Cartoons on Teaching English

For this month I have turned to cartoonists who draw on their experiences in English, reading, and language arts lessons. Enjoy!



























Filed under Uncategorized

America’s Best Charter School Doesn’t Look Anything Like Other Top Charters. Is that Bad? (Richard Whitmire)

“Richard Whitmire is the author of several books, most recently “The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools.” Whitmire is a member of the Journalism Advisory Board of The 74.”

This article was in The 74; it appeared March 27, 2016.


This is my second visit to the East Boston campus of Edward Brooke Charter Schools. During a previous stop,  I sat down with co-director Kimberly Steadman. She was helpful, but I’ll have to admit I walked away wondering: Why is this (arguably) the nation’s top-performing charter? I still don’t get it.

A year later I returned, still looking to answer that question. I arrived a few days after the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to allow Brooke a high school so students from its current three schools can transition into a high school run with the same philosophy and results.

Said state Commissioner Mitchell Chester: “It would be hard to overstate the track record of educational performance (at Brooke).” Keep in mind, this green light to expand happened in Massachusetts, a state in the throes of the nation’s most bitter fight over charters.

This time I sat down with Steadman’s husband, and co-director, Jon Clark, who founded Brooke. Even an hour into the interview I was worried once again: Am I going to walk away and still not understand Brooke’s secret sauce (a horrible cliché, but it gets to the heart of it) that makes them the best charter school in Massachusetts, a state that boasts the nation’s top-performing charters?

Among charter founders, Clark is unique. Quiet, studious, not given to bragging, not out to conquer the world by sprinkling charters in every state or even outside Boston. He’s prone to crediting his wife more than himself and offers only general clues to watch for as I start my classroom observations. It’s all about the teaching, he advised me.

What school leader doesn’t say that?

At the moment, the advice didn’t seem particularly helpful. At the end of the day am I going to climb into a cab to head back to Boston’s Logan Airport still puzzling over how Brooke takes in a student population that’s almost entirely low income and entirely minority, and turns them into scholars with test scores that match students enjoying the privilege of growing up white in a wealthy Boston suburb?


1458920497_9289.jpgSome top charters talk about closing achievement gaps; Brooke actually does it.

Here’s the challenge about Brooke: It’s a group of K-8 schools, essentially a mom-and-pop charter, a creation of Clark and Steadman. Aren’t the nation’s best charters supposed to emerge from prestigious charter management organizations such as KIPP and Achievement First?

There’s more to the challenge. Unlike many top charters, especially Rocketship charters out of California, a blended learning pioneer (creating personalized learning by leaning on computer-based instruction) that I followed for more than a year while writing a book, “On the Rocketship,” Brooke mostly eschews computer learning. No blended learning to be seen anywhere.

Why? Clark has yet to find a software learning program that impresses him. Brooke’s entire emphasis is on teacher quality. Why would you subtract from teacher time by sending students off for laptop instruction?

The challenge goes on. Unlike many “no excuses” charter groups which adopt a highly scripted instructional style that could be set to a metronome, Brooke is pretty laid back. There’s no heavy “culture” pressure here.

“Our kids do well on tests because they love reading”

At Brooke, elementary students have carpeted squares they sit on for up-close-and-personal sessions with the teacher, but if a student happens to spill over into the next square there’s no command-and-control correction coming from the teacher, as I have seen in many “no excuses” charters. Yes, they file quietly through the hallways when changing classes, but nobody has to hold their hands behind their back or cupped in front of them.

In fact, if you suddenly forgot that every single student there comes from a non-privileged background, you could easily imagine you were in a private school where the students are somehow just naturally curious and well behaved, interested in every comment made by a fellow students.

Sounds intriguing, right? But how do they do it? I’m mid-way through my day-long stay here, and I still don’t have a real clue. Clark doesn’t make me feel any better when he advises me to watch classrooms for evidence of Brooke’s twin pillar philosophy in action: “challenged” and “known.” Challenged I get. But “known?”

The first insight into my unanswered question came as I tagged along with teacher Heidi Deck after she walked her fourth-graders across the street in very blustery conditions to physical education. One unique thing about being a Brooke teacher, she said, is that the instruction always starts with an unfamiliar problem, something the students haven’t seen before.

Deck went on to describe flipped instruction. In most math classrooms, teachers present a problem, demonstrate the solution and then have the students practice. It’s dubbed the “I do-we do-you do” method of instruction. Rinse and repeat.

Not at Brooke. Here, teachers start by presenting a new problem and then invite the students to solve it on their own, armed only with the tools from previous lessons. “We really push kids to be engaged with the struggle,” explained Deck.

Next, the teacher invites students to collaborate with one another in trying to solve the problem, which is followed by more individual attempts to solve it. Then there’s a classroom discussion about different ways students tried to solve it, with teachers doing their best to draw out solutions from the students. Ideally, they carry the weight of the instruction, learning from one another.

“The kids have to do the logical work of figuring something out rather than repeating what the teacher does,” said Steadman, who acts as the chief academic officer.

That posits math instruction more in the real world. Aren’t we always coming up against unfamiliar challenges, from calculating the wisest purchase to computing taxes?

And there’s another advantage: There’s no panic when Brooke students come across a math problem on the state exam they’ve never seen before. Instead they ask: What are the tools I already have to solve this?


Here’s another intriguing feature about Brooke: The reading scores here are as high as the math scores. That may not sound unusual, but it is. At almost any other top charter I visit that serves high-poverty students the math scores tend to soar while the reading scores are barely any better than neighborhood schools.

Why? The explanation always offered is that math gets taught in classrooms; literacy is more rooted in home life. Plus, in charters that rely on using computerized blended learning, the math software is great; the literacy software usually mediocre or worse.

The reason the math and reading scores align at Brooke comes down to a simple-but-radical approach to literacy: Reading is taught not as something mechanical (you will never see a reading worksheet at Brooke) but as something to be loved. In a traditional school, including charters, a child struggling with reading gets special help in breaking down the process into small pieces, with teachers searching for deficits that need correcting.

Brooke emphasizes phonics as much as any school, but on a broader level. A struggling reader at Brooke first gets asked: Why don’t you love reading? To the Brooke teachers, finding a way to unlock that love is as important, or more important, than isolating mechanical deficiencies.

“The goal is to get kids to love text so they become lifelong readers,” said Steadman. “Our kids do well on tests because they love reading.”


Yet another observation about Brooke. Visit any school in the country, charter or traditional, and the classroom walls will be full of colorful posters, student work and the daily academic goals. It wasn’t until about the third classroom I dropped in on that I noticed something different: At Brooke, the walls have that regular art but slathered over that are huge, jumbled tear sheets revealing classroom discussions about math, religion, history, a novel, pretty much anything.


These posters are chock-full of teacher scribbles of student comments, kind of like those Hollywood movies about math savants who fill blackboards with calculations. It all feels rich and creamy.


Take Deck’s fourth-grade classroom: The back wall is covered with tear sheets revealing elaborate graphs created with orange, blue, purple and green markers. There’s one labeled: Comparing decimals. Another: Divisibility rules. Another: What do I do with a remainder? On a side wall, two charts that break down a novel’s inner workings are partially covered by a tear sheet spelling out the players in the underground railway.


The complex wall arts points to one thing: Some serious and enthusiastic scholarship took place here. Here’s something else you notice about Brooke: There are a lot fewer students walking through the hallways. Actually, this is a pretty big difference (I may have saved the best for last.)


Brooke does something with its middle school grades that few others do. They structure them on an elementary school model, keeping students mostly in self-contained classrooms with the same teachers throughout the day. All those in-school shuffles between math, reading and science, prompted by soul-deafening buzzers. Not happening here.

Interesting story how that happened, and it’s all about Steadman. Or, to put it more precisely, it’s all about her husband, Clark,  listening closely to Steadman, who arrived at Brooke in 2004 as a seventh-grade math teacher. Her prior experience had been as a fifth- grade math teacher. But really, she asked herself, how different could it be teaching seventh grade? As it turned out, a lot.

At that time Brooke’s older grades operated like a traditional middle school, where students changed classes to see teachers who specialized in math, reading or science. So Steadman taught nothing but math, class after class — and didn’t like it.

Aside from not getting to know the students that well, she missed the teacher collaboration she enjoyed in elementary schools where all the teachers who taught, say fourth grade, got together to plan what all fourth-grade classes should be studying that week. Wondered Steadman: Why should middle school be different?

After Steadman launched the elementary program, Brooke undertook an internal teacher survey that revealed something interesting: Elementary grade teachers reported more satisfaction than the middle school grade teachers. Why? Because of the teacher-to-teacher collaboration.

“It’s one of my big beliefs about how people work,” she said. “They like having thought partners, people they can talk to about the work they do. Being verbal about your work makes it more purposeful.”

So why not shift the middle school grades to the elementary school schedule? After a one-year successful pilot with fifth grade, Brooke flipped all its older grades  to the self-contained model. Thus, teachers instruct all subjects, drawing on heavy collaboration with same-grade teachers. That guarantees a deeper relationship with the teacher, and also cuts down on the time students spend shuffling from class to class.

But the biggest benefit may be teacher satisfaction. Said Clark: “If you ask any teacher at Brooke to name the biggest thing that pushes you to get better, I think they would answer it’s having a smart colleague to co-plan with and look at data with.”

That self-contained model also helps explain the “known” part of the Brooke twin pillars philosophy: All students should feel well known by Brooke teachers, something more likely to happen in the nurturing self-contained classrooms.

All the above factors, woven together, account for the high performance at Brooke. Which raises this question: If the nation’s top charter school is headed in a direction different from other high-performing charters, is that a problem?

My answer: Only if you think all charter schools are supposed to look alike.



Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

“Experience Rich, Theory Poor:” The Plight of Practitioners?

I heard the phrase “experience rich, theory poor” on a podcast interview between New Yorker editor David Remnick and writer Malcolm Gladwell. The phrase immediately triggered memories of my returning to graduate school in the early 1970s after being a high school history teacher and a school district administrator in the Washington,D.C. schools for 16 years.

That phrase captured my thoughts about the coursework I took the first year on organizational theory, the politics of education,and the history of education. I had gained enormous and varied experiences in teaching history to mostly black high school students in Cleveland (OH) and the District of Columbia. I knew chapter and verse of how classrooms operated, what happened in schools on a daily basis, and the strengths and weaknesses of admired and trusted colleagues. I had accumulated rich experiences in running a school-based teacher education program and then a district-wide staff development program. If my professors and peers asked me what I knew about schooling in big cities, I had stories and specific cases that I could easily draw from to illustrate point after point about the nature of teaching and administering in big city schools.

What became clear to me that first year of graduate school as I digested assigned readings, listened to professors lecture, and heard seminar discussions is that stories and pithy examples unembedded in theoretical frameworks left an experienced practitioner such as myself unable to go beyond the stories I would tell. I lacked the language of theory, conceptual frameworks, analysis, and generalizations. Without knowing theories that helped me make sense of my experiences, I drew conclusions, advanced generalizations, and made predictions about improving schools often saying: this is what works in these schools and districts because I was there and know from first-hand experience.

Such statements fell flat with my professors. In two years of coursework, I learned the importance of having conceptual frameworks to help me make sense of what I experienced. For me, then, connecting theories to my work as a teacher and administrator gave me a new vocabulary but also a deeper understanding of an institution in which I had worked for many years.  Those theories equipped me with different perspectives on not only how classrooms, schools, and districts worked but also their contexts and what I could do about the mistakes I had made and failures I had experienced. The theories I learned and then later used made graduate school and the Ph.D enormously worthwhile when I served as a superintendent for seven years.

But I was also wrong.

Yes, the phrase “experience rich and theory poor” applied to me in graduate school. But in the years during my superintendency and, subsequently as a university researcher for two decades I came to see that I, like the teachers and principals I worked with, had theories deeply embedded in what I did but could not articulate those causal concepts rooted in my beliefs, desires, and intentions. Sure, I lacked the language but I was rich in both experience and theory but just didn’t know it.

Parsing the theory buried in, say a teacher’s practice, can happen when actual classroom actions are looked at closely. Consider the common  teacher practice of giving re-takes of tests (see my recent post).

Here is what middle school teacher Baptiste Delvalle does with his students:

Here’s how I explain it to my students. If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance. I prefer that they get a bad grade and learn to give it their best shot on the first try, rather than to hear years from now that they’re still struggling.

