Today I’m sharing the last set of observation notes from when I did site visits four years ago in classrooms using our digital curriculum. If you missed the previous three sets of notes, you can read them here, here, and here.
This set of notes is a bit different than the previous sets because I did more classroom hopping. I also attended a meeting that included several folks from my company and several folks from the school. I thought about skipping this set of notes altogether, but there are some interesting nuggets, so I thought I’d go ahead and share them.
As always, I have removed any identifying information that would indicate the school or teacher. Other than that, I have 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.
Site Visit Notes
This visit started with a meeting between some folks from our company, the instructional coaches assigned to the school, the principal, and the school’s own ELA and math coaches.
Here are a few interesting points from this meeting:
Pacing – The math coach was a little concerned about the scope and sequence for math. She didn’t understand why decimals were taught with place value. The teachers are used to teaching decimals with fractions.
I explained that decimals are related to both place value and fractions. Therefore we have lessons about decimals in both topics.
Standards – The math coach thought we were teaching content that was below grade level. I did not understand how that could be the case since our lessons were written to their state standards.
She gave the example of decimal addition. She said that we only used grid models in grade 4 and that teachers were expecting students to use the standard algorithm and line up the decimal points. I explained that the standards explicitly said to use grid models in grade 4. Then in grade 5 is when they explicitly said to use the standard algorithm. She disagreed.
Since my team happened to write these lessons, I am intimately familiar with these standards so I was able to list the standard number and what it said, almost verbatim. She looked through the printed standards in her binder, found that I was right, and said, “Well, teachers still expect to teach decimal addition using the standard algorithm.”
Lesson Structure – The math coach said the teachers were unsure of the math lesson structure where students explore first, and then the teacher teaches. She said the teachers are used to teaching first, then giving students an opportunity to practice what they learned. She said the teachers are getting used to it, but it has been a learning experience for them.
In my visits to various schools, this has been a recurring theme in my observations. It appeared many of the teachers were not familiar or skilled with teaching using the pedagogical structure of our lessons (Introduce –> Explore –> Discuss). This is an area where the instructional coaches will need to continue reinforcing with the teachers. One thing teachers didn’t seem to grasp was how quickly the introduction is supposed to be completed. The allotted time is usually 5-10 minutes, yet I saw introductions go on for 20-30 minutes in many classrooms. A side effect of this was that some teachers are skipping the “Discuss” phase where the class draws conclusions about the concepts.
I started giving some additional commentary about this, but it got so long, I decided to turn it into a blog post all its own. Check back tomorrow where I will share our typical lesson structure and then discuss how I often observed it implemented in classrooms.
Special Education – The school has students whose IEP says they are performing at a first grade level. The teachers want these students to work on the computer like the other students so they don’t stand out, but what can these students be doing?
They admitted that using their old curriculum, they would have this same problem, and they would often go to their coaches for support. The trouble is that the coaches could give them other paper-based activities to do so that on-level students wouldn’t realize the special education students were working on different activities. The coaches do not have computer-based activities readily available like they do paper-based activities.
We mentioned the availability of our interactive tools (array and area multiplication applet, fraction modeling applet, etc.). Students can work on these tools during class, though the burden is on the teacher to create activities for them to do using the tools.
After the meeting was over, we went to go do some actual observations in classrooms.
We joined the third grade teachers who were doing walk through observations of the fourth grade classrooms. The purpose was to get an idea of what their students will be doing when they move up to fourth grade next year. The guiding question was, “What can we be doing this year to prepare them?”
It was impressive to see the school embracing our curriculum so early in the school year. Normally this type of observation would be done in the spring, not in November.
The teachers were very excited about what they saw going on in the fourth grade classrooms. Several of them wanted to get their students started on typing programs right away. Others were inspired to create some lessons that would involve work on the computer or using the computer to create a product (like typing a story).
The following are a few items that stood out to me during these observations.
Projectors – I noticed the LCD projector was sitting on a student’s desk about 6 feet away from the board. This meant the projection was very small. It didn’t help that the teacher hadn’t maximized the activity window. She was showing it the size that it first appears when the activity first opens. I did not find out why she didn’t enlarge the window.
We have always designed our lessons under the assumption that the screen would be projected large enough that the entire class could see it. Some of our fonts are small already, and on a small projection they can be difficult to see from more than a few feet away.
Typing – We require a lot of typing in our lessons, and watching some students slowly type out their answer to one open response question was painful to watch. The students persevered, but I wonder if we should ramp up the amount of typing required in the lessons as the year progresses. We did not consider this beforehand so lessons may include a lot of typing as early as the first day of the year.
By the way, when I say a lot of typing, even typing one complete sentence is a lot of work for many students, especially students who are functioning below grade level. One girl took about a minute to type, “I think she did that because she would…” After all that effort, she hadn’t even gotten to the part of the sentence that is her answer!
Perhaps we can partner with a company that offers typing software that students can do for 10 minutes a day? Or it could be an optional piece they could do at home?
Screen Directions and Feedback – I noticed students not reading the screen directions and/or feedback. This may be an issue of training the students of the importance of this feedback and how to use it as they give the question a second try.
I noticed a student “cheating” where he didn’t bother to read a passage. Instead he guessed, and when he got the answer incorrect, the system highlighted the paragraph that contained the answer. Then he would read and solve the question now that the system had told him where to look in the story.
We have to be careful that our ways of supporting students after they get a question wrong aren’t so helpful that students learn to guess the first time in order to get the hint/help that’s going to steer them to the correct answer.
Differentiation – In the class I observed the students were all working at their own pace. It was great to see that the teacher had set the students up to work so they could work where they needed to be. This freed up the teacher and paraprofessional so they could pull a small group and/or work alongside students who were having trouble.
Planning – I have noticed throughout my site visits that the teachers do not appear to be planning beforehand very much for their lessons. By planning I mean they haven’t gone through the core of the lesson to familiarize themselves with the flow of the content.
At this school I watched a teacher go through a Language Arts skill lesson. The lesson was teaching the four steps to figuring out the meaning of a word using context clues. There were four activities in a row, one activity for each step. However, he did the entire explanation of all the steps in the first activity, so he got frustrated when he went through the other activities because it kept repeating the steps he’d already stated. He thought it was a problem with the lesson being redundant, but really it was a matter of him not being familiar enough with the lesson before he taught it.
Despite any problems the school is having, overall the atmosphere is very positive and the staff seems very eager to make this work.
Since we were doing our observations with the third grade teachers, I had to hop from class to class a bit too frequently. I never had the chance to observe a full lesson at this school. However, I did learn a few important lessons so it wasn’t a waste of time at all.
For me the most interesting thing was going back into schools in the role of a curriculum developer instead of in the role of a teacher. It gave me a much different perspective. As a teacher, I was always most knowledgeable about my classroom and my students, but not necessarily the goings on in anyone else’s classroom.
During these site visits, I had the opportunity to see a wide variety of schools, campus climates, classroom layouts, and teaching styles. As you’ve no doubt surmised, I wasn’t always very happy with what I saw, but I am appreciative of the experience. I learned a lot and I was able to share it with the rest of my team which helped tremendously as we continued writing lessons.