Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

Back To School Covid Myths (Doug Green)

I have had a hard time locating actual classroom observations of hybrid teaching and learning. I did find that The New York Times sent journalists to visit seven different urban and rural districts that provided some evidence of what occurs in schools during the pandemic.

Doug Green emailed me that he had visited a small district near where he lives. I asked him to send me the results of his observations. Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher and principal in upstate New York. He blogs at https://DrDougGreen.Com

Since March of 2020, I have read countless articles about remote schooling. I have yet to see a convincing study on the relative quality of remote and in-person schooling, but I have seen many authors make unequivocal statements in favor of the in-person model. Whenever I see people stating hypotheses as facts I try to come up with reasons why they might be wrong, so here are the problems I find with the general consensus.

As part of my post-retirement professional life, I am the independent observer for a local school district. There I get to observe 120 teachers from K to12 thanks to the fact that our government doesn’t trust our principals to fairly evaluate their teachers. This allows me to base my oppositional views on empirical observations rather than “common sense.”

Myth #1. Zoom classes are clearly inferior.

From what I’ve read and seen, many if not most schools are using the “hybrid” model where kids spend every other day in school and at home attending the same class via Zoom or some other software option. This means that as a teacher, you have some students in your room widely spaced and some in boxes on your computer screen listening to what you say and seeing what you share on your screen.

All students hear and see the same instructional content regardless of where they are. All students get to ask questions and answer questions the teacher poses. The students in the room face a somewhat dystopian version of what classes use to look like while the “Zoomers” have “all the comforts of home.” Keep in mind that all homes are not created equal. Some students have their own “home office” while others have crowded conditions, responsibilities for caring for siblings, and poor or no reliable Internet access.

The hybrid model may be a downgrade for some, but it is likely an upgrade for others. It depends on each student’s learning style and home environment. To the extent higher-performing students can work at their own pace it could be better. This depends to a large extent on the ability of their parents to set up an environment conducive to learning and arranging age-appropriate supervision, and the teacher’s ability to differentiate.

Myth #2. It’s important that students go to school for social reasons.

From what I’ve seen, in-person schooling isn’t very social. Since some students have opted for full-time remote learning, in-school classes have less than half a class at a time. In my experience, eight students is a big class. The in-school students are distanced from each other and wearing masks. I have yet to see student to student interaction in classrooms. Between classes, they walk in the right lane down hallways at least six feet apart. For lunch, they eat at a distance from each other.

If this sounds like social life to you, you have my sympathy. Students go to the trouble and risk of getting to school somehow, getting up earlier, and slogging around a school environment that isn’t chuck full of fun social interactions. Students at home are free to use apps like FaceTime to have real social interaction with their peers. They can also get up later and walk about their home rather than being stuck in their sanitized seats.

Myth #3. There are no other advantages to hybrid schooling.

As a former elementary principal who had 535 students (90% poverty, 25% refugee) and no assistant, I spent more than half of my time on many days dealing with discipline. My school featured crowded classrooms and students who escaped from New York City where their parents could no longer afford to live. Most of my students were from one-parent families and suffered a lot of stress at home.

Fast forward to classrooms with less than half as many students sitting as far apart as possible and wearing facemasks. If you don’t think that this environment takes the discipline load on the principal down to near zero, you probably haven’t walked in my shoes. One of the biggest impediments to learning is caused by students disrupting classes. If you could make this go away learning overall would become more effective.

It’s popular to say that hybrid learning is negatively impacting poor students who generally attend schools with lots of discipline issues. Is it possible that some of these same poor kids who make a serious effort to learn under current circumstances aren’t the big winners? Also, while there may be stresses at home there probably aren’t many bullies.

I’m sure there are people in the trenches with different views. I look forward to hearing from you.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, leadership, research, technology use

Thoughts on Teaching

In 2001, I retired from fulltime teaching and research at Stanford. The Dean invited me to give a talk to the graduates and their families that June. Here is an abridged version of what I said.

“I have thought a lot about the past 46 years I have spent in education. I have taught in urban high schools and Stanford for many years [in addition to being an administrator]. It is teaching–not administration or scholarship [however]–that has defined me as an adult….

Teaching has permitted me to be a lover of ideas, a performer, a lifelong learner, a historian, a writer, and a friend to former students and colleagues. For these reasons and because at this moment in our nation’s history teachers have moved to the top of the nation’s school reform agenda, I want to comment today on both the exhilarating and troubling aspects of teaching….

Two basic reasons are behind this strong push for higher quality in teachers: Policy makers and teacher educators believe that when teachers understand deeply their subjects and possess a full repertoire of teaching skills students will learn more, do better on tests, and eventually get good jobs. And, second, higher teacher standards will move the occupation much closer to professional status.

And, of course, who could argue against teachers acquiring more expertise in the subject and displaying polished skills to help children learn more? Who would argue against teaching becoming a full-fledged profession? Certainly, I don’t. Yet, in all honesty, what troubles me is the cramped image of teaching that has emerged from these reforms. The constricted picture is one where the teacher is a technically competent supplier of information and skills. It is an incomplete image of teaching.

Missing in all of the talk and mandates aimed at improving teacher quality are the traditional moral obligations of teaching the young be they preschoolers or graduate students….

I need to be clear on this point. Not for one second do I minimize the importance of raising the low status of teachers and getting students to do better on tests, go to college, acquire credentials, and secure good jobs. Nonetheless, I must point out that these reasons for improving the quality of teaching are far different than the moral purposes that have guided the practice of teaching for centuries.

Let me be more specific about what I mean by traditions of teaching imposing moral obligations upon the teacher. Teaching obliges those who teach kindergartners, sixth graders, molecular biology, auto mechanics, or art to give sustained intellectual and moral attention to students’ learning and growth. Intellectual attentiveness means concentrating on what students know, feel, and think about the content and skills to be learned–the technical side of teaching–but then go on to deepen their understanding of the world and their capacity to continue learning.

Moral attentiveness means to concentrate on helping students grow as persons in grace and sensitivity, becoming more rather than less thoughtful about ideas, becoming more rather than less respectful of others’ views, and becoming more rather than less responsible for reducing social injustice. Questions of what is fair, right, and just arise constantly in classrooms; students learn moral sensibilities from how their teachers answer those questions….

Teacher and author, Frank McCourt realized the moral implications of teaching. As a first-time New York City teacher in the mid-1950s, he was uncertain about what kind of teacher he should be. He recalled his thoughts after his first day of teaching.

‘Should I be Robert Donat in Good-bye, Mr. Chips or Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle? Should I swagger into the classroom like James Cagney or march in like an Irish schoolmaster with a stick, a strap, and a roar? If a student sends a paper airplane zooming at me should I shove my face into his and tell him try that one more time, kid, and you’re in trouble? What am I to do with the ones looking out the window calling to friends across the yard? If they’re like some of the students in The Blackboard Jungle they’ll be tough and they’ll ignore me and the rest of the class will despise me.’

Teaching is a way of defining yourself as a person, a moral actor, and McCourt’s struggle goes well beyond how much of his subject and what skills he displayed. He knew, as we do today, that important as technical expertise is, our character as human beings and how we teach become what we teach.

Just like Frank McCourt, professors also display their character and moral virtues when they teach. In universities, as in public schools, the act of teaching, too often defined as knowing one’s discipline, has been divorced from who one is as a human being. To teach is to convey unveiled enthusiasm for ideas as it is about the details of a lecture. Too often, teaching has been stripped of its moral dimensions and made into a series of technical moves that can be swiftly learned and put into practice. If a professor, for example, only calls on the brightest, most verbal students in the class, snipes at students’ answers that call into question the professor’s statements, and provides few comments on students’ written work, students learn about fairness, independent inquiry, and the moral character of their professor.

