Category Archives: how teachers teach

“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 3)

Continuing story of my teaching history at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), 1956-1963

Then I got married in 1958.  Evenings which I had used for grading homework and preparing lessons and weekends for completing graduate papers were no longer as available as when I was single. Fatigue and the growing awareness that I could have a life outside of Glenville brought me face-to-face with choosing how to combine the demands of work and being with Barbara and eventually my two daughters, Sondra and Janice. Threading that needle was never easy for me as a teacher and later, as an administrator.

In seven years of teaching, I had created in fits and starts, with many stumbles, a home-grown history course than I had neither expected when I arrived at Glenville in 1956.  I was an unheralded, unknown classroom reformer creating a different American history course in a de facto segregated school.

I came to believe that any teacher could adopt and adapt lessons tailored to their students, especially economically disadvantaged students in segregated schools. My belief in engaging classroom materials turning around such students and schools grew out of those lessons I had created. If more teachers and schools did what I did, I believed, then urban schools would improve. Although my reform-driven belief turned out to be too narrow and too demanding of teachers given the working conditions they faced, the ideas I offered and practiced in my classrooms of getting students to connect the racial-inflected past to the present, I hoped would help my students understand what was happening in the South with Freedom Riders and student sit-ins in segregated restaurants and bus boycotts. Without fully knowing it myself, my belief in the power of education to reform society, as Dewey put it, lay behind the materials I developed and classroom activities I managed.  That is my small part in the civil rights movement.

In the next decade working in Washington, D.C. my work as a classroom reformer developing curriculum materials and lessons to engage minority students continued. Events, however, spilled over public schools. A generational and organizational split over Black Power reshaped the Civil Rights movement. Urban riots in Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit and other cities over police brutality, inadequate housing, few jobs, and segregated schools broke out year after year in the mid-1960s. Anti-Vietnam War protests spread. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead by a white sniper. Civil unrest—looting and fires–in over 100 cities leap-frogged across the nation. Governors and mayors called in the National Guard to quell disturbances and bring order to cities.

All of these events inexorably seeped into school lessons and activities. In these years, I began to see a much larger picture of the nexus between the worlds outside and inside schools and how the complexities of school reform stretched far beyond my students in one classroom.

Cardozo High School 1963-1967

After seven years at Glenville and going part-time for a doctorate in American history at Western Reserve–I had already written chapters for a dissertation on black leadership in Cleveland–two job offers came to me in 1963. One was to teach U.S. History at a Connecticut college with the understanding that I would complete my dissertation and another was to move to Washington, D.C. and work in a federally funded teacher-training project located in an all-Black high school.

The job was to be a “master teacher.” That is I would teach two classes of history and train four former Peace Corps Volunteers who had just returned from two years abroad in the craft of teaching social studies. Yes, I was ambitious, I wanted recognition and approval but I had a family now and was uncertain what to do with these competing offers.  I was at a fork in my career and had to choose.

I took the one-year job in 1963 at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C.. My previous work in developing racial content in instructional materials at Glenville, I would guess, helped the director hire me.   It was a big risk to move Barbara and toddler Sondra for only a year to D.C. but I was eager (and pushy) to join like-minded educators drawn to Washington in the Kennedy years. Career ambition drove my decision-making.

Federal policymakers in those Kennedy-Johnson years (John F. Kennedy was assassinated a few months after the project began and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson became President) had framed the problem of low-performing urban students dropping out of school as having too few skilled and knowledgeable teachers who could create engaging lessons to motivate teenagers to go to college and prevent them from dropping out of school. The solution to the problem was neither added funding nor more jobs for unemployed nor better and inexpensive housing. The solution was: prepare better teachers.[i]

Setting

So easy to forget that the District of Columbia, the seat of government for the United States, was a segregated city until the late-1950s.  Schools had been divided into two administrative divisions, White and Colored since the early 20th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Bolling vs. Sharpe decision in 1955 desegregated the D.C. schools consolidating the two administrative divisions into one school system. The slow movement of white families out of Washington to the emerging suburbs in Maryland and Virginia accelerated as desegregation slowly proceeded. By 1960, Black students were 70 percent of D.C.’s enrollment. And at Cardozo High School, the “castle on the hill” over 95 percent were Black.

On that 13th St. hilltop, Cardozo students looked out large windows and saw both the nation’s Capitol and the Washington Monument. The neighborhood at that time had a mix of middle- and working-class and poor Black families. [ii]

By the early 1960s, however, the neighborhood was changing. Percentages of families on public assistance, unemployment, and students not living with both parents had grown. Crime escalated. While mostly white- and blue-collar families sent their sons and daughters to Cardozo, the neighborhood had acquired a reputation of being poor and neglected. Local media labeled the Cardozo neighborhood as a Black ghetto and “slum”, terms that students, teachers, and parents bitterly resented.[iii]

In the early 1960s, the school had over 2,000 students of whom less than 10 were white. Nearly all faculty were Black and ranged from a core of dedicated, well- qualified teachers to the usual time-servers who counted the weeks until retirement. Like all D.C. high schools at the time, the track system sorted students on the basis of IQ test scores and performance into the Honors, College Preparatory, General and Basic tracks.  At Cardozo there were very few Honors and College Preparatory tracks when the Cardozo Project arrived and settled into room 111 in fall 1963.[iv]


[i]A more detailed description of Cardozo High School and the Project can be found in Larry Cuban, Teaching History Then and Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016), pp. 43-70.

[ii]“Central High School (Cardozo Senior High School” D.C. Historic Sites at: https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/77

[iii] Eve Edstrom, “Slum Children a New Challenge to Peace Corps Group,” Washington Post, September 8, 1963, E2; Maxine Daly, “Urban Teacher Corps, 1963-1968, (Washington, D.C. Public Schools of District of Columbia, Office of Staff Development), May 1968, p. 4.

[iv] That organizational approach to schooling lasted until the track system was abolished by a U.S. court decision in 1967. See Alexander Bickel, “Skelly Wright’s Sweeping Decision,” New Republic, July 7, 1967 at: https://newrepublic.com/article/90822/skelly-wrights-sweeping-decision

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“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 2)

Glenville High School, 1956-1963

My memory of teaching over a half-century ago is filled with holes. In thinking back to the time when I began teaching at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), I can remember some events, some students, some teachers, and my first principal but there is much I cannot recall. Slivers of memory remind me of what I did daily in my five U.S. and world history classes over the seven years that I taught there. And even those fragments are disconnected.  What helps me from sentimentalizing my memories are yellowed copies of actual lessons I taught, student papers with my comments on them, old spiral-ringed gradebooks listing students and their marks, occasional articles about one or more classes of mine in the student newspaper, and photos of me teaching in the annual yearbook. That’s it.

I do recall my shock when I had lunch with Glenville principal Oliver Deex just before I had to report for teaching in September 1956. I was startled to find out that Glenville’s student body was over 90 percent Black—the word then was Negro. He gave me a once-over-lightly account of segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the increasingly Black East Side and the all-white West Side, separated by the Cuyahoga River. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the growth of ethnic and racial ghettos.[i]

Segregated Cleveland

Patterns of ethnic and racial segregation in Cleveland had developed early in the twentieth century, when neighborhoods became easily identifiable as Italian, German, Polish, Jewish, and Black. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, upwardly striving immigrant Jewish families clustered in the Central, Scovill, and Woodland Avenue neighborhoods close to downtown. By the 1920s, many of these families began to move eastward into the Glenville area in response to an influx of Southern Black migrant families seeking better housing. The result was the gradual transformation of these areas into a Black ghetto. By the 1930s, Jewish businesses, synagogues, hospitals, and charitable institutions services dotted 105th Street, one of Glenville’s main thoroughfares, and Glenville High School became nearly 90 percent Jewish in that decade.[ii]

Residential segregation (homes on sale often had racial covenants in their deeds) and in-migration of Blacks after World War II again created overcrowded housing in already racially segregated neighborhoods. Upwardly mobile Black families entered the Glenville area in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As that occurred, more and more Jewish families moved into the eastern suburbs of Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid, and Beachwood. Middle-class Black families increased their presence in the Glenville area, so that by the time I arrived, Glenville High School and the adjacent junior highs and elementary schools were already over 90 percent Black.[iii]

Classroom teaching

Although my teacher preparation at the University of Pittsburgh was steeped in the Progressive tradition of student-centered instruction, if an observer had entered my high school history classes in those initial years they would have easily categorized my instruction as wholly teacher-centered. Students sat in rows of movable chairs with tablet arms facing the front blackboard and my desk.

I planned detailed lessons at home for the five classes. In my written lessons, which I would follow religiously in the early years, I would carefully list the questions I would ask for whole-group discussions, lecture on the text and additional readings Iassigned to the class, all the while orchestrating a sequence of activities aligned to the questions. Over 90 percent of instructional time was spent teaching the whole group.

Toward the end of my first year at Glenville, I realized, albeit slowly, that teaching five classes a day with multiple lessons (I taught world history and U.S. history), grading homework from over 150 students, and learning the ropes of managing groups of students a few years younger than me not only wore me out–I was also taking late-afternoon and evening graduate history courses at Western Reserve University– but drove me to rely on lectures and the textbook far more than I anticipated.

Slowly, however, I became dissatisfied about how I was teaching. I routinely lectured, watched maybe half of the students take notes and the other half stare into the distance or try to look attentive. Some fell asleep. I asked students questions about the textbook pages I assigned and got one-word answers back. Occasionally, a student would ask a question and I would improvise an answer that would trigger a few more students to enter in what would become a full blown back-and-forth discussion. It was unplanned and brief but mysteriously disappeared in the snap of a finger. Periodic quizzes and current events topics one day a week altered my routines but student disengagement persisted.

After six months, I realized that I did not want to teach history mechanically drowning students in forgettable facts that left me drained and dissatisfied at the end of a long day. I wanted to break out of that pattern. But did not know how to do that yet.

These were the years before the civil rights movement had traveled northward. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the midst of his Montgomery ministry; Rosa Parks had just triggered the boycott of Jim Crow buses in that city. After nearly a year teaching, I became more aware of how Cleveland’s racially segregated neighborhoods had blanketed schools like Glenville with malignant neglect. But it was slow going for a white teacher who gradually learned from his students and Black colleagues what was happening outside of school. Slow as it was, I began to see my work inside the classroom where students took notes and participated in discussions connected to students’ lives outside school.[iv]

That insight occurred as I grew Intellectually. Oliver Deex, my principal was midwife to expanding my mind. A voracious reader and charming conversationalist, Deex introduced me to books and magazines I had never read: Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others.

He often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. In his office after school, we would talk about what I read. I have no idea why he took an interest in the intellectual development of a gangly, fresh-faced, ambitious novice, but his insistent questioning of my beliefs and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching.

The next year, I decided to experiment with different content to break out of those instructional routines that numbed me by the end of the day. For two of my five classes, I began to design lessons that differed from the assigned U.S. history text (David S. Muzzey’s History of Our Country published in 1955 had no entry for “Negro” in the index). Drawing from my University graduate history courses, I began to type up excerpts from primary sources, duplicate them on the department’s one ditto machine, add questions and assign them to those two classes–the thought of doing this for all five classes overwhelmed me; two seemed do-able. [v]

For example, in a textbook chapter on the 13 colonies in which Muzzey’s History of Our Country dismissed the origins of slavery as unimportant, I would copy readings that included descriptions of slave auction and bills of sale and historians’ accounts that spelled out the issues surrounding the introduction of Africans into the colonies. I would add questions to these readings that called for students to analyze both primary and secondary sources. In addition, the librarian gathered the few books on Negro history that we had in our school and nearby libraries and put them aside in a special section for my two classes.

By my third year at Glenville, I had found that gaining students’ interest in U.S. history was only half the struggle. I was now using these materials in all five classes. Student response to non-textbook ethnic materials, however, was mixed. The novelty of studying Black figures and broader issues of race triggered deep interest in maybe half of the students in the classes. But many students felt that such content was sub-standard because their texts didn’t mention the information contained in their readings and, moreover, they complained openly that other history teachers didn’t have readings and used the textbook more than I did. Some students even asked me to return to the text. I was surprised at first that some students wanted me to return to the deadening routine that left me and most students anesthetized. Then I realized that using textbooks in high school was all that they knew.

Overall, however, I judged student response as sufficiently positive for me to continue and, truth be told, I was excited about the readings and ways of getting students to think about the past that I had developed. I saw that students studying a  past in which racial content and practices were important enabled both students and me to make connections between then and now that had been missing when I began teaching.  Sure, I was weary at 3:30 PM, but now I looked forward to the next day of teaching.[vi]

Within four years, I had expanded my repertoire beyond weekly use of ethnic and racial subject matter. I slowly introduced new content and direct instruction in skills into my U.S. history classes. As I learned the methodology of the historian in my graduate courses, I designed more lessons on analyzing evidence, determining which sources of information were more or less reliable and assessing what makes one opinion more informed than another. A later generation of scholars and practitioners might have labeled my uncertain baby-steps in changing the content of lessons,  “teaching historical thinking.” [vii]

______________________________________________

[i] Leonard Moore, “The School Desegregation Crisis of Cleveland, Ohio, 1963–1964,” Journal of Urban History 28, no. 2 (2002): 135–147. Within the school, I quickly learned from experienced colleagues that the district personnel department customarily assigned young, white, inexperienced teachers to mostly minority schools to see if they would survive. 

 [ii] Kenneth Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 157–173; David Van Tassel (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 595–599.

[iii] Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, 170–171.

