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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Collaborating with colleagues

We had an interesting K–12 professional development (PD) day yesterday (as our students were enjoying a four-day weekend and we teachers had to settle for three days off). The theme for the year is differentiated instruction (DI); the specific focus for the day was error analysis (EA?). I gained a useful perspective from the keynote speaker, Jon Saphier, best known as the author of The Skillful Teacher and as the founder of Research for Better Teaching. Saphier’s topics was High-Functioning Teams, i.e. collaborative groups of teachers who are teaching the same content. Here are some of my thoughts on his talk:
  1. For many years now in Weston we have had regular team meetings of teachers who teach the same content. For example, everyone who teaches college-prep Algebra II meets once every eight days for an hour. But we haven’t made one of Saphier’s suggestions part of our regular MO, probably because nobody had ever articulated it for us:
    Come into a meeting prepared to present what the cognitive confusions are.
    This idea is much more useful than simply saying, “Too many kids don’t understand logarithms; we should give them more practice and then schedule a retake.” (This is, in fact, what we actually said.)

  2. One difficulty in combining EA with DI is how to handle the logistics when you have to pull six kids aside to work on reteaching logarithms. The rest of the class needs to be productive during this time. Saphier had several suggestions for letting this happen.

  3. According to Saphier’s research:
    The most successful schools are deeply collaborative; the prime place for our own learning is the workplace.
    Contrast this POV with what my colleagues and I believed when I was teaching back in the ’70s: you shut the door and are in solitary control of your own classroom.

  4. Combining these two previous thoughts, we have the following observation:
    Error analysis and collaboration can seal the cracks through which a lot of our kids fall.
    Too often we pay lip service to the idea that we want all students to succeed, but we don’t know how to get that to happen. Maybe EA and collaboration will be the key.

  5. In team meetings, according to Saphier, members show the following characteristics:
    • They are non-defensive.
    • They have open, strong, debate.
    • They hold each other accountable for important norms.
    Makes sense to me.
Saphier’s talk was followed by a video of Weston students discussing and analyzing their own work. The range was fascinating, from a second-grader explaining the map of the world he had drawn from memory to a twelfth-grader explaining an AP Physics problem.

We then split up into multi-school teams, the same groups of a dozen or so teachers in which we had been meeting on previous PD days. It’s always refreshing to exchange ideas with colleagues whom we never otherwise see, such as a reading recovery teacher from the primary grades, a regular fifth-grade teacher, and the Metco liaison from the middle school.

After lunch we met by department. The math department split up into groups of five (each group containing both middle- and high-school teachers), in which we did EA by examining student work in a variety of a courses. By looking at the same problem as attempted by a few dozen students, we can learn something about their apparent misconceptions. The most striking observation was that students in grades 8, 10, and 12 can be making exactly the same mistake. It all reminded me of something I learned from a teacher with many years of experience back when I was a new teacher in my first semester:
Don’t just look at the question that a student is answering incorrectly; figure out what question the student is answering correctly, even though it’s not what you were asking.
P.S.: Today’s quiz: Without looking back, how many two-letter acronyms appeared in this post?

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