Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Quest for Quality Education: An Open Dialogue

Maybe the problem we have with developing the key to quality education is that we still haven't quite defined what that is.  Or, maybe the problem is that because each of our students is different, with his or her unique blend of skills, affinities, strengths and weaknesses, one set of definitions and /or goals just doesn't work for everyone. Or, maybe the reason why the United States is falling behind in  national educational rankings is that we don't even know what it is we need to measure.

On the other hand, each and every one of us know what a good teacher is when we meet them. For more on this please go to "Great Teacher" Judgment Call or Objective Evaluation" and to read about the economic value of a good teacher, please see "Teachers' Worth."

Art by Viktor Hachmang courtesy of The New York Times 5/4/2013 "A Talent for Teaching"

Quality teachers are those who respect their students, take learning profiles and affinities into account while keeping the bar of expectations high.  Good teachers talk with their students not to them, and good teachers find ways to make learning meaningful and exciting - their classes are ALIVE!!!

One such teacher, taught my husband Shakespeare in high school.  He developed a course called "Beatles and Shakespeare" where he got the bodies for his class by teaching about the Beatles but then moved to Shakespeare where songs of old and new came alive, and hooked his students on the Bard's work. This teacher, Eph Gerber, is now working on teacher development research and training where he hopes to find ways to help teachers  find the "ARTIST" within them. Through art - in its various forms - Eph believes teachers while keeping the expectations high will make the material more memorable and meaningful.

So, in my own personal quest to define quality education and with Eph's project in mind, I devote this post to quality teachers and their classroom contributions from articles and posts I've recently found. Below are three examples of teachers who have creatively found ways to reach students while raising the bar:

1. Peter Nonacs talks about letting his class "cheat." Nonacs, a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UCLA teaches juniors and seniors about animal behavior.  According to an article he posted "Cheating to Learn: How a UCLA Professor Gamed a Game Theory Midterm" he notes:

Animals and their behavior have been my passions since my Kentucky boyhood and I strive to nurture this love for nature in my students...Much of evolution and natural selection can be summarized in three short words: "Life is games." In any game, the object is to win...Game Theory, is devoted to mathematically describing the games that nature plays...
So last quarter I had an intriguing thought while preparing my Game Theory lectures. Tests are really just measures of how the Education Game is proceeding...What if I let the students write their own rules for the test-taking game? Allow them to do everything we would normally call cheating?
A week before the test, I told my class that the Game Theory exam would be insanely hard...but as recompense, for this one time only, students could cheat.  They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked, including animal behavior the Web... talk to each other or call friends who'd taken the course before...Only violations of state or federal criminal law such as kidnapping my dog, blackmail, or threats of violence were out of bounds...
On the day of the hour-long test they faced a single question: "If evolution through natural selection is a game, what are the players, teams, rules, objectives and outcomes?"
One student immediately ran to the chalkboard and she began to organize the outputs for each question section. The class divided tasks. They debated. Whey worked on hypotheses...A schedule was established for writing the consensus answers...

In the end,  the students learned what social insects like ants and termites have known for hundreds of millions of years. To win at some games, cooperation is better than competition. Unity that arises through a diversity of opinion is stronger than any solitary competitor.
For more please press the links above for the article as well as for a KCRW interview. 

2. In the New York Times Sunday Dialogue: A Talent for Teaching (May4, 2013) David Greene a staff writer for WISE Services, treasurer of Save Our Schools, and former teacher mentor for Teach for America writes that:
Seasoned professionals know what works: being creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending. Often it is the least orthodox teacher who most engages and excites students. Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot
replace what the best teachers have: practical wisdom...
The practical wisdom of good teaching is more than being creative or spontaneous. It is knowing when and how to use best practices. It includes how to prepare and use great questions, and knowing when to veer to places students take us. It includes when and how to use the science of teaching as well as the art. Practical wisdom is not following a script prepared by others who do not know your students and how they work.  Teaching is both an art and a science...a great teacher inspires.
 3. Sue Mellon teachers poetry to 7th and 8th graders by integrating science, technology, engineering math and art with Robert Frost's poetry. As Barbara Ray writes in Mind/Shift's "Combining Robotics With Poetry? Art and Engineering Can Co-Exist" (4/4/13):
Poetry isn't always easy for students. But with hands-on engagement, they gain new understanding. Take Robert Frost's "Pasture." Instead of just reading and discussing the work in a typical classroom setting, students make 21st-century dioramas with robotic tool kits containing sensors, motors, LEDs, and a controller...

A lot of kids aren't crazy about poetry," Mellon said. "But we have to help them engage with it. After spending two weeks analyzing the poem and creating visual imagery and symbolism for their dioramas, they really understand the work and get quite passionate."
Stories like Mellon's can be found all around the Allegheny School District these days as the area, already renowned for its groundbreaking work in STEM, takes on STEAM. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math...But as STEM took hold, some began to wonder if there was a component missing. Enter the STEAM movement...STEM needs to include art and design...the A is the creative ART element...[and the Congressional STEAM Caucus was launched.]

For those loyal readers who have read my other posts, I prefer not repeating some of the other inspiring teachers I've already spoken about. But for the uninitiated visitor, I urge you to read about the inspiring slam poetry of Taylor Mali - Part I  and  Part II , and the real-life math lessons of Lockhart's Lament.  They too are inspired and inspiring teachers.

Finally, there are the fictional teachers from movies.  And, while they may be fictional, their characters and lessons spark and inspire teachers and students alike:
  • Mr. Glenn Holland (from Mr. Holland's Opus)
  • Professor John Keating (from Dead Poet's Society)
  • Mr. Mark Thackeray (from To Sir With Love)
  • Miss Riley (from October Sky)
  • Mr. Forrester (from Finding Forrester)
  • Professor Melvin Tolson (from The Great Debaters)

In closing, the teachers and lessons above do involve a confidence and 'artistic' twist.  Successful teachers and lessons pull on passions in acting, gaming, performance skills, even cooking.  So maybe Eph is on the right track.  What do you think?  

Please leave your impressions, experiences and reactions in the comments below.

And as always, thank you for your visit!


  1. I fully agree. the educators that left the biggest and best impression on me worked much the same way, to which I am eternally grateful. through my disappointment with the public school system, I have recently decided to homeschool my son - I wonder if I'm depriving him of the possibility of having similar experiences?

  2. I railed against the stupid standardized tests for my third grader. will blog about same soon.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  3. I enjoyed your post and sent the link to my son and daughter-in-law who are both teachers.

  4. Hi Meryl great post! I always found teaching difficult if my students were not interested at all. Once I had three classes .one of them was always enthusiastic and we did a lot of nice educational games. Another class consisted of girls who were always tired and moody. They were not interested and said that they only wanted to work in the book and they didn't want any extra exercises.It was so boring. I felt that I couldn't be a good teacher to them. For me it's an interaction.I feel inspired by my students if they are enthusiastic.
    Have a great week, Meryl.
    Wil, ABcw team.

  5. Such a great post. I teach college level. This time of year is so hard because I have one student that was doing just fine. In fact I graded her body of work and it was way above average. Then all the sudden she decided not to come the last 2 weeks in all her classes! I've told the uppers, but to be honest there isn't much we can do.

    I think just having fun and expecting a lot from your students is so very important.

  6. This is a terrific post for National Teacher Appreciation Week.
    I have had some wonderful teachers and I think those that talked with the students instead of at them made all the difference.

  7. I'm sure there are teachers who stand out in all of our lives, my first memorable teacher spanked my hands with a ruler for doing something I didn't know was wrong, drawing on my desk top. If only she had told me I would have complied and forgotten her, or perhaps remembered her for the other lessons she taught like multiplication :) Yes I do remember very creative teachers who made classes interesting and a couple one who created scandals :( but those whose names I remember are those who crossed unforgettable lines of propriety.

  8. The quality of education worries me a lot these days, but a great tribute to quality teaching! I still teach now, and will always remember the wonderful teachers that got me started on this road.

  9. Great post! I applaud all teachers, but want to give an extra round to those who go above and beyond to inspire. I still remember my second grade teacher 25 years later. I just saw him recently and he remembered me too. Teachers touch so many lives, they deserve more recognition than they get!

  10. Well said, I agree and have enjoyed reading.
    Feel free to link it up at our party:

    Happy Day!

  11. Of all your educational posts, I think this one is my absolute favorite. You've hit the nail on the head - a teacher who repects his/her students are the BEST ones, and the ones the students will actually learn from (and retain that learning).

    I was just having a conversation with Princess Nagger's Gifted Class teacher last night at the Curriculum Fair - she commented on how much happier Princess Nagger is this year compared to the last two years - it all boils down to her main classroom teacher. Her teacher this year for 4th grade is awesome - she embraces Princess Nagger's unique individual psyche and allows her to just be herself - her teachers for Kindergarten and 1st grade did the same, and PN LOVED those years and didn't 'hate' school.

    Her 2nd and 3rd grade teachers, on the other hand, were more 'old school' (for lack of a better description) where they were trying to force PN into a cookie-cutter mold and kept trying to squelch her individual personality (thank goodness she had her Gifted teacher during that time as well, she was the only saving grace for those two years).

    I've said it a million times that teachers really do make a difference - good, bad or indifferent. Good is much better. ;)

    School Year Coming to an End with a Wacky Schedule Looming and Giggle Worthy Fun: Random Tuesday Thoughts Rebel

  12. Very well said!! Yes some major changes need to happen in our education system. Those teachers who really do care and who teach with respect need to be rewarded and compensated for what they do and how hard they work.