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

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

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.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

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

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

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

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

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 beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

How I Teach

Lessons from the school store: How this special education teacher sets up students for an independent future

Wendi Sussman, a teacher at STRIVE Prep - Federal in Denver, with an eighth-grade student during a field trip to the Air Force Academy.

How do teachers captivate their students? 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.

Fridays are a big day for the middle school students in Wendi Sussman’s class at STRIVE Prep – Federal in Denver. That’s when they operate the school store — an endeavor they start planning as soon as the school year starts.

For Sussman, a special education teacher, the store is a chance for students to practice all kinds of life skills, from making change to talking with customers.

Sussman, who was a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about how her students decide what to sell at the store, what fueled her interest in special education, and why there’s no stigma when lessons are repeated in her classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up with a sister who has cerebral palsy, so my passion to work with individuals with disabilities has been developing since I was young. I saw firsthand how the school system let down families with children who have disabilities. I spent time in high school and college working and volunteering with this population, and started understanding the value they bring to our society. I began teaching as a way to work with people with disabilities in the early stages of their lives.

After college, I joined Teach for America as a special education teacher and was placed at a college prep charter school. Working at this type of school showed me the importance of giving all students options in their lives after completing their K-12 education, especially those with high needs. I continue teaching so that I can ensure my students have the options they deserve. This is my fifth year teaching in a multi-intensive center program, which serves students with intellectual disabilities as well as other impairments. I could not be happier.

What does your classroom look like?
I want to say that my classroom is clean, neat, and organized and that all staff and students know where everything is and where it belongs. While this is true to some extent, my classroom looks less than perfect due to the joint ownership between staff and students. We set up together, we clean together, and we organize together, which means everything has a place and it’s not always perfect.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my co-teacher and educational assistants. Running a successful center program takes a team. In a classroom of 14 students with individualized and intensive needs, it is not possible to provide the instruction to all students all the time. While I set the vision and do half of the instructional planning, it is the staff I work alongside who ensure the implementation is successful on a daily basis.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? 
Teaching life skills requires skills to transfer from the school setting to the real world. Our student-run school store allows for these connections to be made all year long. Starting in August, students brainstorm ways that we can make money for community trips and life skills lessons throughout the year.

My number one goal for the students in my classroom is to give them authentic practice that sets them up with the skills they need to have options in their lives and to have an independent future. For one student who is visually impaired and does not read or write, this store provides time to practice counting money, interact with customers, and organize merchandise. Another group of students working on social skills and appropriate interactions with adults are able to recruit customers around the school and let them know the store is open. Students with more advanced money skills work on giving correct change to customers and use calculator skills that allow them to run the store with minimal adult support.

While the actual store only happens once a week, the students are invested in the process throughout the year to ensure our Fridays are successful. Preparation includes selecting merchandise, setting prices, and advertising for the store. This year, the class created a survey and graphed the results to determine what would be most popular. Using survey results, students chose to add potato chips to the store’s inventory. The class went to a local store to determine the price of chips in bulk and then set a price for the chips at the classroom store. To raise school-wide excitement, the students prepared announcements and made posters to put around the school. Each Monday, we count our money using both mental math and calculator skills and set aside money to fund upcoming life skills lessons.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
For students with intellectual disabilities, it can take a large amount of repetition before they are able to complete a skill on their own. When teaching and reviewing students work, I look for progress towards a complete understanding of a topic and continue to teach the content until this mastery has been reached. I believe and want my students to believe that anyone can learn anything. With this message in my classroom, there is no stigma to repetitive teaching and learning.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My students want to learn. More often than not, if a student is talking or off task, it is because the work I have provided for the student is not meeting their needs. In the moment when a student is off task, I take a look at their work and see what accommodations it is lacking and make immediate changes. If I notice a pattern in off-task behavior, I think about how I can invest the student in their own goals. I ensure that the work they are provided is scaffolded appropriately to help them reach their goal. When a student feels confident about what they can do, there is very little wasted time in the classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
With our center program model, I teach students for three years, and they are in my class for large parts of the day. This is very different than a typical middle school teacher and something I love about my job. I eat breakfast and lunch alongside my students and make time outside of instruction each day to get to know them. I open up about my family, my hobbies, and what I cook for dinner each night. Students take interest in who I am outside of work, and they begin to open up about themselves as well.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I recently attended a meeting led by my co-teacher focusing on updating a behavior plan for one of our students. During this meeting, the student’s parents helped structure the student’s day to keep him focused during times they knew he would have trouble being alert and gave input on ways to help enforce the updated behavior plan. This was one of the first times I saw both the family and the school creating a plan together. I reflect on this meeting often, because it is exactly what I want my meetings with parents to look like.

Rather than coming to this meeting with a behavior plan already made, she came with ideas, trends, and questions to initiate partnership, rather than bringing a plan for parents to review and approve. This meeting reminds me what is possible with home and school collaboration and gives me a goal to work towards to create team work in future meetings.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Any thriller … “Everything You Want Me To Be” by Mindy Mejia, “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Focus on teacher actions. In my first years of teaching, I would catch myself complaining about a hard day too often, almost always putting the blame on students and their “terrible behavior.” My perspective changed when a co-worker reminded me that while I can’t force a child to make good choices, I can control my own actions. I continue to have hard days, but I now can reflect on situations in my classroom and ask myself what teacher actions caused a student to react this way and what can be done differently next time. Venting to coworkers or friends is important and needs to happen at times, but it doesn’t change the frustrating situations that can happen every day.