Anatomy of a classroom

A classroom where tech is the subject but teamwork’s the goal

PHOTO: Kate Schimel

At one of the work stations in Courtney Miller’s classroom at Slavens ECE-8 School on Thursday morning, two third graders argued over the design of a tower they were supposed to be building.

“You can’t just say the way we’re going to do it and make me do it,” Finn told his partner, Roman. Rather than work together, each boy was building his own. Finn’s design was visibly less sturdy, a fact which his partner attempted to demonstrate by pushing on it.

“You’re not just going to take mine apart,” Finn objected. In a quiet moment, Roman said he’d heard from other students that Finn was difficult to work with, a feeling Finn seemed to share about his partner. Their bickering continued until the bell rang.

The generation of this kind of mutual frustration is all part of the learning process in Miller’s STEM classroom, which is in its second year. STEM, an acronym which refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics-focused education, is getting increasing attention from state and national leaders for the potential to prepare students for a tech-centric future. But it has also drawn attention as part of a wider initiative for student-directed learning, which is what Miller has taken as the primary focus of her classroom.

That’s at least in part a result of her own skill set.

“My principal would tell you I’m not the most tech-savvy person he’s ever met,” said Miller. Instead, she says she brings a willingness to learn new things, to struggle — and to tolerate a little chaos. “[Student-driven learning] has to be messy at some points. You have to comfortable with mess.”

Her noisy classroom is full of students working largely independent of Miller in order to solve technological dilemmas ranging from programming a robot to making a design to print out with a 3D printer. As for her instruction, it’s mostly focused on making sure the classroom is a space where students are constantly challenged.

One of the fundamentals she has created in each class is pairs of students who challenge each other. Take, for example, Finn and Roman.

“I put them together because of their own differences,” she said. Both boys are headstrong. But Finn, she has observed, is more willing to experiment but bad at communicating his ideas. Roman tends to stick with the familiar but is much better at communicating.

“It could be a really great collaboration,” Miller said.

And they’ve already made progress. For example, she pushed them to find a way to combine their towers, despite their disagreements. By the end of class, Finn had found a way to combine his with Roman’s, if reluctantly.

But it’s not just about students’ differences. In the following class, she put two students together who always make the same mistake: failing to read directions and plan ahead.

She encourages students to seek each other out first and to research before they come to her for a fix. That pair sought her out multiple times throughout the class when they became frustrated. Each time, she directed them to the directions she’d provided or encouraged to them to do a little research.

“When they’re with someone else, their partner rescues them,” she said. Now that they’re stuck with another person with the same flaw, she hopes they’ll learn to slow down and plan ahead.

Still, even she can become frustrated when students are struggling with each other.

“In my head, I say, ‘Be patient, be patient, be patient,’” said Miller. But she’s had to learn to work differently than teachers do in most other classrooms.

“The problems to solve, they will have to deal with them all the time in here,” she said. That won’t happen if she resolves things for them.

As the morning progressed, the classroom filled up with middle schoolers. The eighth graders were deep into their projects and were beginning to tackle a set of increasingly challenging dilemmas.

One pair of girls were tossing a ballon at aluminum panels taped to desk. The balloon was supposed to activate electrical circuits hooked to the panels that then somehow played piano chords online. The girls hoped to be able to play a simple song like “Jingle Bells” with the complex tool. But when they tried to actually hit a note with the balloon, the circuits wouldn’t fire and no sound came out. They tried a variety of solutions — creating more surface area for the balloons to make contact with, readjusting the circuits, trying different angles of bounce — until their test balloon popped. Unfazed, they replaced it with a tennis ball.

A student tests out her electronic piano, played using a tennis ball.
A student tests out her electronic piano, played using a tennis ball.

For Miller, that sort of problem-solving and resolve is the most important thing students could leave her class with. But getting them to see it that way is its own challenge.

“The stuff in here is fun, but you’re learning big stuff,” said Miller. But for students, especially middle schoolers, she has found that “they equate hard with ‘I took that multiple choice test in social studies and studied all night.’”

She pushes them to pay attention to what they learn in her class so they can use it once they leave school. But her students aren’t the only ones she’s worried about valuing the class. She’ll be evaluated for the first time since launching the STEM lab this fall and she’s not sure how her observer will take her class.

“I did email her and say, ‘This classroom doesn’t look like many others,’” said Miller. “Quite honestly, I’m a little nervous.”

One big difference from other classes: less focus on the new state standards. STEM is often invoked in conjunction with the standards and their national counterparts and Miller recognizes their importance. But she and her principal agreed they wouldn’t be a primary focus in her STEM lab.

“When I was a language arts teachers, I combed them,” said Miller. All the material the students grapple with is tied to their grade-level expectations but that’s as far as she goes with the standards.

That approach is an easy one to take at a school like high-performing, relatively affluent Slavens, Miller acknowledges. But she sees benefits for other schools, too.

“I’ve never been in a place where engagement and excitement is so normal and palpable,” said Miller. “The behaviors that may be problematic in other classrooms just melt away.”

Her main goal is creating “that place that makes students love school.” That, she says, is something all schools could benefit from.

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.