Teaching is Like Running
While at the Klingenstein Institute, I occasionally woke up early and went running with one of my teachers. After one morning’s run, I was thinking about how teaching is an ever evolving process, just like running marathons. Unlike most athletic pursuits, with running, you get better with age and experience. Running takes wisdom, self awareness and patience. I can’t expect to be great at it now, but I can expect to be better with dedicated, intentional training, support from other runners and perseverance to keep moving even when it gets uncomfortable. The great thing about both teaching and running is that the bar is always being raised, so I will always have new PR’s to reach for.
Over the past week, I have truly come to appreciate the value of working in a cohort of like minded, motivated educators on intentional activities and discussions that force us to be uncomfortable and develop self awareness. There are two activities in particular that have been valuable: backwards planning with a team and critical friends groups.
This morning, my History curriculum group teamed up in small teams to develop a unit plan and performance based assessment built on essential understandings and misconceptions. Using backwards design, we started with a misunderstanding from a course; developed an essential understanding; used a GRASP approach to develop an authentic assessment; and finally, built a unit plan including formative assessment for each area of content and skill required by the student to do well on the assessment. All in three hours. Yes, three hours.
It was an intense process to say the least, but the time limit forced us to work quickly and focus our attention on only the essential understanding. Our group chose to design a unit that challenged the misconception that capitalism is always good and that the Gilded Age in New York City was all about progress (view the full unit outline here). We worked together and against each other, each group member bringing a different skill to the group. Charles was the master questioner, always challenging our assumptions and forcing us to stay on track when one of us would start to move away from our essential understanding. Kelsey used her depth of knowledge about the time period to develop areas of content that would need to be covered. Greg presented new perspectives on events and content that we made assumptions about, and I think that I brought to the group my skills in formative assessment and developing authentic evaluations.
The criteria we were given by our amazing teachers, Don and Steve was as follows:
- It addresses a common misconception
- May seem simple, but is actually complex
- Requires uncoverage/unpacking
- Clearly and succinctly written in the students’ language
- Has important implications
- Understandings, as opposed to evidence/facts
- Thought provoking and engaging (provide a “hook”)
- Relevant throughout the unit
- Open-ended with no single, correct answer (not yes/no)
- Meant to stimulate inquiry
- Need not (but may) transfer to other units
We struggled with developing our essential understanding at first, but eventually decided on:
“Despite rapid economic growth as seen by the rapid expansion of New York City, the Gilded Age widened the gap between the rich and the poor, led to labour strife, and political corruption.”
In the end, our group realized that we struggled to create a good understanding because we didn’t have a good misconception. Thank you to Charles for your unrelenting questioning of this process; to Don and Steve for encouraging us to ask those difficult questions; and to Kelsey for talking out ideas with me on breaks and over lunch. It really pushed me to think deeply about WHY this process is so important. Once again, the benefit of this experience for me is not that I’m learning something completely new that is shattering my world, but it is allowing me refine my ability to put these philosophies into practice more effectively by challenging my own misconceptions about the use of essential questions, backwards design and formative assessment.
In the courses I teach, I have essential questions. But, in reflecting on this activity, I realize that I often stray from these questions in my lessons, and that the questions themselves might not actually be that good. I do not always focus this intensely on a goal. This exercise, combined with yesterday’s Design Thinking activity, have motivated me to go back to my COS documents for Grade 11 and 12 Green Industries and really think about how I am delivering content, using assessment and designing experiences. In addition, I would like to take the Social Sciences team through a similar process next year as we update our Course of Study documents. The collaborative nature of this activity really highlighted the benefits of learning in a cohort-based program.
My awesome Critical Friends Group.
Another activity where the benefits of the cohort became apparent was the Critical Friends Group. Critical Friends Groups are structured professional learning communities that operate on a specific protocol to give and receive constructive feedback on dilemmas we face in teaching. Using a “tuning protocol” (see here for an outline), teachers work through challenges in a safe, open environment. While the process does cause discomfort, either in having someone point out flaws in your lessons or in having to do so for someone else, in the end, we developed new ideas, fresh perspectives on our teaching, and a great sense of community.
Using the protocol we were able to guide our conversation, manage personalities in the room, move efficiently through the process, and put ourselves in the shoes of the learner in a subject or grade level that we were not familiar with. Sticking to the protocol helps the person who might feel vulnerable about receiving constructive criticism, because that “cool” feedback is done in the third person. Although at times I struggled to ask probing questions that didn’t sound like feedback (“Did you consider trying…?” is not a good probing question), my group didn’t hold it against me and in the end we had four very meaningful conversations and walked away with as sense of camaraderie. I think I learned as much from critiquing other’s lessons as I did from receiving criticism on my own, even though I was paired with a grade 7 math teacher, a grade 7 English teacher and a grade 2 classroom teacher. This is another practice that I hope to bring to the Social Sciences department in the fall.
At the end of the day today, I had a chance to talk to a former Greenwood colleague who went through this program several years ago himself. When I described the feeling of working so intensely with a group of peers who were constantly challenging my assumptions, he noted that “this is the feeling that will stay with you for a very long time.” He’s right — this feeling of discomfort and challenge combined with support and safety is not only a unique and consuming, it is actually a form of intentional training that helps me grow and develop self awareness.
Much like training for a marathon, I have to hurt to get better, but a new PR is just a few miles up the road.