Observing Classrooms: What Does Good Teaching Look Like?
How do reporters know good teaching when they see it? How do they tactfully write about bad teaching? And how do they tease out what came before the moment they set foot in a particular classroom?
Pamela Grossman, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Elizabeth Green, co-founder of Chalkbeat, helped a roomful of journalists at the Education Writers Association’s 70th Annual National Seminar in Washington, D.C., see classroom teaching in a whole different light.
“We write a lot of stories about policies … about curriculum … about students,” Green said.
All such stories can be written without venturing into the classroom, she added, but by providing windows into the world of teaching and learning, those stories will be better.
Writing about budget cuts can be dry and eye-glazing without illustrating how those cuts play out in crowded classrooms, which may already have outdated materials and teachers who are forced to buy their own supplies. Take butcher paper, used for classroom projects. Green said she’d turn that classroom staple into a standalone story, telling where the teacher bought it, how much it cost, and how it was used.
“The classroom is where policies come alive,” said Grossman, who started her career as a high school English teacher.
When it comes to describing instruction, Grossman said it helps for reporters to know a bit about the elements that go into effective teaching — from managing student behavior to engaging and communicating with students.
The session was peppered with short classroom videos of “literature circles” — small groups of students discussing books.
In the first, eighth-grade students from a high-poverty California classroom were all participating in a discussion of The House on Mango Street. The teacher was not present. Everyone in the circle was able to offer evidence from their own lives and relate it back to passages in the text. No one interrupted. Remarkably, everyone had read the book.
“What must the teacher have done to account for what you see?” Grossman asked.
In a second clip, high school students who were 35 minutes into a discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper erupted when one suggested a shocking interpretation none of them had previously considered. There were gasps. Students started talking over one another. And there was pushback from one student who just couldn’t swallow the suggested plot twist. She demanded evidence.
“This is what Common Core standards look like: students engaged, trying to make sense of complex text,” Grossman said. “Not afraid to dig into it.”
Another clip was shown of what must have gone on beforehand: a teacher meticulously taking students through the steps of discussion skills. She gave a mini lesson of what a discussion might sound like. Other lessons covered how to ask questions, provide observations, and cite evidence to prove a point. Each was then practiced.
Green, who wrote the 2014 book “Building a Better Teacher,” offered tips on what to look for in visiting classes. Among them:
- Find time to talk to the teacher before and after to figure out what’s going on and try to capture the teacher’s inner monologue.
- If possible, talk to students before or after the class. Don’t ask them if they like the teacher or class. Ask them what they are learning about.
- Take pictures or video of the classroom if possible. Drawing pictures of what you see on the walls may also help.
- Pay attention to the students. Are they participating, listening to one another, building off one another’s ideas?
- If you are bored, chances are the students are too.
Green said the idea of knowing what good teaching looks like is a not means to evaluate, but rather to be able to explain what is going on and what it means.
How should reporters handle classrooms in which students aren’t engaged or are struggling with low test scores? Grossman said to be honest.
Reporters are there to describe, not judge, Green said. Describe students’ work. What they should be learning but aren’t. Tell the reader what it means when test scores are low.
“Look for scenes,” she said. “You only need one.”