Teaching can be taught

Teaching can be taught, argues Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion. It’s not an innate gift. It’s a craft.

In a training session for inner-city London teachers, Lemov showed a video several times to analyze the strategies used by Ashley Hinton, a Newark elementary teacher, writes Ian Leslie in The Guardian.

. . .  (Lemov) sees Hinton placing herself at the vantage points from which she can best scan the faces of her pupils (“hotspots”). He sees that after she first asks a question, hands that spring up immediately go back down again, in response to an almost imperceptible gesture from Hinton, to give the other children more time to think (“wait time”). He sees her repeat the question so that this pause in the conversation doesn’t slow its rhythm.

He sees Hinton constantly changing the angle of her gaze to check that every pupil is paying attention to whoever in the room is speaking, and silencing anyone who is not doing so with a subtle wave of her hand.

He sees her use similar gestures to gently but effectively recall errant students into line without interrupting her own flow or that of the student speaking at the time (“non-verbal corrections”).

He sees Hinton venture away from the hotspots to move down the sides of the class, letting her students know, with her movement, that there is always a chance she will be beside their desk in the next few seconds.

He sees that in one particular instance she moves toward a particular student while making it look to the rest of the class as if she is simply changing her perspective, so that she can correct his behaviour without embarrassing him – and he sees that she does so with the grace of an elite tennis player delivering a disguised drop shot.

Hinton smiles warmly and varies “the volume of her voice to convey enthusiasm for her topic,” Lemov points out. Her students “are utterly captivated, eager to pitch in with their own thoughts, avid for learning.”

She’s not leaping on desks like Robin Williams in Great Poets Society. Good teachers practice their craft, says Lemov.

“The myth of the magical teacher subtly undermines the status of teaching, by obscuring the extraordinary skill required to perform the job to a high level,” concludes Leslie. “It also implies that great teaching cannot be taught.”

Lemov links to more teaching videos on his Teach Like a Champion blog.

New discipline rules make schools less safe

“Progressive” discipline policies such as “restorative justice” are reducing suspensions — and making schools less safe, argues Paul Sperry in the New York Post.

Convinced traditional discipline is racist because blacks are suspended at higher rates than whites, New York City’s Department of Education has in all but the most serious and dangerous offenses replaced out-of-school suspensions with a touchy-feely alternative punishment called “restorative justice,” which isn’t really punishment at all. It’s therapy.

. . . everywhere it’s been tried, this softer approach has backfired.

Chicago teachers say they’re “struggling to deal with unruly students” under a new policy that minimizes suspension, reports the Chicago Tribune.

“It’s just basically been a totally lawless few months,” said Megan Shaunnessy, a special education teacher at De Diego Community Academy.

De Diego teachers said the school lacks a dedicated “peace room” where students can cool off if they’ve been removed from a class. They say the school does not have a behavioral specialist on staff to intervene with students, nor does it have resources to train teachers on discipline practices that address a student’s underlying needs.

 “You have to have consequences,” fifth-grade teacher John Engels said of the revised conduct code. “If you knew the cops weren’t going to enforce the speed limit, when you got on the Edens Expressway you’d go 100 miles an hour.”

Oakland students discuss behavior issues in a "talking circle."

Oakland students discuss behavior issues in a “talking circle.”

All over the country, teachers are complaining that student behavior has worsened under lenient policies, writes Sperry.

It has created a “systemic inability to administer and enforce consistent consequences for violent and highly disruptive student behaviors” that “put students and staff at risk and make quality instruction impossible,” wrote Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern in a letter to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Los Angeles Unified also is seeing problems, writes Sperry.

“I was terrified and bullied by a fourth-grade student,” a teacher at a Los Angeles Unified School District school recently noted on the Los Angeles Times website. “The black student told me to ‘Back off, b—h.’ I told him to go to the office and he said, ‘No, b—h, and no one can make me.’ ”

Oakland Unified is considered a national model for using restorative justice programs to cut suspensions in half.  “Even repeat offenders can negotiate the consequences for their bad behavior, which usually involve paper-writing and ‘dialogue sessions’,” writes Sperry.

There have been serious threats against teachers,” Oakland High School science teacher Nancy Caruso told the Christian Science Monitor, and yet the students weren’t expelled. She notes a student who set another student’s hair on fire received a “restorative” talk in lieu of suspension.

. . . White teachers are taught to check their “unconscious racial bias” when dealing with black students who act out. They’re told to open their eyes to “white privilege” and white cultural “dominance,” and have more empathy for black kids who may be lashing out in frustration. They are trained to identify “root causes” of black anger, such as America’s legacy of racism.

Conflicts can take days or weeks to resolve. Teachers must use class time for “circles” rather than academic instruction.

“RJ (restorative justice) can encourage misbehavior by lavishing attention on students for committing infractions,” warns science teacher Paul Bruno, who participated in talking circles while teaching middle school in Oakland and South Central Los Angeles.

Most schools still follow zero-tolerance rules. An 11-year-old boy was kicked out of school for a year when a leaf that looked like marijuana, but wasn’t, was found in his backpack, reports the Roanoke Times. The gifted student now suffers from depression and panic attacks.

Teaching history through games

New Jersey history teachers can learn to use games, play and digital tools through a HistoryQuest Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson FoundationDeveloped with the Institute of Play in New York City, the program helps educators experiment with learning games and assessment tools.

CommonSense Media lists games that teach history.

Teaching History includes a forum titled Games and History: A New Way to Learn or Educational Fluff?

Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts, an “adventure puzzle game,” uses World War I soldiers’ poetry to teach about the Great War.

Transformative tech starts with the book

One learning technology — the book — has “transformed teaching and learning,” writes Rick Hess.

First, it gave students access to experts from around the world; children were no longer dependent solely on their teachers for learning. Second, no longer reliant on teachers to tell them everything, students could learn at home or on their own. This “flipped” the classroom, allowing teachers to spend less time lecturing and more time explaining, mentoring, and facilitating.

Educators were dubious about printed books, writes Hess. “Schools were predominantly church-run affairs, and religious leaders worried about the lack of moral and interpretive guidance for learners left to their own devices.”

But books won out, launching an “information revolution.”

With books, students could master content and concepts outside of school, learning even when a teacher wasn’t there to tell them things. (Think of Abraham Lincoln working his way through Shakespeare and the Greeks alone on the Illinois prairie.)

But books have limits, Hess writes. They don’t speak. They can’t adapt to readers’ interests and reading levels, be updated quickly or embed “exercises that let students apply new concepts and get immediate feedback.”

Intelligent, computer-assisted tutoring systems are about 90 percent as effective as in-person tutors, Hess writes. But we need to do three things right:

First, new tools should inspire a rethinking of what teachers, students, and schools do, and how they do it. If teaching remains static, sprinkling hardware into schools won’t much matter.

Second, technology can’t be something that’s done to educators. Educators need to be helping to identify the problems to be solved and the ways technology can help, and up to their elbows in making it work.

Third, it’s not the tools but what’s done with them. When they discuss what’s working, the leaders of high-tech charter school systems like Carpe Diem and Rocketship Education, or heralded school districts like that of Mooresville, N.C., brush past the technology in order to focus relentlessly on learning, people, and problem-solving.

Like the book, technology won’t work miracles, Hess writes. And, like the book, it won’t replace teachers.

Is Teach for America losing its luster?

First-year Teach For America corps member Deja Moss teaches social studies at a North Carolina middle school. (Travis Dove for The New York Times)

After 15 years of growing demand, applications to Teach for America are down 10 percent this year, reports the New York Times. Last year, the highly selective program accepted about 15 percent of its applicants. That selectivity will continue, even if it means a smaller teaching corps, says Matt Kramer, the nonprofit’s co-CEO.

The rebounding economy has created more job opportunities for graduates of elite colleges, says Kramer.

“Teaching in general has been losing favor,” notes the Times. “From 2010 to 2013, the number of student candidates enrolled in teacher training programs fell 12.5 percent, according to federal data.”

Deja Moss, a first-year teacher photographed for the Times story, tells her own story on TFA’s Pass the Chalk. Raised by a single mother in Georgia, Moss recalls her sixth-grade social studies teacher, a TFA corp member who became her mentor.

Andrea Merrick, who joined TFA in 2005, still teaches at the middle school, writes Moss. “Ms. Merrick shifted from teacher to mentor, cheering me on through high school graduation, four years at the College of Wooster, and the day I became the first in my family to earn a college degree in four years. This fall, as I took on my own class of sixth and seventh grade social studies scholars as a corps member in my own right, she’s been a source of comfort, guidance and tremendous strength.”

‘Paradise Lost’ in Baltimore

“Why do we have to read about dead white men?” James, a 17-year-old from a desperately poor, violent neighborhood of Baltimore, asked his young teacher, “Why can’t we read about authors who look like us?”

“Reading authors of all races and genders increases one’s chances of actualizing his or her human potential,” writes Irvin Weathersby Jr. in The Atlantic.

His students read pulpy “street literature” about hustlers, hoodlums and thugs, “sex-laden glorifications of drug culture, full of typos and grammatical errors.”

“It’s real,” said James. “We relate to what’s happening in the streets.”

But, “there’s so much more to the world” that Weathersby wanted his students to see.

He started a lesson on John Milton’s Paradise Lost by asking: Who was responsible for the downfall of man? Eventually, a boy said “women.” He asked what women had done. “Eve ate the apple, didn’t she?” someone said.

So they read about Eve and the forbidden fruit in Genesis.  The Bible doesn’t specify an “apple,” he told them. That was Milton.

 I went on to discuss his impact on the world during his time and beyond, his stated goal of explaining the ways of God to man, and his passion for completing the text even as he lost his sight late in life.

Then I showed them scenes from The Devil’s Advocate, the film starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. . . .  all were shocked to learn that Pacino’s character, the devil incarnate, was named John Milton. I had them then.

Because of the text’s complexity, I read most of it aloud as they followed along, stopping during important scenes to ensure comprehension and analyze the arguments offered by the principal characters. Milton, I explained, gave Adam, Eve, Satan, and God personalities that aren’t present in the Bible. By giving them voices, he depicted the events in the Garden of Eden in ways no other author had done before—so much so that people began reading the text as truth and not a product of Milton’s imagination.

Students debated which character was responsible for the fall of man and wrote an essay defending their point of view.

Because I was the school’s debate coach as well, I taught them how to compose, analyze, defend, and deconstruct arguments in the technical style of a policy debate. Then I separated them into teams and facilitated what would become an incredible display of competition and scholarship.

“They had read the work of a dead white man and enjoyed it, writes Weathersby. He went on to teach Shakespeare’s Othello, Emerson’s Self-Reliance and other classics.

A teacher’s job

Differentiated to death

As a first-year teacher at a low-performing high school, David Griffith taught — or tried to teach — a social studies class with “every type of student imaginable,” he writes on Flypaper.

. . . seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, kids with behavior issues, kids with attention issues, kids with senioritis, kids who have taken the class before and passed it but are taking it again because the registrar’s office is incompetent. And, of course, a few kind, sweet, innocent kids. Who. Cannot. Read.

He was told to differentiate instruction. But how?

Hermione Granger used magic powers to take multiple classes at the same time at Hogwarts Academy.

Hermione Granger used magic powers to take multiple classes at the same time at Hogwarts Academy.

Griffith longed for Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner, so he could teach each class 31 times to “make sure each of my students gets the lesson he or she would most benefit from receiving.” It was not available.

Differentiation is the “Holy Grail of effective practice,” the “solution to all problems,” writes Griffith.

Struggling to control your class? Let them choose their own adventure! What could go wrong?

Struggling to motivate your students? Give each of them a different assignment and hold them to different standards. They’ll never notice.

Struggling to craft a rigorous, coherent, well-aligned, scaffolded, data-driven, creative, and above all engaging lesson plan for each of your three classes between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.? Triple your workload! Nothing drives quality like overwhelming quantity.

Perhaps teachers should stop “flirting with multiple-personality disorder by attempting to be all things to all children” and just teach the best lesson they can, concludes Griffith. It would be easier to find something that works if there were some “effort to differentiate kids before they entered the classroom.”

Teaching without grading

When Mark Barnes decided to stop grading students’ work, it changed everything, he writes on Education Week Teacher.  “I’ll never put a number, percentage, or letter on any activity or project you complete,” he told his seventh graders.

Students who had only experienced traditional grades throughout their school lives were asked to discuss learning, to reflect and, ultimately, to evaluate themselves. Many were shocked, when we discussed an activity, and I asked them to return to prior learning, to rethink what they had done, and rework the activity for further discussion. An amazing and enriching ongoing conversation about learning was born.

I would review each student’s work, summarize and explain what I had observed, and ask questions. “Did you consider doing it this way?” I might inquire. “What would it look like if you tried this instead?” Soon, students had these informative conversations with each other, as they grew into enthusiastic, independent learners, who never feared a bad grade, because there were no grades.

The school required grades on the report card. At the end of the grading period, Barnes asked students to discuss their in-class activities and projects and suggest what grade they’d earned.

Here’s Barnes’ 7 reasons teachers should stop grading their students from his blog, Brilliant or Insane.

Starr Sackstein, a writing and journalism teacher, co-teaches a publications elective with two math teachers. They discuss letting students assess their own learning.

Can good teaching prevent disruption?

Worried about high suspension rates for black students, San Francisco public schools no longer suspend students for “willful defiance.”

Mission High School is trying to avoid trips to the principal’s office, writes Dani McClain on Slate. The school, which is devoted to “equity, inclusion, and Anti-Racist Teaching,” hopes to improve student behavior by changing teacher behavior.

When one of Henry Arguedas’ students got upset and slammed a book on the floor last year, the teacher followed what has become standard protocol in schools across the country: He sent the teenager out of class to an administrator who would decide his fate.

. . . A veteran teacher and a dean followed up and gently encouraged Arguedas to think carefully about why he had sent the student, who is black, to the office for glaring and slamming the book. As Arguedas reflected with his colleagues, he realized to his dismay that he had misinterpreted the teenager’s emotional problems and inability to express himself for aggressive anger—possibly because the student was black and male.

In October, a fourth-year teacher named David Gardner asked Mission High’s “instructional reform facilitator,” Pirette McKamey, to observe one of his ninth-grade geometry classes.

. . .  the lesson focused on logic and structuring proofs. Some students worked in groups to configure blocks of various colors and shapes into hexagons or triangles and puzzled over how best to describe what they’d done. Later, McKamey estimated that only about a quarter of the class was on task at any given time. Others took slow, meandering trips to the pencil sharpener or acted out in subtle ways. Two students, for instance, disobeyed school rules and kept their cellphones out while another listened to earphones. One boy stood his skateboard on end and spun it round and round. Two others playfully jousted with rulers.

. . . a black boy named John (not his real name) . . . popped between tables during group work, sang loudly as Gardner gave the class instructions, and at one point left the room without permission. But John’s hand was also the first one up when Gardner asked what the groups had accomplished with their proofs, and his answer was precise and on target.

When McKamey met with Gardner a few days later to debrief, she told him “the pacing was off.” If Gardner improved his instruction and kept more of the students engaged, McKamey assured him most discipline problems would disappear.

McKamey also suggested that Gardner might, unknowingly, be telepathing a dislike for John, which triggered the student’s unhappiness and frustration. “Think of him as someone you like and who you’re going to take care of,” she said. When John causes a disruption that demands a response, McKamey suggested using humor rather than a punitive tone to defuse the situation publicly, and then talking to John in greater depth about the incident privately.

Improving instruction is always good, but . . . really?

Teachers need to be trained in “warm demandingness,” advises Russell Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University.

As one example, he described watching a teacher coax a student who had his head on his desk to sit up. She kept urging him to lift his head higher and higher, but when he was finally upright, the teacher showed empathy. Specifically, she walked by him, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Get some more sleep tonight’’ in a friendly, supportive way, Skiba recalled. “It’s possible to show kids that you are not going to let up on them until they reach your expectation, but within that to be establishing a friendship.”

High school teachers usually have 30+ students in a class. Is it possible to teach an academic subject while providing individual coaxing, private talks and demanding friendship for each student? It sounds time consuming.

Larry Ferlazzo’s readers offer their advice for good classroom management.