash ended up sending Vaughn supplies for her classroom, as well as a microphone and headset. Problem solved.
“I look like Britney Spears when I’m teaching, which is amazing,” Vaughn said.
Over the last year, the bigger issue for Vaughn has been the mask policy in her school district in Covington, Tennessee. At the start of the school year last August, all students and staff were required to wear masks. A few months later, they dropped the mandate. By December, cases were climbing rapidly, and it was reinstated. Then two weeks before the school year ended, the district revoked the mask mandate again.
Vaughn, who was vaccinated in January, said she wishes they would have kept the mask mandate the whole year. It would have made her feel safer, and it also would have given some uniformity to the rules for her students. As soon as the mandate was lifted, almost no one wore masks voluntarily in the school, she said.
“The kids were telling other kids, ‘you don’t have to wear that anymore, we’re not doing that,’” Vaughn said. “And I was like, ‘well, you could do that if you want to protect yourself because you’re not vaccinated. Let’s not judge other people’s choices.’”
The day after she received her first vaccine dose, Vaughn found out she was pregnant. She still wears a mask as a precaution and plans to do so at the start of the next school, even though she doesn’t expect the district to go back to requiring it.
“I don’t ever want to teach through a pandemic again, but my major thing was I knew I could keep myself as safe as possible by keeping my mask on and keeping my window open and ventilating my room with air,” she said.
Christina Sarraino teaches students with social and emotional challenges at Lorain High School in Lorain, Ohio,
Before the pandemic, Christina Sarraino was used to running up and down three flights of stairs at Lorain High School several times a day. But what was once moderate exercise between classes became almost “suffocating” in a mask, she said.
“(The mask) really does make a difference, but I don’t want to take it off and make a big deal about it because then they do,” she said, referring to her students.
Sarraino is an intervention specialist who teaches high schoolers with social and emotional challenges. Some of them have intellectual disabilities or autism, too. For Sarraino, one of the hardest parts about teaching in-person this year was enforcing mask use.
“We did have a couple meltdowns because of the face masks to be quite honest,” she said. “We had kids with sensory issues, and the mask irritates that. I would try to explain why we’re doing it: to protect you, to protect your family, to protect our families. Explaining all of that and trying to get to academics and their social and emotional needs, with everything going on, was difficult.”
Sarraino was diligent about keeping her own mask on at all times, but she found she had to make compromises with her students, allowing them breaks without the masks to eat snacks and drink water as long as they were at least six feet apart.
Her district has not made a decision about whether they will require masks next year. In the meantime, Sarraino is encouraging her students to get vaccinated if they are eligible and hoping that the possibility of a mask-free year next year will be an incentive.
“I teach science generally,” Sarraino said, “and we try our best through science to really dispel any of the conspiracy theories that we hear — and we hear quite a few — to try to get the kids to not be afraid of the vaccinations.”
Sharity Keith, 11th and 12th grade teacher, at Boca Ciega High School, St. Petersburg, Florida
After nearly 20 years of teaching, Sharity Keith planned to make a career change last year. But when the pandemic closed everything down, she decided to stay for one more year, teaching reading to 11th and 12th graders who failed Florida’s state assessment and needed to catch up.
Since the beginning of the school year, Keith has simultaneously taught students remotely on video and in-person in the classroom, which essentially doubled her work — to 70 and 80 hours a week at times. Talking so much through a mask every day left her voice permanently hoarse, she said. In the beginning, she was so fearful of catching COVID that she wouldn’t take her mask off at all at school, meaning she didn’t eat or drink water until she got home. Keith said she loves teaching and may come back to it, but this year left her exhausted.
“I wouldn’t say the pandemic is why I’m leaving,” Keith said, “but I think the pandemic has highlighted for me what I already knew, which is that teaching is simply not valued by the community.”
Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, where Keith teaches, required students and staff to wear masks all year. Keith was grateful for that, but the masks added another layer of challenges. Many of her students are English language learners, and the masks made it harder for them to understand each other. Some of them eventually stopped showing up, she said.