Delvalle’s beliefs in how the “real” world works–you do this and that happens–leads him to tell students ” you don’t get a second chance” in taking a test because that is not how life is outside school walls. You do the best you can first time out.

I do not know where his theory of action about “real” life comes from, but it seems to be a mix of observations he accumulated growing up from which he learned lessons, parental teachings, reflections on real-life experiences, possible religious beliefs, and other factors. Delvalle’s practice of prohibiting re-taking tests, then, has buried within it a theory of action about how the world works. It is tacit theory embedded in the practice.

Now consider Lisa Westman’s practice of permitting re-tests for students. A veteran of 15 years in classrooms, Westman sees the same world that Delvalle sees but interprets it differently.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Westman argues that students should be able to re-take tests as a way for students to achieve mastery of content and skills since most formal written, oral, or real-life tests in life can be re-taken until they are passed.

In Westman’s practice of students’ re-taking tests, lies her theory of action. Like Delvalle, I do not know the beliefs and values nor the experiences she had with her family, growing up, and teaching but it is clear that she sees “real” life differently than Delvalle. For her, preparing students for life means that they will make mistakes; failures will occur. Students equipped with knowledge, skills, and values will figure out what to do and how to do something better. Thus,  buried within the practice  is the tacit theory that students can correct mistakes and experience both success and failure in subsequent tasks by re-taking tests.

These teachers are both rich in experience and theory—-more tacit than explicit—-but theory no less. Dredging up the implicit theory buried in practical decisions teachers and administrators make is surely hard work but revealing to those practitioners who dig away.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Letting Students Re-Take Tests: A Classroom Dilemma Over Goals for Schools*

Why do U.S. voters, with and without children, tax themselves to provide public schools and compel children and youth to attend for a decade or more?

Although reasons have changed over time, Americans  consistently wanted schools to prepare students for the demands of being a participating citizen in the community, entering the workplace with skills and knowledge, and exhibiting the character traits that family and neighbors value highly. Sure, there are other goals that have risen and fallen in ranking but these three sum up public aspirations over the past two centuries of schooling. Preparation for the workplace–and its proxy doing well on standardized tests here and abroad–has dominated public debate as the highest priority for schooling (this week is the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk report).

What is often overlooked in debates over goals is that it is the classroom teacher who has the job of translating abstract goals into daily lessons. And that journey from desired goals to adopted policies to classroom practice too often goes unnoticed. Especially when teachers have to wrestle with those goals and policies in setting classroom rules for their students.

Consider the simple decision of whether a teacher should permit (or not) students to re-take a test if the student does poorly. Actually, it ain’t simple. It is a dilemma.

One horn of that dilemma is that teachers prize the value of students taking the test seriously and preparing for it because deadlines and tests are common in the adult world. Schools and teachers are expected to prepare students for the “real” world.

The other horn of the dilemma is that teachers prize mastery of content and skills and caring. Teachers know that students vary in their ability to grasp knowledge and perform skills. They also know that time is the variable and re-taking quizzes and tests–call it “formative assessment”–gives students opportunities to demonstrate mastery. Then there is the value of compassion for students who are not yet adults. They need more time to master the content and skills and should not be penalized for a low test score. Thus re-taking the test recognizes that everyone can have a bad day or freeze on an exam. Sympathy for a child or teenager when a teacher remembers what it is like to be young expresses caring and respect, yet even another value embedded in teacher decisions aimed at student learning.

These prized values come into play in this classroom dilemma over the question a teacher asks of herself: Should I permit students who have low or failing grades on a test re-take the same or a similar test to raise their grades? It is a dilemma that goes straight back to which goals of schooling are most important in this particular classroom decision.

Consider what middle school teacher Baptiste Delvalle does with his students:

Here’s how I explain it to my students. If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance. I prefer that they get a bad grade and learn to give it their best shot on the first try, rather than to hear years from now that they’re still struggling.

Delvalle is persuasive in casting a classroom test as an object lesson in succeeding as an adult where second chances in life are rare. It is an argument for being responsible for your actions the first time, not later.

Lisa Westman, a veteran of 15 years in classrooms, sees it differently.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Westman argues for permitting re-taking tests as a way for students to achieve mastery of content and skills since most formal written, oral, or real-life tests in life can be re-taken until they are passed.

Lurking in the background of this back-and-forth on the worth of students being permitted to re-take tests are the workplace conditions inherent to the age-graded school that heavily influence teacher decision-making such as having 25-35 students in a class, covering so much content and skills every week, and scanning homework assignments daily–what some writers call “the grammar of schooling.” Making time to create different tests for those students and squeezing in students before, during, and after school to re-take tests spends scarce teacher time to plan lessons, listen to students, and actually teach.

While neither teacher makes distinctions between quizzes and tests that show students what they still need to master–“formative assessments” and final exams that make a difference in a grade student receives on a report card–“summative assessments,” they express the conflicting values embedded in translating lofty goals for schooling into classroom lessons.


I thank Joanne Jacobs for a post on this subject that got me to think and write about this issue.





Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

How Do Top Teachers Define “Success?”

Defining “success” in teaching today is tricky. With a national climate sharply focused on test scores, numbers of students graduating, and percentage going on to higher education, performance measures dominate policy discussions and define both “success” and “failure.”*

That national climate infiltrated the classroom and both researchers and policymakers continue to explore and use quantitative measures to determine whether teachers are “effective” (AKA “successful”) by student test scores (see here, here and here).

Few researchers and policymakers, however, asked teachers what they thought made them “successful.” One group did. In 2013, The New Teacher Project published an unusual survey of teachers who had received local, state, and national awards for being excellent teachers.

The survey sample is unrepresentative of the nation’s teachers. Of the 117 teachers who took the online survey (206 were invited to respond), most taught in high-poverty districts, more than a third came from charter schools, were younger than the average teacher and comprised nearly a third minority–a far higher proportion than among U.S. teachers.

So how did these outstanding teachers define “success” in their teaching?

The survey listed 11 indicators of “success” and asked the 117 teachers: “To what extent do you agree or disagree that each of the following achievements makes you feel successful as a teacher”

 The statements are:
My students are successful in future classes of the same subject.
97% of the teachers agreed and strongly agreed with statement.
My students are consistently engaged in content that is intellectually challenging.
96% agreed and strongly agreed.
Other teachers whom I respect give me positive feedback on my teaching.
96% agreed and strongly agreed.
My students tell me that they enjoy being in my class and having me as a teacher.
My students perform well on assessments I have created.
My students consider me someone they can trust and confide in.


My students consistently behave in a way that meets my expectations.


My school leaders give me positive feedback on my teaching.


My students’ parents compliment me on my work with their children.


My students go on to college at high rates.


My students perform well on my state and district standardized tests.


The vast majority of these teachers–the report labels them “irreplaceable”–embrace multiple measures to judge their classroom “success”: student academic and behavioral outcomes, student engagement with content and skills, and personal feedback from students, parents, and supervisors. In short, to these teachers “success” is multi-dimensional.

So what?

The worth of this non-representative survey of teachers given awards for excellent teaching re-states what so many practitioners already know in their hearts and heads. Multiple criteria that include but are not restricted to standardized test scores to determine teacher “success” are essential.

Yet district policymakers, not teachers, design formal evaluations that constrict judging “effective” or “successful” teaching. Usually, the instrument paints a one-dimensional picture of “good” teaching. Multi-dimensional evaluations? Few teacher evaluations pick up on the academic and emotional pieces that add up to a complex portrait of what constitute “success” to these teachers.

What struck me most forcibly in reading this report was the absence of teacher voices in the planning, designing, adopting, and implementing classroom evaluations that touch these various dimensions of teaching.  Ignoring their voices and criteria they use to capture the academic and emotional labor they exert daily in age-graded schools at a time when state standards, high-stakes testing, and coercive accountability reign is, in two words,  prejudicial and inequitable.
















*I use quote marks around “success” and “failure” because the these nouns and related verbs, adjectives, and adverbs vary considerably by who is doing the defining, the criteria used, when, and under what conditions. Not only for teachers but schools, districts, states, and the national system of schooling, these words are highly contested. The quote marks remind readers of their inconstancy.



Filed under how teachers teach

Do We Know What History Students Learn? (Wineburg, Breakstone, and Smith)

“Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and of history (by courtesy) at Stanford University. Joel Breakstone is the executive director and Mark Smith is director of assessment at the Stanford History Education Group.”

This article appeared in Inside Higher Ed, April 3, 2018

“What are you going to do with that — teach?” Uttered with disdain, it’s a question history majors have been asked many times. Clio’s defenders have a response. The head of the American Historical Association says that the study of history creates critical thinkers who can “sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it.” A university president asserts that the liberal arts endow students with the “features of the enlightened citizen” who possesses “informed convictions … and the capacity for courageous debate on the real issues.” Historians pride themselves on the evidence for their claims.

So, what’s the evidence?

Not much, actually. Historians aren’t great at tracking what students learn. Sometimes they even resent being asked. Recently, however, the winner of the Bancroft Prize, one of history’s most distinguished awards, washed the profession’s dirty laundry in public. The article’s title: “Five Reasons History Professors Suck at Assessment.”

Anne Hyde described what happened when accreditors asked her colleagues to document what students learned. They paid little heed to the requests — that is, until Colorado College’s history department flunked its review. Committed teachers all, her colleagues “had never conducted assessment in any conscious way beyond reporting departmental enrollment numbers and student grade point averages.”

Among many college history departments, this is routine. To address the issue of assessment, the American Historical Association in 2011 set out on a multiyear initiative to define what students should “be able to do at the end of the major.” Eight years, dozens of meetings and hundreds of disposable cups later, the Tuning Project produced a set of ambitious targets for student learning. But when it came to assessing these goals, they left a big question mark.

Which is one of the reasons why we were convinced of the need to create new assessments. With support from the Library of Congress, we came up with short tasks in which history students interpreted sources from the library’s collection and wrote a few sentences justifying their response. For example, one assessment, “The First Thanksgiving,” presented students with a painting from the beginning of the 20th century and asked if the image of lace-aproned Pilgrim women serving turkey to bare-chested Indians would help historians reconstruct what may have transpired in 1621 at the supposed feast between the Wampanoag and English settlers.



In the March issue of the Journal of American History, we describe what happened when we gave our assessments to students at two large state universities. On one campus, we quizzed mostly first-year students satisfying a distribution requirement. All but two of 57 ignored the 300-year time gap between the Thanksgiving painting and the event it depicts. Instead, they judged the painting on whether it matched their preconceptions, or simply took its contents at face value — an answer we dubbed the “picture’s worth a thousand words” response.

We weren’t terribly surprised. When we tested high school students on these tasks, they struggled, too, and many of these college students were in high school only months earlier. But what would happen, we wondered, if we gave our tasks to college juniors and seniors, the majority of whom were history majors and all of whom had taken five or more history courses? Would seasoned college students breeze through tasks originally designed for high school?

What we found shocked us. Only two in 49 juniors and seniors explained why it might be a problem to use a 20th-century painting to understand an event from the 17th century. Another one of our assessments presented students with excerpts from a soldier’s testimony before the 1902 Senate Committee investigating the war in the Philippines. We asked how the source provided evidence that “many Americans objected to the war.” Rather than considering what might prompt a congressional hearing, students mostly focused on the document’s content at the expense of its context. Rare were responses — only 7 percent — that tied the testimony to the circumstances of its delivery. As one student explained, “If there hadn’t been such a huge opposition by Americans to this war, I don’t believe that the investigation would have occurred.”

We suffer no illusions that our short exercises exhaust the range of critical thinking in history. What they do is provide a check on stirring pronouncements about the promised benefits of historical study. In an age of declining enrollments in history classes, soaring college debt and increased questions about what’s actually learned in college, feel-good bromides about critical thinking and enlightened citizenship won’t cut it. Historians offer evidence when they make claims about the past. Why should it be different when they make claims about what’s learned in their classrooms?



Filed under higher education, how teachers teach

Whatever Happened to Ebonics?

Ebonics was the short-lived Oakland (CA) School Board’s approved program (1996) to teach  black students to parse the way they naturally spoke and wrote at home, in the neighborhood, and with friends just as Standard English had to be acquired. The School Board resolution recognized Ebonics–a combination of “ebony” and “phonics”– as the “primary language of African American students,” not a dialect of English. Decades earlier, such speech had been labeled “Black English.” Renamed, the School Board set policy to teach Ebonics to African American students to improve their reading and increase their academic achievement.

