Photos of Teachers Teaching During Pandemic

Nearly all businesses and schools closed in March 2020 when the coronovirus spread swiftly across the country. Nearly all schools switched immediately to remote instruction with home-bound students. Within a few months in some districts and over 18 months in other districts (there are 13,000-plus school districts in the U.S,), schools reopened and face-to-face instruction resumed.

How did teachers teach lessons as Covid-19 and variants continued through 2021?

I have sampled photos from a large cache of images that captured one moment in a classroom during the pandemic. In some classrooms, teachers and students wear masks; in others, none do. In some classrooms, desks are far apart; in others, not so. Some teachers continued to teach in-person and remotely–a tough duet to maintain.

School officials wholly dependent upon local health authorities and uncertain about the effects of the virus on children and teachers slowly opened their shuttered classrooms and taught their lessons. These few snapshots of elementary and secondary school teachers show a collage of lessons unfolding during the pandemic.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) “I try to make it fun,” said Jack Legge, 73, of substituting for Mrs. Grandstaff’s 2nd graders at Northlake Elementary in the Tooele School District. Legge substitutes for several schools in the district.
By Julie Jag
  | Dec. 20, 2020, 5:00 a.m.

During COVID, teachers are managing more non-instructional duties, such as helping online learners with IT problems, monitoring student health and sanitizing their own classrooms. (GettyImages/FatCamera)

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A Fairy Tale That Bears Retelling

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty and homelessness. Leaders tried one thing after another to end these grim conditions. Nothing worked.

In the midst of these bad times, however, a small group of educators, upset over what our youth were learning in high schools decided to take action.

High schools then were dull places. Students listened to teachers, read books, and took exams. Schools were supposed to prepare students for life but much of what they studied they forgot after graduating. Worse yet, what they had learned in school did not prepare them to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or fulfill their civic duties. Complaints to school officials got the same answer repeatedly: little could be done because college entrance requirements determined what had to be taught in high school.

So to give high schools the freedom to try new ways of schooling in a democracy, a small band of reformers convinced the best universities to waive their admission requirements and accept graduates from high schools that designed new programs.

Dozens of schools joined the experiment. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students created new courses and ways of teaching teenagers to become active members of the community and for those who wanted more schooling, still attend college. For eight years, these schools educated students and universities admitted their graduates. And then a war came and the experiment ended. After years passed, few could recall what these schools and colleges did.

A fairy tale?  Nope.

Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined the experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.

Called “The Eight Year Study,” each high school decided for itself what curricula, schedules, and class sizes would be. There were no college admission requirements or must-take tests. Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art, and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.

Needless to say, there were stumbles also. A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions.

While there was much variation among the schools, there were also common elements. Many of the large public high schools (of the 30, fifteen were private) created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies), set aside three hours a day for teams to work with groups of students, and planned weekly units with students.

What happened to these students when they attended college? To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance. They then compared their performance in college.

Evaluators found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school. Furthermore, the “guinea pigs,” as they were called, were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations, and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.

What these results showed over 80 years ago–although contemporary evaluators would find methodological flaws in the instruments–was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”

The results of these studies appeared during World War II. The war effort swallowed up any further interest in experimenting with high school programs. Whatever the reasons, “The Eight Year Study” lapsed into the obscurity of scholarly footnotes. Later generations of reformers seldom inquired or cared about this large-scale, non-federally funded experiment that showed convincingly that schools, given the freedom to experiment, could produce graduates who not only did well academically in college but, far more importantly, also displayed an active interest in civic affairs, were resourceful in handling new situations, and could think for themselves.

So what does this half-century old experiment say to us in the in the 21st century about school reform?

1. When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically engaged, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools are those that are set and done locally by adults and students—not ones imposed from the top-down.

In 2021, after four decades of school reform, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites continue to design and adopt school and classroom improvements. They set standards, require tests, and punish low performance.

Indeed, “The Eight Year Study” sounds like a fairy tale. This venture demonstrated nearly a century ago that when locals—district and school officials along with practitioners–decide to experiment, they not only get engaged but, more importantly, can produce results that still stagger us decades later.

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Reading with Patrick (James Forman and Arthur Evenchik)

Reading with Patrick is the second book review that I have published on my blog in the twelve years I have written posts. Usually I will read a book and if I am moved by the prose, argument, or content, I will mention it in a post. Not this one, however.

This particular review of a novice teacher re-connecting with her students as a lawyer years after her brief stint in a Helena (ARK) alternative school is unusual in its candor about relationships with students, and its insights into the linkage between schooling, race, and poverty. Inspiration, dedication, and humility–particularly the latter–seldom appear in such books written by former teachers.

The two authors of the review are former teachers in a Washington, D.C. charter school. James Forman Jr., who teaches at Yale Law School, is the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.; Arthur Evenchik is the coordinator of the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University.

The review appeared October 20, 2017 on Atlantic Online

In books and films about failing schools attended by poor students of color, a suspiciously upbeat plotline has become all too familiar. A novice teacher (usually white) parachutes in, overcomes her students’ distrust and apathy, and sets them on the path to college and worldly success. Such narratives are every kind of awful. They make the heroic teacher the center of attention, relegating the students to secondary roles. They pretend that good intentions and determination have the magical power to transform young people’s lives, even in the most adverse circumstances. And they treat schools as isolated sites of injustice, never connecting educational disadvantage to other forms of inequality.

Michelle Kuo is a writer who resists the mythmaking impulse, with its clichés and wishful thinking. In her penetrating, haunting memoir, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, she confronts all of the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?

Her credibility stems, in part, from her willingness to make her misjudgments and failings an integral part of the story she tells. At age 22, after graduating from Harvard, Kuo frustrates her immigrant parents’ ambitions for her by joining Teach For America. She takes a job at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas, a blighted Mississippi Delta town populated by the descendants of black families who stayed behind during the Great Migration. By her own admission, her first year in the classroom is a disaster. She arrives hoping to teach African American literature to her eighth-grade students, but she blinds herself to the fact that most of them read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, and so they are bored and frustrated by her lessons. She wants the students to know “their history,” by which she means the history of racist violence in the Delta. But she knows nothing of the trauma they have inherited; when she passes around a picture of a lynching, a boy named David brings her lesson to a halt by putting his head on his desk and muttering, “Nobody want to see that.” Instead of defying her school’s authoritarian culture, Kuo initially succumbs to it. Once, she recalls, “I tore up a student’s drawing, which I’d thought was a doodle, in order to jolt him into paying attention; he never forgave me, and I will regret it forever.”

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Her descriptions of individual students are unusually perceptive and moving. A boy named Tamir, asked to write a poem about himself, looks afraid “and peers at a classmate’s paper, as though this was the kind of assignment one could copy.” A girl named Kayla, who had been removed from the district’s regular high school for fighting, writes herself a letter that says, “I hope that when trouble come your way, you would just hold your head high and walk away with a smile on your face.” Patrick Browning, a student with a history of absenteeism, seems lost as he starts eighth grade, “as if he’d gotten on the school bus by accident.” He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the schoolwide award for “Most Improved” student. When rainwater leaks through the classroom ceiling and destroys much of the book collection, it is Patrick who says to the other students, “Stop crying, y’all,” and fetches a bucket and mop.

After two years in the Delta, Kuo decides to leave her job and go to law school. (“With a law degree, you can multiply your impact,” a friend assures her. And her parents are thrilled.) But what might seem the natural ending to her story proves not to be an ending at all. Kuo returns to Helena three years later when she learns that Patrick has been arrested and charged with murder. She begins to visit the county jail where he is awaiting trial, bearing books and writing assignments. Her account of the seven months she spends as his tutor and fellow reader occupies the heart of the book, and it unfolds with all the starkness and immediacy of a two-character play. Scene by scene, it asks what brought them to this place and what can come of their time together.

The night Patrick was arrested, he had gone out looking for his younger sister, but he couldn’t find her. Then she arrived on the family porch with Marcus, a man she was dating. Marcus was drunk and belligerent, and when Patrick ordered him to leave, he started talking loudly and acting aggressively. Believing that Marcus was armed, Patrick picked up a knife he had left on the porch earlier in the day. He just wanted to scare Marcus, he says, but then they fought. He can’t remember the fight itself—just the sight of Marcus limping away and then falling to the sidewalk.

Patrick doesn’t realize that he has a plausible self-defense claim. A white man fending off an intruder on his property could invoke principles such as “stand your ground” or the “castle doctrine.” But Patrick is a black man in the Delta, and the prosecutor goes for a massive overcharge: first-degree murder. There is no question of bail: for sixteen months, Patrick awaits his trial in a jail so unsanitary and poorly managed that the state of Arkansas later shuts it down. And though his public defender eventually gets the charge against him reduced, they never meet until Patrick has his day in court.

The first time Kuo comes to the jail, Patrick blurts out, “Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” in what she calls “a tone of supplication.” But she soon realizes that he feels an intolerable sense of guilt. Patrick imagines that all the mistakes he has ever made led inexorably to the act he is now locked up for. He is haunted by a litany of wrongs he has no way to redress. “The problem,” Kuo writes, “was not that he wouldn’t confess but that he had confessed too much; it wasn’t far-fetched to think he might spend the rest of his life confessing.”

And yet maybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

The bond they establish during their jailhouse sessions eases his torment, as Kuo hoped it would. Yet Patrick never ceases to hold himself responsible for Marcus’ death. After he takes a plea deal and is convicted of manslaughter, Kuo asks him, “Do you feel guilty?” and he replies, “I know I guilty.” It’s not the answer she wanted. But she comes to see that if she had undermined his sense of himself as the agent of his own actions, she would only have deepened his despair. No teacher can “break” a student’s story, his understanding of his life, and replace it with her own.

In other ways, too, the course of the relationship between Kuo and Patrick diverges from her original intention. When she discovers that his literacy skills have deteriorated, she promptly resumes her English-teacher role—marking every last error in his writing, assigning “extra homework to eliminate future mistakes.” This makes her sound overzealous, and sometimes she is. Yet Patrick, who at first dismisses the idea of homework (“Nah, it’s over with,” he tells her), makes greater progress than she had anticipated. “For me and perhaps for him,” she writes, “the task of making a sentence perfect had the effect of containment: It kept unbearable emotions at bay.”

