Chalkbeat

Chalkbeat CEO and author Elizabeth Green on teaching, the Common Core, and more

PHOTO: Daniel Deitch
Chalkbeat CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Green has written a new book called "Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone)."

What makes a great teacher — and how do you make a teacher great?

Those twin questions would seem to get to the heart of improving the nation’s schools and yet, as Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green found as a schools reporter, they rarely are raised in today’s big education debates.

That paradox drove Elizabeth on a six-year reporting quest (while she was also busy co-founding Chalkbeat) that took her from lab schools in Michigan to math classrooms in Japan to the elementary school where she was once taught. The result is her new book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone),” which comes out today.

Chalkbeat recently sat down with Elizabeth to ask how the stories she tells in her book connect to ones we cover and what, exactly, made her fifth-grade teacher so great.

Continue the conversation by joining the Chalkbeat Book Club on Facebook, where we’ll be discussing “Building a Better Teacher” for the next month.

Your book makes clear that the new Common Core standards — an ambitious reform enacted with minimal support for teachers — continue a long tradition of similar education overhauls. Is there any reason to think the outcome this time will be different?

One thing I learned in reporting that I found really fascinating were the ideas of David Cohen, the education historian. He essentially studies attempts to change teaching, and that is the equivalent of studying failed attempts to change teaching in this country, unfortunately.

He also started to compare this country to other countries. He found that countries that successfully changed teaching had this one important ingredient in common, which was coherence. In the US, there are 17 different layers, if not more, of people telling teachers what to do and what supports to help teachers do them. It’s no surprise teachers feel confused often and even under assault because they are being asked to do so many different things, none of which are the same.

David Cohen calls this a blizzard, and the response that’s most rational to this blizzard of incoherence, as one educator in my book, Lovely Billups, says, is the motto, “This too shall pass.” The question about the Common Core is: Shall this too pass?

You write about visiting primary schools in Japan. What were the main differences from American schools that you saw?

I think there are two key things that are different: One is that there’s a totally different organization of work for the teachers. Whereas American teachers spend 1,000-plus hours per year teaching, Japanese teachers only spend 600 hours per year teaching. The other 400 hours they can spend learning from each other.

The other difference is that they have that coherent system of one common set of things that they’re all doing. They have common standards, so they can have a common curriculum, common assessments, so they have the tools they need to do something exciting.

There is growing consensus that traditional education schools have not done a great job preparing teachers. Have you seen any promising developments in the way teachers are trained?

One thing I found fascinating in my reporting was that we do have a tradition in this country of teacher education that is focused on teaching as a craft. And that is the history of “normal schools,” where teachers would learn from master teachers. They would go to class in a lecture, then the next minute they would be sitting watching a lesson in progress.

I think where we went wrong was when the university system took over teacher training from normal schools. Some of the early pioneers of education as a field of study had absolutely no interest in teaching.

What I think is promising is that there is a growing group of teacher educators at the university level and at institutions that are disconnected from higher education that are trying to resuscitate that normal-school tradition, sometimes in very parallel ways.

Most of the teachers we cover get evaluated in one way or another. Can teacher-accountability systems actually help teachers improve?

One of the inspirations of this huge focus on teacher evaluation is a set of assumptions we make about why high-performing charter schools have succeeded. We look at [the national charter-school network] KIPP and their test-score results and we assume that the kids are succeeding because the teachers operate outside of a traditional labor structure: There’s no labor union, so KIPP can hire or fire whomever they please.

But they spend proportionately less money, resources, and time, on evaluation than states currently do. They focus a lot more on giving teachers the time to learn, mentors to help them learn, materials from which they can learn, and good curriculums they can use.

We know teachers work in all kinds of schools, including ones where many students are far behind academically. Does good teaching look the same regardless of the school or students?

I think a surprisingly debated question, even among people who have dedicated their careers to working with high-poverty communities, is: Sure, you might be able to have this incredible dialogue about math or literature or science or history in your nice suburban school where you don’t face the challenges we face, but we can’t do that here, that’s not possible.

That is a debate that’s going on right now about what kind of learning level really is possible in each type of environment. Is there a need for more order and less student voice in some environments?

Personally, I don’t want to think it’s not possible for all kids, and I’ve definitely seen it happen for all kids, but I think it is a debate that’s going on.

You’ve covered education for several years now, but you’ve never been a teacher. What qualifies you to write about teaching?

I thought a lot about whether I had the right to write about teaching, given that I’ve never taught myself. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who’s a teacher that’s probably lasted seven years. Her argument to me was always that somebody’s job needs to be to record what’s happening [inside schools], since teachers don’t have time to do that, and make sense of the big picture.

That’s why I ultimately decided I have the right to do this and all of us at Chalkbeat do. We come from a place of respect for this work, we know what we don’t know, and we’re here to learn.

Your book makes the point that good teachers are not born, they’re made. Considering that, what is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning?

I went back and I interviewed a lot of my own teachers for this book. One of them I spent extra time with was Lesley Wagner, my fifth-grade math teacher. She is remembered among my friends from elementary school as one of the greatest, best teachers we ever had.

She uses her Smart Board in the most brilliant way I’ve ever seen. Her smart board is like a Japanese blackboard, but better. The point of the blackboard in Japanese classrooms is that we should be able to have a trajectory for each lesson of the ideas that we’ve gone through, so students can look at not only at the specific thing we’re talking about right now, but they can connect back to where we came from that day.

Ms. Wagner does that with her Smart Board, basically a screen per day. But because it’s a Smart Board, she also has access to every other day, so if somebody references another day in the past, she just uses her Smart Board to go backwards in time and see what they were doing that day. I’m sure other teachers use it for that reason too, but I was just blown away.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Readers: What is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning? Share in a comment or tweet with #BABT.

Recap

Miss our “School Days” storytelling event? Catch up on the stories here — and share your own

PHOTO: Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat Detroit

“I got into a public school. I didn’t matter any more,” high schooler Imani Harris concluded after learning about how Detroit’s schools operate.

That depressing realization was a turning point in Harris’s efforts to push the school system to serve students better, she recounted in the story she told during “School Days,” the event Chalkbeat hosted with The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers March 17.

The event — held at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum — celebrated Chalkbeat’s launch in Detroit. Storytellers worked with Satori Shakoor, The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers’ host, to craft tales of despair, hope, inspiration, and indignation over the state of Detroit’s schools.

Check out the full live stream here, or scroll down for edited highlights from each storyteller. And while this event might be over, Chalkbeat’s work helping people in Detroit tell the story of the city’s schools is not. Please get in touch if you have a story to tell.

Asenath Andrews is a Detroit Public Schools graduate and former principal of the now-defunct Catherine Ferguson Academy, which served teen mothers.

(All photos Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat Detroit)

“Every single girl who graduated from Catherine Ferguson Academy was accepted to a two- or four-year college before she graduated. We traveled all over the country. We did summer school on a college campus. I’m a first-generation college graduate. My 98-year-old mom who is here tonight never missed a graduation. I knew that girls needed to be on campuses because you only have to be on campus a few minutes before you meet somebody who’s dumb as a brick. So you don’t have to be oh-so-smart to go college, you just have to be determined. We went all over the country so that the girls could see.”

At one point, Catherine Ferguson students built a garden and maintained a farm with cows, chickens, a goat, and other animals.

“We planted seeds all over that playground. We grew every kind of vegetable that would grow in Michigan. We even grew sweet potatoes. But what we planted that was more important, we planted the seeds of being in our girls. We planted confidence; we planted strength. We built a barn and if you can build a barn, you’re not gonna take a lick. It’s like ‘I’m my own woman, I can do what I want to do.’ … Do I miss my school? I miss my school every day. But I have girls everywhere. I have artists and musicians and business owners and doctors and nurses and lawyers; one politician, not crooked. All kinds of girls everywhere. Remember that every girl who went to Catherine Ferguson was obligated to leave a trail because Catherine Ferguson was a place.”

Brittany Rogers is an educator who left charter schools for the hope of job security as a Detroit Public Schools teacher — at a time of crisis for the public school system.

“I woke up one morning and realized that charters had all the issues of public schools but somehow they managed to come out as the golden child. We had the same pay. We had the same community of students. Our test scores were not better. Our buildings were not better. In fact, I started to feel like I was missing a few things. I didn’t have a union to fight for a wage increase. I didn’t have pension protection. So, I slept on it and I said, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to apply to Detroit Public Schools instead where at least, if I’m going to have the same issues, I can have a bit more job security. So I applied. Right before I got accepted there was a series of protests. DPS was talking about not only cutting wages, again, but also increasing class sizes to 43, which, you know, was a bit scary, shall we say. But by that point I had already been in charters and I had those issues before. And again, I figured, at least I can have the same issues with a bit more job security. So, I put on some really warm clothes and I joined the protests, figuring that I should start standing up for the rights of the district I knew I wanted to belong to.”

Erin Einhorn, senior correspondent at Chalkbeat Detroit, shared the tale of her choice to move her family from New York City to Detroit. (Read more of her story here.)

“I was out in West Bloomfield last year, which is where I grew up and I ran into a high school classmate. It was actually someone I went to kindergarten with, so we had spent our childhoods together. I hadn’t seen her in years. So, it was, ‘Oh, hey, how are you?’ We hugged and you know, it was this great kind of reunion. And then she kind of got this sort of puzzled look on her face; and I was there with my daughter, holding her hand. She kind of looks at me; kind of looks at my daughter. She looked really confused and she says, ‘You live in Detroit?’

“I was like, yeah. Then she asks, “So do they have any schools there with like white kids? And I’m like, ‘Well you know, not a lot.’ There’s not many schools in the city of Detroit that enroll a lot of white children. Her question made me really uncomfortable but if I’m being honest, I don’t love the idea of my kid being the only white child in her class. My daughter’s five years old. She starts kindergarten in September. If I send her to school in Detroit, the odds are she’s going to look very different from a lot of her classmates. But I also hate the idea of her being in a classroom with kids who look exactly like her. And I hate that I have to choose. I hate that we all have to choose to either bear this burden of being different or bear this burden of being the same and not getting to live in the real world.”

Chastity Pratt Dawsey, a DPS graduate who is a journalist at Bridge Magazine, shared her story of how one teacher’s encouragement launched her from a life of poverty to becoming the first college graduate in her family.

PHOTO: Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat Detroit
Detroit Public Schools teacher Robert Zoltowski (formerly Stevens) shows former student and current Bridge Magazine reporter Chastity Pratt Dawsey, right, a picture he found of her from when she was his student.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Chastity, why have you been writing about these schools for so long. Fifteen long years. Well, actually it started for me in seventh grade at Farwell Middle School on the city’s East Side. Okay, so, one day, somebody had this bright idea. We’re gonna pass around two sheets of paper. One sheet of paper had all the girls’ names on it. The other sheet of paper had all the boys’ names on it. It was like a beauty contest, right. We had to rate each other from zero to five. So, it’s 1986, seventh-grade girls are wearing those Guess jeans and all them bright colors. Getting their hair done at Vantinus hair salon and wearing those belt buckles with your name on it. (I still want one of those.) Those were the girls who got the fours and the five. I had a played-out jheri curl. I wore my cousin Marla’s hand-me-downs. So all the boys; all the boys in seventh grade, gave me zeroes. I was the only girl who got all zeroes.

So while we’re standing around talking about all my zeroes, little did we know that the math and academic games teacher, Mr. Stevens was listening. Now, Mr. Stevens had taught me that you pronounce your name how it’s supposed to be pronounced: Chas-tity! So, this day, I hear Chastity! I’m already having a bad day and now everybody is looking at me and it feels like there’s a spotlight on me, and the whole wold is looking at me, and it feels like the whole room is throbbing. I’m having a bad day. What? What he said I will never forget. Chastity will be a success at whatever she chooses to do. … At this point in my life I’m only good at two things: looking after kids because I was the big sister and role model to eight, and I was good at school — mostly reading, writing, I had won the Area E Regional Essay Contest. Nobody had ever told me where these two things would get me and they damned sure never told me I was going to be a success. I looked around the room and some of those kids, the ones giving me zeroes even, they were nodding their heads. They were agreeing with Mr. Stevens. They might have thought I was ragtag. But even they thought I was going to be a success. So, right there in the seventh grade at Farwell Middle School I went from being a zero to somebody. I was gonna be a success.’’

Imani Harris, a 17-year-old senior at Renaissance High School, recounted her decision to write open letters to Michigan lawmakers and citizens about problems at her school. 

“I was upset, I was angry, but I didn’t know what to do. I joined a collective called 482 Forward. In this collective, it’s parents, it’s teachers and students and community members who all want to work together and change things and fight for equity in education. When I joined I found my fit. I found that we could fight for something. We began to get into the logistics of things happening, understanding so, this is why this happens, this is who funds this, and all the money for this is going here. You don’t have a teacher because of this. Now, when I figured that out, why things happen, I was perturbed. I was boiling mad to realize that as a student in Detroit if I’m not paying for my education it doesn’t matter to nobody else because at private school when I was paying for my education everything was fine. I got into a public school. I didn’t matter any more. If I had went to a school in West Bloomfield it wouldn’t have happened that way. If I had went to a school anywhere else where students didn’t look like me, it wouldn’t have happened that way. …My story is a story of finding myself in advocacy and realizing, wait a minute, I can make a difference and I don’t have to be 25 to do it. My story to any teenager out here, to any teenager who’s ever going to see any of this, is, we don’t have to be grown to make a difference. This is our education.”

It's a Party

Five different perspectives on Detroit schools — none of which you will hear on the news

Clockwise from top left: Satori Shakoor, Imani Harris, Brittany Rogers, Asenath Andrews, Chastity Pratt Dawsey and Erin Einhorn.

Teacher Brittany Rogers tells the story of resisting pressure from her family to leave the Detroit Public Schools for a job in the suburbs — until she experiences her lowest moment.

Asenath Andrews recalls the day, 32 years ago, when she found herself suddenly faced with the challenge of educating teen moms and pregnant girls.

And Imani Harris describes what it’s like to go to school every day, worried about her personal safety.

They are three of the five storytellers who will take the stage Friday night at the Charles H. Wright Museum for the School Days storytelling event hosted by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers.

“Storytelling is a very powerful artform,” said Satori Shakoor, who is the creator, curator, producer and host of the Secret Society, which holds a monthly storytelling event at the Wright.

The audience on Friday will come away “with five different perspectives on Detroit schools — none of which you will hear on the news,” Shakoor said. “You’ll hear part of it on the news. You’ll hear the sound-bitey stuff but … (these stories) will challenge the stories that are proliferated out there. … You’re going to learn something.”

Chalkbeat is hosting the event as part of its official launch in Detroit. Teachers, parents and school leaders have been invited in hopes that stories told on stage will spark conversations that will lead to needed school improvement.

“I hope that by the end of the evening, everyone will feel a call to action,” Shakoor said.

In addition to Rogers, Andrews and Harris, two education reporters will take the stage: Chastity Pratt Dawsey, a graduate of the Detroit Public Schools who now writes about education and other issues for Bridge Magazine, and Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat’s Senior Detroit correspondent who is now navigating the Detroit schools for her own children.

Tickets are still available here for $20 in advance or $25 at the door. Book them online.