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An Observation Challenge: Seeing The Invisible (Part Three)

Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of a three-part Observation Exercise. Each exercise is a stand alone experience -- do one or all three. Join in now! 


This third exercise is aimed at challenging us to really look beneath the surface. Watching Ms. Brewer will help us uncover how a master teacher takes something complex and makes it look so easy. Our learning purpose in this exercise is to see the relationship between implicit instructional moves and the explicit learning that occurs because of them.

STEP 1: Watch this Uncut Classroom* Video

To begin, let's watch this 5-minute segment from the end of Ms. Brewer's lesson, "Analyzing Texts." If you've done the previous exercises, I'm sure you'll find yourself paying attention to what you see and what you hear. Remember that by focusing on fewer facets of a lesson while observing can help us let go of watching to replicate a strategy. Try to uncover the deeper, more deliberate teaching moves.

Take Notes: While watching this Uncut Classroom video, post your observations in the comments section or download the Observational Worksheet Seeing The Invisible. Don't forget to include the time code in your comments.

STEP 2: Examine Your Observations

If you have time, go ahead and watch it more than once. Then take a few minutes to discuss your observations in the comments below. What struck you? What was interesting? What questions were raised for you? If you used the note-taking guide, spend some time talking about the relationship between the explicit teaching move and the implicit decision-making behind it.

STEP 3: Analyze, Translate, and Adapt Your Observations

It's time to think about how our observations help us understand our own practices. If you've done Exercise 1 and Exercise 2, think about building on what you've already learned. Depending on time and your own learning purpose, you may decide to choose only a few of these questions instead of working through all of them.

  • What is the learning purpose of this portion of the lesson? How do you know?
  • Ms. Brewer often thinks out loud for her students in this segment. When does she make her own thinking explicit to them? Why is this important? What impact does it have on them right now? What can you predict about the long-term impact of this kind of instruction?
  • How does Ms. Brewer use gentle scaffolds in order to help her students get ready to write on their own and with confidence? Do you suppose some of these are built over time? What’s the impact of ongoing or revisited scaffolds?
  • Ms. Brewer uses both words and actions to create a culture of learning in this portion of the lesson. How would you describe the culture? How do her words and actions create it?
  • What does your analysis of this observation make you think about in terms of your own practice?

STEP 4: Get Someone Else's Perspective

In this Observation Think Aloud, my goal is to spot Ms. Brewer's "invisible lesson" and think about how this kind of implicit instruction leads to explicit behaviors and learning. Here we go!

A few takeaway thoughts from Sarah...

  • She shares how her brain works. As if there aren't enough reasons for me to grow from observing and analyzing this lesson, Ms. Brewer's last segment probably teaches me the most. At each turn, she is sharing her brain with her learners. Whether she's talking about how her brain works, flipping through pages to find evidence, or consistently giving synonyms for conceptual terms (e.g., determined and brave), she's teaching these learners to be autonomous.
  • She doesn't change the standards or expectations, she changes the scaffolds to reach them. It's so subtle I almost missed it, but Ms. Brewer's prompt about what the author thinks is crucial in this lesson. It's more difficult to respond to what an author thinks than it is for a teacher to ask a student to react to what he/she has read. In this case, Ms. Brewer maintains the rigor of the standard, but changes the scaffolds to get her learners there. In just these few minutes they develop a vocabulary around concepts, they find evidence, and they draft a starting sentence. I know it's working because students are engaged and seem confident as they begin writing.
  • The question I keep asking myself as I watch this portion of the lesson is, "How does she get the rest of the class so engaged that she can have these uninterrupted minutes with this particular group of students?" What I understand is that getting students ready to write like this can take days of scaffolds. They had to comprehend what they read, they had to discuss it in both small groups and as a whole class. They had to truly understand the reason for writing and it had to mean something to them. She makes me really think about my own classroom and the times I might feel pressured to have them begin writing, only to discover we hadn't built enough background first.

How did it go? Share your thoughts below (especially if you'd like to see more of these types of exercises).

* Uncut Classroom videos show raw footage of a classroom lesson without any guiding narrative or graphic scaffolding. For more information on Uncutsclick here.

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

Wow! I like the way Ms. Brewer accepts student suggestions for organizing ideas (spider web), language and ideas. She achieves student buy-in by setting the purpose for listening and speaking = good writing. She also identifies the complex vocabulary she wants the students to use by using it. And she identifies the specific use of evidence by asking students to find it in text and elaborate on their thinking. She actually has the students planning out their writing through the discussion, the connections, and the possible sentence starters. I see some of the students WRITING as they share and listen.
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I would like to be able to take these ideas about explicit teaching and implicit goals and work the other direction. In other words, if I observe myself teaching on video how can I identify implicit goals that could have been met but were not in a particular teaching segment? I'd like to improve my ability to be more deliberate about helping students meet particular learning objectives. So being able to identify a missed opportunity during class seems like one way to become more thoughtful about having my teaching match the objectives that I would like my students to master.
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Just as Lewis and Clark journeyed toward the Pacific Ocean as their goal, Ms. Brewer consistently keeps her group of 5 students focused on the writing theme. Excellent use of scaffolding for her small group session, always steering the group toward the author point of view and attitude concerning the Lewis and Clark expedition (determined, brave, persevered, etc.) I was impressed as well with the focus of the other independent students in the classroom. Ms. Brewer had several "uninterrupted" minutes with her group of 5 students. How did that happen?
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As a new teacher, I really hope I will be able to be conscious of every aspect of the classroom. I'm impressed with Ms. Brewer's techniques for having the students perform the higher order thinking skill of analyzing. They were bouncing ideas off of one another and she almost never gave the answers. "How can we find that out?" is my favorite line. Teaching a lesson from just about only students' questions is exactly what learning is about!
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Not only are all of you continuing to make me think about this lesson, but you're also reminding me that transferring our learning from this challenge to our classrooms can also mean putting ourselves in front of the video camera. Having done this routinely, I can say that I've never been able to quite let go of that initial sense of being self-conscious. However, what I've learned from video has overshadowed any apprehension I may feel initially. It sounds like we have some people ready for this challenge!
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