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. He reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

For one of his final assignments, Patrick composes a letter inspired by a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Addressed to his baby daughter, it describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

* * *

Back when she was a classroom teacher, Kuo engaged in a sort of triage. “There are just certain kids for whom you bring all your hope,” she writes, and Patrick was one of them. It makes sense, then, that news of his plight would have drawn her back to the Delta. But Kuo doesn’t allow us to forget that his tragedy is not the only one. She hears, soon after her return, that her former student Tamir is living on the streets in Little Rock, a crack addict begging for money. On a school-district report listing the students who dropped out of school in Helena the year after she left, she recognizes a long series of names along with Patrick’s. And when he finally appears in court, she sees many of those names again on the crowded docket of criminal cases:

I tried to count the number of black males of my sixty-something students over two years who had at some point gone to jail, and I ran out of fingers. The docket was the coda to the STUDENT DROPOUT REPORT—the county jail was where the dropouts landed. There were no jobs in Helena. They had no skills. Most had a disability or an emotional or mental disorder. Where else had I thought they would go?

Nothing Kuo has done for Patrick frees him from this dynamic. After the plea bargain, he is sent to an overcrowded prison. Two and a half years later, when he is paroled for good behavior, he returns to Helena with all the liabilities that come with having a violent felony on his record.

By then, Kuo is working as a public-interest lawyer in California. “I begin to think,” she confesses, “that those seven months didn’t really happen, that I had imagined the mystical silences we shared while Patrick wrote. I must have dreamed the poems we memorized, because I cannot remember the lines anymore. On the way to work, holding the metal bar of a subway, I wonder what it was all for and consider the idea that once you stop thinking about something, it disappears.”

But this is not her final word on the subject. If Kuo distrusts the romanticism of the teacher-as-savior narrative, she also resists the kind of fatalism that would have prevented her from becoming a teacher in the first place. She does wonder sometimes what would have happened had she never left Helena. Could she have kept Patrick from dropping out of school or confronting Marcus? Not likely, she says. Besides, she is wary of talking about Patrick “as if I think I could have saved him, as if I think I’m so important in his life. It’s not like that.” But then, exhibiting the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart, she adds:

Or maybe it is, in the sense that the alternative, the rational thought, would be to say to myself, You can’t do that much, you’re not that important, there are so many forces in a person’s life, good and bad, who do you think you are? That’s what I said to make myself feel better after I left the Delta, and sometimes I still say it. But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Maybe there are prospective readers who noticed Kuo’s memoir on a bookstore shelf, leafed through its pages, and put it back, saying to themselves, “I know this story already.” But in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.

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Winter Holidays Cartoons

Every year I offer holiday cartoons that tickle me. I hope they do the same for you. Enjoy!

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Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 3)

There are many definitions of “student-centered instruction.” Historically, it was called the “New Education” in the late 1890s and then “child-centered instruction” during the first decades of the 20th century by progressive educators.

In each instance when the label changed, defining what it looked like in classrooms varied greatly among academics and practitioners. Nonetheless, student-centered instruction and similar labels continue in 2021. It is, after all, a tradition of teaching that goes back more than a century.

This post on student-centered comes from a former private school fifth grade teacher with 12 years of classroom experience who went on to found a consulting company. Jeff Lisciandrello is committed to student-centered teaching and learning; this is his take on what it is and how it should be practiced in public and private schools. I would expect readers to differ with his definition and picture that he paints of a classroom.

Note the final paragraph of the post. Lisciandrello acknowledges that no classroom can be “entirely student centered” because the content and skill may be new or for other reasons. That acknowledgement fits my experiences as a teacher and observer of hundreds of lessons across the nation; it opens the door to what I have called “hybrids” of both teaching traditions.

Imagine walking into a student-centered classroom. What do you see? What do you hear?  Where is the teacher standing? What are the students doing?

It’s been over 100 years since John Dewey began advocating for what we would now call student-centered learning (SCL). Since then, countless educators, researchers, and professional development providers have championed the student-centered classroom.

But just how student-centered are today’s classrooms? Compared to schools of 100 years ago, today’s classrooms are very student-centered.

But though progress has made, most schools still rely heavily on teacher-centered learning models. The teacher decides what and how students will learn. She does most of the talking during a lesson. And when a student does speak, the teacher decides whether or not their answer was correct.

The challenge in making classes more student-centered, is that there are so many definitions of student-centered learning.

In some schools, SCL means that students sit at tables instead of desks. At others, it refers to differentiated instruction. In the most progressive schools, a classroom is only considered student-centered if students create their own assignments and grade their own work.

Now all of these are great examples of student-centered learning. But examples are not definitions.

And if you want to figure out just how student-centered your classroom is, we’ll need a shared definition.

During my years as a classroom teacher, I assumed student-centered learning was pretty self-explanatory

But as soon as I moved into instructional coaching, I learned otherwise. During one of my first coaching assignments, at a middle school in Harlem, a pair of teachers asked me to observe a lesson and give them feedback.

As the class started, one teacher stood by the door and the other stood in the back. The students walked silently to their desks, which were in rows, and sat down to a ten-page packet.

A loud, sharp voice announced, “Open your packets to page 1!

The teachers walked up and down the rows to ensure everyone was on the right page. One teacher read from the textbook. “The coordinate plane consists of two axes. The x-axis is horizontal. The y-axis is vertical.”

Then, a cold-call. “Jonathan, which axis is horizontal?” 

Jonathan: “The x-axis.”

“Good.”

They continued up and down the aisles throughout the period. If anyone talked, their name was announced, and they were given a warning. (Whatever the consequence was, it seemed to be effective).

After the direct instruction, students worked silently and independently. Finally, the teachers collected the packets and dismissed the class.

When we met to debrief, I commended the pair for their organization and classroom management. But I wanted to know if they’d consider planning planning and co-teaching “a student centered lesson.”

They looked at me in shock, “You don’t think our classroom is student-centered?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. It felt like we were speaking different languages. I had just witnessed the least student-centered classroom I’d ever seen. But to them, a student-centered classroom had nothing to do with differentiation, collaboration or ownership. It meant caring about their students. And they deeply believed that their “tough love” approach was the best they could do for their students.

This experience taught me two important lessons. First, as an instructional coach, I should never make suggestions without first listening to a teacher’s thoughts, perspectives, and goals.

Second, I realized that I needed a way to clearly and concisely define and describe a student-centered classroom. 

The Teacher-Centered Classroom

Defining a student-centered classroom begins by defining the traditional model of education: the teacher-centered classroom.

It’s entirely possible for an effective and caring teacher to rely on a teacher-centered model. Caring for our students is necessary, but not sufficient, for cultivating a student-centered classroom

Simply put, in a teacher-centered classroom, the teacher is at the center of the learning: 

  • Information flows from teacher to students
  • Students look to the teacher to make decisions
  • Students pay more attention to the teacher than each other
  • The teacher does most of the talking
  • The teacher sets the rules and the goals

When I was a student, I found it hard to stay focused and motivated in this type of classroom. Everyone was expected to learn the same content at the same time. Our job was to follow directions, get the right answers, and do our homework.

When I daydreamed or didn’t get my work done, it was because I wasn’t focused or driven enough. Eventually, this manifested as an aversion to school work. I figured out the minimum necessary to get the grades I wanted, and did that.

It made perfect sense – the teacher owned the learning. They told me what needed to be done, and rated me on how well I did it. So as long as they rated me favorably, it would be silly to do more.

But I wasn’t lazy. I worked really hard at a lot of things. My interests were an odd mix: computers, acting, and classic rock. I rushed through most of my school work to put my energy into these hobbies.

Student-Centered Learning Begins with a Mindset

My favorite teachers helped me to harness my passions and channel them into my school work. They made learning feel like a collaborative effort. And always found ways to challenge us and to make their content more interesting. 

Mr. Myslik loved to sit back and listen as his students took over a discussion about Walden or The Great Gatsby. And in Mr. Faubert’s German class, we spent a month translating and dubbing an entire Simpsons episode. I still remember what “abgelaufene Medizin” means, only because I had to say it in Homer’s voice.

The challenge in spotting a student-centered classroom is that there’s no single strategy or resource that makes learning student-centered. You can’t just buy a student-centered textbook or student-centered software. It’s a way of thinking about education, and there are a thousand ways to do it right.

But the definition of a student-centered classroom is right in the name. Instead of focusing on the teacher or the curriculum, the focus is on the students. What do they want to learn? What do they need to succeed? 

Students have control over what they learn and how they learn it. They can work together to create the class rules. And when teachers provide feedback, it’s to support learning. Not just to rate and sort students.

Of course, no classroom is entirely student-centered. If students showed up to my math class and decided we were doing pottery that day, I could turn teacher-centered pretty darn quick. Every class exists somewhere on the spectrum. But for most of us, a shift to the student-centered side would be beneficial.

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Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 2)

University training as incubator of student-centered teaching tradition

The story-line of teacher education in the U.S. is two-fold. First, there is the historic and fundamental question facing all teacher preparation programs: do we prepare students to become teachers in schools as they are or do we prepare students to teach in schools as they should be?  Most university programs have straddled the answer to the question by stressing how teaching should be and spending little time on how actual classroom teaching is.

The other half of the story-line is that within research-driven universities producing new teachers rather than scholars has given a poor reputation to professors of teacher education. Laced by decades of pungent criticism of poorly performing teacher preparation programs and producing deeply flawed research studies, many university education departments have been (and are) viewed as second-rate within the institution. [i]

Part of the reason for many universities taking on teacher preparation is historical. Throughout most of the 19th century, institutions called “normal” schools provided to mostly women with a high school diploma training to become a state-licensed teacher. These “normal” schools , were absorbed by the next century’s growing colleges and universities that aspired to national recognition.[ii]

Poor reputation or not, university teacher education programs have disseminated new knowledge of the science and art of teaching to those preparing to become classroom teachers.. Within these programs, neophytes were (and now are) exposed to the “learning sciences”—a collection of disciplines including cognitive psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, the neurosciences, and instructional design. All of these programs have a clinical portion—required to gain a state license–that places the novice into classrooms where under the guidance of a cooperating or mentor teacher both plan and teach actual lessons to students.[iii]

In short, there was unceasing demand from districts for certified teachers and universities became the place for educating and training novices to know about the humanities and sciences while taking state required courses to be not only eligible to teach in school districts but mirror effective teaching—as conceived by university educators–in their own classrooms. University schools of education became the state-certified toll road that led directly to classrooms. Crudely put by university critics of schools of education, producing teachers was a “cash cow” and, therefore, essential to the financial health of the institution.[iv]

Many of these university schools of education became strongholds of a certain tradition of teaching that I have described in earlier posts: student-centered instruction.  Most teacher education programs became places where this way of teaching became the prescriptive norm for beginning teachers. Enamored with the ideas of 20th century Progressives such as John Dewey who was initially at the University of Chicago and later joined like-minded professors William Kilpatrick and Harold Rugg at Columbia University. Teacher educators then and into the early 21st century pressed neophytes to embrace child-centered instruction where teacher-student interaction and student engagement were considered markers of “effective” teaching. [v]

Once licensed and hired to teach, however, these novices, well versed as they may have been in theory and practice while in university teacher education programs even spending a few months or an academic semester in actual classrooms under the tutelage of “cooperating” teachers, now these rookies faced the realities of spending six or more hours daily with one group of 25-30 students in an elementary school or in a secondary school, facing five separate classes and preparing lessons for two or more subjects. 

Those realities banged up newbies. In order to survive their first year, they had to learn quickly and deeply the tradition of teacher-centered instruction that dominated nearly all public schools. Each generation of novices, then, learned different ways of teaching while unlearning many (but not all) what they brought from their university courses in order to survive their initial years in classrooms. If the rookies lasted, over time, they melded both traditions of teaching into hybrids that worked for them.

Universities today remain bastions of student-centered instruction thus keeping alive a mode of teaching that sometimes disables brand-new teachers entering age-graded public schools where the grammar of schooling dominates classroom practice.


 

[i]Geraldine Clifford and James Guthrie, Ed School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Marilyn Cochran-Smith, et. al., Critiquing Teacher Preparation Research: An Overview of the Field, Part II, Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 2015, pp. 109-121.

 

[ii] Jurgen Herbst, “Nineteenth Century Normal Schools in the United States: A Fresh Look,” History of Education, 1980, 9(3),  pp. 219-237.

 

[iii] Etta Hollins and Connor Warner, “Evaluating the Clinical Component of Teacher Preparation Programs (National Academy of Education Committee on Evaluating and Improving Teacher Preparation Programs, 2021). Ken Zeichner, a teacher educator at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) for over three decades and later at the University of Washington before retiring details his journey from elementary school teaching to tenured professor. He lays out nicely the problems and dilemmas facing teacher educators in the courses they teach, connections to regular school teachers who work with student-teachers from the university, and the clinical experience university students have in schools. See “Becoming a Teacher Educator: A Personal Perspective” Teaching and Teacher Education, 2005, 21, pp. 117-124.

 

[iv] For example of common criticisms, see Jennifer Medina, “Teacher Training Termed Mediocre,” New York Times, October 22, 2009; Alternative routes into classrooms apart from university courses and practice teaching have grown since the 1980s (e.g., Teach for America). Nearly all states provide options for adults to become certified teachers apart from enrolling full time in university courses.. Nonetheless, nearly all new teachers (95 percent) are licensed to teach through university-approved programs.  See Gene Glass, “Alternative Certification of Teachers,” (Education Policy Research Unit, 2008) at: http://epicpolicy.org/publication/alternative-certification-of-teachers

[v] See David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2004), chapters 3 and 7.

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Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 1)

The above photos of elementary and secondary school classrooms are snapshots of what educators would call student-centered classrooms. Because the photos are at a moment in time, we have no idea what happens over a six-hour school day in these teachers classrooms. The dead-give-aways in these photos, however, are the furniture arrangement (e.g., no rows of desks) and the small group activity (e.g., students talk and work with one another). Those two clues are often sufficient to describe the lesson–at least what is captured in a snapshot–as student-centered. Is an entire lesson done in this manner?

Hardly. Teachers are expected to cover content and skills required by the district and state and insure that students have learned both. So, more often than not, a mix of activities make up a daily lesson, depending upon the subject and grade. Mini- or maxi-lectures, textbook passages reviewed, quizzes, whiteboard exercises, independent work–all occur during lessons in most academic subjects to varying degrees. Nonetheless, getting students to participate, collaborate with class-mates, and make decisions mark the student-centered way of teaching.

As with any set of teaching practices, there is a history to the tradition of student-centered instruction. Note the word “tradition” because student-centered lessons go back to the mid-19th century but gained most prominence during the early decades of the 20th century with the progressive education movement, itself a part of the larger social and political progressivism sweeping state legislatures and the nation under Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Then called “child-centered” teaching, the student-centered tradition of instruction refers to classrooms where students exercise a substantial degree of responsibility for what is taught and how it is learned. Teachers see children as more than brains; they bring to school an array of physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs plus experiences that require both nurturing and prodding.

Were you to sit for a while in such a classroom you would see that the furniture is arranged and rearranged frequently to permit students to work independently or together in large and small groups. Student talk is at least equal to, if not greater than, teacher talk. Varied materials (e.g., science and art centers, math manipulatives) are spread around the room. Guided by teachers, students learn content and skills through different tasks such as going to activity centers in the room, joining a team to produce a project, and working independently. Scholars have tracked this tradition to its historical roots in ancient Greece and labeled it over the centuries as “child-centered,” “progressive,” and often “constructivist” in the 21st century.

Such ways of teaching slowly spread across American schools a century ago. While challenging the dominant tradition of teacher-centered instruction, student-centered teaching made inroads into practitioner and policymaker vocabulary, scholarly writing, and district programming but never dominated how most U.S. teachers teach.

Look, for example, at mentions of the phrase “progressive education” in Google’s Ngram viewer (i.e., books, articles, and other printed materials in English). The phrase appears initially in the early 1900s, begins rising to a peak in 1939, and slackens considerably by the 1960s where the phrase again becomes popular and then decreases in mentions until the 1990s when it again rises a tad and continue to be present until 2019.[i]

Beyond the words used in printed matter as a clue to the popularity of the movement, progressive schools appeared and disappeared over the decades. For example, in the early decades of the 21st century, scattered public and private schools still committed to child-centered instruction exist in public schools such as Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield (MN), Mission Hill K-8 School in Boston (MA), and Camarillo Academy of Progressive Education in Camarillo (CA). There are also many progressive private schools (e.g., Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., Peninsula School in Menlo Park (CA), and The Park School in Baltimore (MD)) across the U.S.  Overall, however, such schools are a miniscule fraction of the over 100,000 schools in the nation.[ii]

Beyond the small number of U.S. schools that embraced Progressive ideas, the influential place where Progressive ideas of effective teaching and learning became cant and curriclum beginning in the 1920s was in university departments and colleges of education. These schools produced generation after generation of new teachers and administrators.  

I take up how university schools of education became havens for progressive thought and teacher preparation in Part 2.


 

[i]I entered the phrase “progressive education” in the Ngram Viewer on December 2, 2021 at: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Progressive+education&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2CProgressive%20education%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2CProgressive%20education%3B%2Cc0

[ii] One listing of both public and private schools that I used is the Progressive Education Network at: https://progressiveeducationnetwork.org/partners/

My own contacts with schools over the past quarter-century have included progressive schools.

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Why Has Public School Teaching Been Stable over Time (Part 7)

The realities of teaching an elementary school class for six hours a day or meeting five classes daily in secondary schools banged up newbies. In order to survive their first year, novices had to learn quickly and deeply the tradition of teacher-centered instruction that dominated nearly all public schools. Each generation of rookie teachers, then, learned different ways of teaching while unlearning many (but not all) what they brought from their university courses in order to survive their initial years in classrooms[i].

The literature of new teachers surviving (or exiting) their first year of teaching is legion. From hundreds of descriptions, one paragraph from a novice nicely captures those 180 school days where a 20-something teacher not only encounters her first batch of students but lasts sufficiently to continue into a second year:

Overwhelming is the word that best describes my first year of teaching. I wasn’t prepared for the multitude of things on my plate. I didn’t have a handle on classroom management, and I left each day feeling exhausted and defeated. [ii]

One would think from the above paragraph, books written by first year teachers and war stories exchanged with friends and family that most newbies quit after that initial year. Not so. Many continued to teach. Helping to reduce attrition have been strong district and university efforts to ease entry of rookies through fellowship and residency programs, especially aimed at minority teachers. Such efforts, small as they are have begun slowly to reduce the attrition that does occur.  A recent study of 1900 first-year teachers covering the years 2007-2012 found that 10 percent of novices left after the first year; 12 percent after year three, 15percent in year four, and 17 percent in the fifth year—or over half within five years.[iii]

As in most professions, attrition of beginning teachers occurs in the early years but by the fifth year, exiting the classroom has settled down and most teachers have gained sufficient experience in comfortably managing groups of students and teaching required content and skills.

But in the process of survival and gaining confidence in being a teacher, these rookies also absorb the existing cultures of their suburban, rural, and urban schools. The learning curve rises steeply for newcomers as they learn the ropes of managing groups of students and crafting lessons.

Newbies toss out some of the research knowledge and techniques learned in university courses and practice teaching stored in their grab-bag and cook up new ways of teaching learned from trial-and-error in actual lessons they taught and techniques picked up from colleagues who they see as effective.

Should rookies stay at the school or try another school, by years three to five they have become experienced teachers. They have absorbed existing norms of “good” teaching and ways of being an effective teacher in their schools that are considered appropriate by colleagues and principals.  Eventually, many novices become members of a stable teacher corps within a school.[iv]

Thus, newcomers slowly inducted into the culture and ways of teaching in a school become, in time, part of the cadre of experienced teachers who continuously juggle both stability and change as they welcome new recruits to their profession.

What’s missing from this brief description of the all-important journey of going from university training program, to classroom rookie to experienced teacher is the decisive role that the unnoticed, taken-for-granted structures of the age-graded school play in converting novices into veterans thereby sustaining stability and change. Here is where the age-graded school structure and its “grammar of schooling” enter the analysis.


[i] The classic example is what university educators often called “classroom management” and public school teachers referred to as “discipline” or “controlling students” in order for them to learn. Over time, university educators incorporated into their teacher education curriculum either courses or short modules where “classroom management” techniques were taught. See, for example, Gordon Eisenman, et. al., “Bringing Reality to Classroom Management in Teacher education,” Professional Educator, 2015 at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1062280.pdf

[ii] Cindy Bourdo, “The Biggest Lesson of My First Year Teaching,” Edutopia, February 11, 2019

 

[iii]Lucinda Gray, et. al. “Public School Teacher  Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years,” National Center  for Education Statistics, April 2015)., p. 3.l; National Center for Teacher Residencies,  “Equitable Access To Teachers of Color Matters,” at: https://nctresidencies.org/    

Residency programs where aspiring teachers spend a year with an experienced teacher in an on-site apprenticeship while attending after-school university classes have helped acclimate new teachers to the unrelenting demands of classroom teaching. Many of these programs recruit and train minority teachers so that after a year they have become licensed and earned a Master’s degree. See: https://nctresidencies.org/

[iv] Susan Kardos, et. al., “Counting on Coleeagues: New Teachers Encounter the Professional Cultures of Their Schools,” 2001, Educational Administration Quarterly, 37(2), pp. 250-290.

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Why Has Classroom Teaching Been Stable over Time? (Part 6)

A reasonable question to ask at this point in this series of posts is: Hasn’t the annual entry of university-trained teachers into public schools brought many changes in teaching lessons? The answer is no. In fact, brand-new teachers have, over time, perversely, become agents of stability in classroom practices.  [i]

Here is an abbreviated version of university training and entry into classroom teaching

The story-line of teacher education in the U.S. is two-fold. First, there is the historic and fundamental question facing all teacher preparation programs: do we prepare students to become teachers in schools as they are or do we prepare students to teach in schools as they should be?  Most programs have straddled the answer to the question by stressing how teaching should be and spending little time on how actual classroom teaching is (see Chapter 4).