[iv] A reader knowledgeable about Progressive thought in the early 20the century could easily point out that such a connection I had come to realize was within Progressive educators’ thinking decades earlier.

[v] For the reference to David Muzzey’s U.S. History textbook, see Larry Cuban “Jim Crow History,” Negro History Bulletin, 1962, 25(4), pp. 84-86.

The ditto machine (or “spirit duplicator”) came into schools in the 1940s. It did not need electricity to run and was cheap compared to a mimeograph machine. The machine was basically a crank-turned drum to which I attached a stencil that I had typed up. I inserted paper in the tray, and turned the handle until I had enough copies for my lesson. The finished copies were purplish with the distinct fragrance of alcohol (which was in the drum). The purple type ran occasionally and after producing many copies my hands were often bluish. With the invention of the electronic copy machine in the 1970s, ditto machines became another footnote in classroom teaching.

[vi] In 1962, I was asked to present at a national conference of social studies teachers on the ethnic and racial content lessons I had created. A member of the audience, Ted Fenton, came up to me afterwards and asked me if I would write a volume for his Scott,Foresman series on problems in American history. I said I would and in 1964, The Negro in America appeared in the series (it came out in a second edition in 1971 re-titled The Black Man in America.. It was the first book that I had published.

[vii] Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” Phi Delta Kappan, 1999, 80(7), pp. 488-499; Roy Rosenzeig, “What Is Historical Thinking Matters,” at: http://historicalthinkingmatters.org/about/

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Online Instruction for All

Even the most fervent advocate for online instruction would be surprised. For those who predicted 20 years ago that remote instruction will take over public schooling, the future has arrived. And for the true believers in online instruction as the best, efficient (read: less expensive) way of teaching and learning, Nirvana has arrived.

Covid-19 has upended naysayers who opposed expanded use of online instruction, seeing it as a pale substitute for in-person instruction. For the fall semester in schools across the nation, complete or partial online instruction (I avoid the word “learning”) is nearly universal.

Since March 2020 when nearly all public and private schools were closed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, face-to-face classroom instruction has largely disappeared from large urban districts. With the continued spread of the virus into rural, suburban, and urban communities, virtual instruction has become the only way of re-opening schools—except for those districts in states that have paid only lip service to guidelines for protection from the virus or where the incidence of infections are low, according to health authorities. In those places, hybrids of remote and in-person or full in-person schooling have been announced for the fall semester.

But for most students , they will sit and face screens daily. As a result, many district administrators have been scrambling to insure that every student has the hardware and software necessary to enable a K-12 program to be brought into every kitchen and living room. And teachers unused to teaching from their apartments and homes have hurried double-time to get versed in the techniques of teaching from a distance. Few policymakers, practitioners, or parents wanted online instruction as the sole provider of schooling but that is what it looks like for most of 2020.

In such a dire situation—Heaven for cheerleaders of remote instruction and for critics, a glimpse of an educational Hell–perhaps it is reasonable to ask the unasked question: Does online instruction work? 

That is the fundamental question that public policymakers (e.g., federal and state officials, local school board members and superintendents) have avoided in the rush to mandate cyber schooling when that is the only available option. Of course, there will be a small fraction of parents who will continue home schooling their sons and daughters using a mix of screen time with face-to-face instruction.

Nonetheless, such a question about the effectiveness of online instruction in raising student’s academic achievement and producing other desirable outcomes such as increased attendance, higher graduation and lower dropout rates, and college admissions—that is what I mean by “work”– gives educational leaders heartburn.

Why heartburn? Because of the tortuous role that research has historically played in policymaker decisions about adopting and implementing technologies in schools, especially amid a pandemic, for online instruction.

Necessity not research results, of course, demands a switch from in-person instruction to electronic schooling. The fear of losing a full year of schooling, continued unknowns of the virus threatening safety of children and the cratering of the economy press policymakers including the President of the U.S. very hard to re-open using distance instruction.

A brief look at the thousands of K-12 studies that have sought an answer to the question of the effectiveness of online instruction may be helpful to those policymakers, practitioners, and parents who have to enter that world.

Answers to the question are muddled. Scores of studies have been contested because most have had serious design and methodological flaws. Moreover, many of these studies lumped together full-time virtual schools, hybrids, and online courses, And the results have been underwhelming.  That is where heartburn enters the picture.[i]

Even when researchers over the past few decades have performed meta-analyses of a smaller number of studies that have met higher standards of quality they found that virtual instruction in its various modes, at best, is equivalent to regular face-to-face classroom instruction. At worst, some studies showed less achievement gains than traditional teaching. And keep in mind that these meta-analyses were of studies where online instruction occurred in mostly math, reading, and science courses—not other academic subjects. Nor in areas of great concern such as kindergarten and primary grades, the arts, and social and emotional learning. The overall picture is considerably dimmer than promoters of full- and part-time virtual schooling have promised or leaders had expected.[ii]

What complicates matters in 2020 is that findings drawn from research studies on the effectiveness of online instruction are only one of many interlocking tiles in a mosaic that policymakers assemble in adopting virtual instruction for children and youth. The usual back-and-forth that policymakers experience in the push-and-pull of conflicting demands such as what kinds of evidence of effectiveness matter and how much evidence is necessary to inform, shape, and justify a policy decision. Such doubts fly out the window when remote instruction is the only viable public policy during Covid-19.      [iii]

Thus, answers to the question of whether online instruction “works” matter little during emergencies.  The truth is that no one knows with certainty which students benefit from virtual schooling works, in what subjects, and under what conditions. No doubt that much data will be gathered in the upcoming school year by researchers and policymakers on what happens with students who have to rely on remote instruction, assessing its worth and overall  effectiveness. The health crisis has produced a massive experiment in schooling. Tens of millions of students will have to be instructed, assessed, and judged on performance by watching screens.

Few boosters of remote instruction in 2019 ever fantasized that nearly all American school children and youth would get their schooling remotely the next year. Covid-19 is surely the mother of reform—desired or not.  

_________________________

[i] Gene Glass, “The Realities of K-12 Virtual Education,” p. 5.

[ii] Cathy Cavanaugh, et. al. “The Effects of Distance Education on K–12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2004 Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates ; Rosina Smith, et. al.  “A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning”. 2005, Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates; Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010).

[iii] See, for example, Charles Lindblom and David Cohen, Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979); Carol Weiss, et. al., “The Fairy Godmother and Her Warts: Making the Dream of Evidence-Based Policy Come True,” American Journal of Evaluation, 2008, 29(1) at: http://aje.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/29/1/29

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I’m a Nurse in New York. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did (Kristin McConnell)

Kristin McConnell is a nurse and writer living in New York City. This appeared in The Atlantic online August 4, 2020.

The other day my husband, a public-school teacher in New York City, got a string of texts from a work friend. After checking in on our family and picking up their ongoing conversation about books and TV shows, she wrote, “So, are we going on a teacher strike in the fall?”

