INSIDE OUR SCHOOLS: Learning, not teaching, now drives classroom interaction


Dan Stockwell teaches language arts and social studies at Fairhaven Middle School in Bellingham.


Polyester was in. The bells rang and students flowed out into the halls to the next class. The '70s is when I started to teach. Recently a question was presented to me: Has teaching changed in the last 40 years? Yes, it has changed; however, some aspects of it are the same. Students still come to school wanting to learn. Building connections with students is still pivotal and essential to any classroom. The students, who we serve, are still individuals and walk into our classrooms with many different needs, strengths and abilities. It is still about who we teach. It's still about the future: hopes, dreams and a promise. But the promise to the students has changed.

When I started, teaching was the most important idea, but now it is learning. It is not enough that I teach an above-standard lesson. I must make sure every student learns the lesson. Teaching today invites students to be participants, not spectators.

In the '70s, we taught with the openness of free range. There was greater latitude in what we taught. We had our favorite areas, topics and lessons we loved to teach. Today there are many more filters in deciding what to teach. There is a common core curriculum stretching across the United States, guiding teachers to teach the essential ideas and concepts, which next year's teacher will build upon. We have much more data that informs us who needs what instruction. We have clear targets and rubrics by which we present, guide and assess our students' work, which the students know in advance.

In the '70s, those students who could imitate the teacher-demonstrated activities and lessons, precisely and accurately, were rewarded with big red As, and today we ask students to logically analyze, harvest evidence and write commentary to demonstrate their thinking. In social studies, I had a 1960 teacher's edition that guided me every day during the semester, and today, I have the world wide web, books, magazines, tapes, apps, blogs, ebooks and more. Back then, the lesson plan was quickly finished. Today, there are many more hours spent hyperlinking resources, building templates, saving documents, finishing web pages, previewing "grammar girl" and assessing student work to guide the next day's lesson.

Another change is the way we communicate. Instead of parent conferences, phone calls and checkout line discussions, teachers have many more ways to communicate to parents: email, text, web pages, parent- and teacher-initiated conferences, in person and phone. We are not sitting in our closed classrooms scraping off the carbon of the ditto paper to correct the copies. Teachers are using email, drop boxes, Google circles and meeting in professional learning communities to construct better lessons, common assessments and common understanding.

Yes, teachers are learning, along with their students. Learning to look for evidence, actively inquire and investigate a better way to communicate their love for the subject matter and see change in their students' understanding. I think I can rejoice in the changes today, but quickly because I need to assess, create groups, find resources, scaffold assignments, create the web page, return emails and prepare for tomorrow's lessons. Oh yeah, when I started teaching, I could open my briefcase with a paperclip and find papers. Now, where is that list of passwords... so I can start.


This is one in a series of columns by area teachers exploring education today. Dan Stockwell teaches at Fairhaven Middle School in Bellingham.

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