Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

Let’s face it, in the U.S. change is far sexier than stability. Words like “innovation,” “revolution,””disruption,”and, of course, “reform” have replaced the 19th century common word of “progress.” With so much evidence about war, civil war, torture, poverty, in the world, the concept of “progress” is a hard sell. But not the idea of change. Especially, technological change. From iPhones to Chromebooks to driverless cars to controlling all home appliances with clicks on smart phones, Americans will line up outside stores days in advance to buy the next new thing.

Stability, continuity, day-after-day routines hardly excites Americans or makes films (except perhaps Andy Warhol creations). Stability is, you guessed it, ho-hum, prompting open-mouth yawns. No pizzaz, no cheerleaders, no drum rolls accompany calls for more stability in daily routines or in life. Political leaders from U.S. presidents to local school board members promise to turnaround the status quo. Particularly, when the topic is tax-supported, compulsory public education for children and youth ages 6-16 across the U.S. For the past thirty years, civic, business, and philanthropic leaders have targeted U.S. public schools for their mediocrity, as compared to international economic competitors. Calls for “transformation” of school governance, curriculum, organization, and instruction have rolled off the tongues of politicians, CEOs, and superintendents. What policymakers,  practitioners, parents, and researchers too often overlook or ignore is the dual purposes (and paradox) of compulsory public education in a democracy. Tax-supported public schools are expected to conserve and change.

Consider public opinion polls on what schools should do for U.S. children and youth. One illustrates the rich array of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five purposes were as follows:

*Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;

*Help young people become economically sufficient;

*Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*Promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*Improve social conditions for people.[i]

The numerous and competing goals would not have surprised education scholars who have documented these public expectations for children attending schools. In the late 1970s, John Goodlad and associates conducted a major study involving 38 urban, suburban, and rural schools in seven states across the country. Their “Study of Schooling” examined the historic goals of U.S. schools and those they found stated in district, state, and school documents. There were 62.[ii]

Of course, I do not need to lean on public opinion polls to assert that public schooling’s socializing role remains a powerful expectation among parents and taxpayers since schools historically have been agents of preserving civic and moral values. Go into any preschool or kindergarten classroom and see how the teachers train young children to take turns, wash their hands before eating, to talk things through rather than hit one another–you get the picture. For older students, what they should learn in class has prompted battles over school prayer and ugly spats over whether “creationism” or “intelligent design” should be taught in high school science courses.

Historically, public schools have been expected to both conserve community values and traditions while simultaneously giving children and youth the knowledge and skills to make changes in their lives, communities, and yes, in those very values and traditions they absorbed. Some commentators see this as the ongoing conflict between the school’s traditional purpose of transmitting the dominant culture and the purpose of becoming a modern institution in step with the ever-changing society. That dual purpose of public schools has been often lost in current and past reformers’ enthusiastic embrace of schools becoming modern change-agents solving grave national problems.

This conflict in values prizing both continuity and change help explain the laundry list zealous reformers and ardent supporters of the traditional purposes have compiled about change and stability in public schools.
*Schools are resistant to change;
*Schools adopt one fad after another
*Schools change at a glacial pace;
*Schools move at warp speed in embracing innovations.

The contradictory complaints go to the paradox of what parents, voters, policymakers, and practitioners expect of schools and what seems to happen after reform-driven policies are adopted. Even after many changes are introduced into districts and schools, abiding routines and practices persist. Some social scientists call this phenomenon “institutional stasis” and “dynamic conservatism” where the Siamese twins of change and stability keep the organization in balance. In public schools it is not change or stability; it is both at the same time. Coping with this paradox of reform requires policymakers and practitioners to recognize the conflict embedded in the two-fold function of tax-supported public schools and then to—I use a metaphor here–master the art of jiu-jitsu in bringing opposites into harmony in a gentle, supple, and gradual way, a task that few policymakers achieve.

Educators often get flummoxed when they are expected to preserve community and national values while simultaneously being asked to make changes in school organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to solve larger economic and social problems harming the nation. Repeated criticisms of public schools over decades arise from this misunderstanding among fervent reformers of the public school’s basic role to both conserve and change.

Transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than “disrupting,” transforming,” and “revolutionizing,” public schools.

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[i] Lowell Rose and Alec Gallup, ” The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”Phi Delta Kappan, September 2000, p. 47.

 

[ii] John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), pp.50-56.

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Content vs. Skills Again and Again (Part 2)

The either/or conundrum pops up again. Across science, math, English, and social studies, classroom teachers weigh in on whether they are content-driven or skills-driven in teaching. The dichotomy afflicts all academic subjects and it is, of course, a false one but one that generates far more emotional heat than clear-sighted light, nonetheless.

The last post describing Will Colglazier’s lesson on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 (and a previous lesson on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression) seemingly focused on the skills historians use in examining a primary source for bias and close reading of a document. Yet both lessons were chock-full of content. Thus, content vs. skills offers a false choice. The more appropriate question about teaching an academic subject like history is: where on a continuum of content at one pole and skills at the other pole, would you place yourself?

Some teachers would be smack in the center, equally dividing their lessons into mixes of both depending on the topic they were teaching; other teachers would tilt toward the skills or content side. All teachers would have a center of gravity along that continuum. I, for one, would place myself on near the center but clearly on the skills side of the continuum.

In comments on the description of Will Colglazier’s lessons, a few illustrate the mix of both content and skill and how it differs among teachers. Here’s one comment from a teacher who teaches both math and  history.

 

… I’m a fan of primary sources. But I’m not so much a fan of the “what do you think” form of history…. I don’t think asking kids to decide “who is more believable” or “which side is responsible” is a useful way to teach history. I’m not creating historians. I’m teaching history and–hopefully–showing kids that history isn’t just a case of “what happened”.

Yesterday, I gave them a map of the states broken up by acquisition (original US, Louisiana Purchase, Mexican Session, Oregon Territory), and on the flip a list of states in order of joining (up through the Civil War. They were to simply put the date of statehood and “F” or “S” (free or slave) on each state. The point (which worked) see the pattern of joining–one slave, one free, and when that pattern broke.

So one kid, who is severely ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to the point that I have to stand over him to convince him to work,  crinkled his brow, and asked “So what if a slave escapes to a free state? Is he then free?” .A couple minutes later, one of my top kids said “Hey, is this date for California a typo? It’s way out of whack. How did it become a state so much earlier than Nevada?”

Both great questions, unforced, solid lead-ins, and much more authentic than when given as part of an assignment to “think critically”. I’d rather teach a more authoritative version of history and let these arise naturally from genuine interest….

As you know, I believe strongly in teaching content while also teaching skills–particularly reading. And despite the occasional problems, the reading is going very well. I hope they remember the content, but I know they are spending more time actually reading.

A few weeks ago, I saw the above teacher teach four classes in a row, three of advanced math and one U.S. History. Recalling how she taught, I would guess that she would be close to the center of the above continuum but clearly tilting toward the skills side of the spectrum. I do not know where she would place herself.

Wherever she or I would place ourselves on that continuum, the stark and simplistic question of content vs. skills will arise again and again even though it ignores the obvious differences to where teachers are in managing both content and skills. Asking whether a teacher is content or skill-driven distorts the thinking process of those who  wrestle with how best to teach a subject. The false dichotomy is a simple-minded way of avoiding the complex decisions that knowledgeable and skilled history, science, English, and math teachers go through in planning the next day’s lesson.

Such decisions about teaching a subject are hardly new. Earlier generations of history teachers used primary sources, read documents carefully, found corroborating evidence for the source and worked their students as if they were historians. Will Colglazier’s lessons were preceded by a movement called The New Social Studies in the 1960s where much of what Colglazier was doing in his lessons happened a half-century ago.

The next post deals with that earlier movement to teach students how to read and think like a historian.

 

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Secret Lives of Teachers (Steve Drummond)

 

So where do they go, all the teachers, when the bell rings at 3 o’clock?

 

When you’re a kid, you don’t really think they go anywhere. Except home, maybe, to grade papers and plan lessons and think up pop quizzes.

 

And when you find out otherwise, it’s a strange experience. Many people remember it vividly: the disorienting feeling of encountering your teacher in the grocery store, or in the line at McDonald’s, talking and acting just like other grownups. A jarring reminder that they have lives outside the classroom.

But of course teachers go off and do all sorts of things: They write books and play music and run for office and start businesses. For some, a life outside the classroom is an economic necessity. In many states, more than 1 in 5 teachers has a second job.

 

For others, it’s a natural outgrowth of their lives as educators: the drama teacher performing in community theater, the history teacher/Civil War re-enactor, the music teacher onstage at open-mic night.

And still others have some private passion that has nothing to do with teaching or school — it may be the thing that keeps them fresh and fired up when they are in the classroom.

 

So where do they go when the 3:00 bell rings?….

 

‘Art Brings Me Back’

For Mathias “Spider” Schergen, his Secret Life plays out in a one-car garage out back of his house in Southwest Chicago.

He turned it into a studio, a crowded place full of lumber and wood and paint and scrap metal and odd things like shoes and fabric. Stuff that he fashions into art.

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“The art brings me back to my thinking and reflection,” he says.

 

Schergen, 61, is slender and muscular — his most notable feature, perhaps, his tattoos of spiders. They’re part of a persona that he has created — “Mr. Spider” — that year after year his students at Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts find mysterious and fascinating.

 

He has taught there for 21 years, through good times and bad. Once, the school stood in the shadow of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects in one of the city’s most violent and dangerous neighborhoods. Now, the projects are gone and the school is surrounded by new developments.

Still, it draws many children from the surrounding neighborhood: 98 percent African-American, 96 percent (low income) free and reduced lunch.

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I first met Schergen seven years ago, on a reporting trip for a story about great teachers and how they keep their teaching fresh year after year. In class, he has a persona: He exudes coolness and confidence, joking with the students, firmly keeping them on task.

 

Over dinner at his home, he’s a different guy. Quiet, soft-spoken, deferential.

 

“I’m a loner kind of guy,” he says. And he needs the time in his studio to square those two sides of his personality.”As my life has changed, and I’ve found I’m not so harried, my interest and my aesthetic have reflected that.” He’s now making work that’s more colorful and more connected to other people.

 

He recently started transforming objects that other people have discarded or overlooked. He wants to tell the stories that might be hidden in a forgotten shoe or a child’s headboard covered in stickers.

 

He says he can’t remember a day when he didn’t spend time in his studio. When he’s there, cutting and clipping and gluing and assembling, time doesn’t exist. “If we didn’t call him inside, he would never come in,” says his wife, Vanessa.

He says his time in the studio has a strong connection to his time in the classroom.

“The relationship is symbiotic,” he explains, “they both affect one another and they both affect me.”

 

He carries his thoughts from Jenner with him when he works out back. “I can usually work out issues I’ve been having during school,” he says. “I think of different ways to look at something, and I often realize there’s a completely different approach I should be taking with a student.”

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The Persistent Dilemma of Play, Work, and Testing in Prekindergarten

New York City schools welcomed 50,000 four year-olds to prekindergarten last week. Ginia Ballafante summarized crisply the dilemma facing over 4,000 pre-K teachers:

“How the city’s educators will cultivate an environment of thrilling, digressive learning while aiming to reduce the enormous word deficits many children come to school with and at the same time keep the tensions and pressures of high-stakes testing from filtering down to the world of tiny people with Pixar lunchboxes remains one of the most significant and least explored questions around the expansion of prekindergarten. How they will nurture the distinct kind of teaching skill required to execute play-based learning successfully is yet another.”

And Ballafante is right on the mark. If kindergarten is the new first grade as some progressive critics point out, then prekindergarten threatens to become boot camp for kindergarten.

First, let me establish that kindergarten is, indeed, becoming the new first grade. In a recent study looking back at how kindergartens have changed in the past 15 years under a regime of testing and accountability, researchers found the following:

*The percentage of teachers who indicated that incoming kindergarteners need to know most of their letters or count to twenty doubled. In 1998 less than one-third of kindergarten teachers agreed that children should learn to read in kindergarten. By  2006 that number had more than doubled to 65 percent.

*Time spent on reading and language arts rose about 25 percent or from 5.5 hours to 7 a week.

*There was no change in percent of time spent on math instruction but there were significant drops in teaching time spent on social studies, science, art, and  physical education.

Many urban children come to preschool (and kindergarten) with many strengths (often unrecognized in school settings) and weaknesses such as deficits in words that are the currency of formal schooling. The onset of testing five year-olds has commenced–25 states mandate assessing 5 year-olds. So how to get young children up to speed to do well on these tests has accelerated the move toward academic instruction for kindergarteners with the pressure inevitably seeping down to three year olds.  This shift toward academic instruction has put the spotlight on exactly how much of school experiences for three-to-five year-olds should be play and how much academic work in light of the demands of testing for determining first grade for young children and teacher evaluation.

Two Bank Street College educators (New York City), however, do not see a conflict between work and play for pre-kindergartners. “This is a false choice,” they say. “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.” They continue:

As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time.

What does play look like in a room filled with three- and four year-olds?

When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

 In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.
Work and play become one. “Play,” they say, “has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school.”
During the summer, these pre-K teachers were worried over the impact of testing in kindergarten trickling down into their classrooms in worksheets, drills on words and colors, and group lessons on phonetics and numbers.
kindergarten1
The idea that play and work are intimately connected and in young children learning is not separated into bins–silos are favored academic-speak–but are as one means that there is no dichotomy, no dilemma. It is a classic case of reframing what appears as a dilemma into a problem that can be solved. That is what these educators are trying to do. They end their op-ed by saying:
But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.
So true.

 

 

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Looking at Children Use of Technologies at Home and School

Parents, as usual are caught in the middle. A recent article by Hannah Rosin–a Mom herself–looks into the dilemma facing parents. Called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” Rosin explores the choices that largely educated, middle and upper-middle class parents face when it comes to deciding whether their infants and toddlers should have the devices and, if so, for how long should they be swiping screens each day. (See four minute video in Rosin article).

On the dilemma facing parents and how much time children should be using devices for games, talking, and facing a screen, Rosin opts for parental judgment on a child-by-child basis. She does not see high-tech devices for toddlers and young children as an enemy to be fought and conquered. She does not, however, speak to the plasticity of the brain and the capacities of new electronic devices altering how children learn, what content and skills they retain, and the habits that children accrue.

With the rush to buy iPads for toddlers and kindergartners and the spread of tablets and smart phones among children and youth, can (or should) parents and schools do anything about use at home and school of the increasingly pervasive technologies?

Keep in mind that there are social class differences in how parents and significant adults allow their children use of screen devices. A number of studies have found, for example, that:

*African-American and Latino children ages 0 to 8 spend more time with screen media, including television, video games, and computers than their white peers.

*Rates of bedroom television are more than twice as high among African-American (69%) and Hispanic (66%) children than for white children in the same age group (28%).

*Children from low-income families (less than $30,000 annually) spend more time with television and videos and have bedroom television rates more than three times higher than children from middle- and upper-income families.

Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones and tablets. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events such as unemployment, divorce, illness, death.

And what about school? Consider what Westside Neighborhood School, a private school in Los Angeles, is doing. An NPR reporter described the school and its use of technology recently:

With kids from pre-K through 8th grade, WNS sits tucked into the shadow of a Home Depot in L.A.’s booming Playa Vista neighborhood. It’s close enough to the ocean that the air is more salt than smog.

When talking about screen time and kids’ access to handheld devices, Brad Zacuto, who heads the school, likes to use an old-fashioned analogy: “It’s like putting a child behind a wheel of a car. There’s a lot of power there.”

Think about how dangerous it was back when cars first hit the road, Zacuto says. No traffic lights or street signs. That’s where we are now, he warns, with kids and all this technology at their fingertips. “It’s here to stay. But at some point you have to teach kids how to drive a car responsibly.”

 Zacuto’s tech policy begins with a few basics: First, no smartphones till sixth grade. Even then, kids can bring them, but they have to check them at the front desk.

Second, engaging and educating parents: WNS makes them sign a commitment to limit screen time at home and to keep kids off of social media — again, until sixth grade.

 Also, at school, no technology until second grade. “We choose to have our youngest children engaged in digging in dirt,” Zacuto says, “and building things and using their hands….”

 In second grade, Zacuto says, kids start using classroom laptops. They get some basic lessons in typing and word processing and their first taste of Internet research….

By sixth grade, WNS students may have to check their smartphones at the door, but they get their own school-issued tablets with textbooks on them. Still, Zacuto insists, little valuable class time is spent simply looking down.

When sixth-grade social studies teacher Caitlin Barry gives her students time to read from the textbooks on their iPads, they often do it in pairs, encouraging each other to explore confusing terms or ideas. Some teachers even put short lectures online, for students to watch at home….

“It sort of flips the content,” Zacuto says. “I’d rather be spending my time in school with the teacher, with the kids — doing interactive, collaborative [things], using what we’ve learned.”

 The reporter ended her story on WSN by saying: In other words: “using screens at home to increase the time students spend working face to face in the classroom. It’s a delicate dance, preparing kids for both the Digital Age and the social world.”

The dilemmas facing parents, principals, and teachers about children and youth use of technologies won’t go away. They can, however, be smartly managed.

 

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Teaching U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 2)

How to interpret the three history lessons I watched Mark Allison, a veteran teacher, teach?

Allison had prepared an interactive lesson with a series of slides on the Civil Rights movement. He asked his students to inspect each slide carefully and tell what they saw and speculate, alright hypothesize, about what the facts they see may add up to. He completed the lesson within the 40 minutes allotted to him in the bell schedule.

The lesson reflected his passion for the subject (a glass case filled with civil rights photos along one wall of the room) and for his students (one wall of student photos in  his classes). Before during and after the lesson, students responded to his requests and questions.  Students did engage in the activities he designed for them. At no time in any of the three lessons I observed were students defiant, unresponsive, or dulled into inactivity. The rapport between teacher and students as he went through the lesson prodding them to apply their present experiences to the past was evident to me.

Were there someone else in the room besides me, say, the principal, a district official, or another teacher there to judge his performance, surely that evaluator could find items to praise and holes in how and what Allison taught in these three lessons.

Perhaps, that observer might have assessed Allison’s performance in the way that Becky Reed, a Delaware social studies teacher did in a comment for this post:

I think this represents exactly how I would have taught a lesson 25 years ago (okay, maybe 15). I would have been very proud of the activity that took me an entire evening to create, time that I could have spent with my family. In reflection (then) I would have thought the lesson was a success; students were engaged, discussion in small groups was apparent, primary sources were used, and students “got” that the Civil Rights Era was about freedom and equality. Sadly, I think that many administrators would have rated this lesson as an excellent lesson. Not only would they have rated it an excellent lesson then, but many would do so today.
Today I am embarrassed that I taught that way. The students weren’t engaged and didn’t care about coming to class (that should have been my first clue), I told them what to think, I never asked them how they knew, or asked what evidence they had to support their conclusions.
I suppose I may be a bit hard on myself, but that was the way I was taught to plan and implement a lesson. There’s no excuse for this today. Where’s the professional development and team planning? Unfortunately I don’t think restructuring is going to make a bit a difference in this school without thoughtful climate changes and increased expectations for students by ALL stakeholders.

Or perhaps Larry Winkler, a former Wisconsin teacher, who gave his view of the lesson in another comment:

Seems like this lesson fits what is recommended by the research, and seems to be high in engagement. So, I’m not following R Reed’s criticism. The method illustrated, as far as it is expressed, seems to nicely follow How Learning Works, a seminal work summarizing current research. I would give it an A+.

Or Michele, a California social studies teacher, who said:

This is timely for me; I am teaching US History for the first time (I have credentials in three subjects but usually teach math). I am absolutely loving it…. Now I’m back to teaching kids from all spectrums, from highly skilled kids who just didn’t want to take A[dvanced] P[lacement] to kids with 6th grade or lower reading skills.

I want my students to become better readers, writers, and thinkers, but I want them to do so in the act of acquiring specific content knowledge about US History–that is, while critical thinking is important, knowing the content is more so.

I”m not sure what I think of the lesson. I’ve never had that kind of difficulty with attendance–and let’s be clear, 7 or 8 out of 20 is not “the kids don’t find the class useful” but “the school is out of control”.

I was not in the classroom to evaluate Allison’s performance in the three lessons. I observed what he did and, in my opinion, given what I know and have seen in classrooms in academically low-performing urban schools over the decades, this teacher was doing far better than average insofar as engaging the students in the content that he was teaching.  How much students learned from this lesson, however, no one including Allison, me, or any evaluator could tell.

What most observers and evaluators seldom take into consideration, however, are other factors that impinge on how and what Allison teaches every day in his African American history course. These factors do not diminish what he did but expand the picture in which any judgment of teacher performance has to occur. Too often observers and evaluators of teaching in urban school, especially ones designated as failing, overlook how the macro-context influences, even shapes, the micro-context of the classroom. None of what follows offers “excuses” but simply makes the larger context a factor in judging what occurs in a lesson.

1. Impact of the school organization on the lesson. Classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance (only about one-of-three-students enrolled in each class appeared for each lesson), Allison did reasonably well given the organizational factors in which he labored. School and district policy prevents teachers from factoring in chronic tardiness and absenteeism into any grade–and, of course, the students know this–so low attendance is the norm in all Greenwich classrooms. Moreover, the school has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal have been notified that the school will be restructured which teachers know could mean that they will have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” saps teacher motivation to plan elaborate lessons and the energy to teach them.

2. Impact of student backgrounds on teaching. Nearly all students in the school are eligible for free and reduced price breakfast and lunch–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement because of poor health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences. Yes, students ranged in responses to Allison’s lessons but living in poverty has both short-term and long-term effects on students’ motivation to achieve in school when the horizon for future opportunities appears limited.

Organizational and environmental factors in the macro-context observers often overlook in judging an urban teacher’s lessons–the micro-context. These factors, and others, come into play without even mentioning what students have learned from this lesson on the Civil Rights movement. Anyone allergic to complex situations (or supremely confident in their knowledge of how teachers should teacher), should  avoid judging this teacher’s lessons.

 

 

 

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Teaching U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 1)

I observed this teacher teaching three history classes a few months ago in a persistently low-performing high school on the cusp of being “restructured.” All names are fictitious.

Standing in the hallway outside of his classroom—a school policy as students move from one class to another–Mark Allison sports a gray-flecked goatee, mustache, and a ponytail of braided dreadlocks. He is wearing a lavender tie on a light, patterned purple shirt with dark-gray cargo pants. A man in his mid-50s he is friendly with students as they pass by calling many by name or “sister” and “brother.” Most of the students say “hi” back, wave, bump fists or shake hands.

Allison teaches African American history and U.S. government. A veteran teacher, he has taught in the District 36 years of which 28 have been at Greenwich High School.

As the tardy chimes sound for the 40 minute period to begin, Allison closes the door and enters a bright, large classroom. On the wall behind the teacher’s desk in one corner of the room (a laptop, the only computer device in the room, sits on Allison’s desk) is a large bulletin board filled with photos of students in his classes. On the opposite wall is a glass-enclosed case displaying famous photos of individuals and events of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Student desks are arranged in a horseshoe with Allison sitting at a student desk in the center of the horseshoe with a slide carousel projector ready for the day’s lesson.

photo 12

There are three students in the class. Within 10 minutes there are four more. Five minutes before the end of the period, another student enters.

The lesson I observed was part of the unit he teaches on the Civil Rights movement. He begins with the three students by passing out four cards to each one with questions and answers on events during the 1950s and 1960s.

In a game he invented, one student asks a question and another student has to figure out which of the answers he or she has on the four cards is the correct one. As a tardy student entered, Allison paused and said: “are you ready to learn, brother?” He then gave the latecomer the four cards and explained the game quickly. The students were immediately involved and the group expanded to six as latecomers arrived. All six used the Q & A on the cards in their hands as they traded questions and answers (according to Allison’s records, 20 students are enrolled in the course).

Allison sits close to the students listening and, from time to time, coaching those who were having difficulty in either providing an answer or matching the right one to the question asked. For example, one of the questions on the card asks about affirmative action and students were stumped. Allison then gives an example of one of his students who applied to Clark University in Atlanta (GA), a historically black institution, and Akron University. A largely white institution, Akron had encouraged blacks to apply and, in the past decade, had selected more and more black applicants. One student grasps the example and answers “affirmative action” on one of his four cards. In the midst of the game, a PA announcement interrupted the lesson telling teachers that they must turn in a letter of commitment that day if they want to re-apply for their position next year. After the interruption, the game continues.

With the six students—the seventh arrived just before the bell rang—Allison turns to the slide carousel. The first slide he projects on a pull-down screen in the front of the room was labeled: “You Can’t Kill an Idea.” In rapid-fire questions, Allison asked: “What does that mean?” Few scattered responses and Allison tries another question: “What one word captures the Civil rights movement?” Students yell out answers such as: “Marches.” “Protests.” “Freedom.” “Riots.” “Equality.” “Rights.” “Prejudice.” Allison picks “freedom” and “equality” and says that is what the movement was about.

He then pushes the carousel button and a photo of a bus with mostly empty seats comes on the screen with one black woman sitting on the bus. The teacher asks: “What is this picture about?” Students offer different details of the black woman (age, color, tired look on her face, etc.), and a white bus driver (age, color, facial features, etc.) and the fact that no one else was on bus. Allison then asks one student: “Sister, what is this picture depicting?” Before she could answer, he admonished the others: “No one else help her.” She mentions the phrase “bus boycott” and teacher smiles.

He then goes to next slide which shows a photo of angry white women, men, and students yelling at and spitting upon 15 year-old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who was trying to enter Little Rock High School (ARK) in 1957. Allison asks the seven students what the photo depicts. Students call out: “She looks calm,” “white people are sure angry at her,” “except for her, there are no other black people around.” Allison points out that Eckford was their age. He keeps students’ attention focused on photo as they supply additional details. He then asks class: “What would you do if there were hundreds of people screaming and spitting at you?” Students’ choral responses range from running away from crowd to fighting back to crying to doing what Eckford did.

The teacher runs through a series of slides—one of which shows James Meredith entering the University of Mississippi (none of the students recognized Meredith) another shows a white child in a small crowd holding a sign that says: “Who Needs Niggers?” The same sign had a painted swastika and Confederate flag. One of the students asks Allison about the swastika. He explains the symbol. Then he asks about the flag. No one in the room could identify the flag.

One slide shows a black woman being arrested for entering a “whites only” library. Teacher says to class: “Listen, I can’t get you to go to the city library which is free and open to everybody.” Another slide features two black athletes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with raised fists in a black power salute. Most of the students recognize the photo. A photo of Rosa Parks, all students identify. Ditto for the mug shot of Malcolm X. When the photo of the 1963 event appears on the screen, students yell out in chorus “the March on Washington”. As a follow-up on that photo, Allison asks the seven students what the obelisk was behind the marchers. Some students shrug; others said, “I don’t know.” No one identifies the Washington Monument.

For each slide, Allison poked, prodded, and pushed students to offer details in the photo and then segued to questions that sought the meaning of these different events during the Civil Rights movement. Effortlessly, he gave present-day examples that could tie his students’ experiences and knowledge to events a half-century ago.

Just before the period ended, a PA announcement interrupted the lesson. The principal reminded teachers to turn in their applications should they want to teach at Greenwich in the Fall. Here was the newest reform in the district: low-performing schools will be restructured into better schools. For this to occur there will be a new principal and current Greenwich teachers will have to reapply for their positions. The lesson resumed.

By the end of the 40-minute period, all of the students including latecomers were thoroughly engaged with the Q &A over the slides. After the chimes rang two students went over to see the photos in Allison’s glass case.

photo 14

In the two other classes I observed Allison teach, there were 12 and 22 students. He basically used the same techniques of cards with questions and answers at the beginning of the class and the photos in the slide carousel. The level of student engagement, the repartee and rapport with students, and prodding them to think about what they said were just as evident in these lessons as the period that I observed with seven students.

How can I and readers make sense of Mark Allison’s three lessons that I observed? Part 2 answers that question.

 

 

 

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