“What!? No!” My husband is adamantly against a strike, because he understands on a deep, personal level his duty to serve his country in the classroom.

We have two young children, one of whom is developmentally disabled, and I’m an intensive-care nurse. Through the spring, I took care of COVID-19 patients at the hospital while he toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons. He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too.

We wouldn’t be in this mess of uncertainty about the coming school year if the federal government had managed to control the virus; any glimmer of leadership from the president would have gone a long way. Grievances and fear are understandable. I support teacher-led campaigns to make sure that safety measures are in place. And any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut, along with indoor businesses.

What I don’t support is preemptively threatening “safety strikes,” as the American Federation of Teachers did in late July. These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing. Teachers are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: the politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic. They’re not. Nurses and doctors know that masks do a lot to keep us safe, and that other basics such as hand-washing and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

nstead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time. Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers. They should rise to the occasion even if it makes them nervous, just like health-care workers have.

My husband, playing devil’s advocate while we discussed this (we both know how eager he is to go back), said, “Arguably health-care workers sort of signed up for this kind of risk, but teachers did not.”

I replied, “Absolutely not!” Doctors and nurses sign up for work that is sometimes high-stress for us and sometimes life-or-death for our patients, not for us. Aside from those who choose to work in biocontainment or offer their services in war zones, we are not expected to do crucial medical work under potentially lethal circumstances.

I was terrified when I started taking care of COVID-19 ICU patients. Before my first COVID-19 shift, I had panic attacks that made me wheeze, and I walked onto the unit my first day in tears (so in addition to being terrified, I was also really embarrassed). My co-workers felt similarly. I heard an attending physician say, of her daughter, “What if she loses her mother?” and I read through a young nurse’s freshly written will, no joke.

In those early days, I confessed my anxieties to an acquaintance, and he asked whether I could take a medical leave of absence. I could have taken a leave, and teachers in need can too. (And parents who want their children to stay home have that option, whether through homeschooling or continued remote learning.) But I said, “No, I can’t just chump out!” Chump wasn’t the right word—at the moment, I was almost hysterical, and it was hard for me to even articulate how I felt, called upon to do something frightening and hard that I viscerally did not want to do.

The military language people used when discussing COVID-19 in the spring seemed totally appropriate, and in a way that mentality got me through the peak: This was a war, and I was a soldier. It wasn’t my choice to serve, but it was my duty; I had skills and knowledge that were needed

So I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation. People who work at grocery stores in no way signed up to expose themselves to disease, but we expected them to go to work, and they did. If they had not, society would have collapsed. What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on.

When some of my husband’s students told him that they had continued working as cashiers throughout the spring and summer, he said, “Wow, that’s so courageous of you.” He feels that he doesn’t really have anything to show for himself, and he looks forward to the time when he will. Now, contemplating the possibility of teachers striking, he says, “Bowing out wouldn’t be a good example to set for our students.”

Teachers signed up to be a positive adult presence in children’s lives, and to help them grow up with their peers, at school, away from home. We need them to follow through, even though it’s a challenge. It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be stressful; it’s not going to be perfect. “I can’t think of one time that there was actually hand soap in the men’s bathroom,” my husband told me. That’ll have to change, hopefully for good. The point is that everyone is going to have to go above and beyond. But teachers are smart and adaptable. They can do this.

In the days before I first took care of COVID-19 patients, I discovered a deeper fear. Beneath my panic over exposing myself to the disease, I was also afraid that the work would be too difficult, too fast-paced, too chaotic: I was afraid I would fail. When I came to the hospital, I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic, and I knew I wouldn’t fail—the skills I had were the very reason I had been called upon to do this work. The same is true of teaching through a pandemic.

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Remote Delivery of Instruction–Covid-19 and Re-opening Schools

Regardless of what President Trump wants, the vast majority of American students will begin their school year with remote delivery of instruction. As the surging of infections in many southern and western states has occurred, health risks for both children and adults have again risen. (see here and here). And many parents unwilling to take risks with their children will opt for staying home and their children doing the best they can with electronic devices

Note that I avoid the phrase “remote learning.” I do so because “learning” implies that through a medium–a computer screen–students have acquired knowledge and skills, been assessed for mastery, and can apply either or both in a different situation. Sitting at home in front of an Internet-connected device and listening to a teacher conduct a ZOOM session or completing and submitting an assigned worksheet, or partnering on-screen with a small group, or have small groups of students collaborate on-screen separately from the teacher can be (and are) worthwhile tasks leading to learning. But the medium has severe limitations as anyone knows who has taken online courses and experienced it since lockdowns and sheltering in began in March. And veteran and novice online teachers, are familiar with both strengths and shortcomings of distance education.

Nor am I romanticizing in-person classroom teaching. Rest assured as someone who has taught for 14 years, headed a school district for seven years, and have studied how teachers have taught over the past century I know full well the limitations, nay weaknesses, of face-to-face instruction. I have studied school reforms aimed at transforming curriculum and instruction and found how some were fully implemented by teachers and ended up both stretching and entrancing students intellectually. But most did not.

Organization may be transformed such as the age-graded, eight-room grammar school replacing the rural one-room schoolhouse over a century ago. But that has been rare. for all of the rhetoric about multi-age groups in schools, project based teaching, and unleashed innovations of charter schools, the age-graded organization remains the mainstay of U.S. schooling nearly two centuries after the first one appeared in the 1940s in Quincy, Massachusetts. I have yet to hear anyone question this organization

Curriculum may be transformed as has occurred when the college preparatory curriculum that all high school students in the 1890s had to take and subsequently the differentiated curriculum (e.g., college prep, vocational/commercial. and general) that Progressives created in the comprehensive high school between the 1920s and 1940s. And a generation later only to have many of the courses mostly replaced by the New Math, New Biology and New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s. Then within a few decades, to have those courses once again re-engineered by reformers in the 1980s and 1990s with curriculum standards aimed at getting all students prepared for college. Not unlike the aim of those 1890s reformers who taught a bare fraction of 17 year-olds. Yes, curriculum has indeed changed again, again, and yet again.

And instruction has also changed. Transformed, no. But incremental changes, yes. And in that tradition of gradual change, the notion of “great” teachers continues to seize the imagination of students, parents, administrators, and, yes, teachers as well. That idea of “great teachers” persists. Yet the idea hides the conflicting traditions buried with the common belief that there are “great” teachers.

Consider that the majority of adults in the nation believe schools should test students to see that they prepare children with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in an increasingly competitive labor market and diverse community. In short, they embrace the dominant ideology of standards, testing, and accountability to prepare graduates for college and career. In the historical tradition of teachers transmitting knowledge and skills to students, Maurice Butler, William Taylor , Michele Forman, and other teachers push, prod, and inspire students to get high test scores, go to college, and succeed in life.

But for many other parents, practitioners, and researchers, a “great” teacher goes beyond high achievement. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the wellbeing of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia nurturing, inspiring, and connecting to students.

