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.

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.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at detroit.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.


You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

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

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

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

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

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

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

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

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.