New Roads in Education - Kareem Farah '09

Kareem Farah ’09 does a lot of thinking during commutes. He says now that it wouldn’t surprise him if on his daily trips to and from The Potomac School, he wondered whether the traditional classroom model fit his learning style. He recalls, “I often felt most productive learning material on my own or with peers after class.”

A strong math and science student, Kareem was a standout on Potomac’s tennis team. Recruited to play Division III tennis at Washington University in St. Louis, he majored in finance with minors in psychology and education.

In his junior year, Kareem was on course for a career in finance and had accepted a summer internship in investment banking with Goldman Sachs. He also was tutoring local students in math. His first student interaction was with a “bubbly, adorable” sixth-grade girl in a low-income area of St. Louis.

“Are your brothers in jail?” was her first question as they exchanged introductions. Kareem doesn’t remember much from that 10-minute conversation nearly eight years ago, but he vividly recalls the moment she posed that question – and his bus ride back to campus.

“I kept thinking about what that grim question meant about her life and how challenging things must have been for her,” Kareem says. Though he began feeling more passionate about his minor in education, he kept his commitment to Goldman Sachs.

At his internship in New York City, Kareem worked among impressive professionals. What struck him most, however, was how the world of investment banking seemed an impenetrable bubble for a large majority of the public and especially for low-income, minority populations. He returned to campus for his senior year ready to pivot, resolved to prepare for a career in education. The most obvious path after graduation was a two-year placement through Teach for America.

Kareem applied early and landed a post at Kamaile Academy, a pre-K through 12 public charter school in Hawaii. He was intrigued to work with the native Polynesian population, which faces high rates of poverty and homelessness. The school’s needs were so great that during his second year as a teacher, Kareem taught three content areas in math and became the department chair, overseeing most high school math classrooms. Furthering his crash course in education, he completed his master’s degree in secondary education through Johns Hopkins University while at Kamaile Academy, staying at the school one year beyond his original assignment.

Kareem’s next goal was to teach at a comprehensive high school in the inner city. So, in 2016, he returned to Washington, DC, and accepted a position at Eastern High School, which is two blocks from RFK Stadium on East Capitol Street. Kareem expected to use the traditional lecture model that he had employed in Hawaii, but he quickly learned that it wouldn’t fly in this new environment. He says, “One of the beautiful things about teaching in the inner city is how honest and outspoken the students are.” In Hawaii, cultural expectations included deferring to authority; if students were perplexed or frustrated, they usually kept their feelings to themselves. In Northeast DC, however, Kareem’s students weren’t holding back: Some felt completely overwhelmed and confused, while others were hopelessly bored by the pace of his instruction.

The challenge was the wide range of learning levels. Like many under-resourced schools, Eastern lacked a comprehensive program for advanced learners, so students who were behind by multiple grade levels were seated next to students who were on track to attend top-tier universities. Kareem’s approach wasn’t doing any of them justice. Two weeks into the job, he took another memorable commute – this time a Metro ride home. On the way, he decided that he would have to drastically change how he taught or else rethink his profession again.

When Kareem ran into another math teacher in the hallway at Eastern, he told him about his struggle, and his colleague could relate. Interestingly, it turned out that they both loved tennis – and they had both graduated from Potomac! Kareem says it felt like stars were aligning.

Rob Barnett ’05 grew up on Capitol Hill, just a few blocks from Eastern. While he attended Potomac’s Upper School, he played on the tennis team, taught tennis during the summers, and refereed youth soccer. He also enjoyed tutoring, but, like Kareem, he hadn’t seriously considered a career in education until he earned an unrelated degree, explored other fields, and experienced a teaching service assignment.

When he arrived at Eastern two years earlier, Rob encountered the same issues as Kareem. In addition, he taught a first-period pre-calculus class for which about 75 percent of the class was routinely late. He’d also seen unstable home lives lead to absences. He needed a way for late and absent students to catch up without holding up the others. He decided to ditch the traditional lecture and use a blended approach with instructional videos. Kareem was intrigued and sat in on Rob’s class.

There were computer workstations where students could watch (and re-watch) Rob’s self-made videos. If a student took two or three days on a lesson, that was fine. On a given day, different students would be working on different lessons. During class time, Rob circulated among the students to check in, answer questions, and do remediation. He assisted students one-on-one and in small groups as they progressed through a unit. By the end of his first year, Rob had found and refurbished an old laptop cart that housed and charged a computer for each student. He never gave another lecture.

After seeing Rob’s class in action, Kareem excitedly took the Metro home, determined to adapt the approach for his classes. Each night, he developed an instructional video that was no more than 10 minutes long. Rob continued to coach him and within a few months, Kareem had cobbled together his own set of laptops from around the school.

He developed must-do lessons, which were mandated by the District’s curriculum; should-do lessons, which most students were expected to complete but some with learning gaps or special needs might not entirely master; and aspire-to lessons, which offered accelerated content for the highest performers. There was an end date for each unit and an assessment. Some students completed only the core requirements, while others exceeded expectations.

Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. A’layza Mitchell, a former student and big fan, says the routine became greeting Mr. Farah in the hallway, settling in at a workstation, and checking a publicly displayed tracker board that had colors next to everyone’s name: green (on track), yellow (needed to submit or revise work to advance), and red (behind and must check in). Mr. Farah was readily available for questions, she says, but the board conveniently identified everyone’s progress and the students would assist one another, as well.

Shawna Dix, who was an assistant principal at Eastern when Kareem implemented his new instructional approach, says that his classroom provided a perfect fit for a broad range of learners. She recalls, “We had this one girl who always excelled in math, but she was stifled in the typical class. She took this system and ran with it. Kareem had to race to record lessons and create work and quizzes for her.” At the same time, Shawna says, students who had long struggled in school “were finally letting that light bulb come on” because they didn’t feel pressured.

Previously, many of Kareem’s students couldn’t answer a single question on tests because even when they were lost, they still needed to move on to the next unit with the rest of the class. Now, with the self-paced system, his students must demonstrate mastery of content before they get the green light to progress to the next lesson.

Kareem says, “With this system, students don’t just come into class, compliantly sit down, and expect the teacher to supply everything they need. These students are in control of their learning.”

“I’d never had a class like that before,” says A’layza, now a freshman at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “You really had to take responsibility for your day-to-day progress. It was very helpful for college because there’s no one looking over your shoulder here. You need to manage yourself.”

How does self-pacing work for students who aren’t as motivated as A’layza? “Kids could do absolutely nothing while Kareem works with other students,” says Shawna, now an assistant principal at Hardy Middle School in DC. “But that just doesn’t happen. They know that Kareem genuinely cares about them. That’s a key component. He’s focused on building relationships and trust. They perform for him because they know he’ll help them make the system work for them.”

Kareem points out that the end of each unit is a milestone for self-reflection: Did you get started right away? What setbacks did you face? Did you use your time outside of class well? You got behind; how are you going to prevent that next time?

In recognition of his work, Rob was a finalist for classroom innovation in the 2017 Standing Ovation for DC Public Schools Awards. Shawna thought that Kareem’s dedication to his students and his instructional approach, which formalized self-pacing and mastery-based grading through the tracker system, also deserved recognition. She and Rob joined together to nominate him for the 2018 Standing Ovation Award for Classroom Innovation – which he won.

A remarkable recognition program, Standing Ovation is a gala that draws nearly 3,000 DC educators, philanthropic champions, and business and civic leaders. The evening also features annual cash prizes totaling $230,000, funded by David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of The Carlyle Group and chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

As a professionally produced video featuring his classroom played on the big screen of the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, Kareem noticed a buzz among his peers. Afterward, numerous teachers approached him, asking about the model and if they could visit his classroom.

“I realized that I had a choice: I could just go back to my classroom and teach, or I could make a concerted effort to respond to other teachers’ appetite to learn how to do this.”

Kareem opted for the latter and used his $10,000 award as seed money to start a nonprofit, The Modern Classrooms Project, which would empower teachers to adapt the methods that he and Rob developed. The pair honed the instructional model and raised another $60,000. Then they recruited their first cohort of fellows – eight of the best teachers they knew at Eastern – offering to train them over the summer and equip their classrooms with the necessary technology.

Since that initial training last summer, two of the fellows have moved to other schools – Hardy Middle School in DC and T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria – spreading Kareem and Rob’s methodology to new learning communities. Kareem continues to mentor all of the fellows.

Rob is now teaching at Leysin American School in Switzerland, but he’s managing Modern Classrooms’ finances, writing about their work, and developing training materials and website resources (www.modernclassrooms.org). The pair are also raising funds to support a second cohort of 15 to 20 fellows, which will include more teachers from Hardy and T.C. Williams, as well as other schools. Rob will return for this summer’s training.

Now, as he commutes to Eastern each day, Kareem can reflect on the promise of their innovative classroom model. He envisions it spreading to more and more schools, ultimately helping to reduce teacher burnout and improving learning for students across the nation. This, says Kareem, is the road that he wants to be on.