Because parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers vary in their beliefs about “great” teachers and different historical traditions of teaching, I put the word in quote marks. Especially now when remote instruction will be the dominant way of teaching in the coming months.

Even more troublesome is that the current concept of a “great” teacher squashes together two distinct aspects of teaching that need to be separated: the difference between “good” and “successful” teaching. They are not the same. And here is where the concept of “great” teachers gets even more complicated. Please stick with me here.

“Good” teaching is teaching that pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful” teaching, on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:

“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”

Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other. For the next few months, one has to imagine this occurring on screen with rapt students watching. It is hard for me to imagine.

For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and mixed together the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “great” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “great” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.

Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Most important is that policymakers have, again, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.

And during a pandemic when the main choice is on-screen delivery of content and skills, these distinctions matter but will be lost in the predictable hullabaloo over remote instruction (not remote “learning.”

Just as being “schooled” is very different from being “educated,” so too is face-to-face learning from “remote delivery of instruction.”

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The Poetry of Teaching

Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. It is aimed at the brain, not emotions.

Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel when in classrooms in ways that exposition cannot.

I am neither a poet nor an aspiring one. I offer these as ones that stirred me, that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.

The Hand

Mary Ruefle, 1996

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

Reprinted from Cold Pluto: by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press © by Mary Ruefle 1996.

Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School

Christopher Bursk

Because one day I grew so bored

with Lucretius, I fell in love

with the one object that seemed to be stationary,

the sleeping kid two rows up,

the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.

While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun

of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,

I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.

Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl

to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic

composition of smoke and dew,

and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,

the calves’ intriguing

resiliency, the integrity to the shank,

the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.

Light falling through blinds,

a bee flinging itself into a flower,

a seemingly infinite set of texts

to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms

who was given a name at birth,

Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,

his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters

seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly

of matter that had the goodness to settle

long enough to make a body

so fascinating it got me

through fifty-five minutes

of the nature of things.

From The Improbably Swervings of Atoms by Christopher Bursk © 2006. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Poem for Christian, My Student

Gail Mazur

He reminds me of someone I used to know,

but who? Before class,

he comes to my office to shmooze,

a thousand thousand pointless interesting

speculations. Irrepressible boy,

his assignments are rarely completed,

or actually started. This week, instead

of research in the stacks, he’s performing

with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.

Kids danced to his music

and stripped, he tells me gleefully,

high spirit of the street festival.

He’s the singer, of course—

why ask if he studied an instrument?

On the brink of graduating with

an engineering degree (not, it turned out,

his forte), he switched to English,

his second language. It’s hard to swallow

the bravura of his academic escapes

or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.

Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon

he’d picked on campus; once, a poem

about an elderly friend in New Delhi

who left him volumes of Tagore

and memories of avuncular conversation.

My encouragement makes him skittish—

it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics

of despair. And I remember myself

shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,

the prospect of effort-drudgery.

Success—a threat. A future, we figure,

of revision—yet what can the future be

but revision and repair? Now, on the brink

again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant

thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.

“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak

it up and write my paper in a weekend,”

he announces in the Honors office.

And, “I want to be a bum in daytime

and a reggae star at night!”

What could I give him from my life

or art that matters, how share

the desperate slumber of my early years,

the flashes of inspiration and passion

in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool

myself or anyone, no one could touch

me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy

Houston Monday, he appears at my door,

so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him

now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.

“Write a poem about me!” he commands,

and so I do.

Gail Mazur, “Poem for Christian, My Student” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Mrs. Kitchen

Ann Staley

Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment

Mrs. Kitchen

…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,

both working for the American Red Cross.

They returned to suburban Harrisburg

and began the next chapter of their lives.

Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.

Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,

which opened so you could hear recess voices,

and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.

We were seated, not in usual rows,

but in a square “u” of desks.

We were allowed to sit with whomever

we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted

by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).

Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.

She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.

She loved all of her students, but had,

I realized even then, a soft spot for me.

I didn’t understand why and still don’t.

Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,

she read aloud to us–from books

on the New York Times Bestseller list.

 Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.

Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,

believing that eight-year-olds could understand more

than the 1950s psychology books expected.

This was her great gift to her fortunate students.

We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,

then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.

One day when I’d finished my work early,

she sent me to the library, alone, saying,

 Get whatever book you want, Ann.

That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,

about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,

where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.

I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,

tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.

Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,

no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.

Jeans–never!

One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office

without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,

a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.

She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.

After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to

sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.

She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening

to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.

My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.

I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement

and began, in earnest, my professional life.

In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author

Teaching English from an Old Composition Book

By Gary Soto

My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,

Chip by which I must explain this Monday

Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.”

I’m not given much, these tired students,

Knuckle-wrapped from work as roofers,

Sour from scrubbing toilets and pedestal sinks.

I’m given this room with five windows,

A coffee machine, a piano with busted strings,

The music of how we feel as the sun falls,

Exhausted from keeping up.

                                       I stand at

The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,

Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.

By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic

Busybody in front. I say, “I get the coffee.”

I pick up a coffee cup and sip.

I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”

I bring an invisible fork to my mouth

And say, “I eat the chicken.”

Suddenly the class is alive—

Each one putting on hats and shoes,

Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers

And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.

At break I pass out cookies.

Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,

“Teacher, what is ‘tally-ho’?”

I look at the word in the composition book.

I raise my face to the bare bulb for a blind answer.

I stutter, then say, “Es como adelante.

Augustine smiles, then nudges a friend

In the next desk, now smarter by one word.

After the cookies are eaten,

We move ahead to prepositions—

“Under,” “over,” and “between,”

Useful words when la migra opens the doors

Of their idling vans.

At ten to nine, I’m tired of acting,

And they’re tired of their roles.

When class ends, I clap my hands of chalk dust,

And two students applaud, thinking it’s a new verb.

I tell them adelante,

And they pick up their old books.

They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”

As they head for the door.

Gary Soto, “Teaching English from an Old Composition Book” from Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Gary Soto

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Please Don’t Make Me Risk Getting Covid-19 to Teach Your Child (Rebecca Martinson)

Rebecca Martinson is a teacher at Northwest Career & Technical Academy in Mount Vernon, Wash. This appeared in the New York Times, July 18, 2020.

I write often about the inescapable personal and professional dilemmas that each educator (including myself) confronts as we traverse our daily lives. Martinson expresses very clearly the stark dilemma facing her (and the choice she would make) if her district directs her to return to the classroom for face-to-face instruction during this pandemic.

But the fact is that for Martinson and other teachers there is no right answer on what to do. During these difficult moments when we face such dilemmas about how much risk each of us is willing to take for ourselves and loved ones, no one can say with any confidence that X, Y, or Z is the correct thing to do. Yes, we have learned to protect ouselves to some degree by wearing masks, keeping physical distance, washing hands, etc. but beyond that no one knows for sure whether opening schools for children and their teachers will lead to more infections and some deaths. Sure, experts state probabilities but health risks remain. Individual choices must be made between staying free of the virus and jobs, between losing a year of schooling and not contracting Covid-19. Regardless of what political leaders tell us, the persistent unknowns about the virus make decisions about what to do, at best difficult, and at worst, paralyzing.

