Friday, September 12, 2014

Unexpected Perspective

For twenty years I have been in a classroom with 8th grade students. Teachers see students through many microscopes--some thrust upon all teachers across the country, some self-imposed. Most of the lenses are cut from content, data, and standards. We so often zoom in and rarely zoom out and actually look at people.

Our administrators observe us, but we rarely observe each other.

In the past few weeks I have observed four colleagues. My goal is to observe thirty by Christmas even though I have not observed four teachers over the past twenty years.

Two per week during my planning periods should get me there.

Sitting in a 6th grade science classroom on Thursday and an 8th grade foreign language classroom on Friday offered me an unexpected perspective:

I've taken some things for granted.

I have forgotten how much kids grow from 6th grade through 7th grade through 8th grade. I have forgotten that a 6th grade student needs so much attention in learning how to be a student. I have forgotten in 8th grade we can engage so deeply in the content because of the incredible work that has occurred in the grades before us. Our 6th and 7th grade colleagues are, in a sense, pulling double-duty by delivering a robust curriculum in addition to channelling so much energy into the habits of being a good student.

In the 6th grade science room, it was like their skin was on fire with energy. They wriggled. They talked. They leaned from one side to the other. They smiled. They fidgeted. And they engaged with the teacher, Judy, over the directions for the lab:
In your groups, take two plastic cups and write SALT on one and SUGAR on the other. Fill each halfway with water. Put two tablespoons of SALT in the one marked SALT, and two tablespoons of SUGAR in the one marked SUGAR. In each, place a small carrot. In a notebook, make a prediction about what will happen to the carrots--they were starting a study on scientific method.
Those (simple) directions took over twenty minutes to deliver.  Not so simple when your skin is aflame with energy.

The directions were delivered in chunks and were repeated. The teaching strategy was something akin to part-part-whole. Teach one part. Then the next part. And so on.

The students verbally repeated the directions along the way. And then Judy demonstrated each step before pointing to the directions, hand written, on the board.

No stone was left unturned, but turning over so many stones takes time. It was incredible to be reminded just how much guidance an engaged 6th grader needs.

Along the way, students repeated parts of the directions and held their hands in the air in the proper way to hold a scale. They were reminded not to run in the classroom with or without the cups of water. They were reminded not to drink either the salt water or the sugar water. They were reminded not to eat the carrots.

Along the way, they answered questions. Some left their seats for a moment because they had to move. Their bodies have minds of their own. Their bodies made noise. The room was noisy but in a focused, well-directed, vibrating swarm of insects sort of way.

They accomplished their task with energy. They had fun. And they clearly needed to run. Soon.

When I observed the 8th grade foreign language classroom, the students entered on another level. Yes, they talked to one another. Their athletic bodies climbed over desks. They moved respectfully to grab a piece of paper from a shelf. But when they sat, they sat still, and needed at most 45 seconds of directions from their teacher and engaged in the review.

They would be taking a quiz during the second half of class.

My colleague, Marc, led them through chunks of conversations in Spanish and connected with the kids with humor. They were asked to extract information from the conversation, to recall the rules of the sounds of letters, and to notice names they hadn't encountered previously.

Similar to the 6th graders, the 8th graders were repeating things. At times, they repeated the correct pronunciation of words. Mostly, they repeated words and phrases that they had committed to memory.

Nowhere in the process did they need to repeat the directions aloud.

The 8th graders raised their hands like the 6th graders but it wasn't a competition like it was for some 6th graders. To be called on in the 6th grade classroom was a little victory. It was winning. It was a combination of "Yes, I was chosen!" and "Yes, I know the answer!" It was a part of feeling liked, of being noticed, and of being acknowledged.

The 8th graders were not roiling with energy. Their pulse runs deep. They think. They listen.

Yet, they crave opportunities to laugh, to take a breath, and to play too.

And they need adults in their life who take them seriously--who listen. The nature of being a parent, a coach, a teacher makes adults talk at and direct kids. A lot.

But in 8th grade, they thrive under conditions where adults take them seriously. Adults who listen. Adults who engage their minds without holding their hands through everything.

It wasn't any one thing that reminded me of how important our relationships are with our 8th grade students, but it was the act of looking through the lens of teaching--the original lens.--as opposed to the lenses of content, standards, and data. The teaching lens is the one we looked through before we ever finished our education degrees. It is the one that too often collects dust.

Another colleague of mine listened to me share my experience in the 6th grade classroom. I told her about a boy who left his chair and half skipped, half paraded up and down the aisle and then simply returned to his seat. He went back to his work. He just experienced a momentary explosion of joyous energy.

My colleague smiled and said, "See, that is just like my son. My son needs that too. Sometimes I just wish they would just let him get up and run around for a minute too." In that moment, she was a teacher looking through the lens of a mother while talking about other teachers who looked through a variety of lens--some imposed on them, some self-imposed.

However, without zooming out and looking at the landscape of where we are and who we teach, we can take something for granted...we teach people who depend on us for our kindness and compassion as much as they do our knowledge and experience.

And long before our students reach us, they have a history of teachers who taught them a lot about being good students and good people.

And it always points back to our example--the things we do and see more than the things we say.

And because that is true, then seeing our colleagues teach is one lens worth picking up and adding to our perspective.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Observing a Colleague (Music)

My goal of observing colleagues is now a formal goal of observing 30 colleagues by Christmas break. This is it--I am writing it down. Having observed two colleagues thus far, the importance of the conditions of, or the design of, our classrooms is crystallizing.

I don't mean bricks and mortar, paint and polish. I mean the conditions of learning modeled by the teacher.

For example, at the end of the music class, I told my colleague, Young, that I appreciated seeing her confer with kids as much as she did. Over the course of the forty minutes that I thought to track it, Young engaged in twenty-five conferences.


Some were a minute or two, others a bit longer. But this is a far cry from the music class I remember as an adolescent.

I went to a Catholic K-8 school in the city of Philadelphia. Music class was held in a basement--dull linoleum floors, boiler room, and wire-meshed windows. When the church was being used, mobile confessional stations would appear in the basement. An occasional evening dance or talent show happened here too. Facing the stage and its flame-retardant and moss-colored curtains, the entire grade sat on uncomfortable, metal folding chairs. Sister was tall and thin and demonstrated various instruments.

We never got to play any instruments. We listened to her strum a guitar, play a flute, tap an xylophone. And we learned songs by listening to a vinyl recording. Funny, I still remember them. We learned one so we could sing it during our Confirmation ceremony. We sang it over and over and over:
I'm a soldier in Christ's Army,
Confirmation made it so.
I'm a soldier in Christ's Army,
I'll defend my faith wherever I go.
No, the devil shall not harm me,
I'm the captain of my soul.
I'm a Soldier in Christ's Army,
marching to my heavenly goal.
Today's music class is far different. For one, the students were writing music--creating a 12-bar blues song from scratch that they are going to play. Using keyboards and Garageband, the students have been recording everything--all of the instruments in their mix. Once completed, the last thing they will do is record a solo. The only rule is they all have to use the same keys, but the rhythms can be different, etc.

I didn't see the passive music lessons of my adolescence. I saw more than music. I saw writing and connected it to my classroom.

And, like the writing classroom, I thought how meaningful it is that Young presented herself as a mentor and not a judge. Because the students know that she can play music, and because they know that she can write music--they have seen her do both--the students did not flinch in the conference when Young admitted a personal struggle, "that's the one area I really need to grow in--editing the sound."

Clearly, she plays and writes alongside of her students, so it doesn't take much training to observe that Young set up very specific conditions for her classroom.  Yet, three conditions resonated most with me.

Among those that I remember from Young:

  • "You have perfect pitch, could figure out what pitch the school bell ran on!"
  • I love what you are doing here, but you want to use your second octaves. Remember, you want them  to be nice and low because it is a bass sound; you o.k. with that?
  • "That looks good, but it went a little far, cut that back to the number 5 line--yes--I'm excited to here this. Are you excited to hear it come together?"

I smiled when I heard a student ask Young, "I don't know how long it should be." I get that question too!

Young was all over the room--addressing individual questions when students needed her--and assessing each student repeatedly throughout the class. By conferring one on one, she could tell who needed extra time and who was ready for enrichment.

When she noted, "lets give Joe a chance to get that next track" she challenged a different student who seemed to take a break from writing their music, "remember you can make up your own rhythmic syncopation." That student went right at it.

While students worked independently to create music, I couldn't help thinking about the writing that occurs in my class. Sometimes I see students slow down and stop because they believed they wrote all they had to express. Sometimes they haven't developed the stamina to continue developing content and need that nudge and encouragement to know where to access the ideas to put down on paper.

When choice is offered, students will work at different rates. It doesn't mean someone is slow or doesn't understand. Sometimes students focus on details others don't prefer. For the students who moved ahead at an accelerated rate, Young provided a specific skill to work on while they were waiting for the others: practice playing the two specific keys they were writing with. Young said, "keep the tip of the thumb on all white keys, and the middle finger on all of the black keys." The students worked playing their piece with this adjustment of their hands.

As an aside, when this kind of interaction occurred, I heard "thank you" from the students often.  I know it is because our kids are polite, but I also give credence to the fact that Young has created an environment where the condition of respect exists. She respects the power of choice in her room, and she shares that power with her kids.

Final Reflection on the Observation
It makes me think of the many skills students need to learn in order to write--and how I can keep those specific skills in my back pocket when I find young writers who need a nudge to continue writing and don't know how. The beauty of Young's lesson is that is built on choice.

The student was in control of their work and they were free to make mistakes. Free from judgment, students were free to ask questions.

Young was free to work with kids in small group conferences--while others were still writing. In these small group conferences, she was providing a lot of individual coaching and opening up the possibilities for the students.

Young gave kids lots of time to write, experiment, make mistakes alongside of lots of guidance. The freedom of choice was supported with lots of quick conferences. I've seen these same conditions of a class in math and now in music