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The teacher sits in a large wooden rocking chair. One by one, she invites her third-graders to get up from their desks and take a place in front of her on the rug. "Thank you, Kiara," she says, complimenting a scrawny child with long black hair for sitting criss-cross-style. As the other students take their places on the rug, the teacher sits on the edge of her chair. Her eyes move from left to right, watchful for misbehavior.
"Look at that teacher scan," says Jim Lengel with an excited laugh. "It's like radar."
The students freeze as Lengel, a visiting professor at Hunter College School of Education, pauses the video he's been watching them on. Ten of the third-graders are looking directly at the teacher, while two look off toward the camera.
"The teacher has most of the kids engaged," Lengel notes. "The kids are on the edge of their seats. She's on the edge of her seat. It would be impossible to see this without video."
Lengel is showing off Hunter's video teacher-training program, which is drawing national attention as an innovative way to improve a field that has been derided as focused too much on theory and not enough on practical methods. Education schools, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an October speech at Columbia Teachers College, are "doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom"; Hunter's video initiative, said Duncan, holds promise as an "extraordinary teacher preparation program."
Since 2008, student teachers from Hunter have been equipped with tiny, easy-to-use video cameras and tripods so that they can tape their own lessons. This is a huge shift from the compartmentalized, closed-door culture of many public schools, where the teachers union contract strictly limits the number of formal observations a principal can do each year. (The union even provides the format for observation, a basic checklist.) The idea behind the video observation, its advocates say, is to eliminate this legalistic, adversarial relationship, turning observation from a tool for punishment into one for self-improvement.
"I could call up a video and instantly transport myself into New York City classrooms," says Lengel, who built Hunter's video software from scratch to enable student teachers to upload their digitally recorded lessons to a password-protected website, somewhat like a private YouTube. Lessons are searchable by subject (math, language arts, science, etc.), by grade level (kindergarten through 12th grade and adult), by groupings (small group, one-to-one, large group), and by experience of the teacher (student teacher, two to five years' experience, five to 10 years' experience, and 10-plus years' experience). Teachers can even search by the commonly used terms for teaching strategies, such as "turn and talk" or "guided reading."
To demonstrate, Lengel searches the video database for recent uploads. Six videos, he notes, are being uploaded at this very minute. "This allows us to see school from the kids' perspective," he says. "We can stop the video and say, 'Look. What's going on here? Why did that student lose attention?' That's the magic: Never before have we had the act of teaching right in front of us as we talk about it."
Already, more than 5,000 recorded lessons from student teachers working in schools across the five boroughs have been uploaded to Hunter's website. Every student enrolled in Hunter's education program is required to upload one 45-minute video lesson that is only made available to the student's mentor professors, and another two- to five-minute clip available to everyone in the school. The shorter clips are often shown in classes at Hunter.
Student teachers might find this harrowing at first, but it's worth it, they say.
"I have seen four-minute video clips that have absolutely changed the way I teach," says Sarah Rorimer, a recent Hunter graduate now teaching at Long Island City High School. "In a video I saw, one of my colleagues simply walks up to a group of students who were acting up and holds up a book. That simple action caused the students to stop what they were doing and pay attention. You can see in the videos that the closer in proximity that you get to the students, the more engaged they will be. Now I know that I shouldn't just stand in front of the classroom. I move around as much as possible."
At the Harlem Success Academy charter schools, which use Hunter's software for their own teacher-training program, video analysis has developed well beyond improving classroom management. The focus is on pedagogy and establishing a culture of professionalism, which, according to Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Harlem Success, has been sorely lacking in teaching.
Stacey Apatov, the lead science teacher at Harlem Success, earned her certification through Pace University and says that her professors there never once observed her in the classroom. "The program was very disconnected from my students and my classroom," she says. "It was textbook-based: 'In fantasyland, this is what you would do.' But what do you do when you have 28 kids who don't all read on the same level?"
Each teacher at Harlem Success routinely records several lessons each week, which are either sent to a more experienced teacher for individualized feedback or, more often, shown to teachers who teach the same grade, who convene to discuss them.