Category Archives: how teachers teach

Teachers’ Use of Academic Research

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

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

Moreover, since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001—the law mentioned variations of “scientifically-based research” over 100 times– calls upon teachers to use research in classroom practice have multiplied. The federally funded “What Works Clearing House” founded in 2002 to “provide educators, policymakers, and the public with a central and trusted source of scientific evidence of what works in education,” concentrates on empirical studies meeting rigorous standards of effectiveness as measured by standardized test scores. No surprise, then, that frequent and intense interest in getting teachers to use knowledge harvested from research literature, especially from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, has increased dramatically in past decades.

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

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

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

There are reasons galore for why this puzzle exists. For some critics of academic research, the primary reason is that most studies answer questions teachers seldom ask. So many studies are largely irrelevant to those issues that bite at teachers daily. Other critics see the reason located in teachers themselves who are so immersed in a culture of practice where experience and stories carry far more weight than findings from scientific studies. And then there are those who point to the age-graded school and the structural constraints (e.g., tight schedules that leave little time for teachers to meet and discuss instructional issues, number of students taught) that fix teachers’ attention on daily logistics rather than applying results of scientific studies.

Whatever the reasons, most teachers, critics say, ignore the fruits of research studies that could be used to enhance both teaching and student learning. Instead most teachers rely on experience-based practice, that is, the authority that comes from their knowledge and skills gained through prior experience and the wisdom of respected colleagues.

The situation, however, is not as grim as critics would have it. Those familiar with the history of teaching know that certain ideas shaped and baked in academia, have, indeed, been adopted and adapted by teachers and put into practice in their classrooms. And that fact is an important clue to unraveling the conundrum.

One historian of education fortunately had pursued that puzzle. Jack Schneider takes that fact that some academic research has been adopted and turned it into an eye-opening book, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse (2014). He does what gifted songwriters do: create a new melody or rearrange a familiar one, add fresh lyrics and end up enthralling listeners. He did so by artfully building an original interpretation about teachers’ use of research. His “song” will surprise teacher educators, policymakers, researchers, and lay reformers baffled over the conundrum of teachers knowledgeable about research yet seldom adopting scientific findings to improve their classroom practice.

The central question that drives From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse is straightforward: what explains that some scholarly ideas, and not others, appeared in classrooms practices? He answers that question by examining Continue reading

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The Durability of Teacher Lecturing and Questioning: Historical Inertia or Creative Adaptation?

The lecture is 800 years old (Lecture). Teachers questioning students is millenia-old.

Yet these staples of instructional practice in K-12 and higher education, while criticized–often severely by pedagogical reformers–are alive and well in charter schools, regular public schools, and elite universities. Are these ways of teaching simply instances of traditional practices that stick like flypaper because they have  been around for a long time–inertia–or have these practices changed with the times because they are useful ways of communicating knowledge and learning?

LECTURE

Lecturing has been panned by pedagogical reformers for decades.  Over and over again, critics have said that lectures are inappropriate because students forget the facts and learn better when they interact with teachers. Furthermore, with so many high-tech ways of presenting information, prepared talks are obsolete. Yet lecturing remains the primary way professors teach undergraduate courses, high school teachers present information, gurus and officials across business and government communicate with followers (e.g., TED talks, podcasts, U.S. Presidents speaking from Oval Office).

If lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around? Surely, it is more than inertia or hewing to a sacrosanct tradition of  transmitting knowledge. With new technologies and media (e.g., the printing press, television, computers) no longer is the familiar (and medieval) dictation of text to students necessary. Yet the lecture persists.

As Norm Friesen argues (see The Lecture ) , the persistence of the lecture as a teaching tool for 800 years is due “to its flexibility and adaptability in response to changes in media and technology ….” Lecturing is performing, a way of conveying knowledge in a fresh way, a way of bridging oral tradition and visual culture that teachers, professors, and so many others have continually adapted to new media. Savvy lecturers use YouTube, Prezi, and other elaborate technical aids to turn talks into live performances. But not all professors and teachers are savvy; lecturers span the spectrum running from thought-provoking talks to eye-glazing tedium. So continuity and change have marked the path the lecture has taken over the centuries.

ASKING QUESTIONS

Socrates, according to Plato, was one sharp questioner. The persistence of teachers questioning students, seldom in the Socratic tradition, is familiar to both kindergartners and graduate students.

In U.S. classrooms, patterns of teachers questioning students based on what is in the text appeared in mid-19th century age-graded schools and self-contained classrooms; teachers were expected to complete chunks of the curriculum by a certain time. Students reciting passages from the text easily morphed into teachers asking students specific question after question. And there were periodic and end-of-year tests to insure that students absorbed what teachers taught.

*A researcher (p.153) cited an 1860 book on teaching methods: “Young teachers are very apt to confound rapid questioning and answers with sure and effective teaching”

*A classroom observer in 1893 described a teacher questioning her students’ knowledge of the text: “In several instances, when a pupil stopped for a moment’s reflection, the teacher remarked abruptly, ‘Don’t stop to think, but tell me what you know.’ ” Persistence of Recitation, p. 149)

*Between 1907-1911, a researcher using a stopwatch and stenographer observed 100 high school English, history, math, science, and foreign language lessons of teachers who principals had identified as superior. She found that teachers asked two to three questions per minute (pp. 41-42).

Many other studies document the historical use of questioning as the basis of classroom lessons.

What is not recorded in many of these studies is the teacher’s ever-present follow-up to a student’s answer:”correct,” “very good,” “incorrect,” “well done.” When a student’s answer is not what the teacher expected or wanted, the teacher will prompt the student with another question or give a clue to the right answer. In effect, teachers judge the quality of the answer and then move on to the next question. Using sociolinguistic theory researchers have analyzed these persistent forms of questioning as a cycle of Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE).

IRE is pervasive in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school seminars. Not the only form of questioning, but it is inextricably tied to the transmittal of information–a task that remains central to teaching, past and present.

And that is why lecturing and questioning have persisted as pedagogical tools. They are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques. With all of the concern for student-centered inquiry and using tougher questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy, one enduring function of schooling is to transfer academic knowledge and skills (both technical and social) to the next generation. Social beliefs in transmitting knowledge as a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. So lecturing and questioning will be around for many more centuries.

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Classrooms Around the World: What Do You See?

This post is a series of photographs of classrooms taken in 17 countries to mark UNESCO-sponsored World Teachers’ Day (October 5, 2015). Instead of my offering commentary on these diverse photos, I ask viewers to offer their impressions of these classrooms around the world.  I look forward to reading your comments. Thank you.

enhanced-buzz-wide-30661-1444017181-7                                                               Class 11 girl students attend a class at Zarghona high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-26855-1444017702-8Art teacher Hanna Snitko poses for a picture with final year students of the Ukrainian Humanities Lyceum in their classroom in Kiev, Ukraine. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)enhanced-buzz-wide-2998-1444017966-7Master Mohammad Ayoub poses with his fifth-grade students at a local park in Islamabad, Pakistan. ( Caren Firouz / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-21478-1444018071-7Tahfiz or Koranic students in Madrasah Nurul Iman boarding school outside Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. (Olivia Harris / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-29919-1444018208-7Teacher Marcos Paulo Geronimo with first-grade high school students from the Dante Alighieri school in São Paulo, Brazil. (Paulo Whitaker / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-25251-1444018350-7Students of the Don Bosco Technical Collegue in Quito, Ecuador. (Guillermo Granja / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-15540-1444018411-7Teacher Moulay Ismael Lamrani with his class in the Oudaya primary school in Rabat, Morocco. (Youssef Boudlal / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-20158-1444018562-11Year 9 Biology boys class with teacher Suzanne Veitch at Forest School in London, England. (Russell Boyce / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-17503-1444018650-7First-grade students with their teacher Teruko Takakusaki during their homeroom period at Takinogawa Elementary School in Tokyo, Japan. (Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-692-1444018731-7Teacher Hanan Anzi with Syrian refugee students at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-4644-1444018953-9

Teachers Carla Smith and Laura Johnson pose for a picture with their third grade class at Jesse Sherwood Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, United States. (Jim Young / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-27620-1444018880-8Teacher Ana Dorrego with students of the rural school Agustin Ferreira on the outskirts of Minas city, Uruguay. (Andres Stapff / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-2998-1444018815-15A teacher leads a class session at the ecole primaire Ave Marie in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-1941-1444019527-7Teacher Kahon Rochel with students at the the EPV Sinai primary school in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Luc Gnago / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-19365-1444019475-8Nguyen Thi Phuong teaches a third-grade class in the primary school of Van Chai in Dong Van district north of Hanoi, Vietnam. (Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-920-1444019195-7Mohammed Zurob marks an exercise for his first-grade students during an English lesson inside a classroom at Taha Huseen elementary school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-10544-1444019039-8Students of the 10th form of the Gymnasium 1567 with their teacher of history, Tamara Eidelman, in Moscow, Russia. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

 

 

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Revisiting Predictions about Technology Use in Classrooms

In 2009, I tried to peek around the corner and predict what classrooms and technologies use might look like in 2020. That post forecasted a few changes that I then saw emerging. So there is nothing magical about that or what I predicted. The questions I asked at the end of the post, however, I still believe are most relevant in 2021.

I offer this twelve year-old post simply because re-visiting what I predicted can keep one humble. I have been way off on many earlier forecasts and laughed at how narrowly I looked ahead to the spread of classroom technologies, especially during the 2020-2021 pandemic–a traumatic event that appared in no one’s crystal ball.

However, on a few occasions, I was accurate. At least in part.

I just read a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them (of course, in an ecologically correct manner). Still the number of high-tech machines and applications that hit their expiration date so quickly stunned me.

Then I read another list of high-tech predictions for 2020 that was equally entertaining about the future of schools, well, not schools as we know them in December 2010. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such lists (here) for years with high-tech devices having different names but a glorious future just around the corner. Last year, I posted my predictions for high-tech in schools in 2020. Here is, in part, what I said in 2009.

“Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are hand-held mobile devices (iPhone, Blackberry, e-book variations) and online learning (distance education).”

HANDHELDS

Handhelds will permit the digitizing of texts loaded on to the devices. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their Blackberries, iPhones, etc.

Based on current Twitter and other future social networking traffic, shorter and shorter messaging will also become a mainstay of teacher-student communication. Some sample Twitter messages:

*In a college course on consumer sciences, the professor asked his 250 students to post questions on Twitter. On the topic of car insurance for those under 25 years of age, a student asked: ‘What happens if you get married and then get divorced at 24? Would your insurance go up?’ ”

*In the same course, during an exam, a student tweeted a fellow student and asked for the answer to a question. Teacher caught the student because although the software said “anonymous” on the handheld, the name of the student showed up on the teacher’s screen.

ONLINE COURSES

Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade. Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.

The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.

So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.”

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Of course, I could be just another one of those benighted folks who predicted that automobiles, planes, and television were mere hype and would never replace horse-drawn carriages, trains, and radio. Here is a list of those failed predictions to chuckle over as you ring in the new year.

Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2020, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students. No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.

Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy–what knowledge is most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning? These questions, in turn depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how does one live a useful and worthy life. When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their proper role in schools and classrooms.

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Critical Race Theory and Classroom Practice

First things first. To most Americans, how teachers teach and what they include in daily lessons once the classroom door is closed remains as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle.

Well, not quite since every American knows from childhood and teen years what a classroom is like, what teachers typically do, and how schools smell. Yet beyond remembrances of classroom lessons–not many, however, since memories of particular lessons disappear swiftly–there has been (and is) little direct observation of what elementary and secondary school teachers do in any of the many lessons they teach over the course of a school day. Hard to believe that what we know about teaching daily often comes from our dredged-up memories, what our children and friends’ children recount of their days in school, and, finally, rumors of what is taught and how it is taught. Moreover, not too much comes from educational researchers, except for occasional surveys of teaching practices (see here and here)

I state all of this because of the recent brouhaha over “critical race theory” being taught in classrooms. Instigated by mostly Republican national and state political leaders (see here and here), there is no there, there. Largely because there are no data, past or present, on what content teachers do actually teach daily in schools, districts, and states. Statements about actual teaching of the theory are no more than hot air and excited panting.

Sorry, but I have to repeat that: there are no data, past or present on what content teachers do actually teach daily in schools, districts, and states.

Finding teachers who have taught “critical race theory” is nearly impossible not because of fear but simply because it seldom appears in actual lessons.

Surely, teachers refer to state and district curriculum guides, use textbooks, and assign homework that give clues to what content and skills they include in their lessons, but beyond that, all we know is what teachers say they are teaching, students recollect from lessons, and administrators aver is being taught. And “critical race theory” whatever it is (see here and here), rarely, if at all, enters teachers’ vocabulary much less the content of a lesson. In the hundreds of classrooms I have observed in the Bay area over 20 years, maybe one, perhaps two, came even close to mentioning or discussing it in a lesson.

Many times in the past have deep cultural splits among Americans, in this instance about race, been fought out within the nation’s public schools (see here and here). Until evidence of teaching practices are collected about whether or not or to what degree “critical race theory” is taught in U.S. schools, the current hysteria about the theory being actually taught is no more than another instance of political bluster wrapped around another educational kerfuffle.

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Whatever Happened to “Ambitious” Teaching?

Over the past decade, thoughtful observers seeking improvement in public school teaching and student learning have advanced concepts of “ambitious teaching” and “deeper learning” (see here, here and here). Both raise the low bar that earlier reformers had set to initiate and adopt reforms aimed at classrooms such as adopting new reading programs, using innovative textbooks, or loading on student computers dazzling pieces of software. It was a low bar to these advocates because they sought a more thoughtful form of teaching that gets students of all ages to inquire, question, and poke at contradictions across all academic subjects. These champions of ambitious teaching and deeper learning believed that lessons, be they teacher- or student-directed, can go beyond the superficial and stimulate students’ curiosity and achieve learning goals heretofore thought impossible.

What is ambitious teaching?

A phrase that cropped up often over the past decade, ambitious teaching comes out of earlier reform traditions when teachers aspired to elicit and develop student ideas out of the content and skills regularly taught in lessons. Getting students to think aloud, take on difficult academic tasks, and investigate the world outside of school walls were aims. In such lessons, teachers not only elaborated student ideas but also applied them to practical situations in which they were familiar. All of this is packed into the phrase, “ambitious teaching.”

A more formal (and obtuse) definition comes from three scholars:

Ambitious teaching requires that teachers teach in response to what students do as they engage in problem solving performances, all while holding students accountable to learning goals that include procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive dispositions.”

What problems does ambitious teaching solve?

Reform-minded teacher educators and scholars of critical thinking believe that expecting teachers to teach ambitiously would result in fewer textbook-driven lessons which leave many students bored and compliant, leading, many observers believe, to underlying schoolwide problems. What adherents of ambitious teaching seek are more lessons that question textbook statements and explore and explain contradictions between what students know, what they experience and what they are expected to learn. Too many lessons, reformers claim, are dull, mechanical, and result in fake student responses that teachers label as “learning.”

What does ambitious teaching look like?

Researchers offered this example of ambitious teaching:

Imagine walking into a middle school classroom where students are working on a statistics unit in which they are investigating patterns of association between two quantities. While students enter the classroom, the teacher gives each student a sheet of paper that contains [a detailed photo of a] shoeprint….

The teacher explains that when investigators find shoeprints at the scene of a crime, forensic scientists can use the prints to identify suspects. She asks students to consider how a footprint could help someone solve a crime. After a brief discussion, students conclude that a shoeprint can indicate the type of shoe that a suspect wore, as well as the size of the suspect. The teacher explains that the students are going to investigate the relationship between shoe size and height so that they can determine the height of the suspect. While students work in pairs, measuring each other’s height and shoe length, the teacher monitors the activity and asks and answers questions as needed to support students’ efforts. When pairs finish measuring, they add their data (red dots for girls and green dots for boys) to a large graph—with the x-axis labeled as shoe length and the y-axis labeled as height—posted in the front of the room. When all the students have added their data points to the graph, the teacher asks students to talk with their partners about the patterns that they notice. After a few minutes, the students share their observations, which the teacher records: for example, no two people have the same shoe size and height, most girls have smaller feet and are shorter than the boys, tall people have bigger feet than short people, the data go up from left to right, and the data are kind of linear. The teacher tells students that their next step is to find a line that models these data—a line of best fit. She directs students to a Web-based applet, where they plot the class data in two-pair teams, guess at a line of best fit, and check their guesses. (An applet that supports this investigation is at http://illuminations.nctm.org/Activity.aspx?id54186.) The class concludes with a lively whole-group discussion, during which teams share their findings regarding the line of best fit, discuss the meaning of the slope and y-intercept in context, and consider how confident they are that the equation will be a good predictor of a person’s height based on a shoeprint. In the final five minutes of class, students complete an exit ticket in which they indicate how tall they think the suspect is and present their reasons.

Does ambitious teaching work?

While some evidence appears to support the correlation between ambitious teaching and higher achievement test scores, there is very little evidentiary support for such labeled practices primarily because the phrase has varied definitions and researchers often pick and choose among the diverse definitions for this form of teaching. At best, the answer to the question is: “perhaps.” See here and here.

What happened to ambitious teaching?

While less cited in the general literature on teaching, it remains strong within the math and science academic community and occasional groups of practitioners. In surveying the landscape of ambitious teaching, it appears to me that it is far more apparent among university and college teacher educators than rank-and-file district administrators and teachers. So the dream of ambitious teaching lives on but has yet to be widely shared or practiced within U.S. public schools.

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A Year Behind the Mask: As This School Year Draws to a Close, Educators Reflect on Teaching without Face Time (Colleen Connolly)

Colleen Connolly is a freelance multmedia journalist. She interviewed a group of teachers about their classroom experiences using face masks. This appeared on Chalkbeat, Jun 4, 2021.

Heather Meier teaches band to students in 6th to 8th grades in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado

Band practice in Heather Meier’s middle school class looked quite a bit different this last year than it did in the past. First of all, she estimates that the class of sixth graders was about half the size it usually is. “There might have been some parents who were like, ‘no, that doesn’t seem like a good idea this year,’” Meier said.

Students and staff in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Firestone, Colorado, had to wear masks at all times while at school — including when they were playing their instruments. Luckily, scientists at the nearby University of Colorado Boulder conducted a study last fall about aerosols and instruments, and their findings helped Meier come up with ways to teach students in person safely.

Flutes could slide through the side of a mask, though it was a lot harder to play that way. For the rest of the wind instrument players, Meier cut small slits into surgical masks — just big enough to fit the instrument through. Bell covers were placed over horns or other openings to prevent COVID from spreading that way.

The safety measures worked out relatively well, but sometimes Meier had to revert back to video, particularly when it came to assessment. “So much of learning a band instrument is being able to see the way your lips and your mouth are shaped to make the instruments work, to make sure they aren’t playing it incorrectly or forming bad habits,” she said.

The school district hasn’t announced whether masks will be required next year, but Meier hopes it will be safe enough to go without — unless kids are feeling sick. Now that they have the bell covers and special masks, she wonders if they should keep them around for occasional use.

“I was in Japan a couple years ago as part of a band thing, and the culture of mask-wearing as a courtesy to others is kind of a nice thing,” she said. “I’d be OK if that stuck around. But I certainly hope that if enough people are vaccinated, and it’s safe to do so, it would be nice to teach band in a way that is more rewarding for the kids.”

Kathryn Vaughn teaches art to pre-K to 5th graders at Brighton Elementary in Covington, Tennessee

One of the only problems Kathryn Vaughn encountered from wearing a mask as an elementary art teacher was that her students couldn’t always hear her. The mask muffled her voice.

But early on in the pandemic, she had an exchange on Twitter with Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter. The two started talking, and Cash ended up sending Vaughn supplies for her classroom, as well as a microphone and headset. Problem solved.

“I look like Britney Spears when I’m teaching, which is amazing,” Vaughn said.

Over the last year, the bigger issue for Vaughn has been the mask policy in her school district in Covington, Tennessee. At the start of the school year last August, all students and staff were required to wear masks. A few months later, they dropped the mandate. By December, cases were climbing rapidly, and it was reinstated. Then two weeks before the school year ended, the district revoked the mask mandate again.

Vaughn, who was vaccinated in January, said she wishes they would have kept the mask mandate the whole year. It would have made her feel safer, and it also would have given some uniformity to the rules for her students. As soon as the mandate was lifted, almost no one wore masks voluntarily in the school, she said.

“The kids were telling other kids, ‘you don’t have to wear that anymore, we’re not doing that,’” Vaughn said. “And I was like, ‘well, you could do that if you want to protect yourself because you’re not vaccinated. Let’s not judge other people’s choices.’”

The day after she received her first vaccine dose, Vaughn found out she was pregnant. She still wears a mask as a precaution and plans to do so at the start of the next school, even though she doesn’t expect the district to go back to requiring it.

“I don’t ever want to teach through a pandemic again, but my major thing was I knew I could keep myself as safe as possible by keeping my mask on and keeping my window open and ventilating my room with air,” she said.

Christina Sarraino teaches students with social and emotional challenges at Lorain High School in Lorain, Ohio,

Before the pandemic, Christina Sarraino was used to running up and down three flights of stairs at Lorain High School several times a day. But what was once moderate exercise between classes became almost “suffocating” in a mask, she said.

“(The mask) really does make a difference, but I don’t want to take it off and make a big deal about it because then they do,” she said, referring to her students.

Sarraino is an intervention specialist who teaches high schoolers with social and emotional challenges. Some of them have intellectual disabilities or autism, too. For Sarraino, one of the hardest parts about teaching in-person this year was enforcing mask use.

“We did have a couple meltdowns because of the face masks to be quite honest,” she said. “We had kids with sensory issues, and the mask irritates that. I would try to explain why we’re doing it: to protect you, to protect your family, to protect our families. Explaining all of that and trying to get to academics and their social and emotional needs, with everything going on, was difficult.”

Sarraino was diligent about keeping her own mask on at all times, but she found she had to make compromises with her students, allowing them breaks without the masks to eat snacks and drink water as long as they were at least six feet apart.

Her district has not made a decision about whether they will require masks next year. In the meantime, Sarraino is encouraging her students to get vaccinated if they are eligible and hoping that the possibility of a mask-free year next year will be an incentive.

“I teach science generally,” Sarraino said, “and we try our best through science to really dispel any of the conspiracy theories that we hear — and we hear quite a few — to try to get the kids to not be afraid of the vaccinations.”

Sharity Keith, 11th and 12th grade teacher, at Boca Ciega High School, St. Petersburg, Florida

After nearly 20 years of teaching, Sharity Keith planned to make a career change last year. But when the pandemic closed everything down, she decided to stay for one more year, teaching reading to 11th and 12th graders who failed Florida’s state assessment and needed to catch up.

Since the beginning of the school year, Keith has simultaneously taught students remotely on video and in-person in the classroom, which essentially doubled her work — to 70 and 80 hours a week at times. Talking so much through a mask every day left her voice permanently hoarse, she said. In the beginning, she was so fearful of catching COVID that she wouldn’t take her mask off at all at school, meaning she didn’t eat or drink water until she got home. Keith said she loves teaching and may come back to it, but this year left her exhausted.

“I wouldn’t say the pandemic is why I’m leaving,” Keith said, “but I think the pandemic has highlighted for me what I already knew, which is that teaching is simply not valued by the community.”

Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, where Keith teaches, required students and staff to wear masks all year. Keith was grateful for that, but the masks added another layer of challenges. Many of her students are English language learners, and the masks made it harder for them to understand each other. Some of them eventually stopped showing up, she said.

Keith also teaches phonics to some students, and she found it difficult to enunciate through her mask and exaggerate the sounds: mmmaaa, bbbbaaa, pppaaa. “For a lot of my kids, it was like, ‘this is embarrassing,’” Keith said. “‘Here I am at the age that I am and this is what we’re doing.’”

Keith did her best to keep up their spirits by making jokes and celebrating when they passed their tests, but motivating them was a constant challenge. Caring for herself was, too. By the end of the year, she was comfortable enough to take her mask off to eat a little bit at school, but her voice is still not back to normal, despite regularly using throat spray to soothe it.

“I don’t think I’m going to talk at all this summer,” she joked.

Yvette Andino is a bilingual school counselor at two public schools in Queens, NY

One of the biggest parts of Yvette Andino’s job as a school counselor in Queens is showing kids what emotions look like as facial expressions. This last year, Andino worked with some students virtually and others in person, where masks were mandatory.

“There are some emotions I couldn’t show with my mask, like anger and sadness or the surprised feeling or shocked feeling,” Andino said. “You kind of form your mouth like an ‘O,’ like ‘oh, shoot’ or ‘oh, man.’ That was really hard for them to learn.”

Andino works primarily with elementary students who speak English and Spanish. Some of them are on the autism spectrum or have speech impairments. For these students, she had to get creative. Working with them in-person, Andino showed videos or drew pictures. If that failed, she stood 12 feet away from them in her office and briefly lowered her mask to show her own facial expression. She tried using a clear face shield in the beginning, but they gave her tension headaches and weren’t as effective as masks at stopping the spread of COVID.

For many of Andino’s students, it took three times as long as it normally would for them to learn how to recognize and understand certain emotions, but they eventually got there, she said.

In New York City public schools, face masks will still be required at the beginning of the next school year, officials have said, but guidelines are changing all the time. If given the choice to wear a mask, Andino is not sure what she would do.

“I would love to live in a world without masks,” she said, “but if it is for safety and it’s an option, I think I would ask the students. Some will straight out tell me they prefer masks or they prefer I show them my facial expression. They’ll tell you if they’re comfortable or not.”

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Teaching in Charter Schools (Part 2)

I observed a math classroom at another Summit charter school. Here is what I recorded in my notes.

The Precalculus class began at 10:40 and ended at 12:15. Ethan Edwards is in his third year of teaching at Summit. He was a math major at University of California, Santa Cruz and got his credential to teach at the University of California, Davis before coming to Summit. He, like other Summit teachers who have been at the high school beyond one year float to different classrooms in the building; first-year teachers have one classroom the entire day. So at the beginning of the block 2 class, he and a few students are shoving tables into rows facing the front to get ready for his class. Four tables sitting two students each in three rows accommodated the 24 students who arrived. Like all Summit classrooms, there was an LCD projector and screen at front of room that showed slides as the teacher clicked keys.

The agenda for the day is on the screen.

“* Warm Up Analysis

* Essay Overview

*Independent work time + workshop

*Goal: finish paragraph

*Reflection”

Since the class will be visiting University of California, Davis for the next two days, Edwards flashes slides of buildings at Davis that they will see. He asked students to turn in forms for trip later in the day. He explains the housing arrangements–4 students to a room. There were ripples of excitement and nervousness about the trip, especially after he announced that there will be four students to each car in driving to Davis. Students look around, start signaling one another to share same car. Edwards says:  “I can feel the tension in the room over who I will be with in car for the trip.” That lowers the murmuring and tension. There were a few questions from students. He reassures students by saying that it is a short car trip to the university. Teacher then segues to lesson.

“I want to talk about how we are going to predict tuition increases through 2020 from the data set I gave you. We will be doing scatter plots and writing different regression equations.” Edwards proceeds to explain the making of regression curves (linear, exponential, and polynominal)–the central point of the lesson–using the white board as he writes down key concepts. He goes over “key features” of such data and equations and how it gets displayed as outliers, intercepts,slope, rate of growth, and residuals. In every instance, he defines them and brings into the explanation particular students who respond to his choral questions (these are questions directed to the entire class and have no student name attached either before or after the question is asked).   Students do contribute. Teacher draws on the white board examples of each concept thereby defining the terms for class. He brings the explanation of what students will work on to a close, saying: “So, I just talked a lot about some high level stuff.” He asks, “Are there any questions?” No one asks a question.

Teacher then turns to spread sheet of data on tuition costs for two schools. “So you are going to look at how to use this spreadsheet to come up with functions to predict increases in tuition costs through 2020.” He passes out data set and asks students to pair with partner to go through the data.

Before students open their Chromebooks to look at spreadsheets and begin work, Edwards goes over with whole group, step-by-step, how they are to create a linear regression equation. Does same for exponential and then polynominal equations. During his explanation, he asks choral questions of class to check for understanding. A few students respond to each query. When hearing one or two responses that match the question, he picks up on the answer and continues the explanation. After he finishes going over the three regression equations, he asks: “are there any questions about how to use the data spreadsheet to create these equations?”

No student asks a question.

He returns to explaining where students should input data. He then directs students to open their Chromebooks.

“I am going to give you guys 30 minutes to start to work in pairs on spreadsheet to make proper equations.” He discusses due date for when they will turn in their work.

For next 30 minutes Edwards moves up and down aisles to answer questions, check on what each student is doing, and help individual students who are having trouble with task. At this point I had leave the classroom because of another appointment elsewhere in the school.

How typical are these two lessons of charter school teaching? Reviewing studies of charter school teaching over the years, I do believe they are typical of the range of lessons I have observed. Were there awful lessons (e.g., teacher had little control of the students during the lesson, the content of the lesson was well below what students could achieve, much incoherence in and ill-organization of lesson)? Not at all. I did see a few such lessons but overall, the level of competent teaching I observed was about the same as I have observed in regular public school classrooms. Keep in mind, however, that charter school teachers have a much larger band of autonomy in which to author and implement lessons in their classrooms. That increased discretion available to charter school teachers surely appeared in some instances but, overall, given my limited observations, less than I would have predicted.

What evidence there is beyond my observations says that with even more teacher autonomy and flexibility in charter schools there is little difference between their classroom practices and peers in public schools. Researchers who examined studies of pedagogy across charter and non-charter schools concluded that:

as charter schools implement innovations in governance, management, and other organizational practices, charter schools are embracing curricular and instructional approaches already in use (original italics)in other public schools that are considered as traditional ‘basic’ approaches to instruction (Goldring-Cravens_2006).

Such findings leave holes in the ambitious theory embedded in charter schools. Like their counterparts in regular public schools, charter school teachers mainly use teacher-centered classroom practices such as lectures, scripted lessons, textbooks, worksheets, homework, question/answer/evaluation exchanges seasoned by certain student-centered practices such as small group work, student discussions, project-based learning, internships, and independent learning.

Keep in mind that when I use the phrase “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” instruction I do not infer that such teaching practices are either appropriate or inappropriate, effective or ineffective. I am reporting what many researchers, including myself, have documented in classrooms.

When one looks at Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) where all 109 elementary and secondary schools in 20 states serving over 30,000 students are charters, teaching approaches are  unmistakably teacher-centered. KIPP is not, of course, representative of all charter schools in its teaching practices. Aspire, Green Dot, and other charter management organizations have schools in their networks where teaching practices vary considerably but still work within the tradition of teacher-centeredness.

Note that these elementary and secondary school charters are geared to preparing children and youth for college. That is their unvarnished mission. College prep begins early in these charter elementary and secondary schools; frontal teaching, direct instruction, extended day, and no-nonsense approaches to student behavior are the norm. So any variation among teachers in different networks of charter schools falls within a narrow band of teacher-centered practices—again when I use that phrase I do not suggest that such practices are neither appropriate nor inappropriate, neither effective nor ineffective.

Until more evidence comes from direct observation of lessons in charter schools, teaching practices in charters and public schools appear more similar than different. To the degree that teaching practices shape student achievement, such results throw doubt upon the effects charter schools have upon students.

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Teaching in Charter Schools (Part 1)

Charter schools are three decades old. Advocates for wider parental choice of schools lobbied state legislatures and local school boards to authorize a different way to organize a tax-supported, independent public school with its own school board and a charter that included the freedom to create innovative organization, curriculum, and instruction. Accountable to its independent board, charter schools have enormous latitude in what they can do insofar as school culture, organization, curriculum, and classroom lessons. This flexibility and the charter mandate to innovate, advocates claimed, would create constructive competition with regular public schools. Having charter schools, then, would lead to a general uplifting of performance for both types of schools. That was the heralded promise of charter schools thirty years ago.

Beginning in the early 1990s, state after state began authorizing charter schools and charter management organizations that operated clusters of schools. By 2020, nearly thirty years later, there were 7500 charter schools with over 200,000 teachers teaching 3.3 million students. Charter schools have become established institutions mostly in urban districts (58 percent) and have slowly expanded into suburbs and rural districts.

What has become obvious in this 30-year history is that charter elementary and secondary schools have far greater flexibility than regular district schools in altering what happens in classrooms and buildings (think of charter school organizations that have built unique school cultures such as: KIPP, Aspire). Yet even with that mandate, separate governance, and the charge to innovate most charter schools have replicated the traditional age-graded organization. Ditto for the curriculum since accreditation–a must for any newly organized school–requires abiding with state curriculum standards and skills that must be taught (see here and here)

Does that replication of regular school organization and curriculum extend to the classroom? Does teaching in a charter school with its separate governance and flexibility harnessed to a mission to innovate, differ at all from teaching in a non-charter school? This post offers an (but not the) answer to that question.

I have observed dozens of charter school classrooms over the past decade. I have seen both extraordinary, ordinary, and yes, a few disastrous lessons. While I can not vouch for what students learned in the lessons I have observed, I surely have seen some charter school teachers give their all.

Consider Kate Goddard who teaches world history at one the Summit Charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The young, slim teacher stands on the chair in the middle of the classroom to be heard above ninth grade students clustered in the four corners of the portable classroom. The students are chattering about the reasons they agree or disagree with the statement Katie Goddard, the teacher, put on the “smart board.” The statement students considered–“There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery”– drove them to different corners labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” The teacher asks students in each corner why they agree or disagree with statement. After a few students give their reasons, some classmates change their minds and migrate to different corners making the classroom a swirl of movement.  This activity occurred in the middle of a 95 minute block in World Studies where Goddard was introducing a new unit on Imperialism.

Goddard had begun the 95-minute class with a Warm Up question: “Should the U.S. pay reparations to black Americans whose families have been slaves?” and, after telling them to put away their cells and Chromebooks, gave them two short op-ed pieces on opposite sides of the question. One op ed argued that who should pay and who should receive reparations for enslaving Africans were contested and confused. The other op ed argued that the British should pay reparations to Kenyans for what they did in colonizing that African nation.

She asks the 24 ninth graders to “read and chunk the text” for each opinion piece. She reminded the class to read each paragraph and write a one-line summary of each paragraph and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the op ed. As students write in their notebooks, Goddard, holding a clipboard, walks around the classroom of 13 tables, each seating two students facing the “smart board,” answering questions and checking to see what students are writing. Goddard asks students to hold up fingers indicating how much more time they want to finish task. Some hold up one, others two and three. For those who had finished she offers two options for them to do.

She then asks students to share with partner their summaries and opinions. As students start talking to one another, Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember in working together you need to turn to your partner, move your body to face one another and listen carefully to what your partner says.” Students resume talking.

When she sees that nearly all students have completed the task, she asks students for their summaries of the two articles and which one they agree/disagree with most. Students are initially reluctant to commit to a position but as a few offer their opinions, Goddard teases out the reasons embedded in arguments for and against reparations. And this is the moment when the teacher asked all the students to take a position on the statement and go to a corner of the room: “There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery.”

This Warm Up and debate about reparations were initial activities in the lesson introducing Imperialism. By starting with the contentious contemporary question of reparations for slavery, Goddard would move to instances of European countries colonizing the Congo in Africa and India in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and consider the human costs of taking over these countries.

The agenda for the day, written on the white board, listed the sequence of topics for the hour-and-a-half session:

  1. Reparations
  2. Slavery op eds
  3. Criteria
  4. Imperialism op eds
  5. Exit ticket

After the Warm Up and during the four-corner debate, Goddard gets deeper into the reparations question by introducing statements such as: “slavery ended a hundred years ago so the U.S. government should not pay any money to African Americans now.” One student points out that the U.S. government has already paid reparations when they gave sums of money to Japanese Americans for being in internment camps during World War II. Another points out that the money went to those who were still alive. Voices are raised and tone becomes adversarial among students agreeing and disagreeing. Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember our norms. The second your tone becomes combative, you don’t listen. Our goal is to listen to one another.” After more restrained back-and-forth in which the teacher specifically calls on students who have heretofore not entered the discussion, Goddard asks class if they want to shift corners.

About one-third of the students move to another corner.

Teacher now asks students to return to their tables and turn to the next question: When are reparations necessary? She asks class to open Chromebooks and come up with criteria to answer the question. She reminds class that there is no correct answer, that you have different opinions but you need examples and facts to support your opinion. Goddard moves around the room asking and answering questions at each table.

After about 10 minutes, Goddard asks students to put lids of laptops down and says that “we are going to study Imperialism and you are going to write an op-ed by the end of the unit. “The question you will answer,” she says, is “do former imperializing countries have a responsibility to give foreign aid to the countries they imperialized?”  She links the earlier discussion of reparations  to Imperialism and then previews the next 12 lessons on the “smart board,” going over each one briefly. She then puts up a slide that defines Imperialism as “the process of taking over another country through diplomacy or military force.” Goddard asks students to come up with their definition of imperialism by using the Playlist of sources (documents and videos)–she gives the class the link–that she assembled for them on the Congo, India, and other colonized countries. In coming up with their definitions, she urges students to talk to their partner. After pairs have come up with their definitions from Playlist, she then asks them to brainstorm what they would need to know about imperialism to determine if reparations are necessary.*

With clipboard in hand, teacher moves through the classroom checking to see which students are unclear about the task or having difficulties in answering questions.

As time winds down to end the class, Goddard summarizes what they have done, connecting discussions on reparations to new unit of Imperialism.

The criteria I use in judging the quality of a lesson are: clear and coherent organization, mixed activities, level of student participation, frequent verbal interaction between teacher and students and among students, and finally, a summary of the lesson.*

In my opinion, Goddard’s lesson met these criteria fully. As I left this charter school World History lesson , I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw and experienced. Was Goddard typical or atypical of charter school teachers I observed in the Summit network of schools?

The next post looks at another charter school lesson that I observed.

____________________

*One criterion missing is what students learned. I had no observable way of determining whether students learned what the teacher wanted in that lesson.

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I Taught Online School This Year. It Was a Disgrace (Lelac Almagor)

Lelac Almagor (@MsAlmagor) is in her 18th year of classroom teaching; she teaches fourth grade at a public charter school in Washington, D.C. This essay appeared in the New York Times, June 16, 2021.

Our prepandemic public school system was imperfect, surely, clumsy and test-crazed and plagued with inequities. But it was also a little miraculous: a place where children from different backgrounds could stow their backpacks in adjacent cubbies, sit in a circle and learn in community.

At the diverse Washington, D.C., public charter school where I teach, and which my 6-year-old attends, the whole point was that our families chose to do it together — knowing that it meant we would be grappling with our differences and biases well before our children could tie their own shoes.

Then Covid hit, and overnight these school communities fragmented and segregated. The wealthiest parents snapped up teachers for “microschools,” reviving the Victorian custom of hiring a governess and a music master. Others left for private school without a backward glance.

Some middle-class parents who could work remotely toughed it out at home, checking in on school between their own virtual meetings. Those with younger kids or in-person jobs scraped together education and child care — an outdoor play pod or a camp counselor to supervise hours of Zoom classes. With schools closed, the health risks and child care hours didn’t disappear. They simply shifted from well-educated, unionized, tax-funded professional teachers to hourly-wage, no-benefit workers serving only those who could afford to pay.

The families with the fewest resources were left with nothing. No child care, only the pallid virtual editions of essential services like occupational or speech therapy.

If they could work out the logistics, their kids got a couple of hours a day of Zoom school. If they couldn’t, they got attendance warnings. In my fourth-grade class, I had students calling in from the car while their mom delivered groceries, or from the toddler room of their mom’s busy day care center.

Home alone with younger siblings or cousins, kids struggled to focus while bouncing a fussy toddler or getting whacked repeatedly on the head with a foam sword. Others lay in bed and played video games or watched TV. Many times each day, I carefully repeated the instructions for a floundering student, only to have them reply, helplessly, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” their audio squealing and video freezing as they spoke.

Even under optimal conditions, virtual school meant flattening the collaborative magic of the classroom into little more than an instructional video. Stripped of classroom discussion, human connection, art materials, classroom libraries, time and space to play, virtual school was not school; it was busywork obscuring the “rubber-rooming” of the entire school system.

Some educators sneered that the parents who complained just wanted free babysitting. But I’m not ashamed to say that child care is at the heart of the work I do. I teach children reading and writing, yes, but I also watch over them, remind them to be kind and stay safe, plan games and activities to help them grow. Children deserve attentive care. That’s the core of our commitment to them.

I am still bewildered and horrified that our society walked away from this responsibility, that we called school inessential and left each family to fend for itself. Meanwhile nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers all went to work in person — most of my students’ parents went to work in person — not because it was safe but because their work is essential. Spare me your “the kids are all right” Facebook memes. Some children may have learned to do laundry or enjoy nature during the pandemic. Many others suffered trauma and disconnection that will take years to repair.

I don’t know the first thing about public health. I won’t venture an opinion on what impact the school closures had on controlling the spread of Covid. What I do know is that the private schools in our city quickly got to work upgrading HVAC systems, putting up tents, cutting class sizes and rearranging schedules so that they could reopen in relative safety. Public schools in other states and countries did the same.

More of our public school systems should have likewise moved mountains — repurposed buildings, reassigned staff, redesigned programming, reallocated funding — to offer consistent public schooling, as safely as possible, to all children.

Instead we opened restaurants and gyms and bars while kids stayed home, or got complicated hybrid schedules that many parents turned down because they offered even less stability than virtual school. Even now, with vaccinations rising and case rates dropping, some families remain reluctant to send their kids back to us in the fall. I can’t help thinking that’s because we broke their trust.

Does virtual learning work for some kids, in some circumstances? Sure. So does home-schooling, or not attending school at all. But I am profoundly relieved that most districts, including my own, plan to shut down or restrict the online option.

I hope this means that we are renewing our collective commitment to true public education. Just as before, we will have to fight to make our schools safer, more equitable and more flexible. Just as before, coming together will be messy and complicated. Children, families and teachers will all need time to rebuild relationships with our institutions.

But we’ll be back together, in the same building, eating the same food. We’ll find that the friend who helps us in the morning might need our help in the afternoon. We’ll have soccer arguments at recess and patch them up in closing circle. We’ll sing songs, tell stories, plant seeds and watch them grow. That’s schooling in real life. That’s what public school is for.

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