The Modern Classroom
Kareem Farah is an educator and Co-Founder of the Modern Classrooms Project – a nonprofit that empowers educators to meet student needs through blended, self-paced, mastery-based instruction. In this episode, Chanda and Kareem talk about the 21st-century skills that need to be taught in the classroom, the importance of trauma-informed teaching, and how COVID-19 has affected education.
Souphak Kienitz 00:00
Up next, Kareem Farah, tells us an amazing story that starts with his passion in business and finance and thinking of becoming an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, but instead shifted into becoming an educator, and without giving too much away, it all started from a conversation with a young student in his class that changed his perspective, and the inequities he saw in the education system. Kareem was so inspired, he started a path in finding innovative solutions and tools to be responsive to diversity, and the social and emotional needs of students. He’s now the co-founder and CEO of the Modern Classrooms Project, an organization that empowers educators to meet students needs, through blended, self-paced and mastery-based teaching. I kept thinking, why didn’t this exist in my childhood years. This is for the educators, parents, the aunts and uncles, who care about their nieces and nephews and the young ones. They’re the next generation in this world, and stay tuned. There’s a bonus conversation at the end of the episode. I hope you enjoy the show.
Kareem Farah 01:19
So I was born and raised in Northern Virginia. At a young age, my two parents are immigrants. My dad’s Egyptian, my mom’s Lebanese, they were first-generation immigrants to the US, and we’re small business owners. My dad just opened a tiny restaurant even though he didn’t know anything about Italian food. So I sort of watched my father build the classic small business in the US and kind of create a healthy environment for me to be able to have a really high-quality education and always sort of saw my life through the lens of coming from an immigrant family having a business background. I then, you know, had the privilege of going to great schools. Schools that had more money than they even needed, and started to kind of uncover what I saw was like a core issue of equity that lived and breathed through the education system and beyond. Kind of the most poignant point of my life was I was a junior in college at Washington University in St. Louis. I was a finance major, I didn’t turn to Goldman Sachs. I thought I was going to be an investment banker, and simultaneously, I was in a program called Each One Teach One, where I was tutoring students, in St. Louis, and I still, to this day, never forget, I was tutoring a young girl, and it was my first time meeting with her, and I was tutoring her math, and she was in middle school, you know, we have our like, first conversation, I asked her how she’s doing, and then she just asked me, do I have any brothers, and I said, yeah, I have two brothers, and then the first question she asked following that was, are they in jail, and I will never forget that moment, right? Where question one was, do you have brothers? Question two was, are they in jail? Where I had sort of sat down in my seat and said, what are the circumstances that would result in a middle school student thinking that that’s the obvious next question, and it was at that stage that I sort of thought back on my sort of upbringing, where I got to the point and said, you know, I’m not inspired by working in this environment. I want to make an impact, particularly in education, to think about ways that we could bridge this gap, because what I got looked very different than what this middle school student got, and how is that going to impact that student’s ability to access the resources, the opportunities, that I was afforded. That led me to then join Teach for America become an educator. I then spent six years in the classroom, and it was about halfway through my time in the classroom that I realized that one of the core issues we face in education is that our instructional approaches. The way that we teach students is inherently inequitable. We actually have created instructional models, just a classic methodology with which we teach students that is almost designed to let students that are chronically absent experiencing trauma, or multiple grade levels behind academically to just continue to slip through the cracks. It’s like we’ve built a system that works for folks that can show up to class on time and don’t have really unique barriers to entry. For those kids, they can make it through, but for everyone else, traditional approaches to teaching and learning where I’m meeting their needs, and that’s what inspired the creation of the model, we’ve built the Modern Classrooms Project, which is a new approach to teaching and learning, that’s really designed to be more equitable and provide an opportunity for kids to have unrestricted access to learning, and from there, I founded the Modern Classrooms Project, and we train educators across the country in the world on this fundamental approach. It’s a nonprofit where we support educators in building blended, self-paced, mastery-based classrooms, a new approach to teaching and learning.
Chanda Smith Baker 04:36
That’s incredible, and I was thinking about some of the stories that have shown up in my life and in my world, around just the differences that kids are wrestling with and this whole idea of inherently and equitable. As you were talking, what was triggered for me is, thoughts on homework, because I’ve always felt like there’s kids that have systems to do homework at home, like tables and lights and quiet that don’t have to come home and have responsibilities what younger siblings or older relatives, and can. What are your thoughts about homework?
Kareem Farah 05:17
Oh, this is such an interesting question and ties so closely to the work that we do. I’m not a huge fan of homework in general. I think homework is a dangerous tool. When we think about equity in teaching and learning because there’s just such an inherent bias for whether or not you have the conditions at home to do work. I also think it’s kind of an odd concept when you think about the workplace. I mean, the primary purpose of education isn’t necessarily to prepare students to work in sort of the economy, but ultimately, when you think about it, we as adults don’t have homework. We execute the tasks that we have in class, and then if we’re doing a good job in class, then we can pivot and go home and not have homework to do, right. But for some reason, we have this expectation for kids that they go all day to school, and then they have to go do work at home, which doesn’t make all that much sense. I’m a big believer that, you know, homework is a structure that we’ve put into place that can only hurt students in higher environments who have limited access to support and resources at home, when we actually started innovating and creating our new instructional approach, a huge and popular model at the time for leveraging technology to meet students needs more effectively was the flipped model, and the flipped learning model took the perspective that instead of kids listening to lectures in class, they go watch videos at home, and then they come to school to do the problem solving and the interaction with their peers, and we actually, specifically, address how our model is fundamentally different from that because it is unfair to expect students to just go home and watch videos, access to internet access to devices, access to lighting and resources, ability to not have to babysit their siblings is like core barriers to this. So I first believe that homework is just an entity in of itself that I’m not sure I believe in all that much. I think that students should have to do work at home if they’re not executing on a task they had to do in class. So if I set out a set of classwork and you didn’t use your time, effectively, yeah, you have homework. I wouldn’t call it homework, you have to catch up. You didn’t use your time effectively in the same way that I would expect in a workplace. In addition to that, I think in any environment, if you’re going to expect students to do work outside of class, for whatever reason, you then have to couple that with the conditions in the particular school building to support that. So whether it’s after school hours reserved for kids to have a safe and comfortable place to access content and resources, having support staff available to provide that guidance that maybe someone at home could be able to do, so if you’re going to expect folks to actually engage in any sort of learning at home need to make sure that we can even the playing field by supplementing the resources, the structures that you would have it on, ideally, in the school buildings or in the community.
Chanda Smith Baker 07:56
Have you read any of the books by Jonathan Kozol?
Kareem Farah 07:59
Chanda Smith Baker 08:00
Yeah. So like it’s The Shame of the Nation, right? Is that the name of his book?
Kareem Farah 08:04
I believe that’s what it’s called. There’s a few of them. I want to look them up because I read a couple.
Chanda Smith Baker 08:10
Kareem Farah 08:11
That’s the one that I have spent a fair amount of time and yes.
Chanda Smith Baker 08:15
Can you just talk about that? I mean, I read the first couple of chapters of that book, and my heart was ripping out.
Kareem Farah 08:22
Yeah, well I mean, you know, when I was reading that book was when I was in that journey. I actually had a mentor of mine at Wash U, who I was in a class called the Political Economy of Education, and it was when I started to get a taste of what it meant to be outside of my bubble. You know, my bubble was a weird one, I had immigrant parents who came from countries that did not have resources.,but then I grew up in sort of these pretty high net wealth communities with great resources and private schools. So I sort of understood what it meant, to not have resources from the stories that my family and my parents told me, but I in my own life was not experiencing any of that. So when I started tutoring students in St. Louis, I then started reading that book and started to see the degree of disparities and access, and what I think that book expose to me was, when you think about, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, like it was these base-level things that students and kids didn’t have.
Chanda Smith Baker 09:19
Oh my God, like, it’s just like, so which is bad, like the backgrounds are.
Kareem Farah 09:25
Exactly. And then when I became a classroom educator, and this is when I was able to apply what I was reading to what was actually happening in front of me because it kind of connects this idea of homework, but I remember, initially, I was a young educator and I was like, you know, a lot of young educators are like we walk into the classroom thinking we’re gonna change the world and then you realize how difficult it is to create change, and you know, I was in the classroom and I remember giving my students homework and then being really frustrated, why it’s like it only 20% turn in or 20% completion rate, and then really spending some time after school just having conversations with kids and learning that the barriers to entry, to doing homework are so often things that I could never even pretend to understand, right? When I would talk to kids that said, they’re babysitting for siblings and have one device and the internet’s shaky, but I’m expecting them to somehow go problem solve, something challenging in Algebra 2 and use digital resources, and that barrier to entry is so wide. So I think what I saw in that book was a real articulation of these core resources that are fundamental to anyone being able to grow and learn that we’re missing from a huge percentage of our students, and then to hold them to the exact same expectations and set of resources like just make assumptions about what they have access to was so dangerous, and it caused me to get frustrated with kids that I shouldn’t have been frustrated with. I think that’s a core idea that happens quite frequently in education as we start to grow frustrated with the students themselves, or kind of what they’re turning in and we’re looking at outcomes without looking at stories. and when we look at outcomes without stories, we run a real risk of the sort of using wrong, the wrong indicators of success for kids, which is dangerous.
Chanda Smith Baker 11:06
So let’s talk about that because I think that feeds into the narrative about educational disparities, you know. We need to really change these kids’ trajectory, like I, you know, I say that often, many times in my head, I’m like, you don’t know the story, you don’t have empathy for the story. What you think is that the parent is just not good parenting, but we’re not looking at the economic circumstances, we’re not looking at some of the other things that play into that, and so do you have any level of confidence or any insight that you’d like to offer around how we are talking about educational disparities?
Kareem Farah 11:48
Yeah. So I mean, I think there’s a few things here. I think the first thing is we don’t do a great job listening to kids and families, and when I say that, I don’t necessarily mean I think there’s a difference between listening and sort of parent outreach and parent communication. I think those are two distinct things. I think there’s a lot of efforts to deliver information to parents, maybe gather survey feedback and all that good stuff, but I’m not convinced that we’re doing a great job of is actually understanding what are the stressors and then responding to them, and we see this often with traditional approaches to teaching and learning. When you hear that kids or their parents have trouble making it to school, there are real circumstances that are inhibiting their ability to access information or resources, but then we continuously use instructional approaches that don’t honor that reality, we have to ask ourselves, whether we’re actually listening to the needs of families and communities, or we’re just collecting information from them, and then not actually creating any radical change. You know, one of the things I often think about is this idea of truancy. We, you know, there’s an obsession in education around this idea of truancy. Most of the questions that are being asked tend to be around how do we improve attendance rates? Which I think is an important question, how do we improve, you know, the percentage of time kids are in school buildings? But while we’re asking that question, we also have to ask the question, how do we support students who cannot come to class as consistently as we’d like? And it says, if we just ignore that question, and say, we’re going to work in an unfettered way towards solving the percentage of time students are in class, but what’s actually the critical, urgent need now this thing, some kids have barriers, like fundamental barriers to showing up to class and accessing information and resources and being able to be a part of the classroom environment. What are our alternative methodologies to support those students because that’s the core equity issue. If we don’t address something like that, then we’re just continuously ignoring their needs.
Chanda Smith Baker 13:41
You know, this whole thing about what kids are bringing to the classroom is like one really clear set of, sort of, circumstances. There’s another set of circumstances which I would say I was probably more in and I’ve said before on this podcast that I wasn’t a great student, and I actually should be, you know, probably qualify that a little bit is that I really leaned more towards like literature, and some of those things less so for math in the sciences, the sciences, and I was in an advanced math and science program. So it was a little bit problematic. It was just a misfit for me, but I’m curious on where like you have kids that just have natural tendencies, and like are not as strong, and do you think we’re putting too much pressure on kids to be strong in every subject?
Kareem Farah 14:32
You know, this is such a fascinating question. It’s not one I get to talk about that often, because, you know, my specific model and what we scaled the Modern Classrooms Project is unique to instructional delivery and actually is curriculum agnostic, but I have a lot of opinions on this and thoughts on this, having been a high school educator for years. You know, one of the things that I think first we need to do a better job of, is appreciating that particularly students that are in high need environments are forced to grow up faster. Where I grew up, the argument was, you got to learn everything and get exposure to everything, and then even in college, you’re gonna go in there and just try everything, and there’s almost this, like inherent privilege baked into that idea that like from, you know, kindergarten all the way to like when you’re 21, you’re on this exploratory phase, where you’re figuring out what you like, and we’re going to provide you with all the resources, you need to be successful in all those spheres of influence, and then when I started teaching, and particularly how to environments, so many of my students were like, hold on a second, like, I come from a home right now where they’re seven people, and we have a, you know, combined family household income of under $40,000, and I’m pretty clear on actually what I want to do, and I want to be a firefighter. I want to go to this university and get this type of job, and they would express constant frustration around like, why are you still making me go to algebra 2, right? Algebra 2 is kind of designed for engineering. I don’t need to be told that I should still consider engineering as a pathway for my life, you know. I take care of three siblings, I have a vision for where I want to go, you’re kind of wasting my time. So I’m actually a big believer in general, and us rethinking what students actually need to learn, and then also how we can better listen to what they’re excited about so that we’re putting them on a pathway to success. This includes not necessarily hammering home every single time that everyone needs to go to a four-university. Some kids may want to go to a two-university, a technical school, real pathways that produce great lives and great job opportunities that are aligned to students needs, and then asking ourselves to like to what degree have we construct an education system based on what we think kids need, versus what they actually need today? You know, to me, I see two examples of very glaring issues in the math and sciences. First of all, Algebra 2 is a classic one. I taught Algebra 2, in an environment, we had a 1% proficiency rate in Algebra 1. I don’t think you need much more clarity on why that makes no sense than the number one should lead to number two, and number one, we didn’t have high proficiency rates. Additionally, if you asked me when I was teaching, what do you use algebra 2 for? It’s pretty limited at this point unless you’re going into a specific engineering pathway. On the flip side, we don’t require something like probability and statistics, which is the core way with which you intake information in the news and all that good stuff, and are able to assess the world around you and decide whether things are good or bad or improving or declining, and you think about, you know, COVID-19. If you don’t have a background, at least in some probably in statistics is very hard to understand what’s going on, what are these curves? Why are they accelerating in different ways? The same thing applies to like something like media literacy, right? Like there’s core ideas and structures that I think are now critical for every kid to learn that they’re not learning, and then there’s a ton of information that I think we’re forcing them to learn that don’t relate to their particular needs or desires, and I think one of the mistakes we make, and it’s a classic example of privilege bleeding across sort of environments is we assume that because in some sort of private bubble environment, everyone needs to dip their toes in every single industry and get like a feeling for what all these different pathways are like before they make the decision. They can buy themselves, four or five years of time, maybe graduate from a four-year university, and then try a different master’s program. Now the freedom to do that is contingent on having unbelievable economic security, and a safety net, and if we’re hearing from young adults, we’re not talking about sixth graders, we’re talking about 11th and 12th graders, you know, folks that are 15, 16, 17, 18 years old, in many ways are already contributing to the household income, we should listen to when they are requesting a different pathway for their future., and I always said I care less about students grades and more about whether they have a plan. I can look at a student who has a 2.4 GPA with a great plan and say I’m, I’m very happy with where I think you’re going to go, and that’s my humble opinion, and then I can also talk to a student who has a 3.5 GPA but doesn’t really have a plan, and I have far greater concerns about where they’re going to be in five years, and I think our current model spends a lot more time thinking about SAT’s, ACT’s and GPA’s, and a lot less time thinking about whether kids have coherent plans for their future, and we need to do a better job of aligning there.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:03
Yeah, did you have you read the book Beyond The Test?
Kareem Farah 19:07
I have not read the whole book. I’ve read like excerpts of it.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:10
Yeah, so probably me too, right? Like, I think I got the basic gist of it, and I think that in that book, it’s really saying like sort of the scores right when I’m recalling right now, is this idea that you have kids that are A students that maybe haven’t had to have the discipline because they’re natural at the work, and then you have C students. So they’re A students without a plan, and C and D students who have to work harder with the plan that as they become adults, they actually go further in their career, because the idea is, can you set a goal and get to the goal, right? Do you have a vision for your life? And so I’m not sure that the way that we’re educating kids now are focused on where they’re at how do we help them get a vision? How do we help them find passion, and we have sort of these arbitrary ways of assessment that I think are actually quite harmful.
Kareem Farah 20:07
Yeah, I agree. And, you know, the core belief in our model, we often talk about our instructional approach, and it’s designed to rub up against traditional practices, and the first step is to take the teacher away from the front of the room, and so you’re not lecturing, instead, you build instructional videos, and kids can access it that way, but the second piece is self-pacing, and part of the reason self-pacing is so, so critical to us is we want kids to be in the driver’s seat so they can learn those 21st-century skills. We’re not teaching kids self-management, self-awareness, self-regulation, goal setting, when every single day they walk into class, and we say you’re learning Lesson 2. We’re gonna micromanage every minute of the class day, you’re doing this for the first 15 minutes, this for the next 30, this for the last 20, and ultimately, we’re teaching kids content, but we’re also teaching them 21st-century skills. I think traditional approaches to teaching and the way most classrooms are set up doesn’t actually teach 21st-century skills, it teaches them as almost like a secondary element. It’s not the core element of teaching and learning. You couple models like that, within targeted efforts at real goal setting and planning, like me with your counselor to think about what you actually want to do moving forward. Think about what your schedule does, and to what degree is it aligned to your actual personal needs and desires? To what degree is your plan feasible? Now, I often use the example of my teaching career started in Hawaii. That was the first place I started teaching, and I came in there. I don’t know, my privilege couldn’t have been showing anymore because I walk into an island, that is beautiful, and has unbelievable community, and it really values place more than anyone I’d ever, ever anywhere I’d ever been, and I came in there thinking my goal is to get as many of these kids to hop on a plane and go to a four-year university off the island. That was the perspective that I had taken. Why because of my privilege, right? I thought that’s, that’s my measure of success, and it wasn’t until I was there that I realized like teaching my students 21st-century skills, making sure they have a plan within their community that’s aligned to where they want to be and where they want to go is far more important than some arbitrary notion I have around an effective SAT score and getting into a four-year university on the mainland. It was such a warped way of thinking about what success was in a kind of alliance, this idea of thinking beyond the test, thinking beyond those outcome metrics that aren’t aligned to student needs.
Chanda Smith Baker 22:21
I have sort of two tracks of thoughts, and I maybe I’ll go down your pathway, because you talked about coming in, as an educator in Hawaii, and then you also mentioned TFA, Teach for America, and we’ve talked once before, so I really don’t know, you know, but there’s a lot of criticism or critiques of Teach for America, and that we need to make sure that we have people that have gone through the traditional licensing pathways, and I think, you know, this bowl fits into sort of innovation in education, where there’s innovation and how we get people in front of kids or with kids or in partnership with kids around their learning, and then how we innovate, how we measure impact, how we innovate, how we, do deliver curriculum.? So do you think you had an advantage in teaching and understanding education because of the path you took into it? Do you think that it was a combination of all the things that you bring? I’m curious on how you might see that, that opportunity that difference? What you might have missed?
Kareem Farah 23:27
Yeah, no, I think it’s a great question. I think ultimately, the contributing factors that determine whether you know, I was successful in the classroom is kind of multifaceted, and I don’t, I’m not ever I mean, I deeply believe in innovation education. So I find any blanket solutions oftentimes aren’t that ineffective, and we tend to think hard about sort of the multifaceted ways that we can contribute to solving a problem. I think, ultimately, we need to think hard about how we bring a greater percentage of high-quality educators that believe deeply in students and the way to support students into classrooms, and I have seen this done in very creative ways in very effective ways, and also seen it done in ineffective ways. I think as it applies to me. I went into Teacher for America and then into the classroom with the intention to find my way into a classroom as fast as possible, because I was so excited to be a teacher, and to make an impact. I had no intention of ever leaving, and I had the privilege of being successful in winning awards in DC public schools that then, you know, came up with the idea of then scaling the instructional approach, and what I found was that the most powerful way that I got better at teaching and learning was teaching. I learned by doing. So, I actually found that my route worked really well for me. I think what’s actually significantly more important as we think about any pathways into the classroom is screening the individuals for why they’re actually engaging in the activity in the first place. But I think it’s critical about making sure that educators are prepared and able to thrive in that classroom is ensuring that they’re coming in with the intentions of getting really good at teaching students. If that’s your primary goal, and you hit core indicators of sort of competency, you’re likely going to get to the point where you’re a strong educator, because you’re invested deeply in the core goal. What we want to avoid is folks that are kind of popping into classrooms and then leaving and not really all that invested in sort of one foot in one foot out, and I think that’s the key, and I think that’s why I experienced success, and a lot of my colleagues who took a similar path to me that I’m close with, the intention was to make an impact and to get really good at the craft, and I think if anyone is going into anything that’s impacting students lives and communities, we got to be committed to getting good at the craft itself, and as long as that’s the case, I think alternative pathways have a lot of upside, but if it ultimately leads to folks sort of not fully invested in the activity, teaching is just too hard, right, you can’t sort of be invested in teaching and think it’s gonna create change. So that’s the biggest piece for me, and, you know, part of it for me was my background of having thought I was going to be an ibanking, and feeling incredibly uninspired by that exercise, incredibly inspired, to get good at teaching. I became obsessed with like what it takes to truly create an environment where a kid feels like they can thrive, and when we have people like that with really, really strong understandings of content, right, very good at math and a drive to do that, I think there’s ways to get them in the classroom fairly quickly, but we need to make sure that we’re screening for that core idea.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:30
Yeah. Do you remember a moment where you felt like I’m really good at teaching?
Kareem Farah 26:39
It took three years until I thought that was the case. I had a lot of moments in the classroom. When I knew I was really good at relationship building. That was the first thing I sort of realized. I would, when I was in Hawaii, I taught totally traditionally, and kids were coming to my room for lunch. I was connecting with kids, they were seeking out my sort of emotional support and guidance as a mentor at scale, and I was like, I’m really good at connecting with kids and pushing kids, but at that phase, I was still going home, and I was like kids aren’t mastering skills. Like they like me, they see me as a great support system, but they haven’t actually mastered skills in any sort of transformational way, and I realized then I’m a good mentor, I’m not necessarily a great educator. Educator of the content that I am tasked with teaching, and that’s not to say that those aren’t, you know, together, right? Those are obviously both related, but it wasn’t until I started using the instructional model that I had developed with my co-founder, this blended, self-paced, mastery-based approach, that I started to feel like I was a good educator, and the reason why was, I was walking into my classroom, having totally revamped it. So I wasn’t lecturing, and I was working in small groups and individually with kids, and that’s when I started to go home and say every kid was appropriately challenged today. That’s a question I could not have said it confidently. I was doing prior in a traditional format, every kid was an appropriate challenge. Some kids were bored, some kids were lost, some kids were confused, some kids were stressed, and then when I pivoted, I could go home and say, I know what every kid did today. It was differentiated, some kids did some lessons, other kids didn’t. I have a clear picture of where they’re going, and I felt like they all were reasonably challenged. That is a hard thing to execute, and I think a lot of times, we make the mistake of looking at the wrong indicators of success in a classroom. So we’ll look at things like test scores, or we’ll look at things like traditional engagement, I often talk about this distinction between engagement and compliance. Like you can walk into a classroom and see a ton of compliance, every kid sitting, staring at the board, taking down notes. Does that mean kids are learning? Right? They could just be writing down what they’re seeing, right? So I had shifted my model from control and compliance to engagement and differentiation, and it was at that stage that I realized it was effective, and I can tell you the exact moment. The exact moment is, I was standing in my room was about six months into my fourth year teaching when I had built the model and iterated around along my co-founder, and the bell rings, and I don’t say a word, and I watched my kids walk into the classroom, check their pacing tracker to see which lesson they’re on and pick up where they left off, and I didn’t have to speak for the first 10 minutes of class, and they all got to what they were working on very different tasks, and just started engaging, and I said, Oh my goodness, I’ve cultivated and constructed a classroom environment, where kids feel like they know where they’re going, what they need to do, and are appropriately challenged, and they have the initiative to come to me when they need help, but they don’t perceive me as the core access to learn. They have not sort of inflated my importance to the point where they think without Mr. Farah, I can’t learn, and that was the moment in time where I’d realized that I had started to become a really strong educator, and it was hard to get to that point, I tell everyone that like, the first year you teach, I don’t know, I don’t care where you come from that is the wildest journey of anything I could ever imagine. Nothing has been harder, building a nonprofit, running an organization, nothing compares that first year teaching because you’re basically making so many decisions so quickly, and learning so much so fast. The second year, you start to get a little bit more comfortable, can perceive and anticipate challenges a little quicker the third year, you start to really experiment with how am I delivering information in a coherent way that’s powerful. It wasn’t until the fourth year that I thought about full classroom redesign and arriving an environment where I was like, What do I actually want kids to be doing every day in my room, as opposed to prescribing what they do at the front of the room, and that was really transformational?
Chanda Smith Baker 30:46
Yeah, as you’re, as you’re talking about sort of this total classroom sort of innovation and integration and thinking about it in that way, what type of environment were you in that allowed, because like, there’s this perception that I have, that teachers are also somewhat confined by curriculum and expectations, and that those of the most innovative often don’t thrive in those spaces. So what type of environment allows you to thrive?
Kareem Farah 31:18
You know, this is a fascinating question, because I’m not actually sure that there was anything unique about environment. My environment that allowed me to thrive, I’ll say the first thing is, I was able to take risks that I think a lot of times other people don’t feel comfortable for, again, because of my privilege, and I tell folks all the time, people ask me, How do I start a nonprofit? Or how do I scale innovation, and I own up every single time I had a safety net, I’ve always had a safety net coming from private school environments with wealth. So I could take risks that other educators would say, I’m not challenging the status quo, because I’m worried about my job security, and I have kids to take care of. So it’s, it’s beyond arrogant for like a 27-year-old educator has been in the classroom for five years to say, why don’t you take the same risks I take, right? It’s just a bit of a silly assumption. With that being said, what we have constructed and our goal was to say, How can we actually empower the educators to be the primary point of innovation without having to rely on all these conditions you’ve described, and I think this is the core distinction between our work at the Modern Classrooms Project and most innovation that we’re seeing in education, in general. Most innovation I see is highly contingent on all these constraints being put in place before someone can do the innovation. That’s inherently limiting because you’ve created all these barriers to entry, right? I need my principal bought in, I need my APS bought in, and I need my district bought, and there might be some infrastructure I need to purchase, there might be a program I need to purchase. By the time we’ve coordinated all those elements, given also the degree of turnover and challenges in school buildings, it’s very hard to cultivate that innovation and then to scale it to a lot of places. So our belief at the Modern Classroom Project, what we’ve created is a model that says actually, there’s a there’s stuff you can do as the individual educator that won’t create problems for your school building, but can be radically innovative, and that’s what I did in my classroom. I basically took the perspective of what can I do without asking anyone else for help? Like, what can I do without having to go and get formal confirmation and approval, and no one’s gonna stop me from having to do lectures, unless someone tells me I have to stand the front of the room and talk for 20 minutes at the kids. I’m gonna eliminate that with instructional videos. The second piece was, no one’s going to tell me I can’t let work students work at their own pace, as long as I can still give common assessments. For every geometry teacher in DC Public Schools has to give a test on you know, a certain date, so can I because I’m going to self-paced within each unit of study, and then ultimately, mastery-based grading was the final frontier saying a student doesn’t move on to lesson two until they’ve mastered lesson one. Well, as long as I am curriculum agnostic, meaning I can modify the model to any curriculum, but I’m going to use the district curriculum, and what we realized that in there was we had a model with extraordinary scalability, but also had the capacity to, to address the idea of bottom-up innovation, led people, particularly educators, who are on the front lines, working with students and are doing some of the most innovative things, let them be the instigators of innovation, and empower them with approaches that allow them to innovate without relying on all these kind of structures to be in place, because it slows down innovation. Like we can’t keep living in a world where the only way that a teacher and a fourth-grade building in St. Paul public schools, or in another country has to wait for 14 different steps of approval before they try something really powerful for their kids, and that’s the goal that I see at the Modern Classrooms Project, but I also think it’s something we’d ask hard about how we’re scaling innovation in general, like to what degree are we over-reliant on sort of bureaucratic constraints that are inherently slow and oftentimes are very difficult because it requires like 20 people to buy in, and innovation is inherently risky, right? Like if you think that every stakeholder is gonna immediately buy into something innovative and likely actually isn’t innovative. It’s pretty standard because everyone’s bought in already. So one of the things we tell our educators all the time is innovate and ask for forgiveness later, do something, try it, make sure it’s not so radical that it’s going to create real structural problems, and then if folks have some apprehension say, Hey, can you check this out now, let us know if you like it. So I wanted to take that risk, and that’s kind of a mantra that I apply all the time. We did it when we started the Modern Classrooms, and we encourage educators to do that as much as possible as well.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:24
My thoughts that are connecting around that is a comment that you made about 21st-century skills. I mentioned that you know, whatever, 30 years ago, I was in high school, and I was in this advanced science and technology program because technology was going to be the way the truth and the light, right from my parents are like, you have to go, there’s money there, you know, I don’t care if you like it or not sort of thing, and I understand why they did that, but then I look at my own kids’ education, and I’m like, it actually, wasn’t very infused with technology, and options, we’re still kind of in this computer lab, right, like a thing over here in the side that you can have access to maybe, and then now we’re hit with COVID, and so there’s, there’s something around sort of the advancements that you made with the Modern Classroom that uses technology as support and delivering, and then kind of the world that we’re living in now, and so it may be two different questions. One is like, what is the opportunity at the moment in terms of 21st-century learning, and I guess the second is really just diving a little bit more into the Modern Classrooms, sort of, like concretely so that our listeners understand exactly what it is that you’re doing.
Kareem Farah 36:37
Yeah, well, I actually think it might help if I explain the model, and then how we think it’s an opportunity if that’s okay. So, the core idea is simple, and the best way I can describe the Modern Classrooms Project is, I’ll never forget one of the students that I’m still to this day, I text her almost every day. I remember watching her come into one of my classrooms when I was still teaching traditionally, and I’m standing at the front of the room, and when the bell rings, like every teacher, a teacher traditionally is usually like, Alright, showtime. Like we need to get everyone in order, and then we’ve got to start the lesson, and I remember watching this student walk into my classroom, and she clearly was experiencing an enormous amount of distress, enormous amount of distress. I later found out it was traumatic, and I remember finding her distress to be a frustrating thing because I wanted to maintain control, and it was at that moment in time where I realized my students’ trauma was bothering me that I had to deeply rethink classroom instruction, because if my desire to control turns me into an educator that doesn’t actually want to engage deeply in the trauma and struggles that my kids are facing, then I’m doing something terribly wrong as an educator. So from there, we thought innovatively about what are the core structures and traditional practices that don’t work? So the first step was the lecture. The lecture is this inherently an equitable exercise where if you’re not there, and you miss it, this live information disappears. It’s also a really inefficient use of a teacher’s class time. Like, why am I standing at the front of the room and sharing a mass amount of information, when I could be scaling this in a more effective way and using my time effectively, and I always talk about it as a bottleneck from the business perspective, like bottlenecks are terrible, right? They create like incredible inefficiency. That’s what a lecture was. So in our model, educators eliminate lectures by building their own instructional videos, and this is a core element and differentiator. We train teachers to actually be their own instructional video creators because they’re personal, they’re creative, and they can infuse whatever curriculum is built at the school or the district. So we built our own instructional videos from there that unleashed the capacity to let students work at their own pace, the belief that some students are on less than two hours, on less than three hours, while others are in less than four. So instead of relying on live delivery of information, it’s all on a learning management system, like a google classroom or a canvas. So kids can actually work at their own pace within each unit of study, and that unleashes the final frontier. The final goal, which that we actually measure students based on mastery. So a student does not go to lesson two to lesson three, because it’s Tuesday and not Monday, but instead because they’ve actually shown mastery, and you can’t do that unless you have self-pacing, right? Without an element of self-pacing, how do I keep some kids on one lesson without them moving forward to the next one? So that’s the model. We train teachers through a free course that has 22,000 educators in it, and a virtual Mentorship Program, which is how we partner with schools and districts, and we have a big Summer Institute coming. Now, with COVID, this was so fascinating. COVID broke and started to close schools and all of our teachers who were already doing our model said, Kareem, we’re fine. We know exactly what to do. We can pivot to the remote space, the hybrid space, our model works really well. Our colleagues don’t know what to do. Can you help us so we built a really strong free online course., and that’s when 22,000 educators chimed in and what we realized was, educators had a deep demand for our approach and some of the tools and resources but what it also spoke to was the fact that over the course of the last 10 months, educators have never been this good at education technology. For years, there was technology in the buildings, there were tools and resources that weren’t great frameworks for how educators could use them. Which means there was real implementation gap issue, like some educators would be good at technology, some wouldn’t. So the first opportunity here is that educators are actually really strong at some really powerful tools they weren’t before because they’ve been leveraging them throughout the last 10 months or so. The second thing is, folks started to realize during COVID-19, how ineffective sort of your traditional lecture-style approach to teaching was because they had to execute it, and one of the most uninspiring environments over something like a zoom call. We can all imagine how boring and dry it is to sit on a 45-minute zoom call, where teachers just going to share all this information from start to finish. So you saw two things happen, you got educators, now getting significantly more fluent, and all the powerful tools that exist, and also deciding which ones are actually really bad and useless. And which ones are really powerful, and actually can improve student learning, which is an important exercise There’s a lot of bad tech out there, a lot of great tech out there, but teachers have now been so deeply immersed in it, they can understand the difference at scale. The second piece is understanding the value of what we call asynchronous versus synchronous instruction. The value of that work time we give to students where they’re in the driver’s seat, where they’re not compliantly, listening to live lectures, and the need for when you do bring the whole group together. So now educators are starting to think, wait a minute, I can think about time in teaching and learning differently, and doesn’t need to be me at the front of the room delivering information, and then finally, an enormous need. A need that existed before, but wasn’t actually addressed all that effectively, which is the diversity of academic and social-emotional needs of students. This has always been the case, right? We’ve always known that a fourth-grader in one community can look very different than a fourth-grader in another community and those two students can walk into the same classroom and have very different needs. COVID-19 totally exacerbate this, right, where you have kids who literally can’t make it to the lecture because of access issues, and simultaneously other kids thriving and the remote and hybrid learning environment, and that built this intense desire to say, How do I meet this needs of a student who lost a family member and doesn’t have access and simultaneously meet the needs of someone who is actually thriving, and that requires a sort of more novel personalized approach to supporting students. So at the Modern Classrooms Project, what we’re basically seeing is teachers have never been more prepared to think innovatively about teaching and learning. They’ve never been better skilled at education technology, and there’s never been a greater need for innovation at the classroom level to meet the diversity of learning levels and social-emotional needs. So I do think this is an opportunity for education to really accelerate and get much stronger, particularly in our ability to be responsive to the needs of kids and communities, and I’m excited about that. It’s frankly, a silver lining of this extremely challenging time.
Chanda Smith Baker 43:03
And the way that the Modern Classroom works is that teachers sign up to become part of that network and get access and tools, you don’t focus on a district signing up. Is that right?
Kareem Farah 43:16
So what we do is teachers can sign up individually from across the country in the world, we’re actually in 110 countries and 50 states, which is exciting. They can do that in the free course or the paid experience, which is basically $500 a teacher to get our full training experience. The majority of teachers we train, through the paid experience, do come through school and district contracts, or foundations and funders, funding educators in a local community. So if you’re in San Francisco, and a funder says I want 100 teachers to go through the Modern Classrooms Program in San Francisco, here’s funding for that go recruit educators and take them through a journey we say great. The other way is schools and districts say hey, we’d like to infuse the Modern Classroom Practices in our community, but what we say is we’re an opt-in model. So we will only train the teachers who want to be trained. So if a school district comes to us and says we want teachers trained, we say wonderful, we’re happy to support you get us on the calendar in front of your teachers will present to them. They’ll tell us if they want to be a part of the program, and then you pay for all the teachers who want to be a part of it. So we have about 35 school and district partnerships, it’s only accelerating we’re going to train about 1000 teachers this summer, and some of them are coming through philanthropy funded experiences, where a philanthropist is funding a group of teachers in a region or in the country, and then the majority are schools and districts who are seeking our support and infusing Innovative Teaching and Learning and we say great, we just need to train the teachers who want to be a part of it because we believe in honoring sort of the customization and needs of educators and that’s the approach we take. So it’s a virtual mentorship program is the way that we train teachers in our paid programming, where educators are paired with a mentor that mentor does the model already get one on one support and guidance as they’re building the instructional materials they need to implement the model in their classroom?
Chanda Smith Baker 44:56
Are there any video sharing or do you really encourage the teacher to be in front, like how do you know, as part of being part of the network, they get to share videos amongst coach?
Kareem Farah 45:06
Absolutely, I mean, one of the things is we’re curriculum agnostic. So they’re using whatever resources. So we often talk about capacity building within schools and districts, right? So if a school district has five teachers, who are all geometry teachers who want to be a part of the Modern Classroom Project mile, they should be sharing videos, co-planning, right, splitting up the work. Absolutely. We also so the website, we have a Teacher Resources page, where you can see exemplars in kindergarten, middle school, high school, different content areas, and grade levels and the free course at learn.modernclassrooms.org. That’s where you go to see a ton of resource sharing. So what are trackers that folks are using for self-pacing? What are different types of videos? What are different types of tools, tutorials, strategies, so we try to be an organization that understands that teachers want actionable tools. They don’t want theory, right? Theory is nice, but if it’s not tied to any action and resources, then it’s just not all that productive and useful for a busy educators time. So when you go to our website, The Teacher Resources page has endless resources, exemplar units on the free course even more, and then ultimately, when we partner with schools and districts, we talk a lot about how we can increase capacity building amongst colleagues. So teachers are not on islands planning, but they can work with their peers.
Chanda Smith Baker 46:18
Really good. I have one more question. Before we wrap and you talked about the young woman that came into your room, and that you, you know, come to find out that she had gone through something traumatic. How important is trauma-informed teaching?
Kareem Farah 46:37
I don’t actually know of anything that currently is more important in education. When we think about equity than trauma-informed teaching. It is on my mind constantly, and anyone who’s taught an environment where students are experiencing very high levels of trauma, understand that, if we use traditional approaches, trauma, and teaching and learning are working against each other, and if we are operating an environment where those two ideas work against each other, I can’t think of anything less equitable. We actually have a trauma-informed teaching guide at the Modern Classrooms Project, specifically addressing how our model speaks to this very issue. You know, ultimately, what all the research supports, is, you can’t really support students in trauma, without creating flexible learning environments that give them space to calm down, to release, to communicate, to seek out support, and then ensure that when we do that, we don’t then put them at a disadvantage, right? The classic example would be a student who comes into your classroom, in tears, they’re experiencing trauma, and you send them to the counselor. Well, if you use a traditional approach to teaching by going to the counselor, they’re now missing your lecture by missing their lecture, they’re now behind. So you’ve just compounded this issue, we’ve made that student’s life even more hard, because their trauma is going to reduce their class time, their class time is integral to them accessing information. So now they’re at a double disadvantage. So it creates all these tensions. The second piece is ensuring that educators do not feel like the control of their classroom is more important than the social-emotional needs of their students, and this is not educators fault. This is the instructional models that we provide educators with fault, right, I learned how to teach using a traditional approach to instruction just like most educators do. If you do that a lot of the core initial steps of running a classroom is maintaining control, behavior management structures, making sure everyone’s doing the right thing. Well, that’s not actually designed to handle a student who comes in who just was in a fight or saw a fight or lost a family member or saw something traumatic, that student is actually going to be almost allergic to control at that moment. They need freedom and space and time to relax. So we need to construct learning environments that know how to be responsive to a high diversity of social-emotional needs. One kid comes in ready to learn, another kid comes in ready to decompress, because they’re overwhelmed, another kid comes in furious, they’re angry, right? How are you gonna respond to a student who’s actually feeling anger, certainly not by telling them they to sit down and hurry up and get started to do now. I can’t think of anything more, like uninspiring student is furious than that. So we need to think hard about that, and it’s urgent because we are about to return back to schools in August and September, and folks are going through it now. We will have never seen this level of trauma in buildings, I think in our lives, and if we think that we’re just going to be able to return to classrooms, use traditional practices stand in front of the room, and sort of address trauma on a case by case basis, educators are gonna be overwhelmed when they walk into their classrooms and 20%-30%, 40% of some of these classrooms can be students experiencing trauma, and they’re going to be trying to force a very, very restrictive learning environment on a group of students who really need greater flexibility and greater wraparound supports, and that’s got to be at the forefront of what we think about moving forward. Otherwise, you’re going to take students who are experiencing some of those challenging experiences we could ever dream of, and making it only harder to be successful. And that’s the last thing we want to do with kids with trauma.
Chanda Smith Baker 50:07
Yeah, I guess maybe I do want to touch on this idea of controlling compliance to engagement and responsive and, you know when I think about some of the conversation around education, and, you know, there’s been moments of great contention, and I’m sure you’re familiar, when you were in DC, I imagine, in my mind that you were under Michelle Rhee, and other people, I mean, there was just a lot of tension around education, and you have educators that say, Look, I’m here to teach, I can’t be the social worker, I can’t be the behavior manager, I can’t be all of these things. So the schools are not constructed, they have the behavior, Dean’s and all these people that are helped managing the students, but what I think you’re suggesting is that all of this kind of starts from teachers that are trauma-informed, that have the relationship with the kids that are interested in the story, the life, you know, helping them set their own path, and so when you move from control and compliance to engagement, and responsive, you know, as we close out, do you have sort of concrete ways that someone could observe a class that’s controlling compliance base versus one that’s engaging and responsive?
Kareem Farah 51:25
Yeah, stop watching the teacher. That’s the biggest piece of advice, we make a core mistake and education of fixating on teacher actions. What is the teacher doing in this classroom, and it causes us to fixate on the categorically wrong thing that we care about what we care about as students. So if I walk into a classroom and see an educator putting on a brilliant performance, that kids watching that educator, well, I can say that rooms definitely compliant, right, kids are listening, but I have no idea if they’re learning. All I know is that they’re listening to the educator, and what’s central to the learning experience and example like that the educator, I always tell folks, the number one indicator of a high-quality classroom is what the kids are doing. We need to stop asking ourselves, what is the educator doing? And first ask the question, what are the kids doing? And then from there decide, well, if the kids are doing things productive, how are the teachers supporting that? And if the kids aren’t doing something productive? How can the teacher support that or pivot their actions to facilitate that, and I think that’s a core mistake that we often make in education. I think even just like our own minds, as a public, when we think about teaching, we think about a teacher at the front of the room, putting on some performance we anchor to like movies or our own experience, and it causes us to think about teaching and learning as a very teacher-driven experience. Ultimately, engagement happens when people are in the driver’s seat, whether you’re learning a new skill as an adult, whether you’re trying to figure out how to use a new app on your iPhone, or whether you’re learning how to add fractions, the learnings happening when the kids are doing or when the adults are doing. So we need to really reframe what we pay attention to in the classrooms and focus exclusively on student behaviors. What are the students doing as our primary assessment of engagement and then work backwards from there? How is the teacher helping or not helping them stay engaged and be in the driver’s seat, and that’s ultimately the primary indicator.
Chanda Smith Baker 53:17
Good details. Tell the listeners wanting to learn more about the Modern Classroom, the work that you’re doing, or they wanted to support in any way? Where would they go to find out more information?
Kareem Farah 53:28
Absolutely. So our websites, www.modernclassrooms.org, the free courses at learn.modernclassrooms.org. All of our social media channels for the Modern Classrooms Project are at modern class projects, and then finally, my personal social media. I’m active on Twitter as @KareemFarah23. So that’s usually where you can find all of our resources. If you want to support our work, we always have a donate page or nonprofit, at 501C3. But ultimately, you know, what we want to see as many educators as possible, being able to access our free course as many schools and districts who want to be able to engage in our work reaching out, and any philanthropists and supporters who can think about how they can instigate change, particularly in their community to consider working with us. So those are all the avenues that they can reach our work.
Chanda Smith Baker 54:12
Yeah. So Kareem, thank you so much for your time, and such a fascinating conversation. I mean, education is so personal, you’ve either gone through it, you’ve gone through it, you’ve seen people go through it, and it’s such a complicated space with such high stake, and so I certainly appreciate sort of the commitment, just the way that you’re leaning into sort of the potential and the possibility of kids really shines through and I hope it’s inspiring to our listeners. So thank you so much for being with me in this conversation. Well, thank you. I hope it was inspiring as well, and thank you for having me.
Souphak Kienitz 54:54
That’s Kareem Farah and our host Chanda Smith Baker, but stay tuned, there’s a bonus conversation and story that will make your jaw drop. To learn more about the Modern Classrooms Project, visit modernclassrooms.org, and to receive a free Modern Classroom essentials kit, where you can explore strategies, practices, and templates you can use today, visit, learn.modernclassrooms.org
Chanda Smith Baker 55:25
My daughter had this teacher, Mr. —- There was a Latino kid that basically said, you know, this is boring. Stop lecturing like I’m bored, you know, whatever he said, and the guy turned around and said, that’s what’s wrong with you brown and black kids. This is why you don’t learn. This is why you live in bad neighborhoods and you can’t get good jobs. He does this my daughter says, What did you say? She videos, she audiotapes him saying it, repeating it good for her. She calls me up, I’m on a business trip. She sends it like she calls me, sends it to me like mom, you gotta hear this. She questions him in the classroom. She gets kicked out. They suspend her for a day for insubordination, right, and ultimately, there was a parent meeting around it. Ultimately, I got lectured that, you know, the teachers union doesn’t hire racist teachers, and I don’t know more than the teachers union as a parent, and at the time, I was the CEO of an organization, right? So I live in the neighborhood, the kids are going to neighborhood schools, and I’m like, I’m seeing this firsthand how folks are treated. Yeah, zero consequences. That teacher was unbelievable to me, and I’m like the amount of damage, and I and he’s like, I’ve been using this tactic for years. Like kids need to be motivated. I’m like, Yeah, but to demean them in that way like you’re using this as a behavior modification, tactic. Yeah. Now, if you wanted to talk to him about why is he bored? You know, there was no self-reflection, it was all about him and you here to like, save a community through your wicked ways, or whatever, but I have a story, after story like that, you know, and I have great stories and great teachers, but those aren’t the ones that damage.
Kareem Farah 57:19
No, they’re not, and that’s the problem is the degree with which you have folks who are using approaches that are just fundamentally broken, and then committed to it in a way that then they say, I’m not broken, or the approach is not broken, you’re broken. I mean, that’s the final outcome, that’s a disaster, right? I can’t think of any other way to suppress opportunity than to take a kid who might have a language barrier, or, you know, some sort of element that’s making it difficult for him to be like, I can’t follow what you’re doing, and I’m not enjoying this, and then to say, No, you’re broken, you’re the one that actually can’t figure this out. I’m doing everything perfectly, is not only gross, but it’s also just comically inaccurate. Like, I just want to like, get that teacher in front of me and explain to him why his approach is actually so broken functionally. So it’s heartbreaking, and what the problem is change is going to be slow, and this is one of the things that I think is so frustrating, I imagine from your seat and mine, as well as like, as much as we’re making a dent in the impact or trying to, it’s hard to make a dent on that educator, and then every version of that educator across the country or in communities, because like you said, the barriers to change can be exhausting.
Chanda Smith Baker 58:31
Or the, or the controls for the status quo, and, you know, talking about teaching has become a sacred cow, right? You can’t talk about teachers, because you’re, you know, or teaching because you’re attacking teachers, and they’re not really the same thing, and like we’re actually trying to protect kids, right, and I’ve had great, great teachers, and my uncle was actually the first Super black African American superintendent in Minnesota, or the Minneapolis school district and in New York, the Templars in New York schools. So we grew up with a lot of educators in our family and around us that are brilliant and have done amazing jobs, but it seems like we’re in either your context and hopefully we’re breaking through it.
Kareem Farah 59:14
The either-or is such a disaster. I mean, we’re seeing this in so many spheres, right? It’s, none of these problems are simple enough to be either-or, if they were then we have a solution. It’s just way too complicated. because like you said, I’ve certainly I’ve spent much of my career surrounded by incredible educators and also seen examples of times where I’ve real questions around why and educators in the building and whether or not they’re doing significantly worse for students than benefiting them, and we can’t pretend like that’s not happening, like it’s either one or the other, like all educators are bad or all educators are great. It’s a silly notion that leads to just blanket solutions that don’t work. We see them at scale. It’s why we built our organization on the idea that we need to go direct to teachers because the blanket solutions aren’t working. They just don’t land well, and you can’t treat the incredible educator the same way you treat the teacher that you just described. They’re categorically different and need very different treatment. So any approach that treats them the same is inherently broken. So terrible.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:00:12
Yeah, and then, you know, ultimately that I moved my daughter out of the school because there was just a set of circumstances that made it not healthy for her to be there, and then I often thought about, you know, here I am the black mom with a kid that moves schools, and I’m in the mobility rate because they probably assume I’m housing insecure, that I don’t value education, right? I probably ended up in some statistical sort of assumptions about why I move schools, right, and the number of you know, move schools because of classroom environment, school culture, disrespectful engagement, doesn’t get factored into the equation on why parents move.
Kareem Farah 1:00:52
People are not understanding how unique ecosystems are at the classroom level, like, you know, I remember in speaking to sort of the privileged communities I came back from, right, like where I grew up in, predominantly, white private school communities and trying to articulate like, poverty is not like one concept, but a school that’s 45%. free and reduced lunch versus 70% versus 90% versus 100% are radically different environments and need radically different solutions. But like you said, we use like very simple data metrics, very kind of blanket structures to decide whether things are going well or not or working or not working, and it lacks nuance and solution crafting like we can’t be so simple with the way we come up with solutions. We can’t say because Oh, these five teachers are rock stars, we treat this other teacher the same way. It’s just too diverse from an ability-level standpoint. I mean, and I would imagine you’ve probably had maybe similar discussions I certainly have around this is this is one of the fundamental problems with police, right? Like we treat this it’s the same industry in many ways. It’s like teachers do we have teachers doing some of the most destructive things and incredible things, and they have the same title on the resume might look almost the same same thing applies to a police officer. So it’s a tricky problem, and I mean, I’m glad that you are creating the space to have discussions about it. We hope to be contributing to in a small way that we can because it is a deep-rooted issue and the polarization is making it a lot harder to talk about it not authentic ways.Close Transcript -
Kareem Farah earned a B.A. in Finance from Washington University in St. Louis and M.A. in Secondary Education from Johns Hopkins University. After joining Teach for America in 2013, he spent six years teaching in Hawaii and DC. Kareem was given the award for DC Public Schools Most Innovative Educator in 2018 for his new approach to teaching and learning.
In an effort to scale his classroom model, Kareem launched a nonprofit, the Modern Classrooms Project. As the CEO of the Modern Classrooms Project, Kareem and his team train and support teachers who seek to redesign their classroom to better support the unique needs of their students, particularly in our most underserved communities. They currently have over 25,000 educators enrolled in their free course and over 40 school and district partners.