Category Archives: how teachers teach

Cartoons on University Teaching

In looking for cartoons that caricature professors, research, and teaching–viewers of this blog have all seen up close professors teach–I found a few that got me to chuckle. Perhaps they will get you to grin. Enjoy!






Philosophy class door is next to window: 'Lost and Profound'









"They said he had to post his office hours, but they didn't say where."









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Why Ditching Textbooks Would Be To the Detriment of Learning (Tim Oates)

Tim Oates CBE (A royal award called Commander of the British Empire for service to education) is group director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment. On 28 April, he launched the ‘Cambridge Approach to Textbooks’ at a seminar in London. This op-ed appeared April 18, 2016.

Last year, Richard Culatta – an adviser to President Obama at the time – stated that textbooks should be scrapped in England in the next five years. His comments were echoed by the new master of Wellington College, Julian Thomas, who said in TES that “a textbook is not dynamic at all” (4 September 2015).

This all sounds very credible and up-to-date, except that it is blind to the evidence from a whole range of sources.

Not least of those is from the heart of the IT industry itself: Abigail Sellen, of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, has stated that “the implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realised”.

This leads us straight to important evidence from educational research, focused on the psychology of perception. This research tells us that recall and comprehension differ when reading from paper compared with on-screen, with comprehension in particular still significantly superior when pupils are reading from paper materials. Consistent with this, pupils are accessing more materials online at university but retaining less information.

The case for print

Digging into the research in detail throws up some very interesting issues:

  • Research on visual perception and cognitive loading suggests that screen flicker, scrolling and navigation all load up the brain so that comprehension suffers;
  • Navigation in a book is straightforward; pupils can look back at old material and forward to new with great ease. Not so on the sprawling websites which aim to replace books;
  • An evaluation in Singapore led to new electronic versions of very well-designed paper textbooks being abandoned after they failed to deliver the same learning processes and outcomes;
  • The tactile and physical experience of reading a book can embed memories of the content more securely;
  • And in terms of focusing attention, textbooks do not wait to receive that next email or tweet.

We currently think that there are a set of interacting factors and processes that reduce the enduring learning gained from digital materials, not least a view of “…I can always look it up again”. With this attitude, reading a digital source becomes a passing experience rather than a learning experience.

Research around the world on well-designed textbooks shows that they are used flexibly by teachers – they are not the straitjacket implied by Culatta’s analysis. Shanghai textbooks are built from the very best lessons on specific topics – they are then available to all teachers.

And Culatta’s view neglects the key role that exquisitely designed paper textbooks have had during periods of impressive reform of education systems in settings as diverse as Shanghai, Massachusetts and Finland.

Of course, well-designed digital resources can do things that paper materials cannot – such as simulations. But it’s contrary to the evidence to adopt a naive position that “all paper is wrong and all digital is perfect”. Using the strengths of each is apparent in some of the latest generation of textbooks in England; those informed by international comparisons of the best around the world.

We ignore the research at our peril; let’s move forward through science, not misleading rhetoric.


For a teacher’s reasons why he “ditched his textbook” listen to Vickie Davis (Cool Cat Teacher Blog) interview (six minutes long) Matt Miller, an Indiana high school  Spanish teacher. Although Oates is very clear about the strong advantages for well-designed texts, he does point out it is not an either-or-choice.  Matt Miller underscores his flexible use of texts combined with online and other classroom resources. I note that most of the teachers I have observed over the past three decade do use texts selectively, that is, a classroom set is available for reference for reading particular pages, answering certain questions, etc.


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Teachers Integrating Technology: Fifth Graders at Sequoia School

Mona Ricard is a fifth grade teacher at Sequoia Elementary. Selected as the 2012 teacher-of-the-year for the district, she is the go-to person for new iPad, Chromebook, and laptop apps. Ricard has pulled together an eclectic collection of laptops and desktops and tablets from various sources in and out of school. Patricia Dickenson* and I observed a lesson using an app called “Book Creator” so that these 11 year-olds could create an iBook and later in semester, use those skills, to produce a State Report that each one had chosen to research, write, and present to the class.

Sequoia Elementary is part of the Mount Diablo Unified School District. David Franklin, an experienced principal has been at the school for five years having previously served in the Alum Rock district as an administrator. He told me that he is excited about the uses of technology in the school and has been supportive of those teachers who wish to plow ahead and use tablets and laptops. He has a “Mouse Squad” of fourth and fifth graders (boys and girls) who trouble shoot software glitches and simple hardware problems. On his desk he had a book on Minecraft and when I asked him about it, he said that this is an initiative that fifth graders are doing and he got interested; one of those fifth graders knew of his interest and had brought in the book.

A kindergarten-to fifth grade school, Sequoia was a back-to-basics alternative in the late-1970s. District parents who wanted more traditional academics for their sons and daughters sent their children to Sequoia. Over the decades, it remains an alternative–half of its students now come from across the district and half from the immediate neighborhood. As principals and teachers entered and exited, however, Sequoia has slowly moved to incorporating a full range of school and teaching activities from homework-texts-tests to project-based learning. Under Franklin, who has hired many of the current teachers over his tenure at the school, there has been an increase in student-centered learning and more computer devices and software garnered from multiple sources. Individual teachers, some of whom are entrepreneurial in gathering devices also have access to carts of tablets and two computer labs. The school, according to its 2015 Report Card, has about 550 students of whom 48 percent are white, nearly 22 percent are Asian, and 20 percent are Latino. About 12 percent are English Language Learners and about the same percentage are eligible for free and reduced price lunch (a poverty measure). Just under five percent are identified as disabled.

The lesson began after recess at 10:30. The room has desks clustered in groups of four with laptops, desktops, and an interactive white board on one wall. A schedule of assignments, tasks to do each day adorn one wall.

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Mona Ricard directs the 32 students to get their iPads from a cart in the corner of the room. After students return to their tables, Ricard says to class that in this lesson “we are working on a “Book Creator” app to practice creating a book for our social studies unit that we have been working on (see photo of calendar for “State Report”). For this morning, I want you to go through the Book Creator Tutorial independently for the next 10 minutes to learn how to create an iBook/e-pub.” Students go to “Book Creator” in their apps and began going through tutorial as Ricard, holding her iPad, walks around the room responding to questions.

One student asks” “Can I access Google drive to get my work for Book Creator?” Teacher replies: “Log into Google drive.” She walks around with iPad in hand offering help when students are stuck.

Another student asks, “What if we are done with tutorial?” Teacher replies: “you can create a few slides about an animal you can tell me about it, what it does, and include some photos.”

Another student: “Can I work on my report at home?” Ricard responds: “Of course, you can but since I give you lots of class time I would like you to spend the time in class working on it.

One student blurts out: “We can make a comic book! ” Some students say “YES.”

Yet another student asks: “How do we make a cover?” Teacher stops class and shows how to make a cover by using her iPad display and then flashes the display onto the interactive white board.

Then teacher then excitedly says: “Ooh! I am going to put a photo on my cover.” She goes to the back of the room where a stuffed alligator about five feet long rests under a table. It is the class mascot and students call it “Allie.” She takes a photo of it, uploads the photo immediately to her cover that is now displayed on the interactive white board and then types in a title.

One student asks: “I have a story on my flash drive on my computer at home, can I put it on my iPad?” Ricard says “yes, you can do it by uploading it to your Google drive.”

More than 20 minutes have passed. In scanning the room, we see that every one is in groups and engaged in making their practice book. Some are doing Internet searches for photos of animals and backgrounds that would fit their choice, and reading articles about their animal. Students move about freely helping one another, showing each other what their photos and text looks like. Teacher continues walking around helping students and responding to their questions, often adding comments of praise and encouragement. Also four of the students–three boys and one girl–are the class’s “Mouse Squad” circulating in the room to help students with questions as well and assist with the cover.

About 10 minutes later before students return iPads to the cart which is scheduled for another teacher who had signed up for it, Ricard says: “1-2-3 all eyes on me.” Most students stop what they are doing and repeat chant. Then teacher tells class how to save their practice report on animals. The interactive white board displays the actions students have to take to “save” their report. As she does this, some students who already know how to save their report are showing classmates photos on their covers while other students continue writing text for their report.

One of the observers hears a student talking to table-mate, “What are you doing yours on?” Student replies: “I am talking about giraffes.” she shows class-mate her iPad. Then she asks, “Can I see yours?” The class-mate shows  her cover with a picture of Justin Beiber (a young singer favored by the pre-teen and teen age groups) next  to a Pug dog. She moves through slides showing the fifth grader who asked question and pauses over one with the title: “Pugs can have style like Justin Beiber.”

At this point the lesson is drawing to a close, and Ricard says “1-2-3 eyes on me.” She gets the class’s attention and then she asks the entire class to stand up–they will be moving to another teacher’s room shortly. They do. She asks every student to line up and return the iPads. It is now 11:15 and she then directs students to do “silent reading.” She tells students that later in day, they will get the cart of iPads back and they can continue working on their practice report on animals. It is the end of the lesson and Dickenson and I thank Ricard and leave.


*Dickenson (@teacherpreptech) is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at National University in San Jose. After reading my blog on integration of technology, a subject she is very interested in and has included in her university courses, Dickenson got in touch with me. She has extensive contacts with teachers and principals through her university courses and teacher workshops in the Bay Area. She proposed that we work together in observing schools and classrooms. She set up this visit to Sequoia with principal David Franklin. For this post, she and I combined our notes and I drafted the post. I sent a draft to Ricard and Dickenson to check for errors and each returned it. Because Dickenson and I combined our notes and she went over the draft. This is a co-authored post.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Teachers Integrating Technology: Second Grade and iPads at Montclaire Elementary School

Jennifer Auten teaches second graders at Montclaire Elementary School in the Cupertino (CA) district.* She has been teaching at the school for 13 years. She teaches in a portable classroom. When asked does she like working in a self-contained classroom removed from the main buildings, she said she finds it helpful and time efficient that her seven year-olds can use the bathroom, sink, and other amenities in the portable without traipsing across 50 yards of playground to the school’s bathrooms and water. Here in the portable, Auten has had her second graders using iPads throughout the school day. In 2010, she was one of a small group of teachers who volunteered to pilot iPads in their classrooms. She has used them ever since and now has enough devices for each student to have one.

I heard of Auten from a reader of this blog who introduced us to one another via email.** I observed her 90 minute class on April 19, 2016. The carpeted portable was festooned with student work, wall charts, guidelines for students to follow in different activities, mobiles hanging from ceiling and tables for 2-4 students arranged around the room in no particular pattern.

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Twenty students enter the portable at 8:30 and immediately pick up iPads from a corner of room (there are also earphones for students to use nearby). They open the devices, go to Socrative app where they indicate their presence for the day and choose a regular or vegetarian lunch, permitting Auten to move ahead with the lesson without stopping the class to take attendance or ask about lunch choices.

Auten calls the class to order and flashes on white board a YouTube video that shows teenagers stretching, dancing, and singing. The seven year-olds are familiar with the routine; they cluster in the center of the room and jump up and down in time with the teenagers on the video. For the next 10 minutes there are additional videos of singing and stretching that the second graders copy. When I asked Auten whether this was a warm-up for the lesson, she pointed out that the state requires so many minutes of time in physical education and while she does take students outside to exercise 30 minutes, three times a week, she also uses  videos from Go Noodle–in the morning to get her second graders moving.

