Friday, March 31, 2017

To Thrive as a Teacher, Try a Professional Book Discussion

Last week I just had to drop in on a fellow teacher during our mutual prep period. I was enthusiastically waving a sheaf of papers: “Hey, I just tried that discussion roundtable we talked about last week at the book discussion—it worked GREAT!” She shared my excitement, and then we talked a bit about the collaborative activity she’d tried—what had worked well, and how she’d tweak it next time. 

One thing that helps me thrive as a teacher is being part of a community of colleagues working together to get even better at helping students learn. The best way I’ve found for creating this community is book discussions. I find a book that has ideas I really want to incorporate into my teaching. I invite colleagues to join me. We meet after school once a week over coffee and cookies to discuss one chapter and set a goal for implementing something we’ve learned before the next meeting. The next week we start by reporting on our goals.

This week we just had our sixth and final discussion of Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. It’s about how to intentionally structure lessons through 4 interrelated phases in order to help students become engaged, independent learners. The 4 phases are named and summarized in the titles of chapters 2 - 5:
  • Focused Instruction: Purpose, Modeling, Think-Alouds, and Noticing
  • Guided Instruction: Questions, Prompts, and Cues
  • Collaborative Learning: Consolidating Thinking with Peers
  • Independent Learning: Applying What Has Been Taught
I learned a lot, and tried some new things. I’ve become much more aware of and intentional about when I’m in each stage, how much needs to happen between the first and fourth stage, and how to foster accountable talk and use formative assessment in every stage to notice the successes and struggles of students and support them into deeper learning. As for specific things I’ve tried, I’ve written blogs already on implementing two different collaborative learning routines described in the book: group posters and discussion roundtables.

At the end of our final discussion this week, I asked my colleagues what they had learned and what they wanted to continue to focus on. Here are some of the things they said:

What have you learned?
  • I was held accountable to make goals every week. I also am starting to think about how to improve my teaching by modeling and demonstrating. 
  • Model my thinking more explicitly. Think through how I want students to think and talk--and model that.
  • I need to model & be intentional about teaching students how to work collaboratively & independently.
  • I really benefitted from considering the phases between focused instruction and independent learning. There’s a wide gap!
  • Establishing lesson purpose.
What do you want to keep focusing on?
  • I think I’ll definitely continue to examine my time management/structure during classes to include time for guided instruction
  • Taking notes on areas that students are struggling in (especially in math) so I can use it to know who needs extra help.
  • Being purposeful about explaining the expectations of working in a group/model how to work in groups (collaborative).
  • I want to make sure that my learning tasks are meaningful and relevant.
  • More modeling & think-alouds.
  • I hope to be able to implement more collaborative & independent learning.
  • I want to translate the purpose more clearly to students rather than just assigning activities.
I find it so energizing to be part of a community of colleagues that are focused like this on helping themselves, each other, and their students grow.

When I read a good professional development book on my own, I’m so excited about it that I zoom through it in a couple of days, and while I start with enthusiasm for each new idea, I end in despair at how to even remember, let alone implement, the 57 or so good ideas I came across. And when I go to a conference and meet a bunch of other people all learning about the same thing, I again get the initial emotional charge, the overwhelm of ideas, and no community, when I get back into my classroom, to share my excitement, understand my ideas, and offer encouragement, reflection, and accountability. 

So I write this blog for two reasons. First, to express gratitude to all those who have walked with me through a long list of book discussions and who talk with me online or in the hallways of my school about what we are doing to increase student learning in our classrooms. I also write it to encourage others, wherever you are, to try a book discussion with your peers if you’re feeling the need for encouragement, community, and growth. 

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