Keith also teaches phonics to some students, and she found it difficult to enunciate through her mask and exaggerate the sounds: mmmaaa, bbbbaaa, pppaaa. “For a lot of my kids, it was like, ‘this is embarrassing,’” Keith said. “‘Here I am at the age that I am and this is what we’re doing.’”
Keith did her best to keep up their spirits by making jokes and celebrating when they passed their tests, but motivating them was a constant challenge. Caring for herself was, too. By the end of the year, she was comfortable enough to take her mask off to eat a little bit at school, but her voice is still not back to normal, despite regularly using throat spray to soothe it.
“I don’t think I’m going to talk at all this summer,” she joked.
Yvette Andino is a bilingual school counselor at two public schools in Queens, NY
One of the biggest parts of Yvette Andino’s job as a school counselor in Queens is showing kids what emotions look like as facial expressions. This last year, Andino worked with some students virtually and others in person, where masks were mandatory.
“There are some emotions I couldn’t show with my mask, like anger and sadness or the surprised feeling or shocked feeling,” Andino said. “You kind of form your mouth like an ‘O,’ like ‘oh, shoot’ or ‘oh, man.’ That was really hard for them to learn.”
Andino works primarily with elementary students who speak English and Spanish. Some of them are on the autism spectrum or have speech impairments. For these students, she had to get creative. Working with them in-person, Andino showed videos or drew pictures. If that failed, she stood 12 feet away from them in her office and briefly lowered her mask to show her own facial expression. She tried using a clear face shield in the beginning, but they gave her tension headaches and weren’t as effective as masks at stopping the spread of COVID.
For many of Andino’s students, it took three times as long as it normally would for them to learn how to recognize and understand certain emotions, but they eventually got there, she said.
In New York City public schools, face masks will still be required at the beginning of the next school year, officials have said, but guidelines are changing all the time. If given the choice to wear a mask, Andino is not sure what she would do.
“I would love to live in a world without masks,” she said, “but if it is for safety and it’s an option, I think I would ask the students. Some will straight out tell me they prefer masks or they prefer I show them my facial expression. They’ll tell you if they’re comfortable or not.”
I observed a math classroom at another Summit charter school. Here is what I recorded in my notes.
The Precalculus class began at 10:40 and ended at 12:15. Ethan Edwards is in his third year of teaching at Summit. He was a math major at University of California, Santa Cruz and got his credential to teach at the University of California, Davis before coming to Summit. He, like other Summit teachers who have been at the high school beyond one year float to different classrooms in the building; first-year teachers have one classroom the entire day. So at the beginning of the block 2 class, he and a few students are shoving tables into rows facing the front to get ready for his class. Four tables sitting two students each in three rows accommodated the 24 students who arrived. Like all Summit classrooms, there was an LCD projector and screen at front of room that showed slides as the teacher clicked keys.
The agenda for the day is on the screen.
“* Warm Up Analysis
* Essay Overview
*Independent work time + workshop
*Goal: finish paragraph
Since the class will be visiting University of California, Davis for the next two days, Edwards flashes slides of buildings at Davis that they will see. He asked students to turn in forms for trip later in the day. He explains the housing arrangements–4 students to a room. There were ripples of excitement and nervousness about the trip, especially after he announced that there will be four students to each car in driving to Davis. Students look around, start signaling one another to share same car. Edwards says: “I can feel the tension in the room over who I will be with in car for the trip.” That lowers the murmuring and tension. There were a few questions from students. He reassures students by saying that it is a short car trip to the university. Teacher then segues to lesson.
“I want to talk about how we are going to predict tuition increases through 2020 from the data set I gave you. We will be doing scatter plots and writing different regression equations.” Edwards proceeds to explain the making of regression curves (linear, exponential, and polynominal)–the central point of the lesson–using the white board as he writes down key concepts. He goes over “key features” of such data and equations and how it gets displayed as outliers, intercepts,slope, rate of growth, and residuals. In every instance, he defines them and brings into the explanation particular students who respond to his choral questions (these are questions directed to the entire class and have no student name attached either before or after the question is asked). Students do contribute. Teacher draws on the white board examples of each concept thereby defining the terms for class. He brings the explanation of what students will work on to a close, saying: “So, I just talked a lot about some high level stuff.” He asks, “Are there any questions?” No one asks a question.
Teacher then turns to spread sheet of data on tuition costs for two schools. “So you are going to look at how to use this spreadsheet to come up with functions to predict increases in tuition costs through 2020.” He passes out data set and asks students to pair with partner to go through the data.
Before students open their Chromebooks to look at spreadsheets and begin work, Edwards goes over with whole group, step-by-step, how they are to create a linear regression equation. Does same for exponential and then polynominal equations. During his explanation, he asks choral questions of class to check for understanding. A few students respond to each query. When hearing one or two responses that match the question, he picks up on the answer and continues the explanation. After he finishes going over the three regression equations, he asks: “are there any questions about how to use the data spreadsheet to create these equations?”
No student asks a question.
He returns to explaining where students should input data. He then directs students to open their Chromebooks.
“I am going to give you guys 30 minutes to start to work in pairs on spreadsheet to make proper equations.” He discusses due date for when they will turn in their work.
For next 30 minutes Edwards moves up and down aisles to answer questions, check on what each student is doing, and help individual students who are having trouble with task. At this point I had leave the classroom because of another appointment elsewhere in the school.
How typical are these two lessons of charter school teaching? Reviewing studies of charter school teaching over the years, I do believe they are typical of the range of lessons I have observed. Were there awful lessons (e.g., teacher had little control of the students during the lesson, the content of the lesson was well below what students could achieve, much incoherence in and ill-organization of lesson)? Not at all. I did see a few such lessons but overall, the level of competent teaching I observed was about the same as I have observed in regular public school classrooms. Keep in mind, however, that charter school teachers have a much larger band of autonomy in which to author and implement lessons in their classrooms. That increased discretion available to charter school teachers surely appeared in some instances but, overall, given my limited observations, less than I would have predicted.
What evidence there is beyond my observations says that with even more teacher autonomy and flexibility in charter schools there is little difference between their classroom practices and peers in public schools. Researchers who examined studies of pedagogy across charter and non-charter schools concluded that:
as charter schools implement innovations in governance, management, and other organizational practices, charter schools are embracing curricular and instructional approaches already in use (original italics)in other public schools that are considered as traditional ‘basic’ approaches to instruction (Goldring-Cravens_2006).
Such findings leave holes in the ambitious theory embedded in charter schools. Like their counterparts in regular public schools, charter school teachers mainly use teacher-centered classroom practices such as lectures, scripted lessons, textbooks, worksheets, homework, question/answer/evaluation exchanges seasoned by certain student-centered practices such as small group work, student discussions, project-based learning, internships, and independent learning.
Keep in mind that when I use the phrase “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” instruction I do not infer that such teaching practices are either appropriate or inappropriate, effective or ineffective. I am reporting what many researchers, including myself, have documented in classrooms.
When one looks at Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) where all 109 elementary and secondary schools in 20 states serving over 30,000 students are charters, teaching approaches are unmistakably teacher-centered. KIPP is not, of course, representative of all charter schools in its teaching practices. Aspire, Green Dot, and other charter management organizations have schools in their networks where teaching practices vary considerably but still work within the tradition of teacher-centeredness.
Note that these elementary and secondary school charters are geared to preparing children and youth for college. That is their unvarnished mission. College prep begins early in these charter elementary and secondary schools; frontal teaching, direct instruction, extended day, and no-nonsense approaches to student behavior are the norm. So any variation among teachers in different networks of charter schools falls within a narrow band of teacher-centered practices—again when I use that phrase I do not suggest that such practices are neither appropriate nor inappropriate, neither effective nor ineffective.
Until more evidence comes from direct observation of lessons in charter schools, teaching practices in charters and public schools appear more similar than different. To the degree that teaching practices shape student achievement, such results throw doubt upon the effects charter schools have upon students.
