This entry is the second post in the series Getting Better Together: A Lesson Study
In my first Lesson Study post, I discussed choosing a mathematical goal and task. In ending the post, I invited you to take some individual think time to work out the four questions posed. This was your time to think about how you would plan the lesson for your class, what sequence you would use, and what questions you would ask. You were also tasked with choosing a warmup to engage your class and a formative assessment strategy. Now it’s time to think about the math and the lesson plan.
Co-teaching has recently become a hot new buzzword in education; something at which veteran teachers might normally roll their eyes as they wait for the pendulum of best practices to swing back the other way.
After spending more than a decade serving English Language Learners, it’s a bandwagon that I’ve wholeheartedly jumped on. I’ve spent the last six years co-teaching my ELL students in a variety of settings — from self-contained and sheltered classrooms with push-in support, to a resource role where I pushed into several K-2 grade level classrooms.
My push-in support typically was scheduled during a balanced literacy block for an hour each day. As a resource teacher, I collaborated with my K-2 classroom teachers to provide literacy and language support during guided reading and Writer’s Workshop. As we became more comfortable as co-teaching partners, we expanded our work to include Problem Based Learning units in science and social studies, and technology integration with in-flipping and Google Tools.
Regardless of context, we’d all likely agree that facilitating student collaboration isn’t an easy task. And if we’re being fully transparent, we can confess that sometimes it’s downright painful! Somewhere along the secondary grades, we tend to lose sight of explicitly teaching students skills such as collaboration, and rather expect students to simply be able to successfully work in a group together.
With limited time, support, and resources available to develop our craft in regards to student collaboration, it’s easy to focus on other demands and hope that students will organically develop these skills. If this resonates with you and sounds like something you need support with, I’d like to invite you to sign up for one of the 50 open seats in a new learning experience starting on November 10th, with an online launch at noon Pacific/3 PM Eastern. Over five weeks, we’ll work together to try strategies for increasing student collaboration in the classroom, concluding our journey on December 15th.
Making change can be challenging. It requires us to take a step back, assess our current practices in schools and classrooms, and talk honestly about whether things are working for students. This often puts us in an uncomfortable place, because the safe feeling that comes with what we know, is often more appealing than fear of all the unknowns that accompany change. So even though we may know change is necessary, it’s still difficult and filled with many growing pains. Last year, my colleagues and I embraced the challenge of changing our school’s PLC structure to a more collaborative learning space called Learning Labs. I feel so fortunate to have had the support of my administration, teachers, and the Tch community to learn so much from the experience and document the journey.
This year, I’m excited to continue learning with everyone and working through another important change in the current state and district structure — RTI. For those who are not familiar with RTI, it stands for Response to Intervention, and I discussed it a bit at the end of my reflection post from last year. For RTI, we place students in tiers based on various measures, and pull the intensive students out of class for 50 minutes of extra support each day. While I love the idea of giving students the extra support they need, I can’t get past the labeling, grouping, and removing of students from their K-5 classrooms to get that support.
As teachers, we all know the cycle. It seems just as our heads stop spinning from the end-of-year craziness and we have some downtime, we just can’t seem to help ourselves from reflecting, reading, learning, and planning for the upcoming school year. Not to say this reading, learning and planning isn’t mixed with a healthy dose of beach, pool and golf outings, but no matter how hard we try to relax, we just can’t seem to shake the teacher in us. Now that my head has finally stopped spinning and I have some relative downtime, I wanted to reflect on what has been such an incredible learning year for me.
As a science teacher, the idea of self-organizing organisms makes a lot of sense to me. In nature, we see organisms working together as communities to ensure survival of the group. Wolves and orcas hunt in packs. Honeybees and ants are notorious collaborators. Dolphins and humpback whales hunt in coordinated attacks on their prey.
In education, though, this idea of self-organization among groups is novel. I was introduced to the notion when I watched the TED talk by researcher Sugata Mitra about his “Hole in The Wall” experiment. The experiment involved installing computers with access to the Internet into a wall near a slum in India. When children approached the computer and asked, “What is this?” Sugata replied, “I don’t know. Maybe you can figure it out,” and left the children to form their own answers.
The life of an instructional coach is a balancing act. On the one hand, you are still a teacher. You still plan lessons, they’re just called agendas. You still assess the effectiveness of your instruction, but now refer to the process as follow-up professional development sessions. On the other hand, you are a part of the instructional leadership team with the assistant principals and principal of the school. You have “crossed over” to the other side, to use teacher parlance.
This straddling of two perspectives can help you craft initiatives for great teaching that work for both teachers and the instructional leadership team. The beauty of this duality is that it allows teachers and leaders to work together to determine what the initiatives will be. The improvement of teaching is best realized when teachers are involved in the conversation, rather than summoned to the table. Here are four ways I’ve worked with teachers and administrators to create room for teacher voice and collaboration:
I’m a huge fan of writing in math class! While I was teaching, I had my 5th graders write in their math journals every single day. Whether they used the journals before the lesson to write down estimations, during class to show their reasoning through a problem, or at the end of class for an exit prompt, the journals were always a safe and not-graded place for students to jot down their thoughts. No matter the prompt, I always learned so much about what they understood by reading their entries each day.
This year, as a math specialist, I get to see student writing in math classes across many grade levels, and it’s so incredibly interesting. I’m able to see where it all begins, in kindergarten, before students are even writing explanations in words, to 5th grade, where the writing becomes very articulate. In each lesson I plan with teachers, we incorporate a writing aspect that we use for reflection after the lesson. The students’ written pieces, in addition to our classroom observations, help to ground our reflective conversation after the lesson.
My first example of love was from my parents, which is probably true for most people. Their care and attention to my moral, spiritual, and physical development provided the template for what I hope to achieve with Laila and Joshua, my two children. In the space between the example that I saw and the habits I hope to repeat, learning took place. This relationship is essential to creating an infrastructure that allows great teaching to flow.
You must set a vision of excellence that is visible, practical, and impactful. For many, this vision requires an intentional shift. Throughout my work at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, it has become clear that there are three high-leverage actions that begin to facilitate this change: establishing common language and expectations, building a standards-based foundation, and maintaining a tight feedback loop. Here are some dos and don’ts to consider when engaging with each action:
You cannot have great teaching without great teachers. Any education reform that seek to separate one from the other by means of technological advancements, all-in-one assessment systems, or overloading effective teachers, will have long-term, massive consequences. Although we can engage students with devices, tablets, and modules, they make real connections to human beings. To teachers. The human dynamic in teaching is vital, and the connection between students and teachers is a powerful and important bond.
However, in establishing systems to support great teaching and great teachers, the human element may cause the most difficulty. Teachers are humans first, which means they have emotions, pressures, and realities that can’t be hidden away, even from a dynamic principal (or instructional coach) who’s implementing a new initiative. One of the lessons I’ve learned as an instructional coach is that you have to be able to work effectively with a range of personalities and experiences in order to create a system that supports and unleashes great teaching. This is tough! Through my work as a teacher, I’ve seen three obstacles that can slow or stop the creation of this system: empathy, followup, and assessment. These obstacles will serve as running themes throughout my getting better together journey this year.