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Students as Digital Rebels, Wanderers, and Pioneers (Craig Peck, et. al.) Part 2

Craig Peck and his colleagues studied two high schools in Southeastern U.S., one–Downtown–was urban and minority while Newlands was mostly white and suburban. Part 1 described student and teacher use of school and personal devices in Downtown high school. The full text including citations is in DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools.

We discovered that, as the old ways of schooling such as bell schedules, paper tests, and seats in rows intersected with tech-savvy, [personal media device-or] PMD-equipped teenagers, a “digital disconnect” (Selwyn, 2011) surfaced between digital youth and their brick and mortar schools. This situation produced a setting fertile for cultural incubation similar to the creative tensions present in an examination of technology in two American high schools a decade past (Peck, Cuban, & Kirkpatrick, 2002).

In that case, nascent ICT integration in schools helped foster the development of two types of students: “Open Door” students who improved academically and gained social acceptance through technology, and “Tech Gods” who played a crucial role in helping technology coordinators maintain the schools’ technology infrastructures.

Roughly 10 years later, during our study at Newlands and Downtown, we recognized three new types of students emerging in addition to the Open Door students and Tech Gods profiled a decade earlier. Two of these new classifications, Digital Rebels and Cyber Wanderers, included students from across the socioeconomic status spectrum. The other group was more homogeneous: eLearning Pioneers were primarily White, high-achieving students at Newlands High School. …

Digital Rebels

….We encountered students who utilized their PMDs as means to rebel, overtly or surreptitiously, against school and teacher rules. Skilled students sent text messages routinely during lessons. Without the teacher’s (or at times, the observer’s) knowledge, these students used their clothing and objects for cover; some typed responses in their pockets without looking at their device. A few students pushed the bounds further by setting up proxies on school computers to bypass school district filters and access popular social media sites. In addition, students who possessed mobile phone data plans (or shared those of their parents) could use their PMDs to access any online social media they wished, given that the school district’s Internet filters could not block such activity on proprietary wireless networks.

A White male 10th grader at Newlands High School proved particularly adept at evading classroom rules against PMD usage. He explained that he was able to type text messages without looking, so he only had to read incoming messages. He stated, “I’m normally a two-hander with my phone, but if I was just sitting here like this I could send a message just fine [in my pocket].” He later revealed that he did in fact send a text message during his interview, unbeknownst to the researcher. He also explained that he possessed skills that would have enabled him to help fix instructors’ ICT issues, much like the Tech Gods profiled in a study a decade ago (Peck et al., 2002). But he also revealed that he was reluctant to share such knowledge: “I don’t speak up about it. . . . Not big on fixing things like that.” When asked to explain his reluctance to provide technology aid to his teachers, he remarked, “Don’t want to help the teachers—it’s time off class . . . ‘cause they’re going to have to call someone to fix it.”

This Digital Rebel, in essence, seemed to express a willingness to undermine a lesson through silent inaction.

At Downtown High, an 11th-grade African American female student described when and how she text-messaged during a lesson: “Well if I’m in class and I get a text, usually I wait until the class is working on some kind of work, but it’s mostly after the teacher explains it.” She estimated sending about 100 text messages on a typical day, with far fewer during the actual school hours. In fact, she described concerns with having PMDs in schools.

In her own words, “There’s cheating. They give the answers during text messages. Or if someone’s planning to have a fight, they’ll just do it through the phones. They’ll text and meet up there and everyone will know where to go. And that kind of blocks the way of it being broken up [by adult supervisors], which is kind of dangerous.”

In this sense, seemingly innocent acts of rebellion could actually transform into significant acts of danger.

Teachers possessed limited means to fight back against the apparent digital insurrection. As we shadowed students throughout their school days, teachers confiscated student PMDs that had been used in ways that disrupted instruction. Yet, most often the teachers simply returned the devices to the students at the end of the period, seemingly satisfied to have induced a brief respite in their ongoing digital communications. Other teachers ignored student PMD use or adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach of benign neglect. Still other educators did go to great lengths to disrupt student technology use.

In one case at Downtown High School, a coach made all her players turn in their phones to her at the beginning of school as a tactic for preventing PMD-inspired confrontations during the day; a student participant revealed that a friend of hers circumvented this deterrent by carrying multiple mobile phones: one to turn in to the coach, and the others to keep and use. In another case at Downtown High School, two teachers used personal funds to purchase cell phone blockers in the hopes of eliminating student PMD usage during class time. Administrators subsequently sent all teachers a memorandum forbidding this solution. The principal explained that the blockers interfered with the administrators’ cell phones, which constituted a safety issue. The principal added that any teacher using the cell phone blockers would be held personally liable in the event that aid was delayed to a sick or injured school constituent.

