Archive for the ‘Students’ Category
When CUSP Director Ingrid Seyer-Ochi was on a HuffPost Live panel about teaching cursive, I was intrigued. I had no idea people felt so strongly about the subject. I followed my curiosity to the internet, in search of articles on the subject to post to our social media. There’s almost no end of thought here: People who believe we will lose our connection to history if we don’t teach cursive; people who believe that classroom time can be spent better than teaching an out-moded style of communication; people who wonder how a generation raised only on printing will sign their names; and so on.
I was not taught cursive. At the private school I attended, only children who were able to master a kind of joined-up printing were graduated to cursive; I was not one of them. (Even today, my S’s defy description.) But this wasn’t really a problem for me: Almost no one I knew then, or know now, uses it even though they were taught it. Instead, we all write in a combination of print and script, creating our own style. As one friend confessed, when she writes in cursive her handwriting looks like a third-grader’s.
I know of three people who write exclusively in cursive: My grandmother, my father, and one of my old employers. I can’t read most of what my father and my boss write, but that’s because neither one is particularly dexterous; they would probably be illegible in any script or print. I can read my grandmother’s fine cursive and most historical documents easily. Interestingly, my friends and the internet have taught me that these documents haven’t all been written in the same kind of cursive. There are different methods for script, and each has been popular at different times in history and in different parts of the world, in part because different kinds of writing implements were used.
My mother doesn’t know cursive either. She was taught a very legible and efficient print style at her private school in the 1940s. I asked my mother and some of her classmates if not knowing cursive has hindered them in any way. They were all fairly bored. My mother confessed that she studied cursive on her own, but only so that she could sign her name. Another woman observed that other progressive schools at that time did not teach cursive. A third woman, peppier than the rest, described the absence of cursive instruction at the school as “infantilizing and classist.”
That response made me think. We probably aren’t just talking about cursive when we talk about cursive, but about questions of class, equality, and access. That’s nothing new; many issues of curriculum and instruction include those questions. But currently, not knowing cursive marks me and a few others as the product of private schools where teaching it was optional. It may soon be that cursive will become the domain of those same schools, as they find a way to teach it when public schools are no longer mandated to do so.
On Poverty and Systemic Collapse: Challenges to Education Research in an Era of Infrastructure Rebuilding | Gregory K. Tanaka
In this essay I argue the economic inequities of today carve out a very large social condition that is orders of magnitude greater than can be conveyed by the term “poverty.” This condition derives from a massive theft of public wealth and abandonment of the principles of representative democracy.
There is a silver lining: on encountering “systemic collapse” (a breakdown of society’s largest social institutions), we as education researchers are presented with a challenge for which we are uniquely well suited. We do applied work and as such, are predisposed to building something new. But will we be ready to make contributions that match the human need in an “Era of Democratic Renewal?”
Most Americans have become poorer and not as a result of a four-year cyclical downturn. This is systemic. From 1972 to 2012, U.S. hourly earnings adjusted for inflation dropped from $20/hr to just $8/hr (Nielson, Bullion Bulls Canada, 2/7/11). While social welfare benefits made up 10% of all salaries and wages in 1960, today it is 35% (Economic Collapse, 4/16/12). Where in the 1970s the top 1% earned just 8% of all income, this year they earned 21% (Id). In 1950, household debt as a percentage of disposable income was 30% but by 2011 rose to 120% of personal income (Tanaka Capital Management, August, 2011). By 2011, 100 million out of 242 million working age Americans were not working (Seabridge Gold Annual Report, 2011). Today, one-fourth of all children in the U.S. are enrolled in the food stamp program (Economic Collapse, 4/16/12). And since being established in 1913, the Federal Reserve (representing the largest U.S. banks) has destroyed 96% of the dollar value of U.S. family savings by printing money (Economic Collapse, 2/9/12).
Meanwhile, the 1% has truly become “the elites” by boldly stealing from middle and working class Americans. During the 2007-2010 financial crisis, $27 trillion in bailout money was given to U.S. banks that was “off-budget,” meaning it was not derived from taxes but rather taken from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid accounts paid into by taxpayers over a 40-year period (Catherine Austin Fitts, 9/4/12). In 2009-2010, 93% of all new U.S. income went to the top 1% (U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, 6/29/12). A simple solution is available but Congress won’t act: a return to the tax rates of the 1950s-1970s would result in a 50% tax on the top 96-99% and 75% tax on the top 1%. This alone would cover ¾ of the current U.S budget shortfall.
