About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: Two Primary-Grade Teachers

Here is another story about cognition in action, an account of two primary-grade teachers. In this portrait (and one to follow in a few weeks), I want to call attention to the thought involved in good teaching. In our current policy environment, “qualified teachers” are rightly championed, but there is little discussion of teaching itself. The teacher becomes the mediating mechanism between student and test score—important, but faceless. In the following vignette I try to highlight some of the teacherly knowledge and skill at play in a primary classroom: The complex blend of planning, coordinating of tasks, on-the-spot decision making, knowledge of cognitive development, and pedagogical sensibility.

For those of you who missed the previous entries where I discuss the purpose of these portraits of thinking, I’ll repeat two introductory paragraphs now. If you did read the earlier entries, you can skip right to the story of Anne Brown and Abby Cowan, which is drawn from 
Possible Lives.

As I’ve been arguing during the year of this blog’s existence—and for some time before—we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school. We miss so much.

I hope that the portraits I offer over the next few months illustrate the majesty and surprise of intelligence, its varied manifestations, its subtlety and nuance. The play of mind around us. I hope that collectively the portraits help us think in a richer way about teaching, learning, achievement, and the purpose of education—a richer way than that found in our current national policy and political discourse about school.


It was the hundredth day of school in Brown Cow’s classroom, which was actually two classrooms and three primary grades combined—the door between them permanently open—kindergarten, first, and second grades brought together and team-taught by Anne Brown and Abby Cowan, who, in the three years of this partnership, had become Brown Cow. The children, together for their three primary years, said that they were in Brown Cow class, that they, themselves, were Brown Cows.

One Hundred Days. A milestone in primary school, so there would be all kinds of activities involving the number 100. The mother of one of the children brought in a piece of fabric printed with a hundred brown cows, fairly realistic cows, but for the red-and-white life jackets each wore. Mrs. Brown had all sixty-one children around her, leading them as they counted off: fif-teen, six-teen, seven-teen. Ms. Cowan was quickly laying out the materials for the next lesson, hustling through the two rooms.

Along the south wall were rows of mimeographed sheets done in anticipation of this hundredth day of school, blanks in sentences which the children filled in. “I can eat 100 
grapes,” Yuki’s claimed. “I can hold 100 coins. I can play games 100 times.” Joey’s made different claims. He could blink 100 times, but could not eat 100 beans. Matthew could flush the toilet (he’d whispered this to Mrs. Brown before writing it) 100 times, but certainly not eat 100 Brussels sprouts. Who could? And Chris, he couldn’t no way, hold 100 worms.

Eighty-five…eighty-six…eighty-seven. Mrs. Brown was approaching the last row, touching each cow in turn, but remaining silent, the chorus of high voices rising even higher in anticipation. Crescendo. The century mark. “Wow,” said one boy in front, “it really is a hundred.” “Not all the children can count to a hundred on their own,” Abby said to me, whizzing by, “but those who can’t are guided along by those who can.”

The idea of “mixed age” or “undergraded” primary classrooms gained some national popularity in the late 1950s and sixties, then faded; it is once again being discussed as part of school reform. The pleasant, productive chaos of Rooms 13 and 14 at Franklin Elementary belied the boldness of Anne and Abby’s experiment, for what they were doing challenged one of the most widespread practices in elementary education: setting cognitive and linguistic benchmarks for children’s development.

“Children just don’t learn to read or write or count or compute at the same time,” Abby said in exasperation. “There’s all kinds of normal variation. Some kids don’t really start reading until the second grade, and they go on to become fluent readers.” Yet the anxiety that can be generated when a child doesn’t hit one of these arbitrary benchmarks—especially among some affluent parents who attach great significance to such measures—is considerable and can lead to a range of remedial interventions, some more harmful than helpful. The Brown Cow classroom was attempting a revision of that way of thinking about children’s growth.

By the time the children had finished their cow inventory and had their say about it, Abby had finished setting up the room for the next math lesson. The students would break into two groups. Those who were more advanced mathematically went with Mrs. Brown, and the rest went with Ms. Cowan. This was to be a lesson in counting and grouping by tens. The children had white mats (and the mats Ms. Cowan used had grids on them, clearly marking ten spaces for an added visual clue) and sacks of small objects they had brought in the day before, from pennies to dog biscuits. The children were to count out ten piles of ten.

They got at it, counting, sorting, piling—lots of chatter, to themselves and to others. I sat down and watched Abby. She was all over the floor, on her haunches, kneeling, turning quickly on her knees, stretching backward, extending her line of sight. “Count those out, Joey.” “Good, Melissa.” “Watch, Sebastian, what happens when I do this.” “Mantas, show Brittany what you just did.”

It is remarkable, this ability that good primary teachers have: to take in a room in a glance, to assess in a heartbeat, to, with a word or two, provide feedback, make a connection, pull a child into a task. While the majority of Brown Cow’s children were native speakers of English, there were also Eddie and Mantas, making the transition from their native Lithuanian, Yuki (and her sister Yuko), whose English was limited when they entered the class, and a fair number of students whose first language was Farsi or Spanish. So Abby and Anne made a conscious effort to get native-born children to help Mantas and others—and to get Mantas and company to use their new language to explain things to whomever was close by.

In Anne’s half of the shared classroom, children were making their piles of tens with little trouble, but there would be more for them to do. One of the benefits of the ungraded primary is that students who were excelling in a subject could be encouraged to go beyond kindergarten or first-grade guidelines. Mrs. Brown had written eight problems on the board, to be solved with the help of the students’ “manipulatives,” their pennies and stamps and leaves.

1) 20             2) 60               3) How many 5s in 200?
  +30               +90 

And so on. “How can we do two hundred when we only have one hundred?” Jeremy asked. “Good question,” said Mrs. Brown. “What do you think?”

All the Brown Cow children took districtwide achievement tests, so standard measures of learning—and accountability—were in place. But Anne and Abby have also been trying to develop a different kind of report card, one that reflects the way their class worked. “What does it really mean to say that a kid is doing math at first- or second-grade level?” Anne asked rhetorically. “That’s awfully vague…and not very helpful. What we want to do is provide a description of each child’s strengths and weaknesses. And since we get to know the kids so well over three years, we should be able to do that with precision.”

When the bell finally rang for physical education—a twenty-five minute break when the children would be out in the yard—Anne and Abby started setting up for yet another lesson involving the number 100, this one to combine arithmetic and language arts.

The teachers distributed old newspapers on the tables in two rooms, then scissors, glue, and large pieces of art paper: yellow, blue, green, magenta. As they did this, they reviewed the morning. How did the lessons work out? Who was doing well? Who needed help? How might Anne better integrate the math problems with the use of the manipulatives? How can Abby do more with her children? They also talked about a boy who might be ready to move into the more proficient math group, such movement being central to this mixed-age grouping.

The bell rang, and soon there was the flap and chatter of the children’s return. Ms. Cowan and Mrs. Brown gathered them around and began explaining the lesson with the newspapers. The children would work in assigned groups of eight—the Yellow Group, Green Group, Magenta Group. These were mixed age and ability groups so that the younger children would learn from the older. (Earlier, I had seen Abby pair a second-grader with a kindergartener to read a book; there were lots of possibilities for such peer tutorials in this room.) The students were to find a hundred words that at least one person in their group could read. “One hundred words you know, and cut them out, and paste them.” Then the teachers would put the final products on display.

Mrs. Brown explained the assignment one more time, and off they went, the girl in the flowered pants, the boy in the Raiders jacket, the girl with the oversized sweatshirt. Anne and Abby moved from table to table, organizing, demonstrating, cajoling. “Ms. Cowan,” Lisa said, touching Abby’s arm, “I can’t read yet.” “You know what, sweetheart?” Abby replied, kneeling down. “You’re starting to; you can read some. Look.” And she pointed to some words on the page of advertisements, and Lisa read them: 
andthetoMuppet. Then Lisa wiggled her fingers awkwardly into a pair of scissors and started cutting, Muppet first, then and, then to.

A focused pandemonium spread over the room; kids wrangling for pages with big print, singing the words out as they cut them, pounding them onto art paper, reading loudly, and more loudly, the words they knew, discovering them amid a growing jumble of newsprint. 
Youbook,taxfourdownClintondreamdealwarrantyhouseVon’sblowoutcelebrationdoctor,bankerslashingchampagne. (“Hey, I found the word champagne”), Cocoa Puffsmatinee,guarantee.

Cut and crumpled paper piled up on the floor, the children kicking through it as they moved around the tables for yet more words: 
silktennisVietnam (Abby: “Do you know why that word is important?” The little girl in flowered pants: “There was a war there”), salelove,dressbookneed. A girl came up to Anne with the word squash stuck to the top of her finger. A boy thumped his new word onto green paper. Abby helped a child read need. Neeeed. And all around the room, words not known, words cut away, fluttered to the floor.


  1. Thanks Mike, that was beautiful...

  2. Must reading for anyone who thinks talent, coupled with one's own school experience, is enough to be a good teacher.

  3. How lovely. I wish we were better at our own PR. THEY need to know not only what good teachers are doing but what good teaching is.

  4. Well-stated arguments for multi-age! Reading this brought back memories of teaching in a multi-age classroom - 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. I love multi-age, so many possibilities.

  5. This is a lovely vignette of teachers setting up good opportunities to learn. It’s also the story of teachers finding a way that works for them. The popular idea of a “good teacher” as a person who is sensitive, knowledgeable, and creative and can use proven methods to help all students in all situations learn, is largely a myth. Sensitivity, knowledge, creativity and methods are erased in a situation where teachers are forced to work in ways that do not fit their personalities and understandings. Brown and Cowan are good teachers because they work well together in a school that allows them to teach in a way that is comfortable to them. Obviously, we can’t know everything from a single glimpse, but it appears that Franklin elementary respects the intelligence of its teachers. This allows the teachers to respect the intelligence of their students.

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