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By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
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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.
During one training meeting at Harlem Success, Apatov recalls, she showed a video of a first-year teacher conducting a kindergarten science lesson on measuring volume. The graduated beakers that the kindergarteners were using could measure up to 100 milliliters of liquid. But the students had more than 100 milliliters of water to measure. When they filled the beakers, the water rose above the last line of measurement. The teacher's question: How do we measure the water that is above the 100 milliliter mark?
One little girl raised her hand. "You can measure it with your fingers."
"That wouldn't be exactly accurate, would it?" the teacher replied. "No, it would not."
The girl put her head down, the slightest trace of a pout on her face. The teacher continued the lesson.
"Students give a lot of wrong answers," says Apatov while reviewing the video on her laptop. "Sometimes, students are almost right. Well, we want to hold out for exactly right answers without making the kids feel bad. OK, that's not exactly how we would measure something, but there is some validity in that. So how do you handle that answer? You say, 'Hmm, that's a good start, but could you come up here? Let's compare your fingers with my fingers. Oh, our fingers are different sizes. Maybe that wouldn't be the most accurate way to measure something, then.' "
Apatov recalls that the other kindergarten teachers watching the lesson wondered if the teacher could have asked the question and then allowed the kindergartners to turn and talk to a partner about their answers. This way, all of the students would get to try out their answers before sharing with the rest of the class. The teacher would get a chance to go around and listen to the students' conversations and determine who got the concept and who didn't before asking the kids to share.
The kindergarten teacher in the video, says Apatov, "was actually harder on herself than I or her colleagues were, which tends to be the norm." Subsequent videos of the same first-year teacher showed her using the "turn and talk" method of discussion in her lessons with great success.
It is this type of training and feedback that critics say students in education schools are not getting. "This isn't a traditional observation in which the purpose often is to impugn the teacher," says Moskowitz. "This isn't a 'gotcha.' This is a chance to improve teaching and improve the profession."
"Imagine you had a law school," she continues, "and none of the law firms wanted to hire the lawyers because they weren't well prepared. Do you think that law school would keep on doing what it was doing? No, no, no. But schools of ed continue year after year after year to produce graduates who are not meeting the needs of urban kids—and nothing changes, and it's just maddening. They don't have to change."
New York Education Commissioner David Steiner, however, sees evidence that education schools are beginning to change. It was Steiner who launched Hunter's video-training program when he was dean of the school in 2008. "We're talking about more than 1,400 institutions here," he says. "They are not just going to change on a dime. But we are beginning to see innovation at schools, such as the University of Virginia and Stanford University. It's going to take time for professors to get used to these new tools. We need more experimentation for that to happen."
For now, video training is likely to be limited to education school students and charter school teachers; Steiner notes that public schools would need to negotiate its use through collective bargaining with the United Federation of Teachers. (UFT spokesperson Dick Riley says, "There has been no discussion with the DOE on the issue of broadening the videotaping process.") But that can still have a profound effect on those entering the teaching profession.
For his Methods course, Hunter Professor Jason Wirtz begins each class by showing a video and inviting students to critique it. "I'll say to my students, 'What are you going to do?' " he says. "They aren't really considering how much effort it takes to engage students. They're English majors, so they think they can just talk about a Toni Morrison novel and the students are going to be as intrinsically interested as they are."
Erin Collins, an American Studies teacher at Brooklyn International High School and a graduate of Hunter's Education School, has become a realist. "The more you watch the tapes," she says, "the more you begin to see yourself as a professional. Now it doesn't bother me to see myself make mistakes. I know that it's a temporary mistake, and I can do something about it. It becomes less personal, in a way."
So will other schools of education follow Hunter's lead? According to Lengel, there are many education schools and individual professors who ask their students to videotape their teaching. It's far from the majority, and not a schoolwide requirement, as it is at Hunter, but now that compact digital cameras have made video more accessible to novices, many education experts say video will become a mainstay of teacher training and practice.
"If you scroll ahead five to 10 years," says Norman Atkins, founder and CEO of Teacher U, a new teacher-training partnership between Hunter College and three charter school networks (Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First), "my assumption is that, as a matter of course, teachers are routinely videotaping their classrooms. They are getting feedback from their principal and fellow teachers and, as a result, their teaching is improving dramatically. The most meaningful professional development is to walk into another teacher's classroom and see how he teaches. Video provides this window into other classrooms that teachers so badly need."