An administrator at Newlands discussed how the possible release valve provided by a student-appropriate PMD use policy did not always lead to student acceptance of usage rules. She explained,

“One student told me, ‘You know, this is a new world and this is a new age.’ And I had to [confiscate his cell phone] because he refused to give it up in gym. And he just said, ‘It’s a new world, a new age.’And I explained the policy and I said I realized that. And he said, “You check yours all the time, too.”. . . It is a new world and we have to start to identify and look at all that we are trying to impose on students. Is it old values? It’s not the same.”

Such technology-fueled conundrums carried over to her relations with her own teenage son. She described some of the virtues of PMDs: “I know that any time I want him, I know I can get him.” She still struggled like many parents with what she called the “trust issue,” stating that she needs to know who he is texting, or, as she stated it, “making sure that when you text—who you’re texting, what are you texting, making sure I know all that.”

A White male 11th grader at Downtown High School perhaps best summed up the dilemmas regarding PMD use and access that educators face today. He stated,

“You’re never going to stop it, there’s no way you can. I mean, [there are] people that know computers. They know technology, it’s like they could do it all on the back of their hand, sleeping. I mean, they know their ways around technology. I mean you just give a guy a new technology and let him play with it a couple of days and he’ll figure it out like nothing…..”

Cyber Wanderers

During our research, we also met students for whom, much like the Open Door students profiled in a previous study (Peck et al., 2002), technology proved essential. One such student from Newlands explained,

“Main reason I love this school is because: Wi-Fi throughout the whole school, which is great. You can go on the web like during lunch or whatever. I’ll be in the library during lunch and I’ll open up my laptop and whatever, browse the web and everything. Sometimes, most of the time when I’m in math or English I’ll write my notes and write my essays on my laptop.”

By this student’s own testimony and that of his teachers, technology enabled his academic success and social adjustment. Some students in our study, however, became so immersed in or overwhelmed by new media technology that they meandered between the real and virtual worlds. To such students, whom we dubbed Cyber Wanderers, the lure of technology presented a possible danger: They could succumb to ICT as a powerful distraction rather than seize it as a powerful tool, or use ICT to engage in an environment that offered the potential for anonymous hostility.

At Newlands, for example, we met an African American 10th-grade male student who was an avid online gamer, explaining that sometimes “people will wind up cursing when I do something wrong or mess up.” Conversely, he admitted using the screen name “heartless jerk” in an online gaming forum and “made one member quit” because of his harsh comments.

We also encountered a White male 10th-grade student at Downtown High School who checked his phone during our interview to discover, to his surprise, that he had sent 18,287 text messages the previous month alone. He described his text messaging as almost instinctual:

“Well I start sending text messages usually ‘cause I haven’t talked to somebody in a while and [there are] some certain people you know that I maintain a constant texting conversation with. You know and I’ll just text them sometimes to ask them something in particular and sometimes just to start up a conversation, so it’s just kind of I realize that I’m you know, starting a conversation but I don’t really think about it, if that makes sense . . . I just kind of do it.”

He also seemed cognizant that his text messaging had serious consequences:

“My texting has probably gotten in the way of some learning . . .In Algebra 2 . . . if you don’t get it at the beginning it kind of puts you in a hole. . . . So I’ve kind of had to play catch up here.” Adding to his issues, he explained, “[I] definitely play a lot of video games while texting . . . in a way that kind of runs into a problem sometimes.” Cyber Wanderers such as these could find themselves thoroughly lost in electronic worlds while being inattentive to the formal curriculum.

eLearning Pioneers

In the media center of the predominantly White and affluent Newlands High School, a small group of female students spent a fair portion of their days immersed in online learning. Loosely monitored by the school’s media coordinators, youth whom we called eLearning Pioneers sat at computers and studied advanced Chinese or AP computer science while most other students throughout the school attended traditional classes. During one typical period during a school day, each of three students sat individually at one of the 30 desktop computers arranged around the media center; two of the students were engaged in online learning activities. The online courses could be noticeably self-paced. A staff member who participated in our research reported that one of our study’s students took a virtual 8-month-long biology course; the student expended little effort for 6 months before completing all assignments successfully over the final 2 months of the allotted course time.

The eLearning Pioneers at Newlands included another of our study participants, a White 10th-grader who took two AP classes and a math class online in the school media center and attended two regular classes before going home. For her online courses, message boards and email provided the central means for teacher–student and student–student interaction. She noted,

“In online classes . . . generally speaking, you pace yourself. Especially with my English class . . . she gives you the assignments and she gives you a syllabus for where you should be. But you turn them in at your own pace and you take tests when you can . . . you have a tab that you can click on and go to your ‘My Grades.’ It has the assignment, and what grade you got, and out of what and all the assignments you’re going to need to complete for the rest of the year . . . it’s easier to keep up with things. You know, like, I’m supposed to post to the discussion board today. You go and do that.”

