Tag Archives: classroom practice,

From Superhero Teacher to Bad Teacher: Hollywood Films Then and Now

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.



*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.



“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


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.


[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.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

The Exhilaration and Mystery of Writing about School Reform

I have been writing about school reform, technology, and the history of teaching for nearly four decades. I have found the act of writing satisfying but never easy. A few nights ago something happened that puzzled and exhilarated me. It was not the first time that what I experienced at 3:30AM occurred. And it probably won’t be the last.

I am in the midst of finishing a first draft of a book called “Teaching History Then and Now.” It is about my teaching history at two urban high schools in the 1950s through 1960s. I reconstruct what history I taught and how I taught it. Then I push the fast-forward button and return to those very same high schools and describe the seven teachers I observed teaching history in 2013-2014. In my blog, I have tried out early drafts describing some of the classes I saw  (here and here). For the past two weeks I have been working on the last chapter of the book where I finally answer the central question that drives the entire study: Over the past-half-century, what has changed and what has remained the same in the content and pedagogy of high school history? In that last chapter I draw together conclusions of what I found in teaching history then and now while teasing out implications for reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and anyone else interested in improving schools.

While at first glance the primary question for the entire study seems straightforward, it is not. In answering the question, others pour forth: Have changes in teaching history occurred as a result of policies made by decision-makers (the policy-to-practice journey that is all important to school reformers then and now)? Or have changes occurred as a result of teachers, acting as gatekeepers to their classrooms, making choices of what and how to teach? Or some combination of both? But that’s not all. Here’s is the kicker–I ask what does the teaching of history then and now have to do with how tax-supported public schools function in a democracy. All of that–what may appear as a jumble of unrelated questions to readers–has been circling in and out of my mind as I worked on the final chapter. In drafting this final chapter over the past few weeks I have been dissatisfied with my initial conclusions and implications for school reform. I felt there was little overall coherence in my argument; it was too fragmented and the chapters felt unrelated to one another. I was frustrated by the  lack of a satisfying connection that would tie everything together. I was stuck.

And then a few nights ago, the underlying connection that tied all of the separate pieces I had constructed about teaching history then and now, the different meanings of “change” and “stability,” the implications for decision-makers, teachers, and researchers, and the contradictory role that change and stability play in keeping public schools supporting democracy came together for me. At 3:30AM.

Rather than get into the substance of the flash insight I had in the middle of the night, I want to describe what I did and reflect on how solutions to problems seemingly come out of nowhere.

I know this to be true. Over the years, I have awakened in the middle of the night with ideas, turned to my night table and jotted down notes. Sometimes I went to the computer and wrote for awhile. The next morning, more often than not, I would read what I had written down and, you guessed it, I would toss it out. But not this time. I clicked away on my computer until 5AM, re-read it, and then went back to bed for a few more hours of sleep. After getting up, I read it again and liked it. I now had the spine and connective tissue that drew together what had been disparate chapters into what felt like an internally consistent and coherent book. Where did that flash idea come from that awakened me?

I am not a brain scientist. I am sure some readers know far more than I do about the different stages of sleep and how the brain consolidates the day’s experiences when sleeping. I am just as certain that neuroscientists and brain researcher, could explain where my insight came from and why I awoke. I cannot. It is a wondrous mystery to me. It also exhilarated me when I found all the pieces of my book falling together. The book is still a first draft and revisions will occur in the next few months but this experience left me both puzzled as to how it happened and thrilled that it did.


Filed under how teachers teach

Kids as Tour Guides: Integrating Student-Created Media into History Class (Kerry Gallagher)

Kerry Gallagher , a veteran middle school and high school history teacher posted this project she did with her ninth graders. It appeared Feb 20, 2015 on EdSurge.

Why do we travel? How do we choose a place to put down roots? What draws us there? Today, when we plan to travel or relocate, we do research. We find out about the climate, people, culture, and economy that we are about to dive into.

I wanted my students to experience that kind of research process, and to arrive at an answer relating the question of why people are drawn to places. After all, project-based learning should allow students to experience authentic processes while learning content. But I also wanted them to show their learning through a product that professionals typically publish: tourism commercials.

And so, that is what we did.

Step 1: Frame the Task

In our early North American colonies unit, students learned about the cultures and economies of the 17th century colonies. What was the draw? Why did Europeans take the risky trek across the volatile Atlantic Ocean to put down roots in a place so far away? It was time for my students to start investigating.

First, I showed the ninth graders real tourism advertisements I found on YouTube; they watched clever ads from across the continent in California and from their home turf in Massachusetts. Then we talked, in small groups and as a class, about what made each place attractive. Some of the items on the list had to do with the places themselves: lots to do, beautiful scenery, welcoming people, while other students mentioned aspects of the video production: bright colors, upbeat music, cheerful narrative script.

Step 2: Start the Research

Small groups of 2-3 students chose an early North American colony from New York in the North to Georgia in the South, and started digging for information about founding leadership, religion, economy, climate, and culture. Students used articles from our school subscription databases and books from the classroom and school libraries.

When students gathered their information in Evernote or Google Drive, they shared it with me for extra input and approval. Once I reviewed their work and pushed them deeper with some guiding questions, a real vision of their colonies became clearer.

Step 3: Pulling it Together

This next step is a great opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, for those teachers who are interested in it.

As students began writing their scripts, they were instructed to use what they learned about persuasive techniques from their English classes. My colleague Kate Crosby even pointed me toward a handy guide to the Aristotelian Appeals ethos, pathos, and logos they’d used in her freshman English class, making this a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. They also had to consider who their commercial might target: families? young men just starting out? the wealthy? the religious?

Once the script was crafted, students looked for images to represent their colony and used iMovie to put together their commercial and Airdrop to share it with me. Finally, I uploaded the videos to my YouTube channel, specifically created for student projects.

Step 4: Hosting a Viewing Party

Students showed their final commercials to one another in the classroom. No information was given to the audience prior to the screening, but while watching, other students were given varying information to look for: economy, culture, religion, leaders, and method of persuasion utilized. The audience told the creators what they learned from the video, and the creators confirmed or clarified the details.

Step 5: Reflect, Report, Publish

Any great project can’t be complete without reflection, so my students share their learning on blogs. The benefit of this medium is that the final work can be a mix of written expression illustrated with images and video clips.

  • Kirsten’s post about her New Jersey ad is a great example. She wrote about the process we went through in class, what she learned about New Jersey, embedded her video, and concluded with an analysis of persuasive techniques employed.
  • Olivia’s post on Georgia was also well put together and her group’s video production quality was perhaps the best of the class. See the video below. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SJxYaDpSL4

This journey brought my students through required curriculum, but also gave them experience with the real process people must go through before traveling to a destination or developing marketing material. When real world skills are combined with rich content, the best of project-based learning happens.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

You Cannot Tell Wisdom: What You Don’t Learn in Teacher Education Programs and Teach for America

By the fifth year of my teaching in Cleveland’s Glenville High School in the early 1960s, I had learned one of the most important lessons a teacher can learn in an urban high school. I carried the precept with me to Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in Washington, D.C., and any teaching I have done ever since, including Los Altos and Menlo-Atherton high schools in northern California and, yes, Stanford University.  That lesson was not in the curriculum of the undergraduate teacher education program I had taken. Nor can that lesson be easily learned in  the two-year stint  that Teach for America novices serve.

OK, what is that lesson? Never ask permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.

With mindful experience in classrooms, teachers learn that they are gatekeepers to what enters and exits their rooms. While there is so much that teachers have no control over in teaching such as the students they have, the room within they teach, the schedule they follow through the school day, events occurring inside and outside the school, and school organization–they do have a  margin of precious autonomy once they shut the classroom door. As gatekeepers to the classroom, teachers learn in fits and starts, by trial and error, that they determine what and how content gets taught. They learn to convey attitudes and values about life and learning within the confines of that 900 square feet classroom. Yes, that freedom is constrained. Nonetheless, that autonomy can make teaching influential in the lives of children and youth, jump-start learning for both teacher and students, and fashion the art of performance in classrooms.

And in learning how to teach and work with colleagues in my schools over the years and extract a small measure of freedom outside of my classroom, my hard-earned organizational lesson came into play.

As I taught history to five classes a day in the initial years at Glenville High School, it became clear to me that I needed more than what the school and district could supply me with–reams of paper, machines that would make copies of readings for my students, and access to people who could help me reach my students in ways that I could not. I began to locate paper, machines, and people, sweet-talked my way into gathering them by bending school and district rules. A case in point, I found reams of paper unused in another department’s store room at the end of the school year and appropriated them for my Fall classes. After school began, the principal called me into his office and showed me telephone messages and memos he had received from district officials demanding an explanation for my “unprofessional behavior.”

My relationship with the principal was a warm, supportive one in which he judged me as a hard-working teacher who was part of a cadre in the urban school that helped students graduate and enter college. So he faced a dilemma in having to do something stern without alienating an entrepreneurial teacher, given all of the district complaints about my “unprofessional behavior.” I, too, faced a dilemma. In a scarcity economy which is what urban schools are insofar as supplies and resources, teachers had to be enterprising beyond dipping into their wallets to buy things for their classes. I scrounged, begged, and borrowed to the hilt with colleagues but it wasn’t enough. And yet I didn’t want to stop because what I was doing with my classes seemed to be paying off in increased attendance and motivation. Yet my boss was upset.  I had to mollify him and the district officials pestering him to do something to stop my apparent “unprofessional behavior.” So after much thinking about how schools worked and what I had learned about authority structures in schools and districts, I asked the principal to forgive my indiscretion.

I apologized after the fact for not asking permission. He reported to his superiors that I had apologized for my actions and that ended the incident.  And that lesson I learned from my experiences over five years as a teacher I continued to practice when working in urban schools, as a superintendent, and professor. I consider that lesson wisdom I had gained from teaching at Glenville.

Sure you can tell such wisdom to novices but they lack the organizational savvy to make sense of it. They lack the mindfulness drawn from pondering one’s experiences in a school and classroom. And I would guess that TFA-ers don’t learn that lesson in their summer training or in the two years they spend as classroom teachers. What a powerful lesson I learned as a young teacher: do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.




Filed under how teachers teach

From Policy to Practice: Chains or Pasta

Metaphors are shortcuts for understanding complicated concepts: Time is money. The mind is a computer. Each metaphor powerfully illuminates and enriches an idea. Which metaphors come to mind when districts try to put reforms into classroom practice to increase student learning? The common (and inaccurate) metaphor is a chain with many links. A more apt one would be spaghetti.

In the U.S. Army’s command-and-control structures, generals believe that their decisions can steer what infantry platoons do in the field. Yet the metaphor of the “fog of war” and a history of misunderstanding orders at the company and platoon levels during battles suggest that even in command-and-control structures,decisions moving down the chain of authority may turn out far differently than intended. Novels and memoirs from War and Peace to Jarhead, films from The Longest Day to Platoon, and officer and enlisted men reports make that point.

School district organizational charts resemble military organizations with structures showing authority flowing downward from the board of education to teachers. Here also, the belief that policymakers can frame problems, adopt solutions, and steer classroom practice prevails. Yet school districts are hardly command-and-control operations since new policies get interpreted and re-interpreted by different actors at each link of the supposed chain of authority as they proceed downward into classrooms.

Consider former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, He got the state legislature to eliminate the elected school board and give him control of the schools in 2002. He appointed lawyer Joel Klein Chancellor and through that school official commanded the school district. The Mayor said: “there is a direct link from the teacher’s desk in the classroom, right to the mayor’s desk in City Hall.” For political rhetoric, it is a great one-liner but , truth be told, school decision-making in New York City, Fargo, North Dakota, and Los Altos, California doesn’t work that way.

The supposed command-and-control chain of authority from a mayor or a school board to classroom have many links (mayor=superintendent=district office=principals=teachers=students), but influence doesn’t always flow downward from the top. Sometimes it flows from the bottom up. Sometimes, teachers get rid of principals; sometimes principals do the opposite of what district administrators seek; sometimes students don’t do homework. Moreover, other important factors such as incidence of family poverty, race and ethnicity of enrollments, size of district, and history of reform in the city gum up the chain metaphor. Finally, in far too many instances, policymakers’ assumptions about the desired reform are simply mistaken.

And it is in classrooms where teachers make decisions about what the policy is and which parts, if any, get implemented. What was intended by policymakers may well turn out to be something quite different. The metaphor of a linked chain for putting educational policies into practice is inapt. A better image than links in a chain is policy-to-practice pasta. Consider the following two examples.

Mrs. O., a veteran California second grade teacher in the late-1980s had embraced a new math curriculum aimed at replacing students’ rote memorization with mathematical understanding. A researcher observed Mrs. O teach and interviewed her many times. She saw herself as a success story, a teacher who had revolutionized her mathematics teaching. But classroom observations revealed that her practices were really old wine in new bottles. Yes, Mrs. O was now dividing students into groups–an innovation–but the groups memorized rules taken from the new text. In short, Mrs. O’s blended traditional and innovative practices to create lessons that transformed the state policy directive into something quite different from what policymakers had intended.

Interactive whiteboards. Replacing traditional classroom chalkboards, TV monitors, and DVDs, these wall-mounted electronic devices connect a desktop computer and projector to a whiteboard where teachers can click keys to show videos, visit websites immediately, and call upon other sources of information. A stylus permits teachers and students to write on the whiteboard to do math problems, point out aspects of lava flows from erupting volcanoes, and allow teachers to record their lessons as digital video files for students to review at a later time.

Promoters have hailed interactive white boards as a technology that will transform teaching and learning.

A reporter described Spanish teacher Crystal Corn’s high school class in Cumming, Georgia:

“[Corn’s students] … use a stylus at the whiteboard to match pictures and vocabulary words, they use it to visit Web sites that feature news from Spanish-speaking countries, and they even made a music video and played it in class on the whiteboard. This school year, Corn plans to use the interactive whiteboard to hold videoconferences with classes in other countries.”

Sounds terrific. But over the past three years, I have observed nearly 20 classrooms using whiteboards in four different districts. I saw versions of Mrs. O again and again. Consider the half-dozen high school math teachers that I observed using whiteboards daily. Nearly every one began the lesson with a “brain teaser,” reviewed homework problems, had students use the stylus on the whiteboard to show how they solved particularly difficult ones, introduced new material, asked if students had any questions, then assigned new problems for homework. In short, these math teachers in different cities used traditional math lessons with an innovative high-tech device. Yet those teachers spoke rapturously about how whiteboards had enhanced their teaching. Hello, Mrs. O.

So what if the policy-to-practice continuum is best captured by the image of spaghetti than iron-welded links in a chain? The answer is again found in the four questions I have asked many times about whether the policy was fully implemented and whether teaching practices had changed. The catch is, of course, that I do not know if Mrs. O and the whiteboard examples capture typical teaching practices when it comes to implementing curricular and high-tech policy decisions. We won’t know until more systematic classroom observations occur. School policymakers facing their own “fog of war” can only guess how teachers teach daily.

Yet teachers make daily policy decisions in their classrooms. When teachers work collaboratively within schools and districts, when policymakers work closely with teachers to make decisions that touch classrooms, when teachers run their own schools as in Minnesota, links-in-a-chain and pasta metaphors are inappropriate.

More apt may be metaphors of organizational collaboration such as a team white-water rafting or a relay team running hurdles. But those metaphors are seldom used to capture the policy-to-practice road into classrooms. Pity.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies