Category Archives: how teachers teach

“The Fart-Free Classroom” (Jerry Heverly)


After the previous post on the teachers being practical politicians, Jerry Heverly commented on it and sent along a post he had written illustrating the inexorable dependence of teachers upon their students and the inherent dilemmas teachers face in exerting power, fostering relationships with students and managing their behavior. In effect, teachers have to engage in  practical politics by working out with students compromises to the dilemmas they face in order to get students to learn.

Heverly granted me permission to use this post. He is a veteran San Leandro High School English teacher and written extensively about his experiences teaching over the years. This post appeared March 28, 2012.


“Mr. Heverly, you can’t tell somebody not to fart!”

I was trying to get my students to read, something I struggle with every day.

“It’s like a natural thing. You can’t stop it. People can die from that.”

This was “Sustained Silent Reading”, basically a time for my students to pick a book or magazine and read.

I try very hard to get my students to like reading. My room is lined on two sides with books I’ve accumulated.  My bookcases are a kaleidoscope of colors. I have novels by Jack London, picture books of African-American history, a history of football, teen romances; anything I can find that might appeal to a 15 year old.

I was trying to keep the room quiet. It wasn’t working.

It’s a tight rope I walk every day. If I want a quiet, organized room I must devise rules and enforce them. But therein lies the rub.

“No food or drink in the classroom.”

“Wear your pants over your underwear.”

“Don’t throw things in class.”

“Don’t use profanity in the classroom.”

“Don’t use anti-gay slurs.”

“Keep your hands to yourself.”

“No paper airplanes.” Etc., etc. etc.

And, yes, no intentional farting.

To get through the day I must “manage” my students’ behavior. It’s the crucible of most teachers. Books are written about it. Teachers are evaluated based largely on how–or whether–they do it.

To outsiders or to those rare teachers with overpowering personalities it seems obvious; adults are there to be in charge, kids are there to obey.

But there’s a fundamental contradiction in the process that doesn’t get acknowledged enough. To teach my students I must have a good relationship with them. I must be a combination of entertainer, coach, father-figure, and guru.

Yet every time a kid violates a rule I must cast off those other roles and become a cop. And each time I police their behavior I make those other roles increasingly unbelievable.

If the stars align and most of my students are quietly working on whatever the day’s tasks are, I can stay in character as Mr. Rogers.

But the rules of school say that students must be tracked; good kids in one room, fractious kids in another room. And in any class of disaffected teens there will be some kids who hate quiet and orderliness. They crave attention; they resent the teacher’s power.

Which means someone will challenge those rules.

It makes my day seem like the navigating of a ship on a rough sea. If I punish a behavior I anger at least one student (and generally more than one, since that student has friends). That anger leads to more bad behavior and more punishments. Act as cop too much and you can permanently and irretrievably alienate 35 students. Do that too little and you can’t expect learning to happen.

I want my classroom to be a safe, amusing, interesting, serious place. To make that happen I now realize I must face the fact that each day is a new negotiation with 160 individual personalities. It’s not an easy thing to face.



Filed under how teachers teach

Teachers as Practical Politicians

Besides managing a classroom of 20 to 30 or more students while teaching lessons every day, teachers also do politicking. Teachers using ClassDojo, a free software application (see previous two posts), is just another instance of teacher thinking and acting politically. More about teachers using ClassDojo as a political act later in the post.

I do need to explain that in 2017 for teachers to survive and thrive in their classrooms, they have to be practicing politicians.

Historical context for teachers acting politically

For decades, educators have winced at using the word “politics” linked in any way to their work with children and youth in schools. A few words about the history behind the aversion to the word.

At the beginning of the 20th century, progressive reformers divorced party politics from the conduct of schooling. Governance reforms led school boards to dump party hacks from their ranks and recruit business leaders and civic-minded professionals to serve. Civil service regulations ended the buying and selling of school jobs. Partisan politics was banned from schools and classrooms.

Not only because of the progressive movement a century ago but also because separating politics and schools became embedded in professional training of teachers, the power of that norm remains strong today. It should come as no surprise, then, that few, if any, teachers take public stands on educational reforms except through their unions and professional organizations. When they do speak out, it is as private citizens. Individual teachers are expected to implement policies that school boards, governors, state legislatures, and Congress–authorize. They are NOT expected to campaign publicly as teachers in the district to get particular policies adopted.

Now, here is the rub. None of what I just said means that teachers do not engage in politics. They do–inside the school–because teachers influence what students do in their classrooms, what other teachers teach, and what parents consider important. None of these micropolitics, however, crosses the line of partisanship.

Teachers as classroom politicians

Teachers, of course, do not like to talk about being “political.” Euphemisms like “working with parents,” “kissing up to superiors,” “Gathering support for the new program”—as I have heard them over the years–are favored constructions in their vocabularies.

But it is politicking, whatever you call it.

And when it comes to classrooms, teachers—expected to keep classroom order, cover curriculum standards, get students ready for tests, wipe noses and give students a shoulder to cry on–allocate their time and energy to instruction while nervously glancing at the wall clock. They negotiate compromises with students over behavior and achievement, and bargain with other teachers, parents, and school administrators for more resources to help their students. In short, they act politically.

Determining who gets what, when, and under what circumstances to achieve desired objectives is the classic formula for political behavior. And that is what teachers do.

Consider the popular classroom management tool ClassDojo. As long as there have been tax-supported schools–nearly two centuries now–states asked parents to send their young children to school; a century ago, states passed compulsory attendance laws that required parents to send their young children and youth to be in school or be penalized.  States invested teachers with the authority to direct students to learn required content and skills in order to graduate school. Teachers sought through their lessons to achieve goals set by local school boards and ones that they believed important.

