Doing Well By Doing Good: For-Profit Schools

For all of the three-decade hype about how business practices applied to K-12 schools will make them more efficient and high performing, a short hop and skip through the past half-century of for-profit companies failing in the education market might illustrate how applying market-driven practices to improve schools and make money  at the same time is tough for even shrewd entrepreneurs.

The argument that for-profit schools cannot succeed because they seek to make money out of the public coffer is not one I make here. There are such “good” schools and they  do thrive (see here and here). Keep in mind that other institutions entwine for-profits with public operations such as the space program, hospitals, prisons, and transportation. Government and profit-driven companies have  worked together for decades.

And that is why the historical record of businesses contracting with public school authorities is one that should be known well by the current generation of school reformers.

In 1969, Behavioral Research Laboratory, contracted with the largely black Gary (IN) district to raise test scores in reading and math in the Banneker elementary school. They failed. BRL is no more.

Dorsett Educational Systems in 1970-1971 took over a school in Texarkana (AR) contracting to raise 350 children one grade level in reading and math after 80 hours of instruction. They failed. DES is no more.

In 1970, Westinghouse Learning Systems contracted with Gilroy (CA) to take over the Eliot elementary school to raise test scores in reading and math. They failed. WLS is no more.

I could give many more examples of for-profit corporations seeking to make money from operating schools  through performance contracting when districts were flush with federal funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act  in the late-1960s and early 1970s–but I won’t. Failure in doing what seemed to be a fairly straightforward job–raise student test scores–proved unattainable by some of the best and brightest business leaders of the day.

These corporations tripped badly and eventually  disappeared or were swallowed by larger corporations.  In the late-1960s and early 1970s, the education market was ripe for money-making ventures to raise students’ low test scores but even then the school market proved unforgiving for those who believed that there were easy profits to be made by simply applying business efficiency and effectiveness principles to teaching and learning.

CEOs and investors learned the hard way that what worked in companies to make  silicon chips, crank out case after case of soda, and create brand-new cereals flopped when managers tried to turn low-performing students around and get higher test scores.

That was then. What about the recent past when start-ups, media conglomerates, and high-tech companies compete for the education dollar? The education market has gotten larger since the 1990s with charter schools, vouchers, and portfolios of alternative school in urban districts. Moreover, with the last decade’s Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind monies available, there were profits to be made. Nonetheless, corporate failures have  piled up.

Consider Minnesota-based Education Alternatives Inc. a fast rising star in the for-profit sector in the early 1990s. They managed schools in Hartford (CT) and nine Baltimore (MD) schools under a $133 million contract. EAI filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

How about Edison Inc.? Entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools that eventually nose-dived–founded the Edison project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school could and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to manage scores of schools but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here). Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year. Dissatisfied with Edison, districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  they were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services and other products districts wanted. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company again into a private one.

And then there is K-12 Inc., a for-profit company, that pulled in over $800 million in 2013 through selling online courses and curriculum, software, and blended programs to private and public schools. K-12 Inc also own cyber charter schools.

Recently, investigations have shown how K-12 Inc. squeezed money out of each of their operations to give investors a high rate of return on their shares.  Whether K-12 Inc. will weather the current storm and dip in stock price, I do not know. But such a major player in the school reform business sliding into bad times reminds me of what occurred nearly a half-century ago with performance contracting.

Amplify (billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s addition to his media empire) dove into the educational market with sky-high promises of new curricula loaded on their tablets given free to schools. In 2015, Murdoch dumped Amplify.

Or consider Leapfrog , an education-entertainment company that soared when it opened for business in 2002 but over a decade later, its stock had fallen to a dollar a share and the New York Stock Exchange threatened to de-list the company.

How about another billionaire, Ronald Perelman, who shut down his K–12 educational-technology company, GlobalScholar, after spending $135 million. He saw that the software was faulty and a “mirage.”

And what about those for-profit cyber charter schools? Such virtual schools in Pennsylvania and Michigan have made much money and drawn considerable criticism for their low student outcomes (see here and here).

So what’s the point here? Sure, there is money to be made in the education market. After all, for decades big and small companies have sold textbooks, classroom furniture, transportation, low- and high-tech equipment from interactive white board to  professional development. They have profited from providing basic products and services to this stable market. And there are for-profit corporations that run schools, charter and non-charter, that have long waiting lists. But the numbers are quite small. It is very hard–I repeat, very hard– to turnaround a failing school or create a new school that parents clamor to send their children. Failures outnumber successes time and again.

Today profit-driven companies, and others like them (e.g., Apple’s iPads, Google’s Chromebooks and educational software start-ups) do not take over or create schools or districts. They provide services and products for already existing agencies running schools, not the tough business of turning failing ones around or starting brand new ones. That is a sinkhole that many companies eager to turn a profit have slipped into in the past and are primed to do so now.

Schools are complex institutions, entrepreneurs have discovered time and again. Just as they have discovered that doing good by doing well with schools is easier said than done.


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What I Learned about Computers and Paper in My Classroom (Steve Cannici)

Steve Cannici introduces himself:

“Originally from northern New Jersey, I earned my undergraduate degree from the University of Rhode Island as a double major in secondary education/chemistry. From there, I was offered a position at Middlebridge School in RI. Middlebridge has been built from the ground up to work with students diagnosed with learning disabilities. It was their first year in existence and they needed a science teacher. I was the first and only science teacher there for the first four years. Over the past eight years, in my role as a science teacher, I’ve helped build the school from 21 students to 75. In the summer of 2016 I completed my Master’s degree through Montana State University, a Master of Science in Science Education (MSSE).”

For readers who wish to contact Steve to ask questions, his email is:

I teach at the Middlebridge School in Rhode Island and work with a unique population. All are high school students diagnosed with some type of learning difference. Their areas of challenge are numerous and include time management skills, organization, cause and effect relationships, and almost anything you can imagine related to executive function skills.

So I decided we should run a science fair with them every year.

The same problems showed up year-after-year as I ran the project with them. Students frequently lost notes, could not keep track of all the moving parts associated with designing a science experiment, procedure were very general if they got completed. So, I designed a series of worksheets for them to work through one-at-a-time to help step them through the planning process, essentially following a version of the scientific method.

That worked pretty well for a while! Students still lost stuff and had trouble organizing, but they got the projects done and were often pretty proud of their work and themselves. But, on my side, I was collecting these mounds of paper, giving feedback, organizing them, carrying them back-and-forth between school and home, it was messy. I thought there had to be a better way, which is when I started trying to work out a solution using technology with the hopes of reducing all the paper. This is where my master’s degree project came in. I attempted to break the process down and design a system that would work for both the student and the teacher using existing technology solutions.

First, I attempted to define what the action steps were that students and myself needed to go through before an assignment was deemed “completed”.  I was able to describe these steps for short-term (classwork or homework, essentially) and long-term assignments (like a science fair). I called it the “workflow” and it consisted of seven steps (steps contained within parentheses are action steps that students are responsible for).

distribute -> (store -> retrieve -> produce output -> submit) -> generate feedback -> return feedback

Here, the workflow is presented linearly. However, it does not need to be executed linearly, which is what allows the process to  be applicable to long term assignments as well. The long-term assignments are what I am more interested in, since my students really tend to have challenges there.

I took a longitudinal approach, so there were four phases that stretched across several months. These phases alternated between students using the technology solutions I mentioned (Google classroom to manage distribution and submitting of assignments, Google Docs to produce output, and Google Drive to store and retrieve assignments) and just using worksheets, binders, pencil, lined paper, etc. to work through assignments. The treatment was applied during phases one and three.

I created my own instruments. So, similar to Larry’s, mine have not been tested for validity or reliability. I created a survey to gather information on student attitudes towards the use of a computer for work completion in class. It also assessed student attitudes towards use of a pencil and paper. In addition, I created a form to track the methods that students were using to organize artifacts within Google Drive and within their binders during the separate phases. This form also helped me time how long it took students to retrieve their work from the storage location the artifact happened to be in.

I’ll spare people the numbers, but can provide the actual paper if any one is really interested. It turned out that students were able to retrieve artifacts more frequently and more quickly compared to when they had to use a computer, accessing Google Drive for instance. It wasn’t even close either. Artifacts from a binder were retrieved in seconds compared to minutes with Google Drive (if they were retrieved at all). Here’s the kicker, the survey results showed that most students preferred using the computer and felt they worked more efficiently with it. Go figure…

A few things to consider for sure…I, in no way, consider this a perfect study. There are some interesting tidbits that emerged if anybody wants to read the full paper.

For the start of this year, I’ve been using paper handouts. Students are working really well with them. But, I still have that dream of a system that just replaces all the paper and works really well. Mostly, it should make LESS work for the teacher and students as opposed to MORE, which is what most technology seems to be doing these days.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Teaching 8th Grade Science: Technology Integration

The hour-long science class at Jordan Middle School* that I observed October 13, 2016 began with the daily video announcements produced by Jordan students about the weather, upcoming events, and a segment on the new bike lanes around the school including an interview with an adult crossing guard. I looked around the room and saw that most students were attentive and enjoyed seeing classmates doing announcements.

After the announcements, Erica Goldsworthy launched the lesson for the day. She has taught six years at Jordan and, as she told me, “ I have the hang of it now.”

There are 24 eighth graders sitting four to five students at joined tables facing one another. On each combined table sits a cup filled with markers, colored pencils, and rulers.

erica room.jpgerica agenda.jpg

erica poster.jpg

Wearing a gray sweater over knitted white blouse and dark slacks, Goldsworthy directs students’ attention to the slide on the interactive whiteboard (IWB):

Bell work: day 3

1.Do you think gas molecules move differently if they are cold or hot? Explain your answer.

  1. What is the phase change from solid to gas called?
  1. When does thermal apply in our phase change cartoons/story?

As I scan the class, I see most students writing answers to the questions in their notebooks. A special education teacher is also in the room for the half-dozen students with disabilities. She goes from table to table to see how these mainstreamed students are doing on the questions.

After five minutes, Goldsworthy begins review of student answers to questions, calling on students who raise their hands by name.

On the first question about hot and cold molecules moving differently, one 8th grader says hot molecules move faster and gives as his reason kinetic energy. Teacher explains difference between thermal and kinetic energies and compliments student—“great answer, Michael.”

After finishing the Bell Work questions, teacher says:

“I am going to segue into our storyboard conversation—I checked off your storyboards—you need to double-check—look at your rubrics that I passed out on your tables”

Goldsworthy and her next-door colleague have teamed up in designing a “Phase Change Project” to understand how a solid changes into a liquid and then into a gas (e.g., ice, water, vapor). Concepts of thermal and kinetic energy are central in explaining how solids go to liquids and then gases (see here for slides that elaborate on the project).

The project requires each student to:

Create a cartoon or story about a substance going through a series of phase changes (solid to liquid to gas) to show how energy affects the phase that substance is in.

They are into day 3 of the project. The teachers have each day’s work broken down into a series of activities in which students work. The class has been working on drafting their storyboards and cartoons by hand and today they will complete a draft of storyboard, decide whether to do a final copy by hand, use a computer to type their text and add cartoon panels and even go further by making a video out of cartoon they have created. These student decisions are governed, in part, by the categories in the rubric called “above and beyond.”  See below.**

Above and Beyond

Meeting Requirement – Computer generated cartoons.

Above – Paper or computer generated cartoons with YOUR OWN pictures (either computer generated or hand-drawn).

Beyond – Creating a video that includes voice and your own pictures.

*All categories must meet all requirements listed*

Goldsworthy is ready to have the class working for the rest of the period on the project. Students vary in what stage they are in completing the project; some are drafting their storyboard; others are typing in text and putting their cartoon on the computer and some are figuring out how to do a video.

Before launching into a work session, Goldsworthy says: “Be mindful how you are completing your work” She gives example of how to make project look professional by using a ruler. She gives another example by pointing to student and saying if “Leo wanted to make a stop/motion video of his cartoon, he can do it on the computer.” She finishes by saying: “If you are not sure of what meets a standard check with us. Tomorrow we have Science Friday.

“OK, get started,” Goldsworthy says.

Students go to cart to get a iPad or laptop and return to their table. Students confer with one another and look at each other’s draft of storyboard, cartoon figures in each box and after a bit of shushing from teacher, get down to work. Teacher circulates through room asking and answering questions from individual students.

I look around the room and see all students writing, showing their storyboard to table-mates, or tapping away on their device. Low-level murmuring envelops the class. I do not see anyone off-task.

I go around to various tables asking students to see their storyboards. One student showed me her storyboard cooking with coconut oil . Then she showed me the final product of cartoon panels that she was typing into her iPad. After she finished, she told me, she would compare her cartoon of cooking oil as it went from one phase to another, to the standards in the rubric in assessing her work to see what she needs to add or amend before turning it in.

Another student is working on final storyboard that he will turn in. It is a one-foot square white laminated board showing how a solid—ice—turns to water and then evaporates. He is going to go “above and beyond” by making a video. He has looked at the rubric and wants the highest grade the teacher can give.

As I look around the room, there is a noticeable quiet, a purposeful silence with a few murmurs from students showing one another what they are doing. Many students have pencils and colored markers in hand; others are tapping away on devices (at least half of the class is working in laptops or tablets. Here is a combination of low- and high tools in use for this teacher-chosen project. Students easily shift back and forth between paper, iPads, and storyboards. I see one 8th grader holding an iPad in his left hand and with the right hand draws with colored markers on his laminated story board what he sees on the device.

The teacher announces that: “You have 20 more minutes left in class.”

Both Goldsworthy and the special education teacher move from table to table inquiring of each student if he or she needs help or materials and answering questions.

Some students confer with one another, others laugh and speak softly in showing their storyboards. A few go to Goldsworthy to ask questions.

I see one student working on an iPad and ask him what his storyboard is. He shows me a series of cartoon panels of a man—solid—who goes to a sauna and turns into a liquid. He then goes to a doctor who lowers his temperature to zero degrees so that the man can return to his solid state.

At this point, Goldsworthy tells the class, “we have 3 minutes so it is time to clean up. Put away your rulers, colored pencils. We will work on this tomorrow.

Students with devices return them to the cart. Others pick up paper off the floor and put rulers back into cups on the table. In a few moments the whispering turns into open talking among students. The teacher says “if you are cleaned up please be quiet in your seats.

Buzzer sounds but the teacher doesn’t release students. They wait until she looks around to see that chairs have been returned to their places at the tables and the floors under the table are clean. Teacher lets students go to their 15-minute brunch recess and wishes them a good rest of the day.


* Jordan Middle School is one of three 6th through 8th grade schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The school (2015) has over 1100 students of whom 52 percent are white. The largest minority is Asian (30 percent); Latino (9); African American (3); multi-racial (5). Seven percent of the school is classified as “disadvantaged”, meaning that they are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Five percent are English Language Learners and 11 percent are classified as special education.

On state test in language arts, Jordan students score almost twice as high as students across the state in meeting or exceeding state standards and in math, nearly two and half times more that state figure in meeting state standards (see here)

** I asked Goldsworthy about the rubric and the “above and beyond” category. She told me that her students felt that if they completed the work as assigned they should get an A+ . The teacher felt that completing the work minimally was satisfactory, a C. So she developed in the rubric that meeting the standards was adequate but not “above and beyond,” work that merited the highest grades. She then laid out those specifications.


Filed under how teachers teach, raising children, technology, technology use, Uncategorized

Teaching Geometry at Mountain View High School*: Technology Integration

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

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

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

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


–Blue Angels tomorrow at lunch

–Review homework

–Proofs -big picture

–IXL-C 8

BD clssrm.jpg

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

2.6 Prove Statements about segments and angles

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

Givens: TS-CF


Prove ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

BD WB problem.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

**BYOD began two years ago in the District.

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

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

Teaching Science at Jordan Middle School: Joint Planning and Technology Integration

Team planning can be mandated by a principal or can happen naturally between like-minded teachers. At Jordan Middle School*, two science teachers in rooms adjacent to one another began slowly but steadily a few years ago to plan units of instruction for their 8th graders. A generation apart in age, these two teachers, one in her sixth year at Jordan, and Sue Pound, a New Zealand native and late-comer to teaching–she is in her 18th year of teaching–have planned units together.  The team has planned many units together including the lessons I observed two consecutive days. In connecting rooms, I saw both teachers, come and go into each other’s rooms, checking on students and materials for their jointly prepared lessons.

The state-approved physical science text they have for their students is outdated and soon to be obsolete with the state-approved Next Generation Science Standards for grades 5-8. These new standards concentrate on integrating concepts across science disciplines rather than content of each subject as in physical science, a course that both teachers have been teaching for years. The jointly-planned unit project is on Phase Changes and what I describe here is consistent with these new standards.

These two teachers, then, have managed over time to cobble together readings, worksheets, exercises, and examples gotten from many sources including colleagues and the Internet, an alternative text that would be consistent with the new science standards,

The hour-long lesson I observed Sue Pound teach on October 15, 2016 was on the jointly-planned project about Phase Changes of solids, liquids and gases.

The spacious room is furnished like her team-mate’s: tables seating 3-5 students facing one another with containers of rulers, colored pencils, and markers distributed on counter tops in front and back of room.

Pound room Jordan.jpg

By the time the buzzer sounds to begin class, 19 eighth graders are in their seats. Pound taps her laptop and two Jordan students come on-screen to make announcements for the day, give a weather report, and tell Jordan students of upcoming events.

“Talking needs to stop to hear announcements,” Pound says. Quiet descends for a few moments until these 14 year-olds recognize classmates on the screen making announcements. Laughter breaks out and the class looks at and listens to Jordan students.

After the video ends, Pound puts up a slide on an interactive whiteboard (IWB) showing the day’s agenda—“Work on Phase Change Project and Science Friday”and “Bell Work” questions. Noise in classroom leads teacher to say, “All eyes on me,” and begins to count 3, 2, 1. The class hushes.

She tells students to have their Phase Changes Worksheet on the table for her to check and then points to slide saying that for the next few minutes they are to write out answers to the Bell Work” questions.

Pound Jordan.jpg

On p. 44 (refers to notebook that she and colleague have created for every student in place of outdated textbook)

1.What is the difference between boiling and evaporation? Explain and give examples

2.What happens to molecules when they undergo a change from liquids to solids?

Teacher walks around room glancing at homework students show her; she stamps each one. There is also a special education teacher, wearing a head scarf and long dress, who works with the mainstreamed students in the room to see if they have done their homework and answer any of their questions.

As a I look around the room, I see nearly all students working on questions with much whispering and talking. Pound stops her stamping of worksheets and says: “Focus on the questions.” Class gets quiet.

After a few minutes, the teacher goes around to each table and finds out how many have answered the two questions.

After Pound is satisfied that nearly all students have finished, she asks the class:

“What is difference between boiling and evaporation?” Students raise hands and she calls on each one. At no point does she say whether the answer is correct or incorrect. She listens to answers and elaborates on a few of the student responses. Then she asks the class: “What other things that have not been mentioned did you write down?” A few raise their hands to answer. She extends a few of the students’ answers such as: “When we talk about vaporization it means when liquid turns to gas.” Pound gives examples of hot springs as instance of geothermal energy.

Teacher turns to second question about hot and cold molecules and listens to student answers, again letting students’ answers stand on their own legs, permitting some to build their answers on what class-mates say. She asks if there are any other questions or comments on these Bell Work questions. No one raises hand.

At this point, Pound lays out in detail what the students will be doing for the rest of the period combined with a warning. “If you take the time to chit-chat you won’t need the extra day for your project. I will check at the end of the period. Show me that you are using the time well.” She shows slide of “Above and Beyond” from rubric that she and colleague had created. “Any questions?” None from the class.

She tells students to get devices from carts, rulers, markers, etc. “OK, let’s get to work.”

Students leave their seats to go to different parts of the room to get materials for their project. Eight students get devices from the cart. Students settle into working at their table, occasionally conferring with or showing class-mate what they are doing. Pound walks around to each table and asks if there any questions, probes at what some students are doing, and compliments a few.

I go around and check with 17 students where they are in the project. All have storyboards in various stages. Some have written out text; some have already drawn cartoons; and a few are considering making an iMovie. All but one student is using ice as the example of moving from solid to liquid to gas.

One student did not have a storyboard; she had her head down on the desk. She spoke to Pound and then returned to her desk. Teacher tells me after class that student was very discouraged since she discovered that her storyboard and how it should look was not what the teacher had directed the class to do. The student was blue and annoyed with herself but did promise the teacher to work on it later.

I look across the room and see that all students are working. Even the one who had laid her head down on the table was looking at her neighbor’s storyboard.

Pound walks around to each table to see what students are doing, asking questions of students and giving encouragement: “Terri, how’s it coming?,” she asks one student.

Two other science teachers come into room. Pound confers with her co-planner and the other teacher picks up some materials he needs for a lesson.

Pound interrupts the class and says that they have a few minutes left and it is time to logout from computers, return them to cart, take rulers and markers back to their containers and pick up paper off the floor around tables. She asks how many students need more time to work on project on Monday. Many students nod and a few yell out “yes.” Pound says she can give students Monday to continue working on project.

The buzzer sounds. Teacher checks each table and floor beneath it and then excuses class.


* Jordan Middle School is one of three 6th through 8th grade middle schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The school (2015) has over 1100 students of whom 52 percent are white. The largest minority is Asian (30 percent); Latino (9); African American (3); multi-racial (5). Seven percent of the school is classified as “disadvantaged,” meaning that they are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Five percent are English Language Learners and 11 percent are classified as special education.

On state test in language arts, Jordan students score almost twice as high as students across the state in meeting or exceeding state standards and in math, nearly two and half times more that state figure in meeting state standards.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Teaching Literature to 7th Graders: Technology Integration

Teaching 13 year-olds takes special talents and skills. Energetic, constantly moving around, jabbing, joshing, and dozens of other behaviors are natural for these boys and girls. Teaching a 45-minute lesson on John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, then, is no easy task. And that is what faces John DiCosmo this October morning when I observe this lesson. This particular class, the teacher calls “boisterous.”

DiCosmo, an experienced teacher who has taught nearly a decade and is in his second year at Terman Middle School* is in his mid-30s. He wears a brown sport coat over a checkered red and white shirt with a slate blue tie and dark slacks. He, too, is in constant motion as he works through a series of activities with his 25 students. An instructional aide is in the room who works with about a half-dozen special education students going through the different activities that DiCosmo has planned.

As students enter the large room and put their backpacks on tables, they go to bins in the back of the room and take copies of The Pearl and then go to a cart to grab a Macbook Laptop.  There is a word wall on one side and admonitions on the bulletin boards and walls.



On the interactive white board (IWB), there is a “warm up” question that the teacher directs students’ attention toward: What would you do if you found a treasure of millions in cash free and clear. How would your life change?

The bell sounds and the period begins.

Students type in their answers and their answers appear on the IWB (no names attached to their answers). As DiCosmo scrolls through student responses—they are using the software called Padlet, he asks: “What’s the pattern here in the class’s answers? Students raise hands and some yell out. He calls on students. He jots down on the whiteboard what students see as patterns in their answers: buying lots of things; giving to charity.

Then the teacher asks: “Why are we asking this question?” Some students guess that the book will be about finding a treasure. After listening to student responses, DiCosmo says that he has produced a video trailer summarizing and highlighting points in the story. He tells me later that one of the requirements for the unit on The Pearl is for students to produce their own trailers for books they have selected. And he wanted students to see what a trailer could look like.

Teacher shows the trailer in which he has enlisted other teachers on his 7th grade team to play the parts of Kino, Juana, the doctor, etc. who live in a poor Mexican village where the men dive for pearls and sell them to buyers to support their families. Students laugh loudly when they recognize their teachers.

After the trailer is finished, teacher asks the class: “What questions do you have about the book’s early chapters (creating your own book trailer)? ” Students type in their questions and they appear on the IWB.

DiCosmo notes the rising noise as some students talk loudly to table-mates. He says “If you are goofing around, I will kick your comment off the screen.” Some students shush the others; class quiets down noticeably.

Teacher goes over student questions that show up on IWB. He then directs the class to look at the worksheet he has prepared about the characters introduced in the first chapter and asks the class to put in key quotes from the text. They will be hearing a narrator read the first chapter. He hands out post-its so students can write notes that can be later transferred to the worksheet they have in front of them.

He asks students to follow the professional narrator as he reads the text. Take notes, and raise questions, he says. DiCosmo turns on the audio and the reader begins chapter 1.

I scan the class and all students have their books open and appear to be reading along as the narrator reads text. A few take notes on their post-its. The reader mentions “songs” and DiCosmo pauses the audio and asks: “What are the songs here?” Teacher calls on students whether they have their hand up or not. To a few answers, he says, “good.” He tells students that “the song of evil” will return. The narrator resumes and reads section where the scorpion stings the infant Coyotito and Kino and Juana fear that the child will die. Students appear engaged in listening and reading along. Not a murmur in the room.

Kino and Juana take Coyotito to the village doctor who lives in a large house with a servant. After knocking on the heavy wooden door, the servant sees who is there and tells the doctor that a peasant, his wife, and an infant stung by a scorpion along with other villagers are at the door asking for help. The doctor tells the servant that since they do not have any money, to tell him that he is away. The servant does so. In anger, Kino smashes his fist into the door splitting his knuckles and bloodying himself. Chapter 1 ends.

DiCosmo stops the audio and asks students to write down one reaction they have to the end of the chapter. I look around and see students writing on post-its and tapping away on their devices.

Wall phone in classroom rings and teacher takes the call, says a few words and hangs up.

DiCosmo then asks if students have posted their reaction to end of chapter 1. Looking around the room he sees that many, but not all, are nodding their heads. He then segues to final activity of the period.

Using the game-based software Kahoot, DiCosmo gets students to enter the pin (he has listed it on a slide) to access the game. The point of this game is to review word roots including prefixes and suffixes for a quiz next week. Students open their devices to the program and click to the slide on their screen that is exactly like the one showing on the screen in front of the room. This is a timed exercise with 21 questions. Teacher reminds students that they need to log in before they can record their answer to each question.

A bouncy tune starts and students go over a root or prefix/suffix (e.g., chrono-, geo-,hydra- ) with four choices listed from which to choose. Students have played this game often and they are excited. A number are moving their bodies to and fro in time with the snappy melody. They want to be the fastest to answer and win. Eight of the 13 year-olds can’t sit still and they go to the back of the room and stand over a table eager to punch a key for the correct answer. A countdown of how many seconds are left to complete each question on a root word shows on screen. As students tap in their answers, the number of students who submitted answers shows up on IWB until nearly all students have submitted their answers.

DiCosmo clicks a key and a bar chart of the students’ responses appears on the front screen (with no names) showing how many students have picked the correct answer and how many erred. Then he displays a scoreboard showing the top five students (with first names) who are the fastest and most accurate in choosing answers. Students applaud when the scoreboard reveals who is in the lead or whether the lead has changed.

After finishing the competitive game, DiCosmo gives raffle tickets to the five winners; every Friday, the teacher raffles off prizes (e.g., candy, the chance to move your seat elsewhere in the class, etc.).

With only a few minutes left in the period, the teacher asks students to log off and return the device to a cart. He reminds students about homework due next class and tells students to post one “meaningful comment, question, or reply to Chapter 1.”

Buzzer goes off and students exit the class.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Teaching American Literature at Mountain View High School: Technology Integration

Mark Twain’s Huck Finn is a classic American novel, Written in 1885, it is a book that students have read year in and year out in high school literature classes. The language used in the book, especially when the slave Jim is involved has become a contentious issue both in the past and now when communities have called for the banning of the book (see here). Issues of whether to use the N-word have arisen repeatedly. And it is so now as Kristen Krauss, an 11th grade English teacher goes over the initial chapters of the book in a 45-minute lesson I observed on October 10, 2016.

Krauss is a veteran teacher who has taught in elementary and middle schools before coming to Mountain View High School* in 2000. The room she teaches in has benefited from a grant to replace usual pods of three-four desks where students sit to high colorful tables with chairs on rollers and a small sofa in the rear of the room.


At 7:15AM, there are 14 students. Before the chime sounds to begin class, Krauss asks students to take out their tablets and laptops—the school implemented a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy a few years ago—and tells them to review questions and answers they worked on the previous Friday.** Five minutes later, a buzzer launches the lesson. This lesson has five parts.


Krauss asks the class to sit in groups of 3-4 and begins a “warm up” activity. She clicks on a slide displayed on the front whiteboard that asks students about the multiple-choice questions they had been given the previous lesson and for each student to think of a “silly anecdote about yourself as a child.” Students begin interacting in their small groups. One student asks the teacher what an “anecdote” is. Teacher bounces the question back to the class and one student says “it is a story.” Krauss then gives an example of an anecdote from her experience.

Then teacher segues to a series of 10 questions about the story and plot of Huck Finn’s first three chapters. She asks for volunteers to come to the front of the room and read each question that appears on the slide projected on the whiteboard, call on students, and judge the answer. All of the questions ask for students to complete the sentence and are in Actively Learn, a software program that all students have on their devices.

Two boys volunteer. Bob reads the question and William calls on a member of the class and then grades each answer with a + (nailed the answer), a “0” (missed it), and a “0” with a minus sign in it (didn’t come close). Teacher asks students at their desks to also judge the answer. None of the answers by students to the sentence completion questions, she says, will count toward a grade. This is a review for an upcoming quiz.

Here are some of the questions on the slide:

1.Huck Lives with ….

2.Miss Watson is responsible for…

3.Early on Tom and Huck sneak out at night and play …

4.Huck explains that Jim used this story to gain attention among friends by…

I scan the class and see everyone looking at the sentence-completion questions on the whiteboard with eyes on Bob and William. Krauss prompts the two students occasionally.

After the two students go through the first four questions, William asks the teacher if they could do the rest. She says “that would be lovely.” The two students finish the final questions. Krauss compliments Bob and William and they take their seats.

The teacher now asks the class to form small groups at their tables and give their opinions of the first three chapters of Huck Finn. She asks group to consider what was challenging and what was enjoyable in these initial chapters.

She listens to small groups as she moves around the classroom. Halting the small group interaction, she asks the class what they came up with that was challenging and enjoyable. A few students raise their hands and she calls on them and writes their responses on whiteboard. The grammar, one student says. Another says the slang used was hard to understand. Krauss elaborates and extends each of the student’s answers.

Krauss then asks what was enjoyable. No students raise their hands at first. After a few moments, one student says: “I wanted to know what happens next?” Another volunteers that she liked how the author spoke to the reader. And one more student liked that “Huck is really honest.” Again, the teacher expands each student’s answer.

At this point, Krauss moves to the final activity of the lesson. She gets into this segment of lesson by saying that in going over the next few chapters, members of the class will read aloud what Twain has written. She says that some students may get upset at the use of language, particularly the word “nigger,” used over a couple hundred times in the book. Krauss has already given some of the context for Twain’s book that features slavery before the Civil War yet had been written decades after that conflict. Even with that context, the N-word, as some call it, has created controversy across the country since the middle of the 20th century. So, the teacher asks: “As we read aloud from the book, how are we going to handle the language describing Jim?”

Krauss then introduces a 12-minute video excerpt from CBS’s 60 Minutes about how the N-word is handled by teachers and students across the nation.

There is an interview with a book publisher who put out an edition of Huck Finn and replaced “nigger” with the word “slave.” A contrasting view comes from a university scholar who advocates the uses of the word. Each gives their position clearly in the excerpt. There are Interviews with teachers over whether the word should be used in class when reading and discussing the book. The “60 Minutes” journalist also interviewed students who were the only blacks in their classroom (of Krauss’s 14 students, one was African American).

In looking across the room while the video played, I noted students’ rapt attention.

At the end of the video, Krauss says:

“My purpose in showing this video is simply this: what are you thinking of how to approach word in class? The word is there: what do we do with it?”

She asks students to “open their devices and go to Google Classroom and write a sentence about whether to use the N-word in class or not. We will take a vote before reading aloud this week. I want to know what we should do as a class in approaching the word.”

Krauss says that only a few minutes remain in the period. “After you finish,” she says, “submit send your sentences to me.” Students tap away on their devices. Teacher walks around room as students type their sentences. As they are clicking away, she announces that “I will not share your answers with the rest of the class.”

In the last two minutes, Krauss calls the class’s attention to a slide on the whiteboard. The top of the slide has two objectives:

Make an informed and respectful choice about how we will approach the reading of Huck Finn;

Place the novel in the literary historical context in which it was written.

The rest of the slide has instructions for reading chapters 4-6 and answering particular questions.

She goes over these instructions and reminds students not to cut-and-paste paragraphs from other sources; she reminds them to use their words.

Chime dings and the period ends.


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

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

** Bring-Your-Own-Device began two years ago in the District after teacher-led pilot projects at the two high schools demonstrated its viability.  For students who do not have a device at home or when one breaks down, the school provides chromebooks.


Filed under how teachers teach