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“Wow, I’ve never seen those kids behave like that in my class,” Patton gushed, as she watched a room of typically restless ninth-grade boys fully engaged in a discussion of literature.
That’s just the reaction Paul Chin, Arlington High School’s assistant principal, was hoping for when he asked Bonfiglio if he could show her recorded lesson to about 15 of her colleagues.
“Katie raises the bar of expectations for the kids to reach,” Chin said. “I thought the bar for her is different than what other teachers maybe thought was possible. I wanted them to see that with their own eyes.”
It was brave of Bonfiglio to agree, Chin thought, and the fresh-out-of-college teacher admitted the idea was daunting at first. But afterward, she found the discussion with her peers so eye-opening she made changes to some of her other teaching routines.
The video camera is hardly a new training tool, but with a nationwide push underway to dramatically improve teacher training and evaluation, the teacher video critiques that emerged at Arlington High School this year could conceivably be the rule in years to come rather than the exception.
Video recording of teachers is prompting a national debate about its use both as an instructional tool and for evaluating teacher effectiveness.
A major study of teaching that relied heavily on video recording of lessons prompted Microsoft founder Bill Gates and others to call for wider use of the technique. At the same time, Indiana is requiring public schools to create new systems of evaluating and rating teachers, which has districts across the state exploring ideas for how best to judge how teachers teach.
One of the largest studies ever conducted to try to understand what makes good teaching, the Methods of Effective Teaching Study led by Harvard University researcher Thomas Kane, analyzed 7,500 lessons taught by 1,300 teachers from six school districts around the country and had experts score their effectiveness.
It made Kane a believer in video.
“Digital video may be more valuable than an observer’s notes for allowing a teacher to “see,” literally, the strengths and weaknesses in their practice,” Kane said. “Someone cannot remember what they did not notice in the first place.”
The results led Gates, whose foundation funded the study, to call for spending as much as $5 billion to videotape every U.S. teacher as part of their performance evaluation. (Disclaimer: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among The Hechinger Report‘s funders.)
“The impact for teachers would be phenomenal,” he said in the speech. “We would finally have a way to give them feedback a well as a means for them to act on it.”
For Marcus Robinson, the CEO of EdPower, videotaping teachers started out as just a way to solve a nagging student-teacher classroom conflict.
EdPower runs two charter schools and last summer began managing Arlington after the state took the school over from Indianapolis Public Schools, citing six years of low test scores.
But back when Robinson was the new principal of Tindley Accelerated School in 2004, he got complaints from several students that their teacher spoke rudely to them. The teacher, in turn, complained that it was the students who were unruly.
During several observations, everything seemed fine, which is what Robinson told students who kept complaining. But they insisted there was a problem.
“One of the girls said, ‘Why don’t you put a camera in the classroom?’ ” Robinson said. “She said, ‘Why don’t you put it in the ceiling where she can’t see it?’ ”
He was intrigued and began doing research. There was very little information available at the time about the effectiveness of cameras as a classroom evaluation tool. But he found one charter school in South Bend that used classroom cameras. Robinson decided to try it.
It helped him resolve that particular classroom conflict — and soon he installed cameras in every classroom. He found the cameras were useful for giving teachers feedback, good and bad. On Saturdays, Robinson would often come into the office and watch video for a couple of hours, sending teachers feedback on what he saw.
“Teachers who want to be great can be helped by observing what is working in their classroom and what’s not, with some serious coaching about what they can do to get better,” he said.
When EdPower took over Arlington, one of the first things Robinson did was order cameras installed in every classroom.
Chin, the assistant principal, sometimes looks at videos from those cameras, but he prefers to shoot his own video on an iPhone while observing teachers. The sound quality on the classroom cameras sometimes makes it hard to hear what everyone is saying, he said.
Chin knows the value of video.
The New York City native taught in Los Angeles through Teach For America — a national organization that places top graduates as teachers in high poverty schools — and then worked for four years at North Star Academy in Newark, N.J., where he routinely used video.
At North Star, Chin recorded himself teaching all the time. He would analyze his lessons and then discuss the video with the principal.
“Video analysis was something I had never heard of before,” he said.
Now an instructional leader himself, Chin relies on a bank of videos of teachers he brought with him from Uncommon Schools to show Arlington teachers examples of teaching techniques done well.
That’s what he did with first-year teacher Brittany Scherer in a late April meeting.
Chin and Annette De La Llana, an instructional coach, began by watching Scherer teach the classic Harper Lee novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” on video.
Scherer thought she would be a lawyer growing up in Cincinnati and while attending the University of Notre Dame but she was intrigued by the idea of trying teaching and was placed in Indianapolis by Teach for America.
Since she did not study education in college, Scherer had a steeper learning curve than some of her peers. All of her classroom preparation came last summer in a Teach For America crash course while education majors commonly do significant classroom observation and student teaching in college.
Still, Chin says she has been a quick learner and is fast becoming an excellent teacher. But she has things to work on, such as “ratio.”
Ratio is a term Chin uses to describe how much talking the teacher does compared with the students or “scholars,” as Arlington calls them. The more Scherer can shift the conversation, so the students take on a bigger share of the “cognitive demand” of talking with each other about the book, the better.
Scherer is the first to point this out to Chin and De la Llana on the video.
“The first thing I notice is I call on the same three scholars always,” she said. “It’s hard to remember who you called on last when you’re teaching. But on the video, I realize I call on them a lot.”
That’s exactly what Chin and De la Llana had written in their critique. It means the other students are not as engaged as they could be.
As they watch more video, Chin notes that Scherer sometimes answers her own questions if none of the students speak up. He puts up a video of Andy Chen, a math teacher he taught with in Newark, and pointed out three ways he shifts the ratio to the students in that situation — he feigns ignorance of the answers to his own questions, he rephrases the question or he takes a student answer and asks, “what’s next?”
Scherer took those ideas back to her classroom. The next day, she begins a discussion by “cold calling” five students who didn’t raise their hands in the first two minutes. She asked the students to explain why how Jem got his pants stuck in a fence, pretending not to know what happened. She pushes them to explain what happened next when they say Jem lied about the pants to his father.
Kane, the Harvard researcher, believes thinks video can be so powerful that, like Gates, he’s pushing for all teachers to record themselves teaching and submit video as part of their performance reviews.
“We give teachers a camera,” he said. “We show them a district’s standards. We ask them to record their own lessons and, when they have lessons that they are proud of, they submit them. We would then train principals on how to use the video for evaluating and providing productive feedback to teachers.”
Teachers’ weaknesses show up even in their best lessons, Kane has found.
“By allowing teachers to choose, we did not forgo the opportunity to see who was struggling,” he said.
Not everyone is on board with Kane and Gates’ plan, however.
Anthony Cody, a National Board certified teacher from Oakland who now blogs for Education Week magazine, has argued that connecting systems of feedback with high-stakes evaluation — teachers rated “ineffective” in Indiana can be fired and those who “need improvement” are blocked from pay raises — will sow distrust.
“Teachers must feel a level of safety and trust with their colleagues before they will open themselves up to the sort of critical feedback they envision,” he wrote for the Washington Post. “That trust is not likely to be found in the context of measurement, supervision and evaluation now being built.”
But one fan of video is State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, who said she had to submit videos of herself teaching to earn National Board certification, a challenging credential that requires an intensive review of teaching practice.
The key, Ritz said, is that video prompts a discussion between teachers and administrators who oversee their work.
“They have to have dialogue,” she said. “I sense some administrators may not want to have the dialogue. The dialogue is the most important piece of evaluation when you’re having that conversation about instruction and about the students.”
For EdPower, video is one of several tools for evaluating teachers, along with in-person observation, test scores and other factors. Video is not scored or counted officially in the year-end evaluation, but administrators use it as part of weekly evaluations that build toward the final evaluation.
Bonfiglio, who also came to Arlington through Teach for America, said her video session with other teachers gave her helpful insights. The Toledo, Ohio, native and Ohio State graduate has been aiming for a teaching career since high school.
Her Arlington classes have posted extraordinary gains on EdPower’s diagnostic tests — raising the average score for her ninth-graders from a fifth-grade level to a ninth-grade level. Four years’ gain in just eight months is beyond anything Chin had ever seen before.
“She somehow managed to close the gap,” he said.
Even so, Bonfiglio remained frustrated by her struggle with a particularly excitable English class of all ninth-grade boys.
The boys liked to talk — and talking out of turn can quickly hijack the lesson.
One good tip she got from the group video session, She immediately put into practice one good tip she got from the group video session, and she noticed improvement.
She put directions on paper for students instead of on the board because students can lose focus just by lifting their heads.
In a separate video review session with Chin, she asked for more ideas to get her students engaged with each other while keeping control. She was anxious about starting five weeks of teaching them Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“When they’re speaking, they speak to me,” she said, watching herself on screen. “I want them to talk to each other. I’m struggling with how to do that.”
“The play’s the thing”
The answer, it turned out, came from the students.
Soon after her students began to read the play, one of them asked if they could act out some scenes. Bonfiglio liked the idea, suggesting they meet after school to try it.
“I knew that a performance would help build and sustain their investment in a challenging play,” she said. “I’m also a big fan of anything that gives them ownership over their learning, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
Bonfiglio was thinking the students might eventually perform at a lunch period. But they had a more ambitious goal — the spring concert. She cleared the idea with the music teacher, who agreed as long as the group passed a tryout with her to assure they were “stage ready.”
“The next thing I knew, I was holding auditions,” Bonfiglio said.
Among the scenes they performed was the very first they discussed in class — a fight scene.
“How many of you have seen a fight?” she asked in class.
Nearly every hand went up. Arlington was notorious for fights last year. They talked about how two rival clans that meet in the street might prepare to fight.
“The point of me asking that is because in Act 1, Scene 1, it’s going to be a fight,” she told the boys. “That’s how Shakespeare builds suspense. Before a fight it is a little suspenseful.”
To act out the scene, Bonfiglio encouraged the boys to audition for parts that fit their personalities. DeWayne James, who attended Arlington last year and considers himself a peacemaker, won the part of the friar, who tries to stop the fight.
The Romeo and Juliet scenes were a hit at the concert. The fight scene looked a bit more like what you might see in a parking lot on a Saturday night rather than on the streets of Verona — Bonfiglio let the actors translate Shakespeare’s lines and speak them the way they would talk naturally — but there was no mistaking the action or the familiar roles of instigators and reluctant participants of a fight.
Playing the friar, James said, made him think about how all the characters thought and behaved, he said. The themes from the 400-year-old play, he realized, were universal.
“Juliet was in Verona,” he said. “but you could have a Juliet in Asia, Africa or America and the story would be the same — a young lady in love who doesn’t know how to take it.”
Up on stage, the two groups of boys playing their parts weren’t much different from rival gangs, he said. They talked with each other in rehearsal about the motivation of each character and how each would portray those feelings.
“In Verona, it would have been swords, but, in modern times, it would be a fight with fists,” James said. “Everything is the same. Those situations happen and people play those same roles — like the peacemaker, or the hot head.”
That was exactly the effect Bonfiglio was aiming for coming out of the video sessions. By performing, the boys understood the play in the context of their own lives and tamped down the clowning.
James was certain it would translate to a better test result, too.
“On a test, since I was the friar, I got those answers perfect,” he said. “Patricia, my friend, was the princess. I got those answers, too. It just jogged my memory to a different standard to think of it that way, rather than if we just read the book.”