To motivate students who had to be in class to learn and to gain their compliance and cooperation, for teachers then (as they are now) were dependent upon students for their own classroom success, early  19th century teachers developed systems of rewards and penalties (e.g., to divvy out to students for “good” work and behavior as she saw fit and to use canes, paddles, and slaps).

As time passed, teachers came to rely less on using switches, twisting ears, and humiliation and more on praise and tangible rewards, again intermittently administered as they decided who of their students should get what in order to get student compliance in behavior and cooperation in covering what had to be learned.

Those past actions by teachers to achieve classroom goals fits the definition of politicking in deciding who gets what, when, and under what circumstances.

Teachers using ClassDojo to motivate their students while gaining compliant behavior and cooperation become the most recent incarnation of past generations of teachers who used behavioral management systems fitting the times and context.

So what? Why is it important to establish that teachers act politically in their lessons, classrooms, and schools?

Here is why: Micropolitics in classroom and school are essential not distasteful tasks that practitioners perform. To reach the goals they want to achieve—literacy, civic engagement, job preparation, moral development (and, yes, compliant and cooperative students)–-every teacher and principal, in different ways and in different proportions, performs three basic roles: They instruct, manage, and politick. The simple recognition of political behavior as a natural part of working in places called schools would help both professionals and lay people to understand the real world that practitioners inhabit every single day.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Managing Crowds: ClassDojo (Part 2)

ClassDojo is a recently-developed software platform (2011) that, according to the founders of the company, is used in 90 percent of schools in the U.S (see here). In the past five years, however, ClassDojo has become much more than a free digital tool to motivate students and manage classroom behavior. It is a platform that allows teachers to communicate with parents by posting photos and letting parents comment on what they see; students can also post photos and videos about what they are doing in school. With parent and student communication integrated with the classroom behavior tool, a social media platform is emerging.

The company has expanded beyond the initial behavioral management software and moved into the business of producing videos on “mind set” and empathy starring “Mojo the friendly monster” to construct a communication network where students, parents and teachers are knitted together closely.

And the future? With its network of parents, teachers, and students, ClassDojo will grow into an enterprise marketing far more than a motivational and behavioral tool to manage classroom crowds.

As one ClassDojo board member said: “This company has a greater market share than Coke in the U.S.” The future, according to one of the founders of ClassDojo, is coming into view when he asked:

Your entertainment bundle is Netflix. Your music bundle is Spotify. What is your education bundle?

That may be the future that the company seeks in spurring a revenue flow—ClasDojo is free to teachers and the company is just beginning to earn revenue from its videos. But it is the original software program promising to help teachers manage student behavior so that they can smoothly, without distraction or student misbehavior, carry off a lesson in reading or math within the allotted time. And that is the focus for this post.

Managing a crowd of students with ClassDojo

Across the country, teachers have glommed onto the digital platform as a way of managing 20 to 30 students daily. Whatever admirers and critics say, ClassDojo is a management tool aimed at engaging students and keeping their academic and emotional behavior on track during class time. It is the most recent of tools (think of teachers using dunce caps, corporal punishment for inattention and bad behavior, public shaming, dispensing praise and handing out M & Ms for good behavior) that teachers have historically used to motivate and control the behavior of their charges during periods of instruction.

While there is much variation in how teachers use ClassDojo,  one reporter described  typical ways the software is used in two New York state classrooms right next to one another.

Greg Fletcher, an amiable third-grade teacher at Hunter Elementary School, in Hunter, N.Y., uses a variety of old-school techniques to get his young students to settle down to their studies in the morning.

But when those fail, he turns to ClassDojo, a popular — and, in some quarters, controversial — behavior tracking app that I wrote about in an article on Monday.

“Let’s all sit like third graders,” Mr. Fletcher said one morning last month when I visited his class. Among the 13 third graders, all but a couple of boys sat.

“Let’s all get Mona Lisa quiet,” Mr. Fletcher tried again.

Mr. Fletcher was standing in front of an interactive white board on which he had projected ClassDojo. The program allows teachers to create a virtual classroom, with the real name and a cartoon monster avatar for each student, and then select behaviors — like “following directions” or being “off task” — for which they can award points to students or deduct them.

Teachers use the system to keep a running tally of each student’s score and to communicate with parents about their child’s progress. They can adapt it to their own teaching styles — and the temperaments of their students.

Mr. Fletcher, for instance, publicly displays ClassDojo’s scoreboard in his classroom. That means not only do his students know the moment he awards or deducts a point, they can simultaneously see the scores of everyone in the class.

That morning, one student in a Star Wars T-shirt was having trouble settling down.

“If I see the back of your head,” Mr. Fletcher said firmly, “it’s going to cost you a point.”

The boy immediately sat.

“I always let them see what is happening,” Mr. Fletcher explained, “when it’s a positive or when it needs work.”

the reporter then went to the classroom next door.

….Sharon Sofranko, whose shares responsibility with Mr. Fletcher for teaching third grade, was also using ClassDojo — but in private mode. At the start of the school year, she said, she had publicly displayed the scoreboard in her classroom, but it distracted her third-graders.

“Some kids were upset,” she said. “Some kids would find that they had 20 points less than someone else.”

Now she walks around the classroom with the app open on her phone, privately awarding and subtracting points without her students being able to see their own scores or those of their classmates.

If she wants a particular student to pay more attention to, say, raising his or her hand before speaking, she takes that student aside for a private chat.

“I actually do think it’s fairly effective,” Ms. Sofranko said.

Here is what ClassDojo staff said after the above article, including criticism of the reward and penalty system embedded in the software, appeared:

Teachers use ClassDojo to give students positive feedback on skills like leadership, persistence, teamwork and curiosity, and then communicate that feedback with parents. Over 90% of the feedback teachers give to students on ClassDojo is positive. Teachers use ClassDojo to communicate success with parents, and to give students a chance to excel outside an increasingly narrow framework of academic assessment.

