Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

The Classroom: The Basic Dilemma That Teachers Face and Manage

Pick the photos that you think best capture activities that you most like to see when you–as a teacher, parent, supervisor, administrator, community activist–enter a classroom.










Which ones did you pick? How many did you choose?

Here is my hunch: viewers will choose those photos that best line up with their beliefs about how teachers should teach and students should learn.

Of course, many viewers will pick multiple activities revealed in the photos since in 2020 the mainstream “wisdom” of teaching and learning is that there should be varied activities going on in a classroom over the course of a school day: whole group, small group, independent work. And most teachers organize their lessons to include such activities.

Experienced teachers have learned that–depending upon the age of their students, the subject/skills they are teaching, and their own preferences for what is important for students to learn—multiple ways of organizing classroom space and student work is essential. The photos show the range that often appears in classrooms.

There is “but,” however. What about “personalized learning?” For the past five years, with the ubiquity of classroom devices (e.g., tablets, laptops, smart phones, interactive whiteboards), calls for teachers to individualize student learning have accelerated. Those calls, however, confuse both professional educators, parents, and administrators since varied definitions of “personalized learning” compete with one another.

Consider photo 6.

A colleague sent this picture of students in a school founded and operated by teachers as an example of how learning can be “personalized.” The students are in their cubicles working independently and collaboratively under a teacher’s supervision

Yet were I to have asked teachers in the other photos conducting whole group and small group activities: do you engage in “personalized learning” with your class? My guess is that they would say that a snapshot of one activity in their classroom does not capture the totality of their teaching. They do, indeed, “personalize learning” over the course of a school day.

And that is the rub. The rampant rhetoric of “personalized learning” obscures the complexity of the fundamental work that all teachers must do: teaching content/skills to students. That is their professional obligation–for which they get paid–to enact the basic triangle that captures all classroom teaching.

I don’t think that putting into practice every day lessons that enact the above triangle is hard to grasp even when the standardized organization of schools is age-graded and the imperatives of such an organization–often called the “grammar of schooling”— influence what teachers and students do.

What too often remains missing in definitions of “personalized learning” and most of the photos–including the above figure of the triangle–is the basic dilemma that teachers face daily in putting the triangle into practice: not only do teachers have to perform their academic role as content/skill mavens–a value they prize–but also teachers want to–and are expected to–. build individual relationships with students.

The basic dilemma teachers face is figuring out how to finesse two conflicting values they face daily: teach content/skills and develop bonds with individual students. There is seldom enough time in the school day to do both–teach academics and build relationships with individual students. Because of time pressures, teachers craft compromises and try to do both.

At the end of the day, many teachers reflect not only whether the lesson got students to understand the denominator in fractions but also the unsaid word to comfort Janice when she put her head on the desk or the abrupt way she handled Sondra and Jeff when they had questions.

Because there is so much to do while a lesson unfolds, many teachers –especially secondary school teachers trained in disciplines–end up focusing on one of the two values they prize: the academic role. As the adage goes: they teach biology to students. And most elementary school teachers work on building close connections with individual students as they teach content and skills. They teach children, as the saying goes, reading, math, and science.

Yet regardless of what grade teachers teach, they juggle both values daily in their lessons, interactions with students before, during, and after school, and at home when they grade homework and tests. The quest to “personalize” learning requires teachers to manage both values. And most do learn how to manage both even as that struggle to do so lies hidden to non-teachers.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Dogged Dilemmas in U.S. Classrooms

Over the past ten years I have blogged, I have written often about dilemmas facing teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members. These dilemmas (as distinguished from “problems”) have to be managed since they cannot be “solved.” That distinction goes against the cultural belief that Americans are “problem-solvers” who can–often through technology– figure out ways to end hunger, cure any disease, and iron out inequalities. But dilemmas differ from problems. This post explains the differences and gives a classroom instance familiar to many teachers.

I have used the word “dilemma” in earlier posts since superintendents, principals, teachers, and, yes, students face situations that call for difficult choices among conflicting values. So for this post, I offer a thorny dilemma with which readers can wrestle.

By dilemmas, I mean situations where you have to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing you end up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value–what academics call “satisficing.”

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us face is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job. You have to make a choice–you “satisfice.”

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the “satisficing” compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices between prized values.

With that brief definition of a dilemma, consider the following situation that faced this first-year teacher.

In a culturally diverse high school of 1300 students in northern California, Dorothy Ramirez teaches 10th grade biology. In one of her 5 classes she has 32 students of whom one-third are Latino, one-third are African-American, and one-third are white, Alberto, a 17-year old Latino who has turned in his assignments on time and hovers between a C and D, has begun disrupting the class.

Recently, Alberto began to talk with those around him while the teacher is lecturing or leading a whole-group discussion. Even after Ramirez quietly asked Alberto to stop, he continues these side conversations. On two occasions, she kept Alberto after class for a few minutes to ask if there was something going on to account for his behavior. He said nothing. The next day, he repeated the same behavior during a student presentation and was rude to Ramirez when she asked him to stop. Two other students began smirking and talking to one another while the teacher listened to students give their opinions during a whole-group discussion. Ramirez asked Alberto to leave class for 10 minutes to cool off outside the door and he did. The same thing happened the following day.

Ramirez decided to call home because she feared that she was losing control of Alberto. If this occurred, then it might spread like an infection to the rest of the class. She called his parents and discovered that they speak only Spanish. Since she speaks only English, Ramirez enlisted the help of a Spanish-speaking counselor at school who called home and spoke with the mother. The mother told the counselor that she, too, is having trouble with Alberto, the oldest of her three children and she promised to speak to him.

The next day in biology class, Alberto had another run-in with Ramirez over the same conduct. The teacher called the counselor and mother and they met the following day where it came out that the mother couldn’t control Alberto at home. Ramirez suggested speaking with the father. The mother got very upset because the father works two jobs to support the family and if he finds out about Alberto’s behavior at school and home, the father will beat him as he has done before. The meeting adjourned with no action taken but deep concern over what to do if Alberto causes more trouble in class.

1. Which prized values are in conflict for Ramirez?

2. What are Ramirez’s options in managing this dilemma?

3. Which one should she choose? Why?


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Feedback for Teacher Learning (David Brazer)

David Brazer is a practitioner/scholar. Teacher and high school principal, Brazer has also been a professor at George Mason and Stanford Universities. He is now Director of Professional Learning at TeachFX.

A few years ago, I met with Jamie Poskin the founder of TeachFX and former graduate student of Brazer’s at Stanford. After showing me graphic displays of teacher talk, he asked what I thought of the tool for teacher learning. I was impressed with its possibilities but at the time pointed out a series of shortcomings, especially around analyzing the kinds of talk both teachers and students engage in.

In this guest post, Brazer describes how he got involved and where the device is now. Like Brazer, I find this tool most useful for those teachers who seek self-improvement through analyzing how they teach. *

Teachers talk a lot. Hattie (2012) claims they talk 70 – 80% of class time across grade levels. In contrast, students talk very little, even when they’re talking in groups. But secondary teachers frequently tell me that students love to talk, just not about class content. The result is often an emphasis on classroom control that keeps students quiet, causing many to disengage. Students’ love of talking presents an opportunity to engage them in learning instead of controlling their behavior. What if teachers could harness students’ talk energy and see how that influences their engagement? Would teachers modify their teaching and talk less? The bet from a new reflective instructional tool called TeachFX is that they would.

            Writing a post for the ultimate tech skeptic’s blog about a tech tool for teachers feels like walking into the lion’s den. Larry has shown that efforts to change what teachers do often fail and that technology thus far has been more effective making teachers efficient than changing how they teach. A tech skeptic myself, my work with TeachFX is changing my mind. We see that frequent, objective feedback teachers can analyze quickly shows promise for altering teacher talk/student talk ratios and student engagement. Why? Because TeachFX feedback provides a rare opportunity to facilitate teacher learning.

            Research that colleagues and I published seven years ago focused on teacher learning in collaborative teams. We found that teachers rarely implemented new instructional practices proposed by colleagues. On the occasions they did, teachers had little or no evidence of these practices’ effects. Lack of classroom evidence inhibited what teachers learned from minor changes.

            Fast forward to the 2016-2017 academic year. Jamie Poskin was my intern in Stanford University’s joint degree in business and education. During his internship at a venture capital fund we frequently spoke about Jamie’s idea for a tool that would use a smart phone to audio record a teacher’s class, then separate teacher talk from student talk in a graphic display on the phone or laptop. I was intrigued, and skeptical. Then Jamie said, “Want to try the prototype in your class? What do you predict will be your percentage of student talk?” Committed to lively and informative discourse in my graduate classrooms, I wanted something like 80%, but I aimed low—40% seemed an achievable target.

            Paying this much attention to student talk might seem excessive to some, but student talk is evidence of deeper engagement and learning. Despite clear demonstration that students who are engaged more learn more (Lotan, 2014), fostering student talk remains a challenging approach for large numbers of K – 12 teachers. Consider some stark numbers: If 75% of class time is taken up with teacher talk, the other 25% consists of activities that compete with individual student talk, such as worksheets, quizzes, thinking time, transitions, and group work. Thirty students will share substantially less than 15 minutes to speak in a 90-minute class period. Given that student on-target talk is one of the surest ways to know they are engaged, students would benefit from less teacher talk and more opportunities to speak.

            TeachFX delivers vivid, objective evidence for how much teachers and their students are talking, providing impetus for teacher learning about the effects of their instruction. Recording classes regularly allows teachers to track changes in practices and their effects on student talk and engagement.

            Does the tool have the desired effects? Knowing I would see a report of my teaching, I was immediately focused on student talk in my classroom. When my recording was analyzed, Jamie returned to my office and asked, “Do you think you met your 40% student talk goal?” I hesitantly said I thought so and was much relieved when I learned that I had actually achieved 45 % student talk. Here is a snapshot of the class report I received on my laptop with explanations in call-outs:

The features of our classroom discourse were obvious and fascinated me.

            The evidence was vivid for me, but how would this work with K – 12 teachers? Would they use it? Would it change what they do in classrooms? I joined TeachFX full time last summer as Director of Professional Learning in a quest to find out. We are observing some promising trends as teachers make recordings and analyze class reports.

Although individual student talk tends to hover around 5% of class time nationally, TeachFX users typically see 15 – 20% individual student talk on their first class report. Teachers tell us their attention to student talk is heightened when they use the tool and they modify their instructional choices to encourage more student talk and engagement. Below is data from a single school with several teachers using the tool September – November. Collectively, these teachers demonstrated remarkable growth in their average amount of individual student talk over six recordings.

To date, most growth in student talk has been more modest. The district below, for example, piloted TeachFX last fall with about 20 science teachers and coaches, showing the following pattern:

Trends in these examples are encouraging, but not universal among TeachFX users. As an early start-up, we are learning the following:

  1. Turning teachers’ attention to student engagement competes with numerous other initiatives and imperatives. Maintaining their attention on student engagement is a complicated effort.
  2. Attention should be focused on transforming what teachers know about student engagement into how teachers might foster content-focused student talk in classrooms, then tracking progress
  3. Administration-level champions of student engagement powerfully focus teacher learning on generating meaningful student discourse.

Teachers are beginning to moderate their own talking to allow for more student talk and deeper engagement moment-by-moment in classrooms. TeachFX does not presume to change education overnight, but we do seem to be making progress toward helping teachers re-shape student discourse to engage their students in deeper learning.

*For full disclosure, readers need to know that I have not invested in this company (nor have plans to). Neither have I ever received any money or in-kind contributions from TeachFX, its founder, or employees.


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

A Teacher’s Dilemma: Help Students Or Harm Colleague

Teachers face dilemmas daily in their classroom and school. Figuring out what to do and how to do it when personal and professional values clash is often the nub of a dilemma. Unlike a problem that has a solution (e.g., house is cold, turn up the thermostat), teacher dilemmas are messy because of conflicting values, feelings and relationships–especially in a school. Nonetheless, they have to be managed. But sometimes they cannot.

Here is a dilemma that appeared in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine. Kwame Anthony Appiah who responded to the teacher’s query teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”

I work in a Title I high school — a public school serving a largely low-income community — that has about 2,000 students. I teach in a smallish program with high-needs kids. By needs, I mean any and all needs you might imagine. Our school has a single social worker, who is obviously stretched thin and has a complicated personal life. I often refer students to this social worker for anything from pregnancy to friend drama. I seldom hear back unless I hound this person with follow-up emails or in-person visits. This person has difficulty keeping one student straight from another and is often unavailable and often responds with “news” or information that I already know (or have even provided). The social worker makes grand, sweeping gestures (like painting affirmative slogans in the student restrooms) but is, in my opinion, ineffective and even negligent on an individual scale.

A degree of classroom social work is inherent in any teacher’s job, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I often fall asleep at night worrying about this or that student or multiple students, and this year, several of my students have dropped out — all of whom I previously referred to the social worker.

There are many administrators and counselors and a nurse on our campus, all of whom should see what I see. We teachers seem to be in agreement when this issue comes up in conversation, but is it really our place to point out to an administrator what he or she should observe so plainly? I mean, it’s not as if the person who, say, stocks office supplies isn’t doing his or her job. Students’ well-being (and teachers’ by extension) is at stake.

I did speak to this social worker face to face once and was asked, “What do you want me to do differently?” I was honest. Nothing has changed, and the situation is devolving daily. I think the social worker needs some support, too, and I’m not without compassion for this person, but what about all these students? Name Withheld

One social worker with 2,000 students in a high-poverty district? That’s a lot of counseling, case management and assessment for one person to do. Whether this social worker is incompetent or simply overwhelmed (or both, in some measure), the school authorities ideally should do something: get a better social worker or get this one more help. As a teacher of high-needs pupils, you’re more likely than most teachers to see what happens when social-work support fails. The administration should take you seriously, then, if you say that your students aren’t getting the assistance they need. And the administration should be even more inclined to help if a group of teachers expressed that worry.

You seem to think, though, that administrators, counselors and the nurse on campus should know there’s a problem. Let’s suppose that they’re genuinely, if culpably, oblivious. In that case, you should approach them with a group of your colleagues and tell them what you’ve observed. It may be that they do know the score, though, but aren’t doing anything about it. Is this merely out of institutional inertia? Then I would consider drawing the problem (anonymously, if you fear being penalized) to the attention of someone in the educational establishment outside the school — including the parent committee, if there’s an active one.

But perhaps the administration thinks it can’t do anything much about the problem: getting another social worker on staff may not be an option. The needs of the students are, rightly, your paramount concern. Because you’re a caring teacher, you’re already doing whatever you can to help, and you’re frustrated at your inability to enlist help from this social worker. You’re focusing, understandably, on the shortcomings of an individual. Yet the broader failures here, I suspect, go far beyond staffing choices. They most likely have to do with the limited resources available to the school, despite Title I funding, and the ways in which low-income families have been let down by support systems outside the school.

Maybe this social worker isn’t terribly good at the job. Maybe this isn’t a job that any person, however skilled, could do terribly well. Keep doing what you can to make things better, and keep trying to encourage others to pitch in. But systemic problems ultimately require systemic solutions.

I do wonder how viewers of this blog respond to this advice from Appiah. Comments appreciated.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

The Paper Rocket: Thoughts on Improving ‘Hands-On’ Learning (Doug Lemov)

This piece comes from “Doug Lemov’s Field Notes,” a blog that he writes about current issues and practices in schools. Author of Teach Like a Champion, he is a managing director of Uncommon Schools, a network of over 50 charter schools serving 20,000 students in various cities on the East coast. This post appeared November 13, 2019.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my littlest what was going on in Science. It’s her favorite class so it doesn’t take much to get some chatter going. She announced with no small amount of excitement that they were going to be building and flying rockets later that week. “Oh, cool,” I said, “Are you studying air resistance? Or aerodynamics?” That sounded super-geeky, so I re-phrased: “You know, what sorts of things might make a rocket fly better.”

“I’m not really sure,” she said, “We haven’t yet,” which was interesting because the rocket flying was just three or fours days away. If it was to demonstrate some ideas they had learned it was getting late to learn them.

If there’s one thing that most parents seem to want for their kids in school it’s hands-on learning. If there’s one thing many teachers believe will make them be the right sort of teacher it’s hands-on learning. At meet-the-teachers night, if a teacher says, “We’ll be doing lots of hands-on projects in my class this year,” everyone is happy. Parents imagine their kids up to their elbows in learning. Teachers imagine them building rockets and suspension bridges in the future, based on the inspiration of that November morning in 6th grade.

It’s about the time that a term becomes an article of faith like that, that I start to worry, however. Hands-on learning is a term with little correlation to value. Can be good; can be not-good. It’s as good as its design. And the key to the design, as with so many things in education, is knowledge. Which is unfortunate because teachers often overlook knowledge.

I was thinking about that because this morning I asked Little how the rocketry went. “GREAT,” she said. They had made them out of paper and gone out to the soccer field to fly them. “Our team won!”, meaning that her group’s rocket had stayed aloft the longest. “Double-cool,” I said, “What made your rocket work so well?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure,” she said. “I think maybe our wings. They looked different from other people’s.”

“Oh,” I said. What had they tried to do with them? How were they different? Silence.

If their wings had been better, in other words, it had been a lucky guess, which was fun and memorable but not all that instructive. They hadn’t been testing an idea–“Hey, since we know X, let’s see if…” It wasn’t an application of knowledge in other words. (Or at least if they were supposed to be testing specific things they’d learned, Little wasn’t aware of it. Full disclosure: There’s some precedent for that. :))

I should be clear: I am not knocking the rocket experiment. It was lovely and fun and inspiring and real. Those are some of the reasons my daughter loves science. I’m glad her teacher did it.

But it also reminded me of a thousand hands-on activities I’ve seen in schools that are designed to introduce a topic, to fascinate and awaken curiosity but that kids engage in relatively superficially because they don’t really know what’s going on.

They watch the bottle explode or the water turn suddenly to ice but they don’t know why. They’re intrigued but they’re not learning because their perception is uninformed. They don’t know what they are looking for so they don’t see it. It’s not a demonstration of something they know. It fascinates more than it teaches. Fascination is great but an activity can do both.

If my daughter had had more knowledge to use apply and test, she would have had a framework to think about and describe or speculate on why some rockets flew better than others: we had larger wings with more surface area. Or maybe it was the size of the nose cone that created less air resistance. That’s informed observation. The hands-on is an application of or testing of knowledge. When there is no background knowledge its closer to play. My daughter had loved the rockets and had ostensibly succeeded, but in the end she had essentially no thoughts on why her rocket worked. Sure you can unpack it and explain it later but it’s still an opportunity missed to have students “perceive” knowledge at work.

The value of hands-on in other words correlates to how much students know when they engage in it. To use hands-on activities before we’ve taught overlooks the differences between how experts and novices learn. An expert learns more from an experience than a novice because she understands and can process what’s happening. Students are almost always novices but the closer they are to knowledgeable the better.


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

Students in History Class Debate Impeachment (Burch)

Journalist Audra Burch sat in a world history class recently and described history teacher Chris Dier’s lessons on impeachment. The article appeared October 23, 2019. I follow this description of the lesson with some questions that occurred to me.

It was impeachment day in Mr. Dier’s world history class at Chalmette High School. Andrew Johnson, the first impeached president, was on the lesson plan. So was Richard M. Nixon, who avoided facing such a fate by resigning. Bill Clinton, who also was impeached but never convicted, was part of the discussion.

But most of the class was centered on the latest president to face possible removal from office: Donald J. Trump, who is on social media just as much as some of Chris Dier’s students.

At Chalmette High, located in a conservative Louisiana parish, the students in Mr. Dier’s class recently confronted the merits of the case against Mr. Trump, who stands accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate his chief Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Dier saw the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against Mr. Trump as an opportunity: a real-time lesson in civics and political science for his students.

So, for two 90-minute class periods, Mr. Dier’s seniors pretended to be members of Congress, but without the bluster and sniping — dutifully obeying the signs on the walls about how to respectfully agree to disagree.

“We have never studied anything that was unfolding live,” said Grace Bartholomae, one of the students. “This is history.”

To help his students understand the details of the inquiry, Mr. Dier assembled a bit of a crash-course lesson plan, including an excerpt from the whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s 30-minute phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, along with a reconstructed transcript of the conversation.

The idea was to try to answer the same questions voters are asking themselves about potential impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.

Is Mr. Trump being unfairly cast as corrupt? Has he brazenly weaponized his office for personal gain? Did he seek the aid of a foreign power to interfere in the next election? What are high crimes and misdemeanors anyway?

And is the rarest of constitutional consequences, impeachment by the House and then possible conviction and removal from office by the Senate, worth the trouble a year before the next election — the first in which the students in Mr. Dier’s class, most of whom are 17 years old, will be eligible to vote?

Chalmette High is in St. Bernard Parish just southeast of New Orleans, along the Mississippi River. Surrounded by water and built largely upon fishing and oil refineries, the parish lost more than half of its population after Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly every home. The rebuilding brought more diversity, and today, of the 1,972 students at Chalmette High, about 52 percent are students of color.

Mr. Trump handily carried the parish in 2016 with about 65 percent of the vote, but the students in Mr. Dier’s class did not always share their parents’ conservative views.

Mr. Dier, 31, teaches in the same classroom where his mother, also a world history teacher, taught five years before. He had planned to tackle impeachment later in the semester, but when the Democrats began an inquiry last month, he moved those lessons up on the calendar to follow a study of the Vietnam War.

He said the point was not just to study this particular impeachment inquiry, but to push his students to engage as informed citizens at a time when many Americans do not understand basic civics.

Only 39 percent of adults can name all three branches of government (a jump from 32 percent last year) and 25 percent can name only one branch, according to a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This year, congressmen in Florida and Georgia introduced a $30 million bipartisan bill to improve the quality of civics education in elementary, middle and high schools across the country.

Another challenge for teachers, Mr. Dier said, is the fear of being accused of bringing too much politics into the classroom. His has shelves stuffed with books on political science and history, and posters of Ben Franklin, Helen Keller and Malcolm X.

“I think social studies teachers are hesitant to teach controversial topics, past and present, due to hyperpolarization or pushback from parents,” he said. “Almost all of my students will be voting in the next election; they deserve teachers who do not shy away from current events because of our partisan climate.”

If anything, Mr. Dier added, “our partisan climate means students need to be challenged more to learn how to navigate it.”

He figured the best way to explore impeachment in a neutral way was sticking to the Constitution and the established facts of Mr. Trump’s actions. That meant having the students, in a condensed version of the impeachment process, study how the founding fathers framed impeachment and the step-by-step procedures in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Mr. Dier divided the class into four groups and instructed them to read the material they had been given, including the call transcript and the whistle-blower complaint.

The students huddled in separate corners of the room reading aloud. Before long, “bribery,” “treason,” “quid pro quo” and other impeachment watchwords floated above the din of the discussions.

The students did not share the same opinion on the matter. To some, the phone call was a clear violation; others struggled with the degree of wrongness. A handful of students — a number that would grow by the end of the lesson — fully supported Mr. Trump.

“Abuse of power is subjective,” insisted Hunter Wheaton, who questioned whether the country was ready for the ugliness of impeachment, which would require majority support in the House.

Even though she felt impeachment and removal from office was unlikely, Jenna Riess said that the inquiry would reveal what the president had done wrong, and that voters would “use that in the next election and vote for a better candidate.”

After the discussion, Mr. Dier polled the 21 students. This time there were three groups: those who supported impeachment (12), those who did not (four) and those who remained undecided (five).

The undecideds sat quietly in the center of the classroom, and the two opposing groups prepared their strongest arguments.

Chance Beck, speaking for those who supported impeachment, said Mr. Trump’s action set a bad precedent. “It’s not morally or politically correct for a president to be able to use national power or national aid that we give to Ukraine for a personal favor,” he said. “I believe he should be impeached and convicted and removed to make the case that this will not be tolerated.”

Trinity Frey, representing those against impeachment, argued that it was not clear the phone call was inappropriate and that it was unrealistic to expect enough of the real-life Republican senators to support Mr. Trump’s removal.

Though what he did might be considered morally wrong, she said, it was simply not severe enough for him to be taken out of office.

After hearing from both sides, the undecideds had to make their move.

“Centrism is canceled,” cracked Ms. Bartholomae, in the lightest moment of the exercise.

One by one, each of the five students joined one of the two groups, greeted by cheers.

Three of the five joined the anti-impeachment group. They said the stakes were too high and the evidence was too thin. “Show me where this says it’s illegal,” said Jihad Thabata, who questioned whether the call amounted to misconduct.

In a closing statement about whether Mr. Trump should stay in office, Alexis Resendez coolly argued that members of Congress should respect the choice made by voters in the 2016 election.

Ayla Hoey rebutted that the transcript may seem subtle, but Mr. Trump “knew the power he had over other countries. Even if it seems like Ukraine is not being pushed, he knew what he asked for was going to get done.”

In that final round, a two-thirds majority voted in favor of removing Mr. Trump.

The tally: 14 to 7.


Some questions that occur to me after reading this article.

*Most history teachers steer clear of controversial subjects especially current issues such as the House impeachment hearings of President Trump. Considering what Chris Dier did in his lessons on impeachment, according to this reporter’s account, were they nonpartisan? If yes, how so. If no, what sections were partisan?

*Should history teachers keep politics out of the classroom?

*Should teachers worry about pushback from parents?


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Teaching in the Age of Trump (Andrea Rinard)

Andrea Rinard: “I’m a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, writer of

things, and native Floridian.” This article appeared in Medium, July 13, 2018.


Full disclosure: I’m not a Trump fan. I woke up on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 with a sense of dread and foreboding. I wondered how I was going to get up, go to school, and be a responsible high school English teacher in this brave new world of Trump.

Like many, I figured I would ride it out. My previous job, at a very conservative school, taught me to keep my head down when President Obama was elected and both colleagues and school families responded as if it were the end times. It was my turn now, I reasoned. Sure, Trump had admitted to groping women, he’d mocked a disabled journalist, done myriad things I found repugnant, but there were checks and balances. How bad could it be?

Well, I’ve now taught one school year that spanned the election and inauguration, and I’ve taught one school year under the Trump presidency. In my perspective, it’s been so much worse than I could have ever imagined — but I have a job to do. It’s a job that I take seriously, and I’ve tried my best to be a responsible educator in the age of Trump. As I prepare for the 2018–2019 school, I wanted to share the five tenets I now cling to.

  1. Kids need to learn how to be more responsible and canny media consumers

Alternative facts and fake news have become the modern version of “nuh-uh.” If you don’t like what I’m saying, call it fake news. If you can’t refute my assertion with objective facts, do it with alternative facts.

Kids (and adults) read things on social media and take them at face value. We must teach our students how to conduct responsible, ethical means of inquiry. We must coax them out of the echo chambers and help them learn how to discern what is real and what is truly “fake news.” Several infographics have circulated that show the spectrum on which news organizations can fall, showing bias to the left and right, to varying degrees. The most popular, by a lawyer named Vanessa Otero, can be seen below. Although this and other charts have been the subject of debate about the placement of particular news outlets on the spectrum, it can be an interesting starting point for a discussion of how to figure out where to get your news from.




An assignment I gave to my AP English Language kids was to take one event and compare how that one event was covered by four different news organizations. The kids analyzed the diction choices, especially adjectives and adverbs, and what details were included and left out. The kids were surprised by the variations, and I heard more than once, “But… what really happened?”

It’s so easy for kids — or anyone, for that matter — to see something on social media and run with it, regardless of the source. In a May 2017 study conducted by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, 41.0% of the 1535 teachers surveyed reported that “students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims from unreliable sources. Many teachers noted a connection between students’ use of unsubstantiated sources and growing incivility.”

2. We must create safe spaces and insist on civility

One of the refrains from the presidential election was the demonization of “political correctness.” Wherever you stand on it, our kids need to understand that a repudiation of “political correctness” does not mean a complete license to speak any unfiltered, unconsidered thought that comes into their head.

According to the same UCLA study cited above, “79% of teachers reported that their students have expressed concerns for their well-being or the well-being of their families associated with recent public policy discourse on one or more hot-button issues.” I can absolutely attest to this phenomenon. My LGBTQ, immigrant, African-American, Muslim, Hispanic, and female students are angry, confused, worried, and just downright scared. The landscape keeps shifting under them, and the loss of stability is frightening.

Moreover, there has been an emboldening of those who have, until recently, quietly nurtured bigoted and hateful ideas about certain groups. I have, in the past two years, heard students using crude, derogatory, hateful terms that have resurfaced after being chased or shamed out of the acceptable lexicon normally tolerated peer-to-peer in high school hallways. What students used to police each other on has now become acceptable, or the kids are just too intimidated to continue pushing back. Some students even feel like it’s acceptable to bring such language into the classroom. I had to have a conversation with a student about why the words he was using to refer to Puerto Rican students who’d come to our school after Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated their homes were hurtful and would not be tolerated. I also had to explain to him that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (I honestly don’t think he believed me).

I’ve also heard things from parents that I’ve never heard before. At a recent parent conference, a parent said he’d heard there is a Muslim girl in his son’s class and asked if I was being careful not to let her spread “militant Islamic propaganda” during class discussions. I’m sure that over the years I have talked with parents with deep-seated personal prejudices, but never before has a parent felt comfortable asking such a question out loud. I can only imagine what they’re saying in the privacy of their own home in front of their kid, and how that kind of environment impacts that student’s worldview.

I try not to make my marginalized students the spokespeople of their religion, sexual orientation, gender, or ethnicity, but sometimes they take up the mantle themselves. One of the goosebumpiest moments I’ve had in a long time happened when a transgender student explained to his cisgender classmates what the big deal actually was regarding rules about using the bathroom that corresponds to your birth gender assignment rather than the gender with which you identify. There were a couple of students who expressed that they were not comfortable using a bathroom with transgender students, and they articulated their feelings and opinions in a clear and respectful way that shared their viewpoints without attacking anyone else’s. After class I thanked my transgender student for sharing his views, and he shrugged and said, “I may be the only transgender person that any of these guys know. I don’t want them to hate all of us because I’ve

given them a reason to hate me because I don’t listen to what they’re saying.”

As much as I would like to deprogram or reverse-engineer kids whose parents have what I perceive to be the wrong worldview, that’s not my role. That leads to the next tenet.

3. We need to focus on teaching kids HOW, not WHAT, to think

I insist on logical argumentation. I have banned the now ubiquitous sentence stem, “I feel like…” and instead insist that students talk about what they think and then support their ideas with evidence.

In my AP English Language classes, we talk about a lot of very sensitive subjects. The kids will come to class in August after reading Columbine and are expected to be able to talk about the role of media in our society, gun rights and gun control, and mental health. Call me a masochist (and maybe a sadist), but I like to throw them into the deep end and get them talking about big stuff from the first day so that I can help them develop the skills they need to engage in meaningful dialogue. We practice active listening so that we are certain we have truly heard what is being said before we try to respond. We ask questions, and we empathize with opposing viewpoints, even if we ultimately disagree.

My students are not permitted to get away with weak thinking. I teach them to recognize and scorn ad hominem attacks like “cuck,” “snowflake,” and “fascist.” They are expected to formulate cogent and logical arguments to support their positions. What results is dialogue. Sometimes students concede points from students with whom they disagree. Sometimes they realize that their viewpoints aren’t very far apart. Sometimes they have trouble supporting what they believe, and we call them out in a constructive way, sometimes pointing out that what they’re espousing could, in fact, be insupportable. We look for solutions rather than insults. We try to formulate open-ended ideas rather than “burns” or “roasts.” We don’t debate toward “winners” or “losers.” We discuss in order to understand all facets of issues.

Sometimes it’s really hard because I have my own hot-button issues on which I feel strongly that there is a right and a wrong position. However, I have to remain neutral and calm so that my students can see that you can discuss emotional topics without being led by emotion.

4. We need to check our personal politics at the door before we enter the school

Teaching during an election year is always interesting. There’s always that one kid who asks for whom I’m voting. They get the same speech I’ve given numerous times: “Asking someone who they’re voting for is not a casual

question. You’re asking that person their views on abortion, education, gun rights, military spending, foreign affairs, the role of religion in government, and much, much more. If you want to have that conversation, fine. We can have it, but we’re not going to water it down into a single question.” I know that many teachers simply refuse to talk about politics, and that’s fine too. In my AP English Literature classes, however, being able to connect literature with the current social context is part of the point. A conversation about Othello as a manipulated, minority outsider has particular resonance. Considering the impossible choices George must make in his caretaking role of Lenny leads the class to some interesting places, given the current dialogue about mental health and healthcare access in general.

In my AP Language classes in particular, the political landscape is a rich seam that I feel compelled to mine so that the kids are able to function as responsible members of society, regardless of which political party, if any, they align with. Whether we’re talking about homelessness, immigration, or language inflation, the current political context is relevant.

Even complaining in the workroom or faculty lounge can breed a toxic work environment. Assuming that every teacher is a liberal or conservative, and believing “only idiots think ____” is a sure way to alienate colleagues and create a hostile environment.

I don’t hide my political leanings like a secret identity, but I don’t open-carry them either. I’m mindful that regardless of the fact that my kids are young adults, I am still in a position of power to influence. I will not and cannot abuse that position. Instead, I aspire to help the kids form their own opinions and see the world through their own eyes. If they disagree with me on abortion, mandatory minimum prison sentences, legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana use — that’s the point. It’s important that we can discuss these issues without them looking to me to know what to think. They need to know what they think, and they need to know why they think it.

One disclaimer, however, is that there are objective facts. It is not partisan to say that something is objectively erroneous as long as there is clear and ethically sourced evidence.

5. We need to understand and accept that there are some things we just can’t combat in one school year

If a kid comes into your room after being raised his or her whole life with flagrantly hateful beliefs, for example, your goal may be to merely plant a seed or two, and get him or her to question why they have those beliefs and whether those beliefs are complementary and compatible with the life that student wants to lead. You can also insist that the student treat others with respect and civility, at least within the four walls of your classroom. That will have to be enough.

Whether you are a staunch supporter of President Trump and his policies or are counting the days until the 2020 election, you and I have a job to do. We need to make sure that we do not shame or harass students (or colleagues) whose opinions we would fight to the death to stamp out of existence. We need to hold the line when it comes to treating one another with respect and courtesy, and we need to teach our students how to engage within the political process and make reasoned sense of what they see around them. Ideally, if we do our jobs and help our students become more informed, logical, discerning, and empathetic citizens, we will begin to bridge the chasm that currently divides us as a country. It’s an enormous responsibility, but I have faith that we’re all up for it.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach