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Volume VII Issue XI

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Students in the Driver’s Seat

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


Short informal classroom observations, most often called walk-throughs, but also known as quick visits, learning walks, walk-abouts, and learning rounds, are becoming more and more common in schools. Educators engaging in this practice now include school-based administrators, instructional coaches, mentors, classroom teachers, and district office staff. The focus may be on obtaining a school wide scan on a particular practice such as literacy across the curriculum, rigor and relevance, use of formative assessment data, or more global in nature. In many walk-throughs, the observers focus their attention on teacher behavior. At Just ASK, we are recommending that our walk-through look-fors be expanded to include a focus on students. In fact, we suggest that we interact with students to gain insight about their perspective about the learning process and environment.

Ten observer interactions with students are described below. Each of the situations is based in fact and the behaviors and/or responses of the students are real. In some instances, it is clear that the classroom is a productive environment where learning is definitely happening. In other situations, the students may be encountering difficulties or frustrations that the teacher may or may not realize are occurring. As you read through the encounters below, pretend that you are the individual speaking with these students and that you plan to have follow-up conferences about each situation. It might be a powerful learning experience to engage other colleagues in a conversation about how they might structure such discussions.

Front End Alignment
When you went into this classroom, you sat down next to a group of students and asked them what they were learning and how the current learning experience was connected to the big picture of their unit; each of the students chimed in with detailed information about their learning. Not only did they talk in great specificity, they did so very excitedly. They showed you their work and shared with you how their teacher had presented the essential questions for the unit, given them information about the summative assessment, and continually reminded them of important elements of the unit’s scope and sequence.

As you moved to the back of a classroom where students were working independently, you had a chance to talk to three different individuals who had completed their work and who were sitting quietly. When you asked about what they were studying, they shared the task they were asked to complete. You continued asking about its level of difficulty and all three concluded that it was easy and offered little challenge. One boy noted that he felt like he was going around in circles because his teacher continued to teach topics and content he had already learned in previous courses. When you asked what they were expected to do when they finished their work, they responded, “Nothing.” They were to wait until everyone finished the task.

Broken Down and Stranded
The little boy had very sad eyes made more emphatic by the accompanying dark circles. The teacher had given the class an assignment for which they were to work with a partner. This student made no attempt to locate his partner and simply sat quietly. As you sat next to him, you asked if he knew what he was supposed to do. When he did not reply, you began explaining the task to him in a whispered voice. When he had difficulty following your explanation, you broke the assignment down into smaller pieces and drew arrows to show him the steps he could take. Eventually he looked at you and said, “I just can’t do this,” put his head down and never looked up again despite your attempts to interact with him. As you looked around the room, you saw the teacher busily checking in with other students.

Joy Ride
In this class, you did not even have to ask students what they were learning. As you walked in, there was a sense of excitement and enthusiasm among the students. When you sat down, several students greeted you and immediately showed you the math problems on which they were working. They were working on math problems and it was clear that the students could choose to work independently, with a partner, or in a small group. Some used manipulatives while others worked through a process with pencil and paper. You moved to a group who greeted you with smiles and asked, “Want to know what we’re doing?”  Their explanation was concise and detailed and clear evidence that the students grasped the concept and process they were expected to learn. As you looked around the room, you saw directions for the task displayed in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step process. The class was noisy but with every student working diligently to complete the assignment.

New Driver on Board
This smaller class was composed of students who were learning English as well as their science content. As they spoke, it was evident that they were searching for the right words to explain what they were doing. Each child was focused, following the teacher’s every move and listening intently to each word. As they began their work, you spoke to them about what they were doing. With great politeness (and a little trepidation), the students struggled to find the words to talk about what they were learning. They pointed to scaffolding supports around the room that would help them be successful. As you watched the teacher interacting with her students, she matched her support or challenge to each individual student’s place in their learning continuum.

Caution: Dense Fog
As you entered the room, the students were seated in groups of four. The teacher explained what he expected the students to do in their groups. You had difficulty following his explanation but assumed that it was because you were unfamiliar with the content. As you sat next to a group of four girls, you asked them what they were expected to do. Not knowing who this stranger was, they looked hesitatingly at one another and searched for the courage to speak up. Finally one girl said, “We’re not sure.” When you asked why they wouldn’t ask their teacher clarifying questions, another girl replied, “He gets mad when we ask questions so we just try to figure it out ourselves.” As you moved around the room, two more groups made faltering attempts to work together but it was clear that they were unsure about how to proceed.

Revving Their Engines
The assignment was clearly projected on the side wall of the classroom. Each student diligently wrote and as you looked over several shoulders, it was apparent that they were absorbed in their assignment. The students were to select which of the 13 original colonies they wanted to live in and defend their choice with specific justifications. After a brief time, the students were to share their paragraph with a partner and then share with two additional students who sat nearby. One group of four students chose Georgia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Students listened carefully and politely to their peers. The reasons for their choices showed evidence of their learning about the 13 colonies. The teacher circulated, listened in on conversations, and jotted down anecdotal notes and student comments.

Traffic Jam
The students were everywhere; some were rearranging desks, others were getting materials, and still others were laughing and socializing. You simply got out of the way and waited for work to begin. There was little change for the next seven minutes; students struggled to get by their peers in an effort to locate their learning buddy. A few students were speaking with the teacher informally. After 11 minutes, the teacher asked for the class’s attention and began giving directions for the work they were expected to complete. Some of the students were still unsettled and inattentive.

The girl sat quietly focusing her attention on her teacher’s direction for the next step to take with the assignment. Her work was impeccable, neat, detailed – almost eerily perfect. When you asked about the assignment’s connection to the standard the students were learning, she gave you an amazing and mature explanation that included her personal perspective on its relevance. When you complimented her on her work, she replied, “I have an A+ average in this class and I want to make sure I keep it that way.”  When you asked her if she found the work difficult, she retorted that some things were harder than others but she did whatever was necessary to keep her perfect average.

Cruise Control
After you took a seat in the class, you looked at the front board for some direction as to what the students were doing. Their assignment was to look up and copy the definitions of the words at the end of a chapter; the definitions were in the glossary at the back of the book. The students were diligently completing their work. You quietly asked a boy to tell you what he was doing. He understood the task. You asked him what he was supposed to do with the words and definitions when he finished, and he replied, “Put it in the box over there.” You asked if he ever got his definitions back or if there was ever a discussion of the words, and he responded in the negative. As you spoke with another student, you asked him to cover the definition he had written and to try to put the definition in his own words; he had no idea of what the word meant. You asked a third student if this was a regular procedure for them to complete and he told you they did this for every chapter. When you asked a fourth student if this was a good way to learn, he sheepishly said, “Not really.”
In conferences following classroom visits, conversations need to be well thought out and information should be shared in a way that promotes teachers growth. With these scenarios, teachers should gain increased awareness of how learning is perceived from the students’ point of view. Paula Rutherford suggests that observers begin the conversation by asking, “How did your lesson help students to learn?”

As you consider how you would engage with each teacher, construct a context about past interactions with the teacher and the teacher’s knowledge and skills. This context will help you decide which of the following conference approaches would work best with each teacher. In all approaches, strong listening and communications skills are needed.*

Reflective Coaching Approach
Use this approach to help the teacher become more reflective and more aware of the cause and effect of teaching behaviors, and more conscious of the decision-making process. During the conference, you would be non-judgmental, ask reflective questions, and share data, as appropriate. The goal is for the teacher to identify any problems and consider different options for the future.

Collaborative Approach
With this approach, you and the teacher are engaged in agreeing on the next steps in learning or in refining a teaching technique. As you talk, you and teacher would weigh alternatives and brainstorm possible solutions to identified problems.

Consultative Approach
When you have evidence a teacher does not have the knowledge, skills or attitude (willingness) to identify and solve an observed problem, use the consultative approach. You will need to be more forthright in giving advice and making suggestions. The ultimate goal is to move the teacher toward doing more of the thinking and reflecting for herself.

*See pages 206-215 in The 21st Century Mentor’s Handbook and the Just for the ASKing! issues titled: “Conferences That Make a Difference” and “The Power of Walk-throughs” for more information.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Students in the Driver’s Seat” Just for the ASKing! December 2010. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2010 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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