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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation: Linking Students to a Curriculum That Isn't Linked to Them

Our Teacher Research: Past & Present

Helping all students achieve higher standards

Teacher preparation and new teacher induction   Ongoing teacher professional growth   Teacher networks
Teacher leadership in school change   Helping all students achieve higher standards      

Article courtesy of Journal of the Rochester Teachers Association,
Spring/Summer 2003

Linking Students to a Curriculum That Isn't Linked to Them

Jeremy L. Copeland

Teacher, Grady Technical High School, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

Jeremy Copeland is currently a Met Life Fellow at the Teacher's Network Policy Institute. He has been teaching history for the past two years at Grady Technical High School in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, after receiving his M.A. in social studies education from NYU, where he was a Jonathan Levin Fellow.

I was still pretty green at teaching when I began this action research project 25 years old and just bounced from a large zoned high school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to Grady High School in Brighton Beach. I am constantly trying to learn how to become a better history teacher. When I look at my students' faces, I see intelligence, I hear bright and new ideas, and have a renewed sense of hope about the world and my profession. Being African American and male contributes heavily to the dynamic that drives the interaction between my students and me. It gives me a slight edge an opportunity to experiment with my teaching style. Such experimentation, however, bears several risks.

My concerns were primarily about my students. Creating an environment in which the content of the curriculum reflects the students' experiences had to result in more than my just being seen as that "cool black dude" by my students and even some colleagues. Consequently, I used the teacher research process as a way to demonstrate and document that the changes I was making were grounded in solid student centered educational practices that include students of color. Teacher research was a way to address my concern that there could be some risks for students as I explored new practices.

As I considered my professional needs and my students' instructional needs, the following research question took shape: How will my students respond to a more student centered teaching style? I was particularly interested to see whether bringing students' experiences into existing curriculum and lessons might increase their involvement and reduce alienation or indifference to curriculum content.

Centering Students in Practice
I developed my approaches to teaching with the idea that students need to see relevance in the curriculum and how it is presented. In my action research project, instruction, classroom management, and assessment were all designed with the intent to meet this goal.

Background and Context
Teaching history both 10th grade global history and 11th grade American history at Grady High School is a challenge in itself. Grady is a vocational-technical institution in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. Students do not resemble the mostly Russian and Middle Eastern immigrant populations that live in Brighton Beach. The school is about 75% Black (the majority of whom are American born of West Indian ancestry), 20% Latino/a, 5% white, Asian, and "other." It is about 75% male and 25% female. Because many of these students are in the school to study a specific trade, history class ranks fairly low among their interests. Bryan, an African American senior, demanded of me, "Why should I care about what happened to these dudes a long time ago? What does that have to do with me getting bread now?" I need to draw on the experiences of students like Bryan to link them to the curriculum. In fact, about 65% of my students feel like Bryan. It is evident in their attitude toward their work, and in daily attendance rates. Apathy toward their work is driven by a belief that education, at least in its current form in our society, is irrelevant to them. Many students see few concrete examples of the socio economic benefits that may come with an education.

Pressures on students and teachers are at an all-time high since the implementation of the new Regents requirements for graduation. Despite political "adjustments" made to the passing score, they present quite a contrast to the now abandoned and much easier RCT, and include both document and thematic based essays. The global history exam is given at the culmination of a two year course in the spring of the sophomore year. The RCT saw failure rates as high as 70% in many schools, with students answering essay questions about Martin Luther of the Protestant Reformation by quoting passages from the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a contemporary figure. Therefore, there is an urgent need to do something besides maintaining the status quo. Current approaches are not working.

Working for the New York City Board of Education, I learned to conduct my class using the classic developmental lesson. This included an aim (always in the form of a question), performance objectives, a motivation, and a chalkboard full of notes, to be copied by students word for word. One supervisor in a previous school demanded that these notes be in outline form. This style left little room for students' critical analysis of the content of the lesson and fostered a teacher dominated environment. However, I did have some things going for me.