After the videos, she gathers the class on the carpet in front of her and she goes over what they will do in the morning. They will write a “research paragraph” that contains three important details. Carrying her laptop in one hand, she projects slides on a white board (she uses Apple TV and a ceiling mounted projector to throw image of her laptop screen on the white board).  She shows a sample paragraph on plants that the students can read–she told me that all her second graders can read. She reads the paragraph aloud and points out that it contains description of seeds, roots, stems. She wants students to work together and write a practice paragraph on a topic they choose from an online folder called “student project choice”. Each pair or trio of students will choose the topic they want to research–dinosaurs, bicycles, planes, etc.  Later in the day, she continues, each group will present that paragraph (with text and photos) to the rest of the class. She asks class “I am looking for a presentation that that has how many details?” Most of the students hold up three fingers to show her how many details they need to include. She then turns to the rubric students will use to determine the quality of the paragraph. She flashes it on screen and goes over each part, asking whether students understand and to show whether they do or not with a thumbs up or thumbs down. Most of the students comply with hand signals. Auten goes over each part of the rubric.

Teacher then shifts to topics in the different folders on their iPads–which pairs and trios will choose–the items to read and videos to watch in order to create their presentations. She then summarizes tasks for the class: research the topic, read materials using apps, take notes, prepare presentation, and check the rubric before they turn it in. Auten then goes over the apps students will be using to research their topic (e.g., Epic !,  Zaption, etc. ), pointing out which ones work well and, after a few students identify other apps, the teacher points out which ones might cause a crash. She asks if there any questions and three students ask about different apps and what to do if the program crashes. She answers their questions and points out that if students load too many visuals using Seesaw, the program may crash. To an observer, it is clear that this class has done other reports before. When I asked the teacher, she said they had been assigned an animal and are still working on that report (see photo).

She then asks students whether they want to choose a topic first or choose partners first. Auten lets student decide by asking them to hold up one finger for choosing topic first or two fingers for partners first. Most students want to choose partners first. They do. I scan the group and see that boys chose boys and girls chose girls. The children scatter to different tables and discuss which topics they will research and create a presentation. Students walk around holding their iPad and discuss with classmates what they have chosen and what they are taking notes on.

For the rest of the period, students work in small groups and pairs. No one works individually. Auten moves from table to table answering questions, inquiring about topic second graders chose, and asking about readings students had finished in their iPad, notes they have taken. Some students come to two baskets sitting on a ledge that hold note cards and pencils. Three boys are sitting on carpet as they read and take notes. When I scan the class I do not see one second grader off-task or disengaged

Auten raises her arm and quiet descends on class as students raise their arms in reply–another signal that students have been socialized to follow. She praises students for how well they have been working on project and reminds them that they have 25 minutes left to work on the projects before morning recess. Groups return to work.  I walk around and ask different groups what they are working on–planes, dinosaurs (three trios), bicycles. I asked one seven year old in another group what a rubric was. She explained to me that the rubric tells her whether she has done all parts of the report and what she has to do on each part of the presentation to get a high grade on the report. Teacher continues to check in with different groups at tables.

Chimes toll for recess. Students line up with balls and other equipment they use during recess. Auten opens door and leads them out. I thank Jennifer Auten for inviting me to observe and leave.







*Montclaire is in the Cupertino School District.  The school has just over 500 students. Of the school enrollment, 46 percent is white, 38 percent Asian, 5 percent are Latino, and the rest are distributed among multiracial, African American, Filipino, etc. Those categorized as poor (i.e., free and reduced price lunch) are just over two percent of the school. According to Auten, many of the parents work for Google and Apple.

The district has a policy of 2 students per computer. They also provide a tech support person on site. For Auten, however, to get to one iPad for each student she became entrepreneurial. She got 12 from the district, applied for a grant to get a few more, parents contributed devices, and she corresponded with a University of Michigan professor who acquired the rest through a program he was affiliated with.

