Category Archives: how teachers teach

Students as Digital Rebels, Wanderers, and Pioneers (Craig Peck, et. al.) Part 2

Craig Peck and his colleagues studied two high schools in Southeastern U.S., one–Downtown–was urban and minority while Newlands was mostly white and suburban. Part 1 described student and teacher use of school and personal devices in Downtown high school. The full text including citations is in DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools.

We discovered that, as the old ways of schooling such as bell schedules, paper tests, and seats in rows intersected with tech-savvy, [personal media device-or] PMD-equipped teenagers, a “digital disconnect” (Selwyn, 2011) surfaced between digital youth and their brick and mortar schools. This situation produced a setting fertile for cultural incubation similar to the creative tensions present in an examination of technology in two American high schools a decade past (Peck, Cuban, & Kirkpatrick, 2002).

In that case, nascent ICT integration in schools helped foster the development of two types of students: “Open Door” students who improved academically and gained social acceptance through technology, and “Tech Gods” who played a crucial role in helping technology coordinators maintain the schools’ technology infrastructures.

Roughly 10 years later, during our study at Newlands and Downtown, we recognized three new types of students emerging in addition to the Open Door students and Tech Gods profiled a decade earlier. Two of these new classifications, Digital Rebels and Cyber Wanderers, included students from across the socioeconomic status spectrum. The other group was more homogeneous: eLearning Pioneers were primarily White, high-achieving students at Newlands High School. …

Digital Rebels

….We encountered students who utilized their PMDs as means to rebel, overtly or surreptitiously, against school and teacher rules. Skilled students sent text messages routinely during lessons. Without the teacher’s (or at times, the observer’s) knowledge, these students used their clothing and objects for cover; some typed responses in their pockets without looking at their device. A few students pushed the bounds further by setting up proxies on school computers to bypass school district filters and access popular social media sites. In addition, students who possessed mobile phone data plans (or shared those of their parents) could use their PMDs to access any online social media they wished, given that the school district’s Internet filters could not block such activity on proprietary wireless networks.

A White male 10th grader at Newlands High School proved particularly adept at evading classroom rules against PMD usage. He explained that he was able to type text messages without looking, so he only had to read incoming messages. He stated, “I’m normally a two-hander with my phone, but if I was just sitting here like this I could send a message just fine [in my pocket].” He later revealed that he did in fact send a text message during his interview, unbeknownst to the researcher. He also explained that he possessed skills that would have enabled him to help fix instructors’ ICT issues, much like the Tech Gods profiled in a study a decade ago (Peck et al., 2002). But he also revealed that he was reluctant to share such knowledge: “I don’t speak up about it. . . . Not big on fixing things like that.” When asked to explain his reluctance to provide technology aid to his teachers, he remarked, “Don’t want to help the teachers—it’s time off class . . . ‘cause they’re going to have to call someone to fix it.”

This Digital Rebel, in essence, seemed to express a willingness to undermine a lesson through silent inaction.

At Downtown High, an 11th-grade African American female student described when and how she text-messaged during a lesson: “Well if I’m in class and I get a text, usually I wait until the class is working on some kind of work, but it’s mostly after the teacher explains it.” She estimated sending about 100 text messages on a typical day, with far fewer during the actual school hours. In fact, she described concerns with having PMDs in schools.

In her own words, “There’s cheating. They give the answers during text messages. Or if someone’s planning to have a fight, they’ll just do it through the phones. They’ll text and meet up there and everyone will know where to go. And that kind of blocks the way of it being broken up [by adult supervisors], which is kind of dangerous.”

In this sense, seemingly innocent acts of rebellion could actually transform into significant acts of danger.

Teachers possessed limited means to fight back against the apparent digital insurrection. As we shadowed students throughout their school days, teachers confiscated student PMDs that had been used in ways that disrupted instruction. Yet, most often the teachers simply returned the devices to the students at the end of the period, seemingly satisfied to have induced a brief respite in their ongoing digital communications. Other teachers ignored student PMD use or adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach of benign neglect. Still other educators did go to great lengths to disrupt student technology use.

