Tag Archives: classroom practice,

Teaching 8th Grade Science: Technology Integration

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

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

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

erica room.jpgerica agenda.jpg

erica poster.jpg

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

Bell work: day 3

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

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

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

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

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

After finishing the Bell Work questions, teacher says:

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

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

The project requires each student to:

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

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

Above and Beyond

Meeting Requirement – Computer generated cartoons.

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

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

*All categories must meet all requirements listed*

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

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

“OK, get started,” Goldsworthy says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Consumer Choice in Schooling: Algorithms and Personalized Learning (Part 1)

“The consumerist path of least resistance in America takes you to Amazon for books, Uber for transportation, Starbucks for coffee, and Pandora for songs. Facebook’s ‘Trending’ list shows you the news, while Yelp ratings lead you to a nearby burger. The illusion of choice amid such plenty is easy to sustain, but it’s largely false; you’re being herded by algorithms from purchase to purchase.”

Mario Bustillos, This Brand Could be Your Life, June 28, 2016


I wish I had written that paragraph. It captures a definite feature not only of our consumerist-driven society but also in recent school reform (e.g., the growth of charter schools and expanded parental choice). I also include the media hype and techno-enthusiasm for “personalized learning.” The centerpiece of any form of “personalized learning” (or “adaptive learning“) is algorithms for tailoring lessons to individual students (see here, here, and here). What Bustillos omits  in the above article about the dominance of consumerism driven by algorithms is that regression equations embedded in algorithms make predictions based on data. Programmers decide on how much weight to put on particular variables in the equations. Such decisions are subjective; they contain value judgments about the independent and dependent variables and their relationship to one another. The numbers hide the subjectivity within these equations.

Like Facebook designers altering its algorithm so as to direct news tailored to each Facebook consumer “to put a higher priority on content shared by friends and family,” software engineers create different versions of  “personalized learning” and insert value judgments into the complicated regression equations with which they have written for online lessons. These equations are anchored in the data students produce in answering questions in previous lessons. These algorithms predict (not wholly since engineers and educators do tweak–“massage” is a favored word–the equations) what students should study and absorb in individualized, daily, online software lessons (see here).

Such “personalized” lessons alter the role of the teacher for the better, according to promoters of the trend. Instead of covering content and directly teaching skills, teachers can have students work online thereby freeing up the teacher to coach, give individual attention to students who move ahead of their classmates and those who struggle.

Critics, however, see the spread of online, algorithmic-based lessons as converting teaching to directing students to focus on screens and automated lessons thereby shrinking the all-important role of teacher-student relationships, the foundation for social, moral, and cognitive learning in public schools. Not so, advocates of “personalized learning” aver. There might be fewer certified teachers in schools committed to lessons geared to individual students (e.g., Rocketship) but teachers will continue to perform as mentors, role models, coaches, and advisers not as mere purveyors of content and skills.

As in other policy discussions, the slippage into either/or dichotomies beckons. The issue is not whether or not to use algorithms since each of us uses algorithmic thinking daily. Based on years of experiential data we have compiled in our heads (without regression equations) step-by-step routines just to get through the day (e.g., which of the usual routes to work should I take; how best to get the class’s attention at the beginning of a lesson). Beyond our experiences, however, we depend on mathematical algorithms embedded in the chips that power our Internet searches, control portions of our driving cars and operate home appliances.

The issue is not that algorithms are value-free (they are not) or data rich (they are). The issue is whether practitioners and parents–consumers of fresh out-of-the-box products–come to depend automatically on carefully constructed algorithms which contain software designers’ value judgments displayed in flow charts and written into code for materials and lessons students will use tomorrow. Creators of algorithms (including ourselves) juggle certain values (e.g., favorite theory of learning, student-centered instruction, small group collaboration, correctness of information, increasing productivity and decreasing cost, ease of implementation) and choose among them  in constructing their equations. They judge what is important and select among those values since time, space, and other resources are limited in creating the “best” or “good enough” equation for a given task. Software designers choose to give more weight to some variables over others–see Facebook decision above. Rich, profuse data, then, never speaks for itself. Look for the values embedded in the algorithmic equations. Such simple facts are too often brushed aside.

What are algorithms?

Wikipedia’s definition of an algorithm is straight forward: a sequence of steps taken to solve a problem and complete a task. Some images make the point for simple algorithms.











Or if you want a Kahn Academy video to explain an algorithm, see here.

Complex algorithms

Most algorithms are hardly simple, however. Amazon’s proprietary algorithms on searches and popularity of books, for example, are unavailable to the public yet are heavily leaned upon by advertisers, authors, and consumers (e.g., also Amazon’s  algorithmic feature that appears on your screen: “customers who viewed this also viewed….”).  Among school reformers interested in evaluating teachers on the basis of students’ test scores, algorithms and their complex regression equations have meant the difference between getting a bonus or getting fired, for example,  in Washington, D.C. . And for those “personalized learning” advocates eager to advance student-centered classrooms,  algorithms  contain theories of action of what-causes-what that tilt toward one way of learning. In short, software designers’ value judgements matter as to what pops out at the other end of the equation. and then is used in making an evaluative judgment and an instructional decision.

Part 2 will look at values in algorithms that evaluate teachers and customize learning.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Draining The Semantic Swamp of “Personalized Learning”–A View from Silicon Valley (Part 1)

No surprise that a catch-phrase like “personalized learning,” using technology to upend traditional whole group  lessons, has birthed a gaggle of different meanings. Is it  updated “competency-based learning?” Or “differentiated learning” in new clothes or “individualized learning” redecorated?  (see here, here and here). Such proliferation of school reforms into slogans is as familiar as photos of sunsets. “Blended learning,” “project-based teaching,” and “21st Century skills” are a few recent bumper stickers–how about “flipped classrooms?”– that have generated many meanings as they get converted by policymakers, marketeers, researchers, wannabe reformers, and, yes, teachers into daily lessons.

For decades, I have seen such phrases become semantic swamps where educational progressives and conservatives argue for their version of the “true” meaning of the words. As a researcher trained in history, since the early 1980s, I have tracked policies as they get put into practice in schools and classrooms.  After all, the first step in science is to observe systematically the phenomenon or as Yogi Berra put it: “You can observe a lot by watching.” The second step is to describe and tell others what was seen and explain it.

Over the past few months, I have visited eight schools and 17 teachers in “Silicon Valley,” that near-mythical stretch of the Bay area in Northern California encompassing San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland and their environs. I went into schools and classrooms that administrators, policymakers, researchers, and others identified for me as “best cases,” or exemplars of integrating use of technology into daily lessons. Many, but not all, told me that they had integrated technology into their lessons to “personalize learning.”

The questions I asked myself while observing a class was simply: What are teachers and students doing when computer use is integrated into a lesson? Toward what ends is such use aimed?

Teachers and principals invited me to observe.  There were no tours or group visits. I went to each school and talked with principals, various teachers, and read online documents describing the school. I sat in 90-minute lessons, listened to students in and out of class–even shadowing a student at one school for a morning–and took copious notes.  I sent drafts of my classroom observations to teachers to correct any errors in facts that I made. Then I published accounts of my observations  in my blog in March, April, and May 2016.  Although I am far from finished in this project, now is the time for that second step (see above). I need to make sense of  what I saw at the epicenter of technological optimism. So this is an initial pass at figuring out what I saw as I sloshed through the semantic swamp of  “personalized learning.”

The “Personalized Learning” spectrum

When I visited the schools, administrators and most teachers told me that they were “personalizing learning.” What I saw, however, in classrooms and schools was a continuum of different approaches–which I call the “personalized learning spectrum”–that encompassed distinct ways of implementing technology in lessons to reach larger purposes for schooling. Let me be clear, I value no end of the spectrum (or the middle) more than the other. I have worked hard to strip away value-loaded words that suggest some kinds of “personalized learning” are better than others.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons and programs within the traditional age-graded school using behavioral approaches that seek efficient and effective learning to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market, thrive, and become adults who help their communities. These approaches (and ultimate aims for public schools) have clear historical underpinnings dating back nearly a century.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered lessons and programs that seek student agency and shape how children grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. They avoid the traditional age-graded arrangements that they believe have deadened learning for over a century. Their overall goals of schooling are to convert children into adults who are creative thinkers, help out in their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults. Like the other end of the spectrum, these approaches have a century-old history as well.

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrids mixing behavioral and cognitive approaches aimed at turning children into adults who engage in their communities, are creative, thoughtful individuals who succeed in the workplace.

Such a spectrum has been around for many decades with different names such as “Progressive-to-Traditional,” “Teacher-centered to Student-centered, etc. A glance at the rear-view mirror about the history of these continua helps me make sense of what I saw in my observations..

Looking back a century

What today’s reformers promoting “personalized learning” have to remember are their yesteryear cousins among Progressive reformers a century ago. Then, these reformers wanted public schools to turn children and youth into thoughtful, civically engaged, whole adults. Those early Progressives drank deeply from the well of John Dewey but ended up following the ideas of fellow Progressive Edward Thorndike, an early behaviorist psychologist and expert in testing.*

If one wing of these early progressives were pedagogical pioneers advocating project-based learning, student-centered activities, and connections to the world outside of the classroom, another wing of the same movement were efficiency-minded, “administrative progressives,” who admired the then corporate leaders of large organizations committed to both efficiency and effectiveness–Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, General Motors. Thorndike at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Ellwood P. Cubberley at Stanford and other academics, in alliance with the new field of educational psychology, borrowed heavily from business leaders. They counted and measured everything in schools and classrooms under the flag of “scientific management.” They reduced complex skills and knowledge to small chunks that students could learn and practice. They wanted to make teachers efficient in delivering lessons to 40-plus students with the newest technologies of the time: testing, film, radio. They created checklists for teachers to follow in getting students to learn and behave. They created checklists for principals to evaluate teachers and checklists for superintendents to gauge district performance including where every penny was spent.

A century ago, this efficiency-minded, behaviorist wing of the progressive movement overwhelmed the pedagogical progressives passionate about students developing and using a range of cognitive and social skills. Thorndike trumped Dewey.

Now in 2016 behaviorists and believers in the “whole child” wear the clothes of school reformers and educational entrepreneurs. They tout scientific studies showing lessons tailored for individual students produce higher test scores than before, or that project-based learning creates independent, creative, and smart students.

What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as entrepreneurs and practical reformers want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive job market. Opposed are those who see schools as places to create whole, knowledgeable human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. The struggle today is between re-emergent, century-old wings of educational progressives. It is, then, again a family fight.

Part 2 will place some of the classroom lessons and schools I observed and have documented elsewhere along that continuum.


*A current dust-up between Progressives and Conservatives over school reform (see Rick Hess’s summary of back-and-forth bloggers here) misses entirely the intra-reformer struggle among Progressives a century ago and how the conservative, efficiency-driven wing (e.g., Edward Thorndike, et. al.) of those early Progressives triumphed over the liberal, student-centered, reconstructionist wing (e.g., John Dewey, George Counts, et. al.) who sought to make  schools student-centered and agents of societal reform. David Tyack tracked this split fully in The One Best System and with co-author Elisabeth Hansot in Managers of Virtue. The split that Hess and others see today is hardly new. It is a resurgence of that old struggle among Progressives but now reincarnated in an age of standards, testing, and accountability. The  split among current school reformers is over  both equity and efficiency with one wing labeled “Progressives” and the other “Conservatives.” Current “Progressives,” imbued with social justice, want schools to be agents of social and political change and student-centered. They use both behaviorist and cognitive approaches to “personalize learning.”  “Conservatives” want contemporary reform policies (e.g., charters, standards and accountability) to be sustained because they advance equity and blend technology to create both student- and teacher-centered experiences. They, too, want learning to be “personalized” and create  both behaviorist- and cognitive-driven lessons.  Such clashes  track earlier differences among reformers a century ago. The conflict today, as then, tries to answer the age-old question: Is the job of public schools in a democratic and capitalist-driven society to solve larger economic, social, and political problems that the nation faces or focus on building whole human beings who can thrive and succeed in a highly competitive society?


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Integrating Technology In Classrooms: Teach To One in a Oakland Charter School

“Personalized learning” joins “disrupted” and “transform” as popular hyped words used by policymakers, entrepreneurs, superintendents, online enthusiasts, and wannabe reformers. As with the other catch-phrases, “personalized learning” means different things to different people (see here, here, and here). What all do share is a commitment to another often-hyped but less attractive phrase: “competency-based learning” or individualized mastery learning that has nearly a half-century of experience in U.S. schools. Now, with digital tools available and a climate hostile to the “factory-system of schooling”, the capacity to convert “personalized” learning into daily school work has spread.

So, no surprise that when “personalized learning” is translated into practice, the concept appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, AltSchool, Agora Cyber School, and the rural Lindsay Unified School District in California’s Central Valley blazon their “personalized learning”  (or “competency-based learning”) placard for all to see. It is a marketplace where different brands compete for the shopper’s attention. Within this branding competition sits Teach To One.

Teach To One is a middle school math program that re-arranges traditional classroom space and furniture, tailors daily lessons for individual students, and uses different forms of teaching (“modalities” is their favored word) within a 90-minute period. The program grew out of a venture in New York City called School for One that got rave reviews (see here). Two of its founders left and created a non-profit that markets Teach To One; it is now in 28 schools in eight states teaching math to 10,000 students. Teach To One has received rave reviews in its early growth years (see here and here).*

On May 15, 2016, I spent an hour and a half shadowing Lupe (a pseudonym), an eighth grade student at ASCEND charter school** in Oakland where she and about 100 classmates (sixth graders were on a field trip) received their daily math instruction through Teach To One. The Director of Teach To One, Winona Bassett (a pseudonym) briefed me on the first-year program, answered a number of questions I had and found the student I would shadow. She explained to me the different “modalities” I would see during the morning.

What I observed are clear instances of both teachers and students seamlessly integrating technology in a lesson on scientific notation. The math skill of scientific notation is listed on the online Portal  (for a video explaining the Portal, see here) The Portal shows the playlist and the skill the student is working on for that day  (it is numbered A 280–“I will solve real world problems involving numbers in scientific notation”). The Portal (see here) also includes each student’s all important Exit Slip which contains multiple choice questions that the student has to answer. It is an assessment of grasping and applying the skill. One Exit Slip question, for example, asks: “A website had approximately 300 thousand visits in 2010. The number of visits rose to 6.31 X 10¹° in 2011. In scientific notation, how many more visits were there in 2011 than in 2010?” The student has four choice from which to choose. The central server in New York City reports to the staff how well or poorly each students has done on the questions. How many were missed, how many correct. Using the Portal, students (and their parents) can see exactly how they are faring on each skill, how much work they have to do and whether they have “room for growth, are almost there, and great and perfect”  (Teach To One calls these skill levels “Foundational, Core, and Extension”). Lupe is working on a skill that is “at grade level.” This version of “personalized learning” also is “competency based.”

The student’s answer to these Exit Slip questions each day determines what the student will work on the following one. All Exit Slips are sent electronically to New York City, graded, and “using, ” in the Director’s words,  “algorithms and human judgment,” the next day’s Exit Slip is sent back within hours  to the director and teachers of the program. Through accessing the Portal, students then know what they will work on the next day and whether or not they are progressing or regressing (or mastered) each skill. All math skills are aligned with Common Core standards in a highly flexible physical environment unlike a traditional classroom.

The physical space. Taking over the school’s library, the large space is demarcated into four separate rooms each with a sign of a local university (e.g., San Jose State, San Francisco State). Each room is designed with Teach To One space consultants. has long tables–each movable chair clearly numbered–capable of seating up to six students.




















There is much noise from different segments of the room since library shelving units separate the spaces. Students, teachers, and aides went about their business amid ebb and flow of sound across the divided space. One space is used for a teacher-directed lesson on scientific notation (see below), another space is used for students to use their Chromebooks to work on the individually designed lesson on scientific notation (based on their results of work the previous day recorded on their online Exit Slip–see below); the third space is for collaborative work between and among students and teachers. The fourth space is used for a teacher-directed lesson on circumference. This morning, the seventh and eighth graders are distributed between the four “rooms” spending a half-hour in each space before moving on to the next “modality.” For each segment of the 90-minute class, students sit at different tables with different classmates.

The students. Ages 13-14, these seventh and eighth graders, mostly Latino boys and girls (see demography of ASCEND below) range in size from large to pint-sized, exhibiting varying stages of puberty. They are filled with energy, zest, and seriousness mixed with playfulness. As an old white man on a cane, I stand out among them and when I sit at a table next to the student I am shadowing, many ask my name and what I am doing there. I tell them that I am shadowing Lupe and will write about the class on my blog. I tell them my name and one student yells out: “Larry, the Cable Guy.” The name sticks as I move from one “modality” to another. As I observe them in each “modality,” I see students using their Chromebooks and reading from the screen and writing in a large notebook. There is much back-and-forth between students about the task they were working on and playful kidding with each other as they exchange information about friends, how each looked. etc.

ASCEND students have a dress code. They wear tee-shirts or hoodies  marked with an ASCEND logo on the front; on the back of the tee-shirt is printed one-liners  called the Six Ways to ASCEND:

•”Take Charge of Your Own Learning”

∗Be kind and considerate

•Help Each Other


•Be Responsible for yourself, your family, and your community

•Be reflective”

The teachers. For the 50 students there this morning, there are two credentialed teachers and two teaching assistants. I watched both teachers in their different spaces for 30 minute periods. Chimes ring during the 90 minutes they take math signaling students when to switch “modalities”(e.g., go from 10-minute Math Advisory–like a “homeroom”–to a teacher-directed lesson, etc.) and when they must complete their Exit Slip, and when they move to their next ASCEND class.

The first teacher I observe is doing what the program calls “Live Investigation.” An experienced teacher, Julia Kerr (a pseudonym) has 10 students at three tables. For 30 minutes she conducts a recitation/whole group discussion/Q & A on converting standard notation to scientific notation. She begins with a matrix of four cells on the whiteboard, each cell holding the following symbols: +, -, x, ÷  .  Students open their  notebooks and draw the matrix. She then asks students: “what are the rules when we add decimals?” She calls on students by name.

At my table, there are two boys and two girls. They have their Chromebooks open and have taken out their notebooks and pens. As they exchange information and gossip, they move easily between Spanish and English. One of the boys is a big, non-stop talker who prods the much shorter, slight boy with jokes and comments about others in the class. The smaller boy laughs but hardly responds back. The two girls say nothing to the larger boy’s comments. The teacher who scans the class constantly sees what is happening and admonishes the boy by name. He quiets down and returns to his Chromebook and notebook.

Teacher asks: “What do you do when when you multiply (3.4 X 10-²) by (6.2 X 10−³)?” A few students raise their hands and reply. She builds on their responses and gives examples to tie down point. She then moves to subtraction part of matrix. Kerr moves around room while talking and insuring that everyone is on task. When one student yells out an answer to one of her questions instead of raising hand and waiting for teacher to call upon him, she looks directly at him and says: “You have a warning.”***

Teacher moves through each cell of matrix giving examples and asking students by name to respond to her questions about how to convert standard to scientific notation. They use their calculators on the Chromebook and move easily back and forth between paper and screen. As she walks around, students show her their screens and notes they have taken.

Chimes ring a five minute warning. Kerr begins to sum up by asking students to “pay attention.” She goes over rules students should follow in doing conversion and asks a student–the large boy at my table–to “do it for me.” He does. Then she asks students to work with partner to review each other’s work. They do. No back-and-forth at my table. All work. Kerr puts up on whiteboard another example of converting from standard to scientific notation. Chimes ring and the 10 students disperse to work in a different “modality.”

I asked Lupe what she got out of the class. She told me that Ms. Kerr helped her understand better what scientific notation is. She will use her notes when she works on her Exit Slip. When I asked if she can convert standard to scientific notation, she paused, hesitated, and murmured something I could not hear. She smiled and we went to the next class.

In this “modality,” Lupe and classmates will work individually in their Chromebooks, consult their notebook, ask veteran teacher Donald Percy (pseudonym) questions about scientific notation that they are stuck on. There are 24 students in the room. They open their Chromebooks and notebooks. Most dig right into the task. Some are clearly stuck. Percy sees this whether they raise their hands for help or not. He moves easily in and around the tables, questioning a student, making suggestions, and going to white board to show what a student is stuck on and what the student needs to do. At my table there is one boy and four girls. The boy cracks jokes and one girl occasionally laughs. He is working from another sheet of paper and answering questions on paper. It is his “Independent Practice” handout. While some students who work at Independent Practice use Chromebooks for their handouts, some do not. I learn later from the Director of the program that he is having a very hard time with previous skills and the current scientific notation. The girls at my table generally ignore him and proceed to move back-and-forth from notebook to Chromebook. Percy works with three boys at another table who need help. He goes to the whiteboard and writes down examples, explaining how to go from standard to scientific notation. Chimes ring signaling that everyone transitions back to 10-minute Math Advisories to complete there Exit Slip.

Those at my table begin doing so. Quiet descends in the room. Students click away on the questions they have to answer, given where they are in mastering the skill. Some consult their notebooks. Before the chimes ring, the teacher praises the entire group for their diligent work and then asks students as they leave to plug in their Chromebooks to recharge them. They do. In a few minutes, this session ends and students move to their next ASCEND class.

I met with the Director to debrief. I was curious about the switching between paper and screen and she explained that this was a teacher decision, not a company one, since teachers wanted a record, “evidence” was the word she used, that staff could assess and then compare what they see on paper with students’ progress through the competency-based math curriculum via Exit Slips. She explained to me the rapid electronic turnaround between New York City servers and staff, Teach To One accessibility to distant staff, and the ups-and-down of being a first year program. Her enthusiasm was infectious and I thanked her for setting up the shadowing of a student.






*Joel Rose, one of the founders of School of One who joined with Christopher Rush to start-up New Classrooms, contacted me in March 2016. He wanted to discuss Teach To One with me. We met for coffee talking about his vision of schooling, “personalized learning,” and his work in expanding New Classrooms. Afterwards, I asked him if he could arrange my visiting its Oakland Unified School District site in ASCEND charter school. He did.

**ASCEND is a Oakland public charter school that opened in 2001. The charter serves 430 students in grades K-8 with 24 students in every class. Students are 80% Latino, 8% Asian, 6% African American, 5% Multi-Racial, and 1% Filipino (2015). Poverty rate in school, determined by number of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, is 95 percent (2013).

***the classroom disciplinary policy is ASCEND’s. Verbal warning first. Then with another violation, name goes on whiteboard. Next time a check mark next to name. After two check marks, detention, and with three check marks, student goes to principal. I learned this from the student I shadowed and classmates. None of the students knew of anyone who had been ejected from their math class.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

Part 8: Summit Prep Teachers Integrating Technology: 9th Grade English

Classroom questioning of students is an art, not a science. Whether a teacher does it one-on-one or in a group of five or for an entire class of 30, questions are at the core of the teacher’s quest to have students grasp content and concepts. Or to have students probe more deeply what their classmates and the teacher assert. Or to stretch students’ skills of speaking in groups. Or fixing mistakes when students stumble. Getting the best sequence of questions asked of students, that is, using an initial one and then follow-up questions constructed like a ladder takes time and thought. Different aims in a lesson generate different kinds of questions and such questions are the meat-and-potatoes of teaching.

Much knowledge of asking classroom questions comes from direct experience in teaching, some is intuitive, and some comes from trial-and-error. And even some comes from books. Framing the question is what the teacher does prior to teaching, say, in a lesson plan and also during the lesson in the midst of back-and-forth exchanges between teacher and students. Which students to call upon and how to call upon them (e.g., cold calls, choral questions, name first or name last) is also more art than science.

I raise all of these points about questions (but not student answers) from watching Anne Giocondini, a 9th grade teacher of English in her first year at Summit Prep, conduct a lesson on poetry on March 22, 2016. Her written-out questions on the white board, in the handouts she gave students, and in the ensuing discussion reminded me for the umpteenth time just how crucial to student learning are the skills of constructing and asking students questions.

Giocondini, a graduate of Grand Valley State University (MI), became a Fulbright teacher at Kirovohrad State Pedagogical University (Ukraine) where she helped teach preservice TESOL teachers and translators for a year before coming to Summit Prep. Why Summit? The school “aligned with my values, doing project based teaching, and mentoring.” As a first-year teacher she has the same room all day to teach her block lessons of 90 minutes each, periods of Summit Reads and Mentoring. What she had on the walls of her room and how she arranged classroom tables for students to sit mirrored her aims for the 9th grade English class.

photophoto copy 2photo copy



The day’s agenda (see above) was clear. The teacher began the Warm Up when the class began at 8:15 with the question directed at 24 ninth graders who had been creating their poems in previous sessions: “Did I include Imagery?” On a slide projected on the screen in front of the room, Giocondini lists what students are to do with their partner’s poem and then their poem:

*”Open PLP (Summit’s online Personal Learning Plan)

*Open Partner Poem

*Open Partner Poem Revision Task Card 2

*Complete Checklist


*Professional Courtesy”

All students open their Chromebooks and go to their PLP and their table-mate’s poem. I scan the room and every student is either reading their screen or clicking away to answer questions that are on Task Card 2. Giocondini walks along the aisles, stopping at one table and then another asking questions and listening to student queries. This continues for about 10 minutes.

The teacher segues to next task on agenda and tells students that they will revise their partner’s poem to include imagery. Before they move to that task, she put a slide on the screen: “Imagery is the name given to the elements in a poem that sparks the senses.” Sight, taste, touch,smell, and sound are enumerated on slide. To pin down the concept, Giocondini asks students to practice imagery with their partner using prompts on a slip of paper she hands out (e.g., “I do not like junk food”). She then cold calls on two different students to repeat what tasks they will be doing in next few minutes. Each one repeats the tasks correctly. Students go to work. A stop watch on the screen beginning at 5 minutes ticks off. Teacher moves up-and-down aisles to see what pairs of students are doing, offer suggestions, and answer questions.

I scan the class and every student is engaged with one or two other classmates.

After time elapsed, Giocondinia stops the class and asks class for examples of imagery that they added to prompts written on the slip of paper. She “cold calls” a student–to “read out” his. And then onto others to “read out” their images. To some of the student answers there is laughter at vivid images.  Students clap at each other’s contributions. Teacher asks entire class which of the five senses is written about in examples of images; students respond chorally. Giocondini now moves to next part of lesson–Work Time: Partner Poem Revision (see above photo of agenda). She tells students they have 20 minutes to revise their partner’s poem. They open Chromebooks and begin task; many talk to their partner and compare stanzas and images (two pairs work next to me and as I click away taking notes on the lesson I can hear their conversation). Teacher goes around the room making suggestions, inspecting revisions, and answering questions. Students carry their Chromebooks as they move about the room to check in with classmates  on revisions they made in poems.

In looking around the room, all but two students are engaged in task; within a few minutes, the teacher gets to the two and they return to task.

Teacher announces that 10 minutes remain. Students work until teacher asks students to close Chromebooks–she uses the phrase, “professional courtesy.” A student next to me leans over to a nearby classmate and tells him to close his computer. Teacher says “if you can hear my voice, clap once,” quarter of the class claps. “She then says if you can hear my voice, clap twice.” Two-thirds clap twice. Quiet descends in room.

Giocondini then moves to next part of lesson, the Theme Poem. She explains what a theme poem is and projects a slide of a Maya Angelou poem (with her photo) that they had read earlier in the year called “Still I Rise“. Giocondini reads the poem to class. Slide appears on screen with question: What is the theme of “Still I Rise?”

To refresh their memory of theme taken up in an earlier lesson, the teacher shows slide of what constitutes a theme and whether the theme is specific, universal, etc. (for Giocondini’s plan about theme poems, see here). She asks class what is the theme of “Still I Rise.” She calls on students who raise their hands. Giocondini asks students to support their answers with words from the poem. What emerges from back-and-forth discussion among students and between teacher and class about the theme of the Angelou poem is that people can overcome obstacles by rising above hate. Giocondini then moves to final task of lesson which is for students to pick a theme poem from a playlist she has compiled, read it carefully, and analyze it with their partner for its theme. She gives students 20 minutes to do this task. They open their Chromebooks and commence working. I scan the class five minutes later and, apart from one student secretly glancing at his cell in his lap, all appear to be working on task. Giocondini walks up and down aisles conferring with students, making suggestions, and responding to questions.

When time came to end for this task,  the teacher says: “Who can hear my voice, clap once.” She continues until the ninth graders are quiet.  After asking students to close Chromebooks, chattering rises and Giocondini uses drill with clapping. One student behind me shushes others near him who are talking; another student says to a nearby classmate to use “professional courtesy,” that is, close the Chromebook.

Giocondini compliments the class for all that they have done in the hour and a half period and then previews the work they will do for the next time they meet. She then cold calls a student and asks him to tell the class what the homework is and what they will be doing the next time they meet. The young man repeats all of it correctly. Students begin to pack up in the final minute and then Giocondini releases students to go to Summit Reads, the next class on their schedule.

Teacher questions of all sorts permeated the 90-minute block period and drove this lesson on poetry.














Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Part 7-Summit Rainier Teachers Integrating Technology: Advanced Placement U.S. History

Advanced Placement courses in high school have both champions and critics (see here and here). Millions of high school students take AP exams ($92 for each test). Those who get a 3 or above (1-5 scale) can opt out of college courses saving money that would have gone to tuition. Recently, the largest growth in adding AP courses has been in schools enrolling large percentages of poor and minority students. Since most charters promote going to college and are located in cities, AP enrollments have soared in these publicly-funded but privately run schools. And that has been the case for the network of Summit Charter schools in the Bay area. In the two Summit schools I have observed lessons, I sat in AP classes. In Summit AP courses, students have a choice in whether or not they take the test. Not all Summit students take the AP test.

Edwin Avarca teaches AP U.S. history at Summit Rainier and I observed his 90 minute class on March 15, 2016 (for a description of Summit Rainier, see here). Avarca is completing his sixth year of teaching. A graduate of a Bay area teacher education program that awards a masters and teaching credential after 14 months, Avarca’s first job was at a charter school in downtown San Jose. After two years there he joined Summit Rainier and has been teaching the AP U.S. history course since. He estimates that about one-fourth of his students take the test. To help those AP students who do take the test he convened a lunch hour AP club when he coaches students for the test.

The portable in which Avarca’s class meets has an upright piano as one enters the room and in the back there is a comfortable chair and hassock. I sit in rear of room next to a TutorCorps aide (a Yale University graduate, who joined Americorp, a public service organization). She tutors a few students in the class. Today is the first day of a unit on the Civil Rights movement.

Avarca welcomes back the 19 students from the two weeks they spent in Expeditions, elective courses (e.g., music, yoga, computer science, drama, video production) that they take with a different set of teachers. Avarca asks how it went, and a few students respond with a mix of positive and negative comments. He then segues to the lesson. “Today,” he says, “is the first day of our unit on the Civil Rights movement.” Avarca points to the Warm Up written on the agenda printed on the white board and then shows a video called Poisoned Dreams , about African Americans seeking equal treatment in the 1950s and 1960s. After 10 minutes of watching the video, the teacher stops it, tells students to put away their cell phones, and points to three questions on the interactive-white-board:

–“According to the video, what injustices were were people trying to overcome?

–What methods were people using to overcome these injustices?

–How do the topics discussed in the video continue to affect us today?”

The teacher switches easily between Spanish and English when giving directions and explaining certain points to Latino students and does so in elaborating these questions when he sees puzzled looks. He asks students to open their Chromebooks and type in their answers to these questions in three minutes. He says they can work collaboratively at their tables. As I scan the classroom all of the students are clicking away. After three minutes, Avarca calls time and asks students at each table to discuss their answers with one another. After a few minutes of table talk, he asks each of the three questions of the class and conducts a whole-group discussion. Avarca, carrying a pack of note-cards in his hands with the names of individual students, picks out cards and calls on students randomly. For example, to the first question, he calls on one student and the student answers, “segregation.” Teacher follows up and asks the class, “is everyone aware of what segregation is and can you give examples?” There is a few minutes of back-and-forth with the entire group–with the teacher using cards to call on different students– about different kinds of segregation including racial. Avarca then offers very specific examples of separation of people past and present.

Avarca then turns to second question of methods to fight injustices. Students picked up quickly on “sit-ins” from the video and a flurry of answers bounce across the room, mostly call-outs from different students. The teacher gives specific examples of sit-ins including a hypothetical situation at Rainier about students protesting over the quality of school lunches by sitting in at the school. He quotes one Civil Rights protester who said he became free after being arrested for sitting in a restaurant in the 1960s. Avarca poses the statement as a question: how can you become free by being arrested?

Dispensing with the names on his cards, the teacher calls on students who have raised their hands to answer. After a bunch of student comments about the question, Avarca segues to existing inequalities in the U.S. today. Students mention Black Lives Matter, and rich and poor. After about five minutes of whole group discussion, Avarca brings this Warm Up and unit Introduction to a close. Using the interactive whiteboard, he then moves to the logistics of covering the unit and what he expects students to do for the next few weeks.

A slide flashes on the IWB revealing the Civil Rights Movement Project Calendar. Avarca goes over each item (e.g., Timeline, research essay) and explains which tasks will be collaboratively done and which will be done individually including students choosing to study a group that was part of the Civil Rights movement (e.g., African Americans, Chicano, Asian American, LGBTQ,* Women rights, Native Americans). He asks students to open their Chromebooks and go to link entitled “AP Resources” and then click on Civil Rights movement. In that electronic folder, different groups are listed with readings and videos for each. He then illustrates creating a Timeline by using the Chicano movement beginning in the late-1960s with the high school student walkouts in east Los Angeles. In scanning the class, I see nearly all of the students are raptly listening to teacher as he describes students refusing to attend school until their demands are met.

After this example of creating a Timeline, Avarca then moves to crucial task in starting this unit, getting students to choose which group of Americans they will study during the project. He says to the class: “Pick a group that you are passionate about and want to learn more. Don’t pick one that your friend chose.”  He gives the class a few moments to consider their choices and then he asks students to move to different parts of the room for African Americans, Chicanos, LGBTQ, women rights, Asian Americans. With a lot of chair scraping, joshing, and moving about, students settle into groups they want to study. Avarca then directs everyone to open Chromebooks and find Task Card for their group which lists questions, tasks, and sources students can use (e.g., African Americans, Womens Rights, Asian Americans) to build a Timeline, the immediate next task. Teacher calls on one of the groups to click on to their Task Card and has each student in group read the questions and other items on the sheet. Keep in mind that Avarca had created these Task Cards for each minority group, selected key questions, and compiled sources for students to read. A few students have questions and teacher answers them. Avarca then asks students to begin work on their minority group by creating a Timeline.

For the remaining 40 minutes, teacher and TutorCorps aide consult with each group to see if members have any questions, clear up any confusion over immediate task, and their doing individual research, a task that comes later in the project. As I scan the class, every group of students is engaged in reading sources and talking to others in group about key events that have to be on Timeline. About ten minutes from the end of period, Avarca reminds class of how much time is left. With five minutes remaining, Avarca claps his hands and does countdown from 5-0 to get attention. “Time to wrap up,” teacher says. He asks students to close their computers and then asks class: what inspired you about what you read and saw today? What did you think was cool?”  Students raise hands, one mentions Civil Rights law of 1964; another mentions American Indian takeover of Alcatraz; another was surprised by the Stonewall riots during the gay movement’s quest for equal rights.

The 90 minute period comes to an end and Avarca dismisses the AP class.


*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer






Filed under how teachers teach, technology

Part 6: Summit Rainier Teachers Integrating Technology: Chemistry

After spending six years working for pharmaceutical companies, Edward Lin who had tutored students while working as a chemist, decided to change careers. He went to  University of California, Berkeley and secured his state teaching credential. Attending various career fairs for teachers, Lin heard about Summit, researched the school, garnered an interview and was hired as a chemistry teacher. He has been at Summit Rainier for two years.

On March 16, 2016 I observed Lin teach from 11:25 to 1:00 a lesson on metals (including a Lab) to 17 students sitting two to a table facing the “smart” board at the front of the portable classroom. A Periodical Table hung from one wall of the classroom. A sink in the back of the room students used to wash hands, vials, and get water for experiments. Tubs of equipment, goggles, test tubes, and other paraphernalia, rested on tables also at the rear of the classroom.

Lin has prepared a series of activities, beginning with the Warm Up, on slides and shows them to students as he segues from one task to another over the course of 95 minutes.

One slide lists the items today’s lesson will cover:
*Project Introduction
*Molecule Selection
*Is it a metal? Lab
*Are atoms in your molecule metal or nonmetal?

The Warm Up (see slide 2 here)  which introduces the unit asks students to identify common tools used in kitchen and around the house and answer questions about them.   Students pair up and generate examples such as knives, wrenches, pencils, etc. in response to Lin’s request. Discussions engage each table as I scan the room. Teacher then asks students to answer three questions about each tool they identified: How does the tool’s shape allow it to do the job? What material(s) is the tool usually made of? Why is the tool usually made from the material(s)?

A whole group discussion of these tools ensues for about 10 minutes. Lin calls on students by name. Few raised their hands. As I scanned the classroom, most students were listening and responding to the teacher’s prompts. A few were not. Those who were not looked at their cell phones which were lying on their desks or were quietly chatting with table-mates. The teacher stops talking, motions to one of the chatterers and she stops. He continues to guide the discussion and makes the central point that these tools students identified are made of metal and other materials containing molecules with certain properties allowing the tool to do its work as a tool. The discussion continues until Lin moves to the next task of reviewing the entire project.

The teacher goes through a series of slides (see here, slide 3) covering what students have to do (e.g., choose a molecule they want to work on; produce a 2-D or 3-D model of the molecule each student chooses that can be made out of clay, drawn, crocheted, etc.; make an oral presentation (e.g., write and read an essay, present a comic book, do a PowerPoint lecture). Lin gives many examples for each of the tasks students need to complete and then asks students at each table–usually two and sometimes three–to choose a molecule in the next 15 minutes from the list that they have in a handout. Students use their Chromebooks to look up particular metal and non-metal molecules and ask Lin questions as he circulates around the class. Some of the students have quickly glommed onto the task and tell the teacher immediately which molecules they want to focus on. Lin takes down names and the molecules they chose. There is a flurry of activity when two different tables of students chose the same molecule (e.g., silicon). The teacher negotiates agreement between tables competing for the same element one team choosing another one.

Lin then segues to the handout labeled “Is It a Metal?” (see here) that will guide the Lab they do. The teacher had prepared samples of elements (e.g. lead, magnesium,calcium, copper, silicon) arrayed on two front tables. The Lab directions ask students to test each element and determine whether the element is a metal, nonmetal, or metalloid. Pairs of students are to get samples from the array of elements lying on the tables, test each one at a time, and record data, making observations of what they see happening (or not happening). Each element, say copper or aluminum, has certain properties (e.g., appearance, conductivity, brittle or flexible, reaction to acid). These properties are listed in handout. Students are to check the reaction of each element to hydrochloric acid and copper chloride. Based on the data students collect and the properties these elements have, they are to determine whether, for example, silicon, carbon, magnesium are metals, non-metals or metalloids.

Most of the students go to the rear of the portable where I am sitting and pull from various tubs of equipment, pairs of goggles and test tubes, return to their table and then go up to where the elements are arrayed at the front of the room and begin testing the properties of each one. A few students hang back and as they see others engaged begin to take part in Lab. Lin walks around the room answering questions, offering hints to puzzled students, and monitoring those less engaged in the Lab. Most of the students are working on the task. They carry their Chromebooks with them to record data and confer with one another in their group about what they see.

From time to time, Lin reminds students how much time is left to complete filling up the sheets and recording the data. One group of five students dip into and out of the Labwork as they do the operations chatting and laughing. The teacher sits down with a few of them to see how they are doing on the tasks. Other students have completed the Lab and ask Lin what they should do and he directs them to push ahead with otherparts of the unit that he had previewed earlier in the period.

At 12:45, the stop watch is at 0:00 and Lin tells students to clean up. Students line up at sink to wash out test tubes, dry their hands, and at their tables compare what they have found with other groups of students.

Lin then convenes the whole class–he counts down from 5 to 1–and says: “Let’s chat a bit.” He asks which of the elements are metals. Students call out answers: “copper,” zinc.” Lin follows up and asks what are the properties of these metals. More call-outs from students (e.g., “you can bend copper,” “when acid hit, bubbles came up in test tube”). One student is puzzled over silicon and Lin notes that and elaborates on the element. He then asks class about carbon. He clicks away on his laptop and student answers about each of the elements they examined appear on the screen. “Nonmetals are brittle, dark, not shiny, and barely conductive.” He then goes to Periodic Table and asks students to look at how metals, nonmetals, and metalloids are aligned on the Table. This is a mini-lecture with a handful of minutes remaining. Restlessness rises in the room. Lin concludes the summary and students pack up and move toward door of portable. In a few moments, the teacher releases the class to go their next one.






Filed under how teachers teach, technology use, Uncategorized

Part 5-Summit Rainier Teachers Integrating Technology: World Studies

The young, slim teacher stands on the chair in the middle of the classroom to be heard above ninth grade students clustered in the four corners of the portable classroom. The students are chattering about the reasons they agree or disagree with the statement Katie Goddard, the teacher, put on the “smart board.” The statement students considered–“There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery”– drove them to different corners labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” The teacher asks students in each corner why they agree or disagree with statement. After a few students give their reasons, some classmates change their minds and migrate to different corners making the classroom a swirl of movement.  This activity occurred in the middle of a 95 minute block in World Studies where Goddard was introducing a new unit on Imperialism.

Goddard had begun the 95-minute class with a Warm Up question: “Should the U.S. pay reparations to black Americans whose families have been slaves?” and, after telling them to put away their cells and Chromebooks, gave them two short op-ed pieces on opposite sides of the question. One op ed argued that who should pay and who should receive reparations for enslaving Africans were contested and confused. The other op ed argued that the British should pay reparations to Kenyans for what they did in colonizing that African nation.

She asks the 24 ninth graders to “read and chunk the text” for each opinion piece. She reminded the class to read each paragraph and write a one-line summary of each paragraph and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the op ed. As students write in their notebooks, Goddard, holding a clipboard, walks around the classroom of 13 tables, each seating two students facing the “smart board,” answering questions and checking to see what students are writing. Goddard asks students to hold up fingers indicating how much more time they want to finish task. Some hold up one, others two and three. For those who had finished she offers two options for them to do. She then asks students to share with partner their summaries and opinions. As students start talking to one another, Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember in working together you need to turn to your partner, move your body to face one another and listen carefully to what your partner says.” Students resume talking.

When she sees that nearly all students have completed the task, she asks students for their summaries of the two articles and which one they agree/disagree with most. Students are initially reluctant to commit to a position but as a few offer their opinions, Goddard teases out the reasons embedded in arguments for and against reparations. And this is the moment when the teacher asked all the students to take a position on the statement and go to a corner of the room: “There is no single group responsible for the crime of slavery. African rulers are equally as guilty for for slavery.”

This Warm Up and debate about reparations were initial activities in the lesson introducing Imperialism. By starting with the contentious contemporary question of reparations for slavery, Goddard would move to instances of European countries colonizing the Congo in Africa and India in Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries and consider the human costs of taking over these countries.

Katie Goddard and Rainier

Before describing the rest of the lesson, a few words about the teacher and the Rainier campus of Summit charter schools. Goddard is finishing her third year of teaching. A Brown University graduate, she completed a master’s degree and teaching credential at a Bay area teacher education program. Why Summit? Goddard says: “I knew I wanted a place where there was an emphasis on mentoring students with on-site coaching that supports my practice and collaboration among teachers.”

Goddard’s enthusiasm for teaching history is written on the windows and walls. Across one window in the portable (there are two in the room) in large capital letters is pasted: YOU CAN DO THIS. On a rear wall, are quotations: “The Past Informs the Present,” “Case Studies Reveal Patterns in History.” In the classroom, besides the familiar countdown to get students attention (“I’m counting down from 5), Goddard also switches student seats daily. She has a stack of cards with student names and places a card on each desk every morning, thus accomplishing two things that she prizes: with much student pairing up and “tellback” exercises, she wants students to get to know each other; second, the tactic is a quick way of taking attendance since when the seat at a table is empty, she picks up the cards and knows exactly who is absent. As her quote indicates and her behavior in this lesson mirrors, Goddard likes being at Summit-Rainier.

The school is one of the Summit network of seven charter schools in the Bay area. On a block schedule of 95 minute periods, the high school was founded by a group of parents and Summit leaders who received a charter from the East Side Union High School district in 2011. With about 270 students (60 percent Latino, 17 Asian and Filipino, 15 white, 3 African American; and just over half eligible for free and reduced price lunch–the measure of poverty), Rainier is located on the campus of Mt. Pleasant High School. What was once a parking lot there are now 17 portable classrooms, an office, and faculty lounge. Students have access to Mt. Pleasant High School for certain activities (see  School Accountability Report Card for 2014-2015). One hundred percent of Rainier’s first graduating class were accepted into four-year colleges.

Back to the Lesson

The agenda for the day, written on the white board, listed the sequence of topics for the hour-and-a-half session:

  1. Reparations
  2. Slavery op eds
  3. Criteria
  4. Imperialism op eds
  5. Exit ticket

After the Warm Up and during the four-corner debate, Goddard gets deeper into the reparations question by introducing statements such as: “slavery ended a hundred years ago so the U.S. government should not pay any money to African Americans now.” One student points out that the U.S. government has already paid reparations when they gave sums of money to Japanese Americans for being in internment camps during World War II. Another points out that the money went to those who were still alive. Voices are raised and tone becomes adversarial among students agreeing and disagreeing. Goddard interrupts and says: “Remember our norms. The second your tone becomes combative, you don’t listen. Our goal is to listen to one another.” After more restrained back-and-forth in which the teacher specifically calls on students who have heretofore not entered the discussion, Goddard asks class if they want to shift corners. About one-third move to another corner.

Teacher now asks students to return to their tables and turn to the next question: When are reparations necessary? She asks class to open Chromebooks and come up with criteria to answer the question. She reminds class that there is no correct answer, that you have different opinions but you need examples and facts to support your opinion. Goddard moves around the room asking and answering questions at each table.

After about 10 minutes, Goddard asks students to put lids down and says that “we are going to study Imperialism and you are going to write an op-ed by the end of the unit. “The question you will answer,” she says, is “do former imperializing countries have a responsibility to give foreign aid to the countries they imperialized?”  She links the earlier discussion of reparations  to Imperialism and then previews the next 12 lessons on the “smart board,” going over each one briefly. She then puts up a slide that defines Imperialism as “the process of taking over another country through diplomacy or military force.” Goddard asks students to come up with their definition of imperialism by using the Playlist of sources (documents and videos)–she gives the class the link–that she assembled for them on the Congo, India, and other colonized countries. In coming up with their definitions, she urges students to talk to their partner. After pairs have come up with their definitions from Playlist, she then asks them to brainstorm what they would need to know about imperialism to determine if reparations are necessary.*

With clipboard in hand, teacher moves through the classroom checking to see which students are unclear about the task or having difficulties in answering questions.

As time winds down to end the class, Goddard summarizes what they have done, connecting discussions on reparations to new unit of Imperialism.

Like many other 9th grade teachers, socializing students to classroom and school norms, covering content, engendering participation, and teaching cognitive skills becomes a complex dance of tasks and activities interacting with one another over 95 minutes. Not easy to do.


*A brief video of Katie Goddard preparing a class to write a culminating essay for a project in January 2015 is here.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

A Poem about Teaching and A Critique (Taylor Mali and Joe Bower)

Like doctors, lawyers, architects, and therapists, teachers disagree about the nature of teaching and the ends that teaching and learning should attain. Such disagreements go back millennia and it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of these honest and deep disagreements that exist among teachers. Consider the following poem (“What Teachers Make”) by Taylor Mali and a critique of it written by Joe Bower.


Taylor Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching everything from English and history to math and S.A.T. test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society. Mali is the author most recently of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” (Putnam 2012)…. (From Taylor Mali’s website)


What Teachers Make

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.

Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?


Canadian teacher Joe Bower replied in 2010.

Let’s take a look at Taylor Mali’s little poem:

“I can make kids work harder” – Kids don’t work, they learn. Making education metaphorical with business is precisely what has gotten us in the mess we are in today. Policy makers that are pedagogically further removed from the classroom than they are geographically are responsible for too much of what is wrong with school today.

“I can make a C- feel like a congressional medal of honor, and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face.” Of course you can, Taylor. This is true because grades can only ever be experienced by children as a reward or punishment. Do you really want to take credit for that? Extrinsically manipulating children to coerce them to learn with carrots and sticks is hardly something to brag about. You’re a bully.

“How dare you waste my time!” That sounds awfully conditional, Taylor. You realize that kids don’t need their teacher to be a judge-in-waiting that they must learn to keep their distance from, right? You realize that what they really need is a teacher who will unconditionally accept them for who they are, right? Right?

“I make kids sit through study hall for 40 minutes in absolute silence.” Learning is a social exercise – it isn’t often that we learn best in isolation – and in the real world collaboration is not cheating. Beyond that, what are they studying for? The state-mandated, high-stakes standardized test? Taylor, are you really proud of wasting 40 minutes of study time when your students could have been doing real learning?

“No you may not work in groups?” Why not, Taylor? How will children learn to collaborate if you arbitrarily decide they can’t. And then when you do provide them with the privilege of working together, and they screw it up, you’ll blame them because they don’t know how to work together. Be honest, Taylor, the quiet classroom is more for you than it is for them. Cui bono?.

“No you may not ask me a question.” Again, why not, Taylor? Are you their teacher who is there to guide them and coach them to better learning or are you just a supervisor? The more I listen to you, the more I believe it is the latter.

“No you may not go to the bathroom.” Taylor, as an adult, when was the last time you had to even ask to go the bathroom? And as an adult, when was the last time you were told that you couldn’t go? And, as an adult, if you were told ‘no’, what would be your reaction?

“You’re bored and you don’t really have to go to the bathroom.” Taylor, I’ll give you 3 guesses why they are bored. I’ll give you a hint. It has something to do with that 40 minutes of solitary confinement you love so much.

“I make parents tremble in fear when I call home.” I have no idea how this could possibly be a good thing. EVER. Shameful.

“To the biggest bully in the class, he said…” Was this boy speaking to you, Taylor?

“I make kids wonder.” No Taylor, at best you make them want to wander. As in wander out of your classroom because you can’t make someone do anything and make them like it.

“I make them apologize.” Yes, you made them say the word ‘sorry’, but ‘sorry’ isn’t a word. It’s a feeling. I doubt you were ever able to make someone feel sorry… in a good way.

“I make the write, write, write. I make them read.” If they could spot a comma splice or a Shakespeare quote from a block away, but they swear to God they’ll never pick up a pen or book again, what have you accomplished? Where there’s interest, achievement follows. Where there’s disinterest, boredom and misbehavior sets in. Montaigne once wrote if students lack “appetite and affection” for learning, they become little more than “asses loaded with books.”

“I make them spell…” Sounds like you make your kids sit down for a spell. It also sounds like the real choice you give kids is that we either let them use invented spelling or we don’t let them write at all. Wow, how honorable of you.

We can’t test our way to a better education, nor can we bully kids to better learning, while our fixation on quantity and control continue to do a massive disservice for our children….



Filed under how teachers teach

Part 4: Summit Prep Charter Teachers Integrating Technology–World Studies

Any high school teacher who has taught 9th graders and seniors can quickly list the differences in teaching 15 and 18 year-olds. One of the tasks of teaching 9th graders at Summit Prep (and most other high schools as well) is socializing them into the school’s academic and behavioral norms so that by the end of the year, these students know what to do, when to do it across academic subjects, and how to behave out of class while still on the campus. These skills and behaviors, Summit leaders believe, are crucial for success not only in high school but also in higher education.

Aukeem Ballard, who is finishing his third year as a teacher, teaches the first block of the school day, usually a 95 minute period for his 9th grade World Studies students. But today Block 1 is only 55 minutes because half of the school will be visiting Bay area college campuses for the rest of the week. The 28 students sitting in foursomes facing one another at tables are jumpy about the trip. Questions quietly ripple through the room. Ballard is very aware of the higher-than-usual nervousness among students and spends time at the beginning of the class taking their questions about when and where they will meet, what they need to bring, what they will be doing, etc.  He does all of this before launching into a Warm Up that begins a new unit on Imperialism. He puts up a slide on the screen that has the daily objectives and goes over them one-by-one (see slide 3 here).

For the Warm Up, Ballard asks students to write a two-minute summary of the story “The Rabbits” that they had finished reading earlier in the week (the fable-like story is about how rabbits  invade a land where other animals are living, colonizes the country, and despotically rules the nation; the story is an allegory for 19th and 20th century imperialistic powers slicing up Africa and Asia (see here). He tells students that to do the summary, there will be no partnering. He wants individual work.  Students take out their notebooks and begin writing. Ballard walks around the room checking to see their summaries. “I just saw,” he says, “a two sentence summary that is better-than-fair.” After most of the class has finished, he tells students to draw a dotted line under their summary and then write their opinion in a few sentences about “The Rabbits.” After they finish, he says, share for three minutes your opinions with their table partner.

I scan the class and all students are writing their opinions, a few have begun talking to their table-mates.

After three minutes, Ballard calls for their attention by counting down from five to one. He then asks students for their opinions of the story. No one responds. He calls on three different students and they give their opinions in very low voices. He asks them to speak louder so that others can hear.

“Now,” after the brief back-and-forth with a few students, “we are going to swing from the rabbit story to imperialism.” He then puts a slide on screen calling it a Link Frame.*   It is a matrix of  four squares with labels for each quadrant: List, Inquire, Notice, and Know (LINK). He asks students to put the Link Frame in their notebooks and then fill in  the List quadrant with 5-6 words that they associate with the word “imperialism.”  He says: “Use what you know in your incredible brains.” After a few minutes, the teacher says: “You should be ready to share out LIST with the rest at your table—don’t use Chromebooks yet.”

After the sharing, Ballard calls on students in various groups to give the words they wrote; the teacher jots the words down on his laptop and they appear on screen. He then walks around with his Chromebook in hand,  listening to various students, closing lids of three Chromebooks as he continues to note what words students have put down for imperialism in the List quadrant.

After a long list of words from class appear, he asks students to go to next quadrant of the Link Frame, Inquiry. Here he wants students in their group to brainstorm questions they would ask about imperialism for their project essays. He asks each table group of four to have one of them act as recorder while the other three members stand up and says questions that they would ask about imperialism. Recorder takes down questions as three peers stand and throw out questions. Ballard walks around room listening, offering compliments to some groups for their questions. He has a stop watch and tells students how many minutes are left for the activity.

At end of task, students sit and Ballard asks what questions came up in each group. He types their questions and they appear on the screen at front of room (e.g., Why do countries need resources in other places? Why so much violence? What are the most recent nations to be imperialized?).

Teacher then directs students to go to third quadrant of Link Frame, Notice. Here he asks students to use their Chromebooks and go to a link (see here) that shows photos and has text of Before and After Belgium, Great Britain, and other countries colonized parts of Africa and Asia. Students open Chromebooks, go to link and quietly read while jotting down in their notebooks things they notice. I scan class and every student is on task. As the end of class approaches, Ballard calls for “professional courtesy,” a code phrase students recognize for closing the lids of their Chromebooks. They do. He then asks students to complete Notice and Know quadrants of the matrix as homework for their next block class. They will pick up discussion from that point, hesays.

Teacher dismisses class and students leave for their next 55-minute class.

Teaching norms of discourse and behavior is a long process of socialization to high school and essential for those who enter college. It begins in the 9th grade at Summit Prep and shows itself fully in subsequent years. Such student compliance to these academic and behavioral norms, Summit leaders believe, is the basis for success in high school and higher education.


*After reviewing a draft of this post for inaccuracies, Ballard said that “it is important to note that lesson and PowerPoint are a result of collaboration with my 9th grade history teacher colleague …. at [another Summit] school.”


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use