**Anita Lin, a former science teacher, who works for a local foundation contacted me after reading about my project examining exemplars of teachers, schools, and districts integrating new technologies into daily activities. She had observed Auten teach and asked if I were interested in seeing this classroom. I said I was and introductions were made. Auten invited me to visit her classroom.












































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Teachers Integrating Technology: First Graders at Sequoia Elementary School

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Six year-olds get excited about almost any activity. In a first grade classroom, energetic, enthusiastic boys and girls would say “whoopee!” over a math worksheet and so it was in Leslie Altman’s group of 27 young children working with an interactive white board (IWB). Altman, an experienced teacher of over fifteen years has been at Sequoia Elementary School for the past three. She did a series of activities over a 45-minute period that largely used the (IWB) screening Scholastic News’  “Rain Doesn’t Bug This Ant,” and a few competitive games in which students from each team came to IWB, one-by-one, and tapped the answer to get points for their team.

Sequoia Elementary is part of the Mount Diablo Unified School District in Northern California. David Franklin, an experienced principal has been at the school for five years having previously served in the Alum Rock district as an administrator. Dr. Franklin, an active twitter user (@SFPrincipal) is enthusiastic about technology in school and supportive of teachers who want to use devices with their students. He has a “Mouse Squad” of fourth and fifth graders (boys and girls) who troubleshoot software glitches and simple hardware problems for teachers and students. One of the new initiatives in the upper grades is about the game Minecraft. I noted that a book about the game was on Franklin’s desk and he told me that a fifth grader had brought in the book for the principal to read.

A kindergarten-to fifth grade school, Sequoia became a Back-to-Basics alternative in the late-1970s. District parents who wanted more traditional academics for their sons and daughters sent their children to Sequoia. Over the decades, it remains an alternative–half of its students come from anywhere in the district and half from the immediate neighborhood. But as principals and teachers entered and exited, Sequoia slowly incorporated a full range of school and teaching activities from homework-texts-tests to project-based learning. According to Franklin, who has hired many Sequoia teachers in his years at the school, there has been an increase in student-centered learning and more computer devices and software garnered from multiple sources. Individual teachers, some of whom are entrepreneurial in gathering devices, also have access to carts of tablets and two onsite computer labs. The school, according to its 2015 Report Card, has 550 students of whom 48 percent are white, nearly 22 percent are Asian, and 20 percent are Latino. About 12 percent are English Language Learners and about the same percentage are eligible for free and reduced price lunch (a poverty measure). Students with disabilities are under five percent.

Just before 9 AM on the morning of April 15, 2016, the principal welcomed Patricia Dickenson* and me. I had asked him to pick two teachers who he believed exemplified strong integration of technology in daily lessons. Leslie Altman, a first grade teacher, was one of two teachers we observed. She organized her colorful classroom around tables for 3-4 students (see photo), each one holding a container of pencils. The 55 minute lesson we observed was built around whole-group instruction yet the classroom was structured as individual learning centers where students rotated through various ones (see photo). Six year-olds moved freely around the room, some going to a chart where they fixed a clothes pin to the phrase that best described their attitude and work during the day (see photo).

When we entered the room, the 27 six year-olds were sitting on the rug in a circle and Altman had the children saying “good morning” and exchange greetings to each other. Afterwards, the first graders moved to their seats and the teacher, using her laptop on her desk, flashes on the IWB a video on “bugs” that includes a range of insects and spiders. This begins the science lesson. Students quiet down and watch for about five minutes. Then Altman passes out Scholastic NewsRain Doesn’t Bug This Ant” to each table.

Using a wireless head-set, Altman reads the paragraphs on the News as each page appears on the IWB. Students read aloud each paragraph from the handout. She asks questions of the class and students respond chorally. On the second page are a series of photos about different insects and how they protect themselves from the rain. One photo shows a hen and chicks. Altman calls class’s attention to the photo and a student asks “How does the momma bird protect chicks from water?” Scattered students offer different answers. The teacher directs the class the last page of “Rain Doesn’t Bug This Ant” a chart displays information about three insects (Rose Chafer, Peacock Butterfly, and Ladybug), their size, and ability to be waterproof are compared. There are multiple choice questions for students to answer on their handout.

Altman flashes on the IWB the chart and divides the class into two teams to answer these questions. She explains that a member from each team will come to the smart board and pick the correct answer about the length of each insect and whether it is waterproof or not. She calls on one student from Team 1 to come to the smart board. She gives the six year-old the smart board pen and the student picks the correct answer to the first question. Her team cheers. Then the student gives the pen to someone else on her team to answer the next question. One student says “can I go next?” Another student says, “it’s not fair to give it only to your friends.”  One of the observers notes that some students on Team 2 had already marked their answers on the handout.

After answering these questions, Altman moves to two online math games the first graders are familiar with–“I’ve Got Your Number” and “Secret Agent.” Both are game show formats. For a few minutes the teacher had a technical glitch and could not get “I’ve Got Your Number” to appear on the smart board. The principal who was also observing retrieves another laptop and within moments, the math game show appeared on the screen.

The game, which also contains funny fake ads for products that children laughed at, displays a number line to 100. Students have to answer game show announcer’s question first on addition (e.g., What is ten plus 90?) with dings accompanying incorrect answers. Teacher continues with team competition and calls on members of each team one at a time. Some children on each side are excited and want to win and they are kneeling on their chairs. For those students who are unsure of adding, Altman leans over and coaches by rephrasing question and giving help before the six year-old taps the correct answer on the smart board.

Altman then shifts to another online game called “Secret Agent” where spy 00K9 must defeat the evil El Gato using his subtraction skills. Children cheer. Catchy chords play over and over again and some students move with the rhythmic music.  Announcer asks question–what is 40 less three? The teacher calls on the first student from Team 1. When needed, Altman helps the student who then taps the correct answer. She scans the room to see which students have not participated and encourages the student with the pen to choose particular six year-olds who have not been selected to come to the IWB. This goes on for about 10-12 minutes. While all of the action is occurring, there are a few first graders getting restless and walking around. Teacher scans the room and notices this and tells the entire class that the game is almost over and one of the teams will be the winner. The online game show keeps score and sure enough announces which team has won. The teacher then announces morning snack at 9:45 and students go outside the room to pick up food that their parents had packed for them. Later they go to recess. Dickenson and I thank the teacher and go to the next observation.


*Dickenson (@teacherpreptech) is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at National University in San Jose. After reading my blog on integration of technology, a subject she is very interested in and has included in her university courses, Dickenson got in touch with me. She has extensive contacts with teachers and principals through her university courses and teacher workshops in the Bay Area. She proposed that we work together in observing schools and classrooms. She set up this visit to Sequoia with David Franklin. For this post, she and I combined our notes and I drafted the post. I sent a draft to Franklin, Altman,and Dickenson to check for errors and each returned it. Because Dickenson and I combined our notes and she went over the draft. This is a co-authored post.



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Rubik Cube, School Reform, and Summit Charter Schools (Part 2)

In part 1, I made the point that while solving a Rubik’s Cube is complicated, designing and implementing a school reform is complex. In that post, I offered nine different yet interacting moving parts that I believe has to go into any reform aimed at improving high schools for preparing youth to complete college. They are:

*Recruit and train teachers who have the subject matter knowledge and skills to work with youth before, during, and after the school day.

*Recruit and train school site leaders who have the expertise and skills to lead a school and be a pillow and sandpaper simultaneously with teachers, students, and parents.

*Students takes a college prep curriculum, aligned with district standards, that enables them to enter any higher education institution in the state.

*Students have access to non-academic subjects that cultivate the mind, heart, and sensibilities.

*Equip all students with the knowledge and skills not only to enter college but have the wherewithal to persist through four years and get a bachelor’s degree.

*Organize the school day, week, and month that provides students with sufficient time in and out of class to learn the prescribed material and core cognitive skills to master a subject, acquire the essential skills of planning and assessing their progress in each course they take, receive tutorial help when student skill levels are below par, and time for students to receive mentoring from teachers they trust.

*Build a culture of respect, safety, and focus on collaboration and learning for both youth and adults.

*Create a decision-making process that is inclusive, self-critical, and strong enough to make further changes in all of the above.

*Do all of the above efficiently within available resources.


These different features–drawn from different bodies of research (see Part 1)— of a structural design are within designers’ and implementers’ control. They can be built and put into practice. While fragile and easy to fall apart without attention and care, these interacting parts are essentials, I argue. Note, however, is that I mention no computers. Part of the complex design of these high schools is to use powerful software applications and content seamlessly in achieving desired outcomes. Technology is not central to achieving desired outcomes; it is, however, an enabling condition that surely helps both adults and youth reach the outcomes they seek.

What is beyond the reach or control of designers and implementers, however, are the unpredictable events that inexorably occur in and to schools because they exist in political, social, and economic environments within which both are wholly dependent upon those who fund schools. Consider just a few examples of the unanticipated occurrences that influence teaching practices and student outcomes: district and states cut funds, parental crises send students into  spirals of despair, illness of a highly-respected administrator slows implementation of an innovation; a clutch of veteran teachers exit school in one year.  Such events–and I have hardly listed all of the contingencies that could occur–if coming in clusters or sequentially (or both) can damage quickly the culture that has grown within the structures and, if left unattended, destroy the school. These schools, after all, are fragile creations that can only take so much shaking before they fragment and disappear. The history of successful schools, however, defined, has shown, time and again (see here), that creating and sustaining such schools is as dicey as predicting the locations and consequences of the next El Nino.

A charter network in Northern California has been working and re-working a design containing these moving parts for nearly 15 years. Over the past two months I have visited two of its seven charter schools in the Bay area and in those two schools have watched nine teachers across different academic subjects teach 90-minute lessons.* I have also interviewed administrators. The network of Summit charter schools has been written about often and positively (see here, here, here, and here). In all instances, these teachers I observed had integrated the software they had loaded onto students’ Chromebooks, the playlists of videos and links to articles for units that teachers created, and students’ self-assessment exercises seamlessly into the daily lessons with varying degrees of student engagement.

The cliched statement said over and over again by advocates of new technologies in schools: “It is not about technology, it is about learning,” captured what I saw. The overall aims of Summit students acquiring academic content, cognitive skills, “habits of success,” and the know-how of students assessing their own progress–all of that involved online work during and after lessons. Clearly, the school did not have to use Chromebooks and extensive software to reach the schools’ overall goals and each student’s personal ones. The technology did enable, however, the process of learning to be more efficient, more timely, and give real-time feedback to students. In the words of one of the teachers who emailed me his thoughts on using the available technology**:

Technology and the model we are currently using at Summit has transformed my classroom and changed me as a teacher….  As we have relatively recently embraced a model that puts students as drivers of their own learning further into the center of their academic experience,  we have moved the teacher further outward, acting more as a facilitator than a traditional teacher much of the time. This could make some teachers feel uneasy and others even disillusioned at the perceived prospect that all the knowledge students need is online and the essence of the teacher-student relationship has been subsumed by the technology. Having now helped develop the curriculum for this model, used it and iterated on it for nearly three years, I view this model as a powerful, mostly positive way to educate young people….

I am now able to provide a much wider variety of experiences to my students because I have access to a wealth of data about both their learning performance and preferences. Changes in my practice that took days or weeks based on our previous assessment cycles are now reduced to days, hours or even minutes. That said, as we iterate to improve the academic tools we use, we also need to be equally mindful, innovative and proactive in building and maintaining the ethical and character culture(informed by a knowledge of adolescent development)that marks an excellent high school education from a merely good one. Moreover, we need to similarly work on building a more powerful, authentic sense of common purpose with the varied backgrounds of our families and communities that overlap with our school community. This requires tremendous empathy and solidarity, and I feel it is the greatest challenge ahead of us….

Such a culture that this Summit teacher speaks of is not engineered by new software or machines. The culture and structures that support it are built by administrators’ and teachers’ hands, hearts, and minds. It is a work-in-progress. It is complex with many moving parts. And it is fragile.

What is missing, of course, from this description of Summit’s complex design and its execution is any evaluation of what students are learning (In my observations, I focused on what teachers did in their classrooms), whether all Summit high schools (or just the two I observed) are succeeding (however measured) in achieving its goals, or whether you need all (or just a few) of the features outlined above. There is a great deal absent from this limited account of lessons I observed.

But I did learn a few things very well.  If the Rubik Cube can be solved in either seconds or minutes with algorithms, I am confident that building and sustaining an improved high school for minority and poor youth is a long-term affair, lacking algorithms, that needs smart and patient leaders, and years to accomplish. Such schools are live inventions that keep adapting to their environment as problems arise and fade.  But these works-in-progress are vulnerable and delicate creations. They need constant attention.







*Diane Tavenner, a founding teacher at Summit Prep and director of Summit Schools Network and Chief Academic Officer, Adam Carter–also a founding teacher at Summit Prep–picked the two schools. In both schools, I interviewed the principals (called Executive Directors), and they suggested various teachers I should visit. Because of scheduling difficulties, I could not see all of those recommended to me. So in both schools, I reached out to other teachers, introduced myself and asked them if I could observe their classes. Of the nine teachers who permitted me to spend a 90-minute block, I had selected five to have a broad coverage of academic subjects and grades 9-12. All nine lessons taught by English, social studies, science, math, and foreign language teachers have been published on this blog on: March 13, 2016, March 16, March 21, March 23, March 29, April 1, April 6, April 12, April 18.

**In my possession. It was a confidential exchange between this teacher and myself.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Fundamental Dilemma Facing Teachers: Performing Both the Academic and Emotional Roles in Classrooms

Over four years ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought. Since then, I have written about dilemmas often in this blog (see here, here, and here). Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all teachers be they teaching kindergarten or Advanced Placement courses. Whether they are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family they inevitably face a core dilemma built into teaching when they have to perform both an academic and emotional role in teaching five-year olds or fifteen year-olds.

Let me unpack first what I mean by  dilemmas. I mean situations where a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member has to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing one ends up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value. One learns to compromise in negotiating between two things they want very much.

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us faces is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices.

Within U.S. age-graded schools, whether they are high schools or elementary schools, whether schools are in neighborhoods where wealthy, middle class, or poor families send their children, two imperatives face all U.S. teachers: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). Teachers value both roles. Yet these two roles, valued highly by teachers, place huge demands upon them. The academic role requires teachers to maintain a certain social distance from students while the emotional role requires teachers to get close to students. And here is the dilemma.

In the academic role, teachers teach first graders to read while upper-grade teachers teach Algebra or Biology. They convey knowledge and cultivate cognitive skills of students. Then these teachers have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires evidence of performance and social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if a teacher admires a hard-working, serious student who keeps failing key tests. Emotion is not supposed to sway a teacher’s judgment of students’ academic performance.

But U.S. teachers are also expected to get close to students. Professors, mentors, and principals urge teachers to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths. Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher teaches. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow.  The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

Balancing these competing roles and the values they represent, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach science; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be closer to their students that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is very difficult.

There are, of course, teachers who figure out how to balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is a distinct mix of both values. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the daily performance. They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time. They give genuine, heartfelt performances. Students, who can easily smell a fake, come to appreciate such teachers’ performances.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching