Teaching "Content"

A friend questioned me recently. How do you develop your "content" in your teacher trainees?

Good question.

1. Developing an expertise in what you teach (often called "content knowledge" in our little word), and in how to get kids to learn that subject ("pedagogical content knowledge"), is a lifetime's work.

Our goal is that some of our trainees grow up to be like Charlie Sposato.

Charlie was a Massachusetts "Teacher of the Year" for 2 reasons.

He loved his subject (English), and knew it deeply. Moreover, he always tried to learn more, and kept finding new ways to make literature come alive. Later, when he became our principal, he often quoted poetry and literary passages to us on the staff.

The other reason Charlie succeeded was his skill in building positive relationships with kids and parents. "Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" he liked to quote.

So his students back in Framingham often talked of him as the guy who really turned them on to reading. And ideas. That's a beautiful thing for an English teacher.

2. Charlie's level of content skill is almost certainly a stretch for any rookie teacher. We do the best we can during our year of training, then hope teachers have the desire and opportunity to grow throughout their teaching careers.

To understand what we do, let's first examine --

3. The "Normal" Way of teaching content to Masters In Teaching students

A. Admission

A typical graduate school admits masters students with pretty strong knowledge of their subject.

The old way to determine this was: count the college courses. In history and English and science, they preferred someone who had majored in that class, which often meant 10 or more classes. If not, a minor.

And if not a minor, the admission committee would review the details of the transcript. Did an English teacher hopeful take Brit Lit, American Lit, lit crit, etc.

(Math was different. You didn't need to be a math major, but hopefully did take a couple calc courses).

Here in Massachusetts, the old way changed with the MTEL teacher licensing test. The new admissions process leaned less on undergraduate majors, and more on a holistic view: Does this person have the knowledge and aptitude to pass MTEL?

The MTEL therefore liberated other college seniors -- who had strong aptitude and knowledge, but had majored in sociology or poli sci or Af-Am studies or econ -- to gain admission.

B. Methods

Then masters students typically take one graduate class called Methods in her subject. Math Teaching Methods, or English Teaching Methods, or Science Teaching Methods, etc.

C. A "Subject" Course

Masters students often get to take a class in the actual subject they'll teach. That is, a future social studies teacher might take a seminar from the university's history department, whether History of Ancient Egypt or The Cold War or whatever.

Of course the chances of a school 6th grade teacher later using that specific content may not be that high.

But it's a chance to stay inspired about the underlying subject, and to further a schoolteacher's knowledge of and affection for it.

D. Student teaching

Typically it's one class -- 8th grade math, for example -- with multiple sections of students, for 10 or so weeks.

4. Our Way Of Teaching Content To Rookies

A. Admission

This is roughly the same as the "new way" that many (though not all) Massachusetts grad schools use. Less reliance on undergraduate majors, more reliance on a holistic view of the aptitude and knowledge of an applicant.

B. We do 2 methods classes instead of 1

The first is general methods -- allowing us to explain ideas relevant to all teachers, like how to begin and end a class.

The second class is English Methods, Math Methods etc. A difference is our instructor is typically an expert schoolteacher, often someone who has gone on to become a school leader. Another difference is there is more student role-play and practice during the typical class.

C. Nope

We don't have our own biology and history departments, etc....

D. Two student teaching gigs

We have 2 required different student teaching experiences, instead of one. The first focuses more on the single lesson. The second experience focuses on longer-term planning and assessment -- connecting several lessons coherently.

This has the positive side effect of having all of our folks teaching two different subjects to different grades....for example, algebra to one group, and geometry to another.

E. Tutoring as a way to learn Content

Our trainees spend many of their days tutoring students, sometimes 8 straight hours. As a result, they come to know 2 or 3 different yearlong, on top of their student teaching.

For example, one of our future middle school math teachers would, during his MTR year, tutor 6th graders, 7th graders, and 8th graders all year. That tutoring would cover 3 different yearlong math curricula.

This immersion experience, we believe, helps future teachers build a much better feel for pedagogical concept knowledge -- that is, "how kids learn" (and struggle with) various ideas and skills.


What does the future hold?

Folks like Stanford's Pam Grossman and University of Michigan's Deborah Ball are doing some pioneering work in trying to write down what English and math teachers should know and do. I'm going to get a first taste at a New Schools Venture Fund conference next week.

My hope is that we can import some of their methods back here, and build on what we've already got.