My age, race, and appearance in many ways were a reflection of my students. In many cases, my students and I hold a similar worldview. We commonly share African American culture and experiences with racism. I could easily flow back and forth between "standard" English and the home languages often spoken by my students. We also know and live in the context of hip hop and popular culture. These were all influencing factors during our formative years. I wasn't a foreign or hostile image inserting myself into their world for forty minutes a day; on a certain level, my students could identify with me. Despite these similarities, I had to do more. My Timberland boots and cornrows were not enough to get my students to engage with the curriculum. I needed to alter my teaching practices and apply research based approaches. However, I was fearful of changing my practices to the detriment of my students. What if they didn't work or I was ineffective in implementing them? I decided to try new, student centered approaches, and to continually assess these practices to build on my strengths and learn more about my Students' strengths and perceptions.

Instructional Practices
Silverman and Casazza (2000) developed a model entitled TRPP (theory, research, principles, and practices) that assisted me in my lesson planning. Instead of an aim that changes daily, the model uses themes that are written on the board and change after several days. For example, imperialism might be a theme covering several topics, such as the "scramble" for Africa and "spheres of influence" in China. I did this in the belief that an understanding of themes is necessary for students to be able to conceptualize and make meaning of more discrete topics and ideas. Also, students must demonstrate this kind of knowledge to do well on essays and Regents exams.

Silverman and Casazza suggest that "teachers who use concrete examples and suggest practical applications help learners connect prior knowledge to new information" (p. 132). For example, one class began with a discussion about issues and attitudes related to hairstyle and texture and skin color within the African American and African communities. Implicit in the discussion were questions such as: How are ideas and attitudes about these topics influenced by a history of cultural imperialism or cultural domination? What is the relationship between modern social and economic problems in Africa and European imperialism over the last five centuries? The class session began with student knowledge and voice and moved to curriculum concepts and personalities on Regents exams, such as the so called "scramble" for Africa, imperialism, nationalism, and the roles of African and European leaders.

Frequent discussions are another classroom practice advocated by the TRPP model " [e]nvironments characterized by critical dialogue, interactive learning and risk taking promote student learning and development" (Silverman and Casazza, p. 132).

Still another example of instruction built on students' knowledge to help them construct curricular content and make their own meanings was a lesson about civic responsibility and government's regulatory role and potential for shaping the social structure. We began our discussion with student observations about differences in neighborhoods. I explained that I had just moved from Laurelton, the middle class African American Queens community I was raised in, to Far Rockaway, which my students and I refer to as the "hood."

"Why is it that you can always tell when you're entering a poor Black neighborhood?" I asked. Besides the visibility of black people, I got a variety of answers such as the differences in the quality of supermarkets and public services such as health care, garbage collection, and recreational facilities. They also noted the presence of graffiti and litter. A discussion quickly developed as students spoke about the differences between the black, white, and Jewish sections of Crown Heights, where many of them live, and the conditions in the public housing projects. I asked students why they thought our living conditions are the way they are, and also questioned why some of us seem to have a lack of regard for our environment.

I simply became the moderator at this point, ensuring that all who wanted to talk had a chance. I was able to introduce crucial themes such as the redlining of communities of color in the 1960s and 1970s, fair housing laws, urban renewal, and the history of public housing. All of these topics and concepts are relevant to students' lives, and most are part of the curriculum tested on Regents exams.

Early in the discussion, it became abundantly clear that daily discussions were not supported by chalkboard outlines. Conventionally, notes on the board are to be copied exactly. The teacher's culture and experience are the only things represented. My students and I needed to develop a new way of note taking, which my students decided to call "dictation." Actually, they were not taking dictation directly from me; the notes were growing out of our discussions. This cannot be done if students are not paying attention, keeping up with, distilling, and recording the interchange. Writing notes in this way is challenging, requiring that they track opposing viewpoints and the beginning of a consensus. Most important, the notes written on the board were produced by the students and their teacher. I have integrated aspects of the social constructivist model in this approach. According to Silverman and Casazza (p. 154), students are expected to construct their own meanings concerning a problem or issue. The class processes information collectively in a way that reflects the perspectives of its members and tries to build consensus as individual ideas are integrated.

Classroom Management
Classroom management strategies including dealing with calling out, hall and bathroom passes, lateness, and cutting also needed to be modified. Of these issues, passes and lateness are discussed here. Early on, I realized the disruptive effects that asking to go to the restroom had on our work. I felt myself getting aggravated when a hand would go up in the middle of a heated discussion, and I would eagerly ask, "Yes, what do you have to say?" and I would hear, "Can I go to the bathroom?" Therefore, I modified my restroom policy the pass was on my desk and the students were just allowed to take the pass and leave. This actually cut down on the number of trips, averaging now at about two per period; it had been about five. Students seemed to realize now that if they left, they might miss a crucial part of the discussion.

I used the same policy for lateness, and found that it also decreased when I paid less attention to it. Again, students seem to realize that they could not come in late and simply copy the information they missed from the board. Also, I was fortunate to have an assistant principal who permitted even encouraged this kind of approach as long as he was convinced I was aware of students' actions. Convincing him was not very difficult. He would often drop in on a lesson and contribute, telling the class and me something interesting we didn't know. He also occasionally invited me into his class to observe him teach. He plans to retire at the end of the term after providing the Board of Education with 30+ years of service.

I am not a proponent of high stakes testing in my classroom or on the state level. Instead, in my action research, I developed multiple assessment strategies, focusing primarily on my students' ability to answer questions asked by me and, even more important, by other students. I agree with Baloche, who stated, "Well structured learning goals that are designed to emphasize cooperation tend to promote higher achievement than learning goals that are designed to emphasize either individualism or competition" (1998, p. 3).
To encourage participation, I kept track of who were answering questions, and called on and encouraged the less vocal and less involved. I made clear to students that learning and grades included class participation. I did not, however, tell students they were "wrong"; I offered skepticism rather than condemnation or immediate disagreement when a student made a statement that was factually inaccurate. About the only occasion that my response was adamant in its opposition was if a student said something that was offensive or bigoted.

I required more writing than ever before. Not all of it was graded it was informal, "writing to learn." Because students were aware of the writing demands of the Regents, they were for the most part cooperative. I think the next step in my changing over to a less teacher-centered model will be having students write for each other. This will also prepare my students for critical thinking as well as writing at the college level.

My understanding of the action research approach is that it can help the teacher researcher understand the student's world from the student's point of view, as opposed to traditional research, which employs hypothesis testing and often relies on quantitative rather than qualitative data. Action research also helps teachers understand and recognize when and why their practices work for students and if they need to be changed. Much like informants in an ethnographic study, students in action research are informants, respondents, and even co investigators.

I have always tried to pay attention to student experiences as a way of linking them to the curriculum. My action research has given me an opportunity to be conscious of, and to develop, this approach. Hubbard and Power suggest that good action research begins from the "basic wonderings of a teacher" (1993, p. 7). Months of research and wondering have turned up some surprising answers.

For me, action research involves making changes in my behavior to encourage changes in student behavior or action, while carefully researching the effects or outcomes of these actions. Basically, I made three types of changes in my instruction. I modified my lesson planning to work from student knowledge and interest. I tried to develop classroom management strategies that were based on different assumptions about student behavior; this meant less verbal reprimands for so called inappropriate behavior. Finally, I changed my assessment strategy, including oral in class assessments of understanding.

Early in my action research I was concerned about changing my teaching practices to the detriment of students' scores on Regents exams. Their scores are an important source of data, and I have included material on them here. My sources of quantitative and qualitative data were students' written and oral responses and commentary, written and oral assessments, and my observations and journal notes. Furthermore, I kept quantitative data on lateness, attendance, and student interruptions all in connection with changes in classroom instruction and management.

At the beginning of the term, many students were very uncomfortable and resisted the student centered approach. Although student apathy concerning history was evident, most of the class had definite expectations about how a class should be run. Complaints about the lack of notes on the board were frequent. Some incisive analysis of the new approach used in my action research comes from the students. Student test scores and rate of participation in discussions began to go up as the classroom environment became less and less teacher centered. Initially, students would simply not participate. On a typical day at the beginning of the term, about 10% of the class would answer questions. This figure would rise slightly when the topic was something more interesting to them-usually something current. Over time, students began to remember the content of lessons based upon the contributions of fellow students instead of mine alone. James, an eleventh grade African American in my American history class, wrote:

I honestly enjoy this class because it's different ... discussion instead of constantly question and answer is a change. To me, you learn a lot more about history from what other people discern from it.

As the semester progressed, student absences became less frequent. After extracting "no shows" (students on the roster who had never reported), the attendance rate was about 95%. This is excellent for a school that averages 80% to 85% attendance on a school wide basis. Class participation also improved. In my smallest American history class, 15 students attended regularly and about 12 of them were participating on a consistent basis. Tracy, an African American student in the eleventh grade, led a discussion one day about the difference between single and two parent households. With regard to the student experience model, she wrote:

This class is definitely different from all of my history classes in general. In my other history classes I've taken, the lesson plan was taught by giving the class a certain amount of pages to read and questions to answer at the end, followed by notes to write down on the board. This type of lesson plan results in students either falling asleep, not participating and cutting class.... On the other hand this class, it helps you to learn from the discussions about current events to the discussions about history... Usually when I learn history I forget it the next week....

Joseph, one of two Italian American students in my largest American history class, was one of the first students to adapt to this method. He scored fairly high on exams in the beginning, and showed marked improvement as the semester progressed:

I think that this is my best class because it's REAL. The teacher gets us into the subject by relating history to the current day, like history and music. If he talks about a subject and relates it to a popular song, it's easier to remember. Copeland does a good job in keeping up with what happens in order to teach.

I realized that less vocal students may be somewhat uncomfortable. A class focused around discussion involves more oral assessment and less testing of the traditional type. Most tests given were essay exams, and they were less frequent - covering several chapters at a time and given over a span of several weeks. Report card grades reflected about 50% exam scores and 50% class participation. Robert, an African American student of Caribbean background, wrote:

This class is different from my other history classes because I feel that it is unfair that Mr. Copeland judges people on class participation rather than test scores. So that means people as shy as myself will always get a 75 and my test score of 100 will mean nothing. I understand most of the concepts given by Mr. Copeland. I just wish that when he gives a test, he will realize that and grade me based on the test.

By the end of the semester most of the students, including Robert, were actively participating in daily discussions. They were answering each other's questions and correcting each other's mistakes. All of the students who came on a regular basis spoke in class at least once a week and about 60 % spoke once a day. This was a no table increase from the beginning of the semester, when only about 25% participated on a regular basis. The most dramatic improvement was in my fourth period American history class of 30 students. Students themselves encouraged me to call on the quieter students; it would have been even less teacher centered if they had directly invited a classmate to speak. Ultimately, I would like to see students do this to demonstrate leadership and responsibility for each other. Sophia, an African American student in the class, wrote:

... I feel like he is talking to each one of us. [He] doesn't just run off a list of facts, but he takes time to adapt the information to things we can relate to.... This causes me to relate to him as a person, even as a friend rather than just a teacher. Even when discussing matters of opinion, Mr. Copeland takes caution not to crush our opinions as if his were right.... that gives me an open forum to talk and share my opinion with my classmates.

Upon occasional notebook reviews, I have found that about 85% of the students took notes during the discussions. The notes were often skimpy, but they did track the discussion. This was the greatest challenge. Students are accustomed to the talk and chalk method of teaching. Many were very resistant to a format of listening and writing things down. Glen, an Italian American student in my American history class, wrote about note taking:

... this class makes us think more.... I mean that this class is more interactive, where we have to take our notes [based] upon what we talk about. By taking notes through class conversations and interactions I believe we're getting more insight on a topic by talking and getting more involved with the class instead of just writing notes on the board. Not only with this class but in any class where the teacher was fun and made us take our notes based on what we talked about, in those classes I learned a lot more and passed.

Joseph, a Latino student in the same class, wrote:

We started to write more and understand more because my teacher didn't really write on the board. It's almost like forcing you to learn and that really helped me pay close attention to details.

Note taking was time consuming in the beginning. Many students became frustrated as they tried to keep up. Initially, it was difficult for some students to determine what material was noteworthy. By the middle of the semester the complaints became less frequent, and I had to repeat myself less often. John, an African American student in my fourth period history class, wrote:

This class is different from my other history classes because of the dictation. The dictation helps you write and remember all the important facts you need to know. I never had a history class where my teacher was young. This makes the class more alive than my other previous history classes.

James, an African American student, did not exactly share the same view:

I think the way [he teaches] is good, [but] I wish he would write on the board more, but the notes are short and easy to remember. Mr. Copeland prepared me for college with research papers and long essays. The discussions we had in class were sometimes off the topic, like when we were saying that Brownsville, Crown Heights, Queens and Bed Sty how they were segregated. I like it, but sometimes he bores me with the history.

By June, I was dedicating about two class sessions per week to Regents review. As a class, we would read through the multiple choice exams and discuss the correct and incorrect answers. I got permission from my departmental assistant principal as well as from my administrative assistant principal to have a review session the morning of the global history exam. About 30%, or 40%, of my history students showed up for the review. We were interrupted and continued in a local pizza parlor, with more students joining us on their way to school. Seventy three percent of these students scored 55 or better fulfilling state requirements.

A student centered model is part of a multifaceted approach to developing the whole student, as opposed to teaching one subject to that student. Student interaction, cooperative learning, conversational skills, and providing constructive criticism are all embedded in this approach. These skills are not only beneficial for future endeavors in school, but also for home relationships, the workforce, and the adult world which students cannot simply tour and leave.

In response to my original research question, I found that as a result of a student centered teaching style, students learned to engage with the curriculum and with each other. Through discussion, they experienced the thought processes of themselves and others, and learned to determine what information, ideas, and insights were relevant to the topics being covered. Students developed the ability to generate their own notes as a result of this type of interaction. It became evident that historical knowledge usually provided information that was related to the answers to their questions and concerns as well as to those raised by their teacher or their assessments. Students came to understand and learn how to perform the kinds of activities and actions that make academic success a probability. They also learned to give and take constructive criticism and to assist each other's learning; this includes the areas of preparation, participation, attentiveness, note taking, and self monitoring. Any outward evidence of apprehension about seeking assistance was minimal by June. Through teaching lessons themselves, some students experienced how teaching others enhances one's own learning. In general, students were observant of the practices being used and how they affected them as learners.

In the beginning of this project, I was relatively certain that student centered approaches were the most effective practices for teaching and learning. My concerns were related to my ability to be effective in their design and implementation. I found that working from student knowledge and experience was more engaging than the highly scripted teacher directed method I had been using. I felt more confident as students' responses provided the evidence that strengthened my thinking and my resolve.

There is a definite apathy toward schooling felt by many young people in our community. I saw it when I was a teenager and I see it now. This is a crisis, especially among young Black men. Many of my students see education, especially about things that happened before they were born, as totally irrelevant. Constant bombardment by images on MTV, BET, and the movies make so many of my students' icons people who contribute little or nothing to the betterment or empowerment of people of color.

We live in a world where everybody sees negativity and dysfunction on TV, whether rich or poor, Black or white. When you are teaching low income children of color, most from one parent homes and who have been underserviced most of their lives, you have to do whatever it takes to encourage learning. They already know how things are "screwed up" because they see it every day. As a history teacher, I used their experiences and frames of reference to show them why things are the way they are and that it's not inevitable. Obviously, as a Black man, regardless of where I grew up, I see it all just as clearly as they do.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to acknowledge where our students find themselves not only in the educational system but also in the world. I learned through this study that effective teaching practices make a significant difference in student motivation and learning. This study shows that there are practices that all teachers can use to enhance the learning of all students.

Baloche, L. A. (1998). The cooperative classroom: Empowering learning. Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall.
Hubbard, R. S., & Power, B. M. (1993). The art of classroom inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Silverman, S., & Casazza, M. (2000). Learning and development: Making connections to enhance learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass Publishers.


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