Teaching Now: Time for Change

My blog has been MIA for far too long while I dealt with some medical challenges, but I am back. Throughout this absence I’ve been pondering the future of education, convinced that teaching during the pandemic has created an opportunity for meaningful change yet concerned that we aren’t seeing that change come to fruition.  

In my optimistic naivete, I had envisioned a more student-centered approach with more time for collaboration and independent work. Zoom fatigue is real for both learners and teachers –surely we would see a shift like this.

Sadly, I don’t think we have seen that shift. Teachers are overwhelmed with hybrid learning, with the challenge of keeping students engaged in virtual platforms that don’t foster relationships, with student absenteeism and distraction… and the list goes on. Students and their families also seem overwhelmed by the challenges of hybrid and virtual learning.

Sal Kahn, founder of Khan Academy, confirms this: “These traditional lessons are also too long and not interactive enough to hold a student’s attention over a video conference. The traditional paper-based homework that’s being assigned does not provide students with enough feedback or teachers with enough information to understand what students are learning” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/opinion/coronavirus-school-digital.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200819&instance_id=21408&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&section_index=3&section_name=idea_of_the_day_how_to_improve_remote_learning&segment_id=36497&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2].

Torrey Trust offers a clear vision for a better of way of doing things. A University of Massachusetts – Amherst professor of Educational Technology, she shares graphics that demonstrate alternative approaches to serve educators and their learners. The one I chose to include above offers concrete options to improve teaching and learning. Each link provides specific approaches and activities. For example, her “Connected Learning” link suggests multiple team-based activities, including team challenges, virtual board designs, and community quilts. Each strategy provides another way for students to actively learn together if the teacher provides a framework related to content. The National Writing Project supports this kind of connected Learning: “Young people learn best when actively engaged, creating, and solving problems they care about, and supported by peers who appreciate and recognize their accomplishments” [https://lead.nwp.org/knowledgebase/what-is-connected-learning/]. Her link to Universal Design for Learning strategies offers ways optimize individual choice and autonomy, customize the display of information, and vary methods for response [https://goalbookapp.com/toolkit/v/strategies].

Classrooms that use strategies like these employ active learning. The Harvard Gazette reminds us, “Study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think” [https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/]. The authors describe classes in which they “start each topic by asking students to gather in small groups to solve some problems. While they work, we walk around the room to observe them and answer questions. Then we come together and give a short lecture targeted specifically at the misconceptions and struggles we saw during the problem-solving activity. So far we’ve transformed over a dozen classes to use this kind of active-learning approach. It’s extremely efficient — we can cover just as much material as we would using lectures” [Ibid.] Compared with a control group that experienced only lectures, the active learners scored far higher on tests on the material.

During my own teacher training, one of my supervisors told me I was too focused on content, that I should consider teaching college because of that focus. By the time I was teaching my Problem-Based Learning class in the late 1990s, my focus had shifted to process so dramatically that even my traditional curriculum classes grew more student-centered. Over time, my students clearly showed more engagement and satisfaction.

My naïve hope that this kind of shift would be forced by our emphasis on online and hybrid learning may have been foolish, but it’s not too late to move toward this kind of teaching. We need a better way. Our teachers would be more fulfilled, and our students deserve it.

Commercializing the Work of Teachers

Education Week just posted an article about Amazon’s new portal, Amazon Ignite, where teachers can buy and sell lesson plans and curriculum materials by topic.[1] I’ve been out of the classroom too long, because I didn’t even know about a similar existing site called Teachers Pay Teachers, which offers more than 3 million free and paid resources.

I confess my first reaction was ambivalence. My best teaching grew out of collaboration in lesson planning. When my high school was the beta site for Writer’s Workbench, the cutting-edge text analysis program from AT&T back in the 90s, we had a group working on how to use its capacities effectively. It could check for far more than spelling, and I challenged my students to use its analysis to improve their use of sentence variety, to limit their use of passive voice, to improve diction and style. When just two of us taught the British Literature Junior Honors class, we met regularly to develop our plans together. Some of my favorite lessons, like the guided imagery to understand the role of thanes in Anglo-Saxon England, grew out of those meetings. When the chair of the Special Education department and I co-taught an inclusion class in American Literature that had 5-7 Special Ed students enrolled, we worked together every week to refine our plans. A semester-long problem-based-learning experience emerged from that collaboration that energized both us and our students. And during my last year of teaching, I served on a team with two colleagues that pioneered a social justice curriculum for sophomore English, including four nonfiction books. We met regularly, too, and great lessons grew from that. So why would we commercialize these lessons?

I’m all for teachers making a decent living, and sites like this offer income potential. On Ignite educators can earn a 70% royalty on all sales, with a $.30 transaction fee for products under $2.99. And the top seller on Teachers Pay Teachers earned over $2 million, while more than 150 other teachers earned over $500,00. I would have loved to bring in extra money for the nights and weekends I spent planning creative lessons.

Steven Ross, a professor in the school of education and the director of the Center for Research and Reform at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, acknowledges that the materials may not be evidence-based, but says, “Teachers are kind of in a vacuum in terms of what’s available. I don’t see anything wrong with teachers sharing information.” And Ignite will offer verified customer reviews and allow customers to preview materials.

So many teachers generate creative ways to approach learning, and others could benefit from their leading work. So what’s the downside? I guess I’m wistful for the days when teachers worked in pairs and teams, knowing their students and brainstorming creative ways to reach them. I have to admit that these sites won’t prevent that kind of teamwork, though, and they certainly will offer resources to those lone rangers who don’t have the chance to work with others. “The times they are a’changing!”


[1] http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2019/11/amazon-sell-teachers-materials-resource.html