October 29, 1994
Mr. William Foster
UFT Chapter Chairperson
Edward R. Murrow H.S.
The purpose of this letter is to try to explain the educational strategies and techniques that I am using to teach our students Regents Physics and to show that Mr. Bruckner and Mr. Cohen are against these strategies because they conflict with their educational philosophy. They, of course, will not admit this. Their claim will be that they are disappointed in my instruction for concrete and sound pedagogical reasons and not for abstract, arbitrary, or superficial reasons.
I began teaching Regents Physics at Midwood High School in September 1984 and was diligently trained and guided by David Kiefer, who is an outstanding science educator. We used so-called "developmental lesson plans" which relies mostly on "chalk and talk" and, of course, demonstrations of the laws of physics. In 1990 I was excessed and transferred to Erasmus Hall High School, where I taught Ninth Grade Physical Science.
My method of teaching changed to a more "constructivist" approach, and I developed lessons in physical science which involved student activities of various kinds. I have a claim to leadership in the field of teaching this subject, since I gave three workshops in which I shared my lesson plans, methods, and educational ideas with my colleagues. I also attended many of the workshops given by Alan Ascher and Marianetta Damari of Mrs. Coppin's staff, who played an important roll in my professional development. I learned at these workshops, and others I attended, the importance of actively involving students in the learning process. Students do not learn well by listening to a teacher talk and watching the teacher write on a chalkboard. This is especially true in physics because of the subject is so abstract and fundamental. The concepts of physics must be actively thought about and reflected on by the students. A student cannot learn by passively listening to a lesson on physics.
I transferred to Edward R. Murrow High School in order to have the opportunity of improving instruction in physics. I am totally committed to all students at Murrow learning physics. To this end, I have been revising all of the lesson plans I developed at Midwood in light of my professional experiences at Erasmus and my professional development with the Superintendent's office. My goal is to increase the number of students who take Regents Physics and to increase the number of students who pass the Regents Examination. I am trying to accomplish this goal by eliminating the wasteful and pointless aspects of the developmental lesson plan and replacing them with student activities that promote true learning.
I have come to believe, I am sorry to say, that Mr. Cohen and Mr. Bruckner are covert believers of teacher dominated lessons where students learn by listening rather than by doing. Their opinions about how to teach physics impacts negatively on my ability to carry out my commitment to the students at Edward R. Murrow.
The purpose of this letter is to explain why I have come to this conclusion which is based on Mr. Bruckner's Observation Report of October 5 (Exhibit A
) and Mr. Cohen's Observation Report dated September 26 (Exhibit B
), as well as two other observations, two letters in my file, and many conversations with my colleagues. Mr. Bruckner's Observation Report
Mr. Bruckner observed a lesson on Newton's First law (Exhibit C
), which I had taught 6 times before in the developmental mode. My approach has been to state Newton's and Aristotle's point of view and to see which one best describes five simple experiments. In this day's lesson I transformed the lesson into a cooperative student activity. The results were excellent. The lesson caused all of the groups to discuss and think about force and motion. I collected the projects at the end of the period and graded them. There was a total of 34 groups for the entire day, and 21 groups correctly described the particular experiment I used to grade the activity. Mr. Bruckner asked me for my assessment of the performance of the students in the post observation conference, but he did not mention these results in his report.
1) "You never helped the youngsters understand the meaning of the two statements attributed to Aristotle and Newton".. "You should have started the lesson with a discussion of the meaning of the statements so that the students all knew what they meant". (Exhibit A - 2nd paragraph) What does Mr. Bruckner know about the Physics Syllabus? Why does Mr. Bruckner make this suggestion? One can only conclude that Mr. Bruckner believes the teacher's roll is to explain things as opposed to being a facilitator of learning. I wasn't doing enough explaining so Mr. Bruckner was finding things for me to explain. Students learn very poorly from oral communications from teachers. The information goes through one ear and out the other. Even students who seem to be adept at grasping this type of instruction may be just memorizing what the "correct" answer is without really understanding the concept. Just because a student has memorized Newton's First law doesn't mean that he understands Newton's First Law.
2) "There was no closure, or summary, or conclusion to the lesson. Individuals were told whether their diagrams were correct or not but there was no conclusion for the class as a whole". (Exhibit A- 8th paragraph) The group's reports were collected and graded. It was not the conclusion that Mr. Bruckner liked, but what is his basis for believing that his conclusion is better than mine? I'm suggesting that his basis for believing this is his prejudice in favor of teacher dominated lessons.
3) The only comment about the lesson that Mr. Bruckner made which was educationally sound, which could not be assailed as arbitrary and without foundation, that dealt directly with student performance and achievement, was that "with 20 minutes left to the period three groups were no longer engaged in the assignment", and, horror of horrors, "with 5 minutes left only one group still was engaged in discussion" (Exhibit A- 7th paragraph ). I think that one of the attractions of the developmental lesson plan is that the principal thinks that he is getting his monies worth: 45 minutes of work from the teacher and 45 minutes of work from all of the students. This criticism of Mr. Bruckner's is certainly valid. I would have preferred to design an activity that enthralled the entire class for 45 minutes.
Did Mr. Bruckner suggest that next time I think up some more experiments to keep them busy for the whole period? Did he suggest I have another activity to go to? No he didn't because he doesn't believe in the constructivist approach. His suggestion was, "You could have used this time to go over the student observations with entire class".(Exhibit A- 6th paragraph) In other words, Mr. Bruckner wanted me to cut short the activity and go into the teacher dominated mode.
I don't agree with this. This would have given all the students a good reason to wait to see what the "true" answer to the problem is rather than struggling with the concepts themselves. Mr. Bruckner has no rational basis for believing that his idea for ending the lesson is better than mine. Mr. Cohen's Observation Report
1) "Although the aim of the lesson focused on graphs, the bulk of the lesson was focused on solving motion problems".(Exhibit B- 8th paragraph)
The "aim" is a concept in the structure of the developmental lesson plan. My lessons do not have "aims". Mr. Cohen never even considered the possibility that the instructional objective of the lesson was to solve motion problems, because the hand-out I gave to the class (Exhibit D), uses the "aim" heading to identify for the student new material in the lesson. Mr. Cohen figured that this was the "aim" and he kept looking for this "aim" to be developed. Mr. Cohen isn't capable of considering any type of lesson other than the developmental lesson plan.
2) "When you do ask a question, don't rely on a single answer from a single student. Pass the question around. Get feedback from several students to make sure that others understand. Ask others to comment on the first person's answer". (Exhibit B- 5th paragraph)
This is precisely the kind of time wasting chalk and talk that I am eliminating from my lessons. This is why I give to the students every day a hand-out which summarized the entire lesson and contains all of the questions and problems that I want the students to tackle.
Mr. Cohen has no rational basis for believing my method of teaching kinematics is inferior to his method of teaching kinematics. Indeed, he is completely unaware of the fact that I am deliberately using a different method. In his eyes the developmental lesson plan is not a technologically outmoded methodology, but simply means "good teaching".
3) "You spent too much time telling the students information. The lesson was predominantly a lecture.... I indicated that you gave the students little opportunity for feedback. Once you had made a point, instead of asking a question or having students find the slope of a graph, you simply went on the next example. You had no way of knowing whether the students understood the first example you presented. This is one danger of the lecture style of teaching." (Exhibit B- 3rd paragraph)
There is nothing wrong with lecturing. It is a very effective way for a teacher to communicate information to students. When lecturing it is important to give children given an opportunity to process the information they are given. Studies have shown that 6 minutes is the maximum amount of time a lecture should last. When Mr. Cohen speaks of "feedback" he is referring to the oral questioning of students that takes place in the developmental lesson plan. In my opinion this type of oral questioning does not provide students an opportunity to process the information. Teachers are deluding themselves when they think because one student answers a question correctly everyone else in the class has grasped the concept. It is certainly pedagogically better to ask questions than to lecture non-stop without questions. But basically the oral questioning of the developmental lesson plan just means that the lecture being delivered by the teacher, presumably in a loud clear voice, is interspersed with the inaudible and unclear comments of children.
Mr. Cohen's problem in observing this lesson is that his mind is set to perceive only two types of lessons: college style lecturing or the developmental lesson plan. The physics lesson plans I design use lecturing and demonstrations to supplement and enhance the written exposition given in the daily hand-outs. The activities on the hand-outs are worked on during class time from the time I save by not following Mr. Cohen's advice. Conclusion
In Mr. Bruckner's and Mr. Cohen's reports there is not one favorable comment about my lessons. Since my lessons contain a number of innovative and commendable features this proves that they are professionally unable to provide me with the supervisory support and guidance I need and desire in my efforts to improve physics instruction at Edward R. Murrow.
In the part of the report dedicated to recounting the lesson Mr. Cohen writes, " Next you asked the students to face a partner and to discuss the acceleration of an object that you were throwing upward". (Exhibit B- 1st paragraph) This is one of the innovative feature in my lesson. It enables students to process the information they have received and it gives all students an opportunity to participate, not just those who are not afraid to answer and ask questions. Mr. Cohen made no comment about this use of dyads favorable or unfavorable in his report.
Another commendable and innovative feature of my lessons is the practice of distributing daily hand-outs which give a written exposition of the lesson including problems and activities. This is helpful to students are poor note takers, or cannot see the chalkboard well, or are better readers than listeners. It also helps students who are absent or late to class. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Bruckner have sent me no less than 13 pages of typewritten text in letters to my file and observation reports, yet there is no comment at all about this feature.
Another professional concern that I have is the lack of interest Mr. Cohen and Mr. Bruckner have in increasing the percent of students who pass the Physics Regents Examination. When I tried to explain to Mr. Cohen my constuctivist approach to teaching physics he handed me an article entitled "Becoming a Constructivist Teacher" with the suggestion that I did not know what I was talking about. Given my background and stature in science education (I am Vice President in the UFT Science Committee) this is not the attitude of a chairperson who is dedicated to improving instruction in his department.
One reason students fail the Physics Regents Test is that the curriculum is not covered. Mr. Cohen wrote to me: "You are far ahead of the other Physics teachers. When we begin cycle 2, all students will be starting at the same point. Since none of the other teachers will be getting as far as you what sense does it make to continue to rush through the work." Our students deserve an equal opportunity to pass the Physics Regents and we will be able to cover the curriculum if we have high expectations for our children.
Another area of concern to me is that the State Education Department has offered all schools a variance in the Physics and Chemistry Regents which would allow a more student-centered curriculum with portfolios and authentic assessment. The Brooklyn Superintendent's office held a meeting for science assistant principals to explain this variance. According to my information no one from Edward R. Murrow attended this crucial meeting which was an excellent opportunity to improve student performance on the Regents Examination Test.
A final area of concern is the fact that there are three sections of physics being taught by three teachers without a Physics license and who have not taught physics in many years. An experienced licensed Physics teacher, on the other hand, is teaching only Earth Science. It takes years to become familiar with the Physics Syllabus and to develop techniques and methods of instruction that will help students pass the Regents test. Distributing physics sections to various biology, chemistry and earth science teachers in a haphazard fashion from year to year is an indication of lack of concern for student achievement.
Very truly yours,
David K. Roemer