Learning from Failures in Teaching: Three Students I Have Taught (Part 1)

Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor. Truman Capote, writer

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan, NBA star in the 1990s

I want to tell you about three high school students I have taught. While the 2020s are surely different than the 1950s through mid-1970s when I taught high school, I believe that there is much in the core nature of children and youth and the public school experience that is stable over time. If readers do not share that belief, they may have a hard time with this series of posts.  

First, Harold. Lanky, always stylishly dressed and so clever, he drove me up my four classroom walls. Harold was 19 and in the 11th grade. He had failed all of his subjects the year before he entered my U.S. history class. Yet he scored above national norms on college board exams.

Harold was never, and I mean, never on time to class, that is, when he chose to come to class. About five minutes after the bell, he would bang through the rear door of the room, clip-clop over to his seat. Passing a friend, he would lean over, hand cupped to his mouth, and whisper something. Anyone in earshot would laugh uproariously. Harold had arrived. Another lesson interrupted.

Whenever the class got into meaty discussions with students interacting over ideas raised in the lesson, Harold was superb in his insights and arguing skills. He used evidence to back up his statements without any encouragement from me. He revealed a sharp, inquiring mind.

But this did not happen often. What happened most of the time was that Harold would wisecrack, twist what people say, or simply beat a point to death. When that occurred, class discussion swirled around him. He loved that. He was frequently funny and delivered marvelous gag lines impromptu. In short, within the first few weeks of this class, he had settled into a comfortable role of wise buffoon. He knew precisely how to psyche teachers and how far he could go with each one.

I’m unsure how the class perceived him. When students worked in groups, no one chose to work with Harold. When I selected group members, the one he was in quickly fragmented and he would ask to work independently. On a number of occasions during class discussions, other students would tell him to shut up. I suspect that his fellow students liked him as a clown as much as he needed to act as one.

I grew to dislike Harold’s behavior intensely while trying hard not to dislike him. It was tough. I tried to deal with his wise buffoon role through after-class conferences and calls to his home with short conversations with his parent.  If he would come to class after these conferences and phone calls, his intelligence would shine as he contributed to class discussions. Time after time, however, he would back-slide. He would keep up with assignments for a week or two then do nothing for a month. He would cut class and when we would see one another in the hallway the same day, we would wave and say hello to one another.

The necessary time and energy for Harold considering one hundred-plus other students, I just didn’t have. In the last three weeks of the semester, when his class-busting behavior crossed my last threshold, I told him that every time he was late, he would spend the period in the library working independently. It was a solution that satisfied him since he would make a dramatic tardy entrance, I would give him the thumb, he would turn, salute me, and exit. It quickly became a ritual that I had locked myself into. And that is how the semester ended.

Due to his sporadic attendance, missed tests and assignments–and I searched my conscience to separate pique from fairness–I gave Harold a failing grade.

But I failed also. I could not reach Harold. He continued to stereotype me as the Teacher and I slipped into stereotyping him as a Pain-in-the-Ass Student. Did he learn anything from me as a person or teacher from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I simply don’t know. Then there was William who I take up in Part 2.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Masks,Vaccinations, and Opening Schools: Decisions amid a Culture War (Part 2)

Parents refusing to send their sons and daughters to school because their school board approved a new set of textbooks from national publishers? Coal miners striking in support of parents refusing to send their children to school? Shots fired in protest crowds protesting the new textbooks? A school superintendent sprayed with mace?

All of that happened in 1974 in Kanawha County, West Virginia (see here and here).

Public schools have become vortexes of conflict in American society repeatedly. From the Scopes trial in the mid-1920s over teaching the theory of evolution in Tennessee to the rooting out of Communists from government posts and schools across the nation in the 1950s amid fears of Soviet Russia’s undermining the nation were other instances of U.S. value conflicts spilling over unto public schools.

In West Virginia’s Kanawha County in 1974, the board of education approved new textbooks reflecting substantial changes in math, the sciences, social studies, and other domains of knowledge. That county board decision led to protests, riots, and strikes. County parents didn’t want their individual rights to rear children in traditional ways that they thought best be subverted by educational experts who wanted the newest knowledge to be available to school children and youth. It became another example drawn from the history of U.S. public schools when political, social, and economic changes in the larger society during the 1950s and 1960s led to later turmoil in schools.

Covid-19 pandemic

And in 2021, amid the twists and turns of a virus that keeps evolving, civic and school officials have split into support for and opposition to children wearing masks in school. Florida, Texas, and Arizona governors (all Republicans), for example, have banned school districts from mandating students wearing masks (see here and here). Let individual parents decide the matter, they argue. Of course, in each state, some school districts objected to the governors’ bans and required all students in their district schools to wear masks. While there is much variation in gubernatorial direction across the 50 states and territories, the pattern of Democratic governors’ adherence and GOP opposition to the guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on masking are evident.

