This post is composed of photographs of classrooms taken in 17 countries to mark UNESCO-sponsored World Teachers’ Day (October 5, 2015). Instead of my offering commentary on these diverse photos, I would like viewers to offer their impressions in seeing these classrooms around the world. I look forward to reading your comments. Thank you.
Tag Archives: how teachers teach
For many years the rhetoric and substance of national reports written by bands of technologists eager to see electronic devices work their wonder on children and adults in schools have baffled me. In these national reports issued periodically by U.S. government sponsored agencies (e.g., Office of Technology Assessment, the National Education Technology Plan) or privately-funded groups (e.g., ISTE or the International Society for Technology in Education, CEO Forum on Education and Technology), I noted two things.
First, on the critical issue of getting new technologies integrated into regular school and classroom routines, advocates differed. Some spoke about integrating technology to advance the content of lessons in reading, math, social studies, science, math, art, music, and other subjects. Others championed learning skills such as critical thinking, analysis, creativity, and inquiry barely mentioning content. I did not find that conflict puzzling since the issue of content vs. skills–is (and has been since late-19th century educational Progressives banged the drum for learning life skills and creativity) a perennial dilemma among curriculum designers, subject-matter specialists, academics, and teachers.
Second, many of these reports used the language of fundamental change such as “transformation” while scorning any incremental or short-term teacher-crafted practical efforts that worked within the system as it is. Anything smacking of incrementalism seemed foul to those ideologues seeking only “revolutionary” changes in schools. Where my puzzlement grew in these well-funded reports written by smart folks came from figuring out how the perennial dilemma of content vs. skills got entangled with fundamental vs. incremental change.
Then I read Judi Harris’s 2005 editorial in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education. I don’t know Professor Harris personally but her work at the University of Texas (Austin) and William and Mary in integrating technology into schools positions her as someone in the community of technology educators to listen to carefully.
In her editorial, Harris tries to explain “why many–if not most–large-scale technology integration efforts are perceived to have failed.” Recall Seymour Papert’s LOGO in the 1980s, Apple Classroom of Tomorrow in the 1990s, and schools that abandoned 1:1 laptops in the past few years. She offers two reasons: technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism.
Borrowing Seymour Papert’s coined word, “technocentric,” Harris points to the blinders that eager policymakers, administrators, and teachers wore (and continue to wear) in embracing the next new gadget.
Technocentrists, she says, seek “educational uses for particular technologies.” Instead, “educators must focus upon how best to assist students’ learning.” Many teachers and principals have said repeatedly to the point of the words being cliched: “integrating technology is not about technology, it is about learning.” Yet those who buy and deploy new technologies–note that most teachers are seldom involved in such decisions–continue to seek “educational uses” for the electronic devices. Thus, technocentrism rules.
Harris’s second reason is “pedagogical dogmatism.” Among academics, particularly, and many educators there is a decided tilt toward progressive pedagogy, now called in its various incarnations, constructivism. As an example she quotes Christopher Moersch, author of LoTi (Levels of Technology Implementation), a popular tool used to measure classroom use of technology. The designer expresses an unvarnished preference for one kind of teaching:
“As a teacher progresses from one level to the next, a series of changes … is observed. The instructional focus shifts from being teacher-centered to being learner-centered…. Traditional verbal activities are gradually replaced by authentic hands-on-inquiry related to a problem….”
Harris find the same bias toward constructivist teaching in other commonly used tools, even in the 739-page major work called Education and Technology: An Encyclopedia.
Why, she asks, should K-12 teachers’ roles change to integrate technology effectively? Certainly, the technologies themselves do not require such a fundamental change. Evidence of technology use in Europe, Asia, and the Americas (see here, here, and here; also JECR PDF) have pointed out how powerful devices end up being used to support teacher-centered instruction.
These two reasons, technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism, Harris argues, explain why for decades, enthusiastic policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have confused technology integration (involving the perennial conflict of content vs. skills) with technology as an instrument for pedagogical reform (moving from teacher-centered to learner-centered instruction). The editorial ends with her calling for a separation of the goals of technology integration from the goals of transforming teaching and learning. That call went out in 2005. Few eager advocates for more classroom tablets or more individually tailored online lessons, however, have since heeded the call.
Consider, for example, the recent push for “personalized” instruction customized to individual students (see School of One, here, here and here). However labeled, “personalized” instruction using tablets and software are clothed in the language of “student-centered” instruction and project-based learning that Progressives a century ago and current advocates of “constructivist” teaching and learning would recognize in a nano-second. Students working online with an individually tailored math lesson is a mere step away from the customized lessons that Programmed Learning and Computer-Assisted Instruction gurus sold to districts between the 1950s and 1980s as individualized instruction (see here, here, and here). In other words, the pedagogical dogmatism that Harris had noted in 2005 has hardly slowed down.
Do photos of classrooms and the arrangement of furniture give observers a glimpse of how teachers teach?
Yes, they do but only a hint. Here is my reasoning.
Furniture arrangement is seldom mandated by a school board, superintendent, or principal. The teacher decides how to use classroom space. Furniture placement, consciously or not, expresses the teacher’s views of how best to teach, maintain order, and how students learn. Thus, an observer gets a clue to whether teacher-centered and student-centered instruction (including mixes of both)* will prevail.
- When all students face the teacher’s desk or teacher at the blackboard (now whiteboard or “smart board”) where directions, daily homework, textbook readings and quizzes are registered, whole group instruction is encouraged including class discussions (recitation was the word used in the early 20th century). Teacher-talk gains higher priority and legitimacy than exchanges between and among students.
- Surveillance is easier for a teacher when rows or tables are in rows. Threats to classroom order can be seen quickly and dealt with expeditiously.
- Such a configuration of classroom space limits students’ movement within a classroom to that which the teacher permits.
- If desks are arranged into a hollow square, horseshoe, or tables are scattered around the room permitting students to face one another and talk, student-centered instruction where children and youth can work in small groups or individually, student decision-making becomes a much stronger possibility.
Note, however, that furniture arrangements do not determine how teachers teach. Classroom rows, tables, or horseshoe configurations are no more than clues to what teachers believe and practice in their lessons. Keep in mind that for the early decades of this century when desks were bolted to the floor, there were still teachers who ingeniously and with much energy overcame that obstacle and introduced student-centered practices into the classroom.Such furniture may have discouraged many teachers but it did not prevent some from altering their teaching practices.
So a glimpse of classroom furniture is useful as a starting point in assessing how teachers teach but it is only a small part of how teachers structure lessons and carry out activities. Far more information about what happens in the classroom would be needed since teacher-centered instruction can, and often does, occur even when seating arrangements look student-centered.
Furniture arrangements and the placement of students, then, are not random affairs
One teacher who thought through her classroom furniture design is Kayla Delzer, an experienced second-grade teacher in West Fargo (ND). She recognized that how elementary school teachers organize a classroom’s furniture and environment has a lot to do with how one teaches. Many teachers holding beliefs in creating other ways of teaching and student learning do what Delzer has done. They do not take existing classroom furniture for granted. But it takes an acute eye, much thought, grit, and a few dollars to make it happen. Here is her story as it appeared in EdSurge, October 1, 2015.
It’s been my dream to make my 2nd grade classroom look more like a “Starbucks for kids”, and less like, well, a classroom.
Think about when you go to Starbucks to complete some work. Why do you choose to work there? Where do you choose to sit? I usually gravitate towards the comfy seating choices like the couches and big chairs, and yet, I see people choose the tables and chairs over and over again. Regardless, when you walk into Starbucks, you have choice. You get to choose where you sit. No one checks you in and directs you to a spot, telling you that you must sit there for the remainder of the day to do your work. If you need to get up, walk around, or choose a different seat, you are free to do so….
Before I even purchased a single thing, I thought about why I was doing a classroom redesign. If we truly want to prepare our students for the real world, we need to put them in responsive, dynamic environments that reflect life outside of a traditional classroom. And what’s that life outside like? Full of choices, where adults are responsible for their own learning. As a college student visiting my classroom once said, “It’s like you’re treating them like little adults.” And as my teaching has changed, my classroom design needed to change right along with it.
After consulting Erin Klein, a classroom design guru who has been “ditching her desks” to avoid “the cemetery effect” for a few years now and sharing her experiments on her blog, I thought about my classroom and the traditional chairs and tables I was given–and I came up with a plan.
Looking around my classroom, I quickly realized that I had far too much furniture, so I got rid of four tables, my huge teacher desk, 20 traditional chairs and a file cabinet. Next, I started looking for resources to redesign and repurpose what I already had. I looked around my house and in my storage closet to pull some pieces that I wasn’t using, and scavenged Hobby Lobby for some new purchases.
What came out of that was flexible seating and open floor space: I thought about my students who would prefer to stretch out on the floor, and I purchased yoga mats and bath rugs for them to lay out on and work. Simultaneously, my fellow educators contributed extra clipboards they weren’t using so students would be able to write just as easily.
Now, I have a large, open area for whole group instruction and five remaining tables, each designed with a specific purpose:
- a small group instruction whiteboard table with stools
- a stand-and-work table with no chairs
- a crate seats table
- a sit-on-the-floor area with core disks or pillows and work table (see to the right)
- a stability ball chairs table
Do you have a seating plan or arrangement?
No, I don’t have a seating plan for kids. I allow students to responsibly choose where they work every day. When they arrive in the morning, they make a choice for the day but are free to switch places as they see fit throughout the day. I have enough seating options in our classroom that there are never issues about running out of one type of seating.
How do you ensure students are selecting smart choices to work?
At the beginning of the year, students spent an entire day trying out each of the seating choices. After that, I let them began to let them self-select their seating daily.
One big note: Students know I always reserve the right to move them.
I think this is an important step in the process. For example, one student who stands and works originally swore up and down that he would work best on the stability balls–but that changed. It only took him falling off the chair once and almost bouncing out the door for us to both realize that it probably wasn’t a smart fit for him.
One big note: Students know I always reserve the right to move them, and they know I always have their best learning in mind.
What about your students with behavior issues?
The behaviors of my students who have exhibited aggressive or distracting behaviors in the past have significantly decreased. There is power for them in the choice to select where they will work. They know the work isn’t optional, but choosing where they work is.
Did you do it all at once, or introduce these changes slowly over time?
I had the option of “work rugs” (glorified bath rugs … for students last year, but only a few students utilized them. So, things have changed over time. you want to just try a few things without breaking the bank, I would start with a few work rugs or yoga mats. Or, just take the legs off of a table, lay it on the ground and get some cheap pillows for students to sit on. It’s also easy to raise a table for students who prefer to stand and work. Don’t feed the fears–just try it and see what works for you.
Where do students keep materials?
We have work bins in the corner of our room where students keep folders, math journals, and other personal items. We use community supplies at each of the five tables, and I have individual baskets of supplies for students that choose to work on yoga mats or work rugs. If you don’t have work bins for students, get three drawer stackers and place them throughout the room, or put materials in baskets. You may have to get creative and repurpose something you already have–or something that another teacher has, but isn’t using.
If we take a look at classrooms over the past 70 years, we are seeing the same type of learning environments, year after year. The world is changing, yet our classrooms are remaining much the same. Revitalizing space is a straightforward way to let students exercise choice in the learning environment and find academic success on their own terms.
Now several weeks into our school year, I can’t imagine going back to traditional seating. Distracting behaviors have been almost completely eliminated while engagement and student participation are at an all time high. And as I look around our classroom, I feel proud of what we have accomplished–a Starbucks for kids.
Delzer’s Classroom is the last of the photos.
*In using the language of “teacher-centered-” and “student-centered” instruction, I need to be clear that I do not favor one over the other. Both forms of instruction and hybrids can be effective with different students at different times in different contexts. Classroom arrangements offer only a hint of what teachers believe and how they teach. That visible sign is only that, not the full picture of daily lessons.
This is the third excerpt taken from Kristina Rizga’s new book Mission High. With her permission I have excerpted descriptions of math and English lessons. In this post, Rizga describes a history lesson that Robert Roth, a long time community activist and veteran social studies teacher, taught.
“Your essay on the Mendez v. Westminster case was so powerful,” Roth says as he rests his arm on Maria’s shoulder in the hallway one chilly winter morning in 2011. “You really nailed it this time.” He concentrates on Maria’s face. Roth is dressed in a black, long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, and black shoes. His closely cropped hair has lost most of its pepper.
“Huh? Me? Thanks, Mr. Roth.” Maria stops for a brief moment to soak in the praise before she walks through the classroom door. Clenching a thick bundle of tissues in her hand, she looks out an open window for a moment, smiling.
The J-Church train outside shrieks along the rails near the school. Maria closes the window before settling into her desk. Propping the classroom door open with his right hand, Roth scans every face in the morning rush of students flowing through the hall.
“Have you been avoiding me, Pablo?” Roth shouts. “I saw you near the cafeteria yesterday and you didn’t even say hello.” Pablo smiles reluctantly. “Am I going to see you after school today to look over your outline?”
“Yes, I will be there,” Pablo heaves a long, dramatic sigh, with arms akimbo.
“How are you doing, Darrell?” Roth turns his head toward a tall student walking into his classroom. “Are you coming to see me after school today for a test review?” Darrell nods in agreement as he joins the rest of the students.
Ten minutes after the bell rings, Jesmyn slowly cracks open Roth’s classroom door, peeking through with one eye before she tip-toes inside. The class is quiet. Students are writing. Everyone is working on the “Do Now,” a fifteen-minute review exercise on topics students studied in the last class. Today there are three “short identifications,” events or ideas students have to describe in their own words in no more than three sentences. There is also a short, one-page essay in which students have to discuss the significance of a historic event and connect it to other topics they have already studied.
“I’m late. I know, I know,” Jesmyn whispers to Roth as she moves toward her desk in the front row. She sits down, planting her legs widely on the floor. She puts her red glasses on and reads the instructions on the board, “Test Review. Twenties and the Start of the Great Depression (15 pts).”
“Look at you, kiddo!” Roth walks over to Jesmyn and says quietly, “Showed up even though you are upset about being late,” he smiles. Her pinched lips relax into a smile.
Roth gives Jesmyn a sheet with instructions and whispers, “Respond to each of these questions. Briefly explain the Scopes Trial, who was Henry Ford, and the assembly line. Then a short essay on who supported Prohibition and why.”
“Whoa, this is too much, Mr. Roth!” she exclaims out loud. “How much stuff do I need to write for each?”
“As short as you can,” he whispers back. “Just include the most relevant information. You can look in the textbook, but you must use your own words. If you copy, you don’t learn. But you don’t need the textbook. Just get started, and you’ll see that you know much more than you think.” Jesmyn exhales a long breath and writes her name on a blank piece of paper. Roth is setting up the projector while students are writing.
“Two more minutes, everyone!” Roth interrupts.
“No!” Destiny and Jesmyn protest.
“See, this is my problem.” Roth enters the middle of the classroom. “You don’t listen to me. I say two more minutes and you say, ‘Leave me alone, I’m writing!’”
“OK, Destiny,” Roth says five minutes later. “Tell me one group that supported Prohibition and why.”
“Women’s groups concerned with domestic violence,” Destiny replies confidently.
“They didn’t want drunk workers.”
“That’s exactly right. Who else?”
“Church groups, because they felt it was a sin to drink,” Maria adds.
Jesmyn jumps in with her hand up: “Oh, gangsters rise in Chicago because of Prohibition.”
“That’s a really good point. Why is this happening?” Roth probes.
“They get into the business of bootlegs, and Al Capone had the law on his payroll,” Jesmyn rushes to explain.
Darrell raises his hand and adds, “Anti-immigration groups also supported Prohibition.”
“That’s true. Why are they doing that?” Roth inquires.
“They say immigrants are drunks and are destroying American morals and should not be allowed here,” Darrell explains.
“That’s right,” Roth nods his head.
“Mr. Roth, what’s a bootleg again?” Marvin jumps in.
“Emilio, could you answer Marvin’s question?”
“Selling something illegally.”
“That’s right. And I know that none of you are bootleggers,” Roth smiles. “Oh, no. You don’t copy CDs. No, I’ve never seen that.”
“All kidding aside,” Roth continues, as he moves back to the center of the room again. “We’ve been studying the Twenties for a while, and this will be on the test in a few weeks. Remember, if we are doing something in class, it will be on my test. I’m studying with you. You have my e-mail and my phone number. Come see me after school if you need help with any of these topics we went over today.”
Roth turns on the projector and a black-and-white photograph appears on the projection board: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936).
“What do you see here?” Roth asks while students flex their wrists.
Darrell raises his hand and answers, “A mother who is moving around and struggling to feed her children.”
“There is something very thoughtful about this picture,” Marvin says.
“That’s so true,” Roth chimes in. “What do you see that makes you say that?”
Darrell raises his hand again. “Children are tired and hopeless, but the mother doesn’t look hopeless.”
“What makes you say that?” Roth probes.
“Children turned their heads away, like they are ashamed,” Maria comments. “But the mother is not ashamed. You see perseverance and determination in her eyes.”
“Exactly,” Roth jumps in. “As Maria pointed out, this photo is not exploitative. Lange shows us both the struggle and the inner strength of the mother.” More of Lange’s photographs appear on the projection board. As students take turns describing what they see, Roth reviews previous material—the Dust Bowl, the Bonus Army, the beginning of Social Security—and connects it to the faces students see in the black-and-white stills. After the Lange introduction, he moves into the center of the classroom.
“OK, Emilio, you gotta sit down,” Roth scans the room quickly. “And put the phone away, please.”
“Jesmyn, are you ready to present?” She nods and comes up to the front of the class.
“How many of you have heard of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921?” Jesmyn asks her classmates. Two hands go up. A few weeks earlier, Roth had offered students their choice of preselected research projects that were not in the textbooks or required by the state standards. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 had jumped out at Jesmyn right away. She admired her boyfriend’s grandmother, Edna Tobie, and knew that she was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. So one Sunday Jesmyn had spent the whole day at Tobie’s house talking to her and her sons about life in Tulsa before the violence broke out. Tobie had described how despite the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow laws, black people in Tulsa created a proud, self-sustaining community with jobs, churches, and two newspapers.
The next day Jesmyn had stayed up until 2:00 a.m. summarizing her findings and preparing for the presentation. She wanted her classmates to know that despite centuries of slavery and exclusion, black people always found ways to survive and thrive. She wanted them to care about Edna and the Tulsa community as much as she did after hearing Edna’s story. As she wrote, she looked up more precise words in the thesaurus, trying to craft more moving sentences. She reviewed drafts on lined, three-hole-punched paper and threw them on the floor if she wasn’t satisfied. Each new draft felt a little better, more refined, and engaging, and sounded more like her.
“Tulsa had the second-largest African American community in the United States at the time,” Jesmyn says to the class. “More than ten thousand African Americans lived in the Greenwood District. There were black-owned businesses, two newspapers, churches, and a real sense of pride in people. The riots started with a rumor that an African American man had raped a white woman. These rumors were typical at the time. Hundreds of white men attacked the community. They burned it down. Mrs. Tobie’s mother was ten at the time, but she remembers holding her mother’s hand, looking at their burned-down neighborhood filled with white ash, smoke, and people crying.<el>The local government didn’t come to defend Tulsa residents from the violence. No justice was served then or later. Mrs. Tobie explained to me that because no justice was served, some older folks blame it now for the young men’s distrust of the government. Young men don’t trust that the police are there to protect them either. It made me realize that even though it happened a long time ago, there are deep, deep scars in Tulsa. Mrs. Tobie and her sons couldn’t stop talking about it even though they weren’t even alive then.”
“I want to be a social worker one day and work in my community,” Jesmyn reflects in the conclusion of her presentation. “It is important for me to understand where deep scars come from.”
One of the key pieces of wisdom I have learned over my years in classrooms, as a superintendent, and historian of education is that teachers learn most from other teachers they respect. Not high-priced consultants who fly in, talk, and catch an early flight out. Not software publishers who sponsor 1-day workshops. Not district-led professional development seminars on scheduled days. Just the simple fact of teachers reaching out to peers in their school or across town for help with a lesson, a student, or figuring out a district policy.
Teachers teaching teachers is hardly new. Programs where experienced teachers in a school work with newcomers to the classroom are familiar in most districts. Professional learning communities ( or “communities of practice”) that spring up in schools where teachers of the same subject or at grade levels share materials, experiences, and help one another out. Instead of being a last-ditch (and inexpensive) effort in districts, smart administrators have cultivated such programs and communities knowing full well that local talent is both admired and respected by teachers in need of help.
Since 2006, a web-based marketplace, TeachersPayTeachers, offers lessons, exercises, and transportable ideas that teachers can review, buy,and share lessons created by other teachers. With Yelp-like reviews from teacher-users, the online market-place has turned some entrepreneurial teachers into money-makers while helping other teachers. Altruism and business sense come together nicely. According to CEO Adam Freed, 12 teachers have become millionaires and nearly 300 teachers have earned more than $100,000. He says that on any given day, according to the article, “1.7 million lesson plans, quizzes, work sheets, classroom activities, and other items [are] available, typically for less than $5.”
Take veteran teacher Laura Randazzo at Amador High School in Pleasanton (CA). for example. She has created free and for-sale ready-to-use lessons for other English teachers. She sells and gives away those lessons on an online marketplace called . A recent New York Times article featured a Randazzo question in teaching Othello: “What kind of tunes do you think Iago, the villain … would listen to if he had an iPhone?” The sub-title of her website is: “On a Mission to Prevent English Teacher Burnout.”
“What started out as a hobby has turned into a business,” Randazzo says. She has generated over $100,000 in sales through TeachersPayTeachers.
In response to other teachers who buy and use her lessons she has started a YouTube channel to demonstrate how to teach such concepts as irony. According to Randazzo, her “customers” find her lessons and advice helpful because she faces similar issues in her classroom. “That is what ground-level teachers,” she says, “are able to do that textbook publishers can’t.” And I would add consultants who parachute into districts, out-of-town experts, and vendor-hired specialists to Randazzo’s list.
None of the above is a blurb for either the website or Laura Randazzo. Teacher getting help from other teachers is essential for the improvement of classroom practice. None of the lessons bought or created have been vetted by researchers except for those entrepreneurial teachers who have affirmed that these activities, these exercises, and ideas have worked in their classrooms. Here is the wisdom of practice monetized.
Selma Wassermann, professor emerita from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, has written widely and extensively from a pedagogically progressive view about reading instruction, science teaching, getting students to reflect in classrooms, and teacher use of case studies in lessons. She has been an elementary school teacher and reading specialist for many years in the New York area before earning her doctorate in education. She brought a barrelful of child-centered knowledge and skills to her graduate students—even returning to teach at an elementary school while on a sabbatical. In the late-1960s, she and her family moved to Vancouver, Canada where she became a founding faculty member at Simon Fraser University. She retired nearly two decades ago and has continued to write for Kappan, Childhood Education, and other journals. She has also become a software designer and CEO of Wrinkled Pants creating iPad apps called the My Word Reader for children. In addition to all of that, she also writes stories about growing up in Brooklyn. “The Play” draws from her elementary school days and the impact that one of her teachers had upon her.
She smiled a lot when she spoke to us, but it was not a smile that showed any human warmth. She smiled for punctuation and for eliciting our choral response.
“Isn’t that nice boys and girls?” Smile.
“Yeeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.”
“Aren’t you glad about that?” Smile.
“Yeeeeeeessssss, Miss Stellwagon.”
She saw her work with us as her personal burden: training East New York street urchins to use the King’s English.
“Jack in the booox,” I practiced, watching my unruly tongue flick out, off cue, in the little hand mirror. “Awl shuttt uppp tyyytte.” When it was my turn to come up to her desk, her cold hard smile formed around her thin cold lips and I knew I was the source of great displeasure.
When we were well into the spring of the school year, she told us we were to give a play, so that she might show off to the rest of the school her success in teaching us to speak. We sat very still, sweaty hands folded politely, as she explained behind the joyless smile that every one of us was to have a part.
“And who would like to play the King?” Sweaty hands danced in the air and collapsed, deflated, after she named her choice. “Bobby will make an excellent King, don’t you think, boys and girls?” Smile.
“Yeeeeeeeesssss, Miss Stellwagon.” But none of us had truth in his or her heart.
“And now, who would like to play the part of the fairy godmother?” Smile.
I thought I would explode with longing, as my had shot up, waved and then fell with my hopes, as Shirley Laskin was named. I felt my overweight body, dressed in Irma Kelbanoff’s cast off clothes, like a pennance and knew that I’d never be named. Never.
She continued to name the characters in the play, and selected the most attractive children first, from a flurry of handwaving hopefuls who didn’t have a chance because her mind had been made up long in advance. She knew who she wanted but continued to tease us with the possibility that we might be chosen. We, unsuspecting, continued to play her cruel game.
The characters with speaking parts had now all been chosen and I sat nervously, my ugly brown shoes tripping on Irma’s too long dress, biting my thumb nail, hoping for a miracle. To be unchosen is the great pain of Grade 4. The unchosen were the detritus of classroom life.
“Now, who wants to play the role of the announcer?” Smile.
Melvin Taub and I were the only ones who would brave yet another rejection. We shot our hands up. She took all of me in, from Irma Kelbanoff’s sagging dress, down to the world’s ugliest brown shoes, and without smiling, turned to Melvin. It was my last chance to be chosen and I’d have cheerfully knocked Melvin off to increase my chances to move out of the rejects.
Her eye fixed on me again.
“Do you think you can do this? It’s an important part you know. Smile
I almost cried out loud with my reassurances. I could. I could. Oh, please. I could.
“You need a white blouse and pleated skirt for this part. Do you have one?”
“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Yes. I have one.”
“All right then.”
I never gave another thought to Melvin, who landed up as one of a large chorus of elves, that nondescript group of back-stage castoffs. As it turned out, a far luckier fate than mine.
That afternoon I told my mother the hard news. I had a part in the class play. The Announcer. I had to have a white blouse and a pleated skirt. The teacher said so.
My mother fell into her quiet fury, the worst expression of her anger. There was no money. There could be no blouse and skirt. I would have to give up the part and the teacher would have to choose someone else.
She didn’t understand that that was impossible. To give up after having been chosen was simply, totally impossible. I cried. I wailed. I sulked. Never did I think that the cost of a new white blouse and pleated skirt was a week’s food budget; that we ate lung stew because lung cost five cents a pound and that was what we could afford. So we went to war, my mother and I, using every verbal weapon we owned. I told her that she was a bad mother. She said that I was too fat to wear a pleated skirt and would look like a baby elephant. We knew exactly where to aim — the most vulnerable and tender parts of the psyche. When my father came home, we were both casualties.
My parents spoke quietly for a long time and after supper my mother took me to the shop around the corner and outfitted me in a week’s food budget worth of white blouse and pleated navy skirt. She was right about one thing. I did look like a baby elephant.
The next day at school the class went in a long, single line to the auditorium for the first rehearsal. Miss Stellwagon, pinching an edge of cloth from the shoulder of the leader’s dress, held her at arm’s length as she led the file down to the front of the hall. We occupied the two first rows on the right, just under the permanently fixed sign: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Miss Stellwagon organized a tableau of look-alike, gunny-sacked elves rear stage and admonished them in advance about any bad behavior. Walking authoritatively to centre stage, she pointed her index finger at me and beckoned me with it to come up and begin the announcement.
With equal amounts of nervousness and eagerness to please, I rushed from my seat toward her, the toe of my brown shoe catching the lip of the platform step. In a thud that echoed in my heart for the next twenty years, I fell face down at the feet of my fourth grade teacher, pleats billowing, rump exposed.
She looked down at me, her eyes cold and unforgiving. The words, carefully chosen and precisely formed in perfect King’s English fell from that cold, hard mouth, like stones. “Get up and return to your seat. You could never be the announcer for our play. Suppose you fell during the actual performance? You would make the entire class a laughing stock.”
I watched from my seat as Melvin Taub replaced me, my humiliation packed in my suitcase, to last for all time.
This is the second post (see here) drawn from journalist Kristina Rizga’s account of teaching and learning at San Francisco Unified School District’s Mission High School. Rizga is a journalist who spent four years observing and interviewing teachers and students at Mission High School in San Francisco. Her book, Mission High (New York: Nation Books, 2015) contains descriptions of both students and teachers inside and outside classrooms.* Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.
What distinguishes Rizga’s book from so many journalist and researcher accounts about high schools with largely minority and poor students are two facts: First, she spent four years–a life time to researchers–at the school. Few researchers or journalists ever spend more than a year in a high school. The second fact is that Rizga addresses a long-time paradox buried at the core of U.S. schooling in an age of accountability-driven reform when federal and state mandates (No Child Left Behind) label many schools as failing. The paradox is straightforward. Mission High School had been tagged as a failing school–“low performing” is the jargon of the day–and had been a step away from being shut down through No Child Left Behind rules. Yet 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, attendance rates have risen above the district high school average and suspensions have fallen between 2008 and 2014 nearly 90 percent. As one student put it: “How can my school be flunking when I am succeeding?” Indeed, the contradiction of a school labeled by authorities as failing, succeeding with students beyond what other district high schools achieve is the puzzle that Rizga unravels in this book.
With Rizga’s permission, I offer here descriptions of lessons in math, social studies, and English. This post describes an English lesson taught by Pirette McKamey, a 25-year veteran of classroom teaching.
“I want to say something important about writing,” Pirette McKamey tells her English class one Tuesday afternoon in October 2012. “Writing is very, very hard, and it’s never finished. I’ve re-read some of my essays twenty times and I still go, ‘I can’t believe I made this mistake or that mistake.’ So, this is a long, difficult process.” Dressed in white cotton pants, a patterned shirt, and black leather loafers, she is standing in front of twenty-five seniors.
“I’m going to read Jamal’s essay as a model today,” says McKamey, who reads students’ work at the beginning of each class as a way to honor their craft and effort. “I like his essay because of the heft of its content. It also feels real. It was written with real engagement and honesty. That makes it worth reading.” In his essay Jamal has compared his life ambitions with the goals of two other people he has chosen from the many real and fictional people the students have studied in a five-week-long “quests” unit in which students considered the deeper meaning behind different types of individual journeys while developing their reading and writing skills. Jamal has picked Jackson Jackson, the main character from Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” and Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A month later Jamal uses this essay as a foundation to develop a ten-page research paper entitled “Black on Black Violence,” which examines the root causes of homicides in his community.
“‘A successful quest requires support, yearning, and perseverance’,” McKamey begins, reading Jamal’s words. “‘Everyone experiences some kind of a quest in their lifetime. Some take longer than others, some are more important than others, and some are not even intentional, but are a part of our everyday life. Some quests are very internal and personal. Others are external, rooted in collective memories and yearnings.’” As she reaches the end, five minutes later, she looks up from the paper and asks, “What did you like about the essay?”
“I love how Jamal brought three parts and three very different people together,” Alex jumps in.
“I liked that a lot too,” McKamey responds. “What else?”
“His connections and transitions from one person to the next were really good,” says Ana a little more hesitantly, glancing at the teacher for affirmation.
“That’s true,” McKamey replies.
“I felt passion and enthusiasm in his essay,” Roberto comments. “Passion that fuels a bigger purpose is the theme that drives the essay—in making music, in searching for your past, in wanting more freedom for your country.”
“Exactly,” she responds. “That’s a really good observation.”
As the discussion winds down, Max Anders—the student teacher McKamey is coaching this year—passes out a handout titled “Punctuating Titles: Underlines or Quotation Marks?” Meanwhile, McKamey explains to me that when she and Anders graded everyone’s essays yesterday, they noticed one common mistake: despite previous practice, students still weren’t always sure which titles needed to be underlined, italicized, or put in quotation marks. Anders has created a short guide using real examples from student work and a worksheet for students to practice some of these skills.
Students then get to work while both teachers walk around to answer questions.
After a brief punctuation lesson from McKamey, Anders steps up to the front of the room. “Last class we learned about the Vietnam War, and we focused on Vietnamese history,” he says. “Today we will continue by reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the American perspective.” The students read a chapter titled “The Man I Killed.” When they’re done, Anders asks them to pick out a quote they found intriguing, to be analyzed collectively.
“Let me remind you what analysis is,” McKamey says, standing in front of the class. “When I was little, I remember I used a hammer and screwdriver to crack a golf ball open. I really wanted to see what was inside. As I cracked that glossy plastic open, I saw rubber bands. And I went, ‘Ha! I didn’t know there were rubber bands in golf balls. I wonder what’s inside other balls?’ It made me curious about the world. So, we are doing the same thing. We’ll analyze the author’s words to dig in deeper. That will allow us to engage with the text on the author’s terms.”
David raises his hand. He reads a line from the chapter:
He was a slim dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.
“What do you notice in this passage?” McKamey probes.
“The man the narrator killed is the same age as him,” Roberto comments.
“Exactly,” she replies. “Now you are one step deeper. What do I feel inside when I think of that?”
“Guilt, regret,” Ajanee jumps in.
“That’s right,” McKamey comments. “I personally would use the word compassion. But what you said is 100 percent correct. It’s just that all of us will use different words to analyze this. And what does that do when we realize that this man is the same age as us?”
“It makes me think that he’s young, likes girls, probably doesn’t want to fight in a war,” Robert says.
“Exactly. Now, take that even deeper.”
“It’s like he is killing himself?” Roberto asks.
“Perfect! Now you made a connection,” McKamey says, excitement in her voice. “That’s what this quote is really about. Now, why is O’Brien saying ‘star-shaped hole’? Why not ‘peanut-shaped hole?’”
“That’s very unusual,” Irving comments.
McKamey nods. She remains quiet for a minute, looking around the class.
Ajanee raises her hand and offers an answer, “The image in his mind is burned.”
“Exactly!” McKamey replies. “O’Brien wants us to keep that same image in mind that he had as a young soldier in his mind. It’s the kind of image you never forget. That’s what writing is really about.”
*Full disclosure: for this book, Rizga and I had several conversations about the history of school reform past and present. I also visited Mission High School for one day, saw three lessons, and interviewed the principal.