Yesterday I started talking about the greater impact teacher’s have on student learning than any curriculum they happen to be using. To help make my point, I started sharing site visit notes I took four years ago while visiting different schools using our digital curriculum.
Rather than have a long lead in like I did yesterday, today I’m just going to get right to my notes. As before, I have removed any identifying information that would indicate the school or teacher. Other than that, I’ve left my notes as they were written so you can “hear” my thoughts from four years ago. The “me” from four years ago is in italics. The “me” from today is in regular text.
In this observation I was observing a 5th grade class using a 5th grade lesson about attributes of parallelograms. This lesson and the ones around it were about attributes of various quadrilaterals.
I can copy this next bit almost verbatim from yesterdays’ post: As you’ll see, the lesson does not go smoothly, partly because of issues with the lesson, but also because of issues with the classroom layout, the teacher’s pacing, and the teacher’s content knowledge.
This classroom has 27 students, and almost no room to move. The room is full of desks with very little room for walking around. Here is a rough layout of the desks. The students on the left side of the room were actually farther away from the board than it appears in this picture. They did not have a great viewing angle of the Smart board.
I’ll add that the room is much more cramped than it might appear in this picture. If you sat in the interior of one of those three prongs of desks coming out of the right side of the classroom, you had very little room to walk between your classmates in the same row and the desks of the next row.
This tight configuration has several implications. The teacher would have a very difficult time walking around to observe students working or to help them as they are working. Unfortunately, I only observed the introduction of this lesson, so I didn’t get to witness how she handles this situation.
The introduction (Engage) of our lessons is a teacher-led component. After this activity she would have theoretically moved to an activity where students worked on their own or in pairs. I did not get to see this, but based on the classroom layout, I was really curious how it would work in this classroom.
She actually spent the entire time up at the front by the Smart board. She has a very small area up in front of the Smart board in which to walk, if she wanted to.
It would be very hard to have students work in small groups in this classroom. The best she can probably hope for is having students work in pairs because the students are sitting next to each other.
What does this mean for lesson writing and our assumptions about classrooms? Should we provide alternate directions if a teacher can’t physically get her students into groups? What other classroom scenarios are we not considering when we plan our lessons and activities?
Since the teacher can’t get around much in this classroom, the instructional coach should probably stress using the real-time monitoring feature so she can at least see on her dashboard who is having trouble. Maybe that student can bring his/her computer to the teacher or she could make the effort to try and squeeze in to visit with the student.
One of the things that I really liked about our curriculum was that we provided the teachers instructional coaches who visited once or twice a week to help them learn how to use the curriculum effectively. It put the instructional coaches in an interesting position because ultimately they worked for Time To Know, but they also bonded with their teachers and became very loyal to them.
This was the only lesson component I got to see. She spent about 30+ minutes on the first three screens of the Engage, though the entire activity should have only lasted 10 minutes. I don’t believe she prepared ahead of time to teach this lesson today.
A consistent observation I’ve made when observing in classrooms is that the teachers take too long on the introductions. Perhaps the instructional coaches need to model for them how quickly the introductions should be.
You probably don’t know much about our lesson structure. I know I go into a little more detail in the next set of observation notes, so just sit tight until then and hopefully you’ll get a clearer picture.
The teacher had two student helpers pass out the headphones while she started the lesson.
Students were asked to keep their laptop screens at a 45 degree angle while the class went through the introduction. I saw several students playing internet games by sitting very low in their seats so they could still see their screens.
The students LOVED the song at the beginning of the lesson. They convinced the teacher to play it again. Some students even tried singing along the second time through.
It’s worth noting that this classroom also has sound issues in addition to space issues. The teacher had the windows open and periodically airplanes would fly overhead making it difficult to hear anything. At one point the teacher had a student close the classroom door, but another visitor in the room reminded her that the principal forbids the teachers from closing their classroom doors. This meant she couldn’t block any noise coming in from the hallway, which was also quite loud at times.
The Smart board makes the DTP even more interactive. The teacher was able to click things on screen with her Smart board pen and she could use the pen as an electronic marker to write on the screen. Note: You cannot use dry erase markers on most Smart boards. You must use the electronic marker feature if you want to “write” on the board.
The big drawback to this is that whenever the teacher moves to the next screen, anything she has written on the screen is erased. This is problematic because sometimes we have planned screens so the class writes something on one screen, and on the next few screens what they have written stays on the board while the questions or surrounding text changes.
We must learn more about Smart board functionality and what it means for designing teacher-led screens. We have to be able to design screens so they can be used with Smart boards and with regular white boards.
Students had their Math journals out and available during the lesson. The teacher would tell the students to add new vocabulary words to their journals. For example, in this lesson she told them to write “congruent” and “adjacent” in their journals.
Despite adding the words to their journals, the teacher did not go over their definitions. It was crucial for students to know what “adjacent” meant in order to succeed with this lesson. The teacher said, “Oh, adjacent, that’s a vocabulary word isn’t it? You probably should have learned it last year, so I’m not going to tell you the meaning.” I had to bite my tongue because I could tell the students really wanted to know what the word meant.
The teacher did say to the instructional coach at this point, “Maybe we were supposed to do the Prior Knowledge activity before this lesson?”
The Engage activity is well-designed if the teacher prepares for it and understands the geometry well enough herself, but it was clear that this teacher did not have a strong grasp of the purpose of the lesson or the geometry.
The lesson introduction guides students to the definition of parallelogram by observing attributes of parallelograms and non-parallelograms. The teacher became frustrated that the computer was not telling the students the definition right away so she opened a math book, went to the glossary, and read the definition aloud as students had to copy it into their Math journals. She did not talk about the definition with the students so they could figure out what it meant.
Is it our responsibility to make the teacher understand the math she is teaching? If it isn’t our responsibility, whose is it? If we can’t rely on the teachers having the requisite math skills, how do we ensure they are going to succeed at teaching our lessons? If students do poorly on assessments, the teachers will blame our program. We don’t want that.
This teacher does not have very good questioning techniques. There were many missed opportunities to engage the students and discuss the new geometry concepts. All she had to do was ask, “Why did you choose that shape?” or “How does that shape relate to the definition?”
Actually, I have no idea if this is when the lesson actually ended. This is when I had to leave the room to go visit another classroom. Sadly, I have no idea what happened after we left.
Reading over my notes, I’m a bit embarrassed about how harsh I sound. The teacher was gracious enough to let me in to visit her class, and here I am pointing out all these things that I dislike about how she was teaching the lesson.
However, I did teach for 8 years myself, and I couldn’t help but see that there are a lot of things a “good” teacher would normally do that were not evident during this observation. Sure, it seems like she didn’t prepare ahead of time to teach this particular lesson, but if those underlying skills were there – knowledge of geometry, ability to “read” the class to see that they really did not know the meaning of ‘adjacent’, and questioning techniques to reveal students’ thinking – it shouldn’t have mattered.
And if you think that’s not fair because I already knew the lesson so of course I would know to do all of this stuff, you’d be incorrect. I don’t think I had ever even seen this lesson before coming in to do this observation. My team did not write this geometry unit. At Time To Know, we had four curriculum writing teams, and we were roughly organized by strand (Go, fractions team!) There was communication between teams, but I did not get to see every lesson before it was produced and out in the classrooms.
And lest you think all I do is complain and dislike what I see (or at least that the “me” from four years ago does those things), check back in two days. Tomorrow’s post is, sadly, recounting another lesson that did not go as well as I would have liked, but the next day I have a much more inspiring story to share.