There has been much praise and criticism of this technological tool. Praise comes from teachers who use the software (see here and here) and parents (see here and here). Criticism comes from those concerned about student information being sold to marketeers or privacy being abridged (see here), teachers who despise the  system of rewards and penalties (see here), and academic pundits who have seldom entered classrooms to see ClassDojo being used (see here).

Much of the praise and criticism of the platform centers on the issue of teachers using extrinsic rewards (e.g., points) and penalties (e.g., deduction of points) to reinforce positive behavior rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation of students to learn. While I have read copiously (and understand as a former high school teacher) the contemporary back-and-forth argument about the values of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards,  the debate skirts the deeper and central issue that explains why so many teachers across the country, without asking anyone’s permission, download the application.

What has unlocked so many classrooms to ClassDojo is that it can be a helpful modern tool to manage a crowd of children compelled to be in 900 square feet rooms for about six hours a day to learn what teachers have to teach while at the same time keeping parents informed of how their sons and daughters are doing in class. Too often some basic facts about tax-supported public schooling in the U.S. are overlooked.

Fact 1: K-12 students have to attend school.

Fact 2: Students move from grade-to-grade based upon teacher judgment, marks on tests, and report card grades.

Fact 3: Teachers depend upon students to obey directions. Without students’ motivation and cooperation with teachers, little learning occurs.

Fact 4: Over the last century, teachers have used mixes of rewards and penalties to gain student compliance and cooperation.

Classroom management, then, is an imperative deriving from compulsory attendance, the structure of the age-graded school, what the community expects students to learn, and teacher judgments about student performance.

Teachers need every tool they can grab to help them corral student energy and fight apathy, increase kindness and decrease mischievousness, encourage passion and discourage inertia. ClassDojo is the most recent incarnation of a tool that teachers believe will help them manage the crowd they see daily. In 2017 teaching and learning in an age-graded school remains a complex phenomenon that few experts acknowledge or too few teachers publicly comment on.





Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Stability and Change in a Four-Decade Career in Teaching (Part 3)

After leaving the superintendency, I spent the next twenty years as  a professor at Stanford University. I taught four courses during the academic year and did research. Most of the courses I taught were about the history of school reform, leadership in schools, instruction and curriculum (for those preparing to teach history in public schools), and organizational theory. I team-taught “The History of School Reform” with historian of education David Tyack for a decade. I also team-taught with high school history teacher Lee Swenson a course on Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction for ten years. The seminar I taught annually was “Good Schools: Research, Policy, and Practice.” After I retired in 2001, I continued to teach the “Good Schools” course every other year until 2013. So for over a quarter-century, I have taught courses at the graduate level. I noted often to myself that what I had learned in teaching 16 year-olds, especially the need for a broad-ranging repertoire of teaching methods applied in many ways to 26 year-olds.

A specific example of how I taught courses might help readers get a clearer sense of my teaching graduate students in their 20s and 30s. Here is an actual lesson plan I prepared for the “Good Schools” seminar I taught in February 2006. The seminar met for an hour and fifty minutes twice a week.

The planning for the lesson generally went like this: the night before I taught, I would re-read the selections I had assigned to students from a reader that I had compiled and they bought. I would type out the lesson plan on my laptop. Next morning, I would review the readings, revise questions and items that I had in the lesson, then go to the campus classroom, arrange the tables in a horseshoe design, open my laptop and make any last-minute changes. I would use chalk to write on the greenboard an outline of the lesson and the central question I wanted the seminar to answer for that day. To keep the lesson moving and avoid spending too much time on any part of the content or activity, I would have on a nearby table a small digital clock.

The lesson plan below has the typos, bold-faced typing and sentences in capital letters as I had originally prepared it for a class mid-way through a quarter-long seminar. For elaboration on each part of the lesson, see description at end of post.*

February 12, 2006

Assignment for Tuesday. Questions on project? Announcements? I will pass back your analyses of articles at end of class today.


  2. Summary on growing “good” elementary schools:

Based on these examples and earlier ones we have read about (Comer schools, Core Knowledge, KIPP Schools, Alliance Schools in Texas, Success for All, Child Development Project, Accelerated Schools, etc.—WHAT GENERALIZATIONS, IF ANY, CAN YOU DRAW FROM THE EVIDENCE ABOUT HOW TO MAKE A “GOOD” ELEMENTARY SCHOOL?

  1. Divide class into 6-7 groups—count off to get mix of people.

TASKS: Come up with at least 2 generalizations that the group can support with evidence from readings, direct experience, and other sources. Take a sheet of paper and divide into 2 columns. Label one column GENERALIZATION; the other column, label EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT GENERALIZATION. If group cannot come up with generalization, say why.

  1. Whole-group discussion of generalizations.

QUESTIONS: Which of your generalizations, if any, apply to high-acieving affluent suburban elementary schools? DISCUSS

Which of your generalizations, if any, apply to growing “good” high schools?

  1. Let’s now turn to growing “good” high schools. What is different between elementary and high schools?


           *school organization

             *time schedule

           *training of teachers (generalist vs. subject specialist)

           *contact time

           *external expectations

  1. Let’s now look at different kinds of “good” high schools: Recall—Edward R. Murrow High School, HB-Woodlawn, The Wade High School (Central Park East Secondary School). ASK CLASS ABOUT HIGH SCHOOLS THEY WENT TO. HOW MANY WENT TO WHAT THEY WOULD CALL A “GOOD” HIGH SCHOOL? SIZE? WHAT MADE IT “GOOD?”

            *Science Skills Center (650 kids)


  1. Let’s turn to Small High School movement. What makes small high schools “good” schools?

Mike Copland/Elizabeth Boatright piece on leadership in small high schools—WHAT RESPONSE DO YOU HAVE TO THEIR LESSONS?

Does the recent evaluation of the Gates venture into creating and sustaining “good” high schools influence your opinion of small high schools? Why yes or no?

In what ways, if at all, does Michelle Fine influence your opinion of the small high school movement?

Do “good” high schools have to be small?

SUMMARY: How, then, do you grow “good” high schools?

The above lesson was not a blueprint that I followed step-by-step. Student questions and flashes of insight I got from student comments during our discussion would lead to departures in the plan. Sometimes, parts of the lesson would unfold in unanticipated ways going far deeper than I had planned. I would glance at the small clock on my table and make a decision to continue or segue to the next question or activity. More often than not, I would be unable to complete what I planned, carrying it over until the next session.

Was the way I taught graduate courses similar or different from the path I had taken in teaching high school history for 14 years that I described in Parts 1 and 2?

The short answer is that in teaching high school in the 1970s and in teaching a graduate student seminar I hugged the middle of the spectrum between teacher- and student-centered instruction, using a mix of both methods and activities in the content and format of each lesson. The reforms that swept across the K-12 and higher education landscapes seldom bent my lessons in these years.

The long answer is that in those initial 14 years as a high school history teacher, I had traveled from the teacher-centered end of the spectrum to the middle of the continuum by blending traditional content and format with student-centered activities. Teaching at Stanford I continued to hug the middle of that spectrum. The graduate students I taught in those years, over time, would have seen their professor trying out new ideas in teaching and cautiously using new technologies provoking occasional laugh-inducing stumbles while continuing to mix old and new techniques such as video clips, frequent small group discussions, student presentations of their research projects, and using content from the Internet during a lesson.

Had a few Stanford students who had taken my “Effective Schools” course first offered in 1982 returned a quarter-century later and sat in my “Good Schools” seminar they would quickly note the differences in readings I required students to do, the sparsity of lectures save for occasional mini ones, and that I had abandoned the overhead projector for new technologies available to both students and the professor. They would have marked these as changes from the earlier course they had taken.

The more observant of those alumni, however, would have noticed that the lesson was still teacher-directed. They would have noted an underlying similarity in the format of the twice-weekly 110-minute lesson in whole-group discussions, small group work, a central question guiding the day’s lesson and much student participation. And, yes, even that their professor still glanced at a digital clock to keep moving the lesson along.

In short, my career as a public high school teacher and private university professor spanning 39 years reveals both continuity and change in how I taught.



*I would begin the nearly two-hour seminar by making the next session’s assignment. Every student had a syllabus with the goals, course requirements, week-by-week readings accompanying each time we meet. The “project” refers to pairs of students researching a particular organization (e.g., school, business, non-profit) that they believed was “good.” After they completed the research, they would present their project to the rest of the seminar. Thus, the reference to a schedule for presentations. Students and I constructed the criteria evaluating each presentation.

Either students or I would make announcements by university events, upcoming talks on schools that were relevant to the course. I use the numbers in the lesson plan to elaborate and explain what I did.

1.The central question for each lesson I would have written on the whiteboard before the seminar began.

2. The students and I had gone over the literature on growing “good” elementary schools in the previous session with many examples of schools seen as exemplary. This was a review and opportunity for some students to raise questions and work through any confusion they had over what was discussed. After review and questions, I would ask the question of group about what generalizations they could make about growing “good” elementary schools.

3.Small group work requiring discussion and decisions about generalizations that could be made with supporting evidence drawn from readings they had done.

4.Small groups (I would have students count off to form groups with ever-changing participants) would report their generalizations to rest of seminar and after I would segue into a whole group discussion of what small groups had concluded. The listed questions guided the seminar discussion. In questioning, I would call on students who raised their hands and, from time to time, cold-call on students who had not volunteered.

5. Segue to growing “good” high schools. Here I gave a 10-minute explanation of the differences between elementary and secondary schools. Students know that they could interrupt these mini-lectures with questions. And they often did.

6. In this part of the lesson, I turn to the readings students had done on different kinds of high schools perceived as “good” by various researchers.

7. The Gates Foundation sponsored the growth of small high schools in the U.S. and we discuss readings about the strengths and limitations of these schools.

I end the lesson by returning to the central question and asking the group: how do you grow “good” high schools? The ensuing discussion tells me what students take away (or miss) from 110 minutes we were together that morning.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

Stability and Change in a Four Decade Career in Teaching (Part 2)

In 1963, I and my family moved to Washington, D.C. where I taught history at Cardozo High School and also trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban settings. Called a “master teacher,” I taught two history classes while supervising interns who also taught two classes on their own. They would see me teach and I would observe their classes. While I still planned history lessons around materials I and others had created and designed the questions I would ask, I had also begun to incorporate into my repertoire techniques I had found successful at Glenville and expanded at Cardozo during the mid-1960s.  Student-led discussions, dividing the class into groups for varied tasks, creating instructional materials out of primary and secondary historical sources initially to supplement and later to replace the textbook became routine parts of my lessons. These approaches at the time could be loosely called the “new social studies,” a reform aimed at encouraging teachers to use inquiry, analysis of primary and secondary sources, and students doing research. The ex-Peace Corps interns used filmstrips, 16mm films, and the overhead projector for transparencies they had prepared for their classes. I began expanding my repertoire, learning from them, showing occasional films, making transparencies, and using the overhead projector.[i]

After directing the teacher-training project, I returned to teaching history five classes a day of history at Roosevelt High School also in the District of Columbia. In one of those five courses I organized the class so that students would spend at least one 50-minute period a week going from one teaching station to another that I had established for the lesson. Each of these stations, say a lesson on causes of the Civil War, would have a pair or trio of students answer questions as they moved from activity to activity (e.g., filmstrip to watch, photos to analyze, primary sources to parse, and cartoons to interpret) before moving on to another station.