The net result is that the U.S. is stuck with $150 trillion in debt and unfunded liabilities, leaving U.S. taxpayers with more debt per capita than citizens of Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland or Spain (Economic Collapse, 7/14/12). Worse, the global overhang from debt, derivatives and contingent and unfunded liabilities and pension accounts is now a whopping $1.5 quadrillion (Greyerz, King World News, 7/20/12). With global GDP at $50 trillion, the financial “overhang” is systemic and irredeemable.
Is this the end of democracy as we knew it? All three branches have certainly failed the American people. It was Congress that reduced the elites’ income tax from 75% to just 15% (for long-term capital gains). The White House authored NAFTA (exporting millions of manufacturing jobs offshore), launched two oil wars and gave trillions to bankers. Most appalling, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that sanctioned in Citizens United the ability of the super rich to “buy” U.S. elections, thus bringing to an end the “representative” characteristic of representative democracy.
To restore democracy, a massive project of social change is now needed that can model the contours of a democracy that is participatory and might include the following kinds of ideas. (I invite others to offer ideas of their own.)
- Exempting full-time preK-12 public school teachers from having to pay federal income taxes;
- Paying off the U.S. bonds with low yield (and later, cheaper) dollars, followed by a re-linking of the dollar to gold at $300/ounce, absolving U.S. citizens of all debt (Iceland model), letting banks restart as utilities, seizing illegal accounts held for Americans in the Cayman Islands, etc, and closing down the Federal Reserve;
- Paying for this renewal by deploying already available technology that can produce far cheaper, clean energy—e.g. artificial photosynthesis, splitting water molecules to create ethanol, and passing cars over electromagnetic rods in roads (like charging an electric toothbrush);
- A second Constitutional Convention that is, this time, “by, for and of the people,” redefines a “person” as a human being, includes term limits, and enacts a participatory democracy; and
- The creation of independent think tanks that are in the public interest and can conceptualize, operationalize and evaluate initiatives like those above.
To renew this country, and its democracy, education researchers will need to do several things differently. We will need to broaden our work from a tendency to perform narrowly at the “mid-range level” of change in organizations, schools or programs—to a concerted effort to combine three registers in one analysis (“macro” systemic change in the largest social institutions, “micro” reformulations of the self, and “mid-range” change in organizations).
We will also need to shift from “assessment overdeterminism” to an emphasis on infrastructure rebuilding. This will mean more large scale, longitudinal, participatory projects; theorizing the connection, if any, between performing social change and development of the self; replacing NCLB/RTTT with policies that teach critical thinking, creativity, science, history, the arts, and coming into being by helping others also to come into being; new epistemologies that unite a diverse country; and change in reward systems to prize the above.
The question, then, is whether we as researchers in the public interest will be caught in a propitious moment worshiping old research epistemologies and methodological registers—or be willing instead to alter the reach and aim of our work to match the magnitude of the task before us.
This paper was presented by Greg Tanaka at the American Educational Research Association Conference, September, 2012.
Jessica Lahey, a high school teacher and writer, argues in the Atlantic magazine (February, 2013) (that introverts should be required to speak in class. She claims that classroom participation grades are not only fair; they are necessary. Drawing on recent work on introverts (e.g., Susan Cain’s popular new book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking), she suggests that in order to be successful in today’s world, it is imperative that introverted students be taught and coerced through grades and expectations to participate in class.
I disagree. Lahey paints students who are quiet in her class with a broad brush, calling them all “introverts.” The truth is that there are many reasons students may choose not to verbally participate in school. Some students are painfully shy and perhaps even introverts. Other students choose their moments to speak carefully, participating in silence for long periods before they decide to speak aloud. Some are quiet in school and loud in other contexts. Sometimes a student’s silence protects her from ridicule or bullying. In many cultures, silence is a sign of deep respect and more highly valued than talk. I would argue that Lahey’s advocacy for grading or counting classroom participation ignores the value and uses of silence in the classrooms, overlooking the myriad of other ways students participate.
Lahey also locates students’ silences in individuals rather than understanding them as a product of group interaction and situations. The students she worries about are ones she labels as “introverts”, assuming it is a characteristic of the student rather than the circumstance that creates the silence or reticence. I would suggest, instead, that it is useful to look at how classrooms and other contexts create silences in youth. Rather than punishing the so-called introverts for their silence or forcing them to speak by grading their classroom participation, teachers like Lahey might inquire into the silence of certain students in their classrooms, looking into the reasons for their silence, the places where are they more vocal, and imagining other ways they might be encouraged to participate.
In my own work, I suggest that we redefine what we mean by classroom participation. Teachers often define classroom participation as a verbal response that fits into a routine that the teacher has established. (Typically, the teacher asks a question, the student responds and the teacher affirms the correctness of the answer. Students are then said to participate.) But can students participate without speaking out loud? Should teachers consider the times that a student gives silent assent to a question or thoughtfully jots notes for a future essay as participation? Are these useful forms of participation? It is important to note that one student’s silence can enable another student to speak. Do students have a responsibility to contribute to the silence of a classroom so that others can talk, along with a responsibility to contribute verbally to the discussion? How might silence be re-framed as a “productive” or useful contribution to classroom classrooms? Finally, how to we create other contexts for participation such as multimedia projects where students “speak” through recorded text.
Lahey claims that she wants to prepare her students for the future where verbal participation is critical for their success. I suggest instead that we rethink how we understand students’ silences. I want us to remain cautious about labeling children as introverts, rather than understanding the larger contexts of how and why they choose to participate in certain ways. Otherwise, the particular contributions these students make to the classroom community may be unheard, unrecognized, and discounted. The absence of talk might lead a teacher to assume the absence of learning. It may be difficult for a student to escape the label of the “silent” student or the “introvert.”
There are potentially grave consequences for students when teachers do not understand their silence as a form of participation. Narrow interpretations of the meanings of silence can lead to false assumptions about student participation in classroom activities. For instance, students who are silent might receive low grades for classroom participation, when in fact they are actively engaged in learning. Rather than working to fix or change “introverts” I suggest we understand the various reasons students choose to participate verbally in classrooms or to refrain from such participation. Shouldn’t our goal as educators be to rethink our classroom as places that support all students to learn?
Note: I elaborate these ideas in my book, Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices, Teachers College Press, 2009.
This originally appeared on the Washington Post’s education blog: The Answer Sheet on 2/12/13.
“What does a successful science journal look like in second grade?” … “What do I hope this partner reading conversation sounds like?” …
“What data would indicate that my students have really internalized the science concept we are studying?”
These are the kinds of questions that our teacher scholars grapple with in their collaborative Mills Teacher Scholars work sessions. On the surface, these questions may seem straightforward. But in practice, seeking thoughtful answers to questions about student understanding of content involves delving in to messy issues. Perhaps the most common struggle our teachers scholars face is teasing apart evidence of student understanding from evidence of a student’s ability to follow directions. Upon looking closely and reflecting with colleagues teachers discover that an assignment with very clear and complete directions may yield more data about students’ ability to follow directions than about their understanding of the key concepts. So how can we figure out what students really understand?
In a Mills Teacher Scholars session facilitated last month by teacher scholar leaders from Oakland Unified, I listened as teachers went around the circle sharing the focus of their inquiries and what data might provide useful information as to how their students were, or were not, progressing towards the learning goal each teacher had established.
Several teachers shared that they changed their routine data source from their initial idea. In each case, the teacher wanted to know what the students were thinking, and which concepts the students understood. And they realized that when their assignment provided teacher-created sentence frames, and teacher-designed structures for thinking, the results didn’t show student thinking. Rather, they showed successful completion of a carefully designed task. But whether the student really understood the ideas they were expressing was not at all clear.
One second grade teacher initially used, as her routine data source, student science journal entries written using teacher-designed sentence frames. This teacher changed her routine data source to be interviews with focal students in which they talked about the conclusions they had drawn and the evidence they had used that supported those conclusions.
Another teacher began her inquiry by using, as her routine data source, information about how many students had completed their learning center written work. Now she has moved to using recordings of partner conversations at the reading center to find out what kind of learning conversations partners are (or are not) having.
Yet another teacher began by looking at Accelerated Reader test scores. (Accelerated Reader is a computer based reading assessment widely used for monitoring reading progress.) She realized that the scores were not telling her much about how the students were interacting with the text, and she changed her routine data source to book talks with her focal students.
Each of these teacher scholars went beyond checking for completion and recording numerical scores to implementing practices that allowed them to find out how their students are thinking.
Through their Mills Teacher Scholars work, teachers consistently create new opportunities for students to express their understanding of the key concepts. Teacher scholars then use these powerful data to guide their classroom instruction. Creating time and support for teachers to collect, analyze, and share these real-time data is an essential component to transforming classrooms into places where a diverse group of students find opportunities for deepened learning.
What has 80 arms, can be natural, be flat, be sharp and makes a beautiful noise?
The Mills College Choir, re-established this year after a 22 year absence from the campus!
Last spring, I saw emails inviting the Mills community to join. I fondly remembered participating in the University of New Mexico Community Choir over ten years ago and thought, “Why not?”
The choir has 40 members; undergraduate women, graduate women and men, faculty, and staff. The School of Education is tunefully represented by Elizabeth Baker (Visiting Assistant Professor) and me.
Sopranos, Altos, and Tenors. The voices….ah, the voices! The director, Cindy Beitman, makes each week’s two-hour practice in the chapel fun as we tune up our voices and practice, practice, practice. Early in the semester, some members were unsure of which singing range to belong to. Cindy’s acute ear placed people in the section best suited to her or his voice. For years, one woman was convinced she was an Alto. Cindy heard something different and placed her with the Sopranos – the Soprano 1 group with voices so clear and high that at times, we expect to see glass shatter! I found myself with the Alto 2 group – very low range, perfect for someone’s vocal chords that prefer Tenor and Alto 2 tones.
There is something wonderful when you are in a large group, singing parts and ranges, having a piece come together with rich harmony and sound. The chapel walls literally vibrate with glee. It is energizing, it builds a different sort of confidence, and it is invigorating. There are times we complete a piece and are in awe how the bits come together to produce an amazing effect.
Earlier this fall while we were working on a piece, President DeCoudreaux was walking past the chapel. The sound and her curiosity pulled her in. We stopped, Cindy introduced the Mills College Choir to her, and she asked to hear a song. Forty-strong, we delivered four-part harmony that left her applauding and excited to get back to Mills Hall to tell the folks there about the harmonious sounds of the choir.
Besides our weekly Wednesday practice, some of us practice with other members or outside Mills. Whether we sing with our choir or to our friends, our pets, in the shower, or to the dishes in the kitchen sink, the exhilaration of the simple act of freely singing gives pleasure to the soul.
We have sung at this year’s convocation. Standing next to the robed and capped alumnae women, we sang Fires of Wisdom. Some of the alumnae were misty-eyed as they sang along with us, and several expressed their appreciation for a song well executed in prosaic solidarity.
The Mills College Choir will hold its Winter Concert on Sunday, December 9, in the Music Building’s Littlefield Concert Hall, at 4 p.m. (If you are on campus on Wednesday, December 5, and happen to be at the Tea Shop at 12:30 p.m., you might get a preview of the concert!) Come hear us! It will be music to your ears!
Recently, the Oakland Unified School District was pleased to announce that it had established a relationship with Oakland Rotary to adopt Transitional Kindergarten (TK) classes at ten schools (eleven classrooms) throughout the city. OUSD wrote, “The group will compensate for gaps in state funding of Transitional Kindergarten by providing the funds needed to create nurturing and stimulating learning environments for young children.” OUSD further wrote, “While the state provides funding for TK teacher salaries, virtually no money is offered for classroom modifications, furniture, equipment, books and toys designed to optimize the learning experience for these younger students.” Oakland Rotary and its partners have pledged to help fill that gap. So far they have award $22,000 for the eleven teachers to spend as they deem necessary; $15,000 worth of books; and hundreds of dollars in toys. This is just the beginning.
We wrote to EdD student Krishen Arvind Laetsch, Board Member at Oakland Rotary and its Youth and Education co-chair, and asked him to tell us a bit more. He wrote,
“Several years ago with support from Oakland Rotary, I helped to create ‘Oakland Reads’, a program that gives three books to every third grader in Oakland traditional and charter schools, to promote literacy. In addition to providing $45,000 each year in books, and reaching more than 4,000 students, the program broke socio-economic barriers by putting 100 Rotarians into schools that otherwise they would most probably not visit; many returned to provide additional support. One member decided to give each student a book bag and we donated classroom sets of books too.
“The program operated for four years then transitioned to Family Reading Nights. In this program, Oakland Rotarians brought books to schools in the evenings, and then read with kids, provided dinners and literacy activities for families. Unfortunately, this program generated less excitement. When Transitional Kindergarten was created (the first new grade created in more than eight decades), we saw an opportunity. I proposed that the Oakland Rotary build on its record of success and adopt all ten schools that had TK, eleven classrooms in all throughout the city. With Oakland’s Rotary motto of Service above Self, it was an easy sell. We call it KinderPrep because few understand “Transitional Kindergarten.
“I have the privilege of co-chairing the Oakland Rotary Youth & Education Committee. Oakland Rotary is the third oldest Rotary Club in the world. It has been in Oakland for more than 100 years and is the largest service organization in the city. It has contributed a great deal to education, including books, equipment, mentors, scholarships, tutors, etc. For more on Oakland Rotary and its KinderPrep program, visit http://www.clubrunner.ca/Portal/Home.aspx?cid=3190.
“On a personal note, this type of program would not have been possible were it not for the support and training I have received from the Mills College School of Education. I’m a fortunate man…but am still waiting for my ‘Pearl M.’”
OUSD notes that other Oakland Rotary KinderPrep activities planned for 2012-13 include:
* purchasing and assembling furniture
* planting gardens
* building play structures
* supporting “Emergency Prep” classes for educators and guardians
* providing classroom assistance to teachers, particularly in the areas of math and science
* launching book and toy drives
* supporting literacy in ten schools with books, curricula and reading projects
*orchestrating two field trips for all of the Transitional Kindergarten students to Children’s Fairyland for art and literacy and to the Oakland Zoo for art and biology
When I was a classroom teacher I had a poster in my room that said, “The highest fences we need to climb are those we’ve built within our minds.” I have always found this statement to be true for my students, and when I became the math coordinator for the Prison University Project I found that it was true for me as a teacher as well.
When it comes to learning math, many students enter the classroom with an internal narrative about who they are as students and what they are able to accomplish in a math class. We all know the power a good teacher can have on the success of a student. For adult learners, a good teacher can affect not only how well a student learns the material, but also how they see themselves as students. Working with incarcerated adults who are returning to the classroom I witness the change in their internal narrative. Many students have been away from school for many years or didn’t see themselves as “college material” when they were growing up. What makes my work so enjoyable is watching the transformation that takes place when adults are finally able to have the success in math that they didn’t have before.
The pre-college program at the Prison University Project works with students to build basic skills in English and Math and prepare them to enroll in college courses. But below the surface there are other changes happening as well. Students are learning study skills, critical thinking, and how to participate in class. And the dedication the students have towards their learning is exciting to watch. Having worked as a teacher in public schools, I witnessed students who took their education for granted. The students at PUP are in many ways the “dream” students for teachers because they are engaged, dedicated, and set high standards for themselves. I am continually impressed by how PUP students connect their education goals to their larger life goals and continue to persevere even when it’s difficult. Watching them overcome their past struggles in math inspired me to think about my own internal narrative.
Before working in a prison I imagined prisoners as one-dimensional, defined by their capacity to commit crime. However, the conversations I have with students, the issues that come up in classes, the skills that students struggle with, are the same as in my other teaching experiences. Very quickly after taking my job I realized I had my own narrative about prisoners to overcome. In this static environment they are taking advantage of the opportunity to change. Working with the Prison University Project is seeing teaching that changes lives in its purest sense.
The College Program at San Quentin State Prison is currently recruiting teachers to co-teach pre-college Math and English classes (Math 50 and English 99) this coming spring semester. Teachers with these classes typically work in teams, with each set of instructors covering one evening per week.
Math 50 has several sections that are held on some combination of Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings from 6-8:30pm. This course covers math from about first grade level (place value) to eighth grade level (pre-algebra) and is geared toward students needing review before moving on to a college algebra course.
All sections of English 99 meet on Sunday, Tuesday and/or Thursday evenings. This pre-college composition course prepares students to write college level essays.
The Prison University Project provides incarcerated men at San Quentin with higher education opportunities through our College Program in partnership with Patten University. Our teachers are volunteers from universities around the Bay Area including UC Berkeley, Stanford, and University of San Francisco. There is no minimum education requirement to be an instructor for the pre-college classes, but those with an education background or previous teaching experience are strongly encouraged to apply. We receive no state or federal funding, so major expenses like textbooks and supplies are funded entirely by donations.
If you are interested in working with the pre-college program, please contact Regina Guerra at email@example.com for more information.
During the course of the year, my English and World History class explores some heavy subjects— the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, the rise of dictators like Stalin, the apathetic reactions of various countries to our climate change problem. I am conscious of focusing on how we can learn from history in order to make the future better. As we go through the Holocaust unit, we explore indifference and how inaction can be more deadly than we think, even today.
Most of my students have not heard of the Holocaust, so one of my central goals is simply to make sure each student has a firm grasp on this important part of our history. But I also want them to interact with this history in a way that humanizes people rather than desensitizes the atrocities. So, I want students to know that 6 million Jews were killed. But then we read Elie Wiesel’s Night in order to learn about the actual people who were affected. I asked Dora Sorell to be a guest lecturer as part of that same idea. When the students see her, a holocaust survivor, mother, doctor, and author, they listen to her story, ask her questions, hug her, and realize what she survived and how resilient she is. The students get to be truly empathetic, rather than voyeurs of a gruesome and horrific tragedy.
My students have seen horrific things too—all before the age of 15—and many of them look to Wiesel and Sorell as role models, people who made something truly amazing out of their lives despite all the obstacles and trauma. I also want my students to start thinking as historians—to collect evidence, be critical of what they read and form their own opinions. As we study, they realize how many alternate stories there are about Hitler, and how “doing history” is putting these pieces together to make sense of it. History is an active, malleable, subjective process. It is full of life and stories and connection to today, not some dull, unconnected lesson in a textbook.
As sophomores, my students are already becoming cynical about this country and world and I have to fight against that because I think cynicism breeds apathy and indifference. As adults we often get cynical but being a teacher and encouraging young people to make a difference, I have to try hard not to be that way. I got a lot of positive feedback for the letter Elie Wiesel wrote to my students two years ago, and for organizing Dora Sorell to speak last year, but really all I did was try. There are millions of causes we can fight for today, but the important thing is that we choose to fight for something. I hope my students learn that.
And so we begin again. In many ways the start of this new academic year is very much like every other year—the same excitements and the same hesitations. But there are two key differences that stand out for me—one personal, one public. What I just realized the other day is that I am embarking on my 40th year as an educator! Certainly not something I imagined would ever happen when I entered my third grade classroom in East Los Angeles for the first time in the fall of 1972—and certainly not so quickly—in some ways it is forever ago, of course, but in others only yesterday!
I also cannot help but think about the fact that this is an election year—an election year that seems very significant to me in many ways, but then, aren’t they all? The combination of these two circumstances has given me pause to contemplate, even more than usual, what matters most in this work that I/we are doing? How should I spend what must surely be one of the final years of my life’s work, especially given the times in which I am doing it? What should my focus be?
I wish I had something more grandiose to offer up, something more innovative, cutting edge, technological, specific. But I am afraid that after all this time—all this practical, theoretical, empirical work—all that I have experienced and read and heard in and out of the educational domain, I am more convinced than ever that the answers, the solutions are much more basic. I truly believe that the only things that can save us and our planet are human connections—connections that embrace, nurture, and embolden the inner spirits, joy, creativity, courage, care, and multiple intelligences of every child and adult with whom we make contact, and certainly with those whom we presume, at whatever level and in whatever context, to educate.
One of the reasons I am so committed to this right now is that in the forty years I have been teaching, I believe that we have gotten further and further away from this, which is especially tragic at the elementary level. An over-emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing via agendas/laws like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have caused us to rigidify, dehumanize, and narrow the elementary curriculum. Children are being forced to learn to read and compute at earlier and earlier ages, often at the expense of everything else, and in more and more mechanical ways.
As a result, my personal aims for this year and the remainder of my career are to emphasize, even more than I have been, creativity, care, critical thinking, curiosity, initiative—the joy of learning. As children learn and develop the knowledge and skills they must have, they can and should do so through hands-on/minds-on curricula that is engaging, enriching, and responsive to the learning strengths and needs of the particular children with whom we are working. We have to observe and listen carefully to what they are actually doing, saying, and understanding, and then respond appropriately, over and over again. And we have to let them know every day and in every way that they are wondrous, brilliant, and beautiful—our one true hope.
I had the good fortune to accompany a group of Mills colleagues, along with several teachers and administrators from the Oakland Unified School District, on a trip to Japan to learn about Japanese Lesson Study in elementary and middle school mathematics classrooms. Generously funded by the Toyota Foundation, and overseen by senior researcher and Principal Investigator Catherine Lewis, this trip was designed to teach us about this powerful form of professional development through an immersion experience in Japanese schools with educators from Japan and around the world. We visited seven schools in seven days.
There is much to say about this trip and what I learned, but the aspect that I want to write about here is the way that we were taught, or attempted to learn, how to read Japanese classrooms. My mentor Frederick Erickson often said that children are always learning or on task; it’s simply a question of whose task they are on: their own, the teacher’s, one set by their peers, or the like. I tend to approach classrooms with that in mind. I look for how and what students are learning, not whether they are learning. I try to understand teaching in relationship to students’ learning, whether the teaching is generated from the front of the classroom or through more informal interactions. I have written about how silence is a critical form of participation in classrooms, and often focus on how students are representing learning (and teachers are instructing) through silence in addition to verbal responses.
In order to understand our observations in Japanese classrooms, we wore transmitters with headphones while one of our Japanese colleagues interpreted the teacher and students’ talk and writing. We also were also given the lesson plans ahead of time. Many of the lesson plans were comprehensive and included possible dialogues for the problem-solving period as well as the instructional context. At times we had discussions before the lesson with our Japanese guides, experts both in the Japanese mathematics curriculum and Lesson Study as practiced in Japan.
One of the most complex lessons we observed was about angles. The lesson followed what we came to understand as a typical pattern of Japanese mathematics lessons. The teacher introduced the topic by drawing on the students’ prior knowledge. He posed a problem for the students and then asked them to generate solutions. While they worked independently, he walked around and observed the students, taking notes on a seating chart. Occasionally he commented on students’ solutions or posed questions to prompt their thinking. As the students generated solutions, he documented their thinking on the chalkboard which created a visual map of the lesson. The students documented their work and the class’s collective thinking in journals. At the conclusion of the class, the teacher summed up the work and asked them to write briefly in these journals.
During the discussion period, the teacher made the decision to follow the lead of two students, which distracted him from getting to the stated purpose of the lesson. The conversation was lively, several students seemed engaged, and at the end of the class the students hadn’t reached the predicted conclusion or endpoint on the lesson plan. Still I believe that the students had gained new understanding of angles, and that their curiosity and desire to learn more was piqued. In Erickson’s terms, they were “on task.” My notes contain transcripts of what the teacher and students said, and little analysis of the quality of the interactions.
After the lesson, we assembled to observe the next phase of the lesson study process: a discussion and analysis of the lesson led by teacher leaders, followed by a talk from a university professor reflecting on both the lesson and the ensuing discussion. The post-lesson conversation among the teachers centered on student solutions and the teachers’ pedagogical choices. A new chalkboard was pulled down as various teachers illustrated what they saw on students’ papers, and how and whether it indicated understanding. We followed the discussion with interest. At the conclusion, the professor unequivocally declared, “This lesson was a disaster in terms of what was indicated in the textbook.” He went on to explain the mathematics of the lesson and the missed opportunities that were a consequence of poor decisions the teacher had made. Simply put, the teacher had chosen the wrong examples or solutions from the students to focus on and, as a consequence, been unable to reach the critical teaching point suggested by the text.
Although I tried hard to follow his exposition through the somewhat difficult translation, I was not convinced that the lesson was really a disaster until we later posed the same question to our Japanese leader. “Yes,” he informed us without hesitation, “The lesson was a disaster.” Along with several of my colleagues, I had completely misread the lesson and classroom activity. From that moment on, I wanted to understand how Japanese educators “read” classrooms, to understand how my vision of exploration and possibility in the classroom was in conflict with their interpretation of the lesson as characterized by errors in decision-making and mathematics.
The debate about education in this country often boils down to how can we compete in a global market and improve the education of our American youth so that they achieve at the same high level as youth in other countries. In order to achieve these goals, the US has established national standards, adopted new curricula, instituted high stakes testing. But how often do we really try to read the classrooms in these countries, attempting to deeply understand—and even critical analyze—the pedagogical decisions of teachers and learners? How do we facilitate true dialogue and learning across international contexts when there are such high stakes and national loyalties? I wonder about the value or role of outside perspectives. How does my own focus on the importance of listening to or paying close attention to student silence add to Japanese educators’ understandings of their own classrooms? And finally, I wonder, how can those of us on the trip use our experiences to inform our own work in local schools and our preparation of future educators?