Monday, June 20, 2016

What We’ve Learned About Being a Teacher This Year… From You


We were recently driving several hours through a rural region of Ontario to catch a flight out of Toronto Pearson Airport.  Because of our schedule, we were solely focused on the unfamiliar road ahead – the traffic, the highway signs, and the incessant directions of our GPS.  Something caught our attention and we both checked the car’s side mirrors at the same time.  What surprised us were the scenic vistas that the mirror reflected – gently rolling hills, trees in bloom, the darkening sky backlit by the setting sun.  Quite frankly, we had been concentrating so hard on what was in front of us, that we were missing the beauty of the landscape through which we had just travelled.

This reminds us of this time of year.  It’s June.  Even though none of us can believe it, the year has gone by in the blink of an eye.  Again. We seem to have a clear focus on “the end”…graduation ceremonies, farewell assemblies, final sets of report cards, retirement celebrations, and the list continues.  And yet, as we quickly move to the final day of school, we can forget that the closing of another school year is enhanced by pausing – even if for just a moment – and recalling what has come before.  Without this opportunity to look back, we can miss some of the successes, the learning, and the experiences that have propelled us throughout the year and influenced the professionals that we continue to  become.

So, we take our own advice.  We shine the flashlight backwards over the past year and mark five things that we have learned about being teachers and leaders because you have invited us to work alongside you.

·      There is much that connects us across the grades.
As teachers, we have more in common than we think we do.  As we worked in residence in Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms this past year, we used the gradual release of responsibility, moving from modelling to shared practice to independent practice in very similar ways. The big picture was the same, what varied was the instruction required before releasing to independence, the complexity of the shared practice, and the needs of the students in front of us. In Kindergarten and in Grade 12, all students knew the learning destination – where they were going – and what quality and proficiency looked like.

·      We can learn from each other across levels – early elementary to middle years to high school… if we are open to it.
During our time in schools this year, teachers of our youngest learners observed teaching and learning in middle years and high school classrooms, and an hour later led us down the hall or across the field to their Kindergarten or Grade 1 classroom. We are not describing a one-time only event. In all instances, teachers were deeply interested and respectful of the development at another level. They reported seeing the connection between teaching and learning at all levels.

·      Turn and Talk is an incredibly powerful strategy… everywhere.
In Kindergarten, we wrote a letter and paused for students to turn and talk about what they had noticed that might help them write their own letters. We took Grade 11 students to observe in a Grade 12 chemistry class and every four to five minutes asked them to turn and talk with a partner about what they had noticed and jot their ideas on a sticky note. When we ask learners to turn and talk, we are really asking them to notice and name the learning.

·      Modelling plus metacognition is an unbeatable combination.
When people of all ages are asked to think about how they learn something new, they often describe watching someone or having a more skilled other show them. Think back to learning how to drive a car.  We remember carefully watching our parents in the year before we would actually get our own hands on the wheel. Some of the things we “learned” were partial understandings at best and total misconceptions at worst. When our parents began to actively “teach” us to drive, the modelling was now accompanied by a “think aloud”, telling us what they were doing and why. There was far less left to figure out on our own.

And so it is with modelling writing, reading with comprehension, oral presentations, lab reports, or solving a math problem completely. Students need to hear and see your thinking. Without the metacognition, learners are left to guess about what was important in the demonstration. For those students who cannot read between the lines, in fact, cannot read our minds, this leaves too much to chance.

·      The language we use matters.
In our workshops and sessions, as well as in our classroom-based work, you, the teachers, comment on the precision and intent of our language. This is no accident. We intentionally begin with invitational stems, use tentative language, and embed positive presuppositions.  We also deliberately connect the language of the learning destination to the language of quality and proficiency, to the language of specific feedback, to the language of evaluation.  Like Carol Dweck and Peter Johnston, we believe you can use language to not only increase student success, but to change lives.

And before we turn to the school year ahead, we wonder what your list might be.

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