Teaching, then, whether in graduate schools or kindergartens–in elite universities or slum schools–binds all of us together. In teaching we display our views of knowledge and learning, we advertise our ideas, how we reason, and how we struggle with moral choices whether we intend to or not. To teach is to enlist in a technical, morally based vocation, not an occupation and certainly not just a job. Technical competence, as important as it is in teaching, is insufficient to make a whole teacher or a complete student. It fails to capture the fundamental moral obligations of teaching the young. Teaching young and old in all of its splendid moral and technical triumphs and disappointments has taught me and many other teachers to approach life and the classroom with humility….”

After that brief talk to graduates in 2001, I feel the same way in 2021.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Anxiety over Pandemic Learning Loss (Alfie Kohn)

Alfie Kohn has been writing and speaking about education, human behavior and parenting for more than two decades. His most recent book was “Schooling Beyond Measure and Other Unorthodox Essays About Education,” This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe on September 6, 2020.  It, along with much of Kohn’s other work, is also available on his website,”

Anguish and even anger are entirely appropriate reactions to the fact that coronavirus infection rates are still too high in most areas to permit the safe reopening of schools. Not only do many of our kids miss their friends and the chance to make new ones, but school attendance also is a prerequisite for millions of parents to go to work. Also, schools provide healthy meals, which matters in a country with appalling levels of poverty and hunger.

The shutdown is bad enough. Must we also deal with the fear that children who are spending less, or even no, time in classrooms are destined to fall behind academically?

Not necessarily. The research that fuels dire warnings, which largely extrapolates from claims about “summer learning loss” (SLL), is much less persuasive than most people realize. For example, Paul T. von Hippel at the University of Texas at Austin looked carefully last year at a foundational study on SLL in low-income students and discovered he was unable to replicate its findings, partly because of problems with its methodology, such as a failure to adjust for the difficulty level of the questions.

More important, none of the research on this topic actually shows a diminution in learning — just a drop in standardized test scores (in some subjects, in some situations, for some kids).

By now we shouldn’t be surprised that older studies on SLL, along with attempts to apply it to our current situation, uncritically conflate the results of standardized tests with broader concepts such as learning, achievement, educational excellence or academic success. After all, many politicians, journalists, parents and even educators make the same mistake.

But as numerous analyses have shown, standardized tests are not just imperfect indicators; they measure what matters least about teaching and learning. And their flaws aren’t limited to specific tests or to how often they’re administered or to the way their results are used. Standardized testing itself, particularly when exams are timed or consist primarily of multiple-choice questions, mostly tell us about two things: the socioeconomic status of the population being tested and the amount of time that’s been spent training students to master standardized tests.

It is entirely possible to raise scores without improving the quality of teaching and learning at all, which means that a bump in those scores isn’t particularly meaningful. Worse, concerted efforts to raise scores often have the effect of lowering the quality of teaching and learning, which means that improved test results may actually be bad news. Indeed, several studies have found that higher scores can signify shallower thinking.

Standardized testing simultaneously overestimates students who are just skilled test-takers and underestimates talented thinkers who aren’t. Sadly, these flawed scores are still widely used to evaluate students, teachers and schools, which makes them hard to ignore, at least for the time being. But we should view skeptically any claims about education based on these scores — including the supposedly negative effects of missing school.

So, too, for those who are rightly concerned about race- or class-based “achievement gaps”: If these gaps are defined mostly by test results, the goal will be to narrow the test-score gap, which may widen the gap in high-quality instruction and deep learning. Anyone who warns that poor children will suffer disproportionately from closed schools may be romanticizing what was really going on in their schools. The pressure to raise test scores exacerbates an already disturbing dynamic by which the rich get richer and the poor get worksheets.

But is there a real academic “slide” from being out of school, as judged by high-quality, nonstandardized assessments? The honest answer is: We just don’t know.

To its credit, the meta-analysis that’s still the most widely cited source on the topic, conducted by Harris Cooper and his colleagues, was accurately titled “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores,” not “… on Learning.” But even given that narrow focus, it’s noteworthy that the declines were mostly confined to “factual and procedural knowledge” such as “math computation and spelling skills.”

In fact, some studies have shown that the capacity for thinking not only isn’t lost over the summer but also may show greater gains than during the school year. As Peter Gray at Boston College, who reviewed some of that research, puckishly proposed, “Maybe instead of expanding the school year to reduce a summer slide in calculation, we should expand summer vacation to reduce the school-year-slide in reasoning.”

What, after all, does it mean to say that children can “lose what they’ve learned?” True, time away from school may entail less exposure to academic content, but that shouldn’t be equated with — nor does it imply the absence of — intellectual development. (Similarly, let’s not forget that time away from school doesn’t mean kids can’t flourish in all sorts of other ways: emotionally, physically, artistically, socially and morally.)

Too often, schooling consists of cramming bits of knowledge into students’ short-term memories — by means of lectures, textbooks, worksheets, quizzes and homework — all enforced with grades. Many of these facts and skills are indeed forgotten, but that doesn’t mean that being out of school is calamitous. Rather, it suggests that we should reexamine what too often takes place in school.

Suppose our kids end up missing a full year of school. When they finally return, they may be unable to recall some of what they were told: the six stages of cell division, or the definition of a simile, or the approved steps for doing long division. Heck, they’ll forget even more facts once they’ve graduated. (Haven’t you?)

But over the course of a summer or a year spent at home, they are much less likely to forget how to set up an experiment to test their own hypothesis (if, when they were last at school, they had the chance to do science), or how to write a story that elicits a strong reaction from a reader (if they had been invited to play with prose with that goal in mind), or what it means to divide one number by another (if they were helped to understand mathematical principles from the inside out).

Warnings about academic loss are not just dubious; they’re dangerous. They create pressure on already-stressed-out parents to do more teaching at home — and, worse, to do more of the most traditional, least meaningful kind of teaching that’s geared toward memorizing facts and practicing lists of skills rather than exploring ideas. Parents may just assume this is what instruction is supposed to look like, partly because that’s how they were taught (and no one ever invited them to rethink this model). And if standardized tests rather than authentic kinds of assessment will eventually be used to evaluate their children, parents, like teachers, will be inclined to do what is really just test prep.

We’ve been here before. Claims of slippage in reading proficiency over the summer have led to an awful lot of kids, disproportionately Black and Latino, being sentenced to highly structured remedial summer programs. Richard Allington, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who specializes in this issue, points out that such programs, or summer homework assignments, aren’t necessary or even sensible. Rather, he and his colleagues recommend “easy and continuing access to self-selected books for summer reading” — a solution that’s also much less likely to cause kids’ interest in reading — a key predictor of proficiency — to evaporate.

When schools are finally able to open their doors again safely, let’s not return to the status quo ante covid, with its emphasis on the kind of test-focused instruction that can be lost. The good news — at a time when we’re all desperate for some — is that when the learning was meaningful to begin with, it doesn’t slip away.

Copyright © 2020 by Alfie Kohn.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, leadership, school leaders

Teachers on Dilemmas of Remote and Hybrid Instruction

After I wrote a post on the dilemmas of hybrid teaching a few days ago, I heard from two teachers for whom I have the highest respect. In my judgment, their comments are worthwhile for readers of this blog.

Steve Davis teaches in the San Francisco Bay area. I met Steve 15 years ago when I observed his lessons for a study I was doing at the time. We have remained in touch all of these years through email and his comments on posts to this blog. He gave me permission to use his comment.

I have been teaching remotely for 100 days.

When we go back to the classroom it will likely be in the hybrid model (with responsibility for teaching both in-person and remote simultaneously). We already know which students have opted to continue to learn remotely and which students will return for in-person instruction.

The majority of students will still be remote.

You can’t just teach to the 5-10 students in front of you. It’s unrealistic to expect remote students to just follow along with the broadcast of in-person instruction. You need to closely monitor the remote students and frequently check for understanding, which mostly happens through text (many/most remote students are loath to have their cameras on or speak). That leads me to believe that the best practice may be to continue teaching the whole class (in person and remote) through video conferencing and other digital platforms. I will be in the room, and some students will be in the room, but we will still interact in the digital world. I can’t see myself moving about the (windowless) room to talk to students in close proximity, and I can’t talk to them across the room, so better to talk to them through the screen. Better to do one thing well than two things poorly.

David Brazer is a former teacher, high school principal, university professor and author (Leading Schools to Grow, Learn, and Thrive: Using Theory to Strengthen Practice). He now works with TeachFX helping teachers across the country analyze classroom talk during lessons. I have known David as a graduate student, his dissertation adviser, and a friend for over 20 years. He gave me permission to use his comment.

Larry, what is most familiar in this blog post is seesawing (I would actually call it whipsawing) change. That alone likely depresses learning because of the uncertainty it generates. Additionally, what I hear from schools all across the country is that large numbers of students either don’t log on to videoconferences at all or never turn on their microphones and screens. It is my belief that a large proportion of such students were disengaged when school was face to face, but I’m sure virtual and hybrid have allowed additional students on the margins in “normal” school to check out. Teachers often put it to me, “How do we get students to turn on their microphones and cameras and actually participate?” The short answer is, I don’t know. The longer answer is that same for “normal” school”: do what you can to establish a personal relationship with each student. My hope (and it is hope, not proof) is that the fundamental principle that students perform best for teachers who invest in them will kick in. It’s not easy to do, but I heard from a teacher yesterday who has kept a laser focus on involving kids orally online since October that the effort is starting to pay off. Talk about patience and persistence!

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Hybrid Teaching: Classroom Dilemmas

With the pandemic, dilemmas have become legion. Is health and safety more or less important than the economy? Is wearing masks more or less important than personal liberty? When highly prized values conflict and parents and teachers have to figure out compromises to manage the internal conflict, dilemmas pinch.

Individual rights, family pressures, and community imperatives butt heads. Most schools shifted immediately to distance learning. With 13,000 school districts and no national plan for closing or re-opening schools, superintendents, principals, and teachers faced one dilemma after another. Some districts stayed open since March, closed and reopened and then closed again. Ditto for individual schools within districts. Concerned about their health and that of their families, many teachers chose remote instruction. Other teachers who could choose in-school instruction wanted to teach students they sorely missed. None of this, of course, is new to teachers who must figure out compromises that work when personal and professional values tug at one another.

Such difficult choices also occurred around one of the ways that teaching and learning has been reconfigured due to the pandemic: hybrid schooling. Many districts blend in-person classroom lessons with remote instruction. Some students sit in the classrooms masked and physically distanced while the teacher also deals with those students on Teams or Zoom. Variation in how much of each medium to use, how many students to accommodate in the actual classroom, and juggling both require teachers to dance on their toes.

Consider what occurred in the Edison Township Public schools (NJ).

I draw from an article by Tracey Tully, “A New Style of Teaching,” New York Times, January 22, 2021.

The district has 17,000 students of whom 65 percent are Asian, 11 percent Latino, 8 percent Black, and 14 percent white. Of the students, 15 percent meet the poverty criterion for free or reduced price lunch.

As the viral infection rose and fell during the past year, Edison schools closed and re-opened numerous times. District educators shifted to remote instruction initially and then developed different forms of hybrid teaching, that is, one in four Edison students come to school certain days of the week while everyone else is online at home. With fewer students attending they can be safe with six feet of space separating them at their desks, wearing masks, and not having close contact in hallways when classes change. Many Edison teachers do hybrid teaching, meaning that they simultaneously teach in-person to students arrayed in front of them while a computer monitor has 15-25 faces on a Zoom session. And this is why dilemmas cascade for teachers.

Consider Edison High School math teacher, Stephanie Rasimowicz’s lesson that journalist Tracey Tully observed.

This is Stephanie Rasimowicz’s daily dilemma: Scattered before her in second-period geometry class at Edison High School are a handful of freshmen, seated at desks many feet apart. Arrayed behind her are nearly 20 small, disembodied faces on a computer screen — her remote students, learning from home. Face-to-face instruction occurs four mornings a week for half of the students whose parents agree to arrangement.

Can the remote students hear the students in the classroom, and vice versa? Which group should she focus on today? And how does she know if those remote students are grasping her lessons — or paying attention at all?

“Even if their cameras are on, you still don’t know exactly what they’re doing at home,” said Ms. Rasimowicz, who has taught math at Edison High for 13 years.

Tracey Tully’s article continues:

Ms. Rasimowicz and the rest of Edison Township Public Schools, one of New Jersey’s largest suburban districts, are part of a huge, unplanned educational experiment: combining remote instruction with in-person classes, a system known as hybrid instruction.

By some estimates, hybrid learning has become among the most common approaches to teaching in the pandemic, with thousands of the nation’s 13,000 school districts using it for some or most classes.

In some places, most notably New York City, hybrid students come into classrooms for part of the week and study at home the rest of the time, with a different teacher for each group. (Most New York City students have remained all-remote.) In most other districts, hybrid involves one teacher simultaneously instructing in-person and remote students who shift places every second or third day. In Edison, in-person students come to class four mornings a week.

The compromises built into hybrid are intended to keep staff members and students safer — by slicing in-person attendance by at least half to enable six feet of distance in classrooms, hallways and gymnasiums — while also maintaining, at least in part, the widely acknowledged educational and emotional benefits of in-person instruction.

“There’s no book for this,” said Cyndi Tufaro, the principal of James Monroe Elementary School in Edison. “The word of the year is ‘fluid.’”

A growing body of research indicates that students generally have fallen behind educationally in the pandemic, with Black, Latino and low-income students, who are more likely to be taking classes remotely, faring the worst. Whether hybrid classes are helping to stem educational loss remains unclear.

Edison officials said they had no readily available data on failure rates or standardized test scores to measure the impact of hybrid learning.

Ms. Rasimowicz believes that the pandemic has wrought an educational toll, though perhaps not as significantly as she once feared. “I have the same number of kids who struggle,” she said. “The same number who have A’s.”

But the jury is out on hybrid learning, she adds. “The more difficult topics — you can’t push them as far,” she said.

Edison, home to a large Indian-American community about 40 miles southwest of Midtown Manhattan, is one of the most diverse suburban communities in the state. The school district is about 65 percent Asian, 14 percent white, 11 percent Latino and 8 percent Black.

The district has seesawed between different hybrid models as coronavirus cases have receded and spiked again.

School began virtually in September, reopened in October for willing students to attend in-person every other day, and then a month later allowed those students to attend class four mornings a week.

Only about one in four of the district’s 17,000 students come to school for in-person instruction; the rest take all their classes from home. Schools are closed each Wednesday for cleaning, and all students take their afternoon classes online.

Bernard F. Bragen Jr., the district’s superintendent, tried to maintain in-person instruction for as long as possible, even as most nearby districts closed when the virus began surging across the state late last year.

For nearly two months, there was limited virus spread linked to in-school transmission, and only one of Edison’s 19 schools was forced to shut down for two weeks. But by the first week of December, six additional schools reported outbreaks involving at least 22 cases, and Edison temporarily shifted everyone back to all-remote instruction. All schools are scheduled to reopen on Feb. 1.

The township remembers the risks of the virus well: During the spring, as many as 102 patients and one staff member at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in Edison died after confirmed or probable cases of Covid-19, according to state officials.

Dr. Bragen said he worried most about children at the fringes of poverty — about 15 percent of Edison students are poor enough to qualify for free school lunches — as well as those slipping deeper into emotional crisis. “The number of students in crisis has increased, and it’s concerning,” he said.

He is also concerned about teacher burnout from the incessant demands of instructing remote and in-person students simultaneously. “For a teacher to meet the needs of the students seated in front of them and to meet the needs of students sitting at home is a challenge,” he said. “One is always being compromised for the other.”

He and district leaders tried to develop a new hybrid model that would have enabled staff members who preferred to remain home to teach only virtual classes, while those in school would be responsible solely for the students who attend class in person. But they were unable to make it work because it would have required reassigning too many teachers.

Many of Edison’s elementary classrooms were outfitted with cameras suspended from ceilings so that students at home have the same view of the teacher as those in the classroom. Using federal CARES Act funding, the district also hung 25 thermal cameras costing $12,000 each in entryways to instantaneously measure body temperatures and check for masks.

Still, teachers and students face connectivity snags associated with adding new technology to old buildings.

Things I never, ever want to say after Covid-19?” Vicki Jenkins, a dance teacher, said into a MacBook Air propped on a shelf in her classroom studio last month. “I can’t hear you. You’re frozen. It’s lagging.”

The virtual holiday dance show was weeks away, and she had been kicked offline twice in 20 minutes while leading her students through their routines.

Is coming into the classroom for so few students worth it? “It’s worth it for that one child or the few children who are there,” Ms. Jenkins said. “But there are days — and today was one of them — when I ask: ‘What am I doing here?’”

For one of her students, Zaria Fogle, the frustrations of online instruction prodded her to return to the classroom when the district reopened in October. Zaria, a 17-year-old senior at Edison High, said that in-person instruction was key to maintaining honor-roll grades.

“I really could not learn math over the computer,” said Zaria, who hopes to study dance in college.

Showing up in person also offers at least a taste of a typical senior year and a chance to fulfill a responsibility: She was selected to give the school’s morning announcements over the loudspeaker.

But mostly, it’s the lure of the mirror-lined dance studio, where Zaria goes as often as she can.

“That’s one of the only normal things I get to do,” she said. “It’s better than just dancing in my room.”


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

Teacher Comments on Being Tech Skeptics

I am fortunate to have many readers who are classroom teachers. I have published posts over the past few years about my research on exemplary teachers who integrated technology into their lessons. Some of those posts triggered responses from teachers. Here are a few of their comments.

Louise Kowitch, retired Connecticut social studies teacher:

….The impact of technology can vary greatly depending on the subject matter (among all the other things you’ve addressed). While some pedagogical practices are universal, when “doing the work of the discipline”, content-specific practices,and by extension the impact of technology, might vary widely.

I mention this to say that as someone who lived through the IT revolution in the classroom (from mimeographs, scantrons, and filmstrips to floppy disks and CD-ROM, and finally to smart boards, Skype and Chromebooks), by the time I reached three decades as a full time classroom teacher, I was spending MORE time on my lessons and interacting with students, than less. Some tasks were indeed more efficient (for example, obtaining and sharing maps, artifacts, art, primary sources). Others, like collecting data about student performance for our superintendent, became arduous, weekend long affairs that sucked the life out of the joy of teaching.

That said, I loved how Chromebooks and Smartboards freed up my instruction to empower students to do their own research and conduct substantive debates. For example, a simulation of the post WWI debates over the Treaty of Versailles from the perspectives of different countries – something I had done before Chromebooks – became a powerful lesson for students in the art of diplomacy, the value of historical perspective, and the grind of politics, as a result of THEIR OWN RESEARCH, not my selection of primary sources. This was MORE time consuming (2 weeks of instructional time, not 8 days) and LESS EFFICIENT, but MORE STUDENT CENTERED and COLLABORATIVE.

Was it “better” instruction? Yes, if the point was for kids to experience “the art of negotiation”. No, if it meant having to drop a four day mini unit on elections in the Weimar Republic that I used to do after the WWI unit. Something is lost, and something is gained. Like you, I grapple with it’s a zero sum game.

Garth Flint,  high school teacher of computer science and technology coordinator in Montana private school:

My question has always been what effect does the increase in classroom tech have on the students? Do they do better through out the years? How do we measure “better”? We have an AP History teacher who is very traditional. Kids listen to the lecture and copy the notes on the whiteboard.
About the only tech he uses are some minor YouTube videos. His AP test results are outstanding. Would any tech improve on those results? At the middle school we have a teacher who uses a Smartboard extensively. It has changed how he does his math lectures. But he is still lecturing. Has the Smartboard improved student learning? I do not know. I have observed teachers that have gone full tech. Google Docs, 1-1, videos of lectures on line, reversed classroom, paperless. Their prep time increased. Student results seemed (just from my observation, I did not measure anything) to be the same as a non-tech classroom. It would be interesting to have two classrooms of the same subject at the same grade level, one high tech, one old-school and feed those students into the same classroom the next year. Ask that next year teacher if there is a measurable difference between the groups.

 David a high school history teacher

I think the one thing about technology that can’t be said enough is that it is NOT neutral. I so often hear “it’s just a tool” arguments, but it is more than that–especially digital technologies. These have embedded in them the views, values, and (often) misconceptions of the developers. If a school adopts a platform or LMS, it is also bringing on board those things…

Laura H. Chapman, retired  art teacher from Ohio:

“So answering the question of whether widespread student access and teacher use of technologies has “changed daily classroom practices” depends upon who is the asker, who is the doer, and what actually occurs in the classroom.”

Some other questions.
Who is asking questions about the extent of access and use of technology by students and teachers and why? Who is not asking such questions, and why not?

Is there a map of “daily classroom practices” for every subject and grade/or developmental level such that changes in these practices over time can be monitored with the same teachers in the same teaching assignments?

Are there unintended consequences of widespread student access and teacher use of technologies other than “changes in daily classroom practices?” Here I am thinking about the risky business of assuming that change is not only inevitable but also positive(e.g., invigorates teaching and learning, makes everything moe “efficient”).

Who is designing the algorithms, the apps, the dashboards, the protocols for accessing edtech resources, who is marketing these and mining the data from these technologies, and why? These questions bear on the direct costs and benefits of investments and indirect costs/benefits….

Jo Lieb, English teacher and poet from Connecticut:

2017 – it’s 2017

Who would think that in 2017
I would feel the need to have you read
a poem in favor of humanity?

I look out at my students
what do I see?

I see wires from teenage ears
red, yellow, black pods in and around their ears
talking to them
mesmerizing them
hypnotizing them

I see the omnipresent ChromeBook
on their desks – their laptop computer instructors
And on tables as stand alones
I see the Boxes standing tall –
They are Black
They are Powerful
They are Teaching my kids

And I am complicit….

What did I just say?
The black plastic and metal square heads
Are everywhere… scrambling
the brains of my students
teaching them to be compliant
all the same

But my kids are the outliers on the scattergrams –
my rebels
my questioners
my thinkers
my doers
the next generation’s movers and the shakers

At least they used to be


They used to be when we treated them as humans
not data


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How to Teach American History in a Divided Country (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a writer based in San Francisco, co-creator of The Atlantic’s On Teaching project, and author of Mission High. This article appeared November 8, 2020.

For the past 26 years, Chuck Yarborough, the U.S. and African American history teacher at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science in Columbus, has been surveying his students on how American history is taught. Students come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school at this diverse public boarding school, and he wants to know what they’ve learned by the time they get there. The feedback from more than 1,400 students over the years has been consistent. In each class of about 18 students, an average of five come in with some basic knowledge of the Civil War, but very few have studied the role that slavery played in it—or the connections between the war, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, and how this legacy continues to uphold racial segregation and inequities in Mississippi.