 

Our shadowing of our participant during a typical day neatly captured the hybrid nature of her educational experience. In AP environmental science, she sat with 18 classmates and completed a written unit examination; once finished with the test, the class watched a nature DVD played with the teacher’s laptop computer and broadcast by digital projector. Our participant returned to the media center to complete an assignment for her AP computer science course, which was offered through the state’s virtual public school program. She returned to a classroom with 20 students to engage in a lesson for Latin II, during which the teacher led students through a line-by-line translation of a text excerpt. Our research subject then departed from campus, with designs on completing an assignment for her AP English course offered through another state’s virtual education program. Her AP English instructor, whom our student had met only virtually but described as “amazing,” posted pictures of her own children, wanting to connect more personally with her students. Our subject reported,

“I’ll do an assignment and I’ll turn it in, like an essay or something,and then she’ll send me feedback and say, ‘This was good but your introduction’s a little weak.’ Or ‘You need to do this.’”

We wondered whether our participant—an independent, self-motivated eLearning Pioneer—offered a glimpse into the American high school future (Christensen et al.,)

 

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Digital Youth in Brick and Mortar Schools (Craig Peck, et. al)*

 

University researcher Craig Peck and colleagues including a high school teacher studied two schools in southeastern U.S. to see the interplay between students, teacher use of technologies and students’ personal media devices during the school day. In the two high schools (one urban and the other suburban), these factors interacted in complex ways that go well beyond what advocates for schools becoming more high-tech have either promised or foresaw. As part of the research design and methodology, the researchers shadowed ten students through their school day. To illustrate those interactions and display that complexity, the researchers offer a snippet of one student’s day in the urban, largely minority high school. The full text of the article published in Teachers College Record, May 2015 is in (DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools)

 

One Friday morning in late spring, the instructional day began at Downtown High School, located in a large Southeastern United States school district. African-American 11th-grader Joanna Miller and 19 other students entered room 321 for their Small Business course, a technology-infused elective, and took seats in front of desktop computers. The session began as a guest speaker, a 1961 Downtown High School alumnus who had retired from a career as a lawyer and business person, described his work experiences, discussed resume tips, and offered motivational words.

The course instructor transitioned the students into the day’s assignment: They completed computer-based multiple-choice responses regarding business term definitions and reviewed for a test that coming Monday on creating a personal “business image.” The teacher monitored student progress through a program on his computer that provided a real-time screen shot of each student-assigned computer.

This system allowed him to lock individual computers or the entire group to provide updates or check that everyone was on task. At one point, a student tried to access a popular social media website through a proxy but had the action blocked by the monitoring program. The teacher’s computer-based monitoring of the students actually seemed rather laissez-faire. At one point, several students were engaged in completing the assignment, while a few others were completing work for other courses, surfing the web, or, at intermittent moments, quickly texting on their personal media devices. Joanna, in fact, used her computer to complete the assignment’s multiple-choice responses. She explained to the researcher how she preferred the online format because it allowed her to retake questions she answered incorrectly.

After the bell rang, signaling time to move to the next period, Joanna continued on with her school day. She encountered instructional technology along the way, including when fellow students used a computer-interactive whiteboard for problem demonstrations in mathematics. In other courses like English, decades-old practices predominated as students sitting at desks arranged in traditional rows completed a photocopied crossword puzzle regarding a classic play. In Latin, the instructor engaged students in a discussion regarding Celtic mythology and read a myth from a book. In this sense, her instructional day offered Joanna a mix of technology-rich and technology-free experiences. Despite the varied nature of instruction, one technology pervasive throughout the day was student personal media devices.

Downtown High School rules specifically prohibited students from bringing technology like cellular phones and digital music players to school. In classrooms and in the halls, however, headphones dangled from ears and tiny keyboards met eager text-typing thumbs as students routinely, if often surreptitiously, indulged in their favored virtual electronic communication modes.

In some cases, educational spaces became contested domains. In math, the teacher confiscated Joanna’s cell phone (which a classmate was using) and two others. The teacher returned the devices at the end of class with a stern admonition against further use. In Joanna’s Latin course, meanwhile, instruction in the aged language competed against modern times as one student in particular showed a remarkable affinity for modern multitasking. Shielding her personal media device beneath her desk, the student quickly tapped out text messages. She also used a pen to write notes to secretly pass onto classmates and, for good order, offered periodic comments to the larger discussion pertaining to Celtic mythology.

In part 2, Craig Peck and his colleagues describe the different kinds of students they encountered and their use of technology based on interviews and following students into classes in both the suburban and urban high schools.

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*Craig Peck is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was one of my graduate students who assisted me on a study of teacher and student technology use at two Northern California high schools in 1998-1999

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High Performing Minority Districts: An Anomaly?

For the past half-century, efforts to improve largely minority and poor schools have occupied the best minds and received substantial private and public monies. Recall the Effective Schools movement of the 1980s and the federally funded Comprehensive School Reform program in the 1990s.  In the past quarter-century, however, there has been a shift from federal and state officials and private donors looking at individual schools to focusing on districts as the key site for academic improvement. This shift in attention from the individual school to the district marks a return to what has been the historic  pattern of improving schools.

Turning around failing urban districts through law (e.g. No Child Left Behind), federal grants (e.g., School Improvement Grants in the Race To The Top program), and cash prizes (e.g., The Broad Prize in Urban Education) are only the most recent of many well-intentioned efforts. There are, of course, urban districts, large and small, poor and minority, that have been high performing academically but in most of these cases, they were like shooting stars—brilliant for a time, maybe enough to snatch an award, and get cited in a study then poof, gone from sight (see here for Chicago and Atlanta as high achieving districts). The suspension of the one million dollar Broad Prize in Urban Education (2015) underscores how enormously difficult it is for urban districts to maintain improved academic performance. There are, then, very few urban, largely minority districts that have sustained high academic achievement (whatever the metrics) for a decade or more through demographic shifts and school board and superintendent turnover. I did say “very few” so there are some.

Examples might help. The Minority Student Achievement Network  of small cities and first-ring suburbs with 3,000 to 33,000 students has academically high performing districts with sustained improvements using multiple measures. Federal Way (WA), Evanston (IL), Brookline (MA), and Arlington (VA) have demonstrated reductions in the white/minority achievement gap, rising test scores, high graduation and low dropout rates. These districts, to the best of my knowledge have gone unresearched and unevaluated by independent agencies and scholars.

The significant and unaddressed policy question is: How can a largely minority urban school system sustain high student performance in its schools, and classrooms for decades?

Unfortunately, district improvement remains a black box into which hunches, anecdotes, and personal experiences are tossed in the hope that dedication, hard work, and luck will turn failure into success. The absence of relevant research on long-term, high achieving urban districts has been painfully, even embarrassingly, obvious. Looking at a few urban districts that have had sustained success in raising and maintaining high academic achievement over time is a research strategy that can have substantial policy payoff since it is the district that has capacity and resources to make key governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes.

Some analysts have identified urban districts that have raised and sustained students’ achievement (e.g., Long Beach, California and Aldine, Texas—both past Broad Prize winners) but independent in-depth, longitudinal studies of those districts have yet to be done. A few researchers have discovered such urban districts that have achieved academic success over longer periods of time. David Kirp (Improbable Scholars, 2013) did that for Union City (NJ); Jane David and Joan Talbert researched Sanger (CA) over the past decade (Turning Around a High-Poverty District, 2013). These qualitative case studies of districts with about 10,000 students each documented various factors that researchers believe answer the how-they-did-it question (e.g., superintendent tenure, school board continuity, funding, principal leadership, district culture). What configuration of factors might explain the decades-long high academic performance of these and other districts, I cannot say now. Until researchers investigate systematically such high performing districts, no policymaker, practitioner, or parent would find out whether patterns that have been studied would compliment, challenge, or amend what has occurred in the few urban districts that have already been examined.

But there is one important factor that would need to be added to the research agenda for such studies.  When investigating uncommonly successful urban districts, the classroom impact of policies on teachers goes unreported. Little systematic examination of the link between adopted policies and actual classroom lessons has been done beyond occasional teacher surveys. In any study of high performing, largely minority districts, I and other researchers should examine academic subjects to determine the impact of system policy on classroom content and pedagogy over time. Recently, I have studied the teaching of history over the past half-century in two urban districts. “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Classroom Instruction” (forthcoming from Harvard Education Press). Were I to do such a study of successful urban districts, I would not only look at demographic, political and organizational factors that may explain continuity in academic achievement over time but also inspect what happens in classroom lessons to see what links, if any, exist between district policy and classroom practice.

Investigating urban schools that have sustained academic achievement over time is surely worthwhile but limited since such a school may be a few blocks away from a school that continually fails its students. It is the stable, high-performing district as the unit of reform that offers the most gain for the largest number of students that needs to be studied and analyzed.

 

 

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Hollywood, HBO, and School Reform (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discussed the doctoral dissertation of Derisa Grant who tried to unravel the puzzle of Hollywood films moving from superhero teachers to “bad” teachers over the past few decades. In Part 2, I point out how Hollywood films about teachers epitomize the dominant American cultural value of an individual overcoming all obstacles ignoring the substantial influence of the school and community. Consider the film portrayals of English teacher Erin Gruwell and math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski.

Not only 3000 miles separate English teacher Erin Gruwell at Wilson High School in Long Beach (CA) in the film “Freedom Writers” from math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Mr. P.) at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School in Baltimore (MD) in HBO’s “The Wire.” Based upon an actual novice white teacher, the celluloid Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, spurs her class to overcome poverty, gang banging, and utter pessimism about their future to write in their journals and eventually go to college. Mr. P, also a novice white teacher, played by Jim True-Frost, tries hard to get his 8th graders, to learn fractions, long division, and probability and stay out of selling drugs. Mr. P, however, is a fictitious character.

Yet what separates the two films about teaching poor and minority youth under grim conditions is neither the distance between Long Beach and Baltimore nor between high school English and middle school math or that one teacher is real and the other fictitious. What separates the films from one another is the implicit view in “Freedom Writers” of the road to reform being paved by stellar teachers while in “The Wire” that same road would require overhauling the entire institution. Ironically, then, Mr. P/Jim True-Frost, a fictitious teacher, captures the gritty conditions that urban school principals and teachers face far better than the film about an actual teacher Erin Gruwell/Hilary Swank.

To say that the Hollywood version of “Freedom Writers” is less true in portraying teaching in gang-ridden schools then HBO’s “The Wire” is only to re-state the obvious popularity of the film genre of innocent white teacher—think “Dangerous Minds”–making mistakes with troublesome students, encountering conflict after conflict with gang members and close-minded administrators only to overcome them amid a crescendo of music. Not only white females dominate this genre. “Stand and Deliver,” based on the experience of Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, follows the same pattern. The clear message is that gutsy, smart, hard working individual teachers can overcome student apathy and the powerful tug of the Street. Of course, there are such superheroic teachers who do the impossible 24/7. But they are not typical novices who, after a few years leave in droves from such schools.

Hollywood over-sells individual teachers while understating the institutional complexity of working in inadequately staffed, overly regulated schools where city politics, bureaucratic inertia, and sheer drudgery shape classroom practice as much as what students bring to school. HBO gets it right in fictitious Tilghman middle school where Mr. P, a former police officer, teaches.

Why is Mr. P’s portrayal closer to the truth of urban schools? Over five seasons, “The Wire”—title refers to a police unit recording drug dealers’ business transactions to gather evidence for their arrest—goes well beyond West Baltimore and those who sell drugs. The series explored families involved in the drug trade and families not yet hooked, corrupt police bureaucrats, City Hall politics, dirty union leaders at the Port of Baltimore, and, for an entire season, schools. “The Wire” looked at institutions and how racial politics in the police department, among city officials, and the schools interact to affect one another. A newly elected ambitious white mayor of a predominately black city and bureaucracy, for example, has to find a new police commissioner, cut the budget, and do something about the school district whose schools are underperform academically.

Enter Mr. P., a former Baltimore City police officer, who has neither charisma nor teaching experience. He makes the usual novice mistakes, has a hard time managing his 8th graders, and an even harder time getting them to focus on math. Unruly students erupt into fights at real or imagined slights. Many cannot follow the textbook. A few are super-bright and with a little prodding grasp the math concepts. Mr. P’s patience and decency slowly wins over a core of students but not all. Finally, he gets some students interested in learning probability through throwing dice. But at the next faculty meeting, the assistant principal announces that because the school’s test scores are so low all classes will focus on reading and math skills for the upcoming state test. Good soldier as he is, Mr. P switches lessons and prepares his students for the state test at the same time that a few of the promising 8th graders get enmeshed in the drug trade.

The Hollywood genre of heroic teachers overcoming obstacles promises better schools through individuals staying the course. While such films are popular, this optimistic strategy of reforming urban schools is doomed because it ignores the institutional side of schools and how teaching and learning are affected as much by the Street as they are by school bureaucrats, city officials, and other agencies. HBO’s “The Wire” portrays schools as deeply flawed institutions sailing through teachers’ and students’ lives more concerned about surviving than teaching or learning. Surely, the Mr. Ps in this world salvage individual youngsters but are tossed about like confetti on a windy day. This complex, realistic view of urban school reform as institutional renewal has little room for heroics. And truth be told, are hard to translate to the screen and make money. Far easier is to focus on the individual rather than the organization. Even highly-touted films of urban charter school (e.g., “Waiting for Superman“–a documentary and “Won’t Back Down“–a Hollywood production showing two mothers who seize the school from a corrupt teachers’ union)  succumb to the fairy tale view of superheroes conquering poverty and difficult students. These film versions of school reform may have box-office appeal (one was a financial hit; the other was a flop). But in focusing on iconic teachers conquering all obstacles, they offer little guidance to today’s policymakers or for teachers caught in the web of institutional shortcomings and the poverty that continue to pervade U.S. urban districts.

 

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From Superhero Teacher to Bad Teacher: Hollywood Films Then and Now (Part 1)

Two weeks ago, I was one of the examiners of a doctoral student’s dissertation. After becoming emeritus professor, I have avoided such tasks but this student’s work captured my attention because it helped unravel a puzzle that had bugged me for the decades in which I had seen Hollywood films about teaching and schools. Like Derisa Grant, the doctoral student whose dissertation I read–she passed the oral examination–I had noticed that Hollywood’s portrayal of teachers had changed over the years. Think Dead Poets Society (1989). Think Stand and Deliver (1988). Now think Half Nelson (2006) and Bad Teacher (2011). By actually counting the Hollywood films made in the 1980s and 1990s and those in the past decade and how they depicted teachers as positive or negative characters, Grant made the point that there was a change in film portrayals of teachers.

From private school teacher John Keating (fictional) to high school math teacher Jaime Escalante (actual person),  superhero film-teachers in earlier decades bent the minds of their students making a profound difference in their students’ lives. Neither Harlem middle school English teacher, Dan Dunne (fictional) nor Elizabeth Halsey (fictional) middle school teacher near Chicago, however, were movie superheroes; they were deeply flawed characters who entered teaching with mixed motives and whose behaviors were closer to immoral than any superhero teacher’s motives and behavior. Why the shift in Hollywood portrayals of teachers?

To be clear, in the two decades mentioned above, Hollywood still pumped out superhero teacher films like Music of the Heart (1999) with Meryl Streep and Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) starring Richard Dreyfus and Erin Gruwell (actual teacher) in Freedom Writers (2007) played by Hilary Swank, there was nonetheless an increase in negative portrayals of teachers. And it is that shift which is puzzling.

Seldom are made-in-Hollywood films about teachers accurate about what happens in schools and teachers; they are not supposed to capture how teachers actually teach or students behave. These films are expected to make money. But they do something else that is less obvious: they express larger social anxieties that Americans feel about education.

Box office revenues matter. They influence the choices studio and independent film-makers make in selecting the stories they want to tell on screen. What did some of the above films earn after being released? The highest money maker* of superhero teachers was Dead Poets Society (1989) with over $180 million (all receipts are in 2015 dollars); second highest was Kindergarten Cop (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger; it grossed $163 million. Bad Teacher (2011) made over $104 million with Freedom Writers (2007) coming in at $41 million. What about Half Nelson (2006)? It earned just over $3 million. The downward trajectory in revenues of Hollywood films about teachers is obvious. That downward slide, however, reflected major changes in the film industry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, fewer Americans went to movies. Home viewing of films proliferated and new technologies with screens of their own cut into Hollywood revenues. To counter that loss of audience, industry film-makers turned to comic book superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men–all of these films grossing $230 to $460 million–doubling to tripling the highest box office hits among teacher films. Out of comic book superheroes, the industry had constructed a money-making machine.

So with films featuring comic book heroes drawing in hundreds of millions of dollars shouldn’t there be more superhero teachers in films in the 2000s? While there were some, negative depictions of teachers increased considerably. Grant argues that the move from superheros to damaged teachers coincided with two changes, one in the film industry’s turn to comic book figures (see above)  and  the unrelenting and decades-long criticism-cum-reforms of U.S. schools.

Harsh and public criticism about failing schools, accompanied by growing centralization of decision-making on schools in state capitols and federal actions, raised serious questions about whether schools are, indeed, social escalators for motivated children and youth to succeed. If U.S. schools are failing and federal intervention is needed, how great can teachers be. A growing social anxiety about teacher and school effectiveness coincided with changes in the film industry. It is in this unplanned intersection of factors that one can come to understand–but not explain–how portrayals of teachers slowly changed. Hollywood films about teachers, then, express the hopes, aspirations, and  yes, the anxieties that screenwriters and audiences feel.

For example, over the past half-century, film-makers and audiences together worried over rebellious teenagers (Blackboard Jungle, 1955) poverty and urban schools (Cooley High, 1975), and uncaring teachers (Bad Teacher, 2011). As Grant put it: “a film provides an arena in which solutions to these cultural anxieties may be considered and reconsidered.”

Because so many factors are involved in figuring out why something happened such as increased numbers of films about damaged, imperfect teachers, the best that any scholar can do is to point out a relationship, a coincidence of factors coming together. It would be foolish to say that one thing or the other caused these negative depictions. What Grant ends up doing is constructing an interpretation of a change she detected in how Hollywood depicted teachers. It is not a cause-effect relationship, it is, well, just a correlation. And I thank her for getting me to think once again about this puzzling change in how teachers have been portrayed in films.

 

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*All statistics come from Derisa Grant’s dissertation, “From Superteacher to ‘Bad Teacher': Goals 2000, Comic Book Films,and Changing Depictions of Cinematic Educators,” June 2015.

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Shadowing Students: Lessons a Veteran Teacher Learned (Part 2)

The following account was posted on Grant Wiggins’ blog October 10, 2014. It comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Learning Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid Wiggins kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different from his experiences or my own experience in sitting in high school classes in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Moreover, I, Craig Peck, and Heather Kirkpatrick shadowed 12 high school students for a study of classroom technology use in 1998-1999. Since then I have shadowed three students in 2010 for another study of high schools. My experience in shadowing (and interviewing) the students is consistent with this teacher’s account.

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year. My job is to work with teachers and admins. to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Geometry

9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: World History

1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Math

9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: English

1:25 – 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things:

  • mandatory stretch halfway through the class
  • put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play
  • in the first and final minutes of class
  • build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.

Key Takeaway #2

High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test. So, I don’t mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes. But still, hand in hand with takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students’ day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
  • set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
  • Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.

Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, “OK, once again, let me explain…”

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
  • I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
  • I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

 I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.

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GRANT WIGGINS’ COMMENTS ON THIS POST:

“Wow. The response to this post has been overwhelming – over 150,000 page hits so far – and over 800 emails to me requesting further info.

So, instead of replying by email, my response and resources I promised can now be found below:

AE Student Survey 2014-15

AE Shadow Student

Survey Letter 2014

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Filed under how teachers teach

How Many Teachers Teach a New Kind of History?

Policymakers continually seek to change the content of what teachers teach (e.g., Common Core standards) and how they teach (e.g., direct instruction, project-based learning). After adoption of new Common Core aligned textbooks and scads of professional development workshops in different pedagogies, how much change has occurred in how teachers teach lessons? That is the first question that has to be answered. Subsequent and crucial questions that have to be answered like who (e.g., policymaker, researcher, teacher) determines whether the change is, indeed, a change in what teachers do and whether the desired changes have led to increased student achievement come later.

But even answering the first question, superficial as it may be, is (and has been) a hard nut to crack. Take, for example, the teaching of history. In earlier posts (see here) I pointed out tensions between teaching for “heritage” and teaching with a “historical” approach. Strains between these two approaches have persisted for well over a century in the teaching of history. In earlier reform movements such as the New Social Studies of the 1960s, the conflict was apparent. Since the late-1990s, a slowly growing movement to have students learn, through extensive use of primary sources, how historians read, think, and write has spread across the nation. To determine whether this approach to content and pedagogy in the teaching of history is working is to ask the straightforward question: how many teachers regularly use lessons crafted to simulate how historians read, think, write, and come to understand the past?

Answering the question is tough because no national studies of nearly 60,000 social studies teachers in the U.S. have been done since the mid-1990s that cover their classroom practices. But there are data pieces, fragments, even slivers that might be assembled into a chipped mosaic from which emerges a fuzzy picture of how teachers are teaching history now.

Here are a few other shards. Data on materials that teach students how to read, write, and think like historians come from Advanced Placement courses that have been taught since the mid-1950s. The Document-Based Question (DBQ), a way of analyzing a primary source, was created as part of the Advanced Placement exam in 1973. One of the authors said: I want students to “become junior historians and play the role of historians for that hour” that they worked on the DBQ. For those able, college-going students who took AP history courses, then, they were clearly exposed to materials and tasks that replicated the work of historians. [i]

So those high school teachers in high schools who teach AP history courses–they have at least one section of students and teach other history classes as well–already use hybrids of teacher-centered instruction for a College Board, textbook-bound curriculum heavily geared to how historians read, think, and write. The vast majority of history teachers, however, do not teach AP courses.

Another sliver of data is to consider the large-scale effort undertaken on a shoestring by the Reading Like a Historian Project at Stanford University under the leadership of Sam Wineburg. That project has recorded nearly 2 million viewers (all 50 states and 127 countries) who downloaded these free curriculum materials since they were first posted in 2009. Just in 2014, there were more than 630,000 visits to the website to copy over 100 different lessons for U.S. and world history courses. Moreover, Wineburg and his team are now providing professional development to history teachers in big city and suburban school districts on how to use these lessons and do classroom assessments. [ii]

Downloaded lessons, though, do not necessarily transfer to classroom use. Finding out the degree to which these lessons and similar ones designed by teachers themselves are used weekly, occasionally, or not at all requires studies of classroom practices among history teachers. I have not yet located such studies. Thus far, no researchers have documented how widespread is (or has been) the use of these lessons or similar materials with students is.[iii]

What little data there are about the degree to which history content and pedagogy have moved from textbook-bound conventional pedagogy to the inquiry, primary source-driven historical approach come from scattered small reports of social studies teachers, again through surveys rather than direct observations, interviews, and examination of classroom materials. Like the above fragments, they add a few more chipped tiles to the mosaic of teacher use of these materials and approaches.

One national study (2004), for example, used a random sample of social studies teachers to determine the purpose for and the classroom use of primary sources. The authors concluded that although respondents agreed with the importance of using historical sources and having students do historical inquiry, “…teachers’ actual use of both classroom-based and web-based primary sources was somewhat low.” [iv]

A similar report of social studies teachers in one Virginia county to determine the purposes and use of historical primary sources found that teachers “report that they are only occasional users of historical primary sources; however, when they do use these sources, they obtain them primarily from textbooks and the web.”[v]

I have one more shard to add to the blurred mosaic picture that emerges from bits and pieces. Over the past five years, I have visited 13 teachers observing 17 lessons and examined classroom materials classrooms mostly in Northern California as part of different studies I was doing on technology use and at the invitation of these teachers. Clearly, the sample was non-random, but I offer it as another isolated piece of evidence. Six of these 13 teachers (three of whom taught Advanced Placement history) used primary sources and questioned students to get at historical thinking on a particular topic. [vi]

Finally, over the years, researchers have published individual case studies of novice and experienced history teachers who taught students to inquire into the past using primary sources to teach students to read, think, and write as historians. In many instances, such teacher case studies were exemplars of how to convert textbook-bound lessons into ones that included historical thinking. These studies made a simple point that as hard as it may appear to social studies teachers to alter their teacher-centered pedagogy, given the contexts in which they teach (e.g., state tests, accountability regulations, age-graded school, and poverty-ridden neighborhoods), this approach to teaching can be done within the framework of existing public schools, including those located in cities. None of the case studies declare that the profiled teachers and lessons are the norm for history teachers although authors imply they should and can be. It is clear that these teachers are exceptions, not the rule. [vii]

So what is the answer to the question: how many teachers teach a new kind of history? No one knows.

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[i] Mike Henry, “The DBQ Change: Returning to the Original Intent,” College Board AP Central for Educators at: http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/homepage/10467_print.html?type=popup

[ii]Email from Joel Breakstone to Larry Cuban (in author’s possession), January 23, 2015; Theresa Johnston, “Stanford-developed History Lessons for Grades 6-12 Adopted Worldwide,” GSE News, Graduate School of Education, March 17, 2014 at: https://ed.stanford.edu/news/stanford-developed-history-lessons-grades-6-12-adopted-worldwide

[iii] Thus far, New York State has included document-based questions into its statewide assessment of social studies (including the Regents exam). When more states include such items in their tests, I would expect increases in the number of teachers who build into their daily lessons how to analyze primary sources, bias, and corroborating sources. See: http://www.archives.nysed.gov/education/showcase/dbq.shtml

[iv] David Hicks, et. al., “Social Studies Teachers’ Use of Classroom-Based and Web-Based Use Historical Primary Sources,” Theory and Research in Social Education, 2004, 32(2), pp. 213-247. Quote is on p. 232. The response rate to this random sample was 40 percent.

[v] John Lee, et. al., “Social Studies and History Teachers’ Uses of Non-Digital and Digital Historical Resources,” Social Studies Research and Practice, 2006, 1(3), pp. 291-311. Quote is on p. 296. Response rate from teachers was 70 percent.

[vi]I observed nine lessons from six teachers at Gunderson High School in San Jose Unified School District during 2009-2010; one lesson of a teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco Unified School District in 2013; two lessons of one teacher at Roosevelt High School in the Washington, D.C. public schools; four lessons of four teachers at Aragon High School in the San Mateo Union High School District in 2014; one lesson of one teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in the Fremont Unified School District in 2014.

[vii] Here is a sampling of individual case studies and collections of cases that describe various teachers using inquiry to investigate the past in ways that historians do: Robert Bain, “ They Thought The World Was Flat? “ Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History,” in Suzanne Donovan and John Bransford (Eds.) How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005), pp.179-213; Bruce Lesh, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011); Bruce VanSledright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education New York: Routledge, 2011); Sam Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson, “Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History,” in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), pp. 155-172.

 

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies