Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why teachers need to own their profession

Friday was a fun day in the classroom for me.  I was doing the one thing that continues to keep me energized after all these years: trying out a new idea.

It worked pretty well.  I think the students agreed.  We will be working together to fine tune this new lesson model, and I will rely on the students' feedback and behaviors to make additional changes.

To make short work of a long story, here is the history of what led me to the new discussion model we tried this week:

  1. During the work on my National Board Portfolio (in 2000), I film myself leading a whole class discussion.  Whole group discussion is a requirement.  The portfolio requires reflection on the lesson noting what works, what doesn't.  I decide I'm doing a pretty poor job of leading a discussion.  I'm insecure in my questioning.  The student answers are perfunctory.  Only a few students are involved.  It looks like all the whole-group discussions I had when I was a student.
  2. I ask for help.  A colleague agrees to help me begin using Socratic Seminars.  I'd had a workshop on this but felt too unsure of the methods to try it on my own.  (The kids do all the work?! No way.) With her coaching I start using this method, first in one class before expanding it to others.
  3. Several of my goals are met: the students are taking responsibility for the reading and thinking.  They are learning to devise their own questions.  The seminars engage most of the students.  All students are coming to class prepared.  Sometimes there is actually excitement in the room, and I often hear the comment "I love seminar day..."  I'm sold and begin using this as a regular feature.

All good, right?  Not quite.  I still have lingering issues.  I am unable to engage the shyest of the students.  After a discussion their follow-up writing reveals these students often have powerful ideas which are never brought to the group.  A shame.  We need their ideas too.  I tinker with a few things.  Still no movement on the shy students.

It also bothers me that even though the students are bringing up valid and well-supported points ( a goal for seminar), too frequently the points go unchallenged.  Topics are introduced and then dropped as students try to 'score points' by leaping to their own views without absorbing or considering new views.  Now that's not really a discussion, is it?  It's more like a series of short lectures.

What to do?

As part of an Advanced Placement List serve I had read numerous posts where teachers mention training in the Harkness Discussion model.  I keep wondering how that differs from what I am currently doing. Finally, with enough dissatisfaction built up I expend many hours over the holiday to follow and absorb a link to Jodi Rice's superb google site (Thank you Jodi) and begin to explore how this model differs from the socratic seminar model.

Turns out the major difference is in the assessment of the discussions.  Harkness places emphasis on the group's behavior by issuing a group grade, one that even the students' themselves can assess by looking at a diagram of their work.  Cool.

There's more to Harkness of course, and I have to think and plan well in advance so we can all clearly understand the multiple goals of our class discussions ( which are many: I hope they will learn annotation, inquiry, speaking, listening, supporting comments with evidence, critical thinking, and understanding the literature and author's craft) but the simple change from an individual grade to a group grade has already made a huge difference in the quality of discussion.   (Please note, everyone, just how much assessment affects behavior--especially as you devise your Teacher Evaluation plans and standardized testing.)

So now we have a new method, and the students and I will continue to determine how well this meets all of our needs (see parenthetical list above).

So, how could professionalizing teaching help?

Look at what it takes to improve--i.e. reform practice--in substantive ways:

Observation (of self and others)
Reflection (revisiting the work and evaluating it)
Diagnosis of problems (clinical research)
Search for solutions (research)
Collaboration with peers (sometimes in person, sometimes in electronic forums)
Prescription (application of new methodology)
Adjustment based on evidence (which changes year to year, class to class)
Lather, rinse, repeat.

These are the skills, knowledge and practices it takes to continue to improve.  The up side to such a self-study is that the answers are owned by the teacher--just as the discoveries in an invigorating discussion are owned by the students.  These moves mirror those by other professions and should be job embedded.  During the 11-year journey outlined above, none of the moves made were supported or encouraged in the work day through the current model of managing teacher work.

They could be.