In one case at Downtown High School, a coach made all her players turn in their phones to her at the beginning of school as a tactic for preventing PMD-inspired confrontations during the day; a student participant revealed that a friend of hers circumvented this deterrent by carrying multiple mobile phones: one to turn in to the coach, and the others to keep and use. In another case at Downtown High School, two teachers used personal funds to purchase cell phone blockers in the hopes of eliminating student PMD usage during class time. Administrators subsequently sent all teachers a memorandum forbidding this solution. The principal explained that the blockers interfered with the administrators’ cell phones, which constituted a safety issue. The principal added that any teacher using the cell phone blockers would be held personally liable in the event that aid was delayed to a sick or injured school constituent.

An administrator at Newlands discussed how the possible release valve provided by a student-appropriate PMD use policy did not always lead to student acceptance of usage rules. She explained,

“One student told me, ‘You know, this is a new world and this is a new age.’ And I had to [confiscate his cell phone] because he refused to give it up in gym. And he just said, ‘It’s a new world, a new age.’And I explained the policy and I said I realized that. And he said, “You check yours all the time, too.”. . . It is a new world and we have to start to identify and look at all that we are trying to impose on students. Is it old values? It’s not the same.”

Such technology-fueled conundrums carried over to her relations with her own teenage son. She described some of the virtues of PMDs: “I know that any time I want him, I know I can get him.” She still struggled like many parents with what she called the “trust issue,” stating that she needs to know who he is texting, or, as she stated it, “making sure that when you text—who you’re texting, what are you texting, making sure I know all that.”

A White male 11th grader at Downtown High School perhaps best summed up the dilemmas regarding PMD use and access that educators face today. He stated,

“You’re never going to stop it, there’s no way you can. I mean, [there are] people that know computers. They know technology, it’s like they could do it all on the back of their hand, sleeping. I mean, they know their ways around technology. I mean you just give a guy a new technology and let him play with it a couple of days and he’ll figure it out like nothing…..”

Cyber Wanderers

During our research, we also met students for whom, much like the Open Door students profiled in a previous study (Peck et al., 2002), technology proved essential. One such student from Newlands explained,

“Main reason I love this school is because: Wi-Fi throughout the whole school, which is great. You can go on the web like during lunch or whatever. I’ll be in the library during lunch and I’ll open up my laptop and whatever, browse the web and everything. Sometimes, most of the time when I’m in math or English I’ll write my notes and write my essays on my laptop.”

By this student’s own testimony and that of his teachers, technology enabled his academic success and social adjustment. Some students in our study, however, became so immersed in or overwhelmed by new media technology that they meandered between the real and virtual worlds. To such students, whom we dubbed Cyber Wanderers, the lure of technology presented a possible danger: They could succumb to ICT as a powerful distraction rather than seize it as a powerful tool, or use ICT to engage in an environment that offered the potential for anonymous hostility.

At Newlands, for example, we met an African American 10th-grade male student who was an avid online gamer, explaining that sometimes “people will wind up cursing when I do something wrong or mess up.” Conversely, he admitted using the screen name “heartless jerk” in an online gaming forum and “made one member quit” because of his harsh comments.

We also encountered a White male 10th-grade student at Downtown High School who checked his phone during our interview to discover, to his surprise, that he had sent 18,287 text messages the previous month alone. He described his text messaging as almost instinctual:

“Well I start sending text messages usually ‘cause I haven’t talked to somebody in a while and [there are] some certain people you know that I maintain a constant texting conversation with. You know and I’ll just text them sometimes to ask them something in particular and sometimes just to start up a conversation, so it’s just kind of I realize that I’m you know, starting a conversation but I don’t really think about it, if that makes sense . . . I just kind of do it.”

He also seemed cognizant that his text messaging had serious consequences:

“My texting has probably gotten in the way of some learning . . .In Algebra 2 . . . if you don’t get it at the beginning it kind of puts you in a hole. . . . So I’ve kind of had to play catch up here.” Adding to his issues, he explained, “[I] definitely play a lot of video games while texting . . . in a way that kind of runs into a problem sometimes.” Cyber Wanderers such as these could find themselves thoroughly lost in electronic worlds while being inattentive to the formal curriculum.

eLearning Pioneers

In the media center of the predominantly White and affluent Newlands High School, a small group of female students spent a fair portion of their days immersed in online learning. Loosely monitored by the school’s media coordinators, youth whom we called eLearning Pioneers sat at computers and studied advanced Chinese or AP computer science while most other students throughout the school attended traditional classes. During one typical period during a school day, each of three students sat individually at one of the 30 desktop computers arranged around the media center; two of the students were engaged in online learning activities. The online courses could be noticeably self-paced. A staff member who participated in our research reported that one of our study’s students took a virtual 8-month-long biology course; the student expended little effort for 6 months before completing all assignments successfully over the final 2 months of the allotted course time.

The eLearning Pioneers at Newlands included another of our study participants, a White 10th-grader who took two AP classes and a math class online in the school media center and attended two regular classes before going home. For her online courses, message boards and email provided the central means for teacher–student and student–student interaction. She noted,

“In online classes . . . generally speaking, you pace yourself. Especially with my English class . . . she gives you the assignments and she gives you a syllabus for where you should be. But you turn them in at your own pace and you take tests when you can . . . you have a tab that you can click on and go to your ‘My Grades.’ It has the assignment, and what grade you got, and out of what and all the assignments you’re going to need to complete for the rest of the year . . . it’s easier to keep up with things. You know, like, I’m supposed to post to the discussion board today. You go and do that.”

 

Our shadowing of our participant during a typical day neatly captured the hybrid nature of her educational experience. In AP environmental science, she sat with 18 classmates and completed a written unit examination; once finished with the test, the class watched a nature DVD played with the teacher’s laptop computer and broadcast by digital projector. Our participant returned to the media center to complete an assignment for her AP computer science course, which was offered through the state’s virtual public school program. She returned to a classroom with 20 students to engage in a lesson for Latin II, during which the teacher led students through a line-by-line translation of a text excerpt. Our research subject then departed from campus, with designs on completing an assignment for her AP English course offered through another state’s virtual education program. Her AP English instructor, whom our student had met only virtually but described as “amazing,” posted pictures of her own children, wanting to connect more personally with her students. Our subject reported,

“I’ll do an assignment and I’ll turn it in, like an essay or something,and then she’ll send me feedback and say, ‘This was good but your introduction’s a little weak.’ Or ‘You need to do this.’”

We wondered whether our participant—an independent, self-motivated eLearning Pioneer—offered a glimpse into the American high school future (Christensen et al.,)

 

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Digital Youth in Brick and Mortar Schools (Craig Peck, et. al)*

 

University researcher Craig Peck and colleagues including a high school teacher studied two schools in southeastern U.S. to see the interplay between students, teacher use of technologies and students’ personal media devices during the school day. In the two high schools (one urban and the other suburban), these factors interacted in complex ways that go well beyond what advocates for schools becoming more high-tech have either promised or foresaw. As part of the research design and methodology, the researchers shadowed ten students through their school day. To illustrate those interactions and display that complexity, the researchers offer a snippet of one student’s day in the urban, largely minority high school. The full text of the article published in Teachers College Record, May 2015 is in (DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools)

 

One Friday morning in late spring, the instructional day began at Downtown High School, located in a large Southeastern United States school district. African-American 11th-grader Joanna Miller and 19 other students entered room 321 for their Small Business course, a technology-infused elective, and took seats in front of desktop computers. The session began as a guest speaker, a 1961 Downtown High School alumnus who had retired from a career as a lawyer and business person, described his work experiences, discussed resume tips, and offered motivational words.

The course instructor transitioned the students into the day’s assignment: They completed computer-based multiple-choice responses regarding business term definitions and reviewed for a test that coming Monday on creating a personal “business image.” The teacher monitored student progress through a program on his computer that provided a real-time screen shot of each student-assigned computer.

This system allowed him to lock individual computers or the entire group to provide updates or check that everyone was on task. At one point, a student tried to access a popular social media website through a proxy but had the action blocked by the monitoring program. The teacher’s computer-based monitoring of the students actually seemed rather laissez-faire. At one point, several students were engaged in completing the assignment, while a few others were completing work for other courses, surfing the web, or, at intermittent moments, quickly texting on their personal media devices. Joanna, in fact, used her computer to complete the assignment’s multiple-choice responses. She explained to the researcher how she preferred the online format because it allowed her to retake questions she answered incorrectly.

After the bell rang, signaling time to move to the next period, Joanna continued on with her school day. She encountered instructional technology along the way, including when fellow students used a computer-interactive whiteboard for problem demonstrations in mathematics. In other courses like English, decades-old practices predominated as students sitting at desks arranged in traditional rows completed a photocopied crossword puzzle regarding a classic play. In Latin, the instructor engaged students in a discussion regarding Celtic mythology and read a myth from a book. In this sense, her instructional day offered Joanna a mix of technology-rich and technology-free experiences. Despite the varied nature of instruction, one technology pervasive throughout the day was student personal media devices.

Downtown High School rules specifically prohibited students from bringing technology like cellular phones and digital music players to school. In classrooms and in the halls, however, headphones dangled from ears and tiny keyboards met eager text-typing thumbs as students routinely, if often surreptitiously, indulged in their favored virtual electronic communication modes.

In some cases, educational spaces became contested domains. In math, the teacher confiscated Joanna’s cell phone (which a classmate was using) and two others. The teacher returned the devices at the end of class with a stern admonition against further use. In Joanna’s Latin course, meanwhile, instruction in the aged language competed against modern times as one student in particular showed a remarkable affinity for modern multitasking. Shielding her personal media device beneath her desk, the student quickly tapped out text messages. She also used a pen to write notes to secretly pass onto classmates and, for good order, offered periodic comments to the larger discussion pertaining to Celtic mythology.

In part 2, Craig Peck and his colleagues describe the different kinds of students they encountered and their use of technology based on interviews and following students into classes in both the suburban and urban high schools.

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*Craig Peck is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was one of my graduate students who assisted me on a study of teacher and student technology use at two Northern California high schools in 1998-1999

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Who Said Teachers Don’t Have a Sense of Humor?

Instead of cartoons this month, I am posting a series of photos about teacher humor. Of the 30-plus photos that I saw, these are the ones that made me laugh. Enjoy!

All of the photos come from .imgur.com / Via reddit.com    If you want to see full array of the photos, see here.

 

This physics teacher knows what the kids are into:

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This teacher knows how to deter students from forgetting to bring a pen:

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This teacher gives the best weekend homework:

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This teacher values his office hours:

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This teacher keeps her students focused during exams:

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This teacher should transfer to the economics department:

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This teacher will never see this spelling mistake from this student ever again:

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This physics teacher knows how to throw a curveball on a test:

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This history teacher knows there’s always time for a lesson:

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This teacher just shut down texters everywhere:

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And this math teacher has a passion for learning:

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This teacher has been around Middle Earth once or twice:

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The Dilemma of Fast, Cheap, and Good: You Can Only Pick Two

Teachers, principals, researchers, and parents face dilemmas daily. For readers of this post, the most common they face is the tension between personal and professional values—spend time with family and friends vs. spend time at work. Because time is limited, you cannot do it all–choices have to be made. Compromises and tradeoffs are inevitable. From CEOs to software designers to single Moms to marketing consultants, these dilemmas are ever present.

For entrepreneurs, start-up innovators, policymakers, principals, and teachers who initiate projects there is a another dilemma that won’t go away. The dilemma is choosing among three competing values: do the project fast, do it cheap, and do it “good.” Why do you have to choose? Because resources are limited–time, people, money–you can only do two. You cannot have it all.

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Constraints that won’t go away require choices. You want to have the highest quality project, i.e., “good,” but to get that, it takes time and time often means that costs rise. It won’t be cheap. Film director Jim Jarmusch captures the tensions that exist between speed, quality, and price (not only in dollars but in time and people). These tradeoffs in managing the dilemma derive from not only high-tech start-ups aimed at the school market  but also apply to classroom teachers,  principals, superintendents, and school boards as well.

Consider the Los Angeles fiasco of buying and distributing Apple iPads (see here and here). The Superintendent and school board thought they could get “good” by doing it “fast” and “cheap.” They failed miserably. The superintendent resigned. A year later, the fallout from these decisions still rock the district.

Now consider teachers who want to begin project-based learning (PBL) in their classrooms. What comes across in their accounts is that they didn’t implement it all at once but started a piece of project based learning–say getting students to ask questions–and worked on it before expanding it to an entire lesson (see here and here) . They chose “good”  over “fast.” They invested their time incrementally to learn how best to pull off project-based learning. Those investments of teacher time add up and make it expensive in teacher time but workable with students in a lesson.

For a classroom, putting an innovation into practice is one thing, expanding the innovation to an entire school is another. To build project-based learning across an entire high school is also done in increments and takes longer (see here)   The switch from one pedagogy to another or installing a new way of teaching across all subjects courts failure when done in one fell swoop. In those high schools where teachers put into practice PBL, more often than not, it occurred in chunks. Two steps forward, one step backward. Trial and error. And it takes time.  “Good” trumps “fast.” Implementation involving teacher time in picking up expertise at every step of the way, however, is seldom cheap.

The same constraint-ridden dilemma of choosing among “good,”fast”, and “cheap” and then putting the program into practice incrementally applies to a district also. Look at a largely minority district with nearly 25,000 students that has, over thirty five years–yes, for more than three decades–sustained academic improvement, reduced the achievement gap between minorities and whites, and introduced many organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional changes slowly, carefully, and incrementally in those years. The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. For an urban district, that kind of continuity in leadership borders on extraordinary.

Using pilot programs to introduce innovations slowly and evaluating outcomes, the district has approached implementation of new ideas and practices incrementally in order to offer quality programs to students. Fast and cheap rollouts of technology, new curricula, and different organizations seldom occurred.  For  example, in 2006, school officials introduced the a Spanish Immersion program in the elementary schools.Teachers were recruited, selected, trained to offer the instruction. Students spent 90 to 135 minutes weekly in Spanish beginning in kindergarten and then eventually instruction extended into the upper grades. At each step of the way, district officials communicated with parents, listened to their concerns and those of teachers, and made changes as the program was rolled out. Spanish Immersion language programs are currently in 17 out of 22 Arlington County elementary schools. Over a decade, then, a new program was introduced incrementally and is considered by school officials, practitioners, and parents. “Good” trumped “fast.” Costs in administrative and teacher time, professional development,and instructional materials surely added up and the dollar cost would appear large until those costs are amortized over a decade and the number of students served.

Classes using new pedagogies, schools putting instructional innovations into practice, and total district changes have to deal with iron-clad constraints–“fast,” “cheap,” and “good”. Choices have to be made because no one can have it all. With continuity in leadership, a commitment to careful implementation in bite-sized increments, the dilemma can be managed successfully.

 

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High Performing Minority Districts: An Anomaly?

For the past half-century, efforts to improve largely minority and poor schools have occupied the best minds and received substantial private and public monies. Recall the Effective Schools movement of the 1980s and the federally funded Comprehensive School Reform program in the 1990s.  In the past quarter-century, however, there has been a shift from federal and state officials and private donors looking at individual schools to focusing on districts as the key site for academic improvement. This shift in attention from the individual school to the district marks a return to what has been the historic  pattern of improving schools.

Turning around failing urban districts through law (e.g. No Child Left Behind), federal grants (e.g., School Improvement Grants in the Race To The Top program), and cash prizes (e.g., The Broad Prize in Urban Education) are only the most recent of many well-intentioned efforts. There are, of course, urban districts, large and small, poor and minority, that have been high performing academically but in most of these cases, they were like shooting stars—brilliant for a time, maybe enough to snatch an award, and get cited in a study then poof, gone from sight (see here for Chicago and Atlanta as high achieving districts). The suspension of the one million dollar Broad Prize in Urban Education (2015) underscores how enormously difficult it is for urban districts to maintain improved academic performance. There are, then, very few urban, largely minority districts that have sustained high academic achievement (whatever the metrics) for a decade or more through demographic shifts and school board and superintendent turnover. I did say “very few” so there are some.

Examples might help. The Minority Student Achievement Network  of small cities and first-ring suburbs with 3,000 to 33,000 students has academically high performing districts with sustained improvements using multiple measures. Federal Way (WA), Evanston (IL), Brookline (MA), and Arlington (VA) have demonstrated reductions in the white/minority achievement gap, rising test scores, high graduation and low dropout rates. These districts, to the best of my knowledge have gone unresearched and unevaluated by independent agencies and scholars.

The significant and unaddressed policy question is: How can a largely minority urban school system sustain high student performance in its schools, and classrooms for decades?

Unfortunately, district improvement remains a black box into which hunches, anecdotes, and personal experiences are tossed in the hope that dedication, hard work, and luck will turn failure into success. The absence of relevant research on long-term, high achieving urban districts has been painfully, even embarrassingly, obvious. Looking at a few urban districts that have had sustained success in raising and maintaining high academic achievement over time is a research strategy that can have substantial policy payoff since it is the district that has capacity and resources to make key governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes.

Some analysts have identified urban districts that have raised and sustained students’ achievement (e.g., Long Beach, California and Aldine, Texas—both past Broad Prize winners) but independent in-depth, longitudinal studies of those districts have yet to be done. A few researchers have discovered such urban districts that have achieved academic success over longer periods of time. David Kirp (Improbable Scholars, 2013) did that for Union City (NJ); Jane David and Joan Talbert researched Sanger (CA) over the past decade (Turning Around a High-Poverty District, 2013). These qualitative case studies of districts with about 10,000 students each documented various factors that researchers believe answer the how-they-did-it question (e.g., superintendent tenure, school board continuity, funding, principal leadership, district culture). What configuration of factors might explain the decades-long high academic performance of these and other districts, I cannot say now. Until researchers investigate systematically such high performing districts, no policymaker, practitioner, or parent would find out whether patterns that have been studied would compliment, challenge, or amend what has occurred in the few urban districts that have already been examined.

But there is one important factor that would need to be added to the research agenda for such studies.  When investigating uncommonly successful urban districts, the classroom impact of policies on teachers goes unreported. Little systematic examination of the link between adopted policies and actual classroom lessons has been done beyond occasional teacher surveys. In any study of high performing, largely minority districts, I and other researchers should examine academic subjects to determine the impact of system policy on classroom content and pedagogy over time. Recently, I have studied the teaching of history over the past half-century in two urban districts. “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Classroom Instruction” (forthcoming from Harvard Education Press). Were I to do such a study of successful urban districts, I would not only look at demographic, political and organizational factors that may explain continuity in academic achievement over time but also inspect what happens in classroom lessons to see what links, if any, exist between district policy and classroom practice.

Investigating urban schools that have sustained academic achievement over time is surely worthwhile but limited since such a school may be a few blocks away from a school that continually fails its students. It is the stable, high-performing district as the unit of reform that offers the most gain for the largest number of students that needs to be studied and analyzed.

 

 

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Hollywood, HBO, and School Reform (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discussed the doctoral dissertation of Derisa Grant who tried to unravel the puzzle of Hollywood films moving from superhero teachers to “bad” teachers over the past few decades. In Part 2, I point out how Hollywood films about teachers epitomize the dominant American cultural value of an individual overcoming all obstacles ignoring the substantial influence of the school and community. Consider the film portrayals of English teacher Erin Gruwell and math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski.

Not only 3000 miles separate English teacher Erin Gruwell at Wilson High School in Long Beach (CA) in the film “Freedom Writers” from math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Mr. P.) at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School in Baltimore (MD) in HBO’s “The Wire.” Based upon an actual novice white teacher, the celluloid Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, spurs her class to overcome poverty, gang banging, and utter pessimism about their future to write in their journals and eventually go to college. Mr. P, also a novice white teacher, played by Jim True-Frost, tries hard to get his 8th graders, to learn fractions, long division, and probability and stay out of selling drugs. Mr. P, however, is a fictitious character.

Yet what separates the two films about teaching poor and minority youth under grim conditions is neither the distance between Long Beach and Baltimore nor between high school English and middle school math or that one teacher is real and the other fictitious. What separates the films from one another is the implicit view in “Freedom Writers” of the road to reform being paved by stellar teachers while in “The Wire” that same road would require overhauling the entire institution. Ironically, then, Mr. P/Jim True-Frost, a fictitious teacher, captures the gritty conditions that urban school principals and teachers face far better than the film about an actual teacher Erin Gruwell/Hilary Swank.

To say that the Hollywood version of “Freedom Writers” is less true in portraying teaching in gang-ridden schools then HBO’s “The Wire” is only to re-state the obvious popularity of the film genre of innocent white teacher—think “Dangerous Minds”–making mistakes with troublesome students, encountering conflict after conflict with gang members and close-minded administrators only to overcome them amid a crescendo of music. Not only white females dominate this genre. “Stand and Deliver,” based on the experience of Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, follows the same pattern. The clear message is that gutsy, smart, hard working individual teachers can overcome student apathy and the powerful tug of the Street. Of course, there are such superheroic teachers who do the impossible 24/7. But they are not typical novices who, after a few years leave in droves from such schools.

Hollywood over-sells individual teachers while understating the institutional complexity of working in inadequately staffed, overly regulated schools where city politics, bureaucratic inertia, and sheer drudgery shape classroom practice as much as what students bring to school. HBO gets it right in fictitious Tilghman middle school where Mr. P, a former police officer, teaches.

Why is Mr. P’s portrayal closer to the truth of urban schools? Over five seasons, “The Wire”—title refers to a police unit recording drug dealers’ business transactions to gather evidence for their arrest—goes well beyond West Baltimore and those who sell drugs. The series explored families involved in the drug trade and families not yet hooked, corrupt police bureaucrats, City Hall politics, dirty union leaders at the Port of Baltimore, and, for an entire season, schools. “The Wire” looked at institutions and how racial politics in the police department, among city officials, and the schools interact to affect one another. A newly elected ambitious white mayor of a predominately black city and bureaucracy, for example, has to find a new police commissioner, cut the budget, and do something about the school district whose schools are underperform academically.

Enter Mr. P., a former Baltimore City police officer, who has neither charisma nor teaching experience. He makes the usual novice mistakes, has a hard time managing his 8th graders, and an even harder time getting them to focus on math. Unruly students erupt into fights at real or imagined slights. Many cannot follow the textbook. A few are super-bright and with a little prodding grasp the math concepts. Mr. P’s patience and decency slowly wins over a core of students but not all. Finally, he gets some students interested in learning probability through throwing dice. But at the next faculty meeting, the assistant principal announces that because the school’s test scores are so low all classes will focus on reading and math skills for the upcoming state test. Good soldier as he is, Mr. P switches lessons and prepares his students for the state test at the same time that a few of the promising 8th graders get enmeshed in the drug trade.

The Hollywood genre of heroic teachers overcoming obstacles promises better schools through individuals staying the course. While such films are popular, this optimistic strategy of reforming urban schools is doomed because it ignores the institutional side of schools and how teaching and learning are affected as much by the Street as they are by school bureaucrats, city officials, and other agencies. HBO’s “The Wire” portrays schools as deeply flawed institutions sailing through teachers’ and students’ lives more concerned about surviving than teaching or learning. Surely, the Mr. Ps in this world salvage individual youngsters but are tossed about like confetti on a windy day. This complex, realistic view of urban school reform as institutional renewal has little room for heroics. And truth be told, are hard to translate to the screen and make money. Far easier is to focus on the individual rather than the organization. Even highly-touted films of urban charter school (e.g., “Waiting for Superman“–a documentary and “Won’t Back Down“–a Hollywood production showing two mothers who seize the school from a corrupt teachers’ union)  succumb to the fairy tale view of superheroes conquering poverty and difficult students. These film versions of school reform may have box-office appeal (one was a financial hit; the other was a flop). But in focusing on iconic teachers conquering all obstacles, they offer little guidance to today’s policymakers or for teachers caught in the web of institutional shortcomings and the poverty that continue to pervade U.S. urban districts.

 

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From Superhero Teacher to Bad Teacher: Hollywood Films Then and Now (Part 1)

Two weeks ago, I was one of the examiners of a doctoral student’s dissertation. After becoming emeritus professor, I have avoided such tasks but this student’s work captured my attention because it helped unravel a puzzle that had bugged me for the decades in which I had seen Hollywood films about teaching and schools. Like Derisa Grant, the doctoral student whose dissertation I read–she passed the oral examination–I had noticed that Hollywood’s portrayal of teachers had changed over the years. Think Dead Poets Society (1989). Think Stand and Deliver (1988). Now think Half Nelson (2006) and Bad Teacher (2011). By actually counting the Hollywood films made in the 1980s and 1990s and those in the past decade and how they depicted teachers as positive or negative characters, Grant made the point that there was a change in film portrayals of teachers.

From private school teacher John Keating (fictional) to high school math teacher Jaime Escalante (actual person),  superhero film-teachers in earlier decades bent the minds of their students making a profound difference in their students’ lives. Neither Harlem middle school English teacher, Dan Dunne (fictional) nor Elizabeth Halsey (fictional) middle school teacher near Chicago, however, were movie superheroes; they were deeply flawed characters who entered teaching with mixed motives and whose behaviors were closer to immoral than any superhero teacher’s motives and behavior. Why the shift in Hollywood portrayals of teachers?

To be clear, in the two decades mentioned above, Hollywood still pumped out superhero teacher films like Music of the Heart (1999) with Meryl Streep and Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) starring Richard Dreyfus and Erin Gruwell (actual teacher) in Freedom Writers (2007) played by Hilary Swank, there was nonetheless an increase in negative portrayals of teachers. And it is that shift which is puzzling.

Seldom are made-in-Hollywood films about teachers accurate about what happens in schools and teachers; they are not supposed to capture how teachers actually teach or students behave. These films are expected to make money. But they do something else that is less obvious: they express larger social anxieties that Americans feel about education.

Box office revenues matter. They influence the choices studio and independent film-makers make in selecting the stories they want to tell on screen. What did some of the above films earn after being released? The highest money maker* of superhero teachers was Dead Poets Society (1989) with over $180 million (all receipts are in 2015 dollars); second highest was Kindergarten Cop (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger; it grossed $163 million. Bad Teacher (2011) made over $104 million with Freedom Writers (2007) coming in at $41 million. What about Half Nelson (2006)? It earned just over $3 million. The downward trajectory in revenues of Hollywood films about teachers is obvious. That downward slide, however, reflected major changes in the film industry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, fewer Americans went to movies. Home viewing of films proliferated and new technologies with screens of their own cut into Hollywood revenues. To counter that loss of audience, industry film-makers turned to comic book superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men–all of these films grossing $230 to $460 million–doubling to tripling the highest box office hits among teacher films. Out of comic book superheroes, the industry had constructed a money-making machine.

So with films featuring comic book heroes drawing in hundreds of millions of dollars shouldn’t there be more superhero teachers in films in the 2000s? While there were some, negative depictions of teachers increased considerably. Grant argues that the move from superheros to damaged teachers coincided with two changes, one in the film industry’s turn to comic book figures (see above)  and  the unrelenting and decades-long criticism-cum-reforms of U.S. schools.

Harsh and public criticism about failing schools, accompanied by growing centralization of decision-making on schools in state capitols and federal actions, raised serious questions about whether schools are, indeed, social escalators for motivated children and youth to succeed. If U.S. schools are failing and federal intervention is needed, how great can teachers be. A growing social anxiety about teacher and school effectiveness coincided with changes in the film industry. It is in this unplanned intersection of factors that one can come to understand–but not explain–how portrayals of teachers slowly changed. Hollywood films about teachers, then, express the hopes, aspirations, and  yes, the anxieties that screenwriters and audiences feel.

For example, over the past half-century, film-makers and audiences together worried over rebellious teenagers (Blackboard Jungle, 1955) poverty and urban schools (Cooley High, 1975), and uncaring teachers (Bad Teacher, 2011). As Grant put it: “a film provides an arena in which solutions to these cultural anxieties may be considered and reconsidered.”

Because so many factors are involved in figuring out why something happened such as increased numbers of films about damaged, imperfect teachers, the best that any scholar can do is to point out a relationship, a coincidence of factors coming together. It would be foolish to say that one thing or the other caused these negative depictions. What Grant ends up doing is constructing an interpretation of a change she detected in how Hollywood depicted teachers. It is not a cause-effect relationship, it is, well, just a correlation. And I thank her for getting me to think once again about this puzzling change in how teachers have been portrayed in films.

 

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*All statistics come from Derisa Grant’s dissertation, “From Superteacher to ‘Bad Teacher': Goals 2000, Comic Book Films,and Changing Depictions of Cinematic Educators,” June 2015.

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