First things first. It can be intimidating to have someone observe you. At least, when I first started teaching, I felt like any observation was a judgement (even when I was told it wasn’t). So for all you new teachers out there, if I just told you that it can be a rewarding and fruitful experience, would you believe me? No? Well, let me tell you what I got out of my first #ObserveMe experience. If you aren’t familiar with the #ObserveMe movement, it was popularized by Robert Kaplinsky as a way to help teachers take ownership to improve their practice. When he put out his call to action last August, I excitedly got on board, posted a sign outside of my classroom, announced that my door was open at several staff meetings, and then…nothing. To be fair, I’m in a tiny school, where there’s only one other math teacher, and non-math teachers probably felt that they wouldn’t get much out of observing someone outside their subject area. And this year, I couldn’t model observing (which had been one of my goals) because I have six classes this year and no prep periods. With that class load, I definitely did not want to write any more sub plans than necessary.
So summer turned to fall, which turned to winter, which turned to spring, and still no luck. And then I realized that I could go outside of my own school. I mentioned to a few people who I’d like to observe other teachers during my spring break (since I wasn’t going anywhere and was planning to work through it anyway). Then I mentioned it to Robert when I ran into him at the NCTM annual conference in San Antonio last week. And that did it – now I had to follow through! And that’s when I took to Twitter:
— Ethan Weker (@Ethan_MidPen) April 10, 2017
Soon, I got a response from Paul Jorgens, an 8th grade teacher in nearby Palo Alto. A few messages back and forth, and I was set to visit him to observe his Algebra 1 class. Paul got one of the Desmos fellowships that I’m so jealous of, and it sounds like it’s a pretty amazing experience. Maybe I’ll be able to commit to it in 2018-2019 (assuming they have it again and I get accepted). He is also an experienced teacher who has been at the same middle school for longer than I’ve been teaching.
I arrived at the front office of his school, and then got a few minutes to chat with him in the staff lounge. When I asked him about what he wanted me to focus on during my observation, he mentioned the work of Schoenfeld, who researches out of UC Berkeley. He described the Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU) Framework, something that wasn’t familiar to me, but which I’m eager to investigate. In his classroom, he handed me a paper with the table below, and suggested that I choose one area for my focus today.
I decided to focus on the “Equitable Access to Mathematics” row, which is similar to one of my own personal goals for this year. From a student’s perspective, “Do I get to participate in meaningful mathematical learning? Can I hide or be ignored?” Such important questions, and really, all of these questions are very student centered, and something I plan to bring back to my own practice, and to share with my school.
Then, we went to Paul’s classroom. Paul team-teaches this particular class with another teacher, Brian (whose last name I didn’t catch). Today’s lesson was a Desmos activity about exponential functions, and because Paul is a Desmos fellow, he had access to some interesting new features that I’m excited to try out when they get released to the masses.
Not only did he use Desmos, he started the Desmos activity with a “Which One Doesn’t Belong” activity. Already using two of my own favorite things to do in class. But of course, I did have a focus for my observation, and it’s important to remember that even with an amazing lesson plan, it’s really the implementation of the lesson that dictates its success. A great lesson in the hands of an unprepared teacher can go awry in the same way that a poorly designed lesson generally cannot be saved by even the greatest of teachers without abandoning the lesson plan.
In this class, all the students knew what they needed to be doing, and were well engaged. Each student had their own Chromebook, and technology problems didn’t deter anyone. A few Chromebooks had to be traded in for new ones, and there was some sharing, but there was no real disruption. There were a number of things that Paul said which made it clear that all students got to participate. I heard a lot of “Tell me more about what you said” or “Tell me more about what said.” Paul also gave students time to reflect quietly and then write down thoughts before he called on students. This meant that students could not hide, but they had the opportunity to prepare which makes participation less intimidating for those introverts out there. (Adding more time for students to write before answering is something I really need to work on in my class.)
I also really liked the technique of not asking “What do you think?”, but rather asking “Who heard something in their group that made sense? What did you hear?”. This is one of my favorite strategies in my classes to prevent the students who always know the answer from answering, and to give a chance for a student who maybe feels like they aren’t an expert the opportunity to evaluate what they heard from classmates and to share that information. It’s a great way to give everyone an opportunity to have a voice.
One other area that Paul mentioned he was working on was to give a stronger voice to the students from disenfranchised backgrounds, and so he called on those students a lot more often. I wondered if it was perhaps too often, at the expense of other students. There were definitely a few students that neither Paul nor Brian interacted with directly (that I saw), which is understandable in a class of 32. You probably can’t chat meaningfully with each of them in a 60 minute class period. However, how can you be sure that the same student(s) are not being forgotten or left out of the conversation?
Paul did say he’d rather err on the side of working with underrepresented students too often rather than not often enough, which I agree with, but I wonder if there’s a way to mix things up a little more. Perhaps with a random walk from table to table to check in with students? With the random variable groups that are created through cards at the beginning of class, students are never in the same groups two days in a row, which is great. I do wonder, though, if focusing on a group at a time, and within that group, a student from a disenfranchised background, may be a little more balanced, while still giving weight to those students who may be underrepresented in higher math classes later on.
One of my favorite moments came towards the end of the class, when Paul put up a long list of equations that students had written to try to model a particular exponential function to go through two points (I believe). He told students how much he was “excited to look at all of these equations <they> found to fit those points. Should there just be one equation? Could all of these equations match that graph?” What a great way to validate the variety of thought that students used to come up with their ideas, and to give them a sense to critique each other and think more deeply mathematically.
I was so thankful for this opportunity that Paul gave me to observe his class. I’m looking forward to setting up a time for him to #ObserveMe in the coming weeks, to give me some feedback on some of the areas that I’ve been working on in terms of student engagement and how they participate.
Again, I absolutely encourage you to get someone to observe you. Another math teacher at your school, another teacher of any discipline, a teacher outside of your school or district, and even a teacher outside of the grade levels that you teach. There are so many things we can learn from these observations, in a completely constructive and positive manner. My recommendation is to stick to one or two very specific and measureable goals, just like the kinds of goals we try to give our students. How do you want to improve upon or build up your teaching practice, and how can you know that it’s happening? Both getting feedback from another teacher and observing another teacher to give them feedback are meaningful and inspiring ways to continue your growth as a teacher.
Schoenfeld, A. H., and the Teaching for Robust Understanding Project. (2016). The Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU) observation guide for mathematics: A tool for teachers, coaches, administrators, and professional learning communities. Berkeley, CA: Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from: http://map.mathshell.org/.