Read Rebecca Martinson’s reasoning behind her decision and how a few teachers responded to what she wrote.

Every day when I walk into work as a public-school teacher, I am prepared to take a bullet to save a child. In the age of school shootings, that’s what the job requires. But asking me to return to the classroom amid a pandemic and expose myself and my family to Covid-19 is like asking me to take that bullet home to my own family.

I won’t do it, and you shouldn’t want me to.

I became an educator after a career as a nurse. I teach medical science and introduction to nursing to 11th and 12th graders at a regional skills center that serves students from 22 different high schools in 13 different school districts.

My school district and school haven’t ruled out asking us return to in-person teaching in the fall. As careful and proactive as the administration has been when it comes to exploring plans to return to the classroom, nothing I have heard reassures me that I can safely teach in person.

More than 75 New York Department of Education employees have died of Covid-19. CDC guidelines say a return to traditional schooling with in-person classes would involve the “highest risk” for Covid-19 spread. But even in-person classes with students spaced apart and prevented from sharing materials are categorized as leading to “more risk.” The “lowest risk” for spread, according to the CDC, is virtual learning. I can’t understand why we would choose more risk than is necessary.

It’s impossible to hear about the way parties, day camps and church services have led to outbreaks this summer without worrying about what will happen if kids and adults gather in the fall. It scares me to think of how many more lives will be lost. It terrifies me that I could be among those who lose their lives.

I completely understand why parents and administrators want kids to return to school. When we first started online learning in March, it was miserable — pointless, even. Eventually, we established parameters, and I figured out how to teach kids across the northwest corner of Washington State virtually. During summer school, I’ve live-streamed my lectures into campgrounds, living rooms and bedrooms decorated with twinkly lights or festooned with posters. My virtual classroom includes pets and younger siblings.

Yes, it has been hard. Yesterday, as several really adorable teenage faces laughed through the computer screen at my use of a Tyrannosaurus Rex to explain the sympathetic nervous system and the feeling of impending doom it can cause, I thought, “I miss them.” I wished I was standing in my favorite place in the world, my classroom — because, frankly, that T-Rex analogy is much better when accompanied by my dino walk.

But it amazes me how fast students adapted to remote learning. I teach a particularly hands-on class. This summer, I’ve managed to teach them to type blood, to suture wounds and how the sensory system works. I’ve taught them all about infection control and epidemiology —  they can not only tell you that you should wear a mask, but they can show you how to do it correctly. I used to put my hand over students’ hands to guide them through certain lessons. Now I use a GoPro camera. It’s hard, but they are learning.

Most important, we — students and teacher — are safe.

If I’m asked to return to the classroom as the pandemic rages, I will have to walk away. As deeply as I love teaching, I will not risk spreading this virus in a way that could hurt a child or a family member of a child. While children make up a small proportion of U.S. coronavirus cases and they are less likely to become seriously ill than adults, the virus might be linked to “multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.” Plus, many of my students struggle with poverty or are from multigenerational households. I will not risk passing a virus to them that they might pass to their vulnerable loved ones. I won’t do it.

It isn’t fair to ask teachers to buy school supplies; we aren’t the government. But we do it anyway. It isn’t fair to ask us to stop a bullet; we aren’t soldiers. But we go to work every day knowing that if there’s a school shooting, we’ll die protecting our students.

But this is where I draw the line: It isn’t fair to ask me to be part of a massive, unnecessary science experiment. I am not a human research subject. I will not do it.

I have also included two responses from teachers in other parts of the country to Martinson’s op-ed. These appeared in the New York Times Letters section on July 24, 2020.

Hannah Duggan
New Orleans

To the Editor:

I am 62 years old and have been teaching in the New York City public schools for more than 20 years. I love my students, my job and my school. I believe that children belong in school, and I know that this period of quarantine has been incredibly hard for my sixth-grade students academically, emotionally and socially. I miss them every day.

I will not return to the classroom in September, which makes me extraordinarily sad. Unfortunately, I do not trust the system to take care of me (or my students). Our school’s ventilation system has not been working properly for more than 10 years despite custodians’ efforts to fix it. I spend many days dealing with students coming back from the bathroom to report that there is no soap to wash their hands.

Are you wondering if my school’s population is made up of Black and brown students? It is. Do you think these same scenarios exist in schools that are richer or whiter than my school? I do not know.

Nothing would make me happier than to be persuaded that I am incorrect — that it will be safe for a 62-year-old teacher to return to her classroom. But too much is at stake. I love my students, but I love my own children, my husband and my friends. I value the gift of my life. I will not look away from reality. This is my “teacher reality” right now.

Sharon Kramer
New York

To the Editor:

As a teacher, I very much appreciated Rebecca Martinson’s discussion of what is going through the minds of all teachers right now. Yet I can’t help but comment upon her great privilege in being able to write this.

Should she disagree with her state’s or district’s policies, she simply will not teach next year. What about teachers whose realities are much different? Single-parent teachers who rely on that income? Or my own situation, in which both partners are teachers in the same school district — in Florida! — where the governor has mandated in-class instruction five days a week? Where does that leave those of us who cannot give up our incomes?

Teachers all over the country are being put in the inconceivable position of having to choose between the health of their families and their livelihoods, and it is a terrible position indeed.

Anna Deckert
Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

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Dilemmas Facing Policymakers in Re-opening Schools

Here is the best summary that I have found thus far on the policy dilemmas facing school boards and superintendents in deciding how and when to re-open schools. It comes from a blog called Electoral Vote. Curated and written by two academics, one (Andrew Tanenbaum) an expert on statistics and public opinion polls and the other (Christopher Bates) a historian.

Every educational policy has one or more prized values embedded in it and when it comes to Covid-19, these values clash. Choices have to be made among sought-after values (health and safety of students; health and safety of faculty; giving parents choices of school options, limited resources to do efficiently what is essential, quality of educational experience, etc.). Sacrifices occur as policymakers with limited funds and knowledge of the virus’s spread and effects strike compromises (e.g., when to open, under what conditions) in deciding which values take precedence. Thus, the policy issues that authors of Electoral Vote have listed.

As part of his program of COVID-19 denial, Donald Trump has demanded that schools reopen in the fall, at risk of having their federal funding cut. His notion, ostensibly, is that if students go back to school, then parents can go back to full-time work. And if parents can go back to full-time work, then the economy will come zooming back to life, and he will ride that momentum to a reelection victory. Talk about your magical thinking.