People at a “Save America Rally” in Baton Rouge on the 4th of July across the street from the Governor’s Mansion where about 200 gathered. The 4th of July rally was organized by Jeff Crouer, Mimi Owens and Woody Jenkins, chairman of the executive committee for the Republican Party in East Baton Rouge Parish. Rev. Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church who has held church services in defiance of a stay-at-home order throughout the pandemic was one of the speakers. He an other speakers expressed their displeasure of being told to wear a mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and the removal of confederate monuments.

Yes, we are in another culture war. This one is partisan, however. Democrats and Republican legislators and executives in local, state, and federal jurisdictions largely split over the degree to which they follow the scientific evidence about the changing virus, whether or not to issue mandates to prevent spread of the disease and deciding upon which treatments to pursue. Equally disturbing is that the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed casualties in student losses in academic content and skills and the heightening of already existing inequalities between white, Hispanic, and Black students (e.g.,low-income minority students were far more likely to be directed toward remote instruction rather than face-to-face teaching for longer periods of time than middle- and upper-middle class white children)

Into the existing political divide that has deepened over the past two decades, masking and getting vaccinated have become the most recent instance of warring camps. Yet the conflicting values continue to be present: individual liberty to determine what is best for one’s self and one’s children vs. cooperating with one another to protect the health and safety of the community.

In a democracy where individual and community values inexorably conflict, these contentious debates spilled over schools and caused much torment if not havoc. Those debates and turmoil will slowly resolve as deliberations continue in communities over what is best to do in schooling America’s children during this health crisis. Compromises bridging these values where opposing sides get a half loaf of bread rather than a full one will be struck by political factions. Partisan divides may or may not close as Covid-19 eases, even passes, as vaccinations spread globally but the ongoing threat of future pandemics persists.

Whether the next culture war in the nation will spread to schools as had Covid-19 depends mightily on national leadership and a faith in democratic mechanisms for defusing conflict since, historically, when the nation has a cold, schools sneeze.


Filed under Uncategorized

Masks,Vaccinations, and Opening Schools: Decisions amid a Culture War (Part 1)

The current hullabaloo over getting the vaccine (presently available for anyone over age of 12) and wearing masks while in classrooms and in buildings (see here and here) reveals to me anew two inescapable and historical (but too often forgotten) facts about U.S. public schools as they reopen for the academic year.

First, public schools are political institutions.

Second, tax-supported public schools, past and present, mirror pervasive value conflicts–often called “culture wars”–in society.

Neither of these facts should surprise readers or those who work inside schools, parents or informed observers of American schools. Nor should these facts startle those who rail at the latest missteps of governors and other elected officials in getting students to return to school after 18 months of pandemic back-and-forth about student learning loss, incidence of Covid-19 among children, and wearing masks. Yet the continuing eruption of virus variants and uncertainly surrounding what can and cannot be done to stay safe and healthy raises questions among many Americans about such traditional annual events as students returning to school in August and September. And those questions are political ones.

How so ?

By “political” I do not mean Democratic/GOP partisanship. Surely, that is one form of “political” activity–one that educators avoid at all costs in schools. They largely look upon such activities as being outside the pale of teachers’, board members’ and administrators’ daily work. What I mean by “political” is that decision-makers prize certain values and they build a coalition of supporters using data and deliberative argument to build a coalition of supporters behind particular choices to enact the prized values buried within a policy.

A dramatic instance of this is when thousands of districts closed their schools in March 2020 when Covid-19 turned into an epidemic.

What values drove governors, mayors,and county officials to close schools? Safety and health of children was the over-riding one but it competed with educators’ and parents’ deep concern over loss of academic learning–another value. Throw into the stew pot of competing values, job losses as manufacturing,corporate offices, small businesses, chain restaurants, theaters, leisure industries let people go or ordered that they work from home. A healthy, fully employed workforce where Americans can buy products and services is another value that elected officials prized.

One deeply prized value, however, was subordinate to these official, value-driven decisions as the pandemic unfolded: an individual’s right to make a decision, a value that has been part of the American Creed for centuries. That right to decide what’s best for one’s self includes the parents’ right to determine what’s best for their sons and daughters. As the Covid-19 crisis unfolded over 18 months these values came into conflict over students wearing masks in schools and everyone over the age of 12, including teachers, getting vaccinated.

All of these competing values came into play as elected officials had to decide about closing schools, reopening them,and as the virus spread, quarantining students. Conflicting information about the coronavirus and its variants permitted a previous national administration far more interested in stopping a hemorrhaging economy to urge schools to remain open as the pandemic surged, through the spring, summer, and fall of 2020. This is a stark, recent example of value conflicts and policymakers making political choices among preferred values. Prosaic examples of value-driven, political decisions are also available.

Every American adult, for example, pays federal, state, and local sales, income, and property taxes. Elected officials take these public monies and allocate dollars to services such as police and fire departments, libraries, parks, and, of course, schools. Historically, community leaders established each of these community institutions because they enacted values that citizens wanted. But, and this is a huge “but,” so many communities across the nation vary greatly in their capacity to generate sufficient funds to provide the services their communities want. Inequitable funding of schools and other services are rife across the nation. There are wealthy towns and poor villages. Some cities with highly valued space–think Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, have low tax rates for property yet generate large sums of money, for example, than other places where property values are low and atx rates are high–think large swatches of inner-city Detroit.

