New wine, old skins #3: The core of schooling

Middle Grades Wind Power Competition. Judges were impressed by the high quality designs of middle schoolers.

I’m hoping to get to the point today. As I said, it’s a complicated argument. All that I’ve written so far is the same thing I’ve been saying for 20 years. But my recent experiences as a long-term substitute at an urban middle school, teaching 7th and 8th grade science, lead me to conclude that not much has changed.

First of all, let me say that I was incredibly impressed with this school. The principal was a great instructional leader and support for teachers was solid. Students were strictly disciplined and at the same time in ways that met their developmental needs. This high-poverty school in a gang-dominated neighborhood was an oasis of relative safety.

At the same time, science instruction was dismal. Not more dismal than most middle school science instruction in the US. But I was disappointed to see that in this pretty darn good school where a reform-minded administration has worked to institute school-wide adherence to a reasonable set of principles (and I’m not going to identify them specifically), that the “core of schooling” was unchanged. The core of schooling, Seymour Sarason’s words, is the relationship between teachers, students and knowledge. The core of schooling is the quality and nature of interactions that occur between students and teachers, students and students, and I would add, between teachers and teachers.

When I started in my long-term substitute position at the urban school I was excited at the prospect of a school-wide focus on specific reform strategies. When I was in Georgia doing teacher education, I developed a collaboration with one of my EdS students, Karen Sinclair, to do STEM projects with her 8th graders. We continued our relationship after she graduated. She is a great teacher who instantly grasped the implications of our study of the cultural practices of schooling.

The school where Karen taught, Morgan County Middle School, was led by a dynamic principal, who committed the school to a five-year implementation of Carol Tomlinson’s differentiated instruction model. Now there are a few parts of the Tomlinson model that I take issue with, but when I visited with a cohort of middle grades teacher candidates, sitting in on a variety of classes, I could see Tomlinson’s focus on students’ experience of the curriculum was leading to engagement and critical thinking, and was in fact making positive changes in the core of schooling.

After two years (or maybe three, can’t recall exactly, but I think it was two) of this school-wide reform, Morgan County Middle School rose from the middle to the top ranks of Georgia middle schools, as measured by test scores. I personally think this was, to some degree at least, a reflection of the general mediocrity of all the other Georgia middle schools. (At least all the ones I’ve been in, which is quite a few. The highly-touted “good” schools are just those with a high SES population.) Nevertheless, just a little effort at systemic reform in Morgan County payed off big.

Who knows what would have happened had the principal remained for the full five years? But, the culture doesn’t really care if education is good. What happened is, the principal leveraged funding earmarked for other specific uses to get the program implemented. He was unceremoniously fired when the Board of Education discovered it. There was no embezzlement, he was just trying to find enough money for the reform program. I met with his replacement in order to secure her support for our grant proposal, but she was cagey. I sensed that she didn’t want to make any political missteps. So, our collaboration ended. Karen eventually left to teach high school.

The point of the MCMS story is that I came to understand that any systematic and consistently-applied reform program is likely to improve teaching and learning.

So this past year, I was excited to find myself at an urban school where such a sustained and determined effort at reform was occurring. And then I observed that the other science teachers, with one possible exception, had found ways to appear compliant with the reforms but were stolidly entrenched in deficit views of students, and engaging them in rote learning, lots of worksheets, and very direct instruction even while making it look good when the principal came by. (The principal may be savvy enough to not be fooled. This person of unnamed gender picks battles carefully, something I admire.) The teachers continued to deluge students with decontextualized vocabulary, memorization, and questions from the end of the chapter. At the principal’s insistence, they did labs, including dissecting frogs, but in a completely “cookbook” manner, following the teacher in lock step. (Dissecting frogs does require a lot of scaffolding.) The students who came to me loved coloring, but then they remembered nothing of the diagrams. Another long-term substitute complained to me that the students were not retaining anything from the lesson plans the teacher had left. But they were busy!

Listening at faculty meetings I heard about the routines for cooperative learning that were being used school-wide. I assumed that the eighth graders would have been using these practices in all their classes for at least two years. However when I announced we would be using X strategy to engage in discussion I was surprised when they didn’t know what I was talking about. The purpose of having these routines is that they facilitate quick engagement with content, since students don’t have to have explanations of what to do, explanations that take away instructional time.

When I first heard about the use of this school-wide program, I had expected a particular strategy to be part of the repertoire. It is my favorite, and very powerful for creating authentic, student-centered, problem-based learning. Alas, it was not one of the strategies on the posters that teachers obediently posted on their classroom walls.

I do regret that I tried to fit in with my colleagues, and did not use content or classroom management strategies that I believe in. I previously had a bad experience with disregarding school culture and doing things my own way. But now I see that trying to fit in with a culture I feel is morally bankrupt, bankrupt because it hurts kids, is even worse. I ended up yelling a lot because I lacked courage to be myself. Although we still did some good stuff and many students grew as self-directed learners. In the spirit of quoting Palmer, who you are is what you teach.

And that, dear reader, is why I am not overly optimistic about the results of implementation of Common Core and NGSS. And I hope I am wrong.

Spring Valley High School and group-work

Okay, the events at Spring Valley High School are going to hijack the blog a little. I am so saddened by the way that discipline was hablack kidsndled in this case. That is, the case of a teacher managing his or her classroom so poorly that a policeman entered and arrested the student.

The adolescents in the photo are respectfully and interestedly taking part in a science lesson. The lesson was designed to engage students, connect to their lives, and allow them to learn from each other. This happened to have been a high-poverty, rural school, and the students in question were in a low track class.

Getting back to Spring Valley, I’m not really complaining about the violent way the student was thrown to the floor and injured, nor the way in which she defended her personal space by striking out at the person, who happened to be a policeman, who was attempting to drag her out of the seat. I’ve seen this called “punching” on television. That is ludicrous. This event is horrendous. But it begs the question. I’ve been in two schools in the South where policemen came into classrooms and removed African-American youth from the class in full view of all, and without consulting the teacher. This display of authoritarian power is unacceptable.

Don Lemon commented on the air that he doesn’t know the whole story and therefore can’t judge. Fair enough, but why is no one asking, What is going on with our schools that policemen are required to enforce order? This is crazy! And it’s totally unnecessary.

Misbehavior in school increasingly is becoming a criminal offense, resulting in a criminal record for the young person in question. I object to the practice of discipline being enforced by law officers.

As for the connection to group-work, when skillful teachers design engaging and challenging tasks for students, tasks which have some connection to their lives, and which they care about, the need for police intervention is 0. In the case of the girl being arrested for not obeying, there are many unanswered questions. The first is why did the responsible adult, the teacher, not have a relationship with the young person, which would have made calling a policeman unthinkable? It is the teacher’s job to connect with the student. That is the first and most important duty of a teacher.

Teaching about classroom management

This has always been puzzling to me. There are many “systems” and methods, but I’ve never been able to get to the heart of the matter in a way that satisfied me and helped my students.

Then this semester I was observing a student teacher in his first placement. I’ll call him Mike. Mike had been a successful math tutor, and the experience made him want to be a professional educator and high school math teacher. Mike was well connected within the community and obtained a job at a local high school while he is enrolled in a teacher education program.

The lesson was okay, not great, but then completely fell apart when Mike spent 4 minutes working one-on-one with a student at the whiteboard. By the time the 4 minutes was up, no student was doing any math. Wadded up papers were being thrown across the room, calculators slid off desks and  littered the floor. I tried to get Mike’s attention but he was focusing on helping the single student.

When the lesson was over, we debriefed. “You have to teach the whole class,” I said. I thought a little more. “You have to teach the whole class all the time. Even when you’re teaching one student you’re still teaching the whole class.”

I’ve been considering this idea ever since. I think I’m beginning to formulate for myself the nature of the difficulties pre-service teachers have with classroom management. They usually think of teaching as standing up in front of the class explaining things. But everything a teacher does within the four walls and in preparing for the students to be studying within the four walls is teaching. In fact, the parts that are not explaining things to the whole class are much more important and much more work.

I started thinking of the chapter titles of my favorite book about teaching, Magdalene Lampert’s Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching: “Teaching while Preparing for a Lesson,” Teaching while Students work Independently,” “Teaching Students to be People Who Study in School.” I’ve always been drawn to these words, but in the last month the insight they contain has begun to grow in my mind.

Before Christmas I assigned the student teaching seminar to watch the entire five tedious hours of YouTube videos of Mr. Hester’s first three days of school. We had a discussion about the importance of establishing procedures. I asked my students what we can take home from the videos. There were a number of good ideas, then somebody said, “Consistency.” A little switch went off in my brain. “Why does consistency matter?” I said. The students didn’t really know. It’s what they heard. It’s what I have heard many times. I hadn’t really thought about it, other than that’s what the research says, and it’s obviously what Mr. Hester did in his videos.

An idea was growing, a connection being made. “It’s because you’re teaching the whole class. If one student acts out and you ignore it, for that one student maybe it’s not a big deal. But if you ignore it, then you’re teaching the rest of the class they can do it too. Teaching is carried out in public. You’re always teaching the whole class.”

I feel like we’re all, the teacher candidates and me, understanding the classroom management thing better now. Being consistent isn’t being mean and picky—it’s teaching. And we had a slightly magical moment when something shared fell into place.

Mr. Hester’s videos are on YouTube. We watched Day 1 first, then days 2 and 3, and then Meet Mr. Hester last. Okay, it wasn’t 5 hours. Just seemed like it. Worth it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgk-719mTxM