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Am I Losing Points for Empowering Students?

My principal completed the first of my two required formal observations this past week.  This year’s observation felt incredibly different from past years’ for several reasons.  The first and most obvious reason was that the lesson that I did this year while he was in the room was not one that ever would have been possible in the past.

My students have been engaged in a study of questioning.  We have been focusing on how to craft better questions in order to provoke deeper, more critical thinking and discussion.  We have been looking at the questions we ask and analyzing them in order to put them into categories that have created types of questions that we know will lead to good, deep and critical conversations.  In order to put my students’ newly acquired skills to use, I reached out to some of the incredible fourth and fifth grade teachers who I am lucky enough to be connected with through Twitter. I asked them if they would be willing to join in a Twitter chat that my class would host. We would all read the same picture book, my class would craft some questions and we would all meet at a certain time in order to discuss the book and my students’ questions.  Because I am connected to the most wonderful and generous teachers, many of them agreed to join me and were willing to do it when my principal would be observing.

I wanted to use my observation as an opportunity to show my principal what is possible when we use technology to reach out to students and teachers outside of our own building. I wanted to show my prinicpal that because of being connected, my students realize that they are a part of a global network of learner. I wanted to show my principal that we can use technology for more than just creating fancy end products. We can use technology to connect our students to a community of readers and writers that is so much bigger than the small corner of the world that we live in.  We can motivate them to read and write by making them feel a part of somethign bigger than themselves and bigger than our classroom. And I could not have done this last year, because last year I didn’t know that this was true.  And now I know it is true and so now I want more teachers at my school to know it is true and I figured that showing my principal would be a great place to start.

So the lesson I was doing was new to me this year because I could not have possibly had my students host a Twitter chat last year, mostly because I had no idea what one was.  But now, we have participated in several Twitter chats this year, we have hosted two chats ourselves and my students know that when we are a part of a Twitter chat, our work has meaning beyond the walls of our classroom.  As my students worked to craft good questions for this Twitter chat, they knew that people were depending on these questions to be good.  They knew that their work mattered. They knew that if they did not do their very best thinking, reading and writing, then they would be letting people down in the world outside of our classroom.  There is no letter grade or prize that I know of that could rival that kind of motivation. And so the work they did was phenomenal.

But beyond just seeing a new lesson this year, my principal saw something else.  Student empowerment. Our Twitter chat began at 10:15 and my observation began at 9:55.  When my principal walked in, the students were in their small groups setting up for the chat. This meant that they were opening up the collaborative Google Docs they had made with all of our questions for the chat written on them.  They were opening a second tab with Tweetdeck and getting logged in to our class account.  And when they were done with the work they knew they needed to do, they joined me over in our meeting area.

I had written a question on our chart paper before the lesson began. It read, “How can we build on to the responses of other students in order to provoke deeper and more meaningful discussion?” As the students gathered, I explained that as hosts today, we not only were responsible for sharing answers to questions, but we were also responsible for building off of the thoughts of others to promote more discussion and conversation. I asked the students how they thought we could do this. And then, one of my students took my spot in my rocking chair because it was her day to be the discussion leader. Another boy said that he was supposed to lead yesterday, but missed his turn due to a doctor’s appointment.  The two students had a quick discussion and compromised by deciding that he would call on students with their hands raised and that she would write down the responses that were given.  And then the discussion began. Kids raised their hands, my student leader called on people and the other student leader rephrased what they said so that it could be added to our chart.

After all thoughts were shared, the kids knew it was time to start and they went off to their computers and got started.  Each group was responsible for sending out one of our questions.  Each group was at a computer sending responses and looking for ways to build on other people’s thinking.  I mostly walked from group to group to quickly confer with kids about what they were doing and how they were building on to other people’s thoughts.  When I noticed a group using a new strategy to provoke discussion, I shared it with the class and my student leader went and added the new strategy to our chart.

When the Twitter chat was over. The kids gathered back together and one of my other students led us in a debrief discussion about how we did and what we want to work on for next time.

And that was the end of my observation.  I could not have been happier. The kids did great work, as they always do, and I was so proud of all that they had accomplished.  I have not yet had my post-observation meeting with my principal, but I know that he was pretty blown away by the whole thing.  At one point he looked at me and said, ‘I have no idea how to capture all of this in my notes.” He also completed the entire observation while sitting in one of our new balance ball chairs (which the kids loved and you can witness for youselves in the top image).

Can I stop here for just a second and tell you how amazing my principal is. Seriously. I won the principal lottery big time.  This man is 100% student centered.  The kids love him. The teachers love him. The parents love him. He has made our school an incredibly happy place and one that we all feel lucky to work in.  He sees us for exactly who we all are and he values us for what we bring to the table.  He knows that I sometimes say things in meetings that I probably shouldn’t and he knows that I often say things in meetings in a way that can be less than polite. And he also knows that I do all of that because I care about kids. He is just amazing.  And I never worry when he is in my classroom because I know that he gets what I am trying to do and he respects me for it.  He allows me the freedom that I need to try new things and find out what works best for kids.  And I could pretty much write my own evaluation at this point, because I know what he is going to say. And it will be lovely.

But as I was reflecting on my observation lesson, I was struck by a somewhat awful thought.

What if I had a different administrator? What if I had a different administrator using the same evaluation rubric? Would I lose points for empowering students?

Because here is the thing about the lesson he observed. I, myself, didn’t do much. The kids did all the heavy lifting.  I didn’t say very much to the class. I didn’t even say very much to the small groups of working students. I didn’t lead the discussion. I didn’t ask any probing questions. I didn’t give much feedback other than to gently push the small groups of students as they worked. I, myself, did very little. And so if my principal were to simply take the actions and words that he saw and heard during this 45 minute chunk of time, would I lose point for giving my students a large portion of the power in this lesson?

When I am no longer the strongest voice in the classroom, will I be marked down for the things that I am not saying? Where does student empowerment get figured into my evaluation as a teacher?

As I looked carefully at the rubric used to evaluate teachers in my district, I couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of the descriptors begin with the words, “The teacher…” Other than the one section on student behavior, everything else written on the rubric begins with a description of teacher actions.  When we think about the tools we are using to evaluate our teachers, I think that we need to think a bit more carefully about what we really want teachers to be striving for.  Is it enough that we, as teachers, learn to ask good questions and promote discussion or should we be asking for more? Should we be asking for teachers to be giving the power to the students to do those things? Does the system of evaluation that we have demand that teachers engage students in the learning they are doing? Or does it say that it is enough to go through the motions, teach the good lessons, and hope that our students are feeling valued and important.

I have to say, I took a second and more careful look today at the rubric used to evaluate me. And I realized that I don’t have as much to worry about as I thought I did. In the “EXCELLENT” categories on the rubric, there is mention of students taking ownership and control over their learning. As I dug deeper, I found descriptors such as, “Students formulate many questions, initiate topics, challenge one another’s thinking, and make unsolicited contributions. Students themselves ensure that all voices are heard in the discussion.” I also found, “There is evidence of some student initiation of inquiry and student contributions to the exploration of important content; students may serve as resources for one another.”

Those words made me feel better, but I still believe that we can do better. I still believe that we can create systems for evaluating teachers that take the students and the amount of power they hold into consideration more. I believe that we can demand more from ourselves. Because student ownership of learning shouldn’t just be an option. It shouldn’t be something that “might” happen or “may” happen. It should be an expectation in every single classroom we are a part of. I honestly believe our students deserve it.

And if any of you have made it through this very long-winded blog post, I would love to know how your systems of evaluation deal with student empowerment and ownership. Do you feel as if you are rewarded for giving students power and control? Do you feel like your district’s system of evaluation still expects the teacher’s voice to be the loudest one in the room? I would love to hear anything that you are willing to share!