What Has Changed in Teaching?

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Catlin Gabel teachers reflect on their careers working with students

From the Winter 2010-11 Caller

Why I Like Change
David Ellenberg, 8th grade history

In the minds of many humorists and some clever students, history is “just one damn thing after another.” As such, teaching this discipline involves the ongoing challenge of making coursework relevant. Perhaps this is most true with middle school students who are distinctly changeable in their approach to learning. When I began teaching in the 1980s, chalkboards and comp books were common; word processing and Google searches were not. We ordered educational films and showed them on 16-mm projectors. The vast array of web resources for locating film clips, most notably YouTube, was in the distant future.
 
Today, a plethora of previously unimagined futures are at the ready. Revision of student writing is far more streamlined, any geographic location on the planet can be easily examined with current maps, and historic events can be quickly viewed and analyzed using newsreel footage or fine documentaries. Despite the unfortunate aspects of the Information Age such as full inboxes, phony websites, and endless digital distractions, for a history teacher the Internet Age is a godsend. The advent of the World Wide Web enables me to teach students in new ways about accessing credible information for research. When introducing topics, I use written, video, and musical sources accessed through my laptop. Students have online interactions that even the playing field for all, quiet and loquacious alike. Using shared documents for editing and revision eases group work.
 
In addition to what I share directly with students, web searches also allow me to access an array of sources when planning lessons. For example, I routinely keep pace with new graphic memoirs that might be used during a global studies unit. When students access world events through artwork and family histories, learning is sparked. These true-life tales combine well with more traditional texts and expand student knowledge and understanding.
 
New approaches to accessing teaching resources complement traditional classroom work. Reading, writing, analyzing, and public speaking will forever be part of student life. These timeless skills are enhanced when positive aspects of technology find their mark. When I ask students to memorize a portion of a John Kennedy speech, how wonderful that they can easily find the president’s address on the Kennedy Library website. Speaking effectively in front of peers is a lifelong skill in any day and age.
 

The Traditional and the New in Art
Laurie Carlyon-Ward, Upper School visual art

Technology has affected art education in all parts of the curriculum—music, theater, and visual arts. Our students are able to create projects on a professional level now that we couldn’t have imagined five to ten years ago. The internet has given students greater knowledge of living artists, and they are being influenced by artists from around the globe. There’s still a great deal of joy here in making things by hand, and we give our students a chance to know how technology works in the world that they’re inheriting.
 
Enrollment in visual art classes at Catlin Gabel has increased over the past few years as students and parents become aware of growth in occupations such as animation, graphic design, film, and photography. Our students graduate, if they choose, with working knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite. It is also a necessary part of college studies in many fields such as architecture, film production, and photojournalism.
 
In our visual art classes, we still teach from a traditional curriculum, which balances skills like observational drawing with new technology. Landscapes, life drawing, and portraits are popular subjects in media such as charcoal, watercolors, and acrylics. We explore new painting mediums, too. We use water-based oils, which have a nice feel and good colors—with no turpentine or noxious fumes.
 
The curriculum is more flexible now. We no longer have a drawing and painting prerequisite for the honors art seminar. We encourage students who take photography or one of the media arts to build a portfolio and take drawing and painting to balance out their arts foundation and have a wider range of artistic skills.
 
It’s been an incredible pleasure for me to teach drawing, painting, printmaking, and digital photography at Catlin Gabel for 26 years. After all these years, I’m glad I realized I could fill the Dant House with student art. We can now have student work up all year long, and everyone loves it.
 

Growing as a Teacher
Maggie Bendicksen, 5th grade

In the nine years I’ve been in Catlin Gabel’s Lower School, I have felt so lucky to work with creative, brilliant, and fabulously kooky colleagues. We constantly question and learn from each other, especially in the areas of brain research and how kids learn best, and it has made an enormous impact on my teaching.
 
I feel that now that I have the curriculum under my belt, I can focus more on each individual kid, hearing them and seeing them for the gifts they bring. I’ve become more playful, truly willing to not know the answer before I ask the question, willing to be wrong as I puzzle over an equation in front of the class, or marvel at a student-originated strategy that I had never thought of before.
 
What I’ve learned from our learning specialist Sue Sacks and others, including 1st grade teacher Mimi Tang and Beginning School head Hannah Whitehead, is that the better we understand how different kinds of minds work, the better we can teach. Perhaps more important, though, we can help kids to know how they work best, how they can stretch in what we call the zone of proximal development (that space where work isn’t too easy, nor too hard, but just right) and ultimately advocate for themselves.
 
This fall, I was especially struck by how my 5th graders walked into the room already knowing what they needed to succeed. Their previous teachers had helped them know themselves so well. For instance, one of my boys knows he does best when he works and sits alone, another child wears noise-canceling earphones so she can focus, and another knows he needs to talk out his thinking before starting to work.
 
My teaching in math has changed, too. It’s no longer just in literacy and humanities where I can truly listen to students’ questions and their understanding of what will help them learn more. These days our best math workshops evolve from the kids’ theories, like Miriam and Nicolette’s partnership to find what makes equivalent fractions equivalent, or Macey’s burning question: “Is there something like a prime fraction? How could it exist?” There’s no better feeling as a teacher than when you see that intellectual energy buzz. It’s a privilege to work in a place where teachers are honored for saying, “You know what, Macey, I don’t know, but how do you think you can figure that out?”
 

Language Teaching Demands Evolution
Roberto Villa, Upper School Spanish

Language teachers have seen a significant evolution over the past few years. The advent of continually improving computing and technology tools have made it easier for to us to customize students’ learning based on their learning styles and differing abilities.
 
Some of us teaching Spanish no longer order printed books. We can get all the materials we need—grammar or literature— online, especially with what’s in the public domain. We can also order online textbooks for half the price of a printed version, and they do what paper books can’t. They feature links to hear audio or watch videos, tutorials that give immediate feedback, and the flexibility for students to paste in their own work and proceed at their own rate. We’ve seen many students focus better with these online tools.
 
At the same time that technology evolved, serious work in brain research began to be published. For us in language, merging the two allows us to individualize as much as possible, especially given Catlin Gabel’s small classes.
 
For example, we’ve always talked about shopping for food. Previously we used classroom visuals and vocabulary lists, and students role-played in the classroom. Now we can go to Hispanic supermarkets on the web to learn about products and prices, and we can submit an order. We also tour local Hispanic markets, and the students complete a specific shopping activity we’ve set up beforehand. This suits our educational philosophy: we provide students with real, authentic, hands-on opportunities to reinforce what they’ve learned in class, and they can each learn in the way that suits them best.
 
We’ve benefited from the evolution and growth of the local Hispanic community, which has grown from 40,000 when I began teaching to 360,000 today. Students now have many opportunities to experience the Hispanic culture and language firsthand. If a language teacher can help students grasp the relationship between what they learn in class and the reality of the world, then students learn better.
 
Students are learning faster and more amply now. They’ve moved up a notch from our expectations 20 years ago. One result of all this has been that next year we’ll have the first sizable Spanish 6 class. More Catlin Gabel students than ever before now take two languages at once.
 
The arrival of new technological possibilities gives me energy and motivation. I’m grateful to Catlin Gabel for reminding all of us of Miss Catlin’s philosophy of the school as a laboratory, which spurs us to try new ways of teaching. We’ve come a long way from the first internet cable on campus.
 

A New Teaching Experience
Joanne Dreier, kindergarten

Over the past few years, we have been developing a new studio component to Catlin Gabel’s kindergarten program. This year is the first time I have had the opportunity and privilege to be the studio teacher as part of the kindergarten team, and my experiences are teaching me more about how to teach, even after many years in the kindergarten classroom.
 
A set of questions to the children guide my work every day. How can we learn new things together? What can we do with materials? How can we organize them? What can we do with collections? How can we transform things? How can we see things in a new way?
 
As one example, students collected leaves, twigs, pods, seeds, pinecones, bark, moss, herbs, and more on autumn trips into the Fir Grove. They admired and handled the pieces over and over for many days, then used them as rich storytelling materials. A pinecone became a horse, twigs became bridges, and acorns became campfires. As materials continued to arrive, our containers could barely hold them all.
 
The conclusion of storytelling brought a time for individual close observations of a favorite piece of nature. Representations might begin with a drawing, but would then become a painting, clay piece, watercolor, or wire creation. Finally, several children created delicate sculptures that included the original piece of nature integrated with other objects found in proximity to it outdoors. The sensitivity and depth of relationship between the child and material as they are encouraged to work in this way can be breathtaking. The studio becomes silent, almost like a sanctuary of concentration and focus.
 
My role as a studio teacher is to enable and encourage the children to experience the many “languages” that are the domain of every young child. As the printed word in school can quickly become the most valued language, in kindergarten the child is welcome to use the vast array of materials that allow us to understand their important thinking. I create opportunities for them to pursue their own questions, and I encourage the natural collaboration that results from their explorations. Catlin Gabel’s Beginning School devotes itself to children and their experiences. As a result, I get to listen to all the stories and discoveries that our children eagerly share. What an enviable place to be!
 

PE and Sports Change, too
John Hamilton, Upper School coach and PE/ health teacher

Change hasn’t come only in the classroom, or from technology. Over the past 20 years we have seen many changes in the way we approach our coaching, teaching and mentoring in health, physical education, and athletics.
 
In the Beginning and Lower School we now have two PE specialists, which allows department members to focus more in their individual areas of expertise. Through a generous gift, our two specialists received training about core strength, and we were able to purchase the equipment to implement this new program. Our offerings for these young students now include a broader health curriculum.
 
Middle School health and PE has changed dramatically, promoting a healthier, more active life for our students. Class sizes, which have been reduced by half, meet every day. Upgraded facilities and higher-quality equipment allow a much more diverse range of activities. We encourage Middle School students to play on any of our numerous interscholastic teams. By the time students enter 9th grade, they have been exposed to a wide variety of activities and fitness options.
 
The Upper School has benefited from the addition of new sand-based soccer fields and an all-weather track facility. Gymnasium additions allow our teams to use their own locker rooms on game day. The upstairs classroom now hosts our health classes year round, and it has become a favorite site for department and team meetings. The weight room adds a new dimension to our curriculum and offers a great year-round training space for students, faculty, and staff. In addition to elective requirements, students must complete a lifetime fitness course and required health curriculum. In 9th grade we teach nutrition and human sexuality, and we teach sociology in the 10th grade.
 
Students show great support for our athletic program, and about half take an active role during the playing seasons. Over the course of the year we normally have 65- 70% of the student body participate on at least one of our athletic teams. Through the success we have achieved in the OSAA-sponsored state championship competitions over the years, Catlin Gabel has won the all-sports award for schools our size in nine of the last ten years.
 

Keeping Up with Technology
Bob Sauer, Upper School science

In my 27 years of science teaching I’ve seen amazing advances in technology used in the classroom. As I’ve worked to incorporate the good parts into my teaching, my students’ interest, involvement, enthusiasm, and learning have all increased. I strive to keep up with the advances, and the burgeoning, booming rate of development and my own expanding activities and responsibilities have made this effort increasingly challenging (but worth it!).
 
The greatest impact has been the rise of the personal computer. When I started teaching, my classroom had one dusty Radio Shack TRS 80 mounted on a square of particle board, with a cassette player for program and data storage, and 4 kilobytes of RAM. Within a few years I was excited to introduce an Apple IIe to my classroom. Collecting and analyzing data with computers has made laboratory work far more accurate, easy, and fun than it used to be. The more recent advent of laptops has facilitated the administration of my classes. I make syllabi, lab instructions, answers to homework, and practice tests all accessible online, making them easy for students to get, and difficult for them to lose. Originally I wrote my own grading programs in BASIC. More than once the custodian was shocked to find me still at school at 8 p.m., debugging the code. Now I use Excel spreadsheets that I can put together in far less time.
 
Another important development has occurred in projectors and smartboards. I started out showing 8 mm film loops of events like the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse (resonance in action) and diffraction in ripple tanks. My first astronomy presentations were 35 mm film slides in a carousel projector. Now I assemble my digital photos along with graphics, highlights, and figures from the text in Powerpoint presentations for much more informative and instructive lessons.
 
I feel fortunate to have had my teaching career coincide with this blossoming of technology. I’ve been able to develop my strategies and abilities in instruction along with the expanding capabilities of technology. This synergy has kept my teaching fun and fruitful.
 

Building on the Basics
Mark Pritchard, Middle School music

I’ve always taught the basic components of music—composition, performance, and analysis—and will always teach them. But the way I teach now differs from how I was taught, mostly due to technological improvements in music equipment and software.
 
When I took composition classes in high school, I had to rely on my brain to “hear” all the parts of a composition. Technology has made composing much more immediate. Now 6th grade students can sit at the keyboard, use samples of many musical styles, hear immediately what they’ve composed, and make adjustments. The free music software GarageBand simplifies the technology to the point where kids without any musical experience can compose without being tech-savvy. Kids work at their own level in class, and they all can feel that they’ve accomplished something.
 
We’ve been providing music for all five drama productions in the 7th grade for the past six years. Students learn about different styles and elements such as overture, underscore, scene change, fight scenes, and sound effects. Once their music is finished, we go watch the actors rehearse with their musical cues. It’s great to see our students’ reactions when they hear their own compositions supporting the scene on stage.
 
Today’s amplification, mixers, and microphones allow us to produce a variety of music cheaper, better, and more accessibly. It’s changed my teaching. The 8th graders listen to and learn about rock and roll, and they compose and perform pieces on keyboards. We move all this wonderfully portable equipment into the Middle School commons and perform a rock and roll concert of our own compositions.
 
Kids in 6th grade are ready to take the knowledge, heart, and dexterity they’ve gained in Lower School and apply it to technology in a new, creative way. I still love teaching live music in class. The addition of technology allows me to extend beyond what I could teach before and opens up new styles and ways of composing.
 
Listening is important in understanding styles. Performing is important in making the style your own. Composing gets you to think about how the instrumental parts make a whole. It all goes back to the basics of musical analysis, performing, and composition. These will never change.