Thanks to the technology of the DVR, I was able to watch “Teach” a day later than most viewers, and by the time I finished it, I’d already seen other people’s reactions online, and even in my Facebook feed. Nancy Flanagan’s post at EdWeek was online pretty quickly too. I think Nancy was a bit crankier than I was (her word, not mine), but I can’t offer more than a half-hearted endorsement of the film.
First reaction: relief. I went into the viewing of “Teach” with some doubts; what could we expect in a Davis Guggenheim film, supported by the Gates Foundation and with ties to Khan Academy and the charter school-promoting J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation? It could have been worse, but the film really steered clear of the hot-button issues – not a single mention of evaluation, unions, seniority, performance pay, charter schools, vouchers, etc. Maybe to a fault, as I felt a retort rising within me when host/narrator Queen Latifah told viewers that great teachers do whatever it takes for their students to learn; meanwhile, thousands of teachers are having their judgment and initiative systemically undercut by scripted curriculum and highly constraining evaluation checklists (see: IMPACT).
The only moderately overt agenda in the film was to promote Khan Academy (KA). Math teacher Shelby Harris used KA with her students, and thanks the Khan training, even had access to someone who advised her that students working in groups might be able to help each other (!). One student, Brooke, made some tremendous progress using KA, and we hear the interviewer ask her if she’d rather be on the computer doing math, or listen to One Direction. Khan Academy! What about listening to Lady Gaga? Khan Academy! What about feeding your horse? Well, she likes KA almost as much as her horse! From this student testimonial, we go into another segment where it’s implied that Khan Academy represents nothing less than the future of education. Direct instruction from teacher to all students at once will be replaced by direct instruction to students individually? Want to impress me? Show me some students creating their own videos, their own assessments, and linking their learning to other subjects and real life examples.
And then, there was the Khan Academy commercial, courtesy of the Albertson Foundation, showing image after image of really cool, active, hands-on learning! Rockets! Pottery! Electronics! Construction! Ballet! Flames! Because nothing ignites the mind like… sitting at the computer watching videos and doing exercises to earn badges. To be clear, I’m critizing the jarring disconnect between the images and the product being sold. The effectiveness and limitations of KA can be the topic of another post.
Overall, the film respected its subjects and showed that the human relationship between teachers and students are the driving force in the classroom. The film showed humor, heart, and some of the complexity of teaching, and allowed that, as teacher Shelby Harris put it, “When you’re not in the classroom it’s easy to tell people what it should look like.” While Khan Academy is featured at time, the voice over narration also advises us that technological “silver bullets” come and go, revealing that people matter more. I think it was honorable and brave of the students, parents, teachers and administrators in the film to share their lives and their work.
The film was effective, if predictable, in crafting a narrative arc to hold our attention for two hours. It’s a familiar formula: get to know the players, and some reasons to root for them, show some early reason for optimism, followed by setbacks and maybe a crisis of faith, uncover a solution, conquer the final challenge, and end on a high note. To be honest, many school years have that feeling. But an even more honest film might note that sometimes the wheels really come off the wagon in May. Some classes limp to the finish line. Some good teachers can’t do anything to prevent a student’s mental health crisis from hitting in the spring time, and we have no control over the comings and goings of students who move during the school year. It’s worthwhile to show a teacher working with one class, but most secondary teachers have five or six classes, and in California right now, that means student loads well over 150, sometimes over 200.
The editing and the pace of the film may have been good for television, but not for much deeper engagement. We saw so many ten and twenty second glimpses of teachers and students, never enough time to really understand what’s going on. Every teacher has a certain style, a certain rapport, and ways of communicating both verbally and non-verbally. What it means and how it works cannot be understood in such small bites.
In other cases, the editing leaves a question hanging. We hear that it’s really hard to teach writing, for example. Yes, it is. We see teacher Joel Laguna working his way through piles of papers that cover his living room furniture, only to find that 42 of 43 students in his A.P. history class end up failing the assignment. (And just let that sink in for a moment: 43 students in a classroom).
The film does return to the question of writing instruction, quite a bit later, as teacher Joel Laguna dispatches his students into their community to do some research interviews. It’s a fine idea, helping students establish a connection and purpose, a sense of ownership to motivate harder work and more revisions. But one essential element in a great teacher goes entirely without notice and without comment: reflection. Laguna analyzed his students’ work, reflected on his practice, and made an adjustment. Teachers who can do that well and consistently grow into increasingly effective teachers, while those who don’t form that reflective habit continue to struggle.
Jumping ahead a bit, Joel’s students do improve their writing, and perform quite well on the A.P. test. We learn that Joel taught extra lessons after schools and on Saturdays to get these results. However, we never saw another teacher at his school, never a tutor, or student mentor? Is he the only one? Is the lesson here that you have to nearly bury yourself in student work, give more and more of your hours, and do it all by yourself to be an effective teacher for high-need students? Now that I think about it, every time a teacher is shown in collaboration outside the classroom, it involves a non-teacher. Kind of odd, to glimpse only one teacher in each of the schools in the film.
While there’s some lip service to the idea that the test scores shouldn’t be the sole determination of good teaching, the entire arc of the narrative hinges on test results or data in each classroom. There’s even a rather artificial moment where math teacher Shelby Harris receives an envelope on camera, with the results of her students’ final math test inside. Cut to commercial, and stay tuned to see the big reveal after a word from our sponsors. Another math teacher, Lindsay Chinn, sits by her assistant principal as he crows about test results that beat the district average handily. Anyone with some experience in education data would know that, deprived of context, we can’t conclude too much from such comparisons; we don’t actually know anything about the district or how this school compares to others. Maybe outscoring other schools was rather predictable and unremarkable, or maybe this was the finest teaching in the history of Colorado.
Maybe I’m too cynical, but it sure seems like the test scores are the justification for letting us indulge in the scenes where the kids and some of the parents talk about caring relationship, shed some tears, and then lead to the genuinely nice closing shot of each teacher with their students running out to surround them in exuberant slow-motion. Yes, it left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, but nothing more useful.
Was it worth watching? I guess so, moreso for people who don’t work in education. Will the film succeed in leading people to consider a career in teaching? Several celebrities contributed short clips to the film, celebrating their favorite teachers and each ending with the invitiation, “Teach.” I hope it works, of course. But for the vast majority of viewers who won’t become educators, I wish “Teach” had done more teaching about teaching.
For the third time in his documentary film career, Davis Guggenheim turns his lens towards education, this time in “Teach” – airing on CBS tonight (8-10 p.m. ET/PT).
Guggenheim’s first education-related film focused on teachers in their first year in the classroom. His next ed-flick was “Waiting for Superman” – a film that blurred the propaganda/documentary lines by adopting a rather uncritical stance of the education “reform” storyline that glorifies charter schools, vilifies unions, and puts inordinate pressure on teachers for accountability that policymakers and the general public are often able to shirk. To make that storyline seem even more emotional, Guggenheim manipulated the audience by distorting the connection between a mother and the charter school she was touring.
But Guggenheim promises us – he loves teachers. Honestly, I don’t need his love. I don’t think we need teacher-as-hero narratives – though they’re better than the opposite approach. I just hope this film is more honest about our profession. The approach this time around was for Guggenheim and crew to follow four teachers for an entire year, and if he chose the teachers and schools well, and edited more carefully, maybe we’ll see something more useful and educational this time.
Are you planning to watch? Or did you already? Is this a shot at redemption for Guggenheim? Does the film offer any valuable information or insights? Share your thoughts below.
In the most recent InterACT blog post, Jane Ching Fung described a highly successful and effective professional development experience from earlier this summer. That post inspired the poll question below (for teachers only, please). After you respond to the poll, you can see the results, and I hope you’ll add some comments below as well.
Today’s ACT guest blog post was written by Jane Ching Fung, an ACT member and teacher from Los Angeles. Jane is a Milken Award winning teacher and has served in various leadership capacities for organizations such as NCTAF, CFTL, and PBS. She is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, and her writing has also appeared in Education Week Teacher.
I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.
Want teachers to effectively implement and teach Next Generation Science Standards? Offer engaging and meaningful professional development.
It’s the last weeks before school starts. I could be working in my classroom and getting a head start on lesson planning. I could be lounging at the beach or enjoying my last week of freedom. I could be, but instead I jumped at the chance to join colleagues to learn more about the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards. I say upcoming because California has not yet “officially” adopted them, but we will, so why wait?
I wanted to know and learn more about STEM education and how to implement it in a developmentally appropriate way so that my first graders would understand them. When UCLA’s Center X offered Engaging Young Minds2, a 4-day institute centered on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for $20 during summer, I jumped at the chance; as information about the institute spread via social media, many other teachers signed up as well.
What I expected was to learn more about the NGSS, and maybe to receive or generate some lesson plans.
What I hoped for was to come away with examples of how the NGSS would look in my classroom, some ideas on what I could do with my students, some content knowledge, and time to network with my colleagues.
What happened was so much more.
The canvas teacher bag was nice and having lunch provided each day was a wonderful surprise too, but the BEST reward was what was gained. I started the institute knowing what the NGSS were, but left with a better and deeper understanding of what they are, how to teach them in meaningful ways so that my students would understanding them, and resources to get started right away.
Having attended over 26 years of professional development “opportunities,” I have found there are common factors in the ones that I value most as a teacher and learner.
Opportunities to work collaboratively with others in order to promote deeper understanding and sharing of content knowledge and ideas.
Instead of reading and taking about standards and content, provide opportunities to engage with materials so that we can create and imagine ways to best utilized them with our students.
To help learners understand challenging concepts, tie them to something they already know. Introducing a difficult task using a wonderful piece of literature or real world problem, help ties what we are doing to something concrete.
The concept of engineering in the classroom was new to me, but after a few days of being engineers and creating ways to solve simple problems with colleagues helped me realize that what I already do in science can easily be modified to make it more problem based.
Provide Continued Support
Effective professional development provides resources, contacts and continued support. The Engaging Young Minds2 Institute not only included activities for teachers to think and act like engineers and scientists, they provided materials, sample lesson plans, and web links to help teachers continue their growth. Real experts in the field provided content knowledge and a reference to go to for further networking. Follow-up sessions will allow educators a chance to come back together, share, and reflect on teaching and learning from the classroom.
When my school district begins to offer professional development in the NGSS, I hope they recognize just like students, adult learners learn best by doing. The NGSS are not a set of random simple skills students need to master; they are more complex and connected. Educators will need rich learning opportunities to learn what these standards are, and the most effective strategies for teaching our students.
Teachers are craving this kind of professional learning. There was a waitlist for this institute. Let’s hope California steps up to help teachers help students.
On August 17, 2013, the Associated Press (AP) announced that a survey they conducted in June and July 2013 found that not only do parents really like standardized tests-- they approve of the high-stakes usage of such tests and believe that the number of standardized tests administered is "about right":
Often criticized as too prescriptive and all-consuming, standardized tests have support among parents, who view them as a useful way to measure both students' and schools' performances, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
Even though there is little evidence that state standards have increased student academic achievement since the 1980s, the District of Columbia and 45 states have embraced the Common Core--(see here and here).
Even though there is little evidence that countries with national standards do not necessarily score higher on international tests than nations without national standards, many states have already aligned their standards to textbooks, lessons, and tests-- (see…
Six years ago almost to the day, before I started blogging, I wrote an article in EdWeek Teacher, aimed at new teachers and offering advice on establishing your professional identity. This is certainly the right time of year to be looking back at it, and I’m glad to say I wouldn’t change a thing. Here are some excerpts from the original article; add your own advice in the comments!
Although the students and the classroom are your top priorities, it’s never too early to think carefully about how early experiences in your career can help you establish a professional identity—about how you can collaborate with others and engage in the profession. Here are some hints to help you think about and establish a professional identity.
First, find your allies. Whether they are teachers, custodians, secretaries, parents, librarians, aides, coaches, or counselors, these are the people who want to help you succeed with students. You’ll hear this advice from others who quite rightly want you to recognize how these people contribute to your effectiveness in the classroom. But, besides helping you in your teaching, true allies will start motivating you and validating your efforts, even beyond what you might think you deserve. Consider what a vote of confidence does for your students, and give yourself permission to actively seek out the same for yourself.
… Maximize the time you spend with people who recognize your brilliance while still pushing you to question and reflect. Find allies who are modeling a professional community and who support their colleagues to ensure that the school is committed to sustained professional development.
Avoid the Ax Grinder. …Look out for the complainer. Someone in your school doesn’t like being there anymore, or doesn’t like someone else in the school. Needing validation, the complainer will want to present evidence to you so that you will join his or her ranks. Often, this person has a permanent spot in the office or lounge. In that case, make yours a coffee-to-go. You have nothing to gain from listening to gossip, slander, or the repetitive spinning of an ax-grinder, and even less to gain by trying to match stories, if you’re so tempted. It’s a trap easily fallen into.
Moods are contagious, so spend your time with people who love what they do.
Speak Your Mind. … Staff members play roles in the drama (or comedy) of school cultures, so choose your early roles well to avoid typecasting. …Many people take a similar approach in schools…, and might even tell you “don’t make waves, keep quiet until you’re tenured.”
But my good friend and colleague Adam showed me the importance of speaking your mind from the start. When we taught together in Chicago, we found each other quite compatible in our values and priorities, and we sometimes found ourselves trying to express the same dissenting view on a decision or policy within our school. …Adam was more effective at this than I was, because his professional identity was already well established. Everyone knew what he stood for and knew that he would express respectful disagreement when necessary. That was Adam’s role, and his voice could put an end to thoughtless groupthink and encourage people to reconsider an idea. …With time I gained the confidence to speak up, but either because I waited too long or spoke too equivocally, I was not heard the same way that Adam was.
My advice may seem unorthodox, but I’m merely suggesting that you need to be yourself, be authentic, and be principled—and don’t wait.
Within a school community, your professional identity forms early, and can contribute greatly to your job satisfaction and effectiveness. With the support of a collaborative, appreciative community, and by steering clear of negativity, you can find your voice early and grow into the roles you’re hoping to play as an educator.