The other half of the story-line is that within research-driven universities producing new teachers rather than scholars has given professors of teacher educators a poor reputation.. Laced by decades of pungent criticism of poorly performing teacher preparation programs and producing deeply flawed research studies, many university education departments have been (and are) viewed as second-rate within the institution. [ii]

Poor reputation or not, teacher education programs have disseminated new knowledge of the science and art of teaching to those preparing to become classroom teachers.. Within these programs, neophytes were (and are) exposed to the “learning sciences”—a collection of disciplines including cognitive psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, the neurosciences, and instructional design. All of these programs have a clinical portion—required to gain a state license–that places the novice into classrooms where under the guidance of a cooperating or mentor teacher plan and teach actual lessons to students.[iv]

In short, there was unceasing demand from districts for certified teachers and universities became the place for educating and training novices to know about the humanities and sciences while taking state required courses to be not only eligible to teach in school districts but mirror effective teaching—as conceived by university educators–in their own classrooms. University schools of education became the state-certified toll road that led directly to classrooms. Crudely put by university critics of schools of education, producing teachers was a “cash cow” and, therefore, essential to the financial health of the institution.[v]

Research-driven universities abided the inclusion of teacher education because the historical function of teacher training once located in what were called “normal” schools in the 19th century were absorbed by the next century’s growing colleges and universities that aspired to national recognition.[iii]

Many of these university schools of education became strongholds of a certain tradition of teaching: student-centered instruction.  Most teacher education programs became places where child-centered instruction became the prescriptive norm for beginning teachers. Enamored with the ideas of 20th century Progressives such as John Dewey who was initially at the University of Chicago and later joined like-minded professors William Kilpatrick and Harold Rugg at Columbia University. Teacher educators pressed neophytes to embrace child-centered instruction where teacher-student interaction and student engagement were considered markers of “effective” teaching. [vi]

Once in public school classrooms, however, these novices, well versed as they may have been in university teacher education programs even spending a few months or an academic semester in actual classrooms under the tutelage of “cooperating” teachers, now faced the realities of spending six or more hours daily with one group of 25-30 students in an elementary school or in a secondary school facing five separate classes and preparing lessons for two or more subjects. 

The next post takes up how these novices turned into experienced teachers and sustained stability in instruction.


 

[i] I do not include Teach for America and other alternative certification programs in my analysis because they produce a tiny fraction of new teachers entering urban classrooms where most of these novices are placed. While many TFA teachers stay beyond their two-year commitment, the vast majority are leavers. See Wikipedia, “Teach for America” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teach_For_America 

[ii]Geraldine Clifford and James Guthrie, Ed School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Marilyn Cochran-Smith, et. al., Critiquing Teacher Preparation Research: An Overview of the Field, Part II, Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 2015, pp. 109-121. 

[iii] Jurgen Herbst, “Nineteenth Century Normal Schools in the United States: A Fresh Look,” History of Education, 1980, 9(3),  pp. 219-237. 

[iv] Etta Hollins and Connor Warner, “Evaluating the Clinical Component of Teacher Preparation Programs (National Academy of Education Committee on Evaluating and Improving Teacher Preparation Programs, 2021). Ken Zeichner, a teacher educator at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) for over three decades and later at the University of Washington before retiring details his journey from elementary school teaching to tenured professor. He lays out nicely the problems and dilemmas facing teacher educators in the courses they teach, connections to regular school teachers who work with student-teachers from the university, and the clinical experience university students have in schools. See “Becoming a Teacher Educator: A Personal Perspective” Teaching and Teacher Education, 2005, 21, pp. 117-124. 

[v] For example of common criticisms, see Jennifer Medina, “Teacher Training Termed Mediocre,” New York Times, October 22, 2009; Alternative routes into classrooms apart from university courses and practice teaching have grown since the 1980s (e.g., Teach for America). Nearly all states provide options for adults to become certified teachers apart from enrolling in university-sponsored courses.. Nonetheless, nearly all new teachers (95 percent) are licensed to teach through university-approved programs.  See Gene Glass, “Alternative Certification of Teachers,” (Education Policy Research Unit, 2008) at: http://epicpolicy.org/publication/alternative-certification-of-teachers

[vi] See David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2004), chapters 3 and 7.

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Why Has Classroom Teaching Been Stable over Time (Part 5)

In a society that endlessly prizes change, explaining stability in any institution goes against the grain. It is far harder for historians, educational researchers, and practitioners to figure out why structures and practices are sturdy, even robustly constant over decades. And the reason is simple: schooling and teaching are complex processes deeply nested in one another and the society that provides it.  

“Nested” is a fair word to use in capturing the interrelatedness and steadiness in patterns of schooling. Begin with the individual classroom that is part of a school that, in turn, is part of a district, which is then located in the state that has authorized local citizens to raise monies to build and operate schools within its boundaries.

Classroom, school, district, and state capture the essential organization of U.S. public schooling although there are states that allow special districts and counties to school children as well (e.g. Santa Clara County in California has 32 school districts within it enrolling nearly 265,000 students, omitting a few independent charter schools and the schools that the county itself operates as of 2015).[i]

And that is only the formal organizational and governance structures in which classrooms exist. I have made no mention of the different types of schools students can attend or the varied contexts in which schools reside.

Over time, districts across the country have established different types of schools—special mission schools for the arts, vocations, children with disabilities, and charters. Nor have I noted the varied contexts in which these schools are located such as rural, urban, suburban, and exurban thereby drawing diverse racial and ethnic enrollments from different social classes yet these varied types of schools and their contexts, again over time, have remained, more often than not, racially and ethnically segregated since where families live is where most students attend school.

All of these, of course, are factors that touch both schooling and classroom practices in varied, often subtle ways, that observers frequently overlook. And these many factors are what make schooling and teaching not only complex but also deeply embedded in local communities.

And that embeddedness within a community, state, and nation is precisely why schools bend and bow to the winds of different social, political, and economic movements as they sweep across the country. That schools mirror the nation is a fact too often forgotten by those who want public schools to be in the vanguard of reform rather than merely following it. Consider the three major reform movements that flowed across the country in the 20th century.

In the early 1900s, Progressives reformed cities and schools. When the U.S. got involved in world wars, schools were drafted to help on the home front as armies and navies fought enemies abroad. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s reshaped debates about social justice and launched programs to overcome the consequences of segregated schools and ill-served students. Deep concerns for the nation’s economic future in the 1980s prompted school reforms in curriculum and broader choices for secondary school students.

Schools, then, are woven deeply into the national fabric. No clearer instance of that is the sudden closing of all public schools in early 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic struck the U.S. Within days, schooling went from in-person to remote instruction across the nation. Thus, seeing schools as separate from the society and unaffected by political, social, and economic winds is ahistorical at the least and severely myopic at the worst. Schools are, indeed, embedded in American society and culture.

But deeply embedded does not fully explain the notable constancy in K-12 age-graded school structures, patterns of schooling children and youth, and classroom teaching. To get at that stability, I need to include the continuing power and influence of popular social beliefs in what schooling is for and what it can do for individuals, the community, and the nation.

Popular support for tax-supported public schools

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Americans, initially in New England states and then the rest of the nation, taxed themselves to establish and maintain public schools.  Popular support for primary and, then in the 20th century, secondary public schools was evident in American property owners, both white and Black, opening their wallets to pay the costs of building hiring teachers, furnishing classrooms, and buying books and materials. Local and state monies underwrote urban and rural segregated schools until the Brown decision. In the ensuing decades, as Southern migrants came north and European and Asian immigrants entered the country, the commitment to public schooling seldom flagged.

With state legislatures over a century ago passing compulsory attendance laws, school enrollments grew. New districts, new schools popped out wherever Americans moved to places that lacked ones. That popular support continues into the 21st century.[ii]

Tax-supported schools, however, as they mirrored national reform movements just as well echoed national and community controversies that periodically raised the specter of masses of parents taking their children out of the public schools. Such exoduses, however, seldom occurred.

Already mentioned were the ongoing conflicts over religious prayer in public schools and the teaching of evolution. In the 21st century, teaching about slavery, racism in the country, and race-related topics roil the years before and after the Covid-19 pandemic in the 2020s.

Scattered reports of parents offended by school curricula (e.g., the 1619 Project) or practices (e.g., establishing separate bathrooms for transgender students) withdrawing their children and sending them to private schools or home-schooling them circulate in the media but rarely affect overall enrollments in public schools.[iii]

Overall, then, growing U.S. school enrollments—now over 50 million students attend public schools– and political support of public schools even amid scattered and episodic protests about curricula and school practices testify to the faith that Americans have in their public schools.[iv]

Popular support of public schools and their rootedness within American communities suggest strongly that stability in schooling and teaching practices are more than tolerated, they are the norm. Parents and voters expect their schools to resemble age-graded organization with teachers who control their students and direct lessons in sync with the experiences that these parents and voters recalled when they sat at classroom desks a generation or two earlier. And equally important to these parents and voters are their beliefs in K-12 education as the escalator to higher education and financial security in the 21st century

Sure, changes occur as new students enroll each year and teachers leave the profession or move from one school to another (about one in six teachers exit annually although there is much variation in attrition across districts with far higher percentages of leavers and movers in schools with large numbers of low-income minority children). Replacing these leavers and movers are novices often trained in universities where they were often encouraged to teach differently than they were taught. [v]

Even with this annual churn of students and teachers, popular support of tax-supported schools remains anchored in sustaining the familiar age-graded organization and patterns of classroom instruction thereby helping to explain stability in classroom practices.  


[i] California Department of Education, “Ed Data County Summary of Districts within Santa Clara County” at: http://www.ed-data.org/county/Santa-Clara

[ii] 53rd Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, Press release 9/2/21

[iii] Transgender bathroom battles: How some parents see it  Christian Science Monitor, Lisa Suhay, May 21, 2016; Jonathan Zimmerman, Why the Culture Wars in Schools Are Worse Than Ever Before, Politico Magazine,, Spet. 19, 2021 at: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/19/history-culture-wars-schools-america-divided-512614

[iv] NCES, “Public School Enrollment Dropped 3 Percent in 2020-2021,” June 28, 2021 at: https://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/press_releases/06_28_2021.asp

[v] Desiree Carver-Thomas and Linda Darling-Hammond,  “Teacher Turnover: Why It  Matters and What We Can Do About It,” (Palo Alto, CA:: Learning Policy Institute, 2017).

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