Nonetheless, elected officials must determine how much tax funds go to each agency annually. And those decisions are political ones. The uproar after the death of George Floyd in May 2020, for example, led to calls for redistributing funds from city police departments to other agencies that can help the homeless and those in need for mental health support. Where such policies were made, as in Minneapolis and other cities, they are clearly political decisions sparked by protests and calls for change.

Without as much fanfare and conflict, similar political decisions, undergirded by data collected by staff, are inherent to school boards drawing up annual school budgets. Or school boards setting attendance boundaries within a district. Or deciding what kinds of racial and ethnic content should be included in the curriculum and at what grade levels such content should be in teacher lessons. Or re-draw school attendance areas to increase or decrease numbers of affluent and poor students at particular schools. All of these are political decisions where contending and prized values arise and local/state authorities have to decide which values they support.

Ditto for practical school district questions that have allies on each side of an answer to the following questions. Should the district with a shrinking budget hire more teachers? How much funding should go to renovating older buildings while maintaining existing ones? Buy more laptops for elementary school or middle school students? Such budgetary questions surrounded by staff-collected data arise often in school districts. Neighborhood groups and local associations as well as individual citizens lobby for their favorite activity (e.g.,expand middle school sports program) or unexpected events push to the surface district needs that have to be met (e.g., collapse of a swimming pool). Amid these competing needs–each representing a value prized by members of the community who pay taxes– political decisions get made.

And here is where the tortured debate over mandating masks in schools enters the picture of political decision-making.

The values driving the policy debate about masking mandates in schools seem to be clear: personal liberty vs. community safety and health. To be free to decide what is best for one’s self and family–individualism–is a historic and treasured value in American democracy yet it is in conflict with an equally treasured and historic value, keeping community members safe from diseases that maim and kill. In this instance, a virus that is hard to contain and continues to spread. And then even a third value enters the mix: how much weight should be given to scientific experts’ recommendations, say for vaccines or quarantines that override parents’ wishes when health and safety of their children are at stake ?

I take up these conflicting values in Part 2 as another instance of tax-supported public schools mirroring the turmoil of the larger society.


Filed under Uncategorized

School Reopening Cartoons

Another school year is upon us. It is the second fall reopening since the Covid-19 pandemic of March 2020. Can’t let a pandemic stop the flow of cartoons about parents sending off children to school in 2021. Enjoy!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Teaching Then and Now (Part 2)

In part 1, I laid out the rationale for a new book I am planning to write. In this post, I offer the content and format of the proposed book by asking six questions too often unasked by policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents prior to embarking on a mission to improve teaching in America’s classrooms.

  1. How have public school teachers taught?

I describe teacher-centered instruction (TCI) and student-centered instruction (SCI), the two traditions of teaching and their hybrids that became evident between 1890-1940.

Conclusion: while hybrids of both traditions emerged in 20th century, dominant practice was TCI in planning and enactment—accepted as norm in white and Black schools throughout century; SCI and its hybrids appeared in districts and schools scattered across the U.S.

Data will be drawn from archival sources such as teacher and student surveys, direct observations of lessons from supervisors, journalists, researchers, and other primary sources.

2.Has public school teaching changed over time?

I list incremental changes in teaching practices that have occurred in the 20th century such as upgrading of standards for certifying teachers’ content knowledge and classroom skills; moving from formal to informal teacher dress and classroom behavior; less corporal punishment and more non-physical options to control classroom behavior; from total reliance on whole group teaching to using small groups and independent work; from students’ rote recitations based on textbook to broader participation in discussions.

While there have been many incremental changes in schools and classroom practice, there have been few fundamental changes except for districts adopting the age-graded school organization, court-ordered school desegregation in 1970s, and states passing charter school laws since the 1990s. Few scholars have looked at whether these governance and organizational changes modified classroom practices.

I conclude that most 20th century teachers used combinations of different practices drawing from what they learned from other teachers, in university schools of education, research findings, and what could be used within the constraints of the age-graded school organization.

3. Why did teaching change?

aI look at how the impact of social/political/economic movements (e.g., Progressive, civil rights, business-driven movements spilling over public schools) influenced schools’ organization and governance but had few effects upon classroom practice.

There has also been a decided growth in knowledge about how children and youth learn. A science of teaching and learning emerged in the 1970s (e.g., Nate Gage’s work on effective teaching) and 1990s and early 2000s (e.g., psychologists’ findings on how children learn). Much of this “science of learning” was disseminated through university schools of education.

I will also include a section on the absence of changes in curriculum and classroom practice as a result of pandemic 2020-2022

4. How should teachers teach? Historically, the literature on teaching has been split unevenly between how teachers do teach and how they should teach.  

