Inside Chalkbeat

Chalkbeat CEO and author Elizabeth Green on teaching, the Common Core, and more

PHOTO: Daniel Deitch
Chalkbeat CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Green has written a new book called "Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone)."

What makes a great teacher — and how do you make a teacher great?

Those twin questions would seem to get to the heart of improving the nation’s schools and yet, as Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green found as a schools reporter, they rarely are raised in today’s big education debates.

That paradox drove Elizabeth on a six-year reporting quest (while she was also busy co-founding Chalkbeat) that took her from lab schools in Michigan to math classrooms in Japan to the elementary school where she was once taught. The result is her new book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone),” which comes out today.

Chalkbeat recently sat down with Elizabeth to ask how the stories she tells in her book connect to ones we cover and what, exactly, made her fifth-grade teacher so great.

Continue the conversation by joining the Chalkbeat Book Club on Facebook, where we’ll be discussing “Building a Better Teacher” for the next month.

Your book makes clear that the new Common Core standards — an ambitious reform enacted with minimal support for teachers — continue a long tradition of similar education overhauls. Is there any reason to think the outcome this time will be different?

One thing I learned in reporting that I found really fascinating were the ideas of David Cohen, the education historian. He essentially studies attempts to change teaching, and that is the equivalent of studying failed attempts to change teaching in this country, unfortunately.

He also started to compare this country to other countries. He found that countries that successfully changed teaching had this one important ingredient in common, which was coherence. In the US, there are 17 different layers, if not more, of people telling teachers what to do and what supports to help teachers do them. It’s no surprise teachers feel confused often and even under assault because they are being asked to do so many different things, none of which are the same.

David Cohen calls this a blizzard, and the response that’s most rational to this blizzard of incoherence, as one educator in my book, Lovely Billups, says, is the motto, “This too shall pass.” The question about the Common Core is: Shall this too pass?

You write about visiting primary schools in Japan. What were the main differences from American schools that you saw?

I think there are two key things that are different: One is that there’s a totally different organization of work for the teachers. Whereas American teachers spend 1,000-plus hours per year teaching, Japanese teachers only spend 600 hours per year teaching. The other 400 hours they can spend learning from each other.

The other difference is that they have that coherent system of one common set of things that they’re all doing. They have common standards, so they can have a common curriculum, common assessments, so they have the tools they need to do something exciting.

There is growing consensus that traditional education schools have not done a great job preparing teachers. Have you seen any promising developments in the way teachers are trained?

One thing I found fascinating in my reporting was that we do have a tradition in this country of teacher education that is focused on teaching as a craft. And that is the history of “normal schools,” where teachers would learn from master teachers. They would go to class in a lecture, then the next minute they would be sitting watching a lesson in progress.

I think where we went wrong was when the university system took over teacher training from normal schools. Some of the early pioneers of education as a field of study had absolutely no interest in teaching.

What I think is promising is that there is a growing group of teacher educators at the university level and at institutions that are disconnected from higher education that are trying to resuscitate that normal-school tradition, sometimes in very parallel ways.

Most of the teachers we cover get evaluated in one way or another. Can teacher-accountability systems actually help teachers improve?

One of the inspirations of this huge focus on teacher evaluation is a set of assumptions we make about why high-performing charter schools have succeeded. We look at [the national charter-school network] KIPP and their test-score results and we assume that the kids are succeeding because the teachers operate outside of a traditional labor structure: There’s no labor union, so KIPP can hire or fire whomever they please.

But they spend proportionately less money, resources, and time, on evaluation than states currently do. They focus a lot more on giving teachers the time to learn, mentors to help them learn, materials from which they can learn, and good curriculums they can use.

We know teachers work in all kinds of schools, including ones where many students are far behind academically. Does good teaching look the same regardless of the school or students?

I think a surprisingly debated question, even among people who have dedicated their careers to working with high-poverty communities, is: Sure, you might be able to have this incredible dialogue about math or literature or science or history in your nice suburban school where you don’t face the challenges we face, but we can’t do that here, that’s not possible.

That is a debate that’s going on right now about what kind of learning level really is possible in each type of environment. Is there a need for more order and less student voice in some environments?

Personally, I don’t want to think it’s not possible for all kids, and I’ve definitely seen it happen for all kids, but I think it is a debate that’s going on.

You’ve covered education for several years now, but you’ve never been a teacher. What qualifies you to write about teaching?

I thought a lot about whether I had the right to write about teaching, given that I’ve never taught myself. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who’s a teacher that’s probably lasted seven years. Her argument to me was always that somebody’s job needs to be to record what’s happening [inside schools], since teachers don’t have time to do that, and make sense of the big picture.

That’s why I ultimately decided I have the right to do this and all of us at Chalkbeat do. We come from a place of respect for this work, we know what we don’t know, and we’re here to learn.

Your book makes the point that good teachers are not born, they’re made. Considering that, what is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning?

I went back and I interviewed a lot of my own teachers for this book. One of them I spent extra time with was Lesley Wagner, my fifth-grade math teacher. She is remembered among my friends from elementary school as one of the greatest, best teachers we ever had.

She uses her Smart Board in the most brilliant way I’ve ever seen. Her smart board is like a Japanese blackboard, but better. The point of the blackboard in Japanese classrooms is that we should be able to have a trajectory for each lesson of the ideas that we’ve gone through, so students can look at not only at the specific thing we’re talking about right now, but they can connect back to where we came from that day.

Ms. Wagner does that with her Smart Board, basically a screen per day. But because it’s a Smart Board, she also has access to every other day, so if somebody references another day in the past, she just uses her Smart Board to go backwards in time and see what they were doing that day. I’m sure other teachers use it for that reason too, but I was just blown away.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Readers: What is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning? Share in a comment or tweet with #BABT.

Meet us

Chalkbeat Chicago reporter Adeshina Emmanuel on race, public schools, and “tough love” in CPS

Last week, I gave you an overview of our plans for Chalkbeat Chicago and shared an inside look at our first community event in Washington Park. (Stay tuned: Several more community events are on the way.) Today, I’m excited to offer a deeper introduction to my first hire: Adeshina Emmanuel, an Uptown native who is a Chicago Public Schools grad. Ever want to talk public schools? Adeshina attended five CPS schools, graduating in 2007 from Friedrich Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center.

Adeshina has been plenty busy since then: staff jobs at the Chicago Sun-Times, DNAinfo Chicago, and the Chicago Reporter; writing for Chicago magazine, In These Times, Ebony, the Chicago Reader, and Columbia Journalism Review; and leading in-depth reporting projects through City Bureau, a Chicago civic journalism lab. His writing and reporting about race and class is insightful and honest, and I’m excited to be working alongside him to tell the complex story of Chicago public education.

Since he’s the new guy, I asked him to answer a few questions about himself and his approach to the education beat.

You’ve primarily been writing about race and class in Chicago. Why are you diving so deeply into education at this point in your career?

It’s a natural progression. This new role gives me the opportunity to examine race and class through the lens of education, while connecting the dots to politics, finance, and other forces shaping our public school and charter systems. We can’t have a serious conversation about American inequality without considering how these dynamics help shape and manifest in public educational institutions such as CPS, especially in an infamously segregated and racially problematic city like Chicago.

You’re a graduate of Chicago Public Schools. Looking back as an adult, how would you describe your experiences?

CPS was far from perfect—but I wouldn’t be the journalist, or person, I am today without a lot of the guidance, love, and tough love from the schools I attended. That includes students, principals, assistant principals, school disciplinarians, teachers, teachers assistants, security guards, school counselors, basketball coaches, and more.

I won’t get into my whole CPS journey. But there’s a crucial moment I’d like to share. It’s a story about how one selective-enrollment school in Lake View pushed me out and how a neighborhood school in Uptown took me in—and helped shape who I am.

Third grade was a rough year for me. I was an emotional and outspoken know-it-all who clashed often with his teacher and spent a lot of time in the office accused of disobeying authority. My greatest nemesis—if a third-grader can really have a nemesis—was a sixth-grade boy who was in my older sister’s homeroom and rode the school bus with us. He had a habit of making suggestive and demeaning comments to her. The bully and I had fought one-on-one at least twice, and he beat me up pretty bad both times. I never told my parents or anybody at school.

One day, he touched my sister—again—as we rode the school bus home. We confronted the bully with some friends, and, this time, our clash got back to officials at our school. We were pressured to find another school.

My mom decided on our neighborhood school, Joseph Stockton Elementary (now Courtenay, after a 2013 consolidation). At Stockton, I found a sense of family that had been lacking at my previous school. The teachers and administrators knew my mother, and many of the mothers at the school knew each other from the neighborhood.

At Stockton, I fell in love with the written word. I remember my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Simmons, who was one of the first to encourage my craft. My fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Zaccor, challenged me with books beyond my grade level like Native Son and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My basketball coach, Mr. Yolich, taught me about hard work and self-discipline both in the classroom and on the court. Yolich, who grew up in Uptown like me and was very involved in the community, was well put together, respectful and laid back—but blunt—and I looked up to him as a role model.

These are just some of the people at CPS who have changed my life for the better and taught me the power of a loving and engaged school community.

What do you think is missing in the conversation about Chicago education?

I wouldn’t say these things are missing, just that we need them to be more prominent in our conversation.

We need to talk more—and with more honesty—about the ways that racism and other forms of systemic oppression have affected schools historically and today. We need more discussion about the link between poverty, trauma and violence in youth. We need to take a more intersectional view of the forces students face when they hail from various marginalized groups or identities, especially gender nonconforming people, immigrants, students with mental illness, and students with disabilities. We need more of a solutions approach to the conversation about Chicago education—and to not simply call out issues. We need more continuous focus on the resilience, imagination, and courage exercised by students and educators pushing for solutions to problems in education, not just when there’s a headline grabbing event like a walkout, a school closing or a hunger strike. Everyday efforts can be both empowering and instructive.

What is your philosophy about engaging the communities that you cover?

Be present, listen, collaborate, and report back.

I approach community engagement with an open ear for how people describe their relationship with institutions, their personal histories, and how their stories relate to both the history of their community and the history of the institutions that serve the area. I also want to take stock of what’s working, what’s not working, and what they feel they need to solve their problems. Each person’s perspective is like a thread. It’s my job as a journalist to help weave these threads into a narrative.

How can readers reach you?

On Twitter, @public_ade, and via email, at [email protected]. Or, if you see me, say hi. I’ll be out there.

 

An Introduction

What’s missing from the conversation about Chicago schools?

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
A table of students, parents, educators and community members participate in a conversation hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and Generation All.

Last week, I co-hosted a dinner for 45 parents, educators, students and community members at Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts in Washington Park. Over some of the best chicken and biscuits I’ve had in my life, I posed this question. The list of responses was long and impassioned, but one answer, in particular, stayed with me long after we all went home.

“There’s a disconnect between the policy makers and the people on the ground. Too often, I have to bring my own chair to the table.”

I get this.

A few weeks ago, I dropped my son off at kindergarten and drove back to my home office to start a new job as bureau chief of Chalkbeat Chicago. Even in a district powered by school choice, landing a spot in a “good” kindergarten felt like a struggle: starting with testing in a hot, crowded room with other nervous parents and kids and ending with 11 waitlists.  

It’s one thing to write about school choice as a journalist; it’s another to experience it as a parent.

I’m approaching this job as both. At Chalkbeat Chicago, we plan to cover early childhood education through K-12, which means assessing everything from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “diploma mandate” to the highly touted freshman tracking program To & Through to efforts to tamp down the district’s high debt. We will examine decisions made in the boardroom: on spending, school openings and closings, charter authorizations, leadership, and the like. But we’ll also be reporting from classrooms. As a parent, I can attest that you can’t really understand the district’s opportunities and challenges until you spend time talking with educators and seeing kids in school.

And as our dinner guests last week stressed, to get the full picture, you must engage the community, too. To get the Chicago bureau up and running, we plan to launch a Listening Tour that will take us around the city to better understand what’s working in public education and what’s not. We already kicked it off with our dinner at Dyett, which we hosted with the neighborhood schools advocacy group Generation All as part of the Chicago Community Trust #OntheTable2018.

Some questions participants raised in that conversation:

  • There are serious questions about who wields the power, from mayoral control of the district to concerns about Local School Councils. LSCs need to be supported, trained by the central office and promoted. Participants asked: Where is the accountability to the public?
  • More honesty is needed about how deeply racism shapes schools. Is school funding equitable? What does it mean when some schools have art teachers and librarians, and others don’t? Why does it seem like some neighborhoods have a say in whether they get charter schools—and others don’t?
  • We know that an overwhelming number of Chicago children suffer from trauma and stress. But suspensions, expulsions, and discipline have become the norm instead of counseling and kindness.
  • Schools used to be the center of community life. That’s why the stakes are so high when schools are slated to close. How can we return to that thinking? How can we invite the community and parents in? How can we develop more community leaders and partnerships that build up neighborhood schools?
  • Wanted: better ideas for parent engagement. How do we bring in parents into a child’s educational life?
  • The public narrative of Chicago schools is overwhelmingly negative. Let’s figure out exactly what’s working and, first, replicate it. Then celebrate it.

People kept talking, and our list of participants’ questions kept growing—even after the dinner was over, the biscuits were gone and the school was closing for the night. I’m pleased to say, though, that this was just a start. As we host more conversations across Chicago, we pledge to make public what we learn. We also plan to use what we hear to help set our coverage priorities for the year.

Tomorrow, I’ll introduce my first new hire: Adeshina Emmanuel, whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ebony, Columbia Journalism Review, the Chicago Reader and Chicago magazine. By the end of May, we’ll start publishing a weekly newsletter that summarizes what you need to know about Chicago schools. It will elevate some of the great reporting that’s already happening here and include our observations as well. Moving into fall, that newsletter will appear with more regularity. By June, we plan to start publishing stories on our site as we move about the city on our Listening Tour.

Getting started, I’m eager to hear from you. Tell us what you think is missing from the conversation about Chicago schools, find out more about our Listening Tour or send us a story idea or just hello: [email protected]

Since our dinner, I’ve been thinking a lot about the guest who spoke so passionately about bringing her own chair to the table. At Chalkbeat Chicago, we want to invite everyone into the discussion, from the power brokers to Chicago educators to community members, like her, who feel like they haven’t been heard.

Join us. There are plenty of chairs at our table for everyone.