In any event, the plan—if you can even call it that—is falling apart. On Monday, school officials in (liberal) Los Angeles County and (conservative) San Diego County both announced that they would begin the year with virtual instruction, and that they might eventually go to face-to-face, but they might not. Miami-Dade, which was specifically held out by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a model for other districts to follow as they reopen, is now tapping the breaks hard as Florida evolves into the nation’s #1 hotspot. Officials in Chicago, Houston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other locales have also made clear that, at most, students will attend school in person a couple of days a week in fall.

There is no question that, under pandemic-free circumstances, students are best served by in-person instruction. But the barriers that school districts face under current circumstances are substantial. We’ve noted some of them already, but let’s put together a fuller list, all in one spot:

  • Space: Most schools do not have enough space to allow students to sit in a classroom and maintain social distancing. They could (and presumably will) wear masks, but that’s not going to get it done when sharing space for 6-7 hours a day. And that’s before we talk about communal situations like cafeterias, hallways, locker rooms, and so forth.
  • Student Risk: It is true that younger people seem to be less likely to contract COVID-19, and less likely to have really bad outcomes if they do. On the other hand, consider the Fauci item above and think about what we did not know about COVID-19 six months ago, or even three months ago. Then consider what we might find out in the next six months. Maybe it turns out that the current thinking is entirely wrong, and that kids are just as vulnerable as anyone else. Maybe it turns out that certain populations of kids—say, those of a particular ethnicity, or who are lacking a particular gene, or who have an underlying health condition, or who live in a particular climate—are at risk. Do we want to turn the nation’s schools into the world’s largest virology experiment?
  • Faculty Risk: A major part of the reason that schools were shut down in the first place was to protect faculty, many of whom are senior citizens (or near-senior citizens) and/or have underlying health conditions that are known to put them at higher risk for COVID-19 (and for serious complications from the disease). One would hope that Americans would not wish to put these folks at risk. And regardless of what Americans think, the faculty themselves may not be willing to play Russian roulette. One survey, way back in May, revealed that 20% of teachers were unwilling to return to the classroom while the pandemic is underway. A more recent survey, covering only the city of Chicago, put the figure above…70%. At a time when resources and faculty time will be spread very thin, the loss of 20% of your labor force would be a backbreaker. Anything above that, and it gets even more grim.
  • Online Classes: Online classes are a very different beast than in-person classes, with different forms of presenting information, different kinds of assignments, etc. It is challenging for both students and teachers to shift back and forth. And it is nearly impossible for a teacher to simultaneously prepare and teach both sorts of classes. There just isn’t time. So, any model that involves “18 students will take the in-person version of the class, and 14 more will take the online version” is not plausible without additional faculty.
  • Educational Experience: Again, in-person is almost always better than online, all other things being equal. But if students have to wear masks, and if they can’t have recess time, and they have to eat lunch in shifts, and their teacher has to step out for a month due to illness to be replaced by whatever substitute the district can find, and so on and so forth, they are going to have a lousy educational experience and aren’t going to learn a whole lot. Further, even the most optimistic folks aren’t trying to say that no students will get sick. What happens if a student is incapacitated for a month, or six weeks, or longer? Can they plausibly catch up? Probably not, especially with teachers stretched too thin to give them one-on-one help. And if that’s the case, then what? Do they just go through the motions and repeat a year, lagging their cohort for the rest of their educational career? Do they take a long vacation and try again in Fall 2021?
  • Legalities: Nobody’s talking about this, as far as we can find. However, there are some significant legal issues that are likely to come into play here if schools proceed injudiciously. One of the biggies is that most faculty are protected by unions, and the unions can be expected to hold the line on safety, particularly for high-risk faculty. Imagine that a school district orders a 56-year-old asthmatic 8th grade teacher with hypertension back to work, and that teacher refuses for (justifiable) health reasons. Then what? If the school tries to fire the teacher (and probably even if they try to withhold pay for a year), they’ll be hit with a grievance, which takes even more time and money to fight, and still leaves the classroom unstaffed. Another big issue here is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives substantial protections to both faculty and students for a broad range of conditions, including underlying chronic health problems. If the parents of a fifth grader with a history of circulatory issues insists that their child simply cannot be exposed to COVID-19, and demands that they be accommodated, the school district would probably be compelled to offer them an alternate (online) mode of instruction. And then we’re back to the problem above, that one faculty member can’t plausibly create two versions of their course at the same time.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the major challenges that school districts are looking at right now, with roughly six weeks left until school resumes. No wonder Los Angeles and San Diego have already put their feet down. Anyone who knows anything about education (i.e., not Trump and DeVos) would recognize that these things cannot be dismissed with the wave of a hand, and that the best you can hope for is that districts work through them as best as is possible, adopting different (and flexible) solutions as dictated by local circumstances….

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Teaching Teenagers and Graduate Students

I offer my experience in teaching high schoolers and graduate students as an honest, perhaps naive, way of self-consciously reflecting on how I taught both during the same day for an entire semester. While the teaching that I describe occurred many years ago, I believe that those experiences apply to both teachers and professors now. Readers will have to decide whether my hunch lights a bulb for them.

I taught a high school economics class in the afternoon while teaching two graduate courses in education at Stanford University in the mornings. I kept a journal of what occurred in each and wrote of the similarities and differences I noticed across both settings. Based upon those experiences and analyses of my journals, here is what I found.

First, the differences. They are obvious insofar as student maturity and motivation, one is compulsory and the other is elective, the subject matter, and working conditions. The similarities, however, did surprise me as I taught 28 seniors Economics every day for 18 weeks and two graduate classes of 57 students in The History of School reform and 17 in Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction twice weekly.

  1. I faced identical teaching dilemmas in both high school and graduate courses. By dilemma I mean two conflicting values that I prized and wanted to see enacted in my classes but because of time constraints and other obligations had to strike a compromise that left me dissatisfied in order to complete the lesson. When I chose to straddle both values, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth and lashed myself momentarily at the end of the lesson.

The most common dilemma I faced was trying to cover subject matter while at the same time strengthening students’ conceptual understanding and deepening their reasoning skills. I placed a high value on in-depth study of facts and concepts as being necessary for students to use as an anchor to grasp other bodies of knowledge.

This value conflicted with another one I prized. Cultivating students’ grasp of reasoning skills to use the factual knowledge they acquired to solve problems and make decisions that will help them now and in later years. Both values are essential, I believe, but time constraints and the inevitable uncertainties of student-teacher interactions forced me to forge compromises in the teaching moment. This teaching dilemma came into play constantly in my high school and graduate courses.

An economics lesson on supply and demand curves that I taught to high school seniors, for example, involved their making graphs in their notebooks, my explaining some common errors in thinking about the concept of supply-and-demand, and their applying what they learned to rising and falling gas prices and the cost of Air Jordan sneakers.