The rest of the day and week, however, was spent on teacher-led discussions, mini-lectures, frequent use of overhead projector with hand-made transparencies, supervised study periods where students would work on assignments (often dittos of materials I created), small group meetings of students working on projects selected from a list I made, say, on World War I, and student presentations. By this time, I had a clear idea of using classroom furniture to advance what I wanted in student participation in whole group activities. They sat in a horseshoe arrangement of desks with the open end of the horseshoe facing my desk and the chalkboard.

Student movement in the class and easy exchanges between students and I during small-group work and whole-class discussions spoke of a more relaxed social organization in the classroom than what I had when I began to teach history in 1956.

Yet I was the one who still decided what was to be studied, planned lessons, determined what methods, materials, and activities were to be used during the period and when. I determined how time and classroom space was allocated. What had changed slowly over the many years of teaching was the gradual shift in giving students a small but growing role in choosing topics within the larger framework of content I was teaching, in deciding how to use their time within the classroom when they had tasks to perform, and in making some instructional decisions.

Where along the continuum between teacher- and student-centered instruction did I now fit? My dominant pattern in content and format of lessons remained teacher-centered but I had begun a fourteen- year journey in the mid-1950s moving steadily toward the middle of the continuum by the early 1970s. By that time, my beliefs about teaching, learning, and history had evolved over the years into a conviction that a mix of student- and teacher-centered activities would be the best way for me to teach students to think historically. I had learned that no single way of teaching worked best for all high school students; I needed a varied repertoire of techniques to reach the largest number of students. Also using the “new” technologies of those years had grown to the degree that I saw them helpful in attaining my content objectives yet these remained peripheral to the lessons I planned, the lesson activities I orchestrated, and my overall teaching. [ii]

In 1972, I decided to get a Ph.D. and journeyed with my family to graduate school of education at Stanford University. After completing the doctorate in 1974, the Arlington, Virginia School Board hired me as superintendent. I served for seven years.

In 1981, I left the superintendency and to teach and write for the next 20 years at Stanford University.


[i]Barbara Stern (ed.) The New Social Studies: People, Projects, and Perspectives (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2009).

[ii] Parts of this description of my teaching history in high schools come from journals I have kept for those years and a revised account that I wrote in How Teachers Taught, pp. 10-11. Also see The Managerial Imperative, pp. 85-110. For my views on the tensions between the kinds of history taught in K-12 schools, see:

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Filed under how teachers teach, school leaders

Change and Stability in A Four Decade Career in Teaching (Part 1)

I began teaching history in 1956 in an urban high school and ended my career of full-time teaching at Stanford University in 2001 when I retired (I did teach a graduate seminar every other year as an emeritus professor until 2013). Overall, I taught 14 years as a high school history teacher in two cities at all-black and low-income schools and 25 years as a professor of education working with highly motivated, high-achieving graduate students in a private university. I have taught for 39 years seeing reform after reform sweep by my eyes.[i]

Examining my career as a teacher offers possible insights into how, over time, a teacher working at different levels of schooling continuously changes lessons while maintaining the fundamentals of classroom practice. Sounds like a contradiction at first—change amid stability–but looking closely at one’s life as a teacher may resolve what appears to be a paradox

I make no claim that my reflection on how I managed both change and continuity in over decades of teaching in six public high schools and one university is typical. My experience may well be an outlier. Race, gender, class, the generation within which I was born, and passing through the seasons of a life cycle all have effects on one’s experience that may well differ from others. It is, after all, as my academic colleagues would point out an N=1.

Were there many biographies (or autobiographies) of teachers with sections on how they taught over their careers and the impact of the organization, reform cycles moving through their schools, and life events from marriage, raising children, illness, and death on their teaching, I would be able to position my story within these sources. But such personal descriptions and analyses of teaching over time in different institutions and what occurred in classrooms are sparse. [ii]

For those who prize research-produced knowledge married to experienced-produced knowledge as I do, the limning of one’s career may prove helpful in making sense of this uneasy equilibrium of stability and change in classroom practices over decades.[iii]

Teaching High School and University Graduate Students (1956-2013)

I began teaching at Cleveland’s Glenville High School in 1956 at age 21 and taught there seven years. Student were predominately black and, over time, largely poor. My teacher preparation at the University of Pittsburgh was in the Progressive tradition of student-centered instruction. Yet if an observer had entered my high school history classes in those initial years they would have easily categorized my instruction as wholly teacher-centered. On a spectrum running from a teacher-centered pole at one end and a student-centered pole at the other, I would have been hip-deep in the teacher-centered end.

Students sat in rows of movable chairs with tablet arms facing the front blackboard and my desk. I planned detailed lessons every afternoon and evening for the following day of five classes. In the written lesson, which I would follow religiously in the initial years of teaching, I would carefully list the questions I would ask, summarize the readings I had assigned to the class, orchestrating the sequence of activities aligned to the questions.

The content in my U.S. history classes was strictly chronological. I prepared unit study guides (I gave up on the textbook by the second year of teaching) on the colonies, the American Revolution proceeding decade by decade through the Civil War for the first semester and in the second semester I began with Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and Industrialization through the Great Depression and occasionally reaching World War II. Each unit study guide was sub-divided into daily lessons. They included key questions students had to answer what I had assigned in the dittoed readings I distributed daily to students and in books I had put on reserve in the school library and had in my classroom. I had begun creating readings for students on what was then called Negro History and gradually inserted those readings into the chronological sequence I followed religiously for the first few years I taught at Glenville. [iv]

More often than not, the primary activities in each lesson were teacher led-discussions interspersed by mini-lectures, occasional student reports, a class debate, quiz games to review for tests, and a filmstrip to break the routines. Over 90 percent of instructional time was spent teaching the whole group.

Part 2 describes high school teaching in Washington D.C. and eventual arrival at Stanford University.


[i] I do not count workshops I taught to Arlington (VA) teachers when I served as superintendent of the district for seven years. Nor do I count the three times I taught semester-long high school social studies classes when I was a professor at Stanford (Los Altos High School, 1990 and Menlo-Atherton High School, 1993, 1997).

[ii] European researchers initiated a line of scholarship describing and collecting accounts of teacher “life histories” and career trajectories that have spread globally. See, for example, Ivor Goodson, Studying Teacher Lives (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992); Michael Huberman, The Lives of Teachers (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin, “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry,” Educational Researcher, 1990, 19(5), pp. 2-14; Andy Hargreaves, “Educational Change Takes Ages: Life, Career, and Generational Factors in Teachers’ Emotional Responses to Educational Change,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 2005, 21, pp. 967-983.

[iii]In other writings I have described my family, my early years growing up in Pittsburgh (PA), and entry into teaching and the years I taught at two high schools in Cleveland (OH) and the District of Columbia. See Derek Burleson (Ed.) Reflections: Personal Essays by 33 Distinguished Educators (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1991), ”Reflections on a Career in Teaching,” pp. 97-111; Larry Cuban, The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), chapters 2 and 4; Wayne Urban (Ed.), Leaders in the Historical Study of American Education (Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2011),”Teacher, Superintendent, Scholar: The Gift of Multiple Careers,” pp. 45-54; Larry Cuban, Teaching History Then and Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016).

[iv] As an example of a unit study guide I used in 1958, here is the a sample from “The Growth of American Business and Its Effects upon America.”

  1. Industrial Revolution hits America as a result of Civil War.
  2. How were farming, railroads, mining, and communication revolutionized and expanded? List specific examples from 1860-1920.
  3. Rise of Big Business
  4. What is a corporation?
  5. Describe the rise of Standard Oil Company as a typical example of the growth of a large corporation.
  6. What are the benefits and detriments of a monopoly?
  7. If you were the owner of a large factory, as a representative of Big Business, what things would you need to continue earning a profit?

III. Opposition to Big Business

  1. Labor unions
  2. What things are unions always striving for?
  3. What various methods could a union use to obtain its goals?
  4. .Why did many labor people join the American Socialist Party? Anarchists?
  5. On the whole, what progress did unions make by 1914?….

In 1956, I had begun a Masters in history at Western Reserve University taking evening classes and began focusing on “Negro History” writing research papers for Professor Harvey Wish, a scholar who then worked in the emerging field. From my readings and research, I accumulated an array of primary sources on colonial slavery, the institution of slavery, Reconstruction, etc. I used many of these primary sources for lessons in my high school history classes until I left Glenville High School in 1963.


Filed under how teachers teach

Reinventing High School (Stacy Teicher Khadaroo)

“Stacy is an education reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. She writes primarily for the Monitor’s EqualEd section and also covers youth issues, civil rights, justice, and gender. Based in Nashua, N.H., she currently reserves two days a week to focus on her young son and daughter.”

This post originally appeared in the CSM

May 21, 2017 MANCHESTER, N.H.—Two-dozen high school students are gathered around a large work table as manufacturing teacher Dan Cassidy holds out boxes of metal bars and gears. The students choose among the parts to build model bicycles. “What else are we going to use today? Let me hear some vocab here,” he says. When a student shouts out “chains,” he nudges them until they recall another term for it: “linkage.”

This isn’t a manufacturing class. It’s actually a combined geometry and physical science class. While clusters of students work at stations assembling miniature two-wheelers, others rotate through a lesson on the computer and reason through a problem about parallel triangles the old-fashioned way – with paper and pencil. Mr. Cassidy and co-teacher Athanasia Robinson, whose specialty is math, circulate and check on everyone’s progress.

“I have a really hard time just sitting in a class and focusing on a teacher and writing notes,” says sophomore Hope Nichols as she and a purple-haired classmate bolt together a bike. “But here, everything is hands-on … or I can kind of teach myself, which I really prefer.”

Students rarely see textbooks here at the Manchester School of Technology High School (MST-HS), a low-slung utilitarian building a few miles from the river where high-tech businesses occupy former textile mills. In most classes, they don’t get standard letter grades. They don’t automatically move on to the next level at the end of the school year, but instead advance once they have mastered the material. Students buttress their classroom learning with real-world experiences – such as building a house or working as a chef – to help prepare for future careers.

Welcome to what, in some ways, may be a prototype of the high school of tomorrow. Here, vocational education meets cutting-edge academic innovation.

At the core of the school’s curriculum is a wide variety of career pathways students can choose from – ranging from nursing to policing. The four-year public institution itself is embedded within a career and technical education center that has long served juniors and seniors from other high schools who come to take work-related courses.

While the focus on career development here is stronger than at most high schools, MST-HS is symbolic of efforts across the United States to make education more relevant and engage students with new approaches.

In an age of struggling public schools and rising global competition, education officials are searching for ways to break out of the pervasive industrial-age school structures – think 45-minute class periods, rote lecture-style teaching, and age-based grade levels. Some schools now wrap learning around community projects. Others have students create portfolios and do internships. Still others incorporate students into decisionmaking for how the school or classroom will operate.

Some of the boldest experimentation is going on in New Hampshire. The state has become a leader in the “competency-based” education movement – in which success is less about “seat time” in a classroom or passing traditional tests and more about students showing they can apply skills and knowledge to complex challenges.

Nationally, “there is a lot of interest in delivering education in new, more-flexible ways that address students’ differing needs, differing learning styles, and the differing paces at which they acquire knowledge,” says Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington. “New Hampshire’s commitment to the competency model is … seen as a thoughtful and cutting-edge effort, though not one without its challenges.”

Initiatives are popping up across the state. One district, in Rochester, N.H., has become a pioneer in allowing even the youngest students to make choices about how they are learning. Rochester and eight other districts are also part of a first-in-the-nation pilot project in which achievement is measured by performance on tasks created by teams of teachers, rather than on standardized tests. MST-HS has become its own showcase of innovation, created with students like Hope in mind, students who might not flourish in a traditional high school but enjoy learning math and other skills with the help of sprockets and spokes.

New Hampshire’s quiet education revolution, if it proves successful, could inspire a dramatically different future for American schools.

Tessa Arrigo sits at a drafting board, her pink polished nails gently turning a compass to bisect an angle. She swivels on her stool to consult a computer for a self-paced series of 26 exercises in instrument drafting.

The sophomore is part of Design Communication, the “cool” career pathway that enticed her to try this school. She’s considering a future in biomedical engineering. The classroom – a sleek studio with state-of-the-art equipment and a creativity-inducing vibe – was designed by teacher and architect Stephen Koziatek. It has a lounge area for brainstorming and critiques, and shelves suspended from the ceiling to display models made with 3-D printers.

“It doesn’t feel like school,” Tessa says. “I hated coming to school in middle school…. But I actually enjoy coming to this school because it’s self-paced. I don’t feel stressed out too much because I have time to get things done.”

She opens her portfolio to a drawing of her mermaid chair. She has a beach-themed bedroom and recently dreamed up the scallop-backed seat for her industrial design project. First she had to research all the components that go into building a chair. Then she had to draw it from various angles and create an advertisement to sell it.

Mr. Koziatek (“Mr. K,” to the students) keeps up with what’s new in design so they’ll be well prepared, whether they go to work as a drafter, head to community college for a CAD (computer-aided design) certificate, or opt for a six-year master’s in architecture.

Each career program at MST-HS has an advisory board that includes professionals and partners from local businesses and colleges. They ensure the curriculum keeps up with changes in the field, and they set up internships for students and allow them to shadow professionals. Koziatek hears from students who have gone on to college that “they’re the ones that are, in some cases, showing the other kids how to do things.”

The high-tech and academically demanding nature of some of the career programs at MST-HS often surprises people in the community, who remember its roots as a vocational school in the 1980s. “They really have that stereotype … that it’s for kids that can’t make it academically, so here all they do is work with their hands,” Koziatek says.

Education policy makers understand that the world of work has changed, and that for long-term success, some college-level education is going to be required for most people to earn a living wage. Career-tech schools with strong academics show that “there are multiple pathways to it,” says Shaun Dougherty, a professor at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education.

Many students are attracted to MST-HS’s motto: “As fast as you want, as slow as you need.”

The academic grading system at the school is 1 through 4, with students progressing along the scale from fall to summer, or until they reach Level 3, which means they’ve demonstrated competency in all the key elements of a course. Reaching Level 4 means they’ve gone above and beyond.

“At a normal school, you could skate by and get a C,” says junior Tyler Burke. “But here … instead of doing a paper just ’cause I had to do it, I have to be able to know it and give the teacher an example of it. Now I know stuff really well,” he says during manufacturing class, above the din of a student grinding metal.

During open houses, teachers tell prospective students they have to be self-motivated. “That’s part of the model: There’s a lot of freedom,” says English and humanities teacher Jillian Corey. But students also have to take ownership of their learning. “With first-year students, we spend a lot of time initiating them, breaking down old ways of thinking,” she says. Barely passing “does not exist here…. That blows their mind.”

Another challenge: Too many of the students take the mantra “as long as you need” too literally in completing their work. So school principal Karen Hannigan Machado says the staff has been working to build into courses more self-direction, perseverance, and planning – traits often included in lists of “21st-century skills” that employers seek.

Like many high schools in New Hampshire, this one is working toward having students move on to new classes or alternative learning opportunities as soon as they’ve mastered the coursework. It’s not an easy transformation, but it’s already happening in the side-by-side, self-paced math classrooms run by Amanda Egan and Callan Cardin. In the middle of a 100-minute block, a girl walks up to Ms. Cardin and hands in her final test for a geometry unit. The teacher immediately pulls out the materials to get the student started on the next section.

In Ms. Egan’s room, freshman Matthew Peterson works on his final unit for Algebra I, erasing mistakes as he talks through a graphing problem with a student teacher. “I’m just about done,” Matthew says, wearing a T-shirt plastered with images of cash, of the math course.

He expects to be ready to move to Geometry the following week, with two months still to go in the school year. “I’m already ahead, rather than having to slow down and wait,” he says. Matthew has some incentive: Finishing Geometry is a prerequisite for starting the popular Game Design program.

The day before, freshman John Thornton had fulfilled his promise to finish Algebra I before April vacation. “I walked right into the Geometry classroom and asked for a full unit and started doing it as soon as I got home,” he says. He finished six out of eight papers for the new unit that very night.

Not everyone is so self-motivated. To help students not fall too far behind, teachers often work with them to set goals, and Egan even offers small prizes for meeting them. The students say they don’t need rewards, but, Egan says, “it helps. They’re still kids.”

Out of 30 students in Egan’s Algebra I class, 29 are on track to either complete it this year or take “summer recovery” courses rather than having to come back in the fall. That’s a big improvement over last year, when she and Cardin first started the self-paced approach.

She also 10th-graders perform in line with the national norm for math, she says, but 11th-graders surpass it. She thinks that’s because they are able to apply the skills they built up in the first two years.

The self-paced approach addresses a problem many teachers around the nation face. Advanced students often feel stunted because they have to sit through the basic instruction that many of the others in class need. “But with the self-paced program, we cater to every type of student,” says Cardin. “I just love it.”

Teens gravitate to MST-HS for a variety of reasons. Some like the small setting. Some are self-proclaimed geeks or students who have been bullied in other schools and feel more comfortable here, Ms. Machado says.

Of the 325 full-time students, about 25 percent require accommodations because of disabilities or medical issues. The school, which started in 2012, hopes to expand, because it usually has a wait list of at least 50 students after all the seats are filled through a lottery. Another 437 students come part time from “feeder”

While competency-based education offers the potential for improving educational equity by tailoring learning to students’ individual needs, it also comes with risks. One is what happens if slower students never catch up. “If we’re not able to give [struggling students] effective support, and the others take off, then we are exacerbating achievement gaps, hurting the kids that this model is designed to help,” says Mr. Toch of FutureEd.

But Cardin says she has witnessed students who would be trapped in low-level classes in a traditional high school come here and surpass expectations. She points to one boy who took a year and a half to finish Algebra I, so he came into her Geometry class well into the school year. “Now he’s ahead of almost everyone else in the class,” she says, because he took advantage of custom-fit resources and instruction.

Not everyone is excelling academically, though. On the SAT exam, 21 percent of MST-HS 11th-graders scored proficient or above in math in 2015-16, compared with 28 percent in Manchester and 40 percent statewide. Scores for reading showed similar gaps, but such disparities often reflect demographic differences – and at this school, in particular, many students struggle with traditional testing. Yet the dropout rate here is very low – less than 3 percent.

Perhaps most unusual about the school is the inventive nature of the instruction. It requires flexibility and adventurousness on the part of both students and teachers.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, when we have a successful lesson, it’s because we didn’t pull it out of a textbook,” says Ms. Robinson of the geometry and physical science class.

The mingling of academics with real-world problems can lead to unexpected moments of discovery. Kevin McDonnell, who teaches Green Technology, recalls when his students were concerned about too much algae in the big blue tubs where they keep fish for a project that combines hydroponics and aquaculture. In science, they had just learned about freshwater plankton and realized the organisms could eat the algae. Problem solved.

“That was amazing,” Mr. McDonnell says. “That’s what we’re hoping to go for, building-wide – their ability to make that connection….”

Sitting on couches in the Game Design classroom, four teenage boys rank the traits of characters they are creating, such as charisma and stamina, when Jonathan Richard declares: “This class taught me English!”

His friends agree, saying they recently watched an anime film that helped them understand story arc and other concepts their English teacher has offered up in different contexts. “It was deep,” Jonathan says.

In Game Design, “if they don’t know how to break down a story and write good concepts, then they’re in trouble,” says teacher Ryan Frasca.

Over in the Algebra I class, Egan sends two students, Nayshalee Rodriguez and Conor Flanagan, on a mission to check three ramps in the school to see if they are in compliance with the ADA (which they’ll learn later is the Americans with Disabilities Act). She suggests they borrow a tape measure from the manufacturing teacher, and then they’re on their own.

They struggle at first, not sure exactly how to measure the height and length of the ramp and translate that into the “rise over run” formula for slope. It’s the kind of exploration that Egan says will motivate real learning. When they come back with their first round of “crazy measurements,” she gives them just enough guidance that they feel confident to try again, and eventually they can show that the ramps do indeed comply.

When the four-year high school first opened, both teachers and students found the adjustment to competency-based grading awkward. Machado, as principal, was given a shoestring budget and only three months of planning time to open the school. But some of the early graduates now see the benefits of having to be self-starters, even if they didn’t then.

Trevor Harrington says he didn’t care about learning until his time at MST-HS. “Now, two semesters into college, I’m almost an entirely A student,” says the 2016 graduate who attends Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “And it’s because the teachers, although they were not always perfect … taught in a way that made us appreciate the education.”

Several of his fellow graduates agree. One of them used college credits earned senior year to jump-start her university education. Another says he can work in great restaurants to help pay for college, because of the culinary program he took – but exploring that in high school also saved him from investing more time and money in a career he decided he didn’t want after all.

Teachers, too, have thrived with the experimentation. “I’ve grown far more as a professional than I honestly feel that I would have in a traditional kind of school setting,” says Ms. Corey.

Despite all the innovation going on in schools across the country, most classrooms remain fairly traditional in their approach to learning. Perhaps as a result, only 38 percent of public school students in one national survey said most or all of their classes challenged them to their full potential. To bring deeper learning into classrooms on a large scale would require a “seismic shift” that could take generations, says Jal Mehta, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in a report published by Jobs for the Future.

New Hampshire has a head start. High schools here have been shifting into competency-based education since 2005, and some districts have voluntarily transformed all their grade levels to the new approach.

Challenges remain. One is explaining the new way of grading to parents – and college admissions counselors. For those who go straight to a college program aligned with what they studied at MST-HS, that’s not usually a problem.

But generally there will be a transition period, Toch says, in which some colleges may be skeptical of competency-based transcripts. The traditional high school credit represents a standardized measure of time spent in the classroom, even though it may not equate to actual learning. It’s a currency colleges understand, he says. Mr. Harrington had to explain his grades to an admissions officer at SNHU.

“Thank God they had individualized comments” by teachers on the transcript, he says. But having seen his teachers learn as they go, he’s better able to adapt to new situations. “College is a lot like this school,” Harrington says. “Every year is different.”


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools