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.

Inside Chalkbeat

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: chicago.tips@chalkbeat.org.

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.

@chalkbeatDET

As Chalkbeat Detroit grows (again), meet our newest reporter and hear how you can have your voice heard

PHOTO: Getty Images

Chalkbeat Detroit is growing again — and we’d like you, our readers, to help our team cover the story of Detroit schools in new and exciting ways.

Koby Levin, a Detroit-area native who comes to us after a stint at a newspaper in Missouri, joined us as a reporter this week. He’ll be bringing you more of the in-depth coverage of Detroit schools that you’ve come to expect from Chalkbeat.

And, his arrival heralds the start of a new push we’re making here at Chalkbeat Detroit. We are making a more deliberate effort to engage with our readers and the communities we cover. That means Koby will be actively seeking out new ways to elevate the voices of educators, parents and students in our city. He’ll be out in Detroit neighborhoods, and will use social media and text messaging in sophisticated ways to make new connections. He’ll be taking the lead on a partnership we’ve begun with another local journalism start-up, Outlier Media, that finds new ways to deliver information to busy people.

Kimberly Hayes Taylor, who first joined us at the end of January, will continue to dive into critical issues facing Detroit schools and early childhood education, but she also will devote more time to making connections in the community. She’ll be planning events, finding ways to bring people together, and will be looking for stories about the people who work in our schools and rely on them.

Koby and Kim will both be working closely with me, Chalkbeat Detroit’s Bureau Chief, and with Julie Topping, our talented story editor. Please be in touch with all of us. You can find us on email, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

Now, since Koby is the new guy, we thought we’d introduce him to readers with a quick interview. 

Koby Levin

Welcome to Chalkbeat. Let’s get right to it. Why are you interested in reporting on schools?

My mom taught middle school, and I seriously considered becoming an educator myself. I spent my summers in high school and college working with public school students, often in Detroit. If I wasn’t going to be a teacher, I was going to be a journalist. During the school year, I’d work for the student paper. So education reporting always seemed a natural fit.

Which Detroit communities are you planning to cover?

All of them. But since I’m bilingual in English and Spanish, I plan to use Spanish to highlight the issues facing English language learners in schools. I’m looking forward to living and reporting in the same place. I live in Southwest Detroit.

What is your philosophy about engaging readers in your reporting?

Engagement works two ways. Of course there’s the engagement that takes place after the reporting is done. We have to use every tool available to make sure Detroiters are getting the information they need about their schools, from social media to collaborations with other news outlets. But that’s only the tail end of the process. Strong, engaging stories involve readers all the way through. They are for readers, but also about them.

What’s cool is that the two kinds of engagement benefit each other. My goal is to erase the line between reader and community member.

Will your stories based on community input be different than other stories?

Well, yes. Those stories are richer than anything that was cooked up in an office. Above all, they matter more to the people we’re writing about. But also no. All of our stories should be based on community input.

How can I get in touch with you if i have a story idea or want to share information?

Let’s talk! As I get up to speed, I’ll be leaning on people who’ve been around much longer than I have to explain how we got here and where we’re going. Our goal at Chalkbeat is to spur change by shedding light on inequity, but that’s a community-wide project. Please, share what you know — and tell me what you’d like to see covered. I want to hear from you. Find me on Twitter.