A Call for Transforming High School Instruction

An open letter to a teacher who doesn’t know how to begin in a classroom that is full of change.

by Kipp Bentley / May 9, 2018

I recently came across a 2015 article from The Atlantic, The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher: When kids can get their lessons from the Internet, what’s left for instructors to do? Written by a veteran high school English teacher, he speculates about the impacts of technology on the future of classroom teaching.

Looking 20 years ahead (while expecting it will be sooner,) the author imagines classrooms will all have a large digital screen in the front of the room that displays amazing lessons taught by a virtual “super teacher.” The lessons will include professional video footage, ancillary TED Talk-type content, interactive games for students to play against each other, and will end with an assessment the students take on their computers, immediately receiving their scores. The class won’t have an assigned teacher, but will instead be managed by a low-paid “tech” who runs the equipment and maintains order.   

The author’s description is already close to being a reality. And it represents a growing concern among veteran high school teachers who feel their degrees and the years spent honing their craft are becoming devalued, while students increasingly expect to be engaged and entertained in the classroom.

In response to these concerns, here’s my open letter to one of these high school teachers struggling to adapt:

Sorry, my friend, but the day of the content expert who stands at the front of a classroom and delivers lectures and lessons is over. No, spicing up these lessons with PowerPoint isn’t enough. Nor is using the occasional video.

You realize that making your students put away their phones and digital devices, except when taking notes or doing research, is your effort to buy yourself some time while you figure out what to do with these things, because they’re not going away. You see that.

You’ve been a good teacher. You’ve prided yourself on the hours you’ve spent developing detailed lesson plans and grading papers. You’ve adopted the school’s electronic grade book and dutifully post your students’ test and assignment scores. You’ve always cared about your students and you’ve made yourself available to them for assistance. But fewer are taking you up on your offer. And more want to know which Khan Academy videos you recommend as homework help, or if they can email or text you with questions.

All of this makes you feel old, but you’ve got at least 10 more years until you can retire. You don’t want to just hang on, but you also aren’t sure how much you can change, or how to do it.   

Also, your school district is probably making a big push towards personalized learning. They want teachers to use more student-centered learning methods that meet the individual needs of each student. Most of your school’s professional development courses are either on these topics or on technology. But no one is telling you what you should do differently in your classroom tomorrow. Your department colleagues don’t seem too interested in changing, so you don’t know where to begin.

Well, understanding all of this, here’s what I suggest:

  1. Start using a learning management system. If your school hasn’t already adopted one, go with Google Classroom; it’s a good place to begin; it’s free, and not too hard to use. It will be a great asset for both you and your students. 
  2. Post all of your class assignments in Classroom, and start adding in other digital resources that both enhance the content and are ones students can use for homework help.
  3. If they aren’t already, have your students use Google Docs. Docs is a part of Google Classroom, and in addition to being a decent word processing tool, it also provides lots of great possibilities for collaborative work among the students. And have your students turn in their digital assignments as Google Docs within Classroom. You can grade and return them the same way.
  4. Move away from relying on print textbooks. There are lots of free — and better — resources online. Yes, it will take some time to find the best ones that match your curriculum, but with a little effort, you can find online groups of teachers in your content area trying to do the same thing, so share ideas with them. And look for resources other than just texts — like video and audio. Start linking to these in Classroom.
  5. Instead of giving one assignment to your whole class, start working with your students to build their own assignments based on their interests — especially for the bigger projects. And have the kids digitally present their work to the class using the tools in your classroom: projector, document camera, etc. Please, no more poster board presentations.  
  6. Learn with your students, especially on anything that’s technology based, like Google Classroom. They’ll pick it up faster than you do, so take advantage of that.
  7. Ask lots of questions. Both of your students — get to know them, learn more about their interests and ambitions and the ways they learn things outside of school — and also of your colleagues, online and in person. What’s working for them in their classrooms? How are they managing and adapting to technology and personalized learning? What are their favorite tools and resources? In short, be a learner. Talk less and listen more.
  8. If you like, disregard items 1-3 in this list and use some other entry points to make changes in your classroom practice. But don’t focus on finding new ways to do old things. Find new ways to do new things.    
  9. Have heart and celebrate your successes, both large and small. Remember, you’re still a good teacher, but you’re also changing and getting better. And that’s a good thing.
  10. Oh, and don’t forget to have some fun.

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