Monday, March 24, 2014

"Rescue" Less, Learn More

This week, I had the opportunity to work with and learn along side of a group of teachers, learning coaches, curriculum and instruction coaches, and administrators in facilitating Instructional Rounds in Fort Worth, Texas. And while this was my second time doing Rounds at Richland Middle School, it was my first time working with this particular group of observers; I was eager to take another group through the process of ‘learning by doing’ at the school.

In and of itself, the concept of Rounds from City, Elmore, Fiarman and Teitel (2009) is intuitive: ideas such as ‘task predicts performance’, giving descriptive rather than judgemental feedback, observing through a specific lens, and even ‘staying low on the ladder of inference’ are quite readily understood. During the first session, the group gets time to work through these types concepts together, to contextualize them, and to apply and discuss them in a number of video simulations. As much as there is a great deal of ground that is covered, group members typically leave the initial session eager, confident, and ready to dive into classroom observations the following day. From my perspective as a presenter, groups seem happy with the approach that we have taken. I often get smiles, thanks, and a smattering of “looking forward to tomorrow”-style comments from the group.

On Day 2, that changes.

After doing a number of classroom observations, the groups return to a central gathering area and begin the process of vetting the data they have collected on their own, with their small group, and then with other groups. Through this process, circulate amongst the groups and smile when I hear comments such as “I don’t think this one is specific enough”, or “How does that relate to the problem of practice?”, or “stay low on the ladder”: participants respectfully challenge each other and stretch the thinking of the other members of the group. At this point, I notice the mental machinery starting to heat up, especially when group members say things such as “What is it that I am trying to say here? I just need a WORD!”. Heads get scratched, temples are rubbed, and people begin to pace. I will hear a “YES! Wait, what did you say? Someone write that down!” followed by a short sprint to find a sticky note and some form of writing implement. Inevitably the group struggles to remember a key piece of what was just said, or another person walks by and asks the playfully dreaded “What is your evidence for that?” followed shortly after by a collective groan as the group heads back to the drawing board.

After that, the learning gets even messier. The small groups start to make patterns of the observation data that they have collected. And while they are given a few samples of pattern statements, the questions begin to come:
“Is this right?”
“Should we be organizing our stickies this way?”
“Are other people doing it like we are ?”
“In which part of our diagram do you thihk this sticky fits?”
“Can you help us? Does what we have done make sense to you?”

Questions such as these are common from each table group. And much to their chagrin, groups are usually directed back to their work with questions like
“What does your evidence tell you?”
“How does that method of organization help you to find a pattern?”
“Why you feel that piece of data should be in different parts of your diagram?”
“Are you making a pattern and looking for evidence, or having your evidence lead you to a pattern?”

Without failure, the frustration level of each participant begins to increase. Red X’s are put through sentences, sticky notes are taken down, and papers are crumpled up. The smile frequency decreases. The amount of coffee and chocolate consumed is much higher. And this time, in one of my all-time favorite moments, one of the participants said “don’t call Cale over here, he’s just going to ask us what our evidence is!”. I laughed so hard I actually snorted.

This type of struggle continues for the remainder of the day, espcially as time runs short and the stakes get higher for the group to produce patterns and predictions that will guide the work the following day. And at the end of Day 2 when I do a survey of how the day went for them, there is a predictable number of comments that are less glowing than those on Day 1. Not specific to this latest session, these comments include things such as:
“this would have went faster with more examples”
“it would have been helpful to have more specific instructions”
“it was hard to know exactly what we were supposed to produce”
“we needed more guidance on how to…”
“my brain hurts”

In order to learn from the group that I am working with, I read and reflect upon every comment that is made on my presentations. And although it is getting less and less each time I work with people on Rounds, inevitably I have a nagging feeling as a presenter on Day Two.


As a teacher in the classroom, I was used to asking students questions that I already had the answer to. Or assigning problems that I could quickly flip through a textbook and direct them to where they could find the solution. I would give students assignments, and after an arbitrary level of struggle (determined by me, of course), I would jump in and rescue them. My lessons were much like an hour long sitcom: there would be an introduction to set the stage, an antagonistic problem with which the protagonist would wrestle, and then, since the hour was coming to an end, a neat and palatable solution just in time for the credits at the 58 minute mark. In my classes, I would get a couple of “See you later Mr. Birk”s and the occasional “that was kinda cool”, and I would feel quite good about myself as a teacher because the kids left happy. Bully for me.

The kids also left my classroom without really being pushed to their capacity. I had rescued them, and although personally I might have gotten a good feeling because the class came to a neat and convenient solution, I look back now and realize that I could have pushed them much farther than I did. I could have stretched them by responding to their questions with probing questions that would help them reflect on what they were doing and guide them to dig deeper. But instead, likely because it felt better for me, I would throw them a motorized life-ring that not only saved them from their struggle, it required very little effort on their part.

As Principal at my own school, I am working with our teachers and teacher leaders to bring deeper learning strategies to our classrooms. I am asking our staff to find and build upon ways to require students to stretch themselves in their thinking and demonstrate their learning in a variety of meaningful ways. We are going to collaborate to find essential questions to which we do not always know the answer to, or at the very least that have no single correct solution. I am excited that as a group, we are going to get messy with learning.

But I also have to be sensitive to the fact that we are going to be putting students into learning spaces where they are going to struggle. In some cases, they are REALLY going to struggle. And most would agree that when confronted with struggle, much like our students, most of us are not always happy about it. We push back. We want it to be easier. We want someone to help us, and for the solution to become evident as a result of our efforts. We don’t always want to truly push ourselves, only to realize that we have been digging an educational hole that is six feet deep but also six feet away from the place where we should have started. We want someone to tell us the hole we dug is 'good enough', or that some sort of backhoe is coming to dig ‘the real hole’. Like our students, we will get frustrated, even mad. And at times, our teachers will leave their classes feeling the same pangs guilt that I did leaving the Rounds session in Fort Worth on Day 2. Because they did the right thing by not rescuing their learners.

I want to help our faculty with that. And the best help I can give is to tell them about Day 3 in Fort Worth.

On Day 3, the group reconvened with their prediction statements ready and waiting for them at their tables. The participants rolled up their sleeves, did a “5 Whys” analysis, and began to create their ‘design and implement’ statements to determine the next level of work for the host school. They debated over words, looked back at their evidence, challenged eachother on ideas, and looked back at their evidence some more. They refined their statements, and then presented them to the rest of the group for a final round of vetting. And then it happened. People began to nod. People whispered and pointed in agreement. They elbowed eachother and smiled and said things like "we saw that too!". The results of their work were becoming clear. And when they finally presented their findings to the host team at Richland Middle, there were more even more smiles from the team and more nods of acknowledgement from the hosts. They got it.

In the de-brief with the observation team as we concluded, team members admitted they were frustrated, and that the process was incredibly challenging and intense. Yet we all had a good laugh when we looked at some of the recommendations for the next level of work that the team had made for the host school--things such as “designing tasks that require students to come up with multiple answers with built in wait time so students to can work through them”. We laughed because the very thing that the group wanted for the students--to be given complex tasks and the time to struggle through them--was exactly what the group of observers themselves found most challenging!

The observation team stayed after to congratulate the host Principal, Dr. Leeann Bartee. They commended her for the evidence-based, tangible actions she had taken on the recommendations for the next level of work from the last rounds session just five months ago. And in one of the most touching moments of my career, with tears in eyes, the group expressed their gratitude to Dr. Bartee and her staff for having the courage to lead their district in modeling Instructional Rounds. The group witnessed powerful and deep learning for the school and for the team. And so did I, the one who felt that tinge of guilt when the observation team left the session on Day 2.

When we see people struggle, we want to help. Inherently, I believe we feel good when we help others. And while sometimes it feels good to help learners, struggle is a good thing, even when we see learners getting frustrated with the task and sometimes with the teacher. With the right scaffolding and high expectations for the success for the group, I believe that we can push through that struggle and truly experience deep and meaningful learning.

And there is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than that.

A special thanks to Staci Hammer (@stacihammer) for inspiring this post, to the tremendous group of observers from Birdville ISD, and to Richland Middle School Principal Leeann Bartee (@LeeannBartee) and her staff for being so willing and eager to receive and act upon feedback from Instructional Rounds observation teams.  

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