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“A bad dress rehearsal foretells a great performance.”

red curtain

This theatrical superstition is a great comfort to those who botch lines, drop lines, break props, or miss entrance cues before performing in front of an audience. Rehearsals are for practice, to fix what could go wrong so that the performance before a critical audience is perfect.

In contrast, there are no “rehearsals” in the classroom, yet the language of teacher evaluation standards repeatedly uses the word “perform” and “performance”.  There are teacher performance standards, and there are student performance measurements.

Perhaps the most authentic way to describe what happens in any classroom is that each lesson is a dress rehearsal. A teacher can plan the elements of a lesson, ( objective, resources/materials, directions, and assessment), and those scripted elements can look good on paper. A teacher can design a lesson for for a particular audience,  but what can happen in the classroom is a guess. Sometimes, a lesson plan fails; a teacher has a bad dress rehearsalEven if that lesson plan is repeated over the course of a day, there was a first audience of students that was engaged in that dress rehearsal of a lesson.

What teachers do is practice teaching, and practice is another word repeated in teacher evaluation. There are, however,  two meanings of the word practice, each depending on its syntactical use. When the word practice is used as a noun, as in the “practice of teaching”, then the word means:

  • the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use.

When the word practice is used as a verb, it means:

  • to do something again and again in order to become better at it
  • to do (something) regularly or constantly as an ordinary part of your life

The language of teacher evaluation focuses on the word practice as a noun. There is limited use of the word practice as a verb except as an expectation. A teacher is expected to have practiced, or rehearsed, teaching strategies with a group of students. For this reason, teachers try to schedule a “no-fail” lesson plan for a formal observation, perhaps a lesson that has been practiced successfully in previous classes. This small advantage means that an evaluator will see a lesson with all the bells and whistles, a kind of performance.

But what about the “drop-in” evaluation? What kind of teaching practice will an evaluator see in the raw rehearsal environment of the classroom? What happens when a lesson goes horribly wrong, and an evaluator is in the room?

At a session offered by the Council of English Leadership at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference held last month in Boston, Massachusetts, nationally recognized teacher of the year Sarah Brown Wessling openly admitted to lesson failure. Wessling, a English/Language Arts teacher in Johnston, Iowa, was being filmed by The Teaching Channel when the lesson she designed went wrong, a true bad dress rehearsal taking place in real time in front of the cameras.

“I knew they (Teaching Channel) would want this footage,” she admitted laughing to crowded room of teachers, “Oh, I knew they would want this failure!”

The videos that resulted from her failure are some of the most popular on The Teaching Channel website. There are uncut versions plus the final production video (16 mins) that records how she quickly reconfigures the lesson for a different class. The transcript from the video is included on the website. 

Wessling’s voice-over begins:

For a teacher, some days you win, some days you lose.  My third hour tenth-grade English class came completely unhinged, and I had five minutes in which to repurpose it for fourth hour.

She readily admits that even the most veteran teachers experience problems:

No matter how accomplished you are or how effective you are as a teacher, I think these days are going to happen, so when they do, you have to make adjustments.

In her narration, she noted that, “By the time we get to this point, I’ve been in front of the class almost the whole class period, and that was not my intention.”

The video shows her trying to re-engage students in her planned activity. She considers:

Then there was this moment where I realized that I had completely misfired because one of my students did start to read when I asked them to, and she read the first paragraph, and she raised her hand and she said, “I don’t know what any of these words mean.”

Wessling’s final analysis of the lesson’s failure is her admission that:

I opted to try to meet the standards, make sure that the common assessment that I share with the rest of my department meets the criteria of what we had talked about earlier in this year.  In thinking about the adults, I compromised the needs of the kids.

The power of this video is that while this nationally recognized teacher’s bad dress rehearsal informed her practice, it is her training in classrooms that allowed her to redesign the lesson on the fly. Wessling’s second attempt, five minutes after the first class left, is much smoother, as she admits:

We have to be careful with our expectations and realize that we can still teach to these heightened expectations, but it’s going to have to come at a pace that makes sense to the kids who are in front of us.

So how would an evaluator who dropped in on Wessling’s first attempt rate her as a teacher? Would there be a consideration of this first lesson as a “dress rehearsal”?More important, what is the possibility that an evaluator could have stayed to watch the redesign of the lesson to see how her repeated and authentic training in the classroom, her practice, helped her with her teaching practice, her application of teaching methods? Wessling’s first attempt would not meet the criteria in the higher ratings (proficient, exemplary) of many teacher evaluation programs, but her training allowed her to address the needs of the students in subsequent efforts.

The video captures Wessling and her students a rehearsal of learning, which is what happens in every classroom everyday, to nationally ranked teachers, to veterans, and  to novices. Teachers and their students are always rehearsing. Evaluators must consider that the language of teacher evaluation should not be misconstrued. 

There is no performance in the classroom, and even a bad dress rehearsal can still be a great lesson.

No common coreOne of the underlying problems in educational reform today is that so few reformers have any hands-on classroom experience. Reading about teaching is academic and informative, but the hands-on experience of standing in front of a class of 9, 14, 24, or (heaven forbid!) 31 students at any grade level is irreplaceable. Developing lesson plans is an academic exercise, however monitoring and adjusting that lesson plan for real time problems (fire drill, student absences, material shortage, technology glitch) during instruction is irreplaceable. Reading assessment data is an academic enterprise, but understanding that data in the context of the classroom with all the personalities, abilities, disabilities, and socio-economic influences is irreplaceable. Hands-on experience should be a major factor in education reform, but the education reform efforts in the  Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have little to no classroom credibility.

A recent entry on Twitter from Randi Weingarten, current president of the American Federation of Teachers, was an attempt to address the classroom experience of the creators of the CCSS. Weingarten herself does have hands-on experience in the classroom, but that experience is spotty.  From 1991 until 1997, and with the exception of a six month full time teaching load in the fall of 1994, Weingarten taught on per diem basis (substitute?) at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, NY. Total experience? Six years, but this short experience is six more than many of the educational reformers who participated in the creation of the CCSS.

Weingarten tweeted the following on June 29, 2013:

Teachers were part of the development of #CCSS from the beginning

She was posting a link that was supposed to demonstrate that teachers, real classroom teachers with hands-on experience, had been involved in the standards from the beginning. The link led to a YouTube video featuring an ELL classroom teacher Lisa Fretzin who reflects how she “…was part of the review process starting in August looking at the the first draft”:

While Ms. Fretzin certainly has classroom credibility necessary for developing the CCSS, her participation was not exactly at the “beginning” of this process. According to her statement on the video, she was not present at the creation; she was asked to “review” which is different than “from the beginning”. Furthermore, her name is not on the list of participants who did create the CCSS for English Language Arts (or feedback group) which clearly identifies only four of the 50 participants (8%) as “teachers”. The remaining 46 participants (92%) are identified with titles such as: “author”, “consultant”, “specialist”, “professor”,  “supervisor”, “director” or “senior fellow.” In all fairness, perhaps many of these participants had worked in the classroom before moving into higher ranking positions as one would hope, but their hands-on classroom work experience is unclear.

The most glaring examples of classroom incredibility are the lead authors for the CCSS, Susan Pimentel and David Coleman; their collective classroom experience is zero. Pimentel has a law degree and a B.S in Early Childhood Education from Cornell University. Coleman’s, (termed “Architect of the Common Core”) classroom experience is limited to tutoring selected students in a summer program at Yale. He later founded Student Achievement Partners and is currently serving as the President of the College Board.

Weingarten must also know that classroom teachers for PreK-Grade 3 and grade level experts were not included in the creation of the CCSS at all. Many of these educators have express concerns that students are not cognatively ready for many of the standards in math and reading. Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post put up an editorial (1/29/13) “A Tough Critique of Common Core on Early Childhood Education” by Edward Miller, teacher and co-author of Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, and Nancy Carlsson-Paige is Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and author of Taking Back Childhood. They note that when the standards were first revealed in March 2010, “many early childhood educators and researchers were shocked. “

The promoters of the standards claim they are based in research. They are not. There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. Two recent studies show that direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning. At best, the standards reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.

Miller and Carlsson-Paige also include links to the Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative and summarize their statement:

 We have grave concerns about the core standards for young children…. The proposed standards conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades….

At all grade levels, therefore, there are concerns about how inclusive the creators of the CCSS were in engaging classroom teachers. The entire initiative, by its own admission, began politically, coming from the nation’s governors and education commissioners, “through their representative organizations the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).”

Weingarten’s tweet was more than a little disingenuous when she indicated that “teachers were part of the development” when, to the contrary, there is much more evidence to prove that the ratio of teachers to individuals bearing education titles was disproportionate in favor of reformers and academics without classroom experience.

Real teachers, those with hands-on experience gained in the classroom, have had a limited say in the CCSS that they will be implementing day in and day out in their classrooms at every grade level. Excluding this important faction is why there has been pushback from teachers who recognize the difficulties in implementing many of the standards. Furthermore, there are growing concerns about the level of accountability for teachers in having students meet these same standards.

Ultimately, Weingarten should not tweet out misinformation about teachers developing the CCSS, especially when the evidence demonstrates that teachers were a only a tiny percentage in creating these standards. Weingarten must know that for any educational initiative to succeed, teachers must be engaged from the very beginning.

In these days of education reform, classroom credibility counts.

Tuesday nights are #edchat nights on Twitter, and educators across the country, even across the globe, discuss topics of general interest for an hour. Last night (5/7) the topic was posted: What is BIG Shift in ed that everyone is looking for? Is there 1 idea that can positively affect education? While I was surfing the column of tweets that piling up, I was alarmed by one of the “tweets” in one of the sidebar discussions that break out between tweeters.The topic began with a comment about high school teachers by one tweeter”

Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?

The response to this question caught my eye and made me a little concerned: 

 HS Ts need not be content experts, but rather good directors and literate within their subject.

The brevity in Twitter-language communication often makes the tone in tweets sound dogmatic; many read like proclamations, and this was a proclamation I found startling. Yes, teachers need to be good directors, but the standard for literate is “being able to  know how to read and write” in a subject area? That definition sets a low bar for teachers.  My own experience in school guided my response; I tweeted back:

I respectfully disagree; my best HS teachers were content experts. Made me want to know what they knew.

The return tweet by was unsettling:

Good T[teachers] facilitate learning & help S[students] engage. With tech, a content-expert is less imp. 

Captured in the dialogue above is a contemporary problem in education, a growing separation between skills or content created by the exponential growth of information.  For example, in 2011, The Telegraph published “Welcome to the Information Age – 174 Newspapers a Day” which began:

The growth in the internet, 24-hour television and mobile phones means that we now receive five times as much information every day as we did in 1986.

The article written by Richard Alleyne, illustrated the explosion in the increase of information using a variety of statistics:

  • Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase. 
  • We now each have the equivalent of 600,000 books stored in computers, microchips and even the strip on the back of a credit card.
  • In 1986 we received around 40 newspapers full of information every day- this rocketed to 174 in 2007.
  • The ability to process all this information with computers has doubled every 18 months.

Today’s information overload is the major reason that many educators are promoting 21st Century skills; there is little hope that any human could manage the amount of information available. Instead there is every reason to believe that developing the necessary skills to access information is critical in education. However, to declare that teachers do not need to be content experts is a step in the wrong direction. 

Would anyone want a doctor or lawyer who was skilled but lacked content knowledge? Would anyone want a business manager or a craftsman who had content knowledge but no skills?  Why then do respected educators suggest that there should be a preference for skills over content in the teaching profession ? The problem appears to be that many people, educators included, connect content knowledge in the classroom with “lecture”. This association is evidenced by another tweeter who continued the conversation:

Content I agree, but just trying to focus away from “content expert” = lecturer. That’s not best role.

Really? For thousands of years, information was passed from one generation to another through the lecture format. Each subsequent generation added more knowledge in lecture formats, preparing the next generation for an undefined future. So did the Socratic method (5th C BCE) which encouraged debate and inquiry between teacher and students in order to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. Instructors used dialectic methods, arguments to persuade and inform. Now, suddenly, because there is an over-abundance of information, the lecture is dead?

Well, certainly the long and dry lecture delivered to students without their participation has always been deadening. Contemporary educators have adapted and improved the lecture by delivering content through different strategies to accomodate different learning styles.  Successful instruction is not delivered from the podium, but delivered in mini-lessons, project-based assessments, literature circles, reading and writing workshops, and labs. Yet, there was one more concern about the teacher as content expert, a concern about teacher control:

T[teachers]s direct content. S[students]s don’t have total control, but the emphasis needs to shift to the S[students]s.

While this tweet sounded blunt, the reality is that teachers do direct a great deal of content in delivering content knowledge as outlined in curriculum, and that content could be lost in turning control over to the students. There are many ways students can be offered choice in content: choice in independent reading, choice in research, choice in project presentation. Students must first have some content to make decisions and to take control of their learning. This sentiment was reflected in one of the last tweets in the conversation:

I agree content experts are important, but not as important as allowing S[students}s to access and struggle to understand.

I added my final comment:

Sure, if they [teachers] give them [students] the answers all the time. But a content expert knows questions-what to ask & where to help guide.

That struggle for understanding is exactly what has happened for millenium, from instructor to student. This Twitter conversation had come full circle, a full Socratic circle. Through Twitter’s #edchat, educators discussed the teacher as content expert or as a skilled instructor. We were participating in reasoned debate from our different points of view about a subject in order to establish a truth.

balanceThe sidebar conversation on #edchat had begun with the question, “Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?” This answer to this question is not a choice between content knowledge or being “great” with skill. Furthermore, the skill to dispense knowledge is enhanced not replaced by technology.

In determining what makes a teacher great, on #edchat or in any other forum, there is no “or”…the balanced combination of content and skills is what makes a teacher great.