Saturday, February 16, 2013

Don't Curse the Dark...

...And is it ever dark in February. Yes, the hours of light have been getting longer for nearly 8 weeks now, but there is another kind of darkness. If you have escaped cold, flu, general malaise, and gut-twisting stress, count yourself blessed--you are in the minority. Even if you haven’t, there are still 12 more days left in February! 

So do yourself a favor and listen to your inner mother--whether it’s yours talking to you, or you talking to your kids. Just take care of yourself: eat well, exercise, go to the doctor if you’re sick, spend time with a good friend not talking about school, and find a learning community of your own.

One kind of learning community I profit from is an open-invitation discussion of a book on education. I pick one that I have read and really liked, but I suspect I’ll never actually act upon unless I go through it again, slowly, with plenty of processing time and some sort of low-bar accountability. 

It started several years ago with Cris Tovani’s books on teaching reading, I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers and Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?, first with other English department members, and then with teachers from other disciplines. Next was Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding, by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Sandi Everlove. I went through that one with 2 different groups, too--including science, math, Bible, and ESL teachers. Then Quentin Schultze’s An Essential Guide to Public Speaking: Serving Your Audience with Faith, Skill, and Virtue

Each of these books, and the process of working through them with colleagues, has fundamentally changed the way I teach. Now I’ve just started a discussion of Teaching Matters Most: A School Leader’s Guide to Improving Instruction by Thomas McCann, Alan Jones, and Gail Aronoff. 

What’s worked well for me is choosing a book that has cross-discipline appeal, can be divided into 6-7 chunks, and has immediate, practical application. I talk it up until I get a group of 4-8 (including myself). We meet at my house (a 2-minute walk from school) once a week for an hour after school. Each time we read a chunk and come prepared to discuss (1) what we did or thought about or talked about in the last week because of what we’ve read so far, (2) impressions and questions from the current chunk, (3) possible action steps in the next week.

I not only get to process the information more and more deeply, making action step plans and reporting on them, but I build a community of colleagues excited about the same strategies. We report back to each other even after the discussion has ended about failures, triumphs, goals, strategies. 

Last week, because of our discussion of chapter 1, “What are common practices in schools?”, I decided it was now or never as far as holding myself to my goal as English/social studies department chair of doing walkthroughs of the grade 6-12 classrooms in my department. What I observed in 3-5 minutes in each room was delightful: teachers using engaging methods of instruction to get children to process content and practice critical thinking:
  • 6th grade: Students were taking notes using various guided strategies for organizing information in their notebooks (in their notebooks I observed a t-graph, a Venn diagram, lists, and answers to questions); then they were asked to answer a moral  dilemma (moving to yes/no corners of the classroom) first as self, then as a historical character they had studied.
  • 7th grade: The teacher was prompting students to examine the school’s secondary debate rubric: What does the first line say? What does this word mean? How are the first and second lines similar and different? Students learned about supporting arguments and counter arguments. All in preparation for debate on the following day.
  • 8th grade: Students were brainstorming and categorizing lists of character traits in preparation for writing a character sketch. The strategy bore a striking resemblance to one shared by Gini Rojas in a professional development workshop earlier this year.
  • 11th grade: Students were using the Moodle blog function to create a timeline of World War II from an American perspective. (We’d discussed in an earlier department meeting how to more fully use the technology we already have access to rather than rushing to learn new things. We use Moodle to varying degrees, but this is the first foray I know of into the blog function.)
  • 12th grade: The teacher introduced and students began group work on a GRASPS-type authentic assessment (a la our schoolwide, department-based study of Understanding by Design) on Frankenstein.

That’s something that can light a spark even in the middle of February: Teachers learning and helping students learn! And I would have missed it if I hadn’t been involved in a learning community of my own.

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