Charter schools are three decades old. Advocates for wider parental choice of schools lobbied state legislatures and local school boards to authorize a different way to organize a tax-supported, independent public school with its own school board and a charter that included the freedom to create innovative organization, curriculum, and instruction. Accountable to its independent board, charter schools have enormous latitude in what they can do insofar as school culture, organization, curriculum, and classroom lessons. This flexibility and the charter mandate to innovate, advocates claimed, would create constructive competition with regular public schools. Having charter schools, then, would lead to a general uplifting of performance for both types of schools. That was the heralded promise of charter schools thirty years ago.
Beginning in the early 1990s, state after state began authorizing charter schools and charter management organizations that operated clusters of schools. By 2020, nearly thirty years later, there were 7500 charter schools with over 200,000 teachers teaching 3.3 million students. Charter schools have become established institutions mostly in urban districts (58 percent) and have slowly expanded into suburbs and rural districts.
What has become obvious in this 30-year history is that charter elementary and secondary schools have far greater flexibility than regular district schools in altering what happens in classrooms and buildings (think of charter school organizations that have built unique school cultures such as: KIPP, Aspire). Yet even with that mandate, separate governance, and the charge to innovate most charter schools have replicated the traditional age-graded organization. Ditto for the curriculum since accreditation–a must for any newly organized school–requires abiding with state curriculum standards and skills that must be taught (see here and here)
Does that replication of regular school organization and curriculum extend to the classroom? Does teaching in a charter school with its separate governance and flexibility harnessed to a mission to innovate, differ at all from teaching in a non-charter school? This post offers an (but not the) answer to that question.
I have observed dozens of charter school classrooms over the past decade. I have seen both extraordinary, ordinary, and yes, a few disastrous lessons. While I can not vouch for what students learned in the lessons I have observed, I surely have seen some charter school teachers give their all.
Consider Kate Goddard who teaches world history at one the Summit Charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The young, slim teacher stands on the chair in the middle of the classroom to be heard above ninth grade students clustered in the four corners of the portable classroom. The students are chattering about the reasons they agree or disagree with the statement Katie Goddard, the teacher, put on the “smart board.” The statement students considered–“There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery”– drove them to different corners labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” The teacher asks students in each corner why they agree or disagree with statement. After a few students give their reasons, some classmates change their minds and migrate to different corners making the classroom a swirl of movement. This activity occurred in the middle of a 95 minute block in World Studies where Goddard was introducing a new unit on Imperialism.
Goddard had begun the 95-minute class with a Warm Up question: “Should the U.S. pay reparations to black Americans whose families have been slaves?” and, after telling them to put away their cells and Chromebooks, gave them two short op-ed pieces on opposite sides of the question. One op ed argued that who should pay and who should receive reparations for enslaving Africans were contested and confused. The other op ed argued that the British should pay reparations to Kenyans for what they did in colonizing that African nation.
She asks the 24 ninth graders to “read and chunk the text” for each opinion piece. She reminded the class to read each paragraph and write a one-line summary of each paragraph and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the op ed. As students write in their notebooks, Goddard, holding a clipboard, walks around the classroom of 13 tables, each seating two students facing the “smart board,” answering questions and checking to see what students are writing. Goddard asks students to hold up fingers indicating how much more time they want to finish task. Some hold up one, others two and three. For those who had finished she offers two options for them to do.
She then asks students to share with partner their summaries and opinions. As students start talking to one another, Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember in working together you need to turn to your partner, move your body to face one another and listen carefully to what your partner says.” Students resume talking.
When she sees that nearly all students have completed the task, she asks students for their summaries of the two articles and which one they agree/disagree with most. Students are initially reluctant to commit to a position but as a few offer their opinions, Goddard teases out the reasons embedded in arguments for and against reparations. And this is the moment when the teacher asked all the students to take a position on the statement and go to a corner of the room: “There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery.”
