Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Intentional by Design: We Build in Opportunities to Learn in the Presence of Students, by Risking Our Own Significance and Demonstrating Instructional Cycles


In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the fourth of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.
As leaders, we know that the most important relationship in schools and school systems is the instructional relationship between teachers and their students.  We talk and write about the primacy of this relationship and, yet, it can be easy to simply do that – talk and write about it. 

Because the learning that takes place “at the desk of the student” is so critical, we often find ourselves in classrooms teaching a group of students whom we have just met and often at a level or in a subject area that is unfamiliar to us. It certainly would be far simpler to share examples and images of students engaged in learning; however, the potential benefits far outweigh the moments of doubt as one begins a lesson in front of a group of 18 or more educators.  (In a subsequent blog, we will more clearly articulate the role of those educator observers, but for now, let us reflect on some recent experiences.) 

The body of writing in the area of ethical leadership often refers to leaders who “risk their own significance” and we know of no better way than to model a strategy or an instructional sequence for others.  Certainly, this can be done in a learning session where only adult learners are present.  That is, we can engage in a strategy or series of strategies and then discuss classroom adaptations and applications.   Nevertheless, inviting others to observe a strategy in action with a group of student learners allows us to watch intentional instructional design unfold and to mitigate sentiments such as, “Well, this is a good idea, but I can’t imagine how it would work with a group of Grade 10 Science students.”  

A group of 17 teachers gathered in Debbie’s classroom to observe a process of co-constructing criteria with Grade 11 Pre-Calculus students.  In two or three minute chunks, I solved math problems for the students, by not only modelling, but by engaging in metacognitive talk along the way.  Students gave me immediate feedback in the moments between the modelling chunks and identified what they noticed me doing and saying that would inform the criteria.  At the end of approximately 40 minutes, we had, together, created robust and comprehensive criteria to answer this question – What counts, what matters, and what is important when we solve a math problem completely?  The details of the criteria included statements like, “Clear your mind before solving the problem so that you can focus.”, “Think about a problem that you have done before that is similar.”, “Draw on prior mathematical understanding.”, “Take a brain break, if you need it.”, and “Determine what the problem is actually asking you.”  At the end of the lesson, I invited one teacher to meet with a group of two students to discuss what he/she had learned about instruction, as a result of the observation.  The discussion was not about what the students had learned or what the teachers had learned about the students.  Rather, the focus was on that which the teachers took from the demonstration to inform their next instructional steps.  In this way, the teachers are making their learning public to the students and modelling the adage that is often repeated – We are all lifelong learners.  And perhaps more importantly, the teachers are risking their own significance by talking about something that they now know more about than even an hour earlier.

For two years, teams of K-8 teachers observed every day for four days as I taught writing in two classrooms. At 8:30 each morning 25 to 30 of us gathered for half an hour, digging into the learning destination, discussing evidence we might collect, and, after the first day, considering what the evidence suggested as next steps for tomorrow's lesson. During those two years, I did the teaching, simultaneously working with students and teacher learners for an hour twice a morning in classrooms ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 8, with students I did not know, and on topics negotiated with teachers in advance, based on what they were studying at the time and their students were deeply interested in. I did not impose the topic to make it easier for myself. My only requirements were that we find something that would be authentic and meaningful for the students and connected to outcomes, content, topics, genres, or big ideas already under study. After each lesson we met to make sense of our evidence - the conversations, observations, and products from the classroom. At the end of the second year, the divisional Literacy Leadership team asked for pairs of teachers to become hub teachers, each planning a writing lesson study week and inviting four to six teachers from schools new to the project into their classrooms. Fourteen teachers opened their doors and made their practice public, using the structure I had modelled and the big ideas of assessment and instruction in the writing workshop that had been the focus of our two years together. In year three, while I began the work with a new team, fourteen teachers took a leadership role, benefitting colleagues from their own school and other schools in the district and making the learning their own. When they repeat the process next year, the hub teachers have suggested that they would like to include time in the visiting teachers' classrooms. Their feedback has inspired more teachers to volunteer to become hub teachers.

As leaders we deliberately build opportunities to learn in the presence of students and risk our own significance by demonstrating instructional practices. It is our experience that this modelling inspires others to try something that may not have been attempted before.

Risking your own significance is contagious.

In our next post, we will further examine the fifth hallmark that we outlined in January 2017- We use the gradual release of responsibility model not only with student learners, but with adult learners as well.

Written with my colleague Brenda Augusta

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