How I Teach

Why we decided to launch the Great American Teach-Off, and how it will work (updated)

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post
Algebra teacher Jessica Edwards helps students with math problems during her 9th grade algebra class at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado.

This post has been updated, as of January 4, 2018, to add the names of our design team members and to reflect our final Teach-Off design.

Two years ago, SXSW EDU approached me to be the keynote speaker at their conference in Austin, Texas. My book, Building a Better Teacher, had come out the year before, and they wanted me to talk about it. I floated a counter-proposal: Instead of having me, a journalist, stand on stage and talk about teaching, what if a teacher stood on stage and actually taught?

The idea stemmed from my reporting in Japan, where I watched public research lessons — complete lessons taught before an audience of fellow teachers, and followed by a discussion of what could be learned from the teaching episode. Public lessons are common in Japanese schools, part of the larger practice of jugyokenkyu, or lesson study. I absolutely loved observing these lessons and the discussions afterward. Each one was a gripping drama packed with confusion, struggle, and moments of revelation. I had already begun to see teaching through new eyes when I traveled to Japan — not as a matter of charisma and personality, the common American understanding, but as a craft — and these research lessons built on, and deepened, that lesson.

As I wrote in my book, “Teachers not only had to think; they had to think about other people’s thinking. They were an army of everyday epistemologists, forced to consider what it meant to know something and then reproduce that transformation in their students. Teaching was more than story time on the rug. It was the highest form of knowing.”

How amazing would it be if I could find a way for other Americans to have that same experience I had, learning, anew, what teaching is all about, without traveling to Japan? Alas, SXSW EDU said no to my proposal, but the organizers kept the door open to showcasing live teaching at a future conference. Two years later, when we discussed the idea again, they said they wanted to pursue it, and the seeds of our Teach-Off experiment were planted.

The original idea was Iron Chef, for teachers. That came from Akihiko Takahashi, a professor of education here in the U.S. who spent his early career in Japan, and a champion for bringing lesson study to America. Takahashi told me about a twist on the public research lesson, inspired by Iron Chef, in which two teachers teach live lessons back to back — each tackling the same topic, but through a different approach, like chefs cooking the same set of ingredients to different effect. As I wrote about in an excerpt of my book for the New York Times Magazine, he’d participated in such a “teach-off” on a stage in front of 1,000 teachers.

"I absolutely loved observing these lessons and the discussions afterward. Each one was a gripping drama packed with confusion, struggle, and moments of revelation."

If I wanted to give more people the learning experience I had, and do it in the U.S., the Iron Chef approach seemed perfect. But as my colleagues at Chalkbeat and I began talking with SXSW EDU about how we could actually pull such a thing off, we realized it would be all but impossible, at least this year.

Critical to lesson study is that a teacher teaches his or her own students. That way, he knows what the students do and don’t understand before going into the lesson. And it honors an essential truth of teaching: that each lesson is just one page in the long book of a year or more’s worth of learning. Flying two teachers and their students to Austin, and all the legal and logistical work that would require, seemed beyond possible to us in the time we had. But SXSW EDU was a big stage, and we didn’t want to turn the opportunity down without considering: Might there be a more doable version?

As we were thinking about this, I happened to attend a day of lectures and discussion honoring the career of Magdalene Lampert, a master teacher educator who was also, along with Takahashi, a main character in my book. Lampert has dedicated her career, in part, to explaining the complex nature of teaching within the over-simplified culture of American public policy. In the last several years she had hit on a concept that colleagues of hers were using in teacher education: the instructional activity, a classroom routine that can be used with students — and also, crucially, practiced (“rehearsed,” in her words) in lower-risk settings without actual students, like a teacher education classroom where fellow students play the part of children in a class.

At the center of the event honoring Lampert, held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was a demonstration of an instructional activity, also known as an instructional routine. In the demonstration, Elham Kazemi, a professor of math and science education at the University of Washington, led a group of adults in an instructional activity called “choral counting,” while Lampert acted in the role of teacher educator, offering feedback to Kazemi as she walked us through the activity.

Everyone in the room was riveted: by the lesson, which had us counting by 7’s and looking for patterns, and also by the teaching, which Lampert and Kazemi unveiled together, vividly, showcasing the many decisions Kazemi had to make, from how to organize the numbers on the whiteboard to help us see the patterns to how to design the activity and how to respond to our questions. This work is almost always invisible to the general public, but via the instructional activity, Lampert and Kazemi taught us two lessons — the first about math and numbers, and the second about teaching. I had the same feeling I did during public lessons in Japan: a gripping reminder of how complicated, challenging, and awesome teaching can be.

Afterward, I talked with some of the other attendees about our SXSW EDU opportunity, and an incredible group was formed. I called them our “design team” — teacher educators who thought there had to be a way to work within the constraints of our limited budget and timeline to teach a broader audience something important about teaching. One member of the group told me about her long-standing fascination with cooking and singing competition shows: how they showcased an intricate craft to a broad audience (the broadest!). She’d long thought, in her private time, about how a similar show might work for teaching. In a way, that was already part of her job as a teacher educator, helping novices come to unlearn their starting-point assumptions about teaching and see the work in a new, more complicated, and more truthful light.

When we all left Cambridge, I asked this design team to join me and our executive editor for a series of phone calls to determine if there was a way we could achieve our goals within the context we had been given. It wasn’t lost on me that the challenge we presented our design team with was not unlike what teachers have to do every day: work within far from perfect settings to achieve a learning goal that can sometimes feel impossible, given the constraints. Unsurprisingly, the design team stepped up brilliantly, and the Great American Teach-Off was born.

We’ll share more soon about how the competition is aimed at working within constraints. A few of the problems we sought to solve and our solutions to them:

How could we approximate some of the most important work of teaching in a condensed amount of time?

The concept of an instructional activity is a huge help here. Think of the instructional activity like a very well chosen book excerpt. It’s impossible to convey the fullness of a book without actually reading it, but a great excerpt can take a slice of what it feels like to read the book. By using instructional activities for our lesson challenge, we realized we could show the complexity of teaching in a period of time much shorter than an average lesson.

How could we approximate teaching without actual students?

This is a huge constraint, but it is also one that teacher educators have worked hard to solve for, and we decided to borrow from what they have learned. While some purists believe teaching can’t be taught until a teacher has a classroom all his or her own, others take the position that it’s important to give people who are learning to teach experiences that are, in their words, “approximated” versions of the real thing before they become full-blown teachers.

Both Lampert and Pam Grossman, dean of of the University of Pennsylvania’s education school, have shown that teachers can learn about teaching when their colleagues act in the role of students. Kazemi and Lampert’s instructional activity at Harvard, meanwhile, showed me that even with a large audience of adults acting as students, many important parts of teaching could still be made visible. The crucial and essential work of understanding students’ developing thinking over the course of a year cannot be directly seen, but with a solid discussion afterward of what the slice of teaching shows us, it does not fully disappear. We’re building on these models as we design the Teach-Off.

How could we make the invisible work of teaching visible in a contest setting?

Since making the invisible visible is, well, our entire goal here, we knew we couldn’t just have a contest in which teachers taught live on stage. We also needed lots of opportunities to help the audience peer inside teachers’ heads and see what thinking they were doing as they taught. Cooking and singing competition shows offered some great models for how to do this in the form of the celebrity judges, the “coaches” who sometimes are assigned to contestants offstage, and the host who interviews everyone about how they are making their decisions. We decided that our Teach-Off would include all of these roles: a coach for each team of teachers, judges who are skilled teacher educators and would understand that their role was not to critique but to unpack and help the audience “see” the teaching, and finally a host who could interview not just the judges but also the teachers themselves about how they tackled their lesson challenge. (Sidenote: We haven’t identified people to fit all these roles yet, so if you’re interested, please let us know!)

Is a competition appropriate? [UPDATED January 4, 2018]

We wrestled with this a lot, and ultimately our revised design eliminates the competition element. There won’t be a winner of the Teach-Off, only prizes that a panel of judges award to each participating team.

Some have speculated that we faced pressure from sponsors or some other force to make the Teach-Off competitive. We didn’t. We were attracted to the format because of the narrative power a contest holds for an audience. The stakes of being anointed the “winner,” or not, would have been completely made-up, but we hoped they would also make people keep watching.

Nevertheless, as we saw many teachers recoil at the thought of a competition, we decided the narrative stakes were less important than what was always our ultimate goal: to showcase the way that teachers plan, re-plan, re-think, revise, both beforehand and on the spot, and to honor that work with all the force we can muster. As I said in the earlier version of this post, if we pull this off, the real winners won’t be either team of teachers. They’ll be the audience and the general public, who will learn what it takes to engage in the professional practice on display.

We’re still finalizing the design of this event in real time, and surely we don’t have this in its best possible form just yet. We welcome discussion of what it takes to make the work of teaching public. And we also offer deepest gratitude to SXSW EDU and the philanthropists who made it possible for us to take up this opportunity in the first place. I especially want to thank our design team: Julie Sloan of the Boston Teacher Residency, David Wees of New Visions for Public Schools, and Amy Lucenta of Fostering Math Practices. These teachers and teacher educators have donated a lot of time and thoughtfulness to making this a success, and their generosity of time and spirit inspire me.

A final footnote: If you want to watch the keynote address I ended up giving at SXSW EDU in 2015, I am embarrassed to report that you can do so online, here. You’ll see I tried to act out teaching on stage, my best approximation of the learning I’d had and probably one of the worst acting performances you’ll see. I think we can do better, and in March — with the help of all of you — we will try.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis history teacher seeks to create a ‘calming slice of Africa’ in his classroom

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Torian Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Torian Black felt excluded as he grew up in Memphis City Schools, and he hopes he can help his students of color feel better about themselves and their school than he did.

Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, a high school run by one of  Memphis’ highest performing charter organizations. He grew up in Memphis City Schools and graduated from White Station High School, but Black says he doesn’t look back on that time fondly.

“My experience as an African-American male student being educated at White Station High School was one filled with prejudice, uneasiness, and an experience in which I had to seek refuge,” Black said.

“It was an experience in which I was always ‘the other’ in the classroom and was never intentionally brought into an inclusive space,” he said.

Black wants to give his students a much different experience than he had in high school. The majority of students at Freedom Prep are students of color.

We spoke with Black about how he incorporates African history into his classroom — complete with instruments and tapestries — and why the Black Power movement is his favorite lesson to teach. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why did you become a teacher?

My experience at Howard University, a historically black university, taught me who I was and what I should have been taught at a much younger age. It was an experience in finding my own identity through education. I wanted to be sure students who looked like me would not only receive an experience free of the ailments I experienced growing up, but would also receive a transformational experience that would positively impact their lives for generations.

What does your classroom look like?

I sought to create a calming slice of Africa in my classroom. There are African instruments, plants, and tapestries of African fabrics adorning my room.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black incorporates African instruments, plants, and tapestries into his classroom.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

There is a unit I teach that solely focuses on the Black Power movement. I walk students through where the Black Panther symbol came from: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Mississippi, which fought for black political rights in 1966. We discuss the rise of the Black Panther party in California in the 1960s and how it connects to the civil rights movement.

This is definitely the most anticipated unit among students. All too often, we are looked at as second-class citizens. The perspective that matters most in life is how we see ourselves.

A survey I conducted at the beginning of the year revealed that our students still think of themselves as inferior in many ways. The “doll test” conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark identified this feeling in African-American children more than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, not much has changed today in the way black and brown children think. When students learn and see people like them serving as examples of strength and self-determination, they see what they can do themselves.

How do you get your class’ attention if students are talking or off task?

I sought to recreate aspects of Africa in my classroom. So, I often use music from African instruments in a call-and-response fashion to get their attention. Djembes, shekeres, and thumb pianos are some of the instruments I use.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black started teaching at Freedom Prep five years ago.

Every interaction with a student is an opportunity to build a stronger relationship. First, it’s important to establish a strong warm, strict classroom culture that is positive, urgent and requires critical thought. It’s important that students see who we are as people. I include stories of my childhood, pictures of my family, and examples of the mistakes I have made throughout life in my lessons.

For teachers, building relationships with a group of students comes first.  Then, all downtime activities — transitions, lunchtime, or after school— are perfect times to build stronger individual relationships by just asking questions you would ask of anyone you would genuinely like to connect with,  know, and understand.

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

Recently, a parent of a student I teach informed me that they chose Freedom Prep high school because of me. She said she heard of my reputation for infusing love and joy in my lessons, she heard of my desire and commitment for students to love themselves and their identity, and she trusted my ability to grow her child academically. This parent already was looking into Freedom Prep, but once she heard of what I brought to the table, that’s when she made her decision. To entrust another person to educate your child is a weight as heavy as the mountains because the educator has a strong hand in shaping each child’s path to their destiny. To know that I had that impact on even one parent meant that my work, the long hours, and the stress are worth it and I am walking in my purpose.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet” by Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as “The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America.”

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher admitted she didn’t know all the answers – and students responded

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images
Girl using laptop in classroom.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a new student arrived in her class at Cherry Creek High School, computer science teacher Jocelyn Nguyen-Reed tried hard to make her feel welcome and supported. But as the year wore on, the girl withdrew and Nguyen-Reed began to wonder if her overtures were making any difference.

That spring, she discovered what a big impression her efforts had made when the student’s father called to ask for advice on how to help his daughter. The teen, he said, believed Nguyen-Reed could help her with anything.

Nguyen-Reed talked to Chalkbeat about what she realized after that phone call, how she discovered her passion for teaching, and why she tells students she doesn’t know all the answers.

Nguyen-Reed is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

The summer before my junior year in college, after a having tough year and burning out in my pre-med track, I took a summer position as a camp counselor in a two-week STEM program for high school students. As a part of the job, I was the teaching assistant for a chemistry class. I was so nervous while I was setting up the first lab. I kept running all the different scenarios in my head trying to make sure it wouldn’t be a complete disaster! To my delight, the first lab was a great success and the “high” I felt following the first day on the job made me I realize how passionate I was about teaching and education. The camp was the first time in a long time that I had been so excited to get up in the morning to do something.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
I think the biggest misconception was that I had to be the expert at everything all the time. My first year teaching, I had been assigned to teach two levels of computer science when I had very limited computer science background. I prepared as much as I could over the summer, but was terrified coming into the year because I knew students would ask me questions I wouldn’t be able to answer.

I decided to be upfront with them and invite them to ask questions, but to allow me room to find out what they needed when I did know the answers. It turned out they appreciated this approach more than I expected. The unexpected perk was that students were more empowered to try to figure out the answers and we often worked as a team to get to the bottom of whatever problems they encountered. It taught me the importance of authenticity in teaching and that modeling the learning process is extremely valuable..

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of the more fun lessons I teach is sorting algorithms in my AP Computer Science course. An algorithm in computer science is simply a step-by-step process for solving a problem. In our everyday life, sorting is one that comes up all the time — sorting your phone contacts by name or sorting your search results by relevance. In this lesson, we explore ways to sort data quickly and efficiently.

I usually start with a silly story that then poses the problem of sorting some set of papers or punch cards. I might talk about how programmers once programmed on punch cards, so tasks that are simple to code today took many, many punch cards to code in the past. “Imagine you had a stack of 1,000 punch cards,” I might say to my students. “But then you trip on the steps, and they are everywhere! … Now what?” Students start by brainstorming their own ideas for how to sort them. I then focus on just a few and use students in my class as “lists to sort” to demonstrate each one. Students usually enjoy the interactivity of the lesson.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I will usually try to tackle this in two ways: I’ll use his or her peers to help or arrange personal one-on-one help. My students usually have a table partner with whom they have ample opportunities to work. I usually remind them that no matter the task, their jobs are two-fold. First, make sure they understand the concepts. If not, then their job is to ask questions (of their peers or me). Second, make sure their partners understand the concepts. If they don’t, their job is to explain the concepts to them. If a student is still struggling, I’ll reach out and try to make a plan/time with them to make sure they get caught up.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
At the start of the year, I ask students about their strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and the things about which they are excited or worried. During the year, I periodically ask them to write to me how they are, what’s going well, what’s not going well, and what they need from me. I always enjoy getting to read what they write and responding to each one. It is especially nice to hear from those who are more shy or quiet in class. Otherwise, I just try to meet students with a smile and ask them about what’s happening in their lives each day, or follow up about something they told me some other time.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In my first couple years teaching, I felt the need to be everything to everyone all the time, and I worked countless hours trying to make my lessons as engaging as possible. I had a student who was new to the community at the start of the year, and I made extra effort to make her comfortable. As the year continued, I noticed that she started to change -— her image, her attitude, etc. I had a good relationship with her, but she seemed to withdraw a little bit and I wasn’t really sure how to help her. I gathered that her home life was stressful, so I continued to be kind to her and let her know I was there for her.

I received a surprise phone call that spring that really changed my perspective on the effort I was putting into my job everyday. It was her dad asking me for input on how to help his daughter. “She seems to believe that you can help her with just about anything,” he said in his voicemail. From that moment on, I realized that my efforts to care for my students will never be wasted, and no matter how tired or overwhelmed I feel, care and kindness will always be worth it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Currently, I’m working my way through “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” by Dana Goldstein. I am only about 10 pages in, but I’m enjoying it so far!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Take everything one step at a time. I have a tendency to take on a lot at once. I have high expectations for myself, so I can overwhelm myself easily. It is a nice reminder that not everything has to get done NOW. Some of it can wait, and even just doing a little at a time can go a long way.