This Warm Up and debate about reparations were initial activities in the lesson introducing Imperialism. By starting with the contentious contemporary question of reparations for slavery, Goddard would move to instances of European countries colonizing the Congo in Africa and India in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and consider the human costs of taking over these countries.
The agenda for the day, written on the white board, listed the sequence of topics for the hour-and-a-half session:
- Slavery op eds
- Imperialism op eds
- Exit ticket
After the Warm Up and during the four-corner debate, Goddard gets deeper into the reparations question by introducing statements such as: “slavery ended a hundred years ago so the U.S. government should not pay any money to African Americans now.” One student points out that the U.S. government has already paid reparations when they gave sums of money to Japanese Americans for being in internment camps during World War II. Another points out that the money went to those who were still alive. Voices are raised and tone becomes adversarial among students agreeing and disagreeing. Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember our norms. The second your tone becomes combative, you don’t listen. Our goal is to listen to one another.” After more restrained back-and-forth in which the teacher specifically calls on students who have heretofore not entered the discussion, Goddard asks class if they want to shift corners.
About one-third of the students move to another corner.
Teacher now asks students to return to their tables and turn to the next question: When are reparations necessary? She asks class to open Chromebooks and come up with criteria to answer the question. She reminds class that there is no correct answer, that you have different opinions but you need examples and facts to support your opinion. Goddard moves around the room asking and answering questions at each table.
After about 10 minutes, Goddard asks students to put lids of laptops down and says that “we are going to study Imperialism and you are going to write an op-ed by the end of the unit. “The question you will answer,” she says, is “do former imperializing countries have a responsibility to give foreign aid to the countries they imperialized?” She links the earlier discussion of reparations to Imperialism and then previews the next 12 lessons on the “smart board,” going over each one briefly. She then puts up a slide that defines Imperialism as “the process of taking over another country through diplomacy or military force.” Goddard asks students to come up with their definition of imperialism by using the Playlist of sources (documents and videos)–she gives the class the link–that she assembled for them on the Congo, India, and other colonized countries. In coming up with their definitions, she urges students to talk to their partner. After pairs have come up with their definitions from Playlist, she then asks them to brainstorm what they would need to know about imperialism to determine if reparations are necessary.*
With clipboard in hand, teacher moves through the classroom checking to see which students are unclear about the task or having difficulties in answering questions.
As time winds down to end the class, Goddard summarizes what they have done, connecting discussions on reparations to new unit of Imperialism.
The criteria I use in judging the quality of a lesson are: clear and coherent organization, mixed activities, level of student participation, frequent verbal interaction between teacher and students and among students, and finally, a summary of the lesson.*
In my opinion, Goddard’s lesson met these criteria fully. As I left this charter school World History lesson , I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw and experienced. Was Goddard typical or atypical of charter school teachers I observed in the Summit network of schools?
The next post looks at another charter school lesson that I observed.
*One criterion missing is what students learned. I had no observable way of determining whether students learned what the teacher wanted in that lesson.
Lelac Almagor (@MsAlmagor) is in her 18th year of classroom teaching; she teaches fourth grade at a public charter school in Washington, D.C. This essay appeared in the New York Times, June 16, 2021.
Our prepandemic public school system was imperfect, surely, clumsy and test-crazed and plagued with inequities. But it was also a little miraculous: a place where children from different backgrounds could stow their backpacks in adjacent cubbies, sit in a circle and learn in community.
At the diverse Washington, D.C., public charter school where I teach, and which my 6-year-old attends, the whole point was that our families chose to do it together — knowing that it meant we would be grappling with our differences and biases well before our children could tie their own shoes.
Then Covid hit, and overnight these school communities fragmented and segregated. The wealthiest parents snapped up teachers for “microschools,” reviving the Victorian custom of hiring a governess and a music master. Others left for private school without a backward glance.
Some middle-class parents who could work remotely toughed it out at home, checking in on school between their own virtual meetings. Those with younger kids or in-person jobs scraped together education and child care — an outdoor play pod or a camp counselor to supervise hours of Zoom classes. With schools closed, the health risks and child care hours didn’t disappear. They simply shifted from well-educated, unionized, tax-funded professional teachers to hourly-wage, no-benefit workers serving only those who could afford to pay.
The families with the fewest resources were left with nothing. No child care, only the pallid virtual editions of essential services like occupational or speech therapy.
If they could work out the logistics, their kids got a couple of hours a day of Zoom school. If they couldn’t, they got attendance warnings. In my fourth-grade class, I had students calling in from the car while their mom delivered groceries, or from the toddler room of their mom’s busy day care center.
Home alone with younger siblings or cousins, kids struggled to focus while bouncing a fussy toddler or getting whacked repeatedly on the head with a foam sword. Others lay in bed and played video games or watched TV. Many times each day, I carefully repeated the instructions for a floundering student, only to have them reply, helplessly, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” their audio squealing and video freezing as they spoke.
Even under optimal conditions, virtual school meant flattening the collaborative magic of the classroom into little more than an instructional video. Stripped of classroom discussion, human connection, art materials, classroom libraries, time and space to play, virtual school was not school; it was busywork obscuring the “rubber-rooming” of the entire school system.
Some educators sneered that the parents who complained just wanted free babysitting. But I’m not ashamed to say that child care is at the heart of the work I do. I teach children reading and writing, yes, but I also watch over them, remind them to be kind and stay safe, plan games and activities to help them grow. Children deserve attentive care. That’s the core of our commitment to them.
I am still bewildered and horrified that our society walked away from this responsibility, that we called school inessential and left each family to fend for itself. Meanwhile nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers all went to work in person — most of my students’ parents went to work in person — not because it was safe but because their work is essential. Spare me your “the kids are all right” Facebook memes. Some children may have learned to do laundry or enjoy nature during the pandemic. Many others suffered trauma and disconnection that will take years to repair.
I don’t know the first thing about public health. I won’t venture an opinion on what impact the school closures had on controlling the spread of Covid. What I do know is that the private schools in our city quickly got to work upgrading HVAC systems, putting up tents, cutting class sizes and rearranging schedules so that they could reopen in relative safety. Public schools in other states and countries did the same.
More of our public school systems should have likewise moved mountains — repurposed buildings, reassigned staff, redesigned programming, reallocated funding — to offer consistent public schooling, as safely as possible, to all children.
Instead we opened restaurants and gyms and bars while kids stayed home, or got complicated hybrid schedules that many parents turned down because they offered even less stability than virtual school. Even now, with vaccinations rising and case rates dropping, some families remain reluctant to send their kids back to us in the fall. I can’t help thinking that’s because we broke their trust.
Does virtual learning work for some kids, in some circumstances? Sure. So does home-schooling, or not attending school at all. But I am profoundly relieved that most districts, including my own, plan to shut down or restrict the online option.
I hope this means that we are renewing our collective commitment to true public education. Just as before, we will have to fight to make our schools safer, more equitable and more flexible. Just as before, coming together will be messy and complicated. Children, families and teachers will all need time to rebuild relationships with our institutions.
But we’ll be back together, in the same building, eating the same food. We’ll find that the friend who helps us in the morning might need our help in the afternoon. We’ll have soccer arguments at recess and patch them up in closing circle. We’ll sing songs, tell stories, plant seeds and watch them grow. That’s schooling in real life. That’s what public school is for.
Like cursive writing, the formal teaching of grammar was a mainstay in elementary school language arts and secondary school English programs since the founding of tax-supported public schools in the early 19th century. The history of teaching grammar rules and how students should talk and write go back to ancient Greece and Rome and subsequent centuries in Europe and, of course, the 13 colonies under British rule in the 17th and 18th centuries.
While many school districts in the U.S. have teachers who continue to teach grammar and syntax in connection with writing, especially in those districts committed to following Common Core curriculum standards, grammar instruction, especially memorizing rules and diagramming sentences, has faded from classroom lessons over the past half-century. How come?
This post provides a partial answer to that question.
When did grammar instruction in public schools begin?
Even before the colonies shed British rule, grammar instruction was a staple of private academies and the earliest “public” schools in the 17th and 18th centuries. After the Revolutionary War, schools relied upon grammar instruction as a key part of the school curriculum. One survey, for example, of texts used in New York state schools in 1804 showed:
13 spelling, 28 reading, 16 grammar, and one composition textbook were being used in the state’s schools. By 1832, there were 45 spelling, 102 reading, 48 grammar, and five composition textbooks in use. Of these, five spellers, ten readers, and three grammars were thought to be in general use by significant numbers of teachers…
What problems does grammar instruction seek to solve?
For centuries there have been rules for how children and adults should speak and write. Speaking and writing incorrectly, that is, breaking the formal rules, were signs of poor child rearing and inadequate education. Acquiring the knowledge and skills of appropriate speaking and writing became a mark of both a superior education and social class standing. It was the job of public school teachers to teach the young standard ways of speaking and writing as solutions to inexorable changes in the labor market, culture, and society. Language was always a social marker and getting labeled as speaking and writing improperly was for many Americans in the late-19th through the 20th century, a stigma. Knowing and using mainstream grammar rules helped many move up the socioeconomic ladder.
What does grammar instruction in elementary and secondary schools look like?
One teacher uses a pizza design to get at parts of speech for seventh and eighth graders:
For those schools implementing Common Core curriculum standards, there is emphasis on writing, say, narrative, argumentative, and information essays. Then there is familiar kinds of grammar rules lodged within these standards. Here is a sampling of ninth grade standards for grammar instruction:
Conventions of Standard English:
Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
Use parallel structure.*
Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.…
Knowledge of Language:
Write and edit work so that it conforms to the guidelines in a style manual (e.g., MLA Handbook, Turabian’s Manual for Writers) appropriate for the discipline and writing type….
Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:
Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9-10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).
Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, or its etymology….
Interpret figures of speech (e.g., euphemism, oxymoron) in context and analyze their role in the text.
Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.
Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.
A brief look at the elementary school worksheets teachers used to teach grammar suggest the thrust of grammar instruction during these decades.
Does grammar instruction work?
While grammar continued to be taught formally in elementary and secondary schools, scholars and professional organizations often published studies and statements that made clear how teaching grammar in of itself had little to no effect on students’ use of language and writing.
See, for example, the 1963 statement of the National Councilof English Teachers:
In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing (p. 37).
In 1984, George Hillocks published a meta-analsis of studies on the teaching of grammar. He concluded:
The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing.
Nonetheless, with the inclusion of grammar in the English Core Curriculum standards since 2010, instruction in the rule driven content, downsized and harnessed to improved writing, continues.
To what extent does grammar instruction continue in U.S. schools?
The isolated teaching of grammar rules for writing and speaking has declined greatly (e.g., diagramming sentences).
But the integrating of grammar into writing in elementary school lessons in language arts and secondary school English classes continues, spurred by the Common Core curriculum standards and the huge amount of research findings on the futility of teaching grammar rules divorced from writing.
I wanted to close this post with a survey of teachers who continue to incorporate grammar into their lessons but I have yet to find any recent poll of U.S. teachers and the degree to which they teach grammar.
If any readers know of such surveys of teaching practices in elementary and secondary classrooms, please contact me.
This series of post examined the remarkable stability over time of certain teaching practices that I have labeled, teacher-directed instruction. What I offer is an explanation, not a verifiable fact, about this dominant pattern of classroom teaching in public schools over the past century. I ended the previous post with a question:
Do these schools and teaching practices, shaped as they are politically, culturally, and educationally, meet the needs of the larger society which initially established and have continually supported tax-supported public schools?
No surprise that my answer is yes. After all, since the beginning of tax-supported public schools in the early decades of the 19th century, taxpayers and voters (once only white males but in 2021 inclusive of anyone meeting the age requirement), public schools, criticized as they have been decade after decade, nonetheless remain a prized community institution in rural, suburban, and urban America. In this post, I want to elaborate why I answer ” yes” to the question. I lean heavily upon the work of historians of education, David Tyack and David Labaree.
What David Tyack called the “Grammar of Schooling,” that is, the combination of the age-graded school organization shaping both teacher and student behavior and what the larger society expects of its public schools–a point that David Labaree stresses–explains the long-term practices of teacher-directed classrooms–which can also be called the “grammar of instruction.”
I want to unpack the above sentences.
Because it is taken-for-granted, as common as the air we breathe and seemingly as essential to schooling Americans as solid sleeping is to decent health, few reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, donors, researchers, and parents challenge the age-graded school organization and its daily grammar of instruction including teacher-directed instruction. Let me explain.
Since the late 19th century, the age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) has become the mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers, voters, and readers of this blog have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma. In proceeding through their student careers, Americans experienced teacher-directed instruction as the way to teach lessons.
If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a “success” it is the age-graded school and its grammar of instruction. In providing access to all children and youth, longevity as a reform, and global pervasiveness, the age-graded school is a stellar success.
Think about its longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Within a half-century, it had begun to replace one-room schoolhouses in urban and rural schools.
Or consider access. Between 1850-1913, over 30 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic and settled in the U.S. The age-graded school and its underlying grammar of instruction have not only enrolled millions of students over the past century and a half, assimilating immigrants into Americans, sorting out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduating over eighty percent of those entering high school, but also been the accepted way that a school must be.
Why have most U.S. school reformers, donors, and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization and its enduring ways of teaching generation after generation that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children or one-sixth of all Americans in the early 21st century? Surely, habit and tradition play a part in the longevity of the age-graded school and its accompanying teacher-directed instruction. The lack of recognizable and durable alternatives that have been around sufficiently long to compete with the prevailing model is another reason for its spectacular stability.
What is too often ignored in explaining the durability of the embedded grammar of schooling in the age-graded organization, however, is the widely shared social beliefs among parents, educators, and taxpayers about what a “real” school is. After all, nearly all U.S. adults—save for the tiny number who are home schooled—have attended both public and private age-graded schools. Learning how and when to take turns, listening to the teacher, following the prescribed curriculum, reading textbooks, doing homework, taking tests–all of that abides within the grammar of schooling. Adding, subtracting, and multiplication are learned in primary grades, the nation’s history in 4th, 5th , 8th , and 11th grades is what a school is and does. Teacher-directed instruction and age-graded schools are American as apple pie and the Thanksgiving holiday.
This scaffolding of tradition–nearly two centuries of age-graded schools–powerful social beliefs among policymakers and parents about what “real schools” should be, and multiple public and private goals for tax-supported schools combine to make the “grammar of schools” and its teacher-directed instruction seemingly invulnerable to alternative ways of organizing schools and teaching lessons.
Consider the spread of charter schools in cities (e.g., New Orleans, 93 percent of schools; Detroit, 55 percent; Washington, D.C., 46 percent), where charter advocates are free to organize the school, governance, curriculum, and instruction, nearly all are age-graded (see here for one exception).
The grammar of schooling with its teacher-directed instruction as the norm, then, is historical, ubiquitous, and thoroughly accepted by Americans as the primary way of schooling children since the late-19th century. It does (and did) meet two essential requirements of the U,S, system of schooling. First, the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling achieved the social aims of tax-supported schools, that is, fulfilling American ideals of individual liberty, equality and merit) and, second, providing a practical and efficient way of moving millions of students through a system that supports the larger economy by signaling which students in school can go on to higher education and which enter the job market upon graduation (see here and here).
So this is why I believe that U.S. age-graded schools, their grammar of schooling including teacher-directed instruction, shaped as both are (and have been) historically, politically, culturally, and educationally, have met (and continue to do so) the needs of the larger society on being legitimate and eminently practical in achieving American social aims. And that, to me, explains the extraordinary stability of teacher-directed instruction.