I had planned what I thought was enough content for a 50-minute class yet here I was with 10 minutes to go in the period and I could see some students’ glazed eyes and others with heads on desk signaling that about half of the class was lost in grasping supply-and-demand. Yet I had barely gotten through explaining a few of the key points and had not even introduced examples with which they were familiar. I had to make a decision: should I plow through the content or split the class to work with those who appeared lost and let the other half who seemed to have understood the concept move on to the examples that were on the worksheet I had prepared.

I decided to compromise. I split the class and worked until bell rang. Not the first nor last time I had to make such a choice.

The same thing occurred for one of the graduate classes I had taught earlier in the day. In a large group discussion, we had worked our way through an article written by historian of education David Tyack on compulsory attendance laws in the late-19th century as viewed from different disciplinary lens used by economists, sociologists, political scientists, and organizational theorists. Because these “ways of seeing” is a central concept in this course on the history of school reform that both David and I taught, I had to make sure that the students understood what a “way of seeing,” was, how Tyack applied it to compulsory attendance laws, and which perspectives students preferred. Also, all of this discussion had to be completed now since the next two-hour session two days later moved onto another subject.

So I was a clock-watcher as the discussion unfolded. I asked questions on the Tyack article. Students asked questions. Examples were given. Different ideas were explored. But time was running out. Fifteen minutes were left in the class and I was uncertain as to whether half or two-thirds of the class understood “ways of seeing” and could apply it.

I had to make a choice. Should I plow through and repeat the main points as students took notes? Should I give an example of a current reform such as national curriculum standards and ask the graduate students to apply one of the “ways of seeing” to the reform? Or should I just let the discussion go on until the end of class?

So I decided in a split-second what to do. I assigned three students who had contributed to the discussion to summarize what the main points of this article and discussion were at the beginning of the next class. And I then asked everyone in class to write for a few minutes on a clean sheet of paper–without their names–what they learned from the article and discussion about “ways of seeing.” I asked them to include what they do not yet understand and questions they have. I collected their unsigned papers.

Using their responses, at the next class I would have a better sense of what they got, what was missing, and what I had to re-teach about “ways of seeing.”

The coverage vs. understanding dilemma continues to pinch me whenever I taught youth and adults.

2. Diversity of students at both levels require constant calibration in teaching practices. I had expected the high school class to be more diverse in academic achievement, motivation, socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity than my graduate classes. After all, everyone who wanted to graduate high school had to take economics. And the graduate courses were elective.

So I adapted my teaching to make sure that I had something in every lesson that appealed to one-third of the high school students, mostly–but not all–white students from middle- and upper-middle class families who took Advanced Placement courses and the other two-thirds, mostly–but not all–minority from middle and low-income Latino and Black families who ranged from barely being able to read text and write an essay to those who handled both tasks very well. Nearly all of these low-income and minority students planned to go to college. Because of this mix, I just didn’t know for sure how the lesson I planned would unfold.

Every day as I began the sixth period high school class–yes, after lunch, with a hearty “good afternoon” and my lesson plan engraved on my brow, it was up for grabs as to which way the class would go. Sure I had a lesson but I had learned that I had to improvise, improvise, improvise as the clock hand moved from 1:24 to 2:14, keeping in mind constantly to whom I would address tough, moderate, and easy questions. Shifting activities to keep some academically sharp students from putting their heads on their desks and again, and starting different ones to sustain the interest of those left out of the discussion because it was too abstract or removed from their immediate interests. This juggling of content, questions, and activities went on for fifty minutes.

What I hadn’t expected or even thought about until I taught at both levels, however, was that the range of academic skills, experiences, ethnicities, motivation, and age among my graduate students varied as much. Some students told me privately during office hours that they had no experience as teachers and were intimidated in the large group discussions about speaking up because they lacked the classroom stories that classmates told. Other students came to me after the two hour class and asked me why I didn’t focus more on different kinds of research studies on school reform since they were doctoral students and wanted to see how a range of scholars engaged in inquiry. Then even other students came to my office hours to explain again concepts we had covered in class or ask about lines of research they wanted to explore in the history of reform.

So here I was for two hours, twice a week with over 50 graduate students, some seeking a master’s degree and others a doctorate, drawn from programs preparing researchers and practitioners, again with a lesson plan embedded in frontal cortex, managing questions and activities not unlike what I did in the afternoon with my high school seniors. I hadn’t seen such graduate classroom diversity in a sharp light until I traveled the four miles between campus and the high school.

Why the Similarities?

On reflection, these similarities (and there are others) should come as no surprise since the fundamental teaching roles in both settings are the same: A subject matter specialist communicating knowledge, judging students’ responses and the quality of what they learned, and acting as a model of how students might inquire, think, and act as adults and professionals.

Moreover the act of teaching within organizations erects expectations that cross institutional boundaries even two that seem so unlikely as high schools and universities. Yet these similarities startled me for the settings and the social status attached to each are so different than I had imagined.

Are these ties that I found binding together professors and high school teachers as unlikely colleagues? Perhaps. After all, I could be criticized for making too much out of one experience. It is, as academics would say, an N of 1. At best an anecdote. Little data. How much can one generalize?

Readers will have to judge the worth of what I extracted from one experience of self-experimentation in teaching across institutional boundaries.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, higher education, how teachers teach

Revisiting Predictions On Technology in Classrooms

My record on predictions is abysmal. If I get half of the forecasts I make correct, I puff out my chest. Yet humans are wired to speculate about the future, particularly when times are uncertain. Considering the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, nearly everything has become uncertain about the next year and for sure, the next five years. So like most Americans I take a deep breath and try to look around the corner before I exhale.

But I am not going to make any predictions about the effects of Covid-19 (tune in later because I am, well, hard-wired to predict). for this post, I look back on predictions I made a decade ago amid the surge of technology spilling over U.S. classrooms. Here is what I wrote in 2010 looking ahead to 2020.

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

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

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

HANDHELDS

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

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

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

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

ONLINE COURSES

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

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

So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.” [Ah, if I could only have forecasted Covid-19 and the subsequent swooning embrace of remote learning, I would be named a seer.]

*********************

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

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

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

As I write this in early June, we are in the midst of Covid-19 with schools and libraries closed. Current reports are that re-opening will be slow and gradual until most Americans are vaccinated. Predictions of a second wave of infections are rampant as gradual re-openings occur. Uncertainty reigns. Predictions proliferate.

The future as it looked to me in 2010 is now. Handhelds and online learning have become as common as dandelions. Yet predictions that schooling will be transformed as a result of Covid-19 abound.

Perhaps such reforms will occur. But I do not think so.

Surely, the digital inequality that became apparent at the beginning of the pandemic when schools enrolling low-income minority students were shut down will be reduced. Just as surely, there will be incrementally more online lessons in the immediate future. But some things won’t change.

The age-graded school and the regularities of teaching and learning that goes by the nickname “grammar of schooling” will continue as is.

Oops! Sorry, I have again slipped into predicting. No more for now.

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Filed under how teachers teach, technology use