Yarborough has spent his career trying to fill these omissions in how U.S. history is taught—and thinking about his own role as a white educator in the Deep South, teaching about the roots of racial injustice. During my visit in the fall of 2018, I asked Yarborough to describe his approach. Our conversations have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Kristina Rizga: How are the Civil War and Reconstruction taught at Mississippi schools?

Chuck Yarborough: They are not taught for the most part, unfortunately. In theory, students are supposed to have been taught the Civil War and Reconstruction before arriving here, but the vast majority of them have not been taught Reconstruction. A few more learned something about the Civil War, but not a lot. They have been taught pretty well the horrors of slavery, but they have not been taught the complexities of those systems: how it developed and its continued effects to this day. So when they arrive in my classroom, I start with the end of the Civil War—1865—and then I teach Reconstruction for the first several weeks of the class.

I teach with the simple assessment of my professors in college, which I think is spot on: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And we begin this discussion by reading the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, which makes it clear that the Civil War happened because white southerners desired to defend slavery as an institution for their own benefit.

I suspect that my generation—people in their 40s or 50s—were taught something different. They were taught that there were all these other constitutional issues and it was really about states’ rights. That’s a kinder and gentler reason for people to have fought each other. And if you believe that, then you believe that southern Confederates were just like the Founding Fathers of the United States who were fighting a political struggle.

You can’t understand American history without understanding the steps forward, racially and socioeconomically, that Reconstruction presented initially, and then the steps backward that were taken with the violent reestablishment of white supremacy. You can’t understand the present without seeing the connections between this history and the socioeconomic and racial imbalances it created. But Reconstruction is not on the state test. Therefore, the schools that are teaching the state tests are not teaching Reconstruction at all, and in today’s society, that’s particularly problematic.

Rizga: What kind of learning experiences have helped you bring out the best work in your students?

Yarborough: I think classroom work has to empower students academically and socially. School is so much more than academic content. Education is also about a sense of community, collaboration, empathy, and confidence. At some point, I’m a life coach—and this means that I have to show students that they matter and that their work matters. All of this helps them develop a sense of place and belonging. When that happens, they produce their best work.

With the research in the local archives and performance projects that we do in the community, we try to make history come alive. The reason this approach works for so many students, I believe, is that they see how the work they do matters to a bigger community: how it resonates, challenges the community to reach a new level of understanding, and sets a model for leading in a community.

Classroom work has to show students how to lead and succeed locally. Before the rise of social media, success meant stepping out of school to the next, broader community. Today, students are comparing themselves to global norms, like celebrities or people with loud voices on social media. That’s generated more stress for students. And it also creates anxiety in parents, who take it out on teachers sometimes. I try to remind my students that the world you can really change is the world that’s within your reach. I help students find excellence from within and realize that success is really about empowering yourself to shape your life, your family’s life, and your community’s life.

Rizga: In what ways has your teaching changed since your first five years in the classroom?

Yarborough: The first five years were about teaching content and going fast and making sure students learned a lot. I emphasized quantity over quality. Later in my career, I’ve really come to understand that while learning content is important, it is really only empowering for the students who are good at making the connections between the content and the process on their own. That process includes all of the procedures of being a critical thinker: doing the research, collecting data, finding and articulating connections. For many students, even some of the highest achievers, you have to teach them these skills. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve seen students who are more and more tied to the idea that they just need to learn content. That has led me to step up my game with the teaching of process.

Rizga: How do you do that?

Yarborough: First, students have to engage with primary documents. My students go to the archives, and while that’s not logistically possible for most teachers today, there are so many digital resources out there. You can engage documents through the Library of Congress or Ancestry classroom resources, like newspapers or census materials. And by the way, the students love it. They do not want to read a textbook—they want to create something themselves.

The second principle is that students must be able to articulate themselves in writing, because the discipline of writing is essentially the discipline of thinking. That has to be in your classes every day.

Daily discussion has to be a practice in a decent classroom. If students are not engaged in a discourse, then they’re really not learning. Students can’t just memorize information and then spit it back. If that’s most of what you do, then you’re not doing what you need to create critical thinkers. But you also can’t create the critical thinkers without having them practice the discipline of learning, and that includes memorization. I do exercises where I require memorization, because that knowledge base is how we discern truth in the moment. It is our fact-checking filter. In the 21st century, young people in particular are losing this discipline, because they have so much information available at their fingertips—but you need to have a base of knowledge and facts to understand whatever you are engaging with.

Rizga: In your classes, you often talk about the importance of collaboration and sharing what you’ve learned. Why is this important?

Yarborough: Living in and shaping a community is really about being in relationships with other people in constructive, collaborative ways. So in my classroom, I try to develop projects that emphasize those skills. We all have our talents to bring to the table. We all have stories to tell, and we can learn from each other’s stories. Historically, if you look at successful communities—and that includes successful schools—that’s the defining characteristic. People buy into a common good that they can collaborate to reach.

These two key skills—sharing and collaboration—have been disappearing in many classrooms in the past 10 years, with the growing emphasis on passing standardized tests. If students are not passing those tests, there is a cost for the school and for the teachers. And the end result of that has been a regimentation: Worksheets and everything else are targeted at passing those tests. I think we all have to remember that this is not helpful in preparing students for a constructive life in a community.

Rizga: What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve seen in education in the past two decades?

Yarborough: The devaluation of teachers and public education generally. Political leaders seeking to cut funding are incentivized to convince you that public education is not valuable.

The other challenge is the lack of mentorship by veteran teachers. When I started at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, most teachers had at least 15 years of experience. Today, very few do. I became good at what I do under the tutelage of older teachers. The lack of experienced teachers will have huge consequences for the current generation of teachers.

I also see one big, positive change: the empowerment of students of color; young women, particularly in sciences; LGBTQ students; and religious minorities. These students have voices, and those voices are being heard. This is really different today from when I was starting out.

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The Riot at the Capitol: Classroom Lessons?*

In an earlier post, I pointed out the obvious fact that tax-supported public schools were political institutions. Not in the partisan sense of Republican and Democrat but in serving the community in socializing community values in the next generation including respect for and pride in the nation. When taxpayers want their schools to instill core values in students (e.g., respect for individual, being part of a community, equal treatment) those are political decisions.

In light of January 6, 2020 attack on the Capitol instigated by President Donald Trump and the subsequent riot and destruction that occurred including the loss of five lives, the issue of teaching about this signal event in U.S. history in elementary and secondary classrooms again comes to the attention of teachers and non-teachers.

So should teachers and students deal with the attack upon the Capitol in classroom lessons? Yes, it is controversial and yes, it is highly political in that a Republican President egged on a rally of supporters to march down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Capitol where Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and attained equal seats in the Senate with Republicans in the November 3, 2020 election. The resulting riot captured not only Americans’ attention but also of the entire world.

But should the attention of students be captured as well by this shocking event?

Two scholars have written about the teaching of controversial issues in classrooms and here Steve Drummond interviewed Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy on their new book, Politics in the Classroom (2015). The following interview occurred before the attack upon the Capitol.

The Confederate flag. The Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Policing minority communities. Nuclear weapons and Iran. Summer often brings a lull in the news, but not this year. And, come September, students are going to want to talk about these headlines.

But how should teachers navigate our nation’s thorny politics?

Do politics belong in the classroom at all, or should schools be safe havens from never-ending partisan battles? Can teachers use controversial issues as learning opportunities, and, if so, to teach what? And then, the really sticky question: Should teachers share with students their own political viewpoints and opinions?

In their book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy offer guidelines to these and other questions, using a study they conducted from 2005 to 2009. It involved 21 teachers in 35 schools and their 1,001 students. Hess is the dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and McAvoy is the program director at UW-Madison’s Center for Ethics and Education.

Schools, they conclude, are and ought to be political places — but not partisan ones. I talked with them recently about how, in today’s highly polarized society, teachers can walk that very fine line.

Sometimes it seems there’s a belief that schools should be political … sort of. With students taking on issues – like smoking – that are political but not too political. Did you find that in your study?

Hess: You’re absolutely right, there are a number of schools that encourage students to get involved in political campaigns, but they tend to be political campaigns that really aren’t very controversial. They’ll encourage kids to form a campaign about something that everyone agrees should be done. For example, that we should clean up the litter that’s around our school, or that it’s important for people to eat healthy food…

We have evidence that kids learn a lot from doing that. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing. My view is that if you’re going to have students involved in authentic politics, then it’s really important to make sure you have issues for which there are multiple and competing views, and you don’t give students the impression that there’s a political view that they should be working toward.

McAvoy: How political do we want students to be? That’s really a question that a lot of communities struggle with and a lot of teachers struggle with. And the point of the book is to say that, in general, to be able to talk about politics is a skill that people need to learn. And it would be great if it were learned in school because these are great moments in which you bring a group of young people together who are forming their political views. They can really learn to engage across their differences and to start to see that political conflict is a normal part of democratic life.

A key point in your book is that, while teachers are teaching about the issues – immigration or same-sex marriage — they’re also teaching students how to have these discussions. They’re teaching the process of democracy.

McAvoy: Right. The “political classroom” is a classroom in which young people are learning to deliberate about political questions. It really is the process of deliberation that is the major skill being taught. And then, through deliberation, students are learning about the issues. They’re learning how to form arguments, how to weigh evidence. So there’s social studies content that is being learned in a process that is, at its heart, democratic.

Are there issues that are, or should be, completely off the table?

Hess: One of the things we talk about in the book is the distinction between issues that we called “settled issues” and issues that are “open”…

It’s a little complicated, but, in a nutshell, we suggest that there are some issues that are settled and should be taught as settled and to not do that is being dishonest with young people. For example, the question about whether climate change is occurring — that’s a settled issue. The question is, What to do about climate change? That’s an open issue.

We wouldn’t suggest that teachers engage kids in talking about whether climate change is occurring, but we strongly encourage teachers to engage in discussion about what should be done about climate change.

You mention in your book policies that might allow students to opt out [of a controversial topic or discussion]. Which raises questions about whether that’s a good thing, to just allow students to sit out.

McAvoy: The philosopher in me thinks there’s not a really good way to defend the view that students should always be able to opt out. We don’t allow students to opt out of writing essays because they don’t like writing essays.

At the same time, democracies allow us, when we’re in the public sphere, to walk out of a discussion if we don’t like what’s happening or if we’re being offended. Classrooms are unusual in that we’re compelling students to be there. Teachers do need to weigh [whether] there might be times when a particular student has a good reason for wanting to pass on a comment…

Opting out because I feel uncomfortable sharing my views or talking out loud in class is a skill that can be taught and overcome. Opting out because this discussion is really hard for me given my religious background — that might be a reason that you let a student pass on a discussion.

You note the challenges and dangers of teaching both in mixed classrooms – with students of varied racial and economic backgrounds — and homogenous classrooms. How should teachers adapt to these different scenarios?

Hess: In many ways the more difference you have within a classroom the better. We want to make sure that we have as many multiple competing views as we possibly can … So difference is a good thing, something that can be used and primed as opposed to something to be feared and quelled.

One of the challenges of lots of difference is, difference often causes high emotions and often can cause breaches of civility. So teachers who are in classrooms that have lots of naturally occurring difference often have to go to great lengths to make sure that

students understand what it looks like to participate in a civil manner…

In classes where there’s a lot of sameness, the first thing we learned is that, though it might appear that there’s a lot of sameness, there’s always some difference. So when teachers say, “Well all these kids think alike,” we’re almost sure — all the time — that the teachers are wrong, that in fact not all the kids do think alike.

That being said, there are classes that are more similar than they are different, and teachers have to use a lot of strategies to bring differences into the discussion. Those strategies might include bringing in guest speakers or making sure the materials the kids are using to prepare for discussion are full of multiple and competing ideas.

Students really seem to like this stuff – to engage in issues that are current and relevant to their own lives.

Hess: Absolutely. There are two things going on here: In many schools, students still spend most of the day listening to teachers talk. One reason we think kids like [these issues] is they finally get a chance to talk themselves. More than that, we did find that the content of these political issues was really interesting to kids. Especially when they were hearing multiple and competing views. Students would report that in discussions where there was a lot of shared opinion, those were not as interesting as in discussions where there were differing views … They were really responding to the fact that it’s quite interesting to hear what your peers think about things. And not just that they have different points of view but what they’re supporting those points of view with.

What advice do you have or does your study have for teachers considering how to talk about [breaking events such as] Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri?

Hess: One of the problems with discussing events that just happened is that often we don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a distinction between current events … and discussions about controversial political issues where kids are preparing in advance and being deliberative. In the best-case scenario, teachers are able to take advantage of current events and use them as opportunities to get kids to talk about controversial political issues. There’s a big difference in talking about, “What do you think happened?” and talking about a policy issue like “Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?”

McAvoy: Young people need to see these as moments within their historical context – need to understand some of the history. It’s difficult to have those materials at the ready when things sort of erupt as they have in the last year or so with Baltimore and Ferguson. Good teachers start building curriculum about the history of redlining in cities or how cities become segregated. [To] put these moments within the context is much better than having young people just reacting to “What do you think about what you’re seeing on television today?” Young people really need to study these issues in depth.

OK, the big elephant in the room: the question of whether teachers should talk about their own personal beliefs to their students. Should they?

Hess: What we found is that there were teachers who were doing an excellent job who shared their own views with students, and there were teachers doing an excellent job who didn’t share their views. So we don’t believe that there is one right answer to this. And we think empirically we can show that there’s not.

That being said, we think that there are times when it’s probably better for teachers to share than other times when it’s better for them not to share. That depends in large part on the context — on who’s in their class and what their goals are.

One thing we were really intrigued by was that a lot of the teachers we interviewed talked about changing their minds on that question over time. Some of them would say, “Well, it used to be that I would never share, but now I do only in these circumstances.” Other teachers would say, “I used to be really prone to share a lot, and now I don’t and here’s why.” We think it’s all a matter of professional judgment. Teachers need to think about this very carefully…

I sometimes worry that, even though there can be really good ethical reasons for teachers to share, in a very polarized time that sharing can be misinterpreted. And if it’s misinterpreted by the public or by parents as teachers trying to get kids to adopt their beliefs, then I think we could have a big problem.

That being said, we have no evidence from the study of teachers who were actively and purposely trying to indoctrinate kids to a particular point of view…

We think that this feeling that the public seems to have that teachers by definition are trying to push their political views on students is just false.

You were critical of the notion – that teachers would do that.

Hess: What we learned from students when we interviewed and surveyed them is that they make a really clear distinction between a teacher sharing his or her own view and a teacher trying to push his or her own view. Students not surprisingly report that they don’t like being pushed.

You seem to draw a pretty firm line that teachers should not be advocating for their own beliefs.

McAvoy: What we argue in the book is that what’s most important is that teachers create a culture of fairness in the classroom. That means being fair and reasonable to all the competing views that are in the classroom and that are being represented in the public. The practice that we found most troubling, from the study, is what we referred to in the book as political seepage: teachers who make sarcastic comments, who use partisan humor. It’s these offhanded comments that are sort of biting and mean-spirited about the political climate that I think is problematic. Because it creates a climate not of fairness, but it creates a kind of insider/outsider feeling. If you get the humor that I just said or, “Do you agree with me that that politician’s a big idiot?” That invites the most divisive parts of the partisan climate into the classroom.


*For those readers who are teachers and want to tap resources for lessons about the attack upon the Capitol, an article in Education Week provides resources. See:


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Whatever Happened to the Winnetka Plan?

When and how did the Winnetka Plan begin and grow to become a nationally known lighthouse for Progressivism?

A small wealthy suburb of Chicago in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Winnteka leaders embraced the ideas of John Dewey and the “New Education,” an off-shoot of the then spreading Progressive movement. As the authors of a history of the Winnetka schools put it:.

In May, 1919, they hired Carleton W. Washburne as the superintendent of schools. It was this 29-year old educator who would bring their ambitious dreams for their schools to a reality. As the architect of “The Winnetka Plan,” Washburne’s innovations – individualized instruction, hands-on learning, attention to the development of the whole child, a focus on research and development of curriculum materials, and a thoughtful and comprehensive program of staff development – were the pillars of his philosophy of progressive education and continue to be cornerstones of today’s Winnetka Public Schools.

Variations of the Winnetka plan spread to other districts in the state and the nation eager to be viewed as Progressive. Washburne wrote in journals and authored books on the Plan. He spoke often about Winnetka schools at conferences in the U.S. and Europe.

This photo and those of classrooms below come from Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Education: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

What was the Winnetka Plan?

The “common core” (Superintendent Washburne’s phrase) in reading, math, and other subjects usually occurred in the morning as students worked in whole group, small groups, and individually in mastering the “essentials” in reading, math, science, etc. at each student’s grade level. Using diagnostic tests to assess where each student was in subject/skill levels, teachers created customized “workbooks” and individually tailored materials fitted to different levels of achievement for individual students. Assessment tools determined when each student attained mastery and could move ahead to next skill/subject matter within the grade level.

Afternoons were set aside for “creative group activities.” Here is where students participated in art, literature, music appreciation, crafts, drama, and physical activities. With no fixed achievement standards in these activities, each student could perform as they desired since no specific goals or mastery tests existed.

What problems did Washburne and the Winnetka Plan seek to solve?

Simply put, Washburne and other Progressives including Frederic Burk at San Francisco State Normal School where Washburne studied knew that all children did not learn at the same rate nor did they learn in the same way and thus teaching had to recognize that variation among students. In short, the age-graded school where the expectation was that all students would learn at the same pace and in the same way was the problem. The solution to this structural straitjacket confining teaching and learning was the design and implementation of the Winnetk Plan.

What were Winnetka Plan classrooms like?

The following photos of Winnetka classrooms between the 1920s and 1950s offer a glimpse of the district’s approach. Some of the photos were taken in the Crow Island Elementary School (1940) designed by internationally known architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Washburne and others committed to Progressive teaching and learning insured that building space and furniture provided the environment in which Progressive teachers could work with students.

What Happened to the Plan?

The Progressive spirit animating the district continues to this day. In 2019, the district celebrated the 100th anniversary of Carleton Washburne’s coming to Winnetka.

Over 12,000 residents live in Winnetka in 2020. As it was a century ago, it remains affluent and white (95 percent) serving just over 1,500 kindergarten to eighth grade children in five schools, all of which are (and have been) ranked highly in Illinois every year.

Carleton Washburne served the district from 1919 to 1943 before leaving Winnetka to work with setting up schools in Italy during World War II and afterwards. His successors, working under Progressive-minded school board members basically continued the Plan as Washburne had conceived it adding and trimming aspects of the program as the context for schooling changed in the following decades.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, leadership, school reform policies

A Week in the Life of a Baltimore School Returning to In-Person Classes (Erica Green)

New York Times Journalist Erica Green spent a week in a Baltimore school where in-person instruction resumed. It is rare to get such a peek inside a big city district school during the pandemic–nearly all large urban districts are shuttered and rely upon remote instruction. This article appeared November 28, 2020

Zia Hellman prepared to welcome her kindergarten students back to Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School this month the way any teacher would on the first day of school: She fussed over her classroom.

Ms. Hellman, 26, dodged around the triangular desks, spaced six feet apart and taped off in blue boxes. She fretted about the blandness of the walls, fumbled with the plastic dividers covering name tags and arranged the individual yoga mats that replaced colorful carpets. Every window was open for extra ventilation, chilling the air.

“I wonder how they’re going to react to all of this,” she said, hands on her hips, scanning the room for the last time. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel, but it feels right.”

Ms. Hellman was among about two dozen teachers and staff members required to return to work on Nov. 16 for the first in-person instruction in Baltimore City Public Schools since March. The city was the first large school district in Maryland and the latest among urban districts in the country to tiptoe into one of the highest-stakes experiments in the history of the nation’s public education system: teaching face-to-face in a pandemic.

Returning to the classroom has not been easy; neither has remote learning.

Educators looking to get back in front of students have had to navigate conflicting guidance from politicians and public health officials. Some teachers’ unions have refused to return to buildings until the virus abates, ostracizing colleagues who dare break with them. On the other hand, the country’s most vulnerable children have sustained severe academic and social harm from the remote-learning experiment. Parents, navigating their own economic and work struggles, are increasingly desperate.

Ms. Hellman has yearned to be back in her school building in northeast Baltimore since September. She also understands the risks.

 “I feel like I’m a bit in ‘The Hunger Games,’” Ms. Hellman said. “I didn’t volunteer as tribute, I was chosen as tribute. But I want to be here for my students.”

Superintendents, meantime, have had to navigate a firestorm of political pressure, parental preference and the weight of a once-in-a lifetime public health crisis.

“Superintendents have always had to deal with conflicting interests, but it’s never been this kind of life-and-death balance,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large, urban public school systems across the country. “To have interests and decisions changing week to week, day to day, makes this situation unlike anything public education has ever faced.”

For Sonja Santelises, the chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, the decision to reopen 27 schools on Nov. 16 to about 1,200 academically at-risk students — such as kindergartners, special education students and English-language learners — last week was not a choice but an obligation. She made the call on the advice of the city’s public health commissioner.

“If I were to cling to one-liners or seek to score political points like some people want, I would choose not to see those families who need options, who need translators, those refugee families who walked miles to get their children an education,” Ms. Santelises said. “I will not do that.”

Baltimore reduced the number of planned building reopenings to 27 from 44 as the virus surged in certain parts of the city. But the local teachers’ union is calling for buildings in Ms. Santelises’ district to stay closed until they are deemed absolutely safe or a vaccine is widely available. It has pressured individual teachers against volunteering to go back and encouraged parents to boycott.

Those tensions reverberate across the country, where schools are grappling with the pandemic in widely varying ways, with some closing this month after opening earlier this fall even as others like in Baltimore just now are trying to reopen.

“We’re not just being obstructionist; we’re obstructing the district from putting people’s lives at risk,” said Diamonté Brown, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

More than 70,000 schoolchildren left Baltimore classrooms in March, when the coronavirus outbreak in the United States was declared a pandemic. Since then, school leaders have focused on temporary measures. They bought computers and internet-access devices, sent worksheets to students’ homes, staffed their cafeterias and buses to serve meals to their communities, and waited for direction from local and federal health officials that never really came.

But now, with the pandemic threatening to derail the education and prospects of a generation of children, district leaders are feeling pressure to move on their own.

In Washington, D.C., internal testing data shows steep declines in the number of kindergartners through second grade students meeting literacy benchmarks, The Washington Post reported. In Houston, huge numbers of middle and high school students are failing their first semester, according to The Houston Chronicle. Even affluent, high-performing districts like Fairfax County, Va., a Washington suburb, are reporting alarming rates of middle and high school students failing classes, particularly English-language learners and students with disabilities — two populations that a recent Government Accountability Office report found were poorly served by remote learning.

Among the most alarming statistics are the significant enrollment declines that districts across the country are experiencing, particularly among kindergartners. Public education is out of reach for some families without internet access or with home lives that are unconducive to remote leaning. Some families have simply given up.

Ms. Hellman, in her fourth year of teaching kindergarten, understood what returning to the classroom would mean. She would not be able to see her 92-year-old grandmother. She might be subject to “corona-shaming” by colleagues, family and friends who have stayed away from work. She was putting herself personally at risk.

But, she reasoned, “I’m young, I’m healthy.”

At 9:15 a.m., each of the six students whose families had opted for in-person learning in her classroom received temperature checks. Two minutes later, one student was excitedly holding his mask up to show her its design.

“I love your mask,” Ms. Hellman told him, “but I think it would be cuter on.”

At 9:30, all the students were allowed to remove their masks to snack on Cinnamon Toast Crunch and applesauce. “It’s only 10 minutes,” she told them and herself, “and the windows are open.”

By 10:30, things had settled down, and she was just a teacher. Students were practicing writing their letters. By 11, they were preparing for recess by singing to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”:

My mask is on my face.

My mask is on my face.

Masks keep you and me safe.

My mask is on my face.

“The purpose of the first day is to feed them, have fun and send them home,” Ms. Hellman said. “We need them to come back the next day.”

Not only did her six in-class students return that next day, but so did 19 of her students learning virtually. So did Brandon Pinkney, the school’s principal, who was showing her classroom to a parent who was considering sending her son back.

In the 24 hours since in-person classes resumed, Mr. Pinkney was fielding inquiries from parents intrigued by what they were seeing in the classroom through their children’s computer screens at home.

He canvassed the building, popping his head into different classrooms and mentally reconfiguring the spaces, just in case. He was hoping to reserve an extra desk for a student who told him bluntly that he was done with “that virtual stuff” but would return if the school reopened.

“I know he’s in the streets,” Mr. Pinkney said. “If I don’t see him this week, I’m going to get him.”

Many staff members in the school said they had only returned to the building because it was Mr. Pinkney’s voice on the line, telling them that they had been chosen.

He promised transparency and support, and that was enough for Rachael Charles. A special-education teacher with two teenagers at home, she wasn’t as easy to persuade as Ms. Hellman, who acknowledged that as a young, childless teacher, she did not face the same choice between her life and livelihood.

With the Black community disproportionately affected by the virus, Ms. Charles, who is African-American, had been working out over the summer, taking vitamins and alkaline water, just in case. But she still explored taking a leave of absence.

“I love my students dearly, but I’m coming back into the classroom to take care of children when no one is taking care of mine,” she said.

Safety risks aside, Ms. Charles wondered if she would be able to be the teacher that her students remembered. “I’m very hands-on, and it’s hard to have them right in my reach and not support them the way they need,” she said.

When a student with a slight physical disability struggled to pull his mask down to eat lunch, she initially stood outside his blue box, encouraging him. “Under your chin, you can do it.”

But before long, her hand was on his mouth, and she pulled it down herself.

Downstairs, Mr. Pinkney was in a hallway with a group of clinicians debating whether to do virtual or in-person special education assessments.

“It doesn’t make sense to do them virtually when we have assessment rooms here,” he said. “They’re cleaned every hour on the hour.”

“Every hour?” a skeptical voice could be heard asking over a speakerphone.

“On the hour,” a voice chimed in from nearby.

That voice belonged to Donice Willis, the school custodian. A 66-year-old grandmother of 11, she had never stopped working during the pandemic, and she could not wait for children to return to the building.

She said she knew that she was among the highest risk groups for the coronavirus. She hopes to retire at 70, but she said she had relinquished control of that goal to the same higher power she hopes is protecting her from Covid-19.

“You’re going to go one day from something,” Ms. Willis said. “If God gives me 70, I’ll take it.”

When a maskless student walked out of a classroom she was preparing to clean, she barely flinched: “Put your mask on, pookie,” she said.

‘Hold the Line’: A Superintendent Stands Firm

Around dismissal time on Nov. 18, a Wednesday afternoon, news broke that New York City had reached a coronavirus positivity threshold of 3 percent, which would result in another shutdown of in-person instruction. The city’s schools had been open for less than two months. Within the hour, Washington city officials announced that talks between district and union officials had fallen apart.

Teachers in Baltimore wondered how their city leaders would react. Maryland’s positivity rate was above 6 percent.

Ms. Santelises stood her ground. The science was strong that transmission rates in schools remained low, she said. A teacher had emailed, “hold the line.”Ms. Hellman focused on how well her new normal was going. She was wearing two masks now, and she did not have to remind her students to keep theirs on as much. She gushed over how her in-person students waved at her remote pupils. Her only concern was that her remote learners were missing the banter and nonverbal cues her students were getting in the classroom.

“Today was better,” she said. “It just feels like this is how it is, and it’s only been three days.”

Then came the reality check. Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Mr. Pinkney emailed the staff to say someone had reported Covid-like symptoms, and two classes had been sent home to quarantine.

“Oh my God,” Ms. Hellman said. “It’s here.”

Mr. Pinkney followed protocols, alerted classmates and staff members, and submitted the case to the district.

Ms. Hellman felt defeated.

“Covid doesn’t care what day it is,” she said. “It doesn’t care that you have a shield in front of your face, it doesn’t care if you have a mask on most of the day, but not 10 minutes while you’re eating.”

Baltimore announced that same day that schools that had begun offering in-person instruction would not resume it after Thanksgiving until Dec. 7, amid warnings about holiday gatherings and travel. Some of the private schools in the area had done the same.

The actions of Baltimore’s private schools during the pandemic have weighed heavily on Ms. Santelises. Those students have clearly had an educational advantage, and one of them is her daughter. Two of her other children attend public charter schools that are closed.

“As a mom, I’m living the difference, and the inequity is astounding” Ms. Santelises said. “I’m saying goodbye to one every morning at the bus stop, and I’m watching the difference it makes. I see my daughters’ faces looking at me at home, like: ‘You all aren’t even going to try?’”

The announcement of the new delay spurred members of the teachers’ union to protest, and members marched to different buildings calling for the district to shut down the buildings for the rest of the semester. By the end of the week, at least 15 staff members had tested positive for the virus, the union said.

Ms. Brown, the union leader, said the district was insulting teachers who had been working around the clock to deliver quality instruction to their students at home.

“There’s more to education than teachers standing in front of students teaching a lesson,” she said.

On Friday, Ms. Hellman was still standing in front of students. As the day drew to a close, she helped a student draw what he was thankful for. A week in, she was crossing into her students’ blue boxes without much thought.

Outside, as the students played together while awaiting their parents, the directions were even more relaxed: “You can take your mask off, but don’t get too close,” Ms. Hellman said.

Sharrea Brown embraced her 5-year-old daughter, Paige Myers. Over the course of the week, Ms. Brown had watched Paige’s mood improve. At home, the frustrated child would yell “You’re not my teacher!” when she tried to help.

Paige said she was nervous about the “bad germ,” so she has a message for other children who want to go back to school: “Keep your mask on.”

Ms. Brown was hopeful that with school open, she could also resume some normalcy. She took a leave of absence from her job in March, and her unemployment was stretching only so far.

“Christmas ain’t looking too good,” Ms. Brown said. “But she’s good,” she said of her daughter. “She’s almost back to feeling like herself again.”


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school leaders