Scenes From The Class Struggle

April 01, 1990 10 min read

Situation one: An emergency-certified English teacher has to introduce Dante’s Inferno to his class of unruly inner-city 12th graders, many of whom can barely read at junior high school level.

Situation two: From her desk at the front of the class, a teacher spots two students in the back who appear to be cheating on a test.

Situation three: A mentor teacher is assigned to work with a novice teacher in the classroom next door, but the novice refuses to accept advice despite the obvious problems she has controlling her students.

These brief examples of life in the classroom, none particularly unusual or surprising, might be found in an education textbook. But take one of the sketchy scenarios and add detailed background on the school, the class, the students, and the teacher, and the result is a “case’'--a powerful tool to help education students and teachers alike explore the complexities of teaching.

Other professions such as law, medicine, and social work have long used cases to prepare prospective practitioners. The Harvard Business School is probably the best-known proponent of their use.

Education, on the other hand, has been dominated by a ponderous body of research that rarely takes into account the front-line experiences of teachers themselves or preserves the lessons of those experiences.

“We know it works in other professions, so why not in our profession?’' asks Joel Colbert, an associate professor of education at California State University-Dominguez Hills, where he uses cases to train emergency-certified teachers working in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“My students are in some of the most difficult teaching assignments,’' he notes. “Using the case approach has really helped them meet that challenge and develop into good teachers despite the situations they’re in.’'

John Shearer is one of those teachers. He says he found it useful both to write about his experiences as a new English teacher at L.A.'s South Gate High School and to read other novices’ cases. “It was a really good learning experience to stop and analyze what I do,’' Shearer says. “I think it helped make me a better teacher. It added depth to my teaching.’'

Shearer recalls a case written by another English teacher who struggled to interest her students in Romeo and Juliet. She finally made some progress when she realized her students needed to be eased into the work gradually, before facing heavy homework reading and writing assignments. The case gave Shearer hints for teaching Shakespeare to his own students, he says, and a commentary on the case by an experienced teacher yielded a useful tip: Relate writing assignments to the students’ own lives. They gain a greater appreciation of the work when they can write about universal themes such as fate and forbidden love rather than analyzing specific details of the bard’s often-difficult plays, the teacher explained.

Colbert doesn’t have to look far to confirm the appeal of cases. The evidence is sometimes right outside his window--he occasionally spots his students sitting under trees reading their casebooks as if they were novels.

A Tale of Two Cities they aren’t, but the real-life dramas nevertheless strike a responsive chord in nervous neophytes, grateful for the opportunity to preview classroom trials and tribulations--from a safe distance. That’s what Colbert and Judith Shulman intended.

Working under the sponsorship of the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development in San Francisco, Colbert and Shulman, who directs the laboratory’s Institute for Case Development, thus far have compiled two casebooks--one for mentor teachers and one for intern teachers. Many of the case writers for the two books were mentors and novices in Colbert’s classes and workshops.

While Colbert, Shulman, and others throughout the country are using the Far West casebooks with current teachers, a handful of professors have adopted the case method for their full-time education students.

One true believer, Katherine Merseth, former director of teacher education at Harvard, teaches her students at the University of California-Riverside using cases based largely on the Harvard Business School model. At Harvard, the entire business-school curriculum centers around case studies, which the university faculty write for their own classes. The cases provide the basis for critical analysis and problem-solving on every aspect of business administration, from finance to marketing.

At the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, professor Judith Kleinfeld has been using cases for seven years. But her cases have a narrower focus--she uses them to prepare students to teach in unique cultural settings, such as rural Eskimo and Indian villages.

Whether for the benefit of teachers or students in education-school classrooms, cases offer a needed taste of reality seldom served up by textbooks. Some may present specific examples of established theories, such as different methods to motivate students. Still others offer an effective way to “explore the complex and messy problems’’ of practice for which there really are no theories, Merseth explains. Few textbooks, for instance, offer advice on dealing with foul language in the classroom, a graphically real-life situation that Shearer addresses in The Intern Teacher Casebook.

“They’re an excellent way of bridging the gap between theory and practice,’' says Shulman. “Practice isn’t always the way that’s taught at the university.’' Textbook theories can seem light-years away from actual practice, especially for teachers who start their careers at big-city schools. And these are probably the teachers most in need of exposure to realistic problems and situations.

Many of the Far West cases are nothing if not “messy.’' Take the appropriately titled “Descent from Innocence,’' which describes the woes of a new teacher who launches into a unit on the metric system in his life-science class:

“Since I grew up in New York State, where the metric system is taught in elementary school,’' the novice writes, “I assumed that this unit would be a brief review for the students. Little did I suspect that, not only did the students have no knowledge of the metric system, but they were also ignorant of measuring using the standard English system.’'

He describes the classroom after he handed out meter sticks for students to use in measuring various items: “I arrived just in time to witness the finishing touches that Juan was adding to his self-inspired metric project. He had beautifully carved his gang symbol into the meter stick with an eight-inch knife he had been carrying. He also asked me if, perchance, I would like to buy some ‘ludes’ [Quaaludes] from him.’' Similar pandemonium was under way with the other groups of students in his class.

In this case, as with all the intern cases, the writer goes on to relate how he dealt with the situation, what worked and didn’t work, and what he learned from the experience.

Cases are also a powerful stimulus to get teachers--especially the case writers--to reflect on their teaching. “It gave me an opportunity to analyze my thoughts, feelings, and ideas on how I was doing,’' says Barbara Jacobson, a Los Angeles mentor teacher who wrote some of the cases in the mentor book. “It made me realize I wasn’t alone in my failures and my successes. I had people to share them with.’' Jacobson says she continues to write about situations she encounters and discuss those experiences with her colleagues.

The mentor cases, rarely longer than one page, are vignettes about various aspects of the mentor-novice relationship. The casebooks have been used in Los Angeles and elsewhere (Connecticut is the leading customer, having bought 8,000 copies) to introduce mentors to some of the challenges they’ll face in their new roles.

Kleinfeld’s cases at the University of Alaska, by contrast, offer much more detail; some run as long as 50 pages. One, “Malaise of the Spirit,’' takes place in a rural school plagued by racial tensions. It describes a fight between an Eskimo and a white student that may have racial overtones. The case, written by a teacher and based on a true situation, focuses on how the teacher perceives the situation, how he handles it, whether he is sensitive to the Eskimo boy’s culture, and many other related issues.

Kleinfeld finds the case approach particularly well-suited for introducing her students to other cultures. The richly detailed cases focus on individuals in specific situations, which helps avoid the sort of sweeping generalizations that can degenerate into stereotypes.

She relates an example where cultural misunderstandings in a school turned a well-intentioned gesture into a disaster. When an Eskimo staff member at one school was pregnant, her co-workers gave her a baby shower. What they didn’t realize was that Eskimos believe it is tempting fate to celebrate before the baby is born. And when the Eskimo woman subsequently started experiencing symptoms of a miscarriage, she blamed the school and quit her job, leaving her co-workers devastated as well as overloaded with extra work.

Merseth’s cases at U.C.-Riverside differ in a fundamental way from those of both Kleinfeld and the Far West Laboratory. They include background about a sensitive or challenging situation, but rather than telling how a teacher resolves the matter, they typically end with a question: What do you do? That question serves as the focus of discussion as students analyze the situation and try different courses of action in what Merseth calls the “safe environment’’ of the university.

“They have an opportunity to examine each other’s actions and criticize, and practice taking action,’' she says. “We’re trying to get students to have a repertoire of reactions in their head’’ by the time they get into a classroom.

The Far West Laboratory cases, on the other hand, not only offer information about the teachers, but they also include extensive commentary from other novices and mentors, as well as education scholars, about how the situation was handled. The commentaries offer “multiple lenses to look at each case,’' Shulman says. “They provide the substance for enriching the discussion that can follow.’'

Although it may seem like a subtle distinction, Merseth prefers to leave the commentary to her students. "[Otherwise] it’s like having a detective story, and then at the end of the chapter, you have three different detectives telling you what to do,’' she says. “The primary purpose is to train people in decisionmaking skills. If your objective is to do that, you don’t want to give them the answers first.’'

Because cases in education are relatively new, there is considerable variation in how they are used. Merseth, for her part, prefers to bring up the appropriate theories and possibilities when her students discuss the cases in class. Colbert’s classes for teacher trainees in Los Angeles are more like workshops, so the relatively self-contained Far West Laboratory cases work well because his students can also study them outside of class.

Up to now, most cases have dealt with such broad issues as classroom control or ethnic and racial issues. But soon, they are expected to address subject matter, such as the best ways to teach science or reading. One work in progress at the Far West Laboratory will comprise mathematics cases from 4th through 8th grade teachers. Fractions, ratios, decimals, and percentages are some of the possible topics.

Donna Goldenstein, a teacher and curriculum coordinator for the Hayward (Calif.) Unified School District who is working on the math casebook, says the book might be organized into “clusters,’' with several cases relating to each topic.

“I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen so far,’' says Goldenstein. “For the first time, people are really discussing the intricacies involved with teaching. I think it’s a very powerful vehicle for staff development.’'

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of cases, Shulman says, is the possibility for teachers to leave a legacy--a body of knowledge for their colleagues to learn from. Teachers typically work in isolation, rarely observing each other or preserving their knowledge in any formal way.

“Beginners aren’t usually asked to write about their experiences,’' says case-writer John Shearer. “But I think it’s good to hear what people in their first and second year have to say. I had a good feeling that I was doing something useful, and it was something that could help others as well.’'

--Daniel Gursky

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Scenes From The Class Struggle