I begin with late-19th century critics of TCI including early Progressives calling for “New Education” and student-centered instruction. By the mid-20th century, these reformers had been especially successful in altering kindergarten and primary grade instruction with much reduced influence in secondary schools.

I then take up business-oriented boosters of technology since 1980s who promised that classroom practice would be transformed into individualized learning that would become standard practice.  In subsequent decades, there were sporadic eruptions of reform aimed at the “shoulds” of classroom practice especially chasing the dream that a science of learning accompanied by new technologies would get into teachers’ hands and reshape their lessons.

And a few “shoulds” did become mainstream practices in public schools such as “developmentally appropriate” content and classroom practices in preschool and primary grades.  In secondary schools, classroom discussions and extracurricular activities became places where Progressivise-inspired practices had their largest impact.

Yet other highly prized “shoulds” were talked about and adopted in name only but seldom implemented in classrooms (e.g., students decide what they should learn; curriculum growing out of children interests, problems; abandoning letter grades; converting traditional building architecture into open space learning pods in 1960s/70s.

Why were these “shoulds” so hard for teachers to incorporate into classroom practice? A number of reasons come to mind: Lack of teacher agreement on the worth of these proposed changes; teacher resistance because the changes hardly dealt with the classroom problems teachers faced. In addition, historians (e.g., Lawrence Cremin, David Cohen) have argued that Progressive reformers expected too much of teachers given the age-graded organization within which they worked daily, lack of incentives, etc.

5. How do teachers teach now?

To answer this question I establish current patterns of teaching across K-12 classrooms in 2020s using pre- and post-pandemic national, state, and local teacher surveys, student perceptions, teacher reports, journalists articles; teacher logs, etc. 

The answer to the question provides the lead-up to a puzzling question that will bring the book to a close.

6. Although teaching has changed since the 1890s, why has it also remained more teacher-centered than student-centered?

Even with demographic changes in those recruited into teaching in early to mid-20th century and those who go into teaching now—from nearly all female to increased presence of male and minority teachers—women teachers remain the majority throughout American elementary and secondary schools. Moreover, these teachers are more fully educated than peers in past decades and upon entry to teaching have far more expertise in content and skills. Yet even with those changes, the historical pattern of high teacher attrition remains stable, that is, one out of five teachers leave within five years.

Even with these changes in teacher demography and preparation, the emergence of hybrids in classroom teaching, the decided tilt toward teacher-centered instruction rather than student-centered instruction remains.  

Why is that?

Here I reprise work of scholars David Cohen, Lawrence Cremin, and myself to explain the puzzling constancy in classroom practices (e.g., too much is expected of teachers in putting Progressive ideas into practice given the organizational conditions under which they teach). Thus, reformers’ demands for student-centered instruction continue to encounter implacable organizational imperatives that account in part for the dominance of teacher-centeredness among hybrid forms of teaching. 

But this explanation is partial and needs to be expanded to include other factors that have come into play over the past century to explain both change and stability in classroom practices.

I will include in an explanation, the following factors:

(1) The constancy of the age-graded school organization;

(2) Teacher beliefs on the how and what of teaching;

(3) Popular beliefs on the how and what of teaching;

(4) Sociologist Dan Lortie’s insight—“apprenticeship of observation” that helps to explain continuity in practice, that is, by the age of 24 teachers with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hand have spent at least 18 years in classrooms or 75% of their life span in schools.

The final chapter summarizes answers to the core questions I asked and peeks around the corner to what post-pandemic classroom practices might look like.


Filed under Uncategorized

Teaching Then and Now (Part 1)

Teaching has been central to my professional and personal life. I taught high school history for 14 years in public schools and 20 years as a professor at a private university. And at home, family and friends have pointed out to me in conversations when I am using my “teacher voice,” shorthand for talking as if I am an authority on the subject at hand.

For the past 40 years as a professor and researcher, I have sat in hundreds of classrooms across the country but especially in the San Francisco Bay area. Those observations and archival research into current and past classroom records of lessons, teacher self-reports, logs and diaries,and student remembrances of their teachers have become the threads from which I have woven many studies of teaching over the years.

What became clear to me in the school-based research I did was a simple fact: most researchers into classroom teaching do drive-by or occasional observations of lessons yet too often generalize what they found to most teachers at the level or subject area they researched. The small number of studies of actual lessons teachers taught, past and present, is a problem in finding out what goes on in millions of classrooms in American public schools. And knowing what actually occurs in classrooms–how teachers teach–is essential to figuring out what and how should teachers teach. In short, teaching policy has to be based on a sure-footed knowledge of what happens daily in most U.S. classrooms.

These posts are drawn from a book proposal.

For nearly a century and a half, much has been written about the quality and practice of teaching. Often preachy, sometimes critical, occasionally admiring, these books, articles, and conference papers would easily fill one empty 18-wheeler tractor-trailer. That, of course, does not include the digital ocean of material since the early 2000s. Stacked on thumb drives and laptops, they could be easily slipped inside the cab of that three-axle big rig. 

