What energizes great teachers? Palo Alto teacher goes on road trip to find out


Palo Alto High School English teacher David Cohen is taking the year off to travel to school districts up and down California, hoping to document the creative and positive innovation taking place throughout the state's public schools.

"There are absolutely serious problems in California public education," Cohen said.

Many classes are bursting at the seams, impacting learning. Funding is hard to come by. The achievement gap continues to be unbridgeable for many schools and students.

Cohen is taking a different approach to addressing those problems by highlighting the positive stories occurring at California's public schools.

After 20 years in the classroom, Cohen is hitting the road for the year, aiming to visit more than 50 schools, both elementary and secondary, throughout the state and document what he observes through writing. He plans to go as far north as Eureka and as south as San Diego, with many visits in between from the Pacific coast to the Eastern Sierras.

Cohen, who has taught at Paly for the past 12 years, is also associate director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT), a teacher leadership network launched in 2008 as a project of the National Board Resource Center, which is run by the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. He said through that experience and others, he's met inspirational, dedicated and creative teachers from all over the state.

"I was constantly impressed by people's knowledge and their efforts and their creativity and things that they were doing, not only with whatever it was that brought us together – they might be doing something interesting with technology or curriculum -- but things they were doing like visiting students' families and doing community outreach, literacy efforts, building community and family literacy," he said. "There are so many good things happening and it just doesn't match up with the public perception and the first things that come to mind for the general public when you say public education."

Through ACT and other education connections, Cohen has set up visits at places like Chrysalis Charter School in Redding, which is entirely teacher-run, with no traditional administrative structure. Cohen is seeking out teachers or schools he's read about that have a particular kind of innovation. He's also been invited by various schools who heard about the road trip.

Last week, he stayed local, visiting Los Altos High School and Graham Middle School in Mountain View with a Norwegian principal who started a 1:1 pilot program using Chromebooks (meaning that every student has access to at least one device at all times) and was in the area for related training with Google. Cohen answered the principal's Twitter-proliferated request to visit schools focusing on technology integration in the area.

This week, Cohen is heading to Bagby Elementary School in San Jose to visit teacher Alicia Hinde, who he said is a "dynamic speaker, a great representative of our profession in her work on the state commission for teacher credentialing, and a union leader who focuses on parent and community engagement."

Cohen is documenting his year through an blog, "Road Trips in Education," as well as a personal blog. He also plans to self-publish a book at the end of the year.

This is not only a project with ambitious educational goals, it's expensive. Cohen launched a Kickstarter campaign on Sept. 22 to raise money for travel costs, aiming to reach $30,000 in one month. Day trips to visit Bay Area schools mean expenses like gas and bridge tolls; farther flung visits mean gas or air fare plus car rental, lodging and meals. He's also raising money for the publishing of his book, with costs in the thousands for things like developmental editing, copy editing, graphic design and promotion.

"With this Kickstarter project, I want to take you inside some great classrooms and schools throughout California," his campaign description reads. "Maybe you've heard discouraging news, observed some acrimonious debates and political battles about education; it's easy to become frustrated and disengaged, to feel powerless. But in recent years, through contact with hundreds of teacher leaders all over California, I've emerged optimistic and energized."

Cohen said the trip is something he's had in mind for three or four years, and he hopes that it motivates some real change.

"Negative stories don't motivate positive changes," he said. "I figured it's time for people to know more positive stories."

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2 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 29, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Why limit yourself to California, if you are looking for innovation? Why do you need to go on roadtrips when you have Video chat that is free, and available via any broadband Internet connection? And what exactly will qualify as innovation? Will it be the adoption of technology from the private sector? Or will it be teaching that is more old-fashioned than not?

Will innovation be coupled with clearly demonstrable student performance? And what about teacher turnover? Given how we know how hard it is to teach old dogs new tricks—will teacher turnover be considered in concert with innovation? Oh, and let’s not forger per-student spending at the schools that are demonstrating innovation worthy of being elevated to the public’s notice.

Not certain why a road trip is necessary to dig out this information—but maybe we’ll find that out in the fullness of time.

9 people like this
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 29, 2014 at 2:08 pm

David Cohen is a registered user.

Hi Bob - those are some good questions about the project. Maybe someday in the future I'll have the time and resources to go beyond California. The first time I thought about the project I was going to call it "Travels With Dewey" (referring to educator John Dewey and echoing Steinbeck's title Travels With Charley). I actually do have some contacts already in many states, but for now, I'm focusing on something more manageable and with a higher concentration of contacts. I'm also interested in how California teachers and schools manage within similar budget and policy conditions. And as for making personal visits, it's true I could (and will) gather information from a distance, but there is truly no substitute for being there in person if you want to get a feel for people and places. I wouldn't buy a travel book by someone who had merely researched from a distance, and the book will hopefully have that close-up and authentic feel for the topic, rather than merely gathering information. If you watch the video I think you'll get a good sense of what I'm after and why I'm going!
Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Trona HS
a resident of another community
on Sep 30, 2014 at 9:23 am

I hope you pay special attention to schools that use Scratch ( Too many districts get bogged down with the use of office and presentation software and other low-level activities such as tutorials. Scratch allows students to create interactive, multimedia projects and to learn computer science concepts, something lacking in most curricular approaches to the use of educational technology. Scratch can be used with any academic subject and facilitates the development of true technological literacy, as opposed to the usual outcome of students being able to use specific software titles. Instruction using Scratch helps develop problem-solving skills, it encourages collaboration, and it's free.

3 people like this
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 30, 2014 at 9:42 am

David Cohen is a registered user.

Well that's a nice endorsement for Scratch - I'll take a look! :)
My aim is to look at what schools do well, whatever tools or methods they're using. I hope to look deeper, to discuss the underlying conditions and practices that lead to good outcomes. What is the decision-making process like, and who's involved? What are their priorities and how do they convey that in allocating time, resources, and leadership responsibilities? How do they react to setbacks, adjust and improve?

1 person likes this
Posted by Kerry
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 30, 2014 at 10:12 am

Hi David:
What an interesting and project!! I hope you go to the Playmaker School in Santa Monica. PBS did a segment about them on innovative schools in the country. It would seem like the perfect type of school for my son. He loves to fiddle around and discover stuff, but not necessarily through teacher directed science lessons, or anything teacher directed!! Anyway, it is called New Roads School in Santa Monica. Also, I heard about a school in Berkeley that is for boys only, doing building.
Cant wait to see your write-ups, hopefully the School Board can get some innovative programs in the Middle Schools for my kids.

3 people like this
Posted by Great project.
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 30, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Great project. I'm looking forward to seeing a full spread in the Weekly about what great teaching looks like with a focus on how we might integrate some of these practices locally. There's always room for improvement!

3 people like this
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 30, 2014 at 1:52 pm

David Cohen is a registered user.

Thanks for all the tips and encouragement. As you might have seen in the map above, I have lots of my travel already partially or completely worked out, but I do keep track of every suggestion. The bay area suggestions are a bit more useful at this point because of the flexibility that comes with proximity. Don't forget the Kickstarter - a long way to go still! Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Student
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 30, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Mr. Cohen,

Good luck on your trip. I would advise that in addition to finding what inspires teachers, you look for what inspires students. My child had your class on FHAO as a Sophmore, and while you were very helpful, in the end, the material was kind of a downer, and they did not really learn analysis or writing.

Combined with an absolutely disastrous Freshman year English (a different teacher), I view the first two years at Paly English as both a huge missed opportunity and a setback relative to the expectations of Junior year following English teachers.

Two items sorely missed:

- positive inspiration and encouragement

- help recovering from prior year gaps in Eglish.

In fact, the gaps carried forward are treated with punishment, as those kids who are not doing 'A' work from day one are given demotivating marks from the start , and it goes downhill from there.

Repeat each new year.

Essentially Paly English punishes students for prior year teacher shortcomings. It's a terrible system which generates demotivation.

4 people like this
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 30, 2014 at 11:32 pm

David Cohen is a registered user.

Dear Student - or rather, Parent (based on the content of your post):
I'm sorry to hear about these shortcomings or gaps in your child's time in my class. You probably have my email address, and as I was always available to speak to any concerns while I was teaching, I remain available now. I'm sure your child's current teacher would also rather clear up concerns with you directly rather than read about them, posted here, anonymously, where it does no one any good.
Facing History and Ourselves certainly has some very serious content that could be considered a "downer." That curriculum was available for review when your child selected my course. Being aware that negativity and depression do not motivate learning and change, I strived with every unit and every major assignment to focus on how literature helps us understand and grapple with the challenges and tragedies of the past. Students were repeatedly asked to use literature to look for ways people respond to history, what choices we have, what we can do with our understanding to bring about a better future. Most of those assignments are still online at a website your child should be able to find for you, if you'd like to take a look.

2 people like this
Posted by Student
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 1, 2014 at 8:23 am

Mr Cohen writes:"...rather than read about them anonymously"

Of course you may have heard that PAUSD has a strong culture of retaliation. Teachers and principals have retaliated against families and students who raise issues. Some to the point of driving them out of the district.

I'm sure that as a teacher of FHAO, you understand the chilling effect which retaliation has on free speech, disclosure and discussion. So it'll be anonymous.

Which is interesting - the distinct has no protections for students; thereby cutting itself off from the very feedback they need to improve teaching.

5 people like this
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 1, 2014 at 8:49 am

David Cohen is a registered user.

I can't speak beyond my own experience. All I can say is I welcome questions about my practice when parents and students raise them. The more the better! Questions are opportunities for clarification and problem solving. Silence leads to simmering unease without giving me an insight into what I can do to help. I'm extremely proud of my record of consistently working with students and families to reach understanding and provide flexibility that helps kids learn. Maybe this conversation could go to another thread on Town Square.

2 people like this
Posted by Support!
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 1, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Best of luck on the road trip, Mr. Cohen! Can't wait to read the book!

3 people like this
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 1, 2014 at 12:44 pm

David Cohen is a registered user.

Thank you very much! It's nervous time right now, but I'm learning so much at every step in the process. Excited to spend tomorrow in a second-grade class, too!

1 person likes this
Posted by Helen
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 3, 2014 at 12:39 pm

this a great project that might help illuminate many of the unmentioned, unexplored aspects of "Education" that's endlessly talked about by "experts," politicians, reformers and everyone who has a stake in the system... as parent, student, teacher, administrator, etc. But, the terms are always generalized and never defined... like, what is a good teacher? should the curriculum be standardized? should school budget depend on house value? etc...
I'm very interested in supporting this project financially. Years ago I worked on a video documentary to show the wide range of comparables in schools just here on the peninsula: budget, size, enrichments (music and art) science, computer labs, etc.

Can we talk?

1 person likes this
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Hello Helen,
Thanks for your comment. Part of my goal is to make "great" teaching or schools more concrete, and at the same time, show how varied "greatness" is. And I definitely think we need to make it a priority for quality of education to be less varied by neighborhood and home prices. I wish equity alone could carry the day, but I think people need a vision of what that should entail, beyond some budget equalization efforts. Glad to talk more - check my website:

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 3, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Mr. Cohen - someone I do not know except for reading his comments from time to time - appears to be an engaged teacher. He shows inspiration and a go-getter attitude that are great examples, I am sure, to his students.
I have an array of comments -
Subject knowledge is also important. I want a teacher to TEACH and LEAD in the classroom. Yes, class discussion and individual/online learning can also be included. However, I remain strongly in favor of in-classroom education. I DISAGREE with the premise that "all will be fixed" (scores, educational outcomes, learning, behavior problems) with the taxpayers supplying an electronic device, Chrome or otherwise, to each student. GIMMICKS are a rip-off of the taxpayer and generally do not serve the student well, either. Poor quality cartoonish graphics are a dis-service to real art, commercial curriculum is a dis-service to the experience of learning with a good teacher, at whatever age. (I am thinking of keeping up with the Jones' young parents nowadays who are desperate for their infants to play "educational" games on electronic devices.
I admit that I despise video games, so I do not want anything of that ilk in a classroom.
I respect teachers and I want them to be worthy of respect. Many years ago I had a shock upon moving to California and going into a class as a young student, and having the teachers say, "Just call be Suzie" (or whatever). No, I am not elderly - I am middle-aged. The extreme informality resulted in less courteous classmates, in my experience, by comparison from the public school system where I had my early years of school (i was originally from the midwest where teachers had more dignity and stature in the classroom).
Teachers are professionals and should not be unionized.
Students should clearly understand the boundary between the classroom/school and recess/down time.
I think teachers should control their classrooms and be able to forbid use of electronic devices in class. Yes, there are circumstances where use of clickers is even part of universities nowadays, fine, but Googling answers does not constitute academic research, overuse of social media is harmful even if heavily pushed by our prominent local companies, and education is important and should be respected. Constant cellphone checking is not necessary during the academic periods and should be absolutely a no-no. Time is precious.
The students should WANT to do the right thing, they should want to please their teachers. I am concerned with parent over-involvement here in Palo Alto schools, with the pressure to cheat. We ground some parents were really doctoring the process to favor their students at any price for elite university admissions. This is where institutional leadership is crucial, they set the tone for a campus and lead by tone, example, attitude. There have been such an array of site leaders (principals, etc.) that it is not possible to generalize; there has been a full spectrum during the time where I have had awareness/knowledge of such leaders.
Then there are the institutional bureaucratic constrictions that may limit a teacher's capabilities/teaching approach. I remain suspicious of Common Core and glad my students are young adults and so out of this and "Everyday Math,"
While we need consistency on curriculum and grading, it is also a fact that there are some teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty! I think these should be publicly recognized as "master teachers," with attendant pay and prestige. But oh, no the teacher's union prohibits differentiation of teachers though it may be obvious. I also thought I read in one of the local papers that 2M was set aside to "re-train" PAUSD teachers in Common Core, perhaps someone would like to respond/correct me as this sounds idiotic to me as a taxpayer, to be blunt, but that's what I recall on the spot without researching it right now.
Finally, I am interested to see if Mr. Cohen has studied whether teacher award winners (as specified by the county and etc.) are necessarily superior and what their methods are; whether so-called Blue Ribbon Schools in the state of CA are necessary superior (I think not, I believe it is a feel-good bureaucratic "award," though my info/knowledge on this is admittedly out of date).
The subject of our local schools should never be overlooked; real people are going through the educational process and the effects are major, for better or for worse.

1 person likes this
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2014 at 3:29 pm

David Cohen is a registered user.

Lots to consider there - rather than take it point by point, I'd just say that there are many pathways to good or bad outcomes. Take any given example - like calling teachers by first names - and it might succeed or fail. And just because a certain practice is part of a thriving or struggling school doesn't mean that the individual practice is contributing to the success or struggles. It's a vast, dynamic, and fascinating enterprise to educate millions of children in thousands of districts and schools. I am also aiming to strike a balance of visiting teachers or schools already recognized in some formal way, along with many virtually unknown beyond their community.

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