For the past two years, I have had the incredible pleasure of being a part of my district’s model classroom program. The program allows us to get into each other’s classrooms in order to look more closely at specific aspects of our literacy instruction. The program is possible because of the incredible and intelligent Ellin Keene who has been a consultant for our district for several years now and whose guidance has been invaluable in helping me to be the kind of teacher and human being that I am today.
Each year, those of us who open up our classrooms offer different types of labs on different aspects of literacy instruction. In the past, I have offered immersion labs which run throughout the course of the entire year. Participants in the lab come and observe all of reading and writing workshop in the classroom for two mornings at the start of the school year, two in the middle of the school year and two at the end of the school year. The afternoons of those days are spent debriefing, reflecting and learning about what was observed and what the participants want to take back to their classrooms. I have also offered topic labs which are just two days of observations and are focused on one particular aspect of the reading or writing workshop. I have had topic labs about using small groups as a part of our literacy instruction, using informational texts as mentor texts in the writing workshop and engaging students in literature discussion groups that are completely student led. These topic labs also leave time for the incredibly important debriefing session.
I have learned so much from being a part of these labs. Not only are the participants learning new things through these observations and debriefing sessions, but those of us opening up our classrooms learn an incredible amount as well. This process forces you to be deliberate in your teaching and reflective as you attempt to explain to others why you have made the choices that you have made. All of these labs are voluntary which means that the people who sign up to participate really want to be there and really want to learn. This allows for some incredibly powerful discussions. Having an entire afternoon devoted to talking about our literacy instruction is such a luxury and often this is where the most powerful learning comes from.
It is one thing to go into someone else’s classroom and admire a lesson or copy down an anchor chart that you see on the wall. It is another thing entirely to stop and talk about why the teacher chose to teach the lesson in the way that she did and what led up to the creation of that specific anchor chart. Just observing someone else’s classroom often leads to teachers returning to their own rooms and simply copying what they saw and then being at a loss of where to go next. However, being engaged in a discussion that allows people to see the journey that you, as a teacher, went on in order to arrive at the particular lesson that they saw is a much more powerful experience. When teachers can see the thinking that led you to where you are, then they are much more likely to engage in that kind of thinking themselves and arrive in a place that is right for them and right for their students.
It is in sharing our process that the real learning takes place. Sharing our final products might make us feel good and it might allow us a chance to celebrate our hard work, but it does little in helping other teachers to accomplish their own hard work and their own successes with their own students.
Today we had a meeting with all of those who are involved in running the model classroom program. All of us who open up our rooms for observations were there. This year, we are rolling out some new aspects of our reading curriculum. There will be some pieces that are entirely new for all of us. Some new thinking about the best ways to run reading and writing workshops and new types of work that we are doing with our students. There is going to be a lot of new.
Some of the new is so new that we don’t really fully understand it all yet.
However, as model classroom teachers, we are being asked to help teachers in the district to think about these new changes and new ways of instructing our students. And that is really scary. The reading units we are supposed to teach, aren’t finished being written yet. The new ways that we are supposed to be instructing, aren’t finished being taught to us or understood by us yet. And we are supposed to invite people into our classrooms to watch all that.
There is a lot of push back against that idea. Why would I want someone coming in to my classroom to watch me flail around while I try to figure out what on earth I am supposed to be doing? Why would I want someone to watch me fail as I try to figure out how to make these new things work for me and, more importantly, for my students? Why do I want to invite people to watch me struggle?
It is insane.
And it is also brilliant.
Because too often, we only invite people to see the things that we are most proud of. Too often, we only ask that people learn from what we know how to do really well. I have spent the past three years really focusing on making my reading conferences as effective as they can possibly be. So it is easy for me to have people come into my room and watch me conduct reading conferences with my students. It is easy for me to talk about how I got to where I am because I am really proud of the work that I have done and I know that what I am currently doing is helping my students to be better readers.
But when I do that. When I invite people in only to see the things that I have spent years figuring out, then I am really only sharing my final product. Yes, that product will continue to evolve, but what people are seeing is a somewhat polished version of all the really messy stuff that I can now cover up.
This year, what we have the chance to do is to let people in to see the mess. We can ask teachers to join us as we struggle through something new. We can ask teachers to come along with us as we figure out how to make our new curriculum work for our students. We can show teachers that the only way that any of us gets to a place of doing really great work is by starting somewhere not so great and continually reflecting and changing and adapting based on what our students are telling us and showing us.
And that is what we really want other teachers to witness. We want them to see the power of reflection. We want them to see that we often try things that go really really badly. But that doesn’t mean that those things aren’t worth doing. It means that, instead, we look at what we did, we look at how it worked for the students, we think about what we want our students to be able to do and we think about how we are going to help them get there. Then we try again. Then we listen to our students, we watch them carefully, we take their suggestions, we invite them into the process. And then we try again. We bring our students a new experience and we see if it is getting any closer to where we want them to be and then we go back and we discuss it with our coworkers, we write about our work, we spend car rides and time we should be sleeping thinking about how we could do better. And then we try again. Then we look at student work and we see what they have learned and we look at what they still are not able to do and we don’t blame the students, we think about what we have yet to teach them and then we find a way to teach it to them. And then we try again. And again. And again.
Too often we only want to share what comes as the end of all this trial and error. It is so much easier to invite people in at the end of this process. But this year, I hope that I will be brave enough to invite people in at the beginning. So that we can struggle through all of this newness together. So that we can lean on each other through our journey of reflection. So that we can learn from each other and push each other and challenge each other and all end up in a better place because of the path that we have walked along together.