Yet the mass of written material produced by policymakers, self-styled experts on teaching, former teachers, journalists, researchers, former students, parents—I could go on but will stop here—comes from keyboards of writers who once sat at classroom desks, listened to teachers, read textbooks, and did homework. Once students, these writers formed opinions on teaching as it is, was, and what has been right and wrong about it.

Looking at these massive stacks of paper and digital literature generalizing about the familiar daily practices that today’s 3-plus million teachers engage in with over 51 million students in nearly 100,000 schools arrayed across over 13,000 school districts in the nation’s 50 states and territories, one comes away hardly surprised at the unevenness of the studies, the polarities embedded in the cache, the narrowness of the questions asked, and the broad generalizations made about how American teachers have taught over the past century and teach now. *

Only a bare sliver of all of this writing, however, covers how teachers actually taught then and now or the conditions under which daily teaching occurred across this massive decentralized system of schooling.

Why has so much been written about teaching, especially how they should teach but far less about how they taught and how they do teach today. And that is what this book is about.**

In view of how little has been written about the actual practice of teaching, why is it important to know how teachers have taught, do teach now, and the conditions–the context–under which teaching then and now occurred?

The straightforward answer is that reformers eager to move teaching to what it should be must be clear first about how U.S. teachers have actually taught and do teach today before designing ways to get teachers to teach as they ought to. If I had more space, I would repeat this last sentence and put it in capital letters.

For example, a few historians have established the fact that most teachers have embraced teacher-centered instruction in their daily lessons rather than student-centered instruction both in the past and currently. Why did that occur?***

Do teachers freely choose how to teach or are they driven by their beliefs and values about teaching and learning? What role do students play in determining how teachers teach? Do teachers teach as they were taught? Or have the organizations in which they have taught and do teach now—the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling”— shaped the character of teaching and learning.

These and other policy questions need to be answered in part or wholly with concrete data about actual classroom practices before more reforms aimed at altering instruction get launched.  Yet within that big rig trailer-load of previous literature on teaching, writers hardly asked—save for a few scholars and practitioners–these crucial questions.  Existing historical and contemporary data are missing so the above questions get answered by those who have the juiciest anecdotes, political muscle, or are willing to spend liberally (I include both policymakers and donors) to enact their visions of how schools and classrooms ought to be. ****

To get to the point where data answering realistic policy queries about what happens in classrooms can be assessed, I ask six seldom asked questions. These questions form the core of the book since each question will be a chapter. An introductory chapter will include a synthesis of the bifurcated literature (few studies of how American teachers teach overwhelmed by a deluge of accounts of how teachers should teach). The concluding chapter will summarize the main points of the book drawn from answers to these six questions and suggest what policymakers, researchers, and practitioners should keep in mind when thinking about what teaching is and what it should be, given its history, organizational conditions, and archival record.


*It is hard to generalize about how teachers teach now and in the past because of how few archival records there are and what sources exist are fragmentary given the size of the decentralized U.S. system. U.S. schools are spread across over 13,000 districts, nearly 100,000 schools employing 3.2 million teachers teaching over 51 million students (2016).

The huge repository of studies and material on teaching that fills a tractor-trailer contain few teacher lessons, descriptions of classroom teaching, teacher self-reports and diaries of classroom activities. While there have been periodic surveys of American teachers, case studies of schools and their classrooms, and reports of professional and lay observers of lessons, these are scattered across districts and state archives. In short, data are limited.

**NGRAMs of Teacher-centered instruction and student-centered instruction and how teachers should teach can be found at: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=student+centered+instruction%2Cteacher+centered+instruction%2Chow+teachers+should+teach&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cstudent%20centered%20instruction%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cteacher%20centered%20instruction%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Chow%20teachers%20should%20teach%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2Cstudent%20centered%20instruction%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cteacher%20centered%20instruction%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Chow%20teachers%20should%20teach%3B%2Cc0

***There have been only a few studies over the past half-century that have described and analyzed daily classroom practice then and now. Each has distinct stengths and limitations. See, for example, Barbara Finkelstein, Governing the Young (1989); John Goodlad, A Place Called School (1984); Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (1984), Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (1968), David Cohen,  “Teaching Practice; Plus ca Change” (1988); Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (1975).

****For a recent example of a national report commissioned by former President Donald Trump, see “The 1776 Report” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1776_Commission


Filed under Uncategorized

It’s Time for Teachers — and Textbooks — To Capitalize the “B” in Black (Michael Hines and Charles Tocci)

Charles Tocci is an assistant professor of education at Loyola University Chicago and co-author of “The Curriculum Foundations Reader.”

Michael Hines is an assistant professor of education at the Graduate School of Education, Stanford University, and author of the forthcoming book, “A Worthy Piece of Work: The Untold Story of Madeline Morgan and the Fight for Black History in Schools” from Beacon Press.

This article appeared in Chalkbeat, August 3, 2021

As teacher educators and historians who study American education, we know that how and what we teach students about race has been controversial and contested for centuries. Progress is frustratingly slow, and the forces of retrenchment and reaction are always present. Yet some victories, even seemingly small ones, can be meaningful and build momentum for broader change. With that in mind, we feel it’s time for teachers and textbook makers to capitalize the “B” in Black and teach the 143-year (and counting) struggle behind it.

The rationale for “Black” when referring to the racial group is as simple as it is compelling. It recognizes the distinct and vital roles that people of African descent have played in American society. In author Lori Tharp’s words, using the lowercase “b” is “in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.”

For educators, teaching the foundational place of Black history in the history of the United States is essential, as is teaching about the evolving nature of our everyday language. Capitalizing Black opens opportunities to engage with Black history and learn valuable lessons about how social change is made.

The movement to capitalize is not new. In 1878, just after Reconstruction, Ferdinand Lee Barnett wrote the article “Spell It with a Capital” in his newly established newspaper, The Chicago Conservator. Barnett, who would later marry the American investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, was referring to “Negro,” the prevailing term of the time that has long been spelled in the lowercase. In the same vein, Edward A. Johnson noted in his groundbreaking 1894 textbook, A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890,”“I respectfully request that my fellow-teachers will see to it that the word Negro is written with a capital N. It deserves to be so enlarged, and will help, perhaps, to magnify the race it stands for in the minds of those who see it.”

W.E.B. DuBois followed this lead in his first book, “The Philadelphia Negro,” staking his argument for the capital “N” in a first-page footnote: “I shall throughout this study use the term “Negro,” to designate all people of Negro descent … I shall, moreover, capitalize the word, because I believe that eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.” DuBois would go on to co-found the NAACP and, through his personal correspondence as well as the organization’s decades-long letter-writing campaign, lobby publications like the New York Times and the New Republic to standardize “Negro.” By the 1950s, concerted pressure had made this common usage.

The 1960s was an era of changing racial consciousness, and the terms “Negro” and “black” overlapped in the popular discourse. Dr. Martin Luther King used both in 1963’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but as the decade moved on, “black” and “Black” typically indicated a more activist and change-oriented mindset as well as a way of proactively redefining racial solidarity. The matter of capitalization varied, though. Kwame Toure, known previously as Stokely Carmichael, popularized the phrase “black power” and used the lowercase throughout his book of the same name. Conversely, the Black Panthers’ “10 Point Program” used the capitalized phrase “Black People.”

Among student activism movements of the time, there is similar variation, but many already regularly employed the capital “B.” The University of North Carolina’s Black Student Movement and San Francisco State’s Third World Liberation Front both capitalized the B in 1968. The Black Student Federation, a high school student movement that led an anti-segregation walk out of Boston Public Schools in 1971, also used the capital B.

While the fight for capitalization has stretched well over a century, our schools and the major textbook publishers have been slow to adapt.All of the three largest companies’ most recent high school-level American history survey texts use “black”: McGraw-Hill’s “Unfinished Nation,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “American History,”and Pearson’s “The American Journey.” “The American Yawp,” a popular scholarly, free, online textbook, just revised its text to “Black” last fall.

So when we capitalize Black in our classrooms, by editing our textbooks and updating our handouts, we join a long tradition of educators, intellectuals, and activists who have evolved our language in order to change our world. And when we teach our students why we have made this change, we demonstrate how Black history has shaped our lives and invite students to inquire further.

As we make this shift, we need to use Black and other race identifiers as adjectives, not nouns. We should also strive to be as specific as possible, noting nationalities, ethnicities, and other identities particular to the people being studied for accuracy and to resist stereotyping. For instance, “Asian” is a category that covers over four billion people, so indicating precisely that we mean Koreans or the Uyghurs of China or Kurds spread across several countries is important. Finally, it is vital to acknowledge that all peoples are racialized, and we should also capitalize the “W” in White so that we don’t implicitly make White people the default or the aspirational “people without a race.”

Capitalizing the “B” in Black isn’t just a typeface change in our classrooms. It is a milestone within a long historical struggle for oppressed people to self-define and assert their humanity in the face of racism. And when our students engage with this past, we invite them to take part in its future. Our young people must learn that how we refer to ourselves — our racial identities, our pronouns, and beyond — is powerful; it is an act of self-naming in the pursuit of freedom. As the historian Nell Irvin Painter so eloquently put it, “Spelling may not change the world, but it signals willingness to try.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Blog Anniversary

Dear Readers,

This post marks my 12th anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and, finally, those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments. Also to the growing number of international readers, I am grateful for your attention to one American’s viewpoint on school reform and classroom practice in the U.S.

As with all things, there is a history to writing this blog. My daughter Janice who is a writer in marketing communication urged me to begin a blog in 2009. She guided me through the fits-and-starts of working on this platform. I thank her for getting me started on this writing adventure.

