Powerful Teaching and Learning
My district is one of the ones involved in the STAR Protocol training, developed by Duane Baker at the BERC Group and trumpeted throughout the state by Alison Olzendam. We spent one of our in-service days last year learning about the different dimensions from Alison, and I opened up my classroom so that they could bring in groups to watch me teach and evaluate my lessons.
It’s kind of fun, especially when the kids do something really off-the-wall. I had a superintendent from a neighboring district come by with some of his senior staff to watch my calendar lesson last year. It’s right at the beginning of the day when we get together to do our morning announcements and get in some practice with basic skills. One of the lessons I do with that is called “Amazing Equations,” where I ask the kids to give me a math sentence that would equal a particular number (in this case, 10). I called on J, one of my brightest, who thinks for a moment and says,
“1,000,010 minus 900,000 minus 100,000 minus 1 minus 2 minus 3 minus 4 plus the quantity 5 times 2, divided by 1.”
The Supes’ jaw hits the floor and I’m feverishly trying to get down everything J said. Meanwhile he’s sitting there with a you-know-what-eating grin because he KNOWS that he just did something pretty damned incredible. It’s nice when they make me look good.
Anyhow, last week I finally got to be on the other side of the observation as my school sent a team out to another elementary school in Spokane so that we could learn how to use the STAR protocol to evaluate our own teaching. Our first room was a 1st/2nd multiage classroom where they were doing reading groups, which was neat to see because my school might need to start doing combination classes. Afterwards we discussed it for a bit and then moved on to a third grade classroom, which was also doing reading groups. We went out to lunch at Azteca (try the arroz con pollo!), then went back to watch our third classroom, a first grade math lesson.
That’s where the problems cropped up. Under the PTL schemata you’re supposed to be looking at what the kids are doing more than the actions of the teacher. It’s not an evaluative tool for administrators to use on teachers (Allison did her best to drive that point home); instead, it’s a way to quantify the engagement of the kids. The trouble that I was having is that I don’t think you can segregate the actions of the kids from the actions of the teacher—it’s a dance, after all—and in this math lesson that I was watching the teacher was really struggling.
She was doing an activity with cubes where the kids needed to connect them to make two different groups, and then find out how many more cubes you would need to make the groups equal. One of my problems was with how it was presented; I think talking to the kids about how many more cubes were in the larger group would have made more sense. As is, maybe half the class understood what they were being asked to do, but man were they ever good at shoving blocks around. My other big problem was that we were in the room for about 25 minutes and only saw three problems get done, which is an inexcusable waste of instructional time. It was the perfect New Math storm: discovery where the students didn’t discover, combined with manipulatives that didn’t help and a guide on the side who didn’t lead anywhere.
Following that we went back to the principal’s office to discuss. Our group leader didn’t say much because she wanted us to use the protocol ourselves. I tried to talk about the kids but kept getting back to the teacher, which isn’t what it’s about.
The good in ending the day with a bad lesson was that it really helped me to think about what I do as I teach math. When you see something that doesn’t work you can try to look for it in your own practice, and it’s gratifying when you don’t find it. Looking at what the PTL people have identified as good practices was instructional, too. I’m not a big believer in group work (I think that with these very basic skills the kids need to have it on their own), but it’s what we’re to look for when we watch the rooms.
It’s a neat process, and I hope I get to go out and watch more teachers. It’s fun to do, and I think it makes me better. Anyone else out there participating?