And linguists agreed with the concept of Ebonics.

At their 1997 meeting, the Linguistic Society of America [LSA] approved a resolution describing Ebonics as “systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties,” saying that the Oakland School Board’s action was  “linguistically and pedagogically sound.”

The policy-driven program commenced in 1997 to an uproar across African American communities in the U.S. and top public officials about the wisdom of teaching both the “primary language of African American students” and Standard English—students would learn to “code-switch” as bilingual students and adults do (see here, here, here, and here).

In a subsequent resolution a month later the Oakland School Board stepped back and said that the program will now concentrate on “African Language Systems principles to move students from the language patterns they bring to school to English proficiency.” The Board directs the superintendent to devise a course of instruction to facilitate “mastery of English language skills, while respecting and embracing the legitimacy and richness of the language patterns.” The divisive and overblown debate over the program led to angry discussions  within and across white and African American communities. By 1998, the Oakland School Board had dropped the word “Ebonics” and recognized it–now called African American Vernacular English–as one way for students to learn Standard English and “code switch.”

Where and When Did Ebonics originate?

See above.

What Problems Did Ebonics Intend to Solve?

The Oakland (CA) Board of Education’s two resolutions on Ebonics in 1996-1997, show clearly that these policymakers connected Black English to “primary” African languages to bring “positive appreciation of the language” and to increase self-respect of a historically oppressed minority’s home language while simultaneously working toward solving the problems of “students’ acquisition and mastery of English language skills.”  Ebonics sought to remedy the dismissal of current language used by most African American students and make it a respected tool in acquiring Standard English, the language used in school textbooks, worksheets, and standardized tests.

African American students in Oakland scored poorly on state tests. Ebonics was a way for children and youth to use Standard English and gain increased reading and writing skills to raise their academic achievement.

What Did Ebonics Look Like in Practice?

In Oakland, Prescott Elementary School was the only district school where a majority of teachers voted in the mid-1990s to become part of a Ebonics pilot called the Standard English Program (SEP). A fifth grade teacher, Carrie Secret, who had the same group of children since they were in kindergarten was interviewed about how she used Ebonics in her classroom:

I’m lucky in that I have been with these children five years and at a very early age I engaged them in listening to language for the purpose of hearing and understanding the difference between Ebonics and English. However, by the middle of second grade, they were all readers. So at that point it was easy to go to the overhead and show them exactly what they said and then call for the English translation of what they said.

Hearing the language is a crucial step. Children who speak Ebonics do not hear themselves dropping off the “t” for instance. You have to teach them to hear that. So we do a lot of over-enunciation when they are small. I also do a lot of dictation where I will dictate a sentence and have the children write what I said, by sound only. I also try to always point out what is Ebonics speech and what is English. Children must first hear and develop an ear for both languages in order to effectively distinguish between the two.

In fifth grade, I encourage the students to practice English most of the instructional time….

There’s a misconception of the program, created by the media blitz of misinformation. Our mission was and continues to be: embrace and respect Ebonics, the home language of many of our students, and use strategies that will move them to a competency level in English. We never had, nor do we now have, any intention of teaching the home language to students. They come to us speaking the language.

We read literature that has Ebonics language patterns in it. For example, last year in fifth grade we read Joyce Hansen’s “Yellow Bird and Me,” and in fourth grade we read her book “The Gift Giver.” The language was Ebonic in structure. The language was the bonding agent for students. The book just felt good to them.

When writing, the students are aware that finished pieces are written in English. The use of Ebonic structures appears in many of their first drafts. When this happens I simply say, “You used Ebonics here. I need you to translate this thought into English.” This kind of statement does not negate the child’s thought or language….

When the children are working in groups together, say three or four of them, I try to keep them in an English-speaking mode but I don’t prevent them from using Ebonics. I want to give them time enough to talk through their project in their comfortable language. It’s like a rewrite to me. But at some point, they have to present their project to me and these are required to be presented in their best English….

When they come in the morning, we start by standing behind our chairs and we do some recitations out of our poetry readers. All of these are self-enhancing pieces of poetry, something that touches the children so they get the joy of being in the classroom. After reciting the poetry, we sing songs. We use a variety of music that touches the spirit of the child. For example, we have used “I Believe I Can Fly,” or Whitney Houston’s “Step by Step,” and “To Be Loved,” or some Sweet Honey in the Rock. We have used Sounds of Blackness, classical jazz, and even some Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. We may even do some African dance movement to music by Herbie Hancock or Quincy Jones.

A newspaper reporter watched Secret teach and described a portion of the lesson:

Secret’s classroom was one of the first stops on the conference agenda so that teachers and others could better understand the teaching methods for African American children that Oakland plans to expand into more classrooms — methods that have been in place on a hodgepodge basis in classrooms across California for the past 16 years.

At Prescott, the children faced each other knee-to-knee as they practiced their enunciation with the sentences: “I just once want to feel America is proud of me — black. I just want America to get off my back.”

Students also substituted pronouns in the sentence and changed the verb to match. For example, some students wrote, “She just once wants to feel America is proud of her — black.”

“Make sure you put on those ending sounds,” Secret told her students as they recited their sentences, referring to some of the children’s tendency to drop the “s”sound at the end of “wants.”

“You can leave those off when you are talking in the home. Exaggerate it as we go through this….”

At Prescott, those language patterns were illustrated on worksheets giving examples of how “American English” differs from the African American language systems. One example was of what the worksheet called the “habitual be.” The example in American English said, “She is often at home.” “She be at home,” said the ebonics sentence.

As a child completed his or her grammar task correctly, Secret and the other children often said, “Ashay.” The expression means, “So be it” or “It is so” in West Africa.

“If one of us doesn’t know, none of us knows,” Secret told her students.

Other lessons can be found  here . Also an Ebonics lesson in Los Angeles Unified district appears in this YouTube segment.

Did Ebonics Work?

While many stories from teachers, students, parents, and observers say that it did work–that is, was put into practice and caused differences in student knowledge and skill in moving from Ebonics to Standard English, no systematic studies–either qualitative or quantitative or combinations of both–have shown that Ebonics can (or cannot) improve students’ language arts skills and knowledge using standardized tests or similar measures.

Politically, the Oakland Board of Education’s resolutions and pilot programs in the late-1990s “worked” in the sense that both drew attention to the the situation of low-income African American children and youth in need of attention, resources, and experienced staffs to find ways of improving the schooling they received.

What Has Happened Ebonics Since the late 1990s?

Between linguists, academics, and practitioners Ebonics shed its politically-charged image in the late 1990s and morphed into African American Vernacular English or AAE. A dialect that like other dialects in New England, the Southwest, and rest of the world is legitimate and distinct from the Standard English spoken in schools, doctor offices, and white-collar workplaces. Being bi-dialectical isacquiring a crucial set of language and cultural skills that helps children and youth negotiate the differences between home, school, and workplace without feeling any stigma.

Efforts to teach AAE to children and youth in order for them to switch codes easily, understand that language is contextual and that no stigma attaches to a dialect spoken at home have made some advances in urban schools enrolling large numbers of African American students (see here, here, here, and here).

But it is hard work as Julie Washington, professor at Georgia State University and long-time advocate for teaching African American children the importance of code-switching, has found out over the years. She learned tough lessons as recounted in a recent article.

In preparation for one of her first studies of AAE, she sent out consent forms to parents, describing her goal of studying “the role Black English plays in children’s oral language.” Weeks passed, and not a single form came back. Eventually, Washington called a parents’ night and asked why no one had signed the form. Two dozen parents stared at her in silence until, Washington told me, one mother erupted: “How dare you say we talk different than other people! What the hell is ‘black English’? We don’t speak ‘black English’!”

“You do,” Washington said, and to make her point, she code-switched. “I think I said, ‘Look, we ain’t got no business doin’ this,’ ” she recalled. The room burst into laughter. “Okay, we do speak like that,” the mother granted. “But we don’t like you calling it that.” It was a lesson Washington never forgot: The dialect was so stigmatized that even among people who spoke it every day, she needed to tread carefully.

As linguist William Labov said in the 1960s about what he called Black English but is now called AAE, teachers should use “the methods used in teaching English as a foreign language.” Washington agrees but puts it differently:

Unless “the places these kids might want to go to learn, work, and live” change fundamentally, she said, “you’re handicapping them by not teaching them the two codes.”


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies