When classroom observations make sense

observations

 Shared on flickr by Ralph Hockens

People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture—to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in.
~Chip and Dan Heath

Full disclosure: I am no Instructional Rounds expert. The majority of my exposure to Instructional Rounds has been experiential and in context of the work I do as part of our district’s Instructional Leadership Team (6 teachers who work on site with teachers in an iterative cycle of co-planning, co-teaching and co-learning). As such I would rate my knowledge of the theory behind instructional rounds as low (I just want to make that part very clear 🙂 ). I also have to admit I did not “get” the Instructional Rounds concept. At all. That is before I saw it and experienced it in practice and on site. This made 2 aspects of professional learning and change evident to me:
1. Telling someone about a practice is not an effective way for them to understand it (i.e. as most Pro-D in the past has been).
2. When an initiative (practice) is presented in isolation, it does not always make sense or seem relevant.

The majority of our work happens on site with a school based group of teachers.  Our first steps on site are usually to co-construct criteria for collaborative work. This can feel like a laborious process but as with any new process you often don’t feel the benefits until well into it or till even after. Next steps are to identify an area of need (what are they seeing in their students) and establish a collective rational for the why of the work to reveal a common pathway (5 why protocol can be used to drill down). As well the creation of “if…then” statements can be useful to determine the why of the work we are about to undertake.  I really like this stage as it provides the opportunity to create a prediction and predictions invite us to wonder if they will be true! So for example we might say: “if we design lessons with voice and choice then our students will take more ownership over their learning” or “if we build stamina (using Daily 5) then our students will become independent learners.”

Onto co-planning

The co-planning stage sets up the tension for the underlying why of classroom observations (in my limited experience!).
If we do this…then this will happen…ok let’s find out if it’s true. Observations rather than inferences allow us to find patterns and trends instead of making judgments and opinions. After the observations is when the magic happens!  Through the process of sharing and sorting the observations as a group is when the co-learning happens. I have to admit I did not really get the co-learning part until I experienced it IRL. The moment we come out of a classroom observation (based on a lesson we co-planned) the connections between our observations happen. We saw similar things (observations are neutral, they are not opinions) the patterns begin to emerge; it becomes immediately evident the changes we might need to make to the co-planned lesson. But also evident are the successes and details that paint a full picture of what is actually going on in the class. The meaningful nods occur all without judgment or value statements. At this moment everyone is keen and ready to change, tweak and celebrate the lesson; it becomes obvious what needs to be slightly adjusted or added. Teachers are eager to get at it right at it and often want to co-teach the same lesson again that afternoon or next day. The natural progression to co-plan again emerges organically and does not feel forced.
This process connects the causal relationship between planning to the specifics of what happens in the classroom (yes we all know this…but when we experience it followed by observations it has a different impact). This process reveals teaching as experimentation. It also moves the focuses from what the teacher is doing and to what students are doing. The process also makes evident how useful observations can be in general and opens the door to observations as a way to provide students with useful feedback (as opposed to judgments or evaluations).

Why this kind of classroom observation makes sense:

1. Creates permission to tinker on teaching practice.
2. Moves us out of silos (beyond grade partners, subject specialties, schools).
3. Moves us away from widget making mindset: it is not to create as many lessons as possible but rather to see the lesson plan as always in process.
4. No one person is perceived as THE expert; together we co-create understanding of quality and a “nose for quality.”
5. Shows small changes are possible (creates belief change is possible).
6. Topples belief that Pro-D should be like a fast acting cold medication with a one-time dose.

But more than anything else this process helps remind us:

We learn to do the work by doing the work, not by telling other people to do the work, not by having done the work at some time in the past, and not by hiring experts who can act as proxies for our knowledge about how to do the work.
~Richard Elmore

where does your light shine?

do you light dark corners?
does your light add clarity and outline?
does it illuminate the overlooked or forgotten?
does your light have adjustable brightness for when shade is needed?
does your light warm, brighten and invite?
does your light move in an unencumbered line out from you?
does your light shine through fog and callous?
does your light create a reflective surface for others to see and feel their light?

***

does your light shine to illuminate the streaks and missed spots?
does your light suck dry the surrounding soil, leaving it desiccated and infertile?
does it shine only at light shows?
does your light scorch and burn delicate new growth?
does your light bounce back to shine just on you?
does your light blind, blur and fatigue?
is your light operated by an invisible and unknowable switch?
does your light only shine into well lit areas?

***

where do you shine your light?

master or masterpiece?

It’s late August, you are back at school setting up your classroom. Your neighboring teacher pokes her head in to say hi and catch up: “Have you seen your class lists yet? Who do you have?” You hand her the printed lists lying on your desk. As she glances over the lists she shares: “Oh him, he is great! Oh no, not her, she struggles with everything!”

So innocent and so human, to want to know a bit about the students you will work with over the course of the next several months.

***

I promised myself I would try to avoid preconceived ideas about students. I wanted to let them be blank canvases as they entered the class and paint their own story, fresh for the first time. I even went as far to make a poster in big bold letters and post it up at the back of the classroom as a daily reminder to myself of this very thing:

Expectation becomes the realization

While my intentions were good it turned out my practice was not.

A couple of years into teaching I had the chance to work with students I worked with in Science 8 again in Chemistry 11. I was thrilled to have already established relationships in place! As such we had richer conversations, less ground work to cover to create mutual understanding. But with that prior knowledge of each other guess what else crept in?

I learned in talking with students how I had broken my own rule of thumb. In conversation one day, a student said: “Yeah I even got “name of student who always gets A’s” to do my lab for me and you still gave me…”
In that moment I was caught; I had fallen for the name on the page and not the words on the page. I was judging students on what I knew of them rather than the evidence of their learning they were sharing with me. I was marking everything students put a pen on and evaluating nothing. Oh I had so much to learn!

My take away that day (beyond the burning shame of being blatantly wrong and floored by how much I had to learn) was…
I needed to look at the evidence and not the person presenting it, regardless of what I knew of them, felt about them or had heard about them. I wanted to look for the potential masterpiece…and sometimes it would be crumpled, the spelling atrocious, and handed in late…but it could be a masterpiece! Would I see it?

Today I continue to ask myself when:

  • I read a tweet or a blog…
  • I evaluate or assess…
  • I listen to a student’s idea or suggestion…
  • I choose to retweet or share a blog…
  • I sit in a meeting…
  • I read student work on the crumpled or torn paper…

What am I reacting to? What am I really evaluating? What am I connecting to? What do I base my opinions on?

What do you react and connect to?

The master or the masterpiece?

Dear #PLN, you changed me

Dear #PLN,

We have been hanging out together for over 3 years now. There are some things I thought you should know.
At first you overwhelmed me and it was awkward. I was not sure what to say and you had so much to say. I watched and listened to figure you out.
I remember thinking: “How do you express yourself like that?! WOW!”
I remember thinking: “I am going to have to get up pretty early to read ALL THOSE important ideas!”
And for a time I did.
I was amazed and bewitched…there was so much going on…all this time elapsed and I hadn’t know about you! #sadness
I was overwhelmed and amazed by how much you knew, how much you thought…how intensely and deeply you cared.
I fell for your range of interests, your openness to the unknown, and your drive to keep moving.
OK. I more than fell for you.

Beyond infatuation, your presence impacted my learning, my heart, and my perspective on life. I don’t mean in a trite and superficial way. I mean in a deep profound way. You changed me. 

Tweet by tweet, you invited me to trade in my cynicism for hope. Like poker chips in a game you’ve invested way too much in, I didn’t want to give my chips up. “They are all I have!” I thought, but somehow you convinced me. So all in I went, gave away every last chip and traded in on bold, loud and glorious hope.

You shared your learning, your thoughts, and your dreams out in the open. You made me understand through example how I could be strong and vulnerable, at the same time. You helped me discover that when I put myself out there, no matter how scary or uncomfortable it feels, real connection happens. Regardless of distance, nationality or subject matter, we are all in “this” together.

You made me ravenous to learn, to keep up, and to know what you knew. But not in a competitive or measurable way. Not in a way to be like just like you. You let me know I could find my way, on my own, in my own time. You said: “you are capable and sure, don’t doubt yourself, just go.” You left tracks of your thinking for me to use as clues so I didn’t get lost. You left space beside your tracks for me to make my own way, my own path. You expanded my thought horizons beyond my imagination; you showed me glimpses of what was out there and beyond. You made me want to make my own path there. You let me want it for myself.

You allowed me the space and time to discover I love to write, to think, and to create. You said: “go ahead take a risk, try something new, I’ll wait for you, I’ll encourage you, I’ll celebrate with you.”

But the biggest gift you gave me, which simultaneously breaks my heart and glues the pieces back together, is you made me want to start all over again.  You made me wish more than anything, that I could start my career, my learning journey, all over again…but with you.

Love,

me

Can you be held accountable for something you own?

“Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”
Pasi Salberg

 

Last year my daughter told us she wanted a new iPhone. “Ok” we said “you will just have to pay for it yourself.” So off she went to get a part-time job, saved over several months and finally had the funds to purchase her iPhone.
Fast forward to this fall when she was getting out of my husband’s truck with the beloved in hand. You can probably guess what happened!  As she was exiting the truck the phone slipped out of her hand and clattered onto the driveway. Before you could say “I love iPhones,” crack and shatter…the screen was toast. She was devastated, her beloved ruined. She felt bad, so badly, that she had in a 2 second window let her iPhone slick out of her grasp. Back to saving she went to get the screen repaired. I am not going to claim this event totally changed her phone carrying behavior, but she did get a different case and she did assume complete responsibility.  But the thing of it was she owned the phone. We couldn’t be “mad at her” or disappointed with her for dropping it, as she was mad and disappointed with herself. We didn’t jump need to assume responsibility for the phone, it was hers, 100%.

***

While I get that phones and learning and very different this story helps to make a point.

We say we want students to own their learning, right? We say we want students to become independent learners, right? Can anyone own something when held accountable externally for it? When we, with our best intentions, say we need to hold our students accountable for their learning, is this is not an oxymoron? Can someone be held accountable for something that is theirs? And the very second we do hold students accountable do we not extinguish, in that very moment, all hope that students will in fact ever own their learning, because in that very well-meaning moment, haven’t we owned the learning for them?

Do we think we have to hold students accountable as they not capable? If learning is to be authentic to them and for them are they not capable of that?  Is it that they don’t care? Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the learning was never theirs in the first place. It is hard to be forced to care about something that is not and will never be yours.

***
How do you feel when you are held accountable? Do you feel empowered or dis-empowered?
When you are engaged fully in a project you love and are passionate about do you need to be held accountable for it? At all?