For the nearly 1500 posts I have written since 2009, I have followed three rules:

1. Write about 800 words.

2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.

3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.

Sticking to these rules has been no easy task. Yet after twelve years, I have found the writing very satisfying. I remain highly motivated to write about policymakers, administrators, teachers, and students–all who inhabit the policy-to-practice continuum–and all who in different ways, with varied ideas, seek to improve schooling. Even amid the past 18 months of the Covid pandemic and school closures.

To me, writing is a form of teaching and learning. The learning part comes from figuring out what I want to say on a topic, researching it, drafting a post, and then revising it more times than I would ever admit so that the post says what I want it to say. Learning also has come from the surprises I have found in the suggestions and comments readers post—“Did I really say that?” “Wow! That is an unexpected view on what I said,” or “I had never considered that point.” Finally, I have learned a lot from simply researching the series of posts about previous school reforms that I published over the past few years called: “Whatever Happened To….”

The teaching part comes from putting my ideas out there in a clearly expressed, logical argument, buttressed by evidence, for readers who may agree or disagree about an issue I am deeply interested in. As in all teaching, planning enters the picture in how I frame the central question I want readers to consider and how I put the argument and evidence together in a clear, coherent, and crisp blog of about 800 words.

Because of my background as a high school teacher, administrator, policymaker, and historian of education I often give a question or issue its context, both past and present. I do so, and here I put my teacher hat on, since I believe that current school reform and practice are deeply rooted in the past. Learning from earlier generations of reformers’ experiences in coping with the complexities of improving how teachers taught, and how they tried to change schools and districts, I believe, can inform current reformers about the tasks they face. Contemporary reformers, equally well-intentioned as their predecessors, in too many instances ignore what has occurred previously and end up bashing teachers and principals for not executing properly their reform-driven policies.

Expressing my sincere gratitude toward readers for the blogging I have done over the past 12 years is a preface to what I will begin writing in this 13th year of posts. Obviously, I will describe and analyze the effects of the pandemic on a key societal institution and its impact on efforts to improve schools. And how teachers, administrators, and students have been coping with this crisis. Again, thanks to those readers who have taken the time to click onto my blog. I deeply appreciate it.

Larry Cuban


Filed under Uncategorized

Classrooms Around the World: What Do You See?

This post is a series of photographs of classrooms taken in 17 countries to mark UNESCO-sponsored World Teachers’ Day (October 5, 2015). Instead of my offering commentary on these diverse photos, I ask viewers to offer their impressions of these classrooms around the world.  I look forward to reading your comments. Thank you.

enhanced-buzz-wide-30661-1444017181-7                                                               Class 11 girl students attend a class at Zarghona high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-26855-1444017702-8Art teacher Hanna Snitko poses for a picture with final year students of the Ukrainian Humanities Lyceum in their classroom in Kiev, Ukraine. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)enhanced-buzz-wide-2998-1444017966-7Master Mohammad Ayoub poses with his fifth-grade students at a local park in Islamabad, Pakistan. ( Caren Firouz / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-21478-1444018071-7Tahfiz or Koranic students in Madrasah Nurul Iman boarding school outside Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. (Olivia Harris / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-29919-1444018208-7Teacher Marcos Paulo Geronimo with first-grade high school students from the Dante Alighieri school in São Paulo, Brazil. (Paulo Whitaker / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-25251-1444018350-7Students of the Don Bosco Technical Collegue in Quito, Ecuador. (Guillermo Granja / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-15540-1444018411-7Teacher Moulay Ismael Lamrani with his class in the Oudaya primary school in Rabat, Morocco. (Youssef Boudlal / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-20158-1444018562-11Year 9 Biology boys class with teacher Suzanne Veitch at Forest School in London, England. (Russell Boyce / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-17503-1444018650-7First-grade students with their teacher Teruko Takakusaki during their homeroom period at Takinogawa Elementary School in Tokyo, Japan. (Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-692-1444018731-7Teacher Hanan Anzi with Syrian refugee students at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)


Teachers Carla Smith and Laura Johnson pose for a picture with their third grade class at Jesse Sherwood Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, United States. (Jim Young / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-27620-1444018880-8Teacher Ana Dorrego with students of the rural school Agustin Ferreira on the outskirts of Minas city, Uruguay. (Andres Stapff / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-2998-1444018815-15A teacher leads a class session at the ecole primaire Ave Marie in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-1941-1444019527-7Teacher Kahon Rochel with students at the the EPV Sinai primary school in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Luc Gnago / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-19365-1444019475-8Nguyen Thi Phuong teaches a third-grade class in the primary school of Van Chai in Dong Van district north of Hanoi, Vietnam. (Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-920-1444019195-7Mohammed Zurob marks an exercise for his first-grade students during an English lesson inside a classroom at Taha Huseen elementary school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)

enhanced-buzz-wide-10544-1444019039-8Students of the 10th form of the Gymnasium 1567 with their teacher of history, Tamara Eidelman, in Moscow, Russia. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)




Filed under how teachers teach

The Gift That Keeps Giving (Bill Plitt)

I have known Bill Plitt since the late-1960s when I hired him to teach social studies as part of a federally-funded teacher training program located at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. We have been close friends ever since. Plitt has directed teacher education programs, taught history for many years in Northern Virginia high schools and has traveled to Israel many times to work with Arab and Israeli citizens seeking peaceful solutions on the West Bank. I asked him to write this post after he told me about the “timeless story.”

Upon reflection of a career in teaching that spanned nearly 50 years, I realize the many ways in which one can teach (and learn). Classroom teaching in Belize as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 60s led to an internship through Howard University at Cardozo High School in DC in that same decade. After that, many years were spent working with teachers in their pre-service preparation and with classroom teachers in their in-service courses, and after a return to the classroom for 12 years until my official retirement, I felt most days were gifts to me.

More specifically, as I look back to the hundreds of students of all shapes and sizes who came into my life, and I hear from them about those moments that meant the most to them, it was not the content of what I had been teaching (somewhat to my chagrin) that they remembered. It was, instead, those experiences found in the deeper realm of caring. To this point, I would say of my own experience as a student through the years that it was those teachers who cared about me that I remember the most.

For many years, I used a now popular book called “I’ll Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. I’ve used it with hundreds of groups, from gatherings of three (father, mother, baby) to several hundred in church and school settings. I shared it with nearly every class of high school students I taught as well as every teacher group I led since 1987. It is a timeless story – the story that always draws listeners into it, for it speaks to us all, regardless of age or position. Some hear it more personally than others. No doubt many of you have read and shared this story with students and children of your own. The refrain repeated through the life of a child by the parent is a simple one:

“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always.

As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

Early on I put the verse to music and taught the simple lyrics to the audiences, small and large, so that they could participate in the telling through their own mantras and music.

Over the years, I heard from many of my former students about their memory of hearing that story. One in particular stands out. In 2000, I was leading a “school-within-a-school program” in a high school in Northern Virginia. It was a special program that offered support for incoming 9th grade students who were labeled (mostly incorrectly) as “At Risk.” (Actually, I believe that most 9th graders may fit that burdensome name for numerous reasons.)

On the first day of a new school year, and after taking care of the many house-keeping chores teachers were required to do at that time, I would end my class by reading this story and teaching them the verse. As I did then, and would do every year from 1987 on, I would read those last words of the story, often bringing a powerful moment of silence and, for some, tears. After reading the story, we often felt connected in new and wonderful ways without using words. You might have felt similar moments in your own classroom experiences as you began to see your students, and they to see you as their teacher, in new and wonderful ways. Our time together, no doubt, took a positive route from the very beginning because of that effect I sensed then; I can still feel it today.

At the end of that class in 1987, a student waited rather impatiently, but cautiously, until all of other students had left, before saying to me, “Mr. Plitt. That was the most beautiful story I have ever heard. I am going to share it with my parents.” Now, this student had been labeled as difficult in the 8th grade, labeling which I generally dismissed at the beginning of the school year and continued to withhold judgment on throughout the rest of the year. In retrospect, that exchange at the end of the class changed us both in wonderful ways. We had nothing to prove to each other for the rest of that year. WE had connected as caring people.

Later, that student kept in touch with me. He was awarded a scholarship upon graduation from high school, and throughout his continuing studies that led to a degree in business, we stayed in contact. After working with neighborhood teenage boys for some time, who probably reflected his own school experiences, he decided to return to graduate school and completed a degree in counseling. A year later, he was hired as a counselor to work with students with special needs in a local high school.

He connected with me on Facebook, as many others have over the years through some form of social media. Underneath a picture of him, in which he held a copy of “I’ll Love You Forever,” he wrote, “I have my own copy now!” He let me know that he had shared the story and song with his “special needs” students who had the same reaction to it as he had experienced.

It was truly a gift that keeps on giving. I wonder how many others who crossed the threshold of my classrooms have done the same thing with this little book that shows the simple power of love and caring.


Some years ago, when I thanked Bob for producing this book, he said, “I never planned on it being a book that would sell. My publisher said I’d be lucky to sell 1,000 copies.” The first year, it would sell 100,000 copies. In subsequent years, he sold a million copies and has done so ever since then. It has also been translated into a wide variety of languages. Personally, I’ve used the Spanish version with mothers in small villages in Mexico as well as with Arab women in Palestine. They all get it! Bob also said in a return letter to me that he and his wife were never able to have children of their own, and they even lost two still-born babies. I believe that their story reaches many of us even more deeply because of that personal sense of loss. They passed on their own love and sense of caring as a gift to others.

Final thought

I must note in light of this classroom discovery of the gift that never stops giving and stressing the “habits of the heart”, I also gave my students the opportunity to apply the skills of a historian and a geographer to the content of the curriculum.  I owed this approach to instruction from the early days as an intern teacher in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching, and practiced and refined this approach in my role as a teacher over the next four decades.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized