Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

A Memoir’s Humble Tale of Teaching (James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik)

I have not published a book review on my blog in the eight years I have written posts. Usually I read the book and mention it in a post.

This particular review of a novice teacher re-connecting with her students as a lawyer years after her brief stint in a Helena (ARK) alternative school is unusual in its candor about relationship with students, and its insights into the linkage between schooling and poverty. Inspiration, dedication, and humility–particularly the latter–seldom appear in such books written by former teachers.

I have not yet read Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick but am moved to do so after reading this review. Perhaps (or perhaps not) others might reach a similar conclusion.

The two authors of the review are former teachers in a Washington, D.C. charter school. James Forman Jr., who teaches at Yale Law School, is the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.; Arthur Evenchik is the coordinator of the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University.

The review appeared October 20 on Atlantic Online

 

In books and films about failing schools attended by poor students of color, a suspiciously upbeat plotline has become all too familiar. A novice teacher (usually white) parachutes in, overcomes her students’ distrust and apathy, and sets them on the path to college and worldly success. Such narratives are every kind of awful. They make the heroic teacher the center of attention, relegating the students to secondary roles. They pretend that good intentions and determination have the magical power to transform young people’s lives, even in the most adverse circumstances. And they treat schools as isolated sites of injustice, never connecting educational disadvantage to other forms of inequality.

Michelle Kuo is a writer who resists the mythmaking impulse, with its clichés and wishful thinking. In her penetrating, haunting memoir, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, she confronts all of the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?

Her credibility stems, in part, from her willingness to make her misjudgments and failings an integral part of the story she tells. At age 22, after graduating from Harvard, Kuo frustrates her immigrant parents’ ambitions for her by joining Teach For America. She takes a job at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas, a blighted Mississippi Delta town populated by the descendants of black families who stayed behind during the Great Migration. By her own admission, her first year in the classroom is a disaster. She arrives hoping to teach African American literature to her eighth-grade students, but she blinds herself to the fact that most of them read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, and so they are bored and frustrated by her lessons. She wants the students to know “their history,” by which she means the history of racist violence in the Delta. But she knows nothing of the trauma they have inherited; when she passes around a picture of a lynching, a boy named David brings her lesson to a halt by putting his head on his desk and muttering, “Nobody want to see that.” Instead of defying her school’s authoritarian culture, Kuo initially succumbs to it. Once, she recalls, “I tore up a student’s drawing, which I’d thought was a doodle, in order to jolt him into paying attention; he never forgave me, and I will regret it forever.”

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Her descriptions of individual students are unusually perceptive and moving. A boy named Tamir, asked to write a poem about himself, looks afraid “and peers at a classmate’s paper, as though this was the kind of assignment one could copy.” A girl named Kayla, who had been removed from the district’s regular high school for fighting, writes herself a letter that says, “I hope that when trouble come your way, you would just hold your head high and walk away with a smile on your face.” Patrick Browning, a student with a history of absenteeism, seems lost as he starts eighth grade, “as if he’d gotten on the school bus by accident.” He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the schoolwide award for “Most Improved” student. When rainwater leaks through the classroom ceiling and destroys much of the book collection, it is Patrick who says to the other students, “Stop crying, y’all,” and fetches a bucket and mop.

After two years in the Delta, Kuo decides to leave her job and go to law school. (“With a law degree, you can multiply your impact,” a friend assures her. And her parents are thrilled.) But what might seem the natural ending to her story proves not to be an ending at all. Kuo returns to Helena three years later when she learns that Patrick has been arrested and charged with murder. She begins to visit the county jail where he is awaiting trial, bearing books and writing assignments. Her account of the seven months she spends as his tutor and fellow reader occupies the heart of the book, and it unfolds with all the starkness and immediacy of a two-character play. Scene by scene, it asks what brought them to this place and what can come of their time together.

The night Patrick was arrested, he had gone out looking for his younger sister, but he couldn’t find her. Then she arrived on the family porch with Marcus, a man she was dating. Marcus was drunk and belligerent, and when Patrick ordered him to leave, he started talking loudly and acting aggressively. Believing that Marcus was armed, Patrick picked up a knife he had left on the porch earlier in the day. He just wanted to scare Marcus, he says, but then they fought. He can’t remember the fight itself—just the sight of Marcus limping away and then falling to the sidewalk.

Patrick doesn’t realize that he has a plausible self-defense claim. A white man fending off an intruder on his property could invoke principles such as “stand your ground” or the “castle doctrine.” But Patrick is a black man in the Delta, and the prosecutor goes for a massive overcharge: first-degree murder. There is no question of bail: for sixteen months, Patrick awaits his trial in a jail so unsanitary and poorly managed that the state of Arkansas later shuts it down. And though his public defender eventually gets the charge against him reduced, they never meet until Patrick has his day in court.

The first time Kuo comes to the jail, Patrick blurts out, “Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” in what she calls “a tone of supplication.” But she soon realizes that he feels an intolerable sense of guilt. Patrick imagines that all the mistakes he has ever made led inexorably to the act he is now locked up for. He is haunted by a litany of wrongs he has no way to redress. “The problem,” Kuo writes, “was not that he wouldn’t confess but that he had confessed too much; it wasn’t far-fetched to think he might spend the rest of his life confessing.”

And yet maybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

The bond they establish during their jailhouse sessions eases his torment, as Kuo hoped it would. Yet Patrick never ceases to hold himself responsible for Marcus’ death. After he takes a plea deal and is convicted of manslaughter, Kuo asks him, “Do you feel guilty?” and he replies, “I know I guilty.” It’s not the answer she wanted. But she comes to see that if she had undermined his sense of himself as the agent of his own actions, she would only have deepened his despair. No teacher can “break” a student’s story, his understanding of his life, and replace it with her own.

In other ways, too, the course of the relationship between Kuo and Patrick diverges from her original intention. When she discovers that his literacy skills have deteriorated, she promptly resumes her English-teacher role—marking every last error in his writing, assigning “extra homework to eliminate future mistakes.” This makes her sound overzealous, and sometimes she is. Yet Patrick, who at first dismisses the idea of homework (“Nah, it’s over with,” he tells her), makes greater progress than she had anticipated. “For me and perhaps for him,” she writes, “the task of making a sentence perfect had the effect of containment: It kept unbearable emotions at bay.”

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. He reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

For one of his final assignments, Patrick composes a letter inspired by a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Addressed to his baby daughter, it describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

* * *

Back when she was a classroom teacher, Kuo engaged in a sort of triage. “There are just certain kids for whom you bring all your hope,” she writes, and Patrick was one of them. It makes sense, then, that news of his plight would have drawn her back to the Delta. But Kuo doesn’t allow us to forget that his tragedy is not the only one. She hears, soon after her return, that her former student Tamir is living on the streets in Little Rock, a crack addict begging for money. On a school-district report listing the students who dropped out of school in Helena the year after she left, she recognizes a long series of names along with Patrick’s. And when he finally appears in court, she sees many of those names again on the crowded docket of criminal cases:

I tried to count the number of black males of my sixty-something students over two years who had at some point gone to jail, and I ran out of fingers. The docket was the coda to the STUDENT DROPOUT REPORT—the county jail was where the dropouts landed. There were no jobs in Helena. They had no skills. Most had a disability or an emotional or mental disorder. Where else had I thought they would go?

 

Nothing Kuo has done for Patrick frees him from this dynamic. After the plea bargain, he is sent to an overcrowded prison. Two and a half years later, when he is paroled for good behavior, he returns to Helena with all the liabilities that come with having a violent felony on his record.

By then, Kuo is working as a public-interest lawyer in California. “I begin to think,” she confesses, “that those seven months didn’t really happen, that I had imagined the mystical silences we shared while Patrick wrote. I must have dreamed the poems we memorized, because I cannot remember the lines anymore. On the way to work, holding the metal bar of a subway, I wonder what it was all for and consider the idea that once you stop thinking about something, it disappears.”

But this is not her final word on the subject. If Kuo distrusts the romanticism of the teacher-as-savior narrative, she also resists the kind of fatalism that would have prevented her from becoming a teacher in the first place. She does wonder sometimes what would have happened had she never left Helena. Could she have kept Patrick from dropping out of school or confronting Marcus? Not likely, she says. Besides, she is wary of talking about Patrick “as if I think I could have saved him, as if I think I’m so important in his life. It’s not like that.” But then, exhibiting the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart, she adds:

Or maybe it is, in the sense that the alternative, the rational thought, would be to say to myself, You can’t do that much, you’re not that important, there are so many forces in a person’s life, good and bad, who do you think you are? That’s what I said to make myself feel better after I left the Delta, and sometimes I still say it. But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Maybe there are prospective readers who noticed Kuo’s memoir on a bookstore shelf, leafed through its pages, and put it back, saying to themselves, “I know this story already.” But in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.

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Classroom Teachers are Policymakers

Note that no question mark follows the title. Teachers make policy.

Historically, the object of policies descending from the U.S. Congress, state capitals, and district school boards to the classroom, teachers are the ones who put policies into practice. As object of policy, however, school observers either forget or choose not to acknowledge that teachers also craft policy for their students in taking those policies that appear at their threshold and adapt them to their students. The title, then, is a fact.

Those classroom rules often listed on bulletin boards and walls are policies that the teacher makes for her students.

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Beyond the classroom walls,  however, those very same teachers take what federal, state, and local policies officials send to their classroom (e.g., teachers have to use high-tech devices to teach, they are required to “personalize” their teaching) and bend, squeeze, and adapt those policies to the contours of their classrooms. In doing so, they not only guard the gates of their classrooms but become policymakers in what they accept, amend, and reject. From demanding that teachers use cooperative group work to differentiating instruction to integrating digital devices into their daily lessons, teachers, constrained as they are by the “grammar of schooling,” nonetheless determine what and how they will teach.

Metaphors for policy implementation in schools and districts

Watching a policy travel from the White House, a state capitol, or a big city school board to a kindergarten or Algebra teacher has been compared to metal links in a chain, the children’s game of Telephone, pushing spaghetti, and street-level bureaucrats.

Classroom teachers at the end of the iron-forged links in a chain convey military images of privates saluting captains and duties getting snappily discharged. The telephone game suggests miscommunications that ends up in hilarious misinterpretations of what was intended by the original policy. Pushing strands of wet spaghetti suggests futility in getting a policy ever to be put into practice as intended in classrooms. Street-level bureaucrats suggests that teachers working in rule-driven organizations have discretion and choices in making decisions. I need to elaborate this last comparison because I think it best captures the fact that teachers are, indeed, policymakers.

Street-level bureaucrats are police officers who decide whether or not to give a traffic citation, social workers who determine what kind of help a client needs and where to find that help, emergency room nurses who decide which sick and injured need immediate attention and which ones can wait. Include also teachers who determine whether to stick with the lesson plan or diverge when an unexpected event occurs.

All of these professionals work within large, rule-driven organizations but interact with the public daily as they make on-the-spot decisions. Each of these professionals are obligated to follow organizational rules yet have discretion to make decisions.  They reconcile this dilemma of choosing daily between obligation to the organization and professional autonomy by  interpreting, amending, or ignoring decisions handed down by superiors.

In short, teachers are policy gatekeepers determining what enters the classroom and what gets into the daily lesson.

How about an example that illustrates these metaphors?

Consider kindergarten teachers. Most primary teachers have been trained to see young children holistically as growing human beings needing work, play, and nurturing as necessary ingredients to develop into educated and healthy youth. Teaching the whole child has been a guiding principle central to early childhood programs for nearly a century. Since the early-1980s, however, the standards-based curriculum, increased testing, and accountability policies have flowed downward pressing early childhood educators to make kindergartens into boot camps for 1st grade and preschool programs into learning the alphabet and counting numbers.

In the policy-to-practice metaphor of the linked chain, one would expect that most kindergarten teachers, feeling strong obligations to school superiors, would have altered their child-centered pedagogy and embraced the new policy by relying on direct instruction while abandoning learning centers, comfy reading corners, and free choice time.

For the metaphor of the telephone game, one would expect most kindergarten teachers to have received instructions on implementing standards-based and testing policies from top officials, district supervisors, and school principals. Those instructions and guidance on their journey to kindergarten teachers would have gotten increasingly distorted. These distortions would result in huge variation among kindergarten teachers in implementing these policies ranging from major shifts in pedagogy to minimal alterations in daily lessons to outright mistakes.

The metaphor of pushing wet spaghetti raises different expectations. Because of the futility of the task, adopted policies meander in and out of schools occasionally entering classrooms. Here, kindergarten teachers are fully autonomous and once they close their doors, they do as they please.

None of these metaphors from complete military-like attention to rules to complete freedom to implement a policy capture most kindergarten teachers’ practice at a time when they must cope with dilemma-filled tensions arising from reconciling their obligations to implement state standards-based policies and their beliefs in child-centered practices. And here is where Lisa Goldstein’s study of street-level policy enters the discussion.

Goldstein’s research on four kindergarten teachers in two high performing urban schools within a Texas district details their different actions in coping with state curriculum standards stressing academic preparation for first grade, annual tests that specifies what kindergarteners were to have learned, and their professional and personal beliefs about what five year-olds should be doing and learning.

What did she find out after observing and interviewing the teachers for two years?

“From Ann’s refusal to use the language artsworkbooks to Liz’s holiday celebrations
unit and from Jenny’s either/or literacy block to Frieda’s commitment to her
students’ self-esteem, all of these teachers’ curricular and instructional decisions
were actively shaped by personal understandings of the state standards and DAP
((Developmentally Appropriate Practices derived from the National Association of Early Childhood Education), informed by strategic knowledge and careful thought, and considered in relation to the needs of the particular children in the class and other contextual
factors. Every policy decision was unique and deliberate and reflected attention
to obligations, desire for autonomy, and the use of professional discretion.”

These kindergarten teachers blended developmental practices they had done for years while attending to what their district and state standards required five year-olds to learn by the end of the year. They translated their beliefs in the whole child and many experiences with primary children into hybrid practices that mixed “developmentally appropriate” activities with direct instruction. In short, these four teachers in two schools made policy by creating mixes–they were street-level bureaucrats that hugged the middle.

Goldstein’s study is only one qualitative study of four teachers. There are others that make a similar case that teachers exert autonomy in deciding what and how they teach and thereby make policy (see here, here, here, and here).

 

 

 

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The Dilemma of Entrepreneurial Teachers with Brand Names

Read the page one story in New York Times on North Dakota elementary school third grade teacher, Kayla Delzer, who according to the reporter is one of the “tech-savviest teachers in the United States.”

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Reporter Natasha Singer says:

Her third graders adore her. She teaches them to post daily on the class Twitter and Instagram accounts she set up. She remodeled her classroom based on Starbucks. And she uses apps like Seesaw, a student portfolio platform where teachers and parents may view and comment on a child’s schoolwork.

Ms. Delzer also has a second calling. She is a schoolteacher with her own brand, Top Dog Teaching. Education start-ups like Seesaw give her their premium classroom technology as well as swag like T-shirts or freebies for the teachers who attend her workshops. She agrees to use their products in her classroom and give the companies feedback. And she recommends their wares to thousands of teachers who follow her on social media.

“I will embed it in my brand every day,” Ms. Delzer said of Seesaw. “I get to make it better.”

The journalist goes on to point out conflicts of interests and ethical confusion when entrepreneurial teachers such as Delzer working in resource-poor community institutions–where many teachers across the nation have to get supplies and classroom staples by opening their wallets or begging from donors (or both)–have ties to high-tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (GAFAM).

After reading the article, I asked myself: what larger issues does the story of Kayla Delzer illustrate?

To reporter Singer, Delzer is an instance of the blurred boundaries tech gurus like this teacher faces in helping students, other teachers, and districts to integrate software and hardware in creative ways and at the same time, earn extra money.

Private gain (e.g., GAFAM seeking  future customer base; teachers earning dollars beyond their salary) vs. public good (e.g., teachers as civil servants paid from the community purse to prepare students for citizenship, college, and career). That is the value conflict that the Times reporter hits.

The story of Kayla Delzer surely shows a gifted teacher entering the swamp of conflicts-of-interest as private corporations generously give of their largess to schools while ensnaring hungry, resource-poor teachers with freebies and name-brand products. Important and accurate as these ethical quandaries are, however, there are larger issues that the story of Kayla Delzer typifies.

First, there is the growth of a tiny subset of teachers– recall that there are over three million teachers across 13,000-plus districts in the U.S.–who are entrepreneurial and achieve brand-name status sufficient to be labeled “rock stars” among educators.

Second, GAFAM is just a recent incarnation of a historic tension between private gain and public good in U.S. public schools.

Entrepreneurial teachers

If I define an entrepreneur as someone initiating activities and taking risks to improve what they do (organizing, managing, and teaching a class), there have always been entrepreneurial teachers in U.S. classrooms.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, enterprising teachers found resources, scrounged materials, and took risks in using new techniques and products on their own time and on their own dime so that their students could learn in innovative ways.

From Jesse Stuart in rural Kentucky in the 1920s and 1930s to fifth grade New York City teacher, Gloria Channon, who started an open classroom in the 1960s in a heavily bureaucratized system to Kayla Delzer in 2017, these teachers took initiatives and risks as they tried out new ways of organizing their classroom and teaching in different ways. Every school faculty then and now could point to at least one teacher in the school who was a master at gathering instructional and non-teaching items for the classroom, trying out new ideas with students, and risking both money and reputation to do things better.

Now with the Internet and social media, there is far more evidence of entrepreneurial teachers documented in blogs, Facebook postings, and start-up businesses. From Teachers Pay Teachers to Google Certified Innovators , the notion of teachers being entrepreneurial in a market-driven economy where Silicon Valleys across the U.S. (Northern California, Austin, New York City, Boston) spread a culture of  hustle, workaholism, and money should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, the Kayla Delzers among millions of teachers are the one percenters who wrestle with the dilemma of serving children and becoming a money-making brand name.

Public Good vs. Private Gain: The Dilemma

Business dealings with public school work have been entwined for well over a century. After all, without businesses voting for tax levies, local chambers of commerce endorsing district budgets, and schools outsourcing key functions to the private sector,  tax-supported public schools would be in serious trouble. Both business and schools are joined at the hip.

Yet commercialization of instructional materials, seeing students as future customers, ads on buses and in sports stadia have been around for decades (anyone remember Channel One?). And criticism of too much commercialization (see here and here) has appeared often. Tensions have ebbed and flowed over the years at too much business involvement in steering the curriculum to satisfy employers, district board favoritism toward particular companies, and similar complaints (see here and here).

The history of U.S. public schools documents, then, the close relationship between for-profit enterprise seeking private gain and the public goods that  tax-supported schools and their trustees seek for children and youth compelled to attend school.

The story of Kayla Delzer displays these larger issues and the choices that she and other entrepreneurial teachers face in deciding whether public interest trumps private gain.

 

 

 

 

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Teachers as Practical Politicians

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

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

Historical context for teachers acting politically

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

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

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

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

Teachers as classroom politicians

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

But it is politicking, whatever you call it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Managing Crowds: ClassDojo (Part 1)

There you stand trying to get the attention of your thirty-four students. Each one is so different from the others that it would take hours to list their physical, mental, emotional, and cultural differences. Yet, your job is to impart to this group a very specific body of information and skills in a prescribed amount of time using prescribed texts and materials — and you are to keep them quiet, attentive, and on-task after you give them an assignment. It is totally impossible to do hour-after-hour, day-after-day.

Further, you are to take into consideration that the students come from many different subcultures and families with very different philosophies of life, religious beliefs, and ethical-moral standards. In your presentations you must understand and anticipate these enormous differences and must be careful not to say anything that may contradict what their parents or subculture believes. Since, even though in each subculture, there are major differences in interpretation, you must not offend any of them. Of course, this is also impossible!

Every second of every minute of every hour you are faced constantly with split second decisions in what you say and do depending on what the student or students are really doing or not doing. You are expected to plan for and have alternative lessons for the majority and specific other lessons for the gifted and for the slower students. If you don’t you may see this on your evaluation….

You are expected not to tolerate the bored, the depressed, the apathetic, or the hostile student, but you are allowed to deal with them only in very limited ways. These often do not take into consideration the situation as it unfolds in which you have made the best possible response. Since those who will judge you weren’t there, they can easily second-guess you and see how you should have responded – from their limited view of it….

 The point is that you are dealing with an enormously complex situation in which there are many, quite legitimate, reasonable, and educationally sound ways to respond in these split second decisions.          Robert Rose (2011)

 

Yes, teaching is complex. Many factors deriving from the teacher, students and their families, school structures and demands come into play during every minute of a lesson. Robert Rose captures an important slice of those interacting factors shaping the act of teaching. One factor in particular accounts for the daily complexity of teaching: the organizational structure in which teachers work.

Consider first that both elementary and secondary school students have to attend an  age-graded school. Sitting in classrooms for up to thirteen years (K-12), children learn to live in a crowd where resources are limited (e.g., teacher praise and reproof), impulses have to be controlled (e.g., no yelling out, no hitting), and frequent delays (e.g., taking turns to speak in a discussion, waiting for teacher to recognize student) they see up close the asymetrical power between teacher and student displayed during a lesson. These are the are facts of classroom life. It is, as Philip Jackson put it a half-century ago, “The Daily Grind.”

Part of that Grind is the constant interactions between teachers and students. Elementary school teachers,for example, have 20-30 students in their classroom for five to six hours a day. They teach multiple and different lessons daily seeing students before, during, and after school. One researcher found, that elementary teachers engage in “as many as 1000 interpersonal exchanges each day.”

To survive and thrive in 900 square feet classrooms holding 20 to 30 students, teachers, then, must learn to manage crowds. To do so, teachers enact many roles in managing a class of children and youth who–keep in mind– must show up daily for lessons. Teachers, then, act as a “traffic cop, judge, supply sergeant,and timekeeper” to keep lessons on track covering content and skills consistent with district and state curriculum standards. Managing a crowd of 7 year-olds or 17 year-olds is the central task that every novice and mid-career teacher must master if student learning, however measured, is to occur. So managing a crowd well is both essential–in unmanageable or poorly managed classes, little to no learning occurs–and hard to do.  And that is where ClassDojo enters the picture.

Part 2 describes this digital tool intended to help teachers manage crowds.

 

 

 

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The Palimpsest of Progressive Schooling (Part 4)*

Palimpsest: “A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, p. 1265).

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Personalized learning, i.e.,tailoring knowledge and skills to the individual student, has been the dream of Progressive educators since the early 20th century and put into partial practice then, in the 1960s, and in the second decade of the 21st century.

Recent posts on the AltSchool (Parts 2 and 3) and different contemporary versions of online and teacher-student interactions–-a sub-set of what many call “blended learning“–-have written over the original Progressive rhetoric and actions of a half-century and century ago. Knowing that Progressive under-text about past efforts to educate Americans–the “earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible”–could bring a sharper perspective (and deeper understanding) to the contemporary claims that champions of personalized learning–however defined–bring to policymakers, parents, and teachers. That resurrecting of the under-text highlights  the pedagogical and efficiency-driven wings of the Progressive movement then and today.

Earlier Progressive movement, 1890s-1940s

In these decades “progressive education” was the reigning political ideology in U.S. schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education,” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives. First, student-centered instruction, small group and individualized learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, business-oriented advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives”) who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement drew from the writings of John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of a science of education.

School boards, superintendents, and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these “administrative progressives” created lists of behaviors that superintendents should follow to strengthen district performance and principals could use to evaluate teachers. They measured buildings, teacher performance, and student achievement. These efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early decades of the 20th century. “Pedagogical progressives” and their yearning for student-centered, individualized learning figured large in the words and imagination of advocates but made a small dent in school practice.

Neo-Progressive Reforms, 1960s 

Revival of Progressive educational ideas occurred during the 1960s amid desegregation struggles, the war in Vietnam, and cultural changes in society. Neo-progressive reformers, borrowing from their earlier efficiency-driven “administrative progressives,” launched innovations such as “performance contracting.”   Corporations took over failing schools in Texarkana (AR), Gary (IN), and 100 other districts promising that their methods of teaching reading (e.g., new technologies such as programmed learning) would raise test scores fast and cheaply. Partial to the corporate managerial strategies in running schools, these reformers sought accountability through the contract they signed with district school boards. By the mid-1970s, school boards had dumped the contracts.

As for the pedagogical wing of the Progressive movement interested in student-centered classroom activities, small groups, and more interaction with the “real” world, there was Individually Guided Education and “open classrooms“(also called “open education” and “informal education”).

The story of how a British import called “informal education” became the reform du jour in the U.S. begins with critics’ heavy pounding of schools in the mid-1950s. Across the political spectrum, critics flailed U.S. schools because education, they believed, could solve national problems arising from Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, caste-like treatment of black citizens, and a pervasive culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Richly amplified by the media, “open classrooms” in its focus on students learning-by-doing in small groups and as individuals resonated with vocal critics of creativity-crushing classrooms. Thousands of elementary school classrooms–out of a few million–became home-like settings where young children sitting on rugs moved individually from one attractive “learning center” for math to other stations in science, reading, writing, and art. Teams of teachers worked with multi-age groups of students and created non-graded elementary schools. Both the efficiency and pedagogical wings of the Progressive movement surfaced in the mid-1960s, spread its wings, but plummeted swiftly within a decade as a new generation of reformers promised “back to basics” (see here).

Personalized Learning Today

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” today resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging  cymbals for “student-centered” instruction and learning. The research supporting “personalized” or “blended learning” (and the many definitions of each) is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives.

But accountability in these years of Common Core standards and testing is another matter. As one report put it:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Except for  AltSchool and other private schools, tensions arise in public schools over end-of-year testing, meeting annual proficiency standards, and judging academic performance on the basis of student scores. Few policymakers and present-day Progressive reformers eager to install “personalized learning” in their schools have yet faced these conflicts in the DNA of this popular reform.

So current innovations such as “personalized instruction,”  “student centered learning,   and “blended learning”  are written over the underlying, century-old text of Progressive education.  Efficiency in teaching students (faster, better, and at less cost) while teachers individualize instruction through use of digital tools combine anew the two wings of the century-old Progressive education movement.

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*This post is an updated version of the one that originally appeared June 9, 2015.

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Teaching Geometry at Mountain View High School*: Technology Integration

It is 8:00 AM and a few 9th grade students slowly enter the classroom. Music is playing, ballads and songs from an earlier decade—I recognized “Hotel California.” Brendan Dilloughery , working on his laptop at his desk, welcomes each student by name and they sit in their pod of desks, some slowly unpacking their notebook and laptop or tablet (this is a Bring-Your- Own-Device district**) from their backpacks. Other students put in earbuds to listen to their favorite music or program, and a few   just stare into space.

A veteran teacher of nearly a decade in international schools in Ecuador, Switzerland, and other places, Dilloughery is in his second year at Mountain View. He teaches geometry and computer science. Tall, energetic—constantly on the move even before the buzzer sounds for the geometry 1 class to begin—the teacher has the agenda for the lesson on the white board. Trimmed beard, mustache, and goatee, the teacher is wearing a maroon long sleeved shirt and dark slacks. He gazes around the room seeing pods of 3-4 desks scattered across the medium sized classroom slowly filling with students.

The buzzer sounds at 8:10 (the period will end at 8:55) and Dilloughery gets the 19 students’ attention. He asks them to take out their homework—three students sitting near me tear out a written page from their notebook —and tells the class that he will come around and stamp their homework (the stamp is a large checkmark). Dilloughery walks around as students place their homework next to their laptop or tablet which they open and go to Google Classroom where they access the homework assignments and geometry proofs for the day (all students have a textbook at home from which the teacher assigns homework).

The “agenda” for the day is on the whiteboard:

–Warm-up

–Blue Angels tomorrow at lunch

–Review homework

–Proofs -big picture

–IXL-C 8

BD clssrm.jpg

After stamping homework, the teacher asks students to close their lids at a 45 degree angle (after all, it is geometry, I think to myself). Students do. At the front whiteboard, Dilloughery then proceeds to go over step-by-step a problem that requires a logical proof. Students are encountering proofs for the first time in the course and the teacher is both explaining the steps and giving them practice. On the whiteboard is the following:

2.6 Prove Statements about segments and angles

Prove that the distance from the restaurant to the movie theater is the same as the distance from the cafe to the dry cleaners

Givens: TS-CF

SM-Mc =FD

Prove ?

Teacher goes over each part, interspersing his explanation with questions for students (“what was the postulate from yesterday?” “Why is this last statement transitive property?”). He calls on students by name. After finishing, he says:

“Now, we are going over the homework. What questions do you have from your homework?”

Students call out three problems from text that they had to do for homework; teacher jots down the numbers and puts up the homework problems on the screen. In a question-and-answer format with class, Dilloughery goes over each of the problems students asked for help.

I look around the class and all students appear to be listening or taking notes. No one I can see is obviously off task, that is, looking at computer screen or cellphone.

In breaking down each problem into parts and getting at concept of congruence in a proof, the teacher dramatizes what he is doing by stretching out arms, bending legs, making side comments to the class, and moving around the front of the room. The class seems used to this kind of teacherly enthusiasm since some students smile and others watch carefully what he does at the whiteboard. ***

He moves to the other problems that a few students said were hard for them. They are two-column proofs.

BD WB problem.jpg

Teacher calls on student: “what am I going to write for step 1?” Student answers correctly. Dilloughery then goes to next step and says this could be a postulate involving angles and adding angles together. “What would that be?,” he asks. One student answers and the teacher, in a positive burst of happiness at the answer, says “Oooh.” Then he acts out the answer by taking a long step forward on the floor in front of the whiteboard. Students around me break out in smiles.

Dilloughery walks the class through the other problems that students had raised with homework. He encourages members of the class to call out answers—usually he names students when he calls on them—as he finishes this portion of the lesson.

Teacher then segues to next and final activity. He directs students to begin practicing with a partner two-column proofs on IXL, an online math software program that the teacher uses for geometry.

Holding blue note cards with student names in his hands, he shuffles the deck of cards and makes up pairs randomly. He comments on who the partners are going to be, pointing out their strengths. Some students laugh. Because the names are paired randomly, students take their tablets and move to different pods in the room to sit with their partner. Dilloughery announces that partners will spend 15 minutes on the two-column proof. He turns on the music and it plays softly.

After a few minutes, I look at three pods near me and see pairs of students are looking at one screen and discussing what they need to do to complete the two- column proof..

While students are working on the task, the teacher moves from pair to pair asking questions, looking at their screens to see what the partners have typed. He has a comment for each pair. For the entire activity, Dilloughery moves swiftly from pair to pair seldom stopping more than a minute or two as he quizzes the partners and listens to their answers. For one set of partners, I hear the teacher say, “you got it” complimenting them on their work. At another pod of four desks, two pairs are having some problems. Dilloughery stops there and goes over what the students have done, asks for their reasoning, raises questions, listens to student answers, and points out glitches in partners’ reasoning—all in a few minutes before moving to another pair.

Teacher alerts students that the bell will ring in less than a minute and they should pack up. Buzzer then sounds and students  slowly leave the room. These 9th graders are finished with geometry for the day.

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* Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has  just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21,  African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16

**BYOD began two years ago in the District.

*** Dilloughery told me that his principal joshed him by saying, “I think I could plug into your enthusiasm and run for a couple of days.”

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