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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Practicing Instructional Leadership: The Tale of Mr. Poh (Part 2-Morning)

Day Two: The Puzzle Pieces of Improvement

The 2002 January/February issue of the Harvard Education Letter included an article from leading professor in educational research, Richard F. Elmore , it was titled The Limits of "Change". The article provides a timely overview of the issues surrounding instructional improvement. Elmore states that "the schools that seem to do the best are those that have a clear idea of what kind of instructional practice they want to produce, and then design a structure to go with it." In one day, Mr. Poh and I had begun to do just that; we began to piece together a plan for improving his instructional practice. In this, we identified a starting point: building class culture/community.

Significance of Class Culture

Since I first began as a teacher, as part of the amazing Breakthrough Collaborative program, I was taught that effective instruction begins and ends with the class culture you work to build, facilitate, protect, and manage. The process of building class culture serves as a foundation, to allow those who are part ,to experience learning as opposed to being subjected to a classroom of passive, uneventful, and seemingly insignificant learning tasks. Class culture is the life force of a successful classroom. It is the air that propagates student enthusiasm for and engagement with their peers, academic content and the instructor. As chief facilitator of the classroom, an effective teacher must work to build class culture to serve as the bridge that navigates the trajectory of his or her course from its beginning to end. It is a bridge that the teacher must first conceptualize and then make real for his or her students. It is a bridge that, ideally, has been created through the process of backward design (See "Understanding by Design", Wiggins & McTighe), where the instructor has identified his or her desired end goals (i.e.- academic, social, emotional). In this, the teacher advances with his or her students across the bridge- providing them with the necessary tools and instruction- methodically and reflectively guiding students toward the next plank of understanding- ensuring that each of their subsequent footsteps are engaged with the battle of improvement.

Class culture is a bridge that provides the structure necessary for teaching and learning, yet the flexibility for both student and teacher inquiry, challenge, and growth. It is a bridge that provides safety and comfort for its participants to explore; it encourages them to press on, even when they are lost or cannot yet see the next step. Class culture is an on-going performance, or production, on the classroom stage- in which the script is regulated by the indelible calligraphy of the social, emotional, and cognitive milieu of learning. Class culture is the nexus at which student beliefs and understandings of identity, awareness (e.g.- of self and others), curriculum, academic & social prowess, citizenship, character, ability (i.e.- of self and others), responsibility, and self-discipline meet. These factors are subject to continuous molding via not only the learning environment but in the larger context of life experience(viz.-self-discovery, and life-long learning).

In summation, as a teacher, class culture provides a living, breathing atmosphere to the world that is your classroom. Class culture provides the foundation of an effective learning environment (i.e.- an environment that is attuned to the needs and abilities of its learner population so as to promote student social and academic growth). Maximizing the effectiveness of the learning environment is part of a three-phase instructional plan; in which, building class culture & arranging physical space are among the leading elements to be considered. However, the development of all three phases ( which includes management & organization and establishing practices for metacognition & reading comprehension) are not mutually exclusive, nor are they developed/conceptualized solely in isolation (as will be seen with Mr. Poh).

Beginning of Day Two: Community

I arrived on day two much earlier. I made it just in time for the last 10 minutes of the daily "all school community" meeting. I settled in the back of the gymnasium, where I greeted a number of former colleagues I had not seen the day before. I was happy to have made it to community to hear the announcement concerning several seniors who not only had been admitted to college, but they were also receiving full-tuition scholarships. As the students applauded their fellow classmates (who were approaching the stage to be recognized), I thought back, briefly, to when I first saw these same young men enter the world of Urban Prep. Just three years ago, these young men were high school freshman embarking upon their own personal journey to discovering the meaning of the school creed. I was brought back to reality by the unanimous chorus of voices as they recited the final lines of the creed, "We Believe in Ourselves, We Believe in Each Other, We Believe in Urban Prep, We Believe"! In what was seemingly a matter of seconds, I found myself immersed in a sea of black blazers and red ties as the young men made their way to first period class... Yeah, it was just like the old days, the days I miss- walking, conversing, and repeating the usual cautionary reminders of "tuck your shirt in", "easy on the language", and "hey, slow-down"! Completing my ascent to the third floor, I glanced at the name plate above my former classroom, it read: "Mr. Poh". In an instant I was I was reminded of my mission- It was showtime!

Brainstorming Culture with Mr. Poh

I arrived early because Mr. Poh has the luxury of having the first two hours of the day free for planning and prep. Today, we were going to hit the drawing board- HARDCORE! With all that we discussed the day before about culture still fresh in our mind, it was time for us to begin putting the pieces of our instruction plan together. Mr. Poh had begun to do some background research on samurai philosophy and code of ethics in a book he owned titled "Bushido: Samurai Ethics and the Soul of Japan". We began to wrap our minds around a possible class culture grounded in core principles Mr. Poh had highlighted such as: "honor", "discipline", "devotion" and "service". Mr. Poh had come up with an amazing idea of using the ubiquitous notion of the samurai as a devout "warrior" or "swordsman" as a metaphor to ground the students in the idea that they too are warriors on a quest for academic excellence so as to achieve their life's goals. In this, he proposed, "I want to create this idea or common theme that their minds are their 'swords', their 'weapons' that they must sharpen with knowledge".

"Yes!", I repeated, "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!". "That's is exactly the idea I was going for with my students when I created a culture based in the idea of "The Philosopher". I told them that as a philosopher, their minds are their greatest weapons!". I continued, "I'm really glad you brought in this text... just last night I was remembering that the next unit in the freshman curriculum was based around myths and poetry. We could easily find some reading(s) so that we can embed this culture within the curricular objectives!" Our discussion had suddenly shift from the singular focus on class culture to one that included the conceptualization of curriculum and learning activities.

A Concern for Instructional Strategy Ensues

Suddenly, Mr. Poh's excitement faded into a mystified concern for an entire world that he had forgotten all about. "Oh man, he began, "that reminds me, there's so many things concerning the skills on curriculum map that I'm really am concerned about teaching- let alone keeping the students grounded in this new culture". He continued, "because of the six-week assessments, there so many things that I worry about getting in or teaching before the test. Like... with writing, how did you teach writing?". I looked at Mr. Poh with a slight grin for two reasons: (1) I knew exactly how he was feeling AND (2) I had devised instructional strategies that would give him the support he was looking for.

I smiled, ever-so gleefully, remembering the large amount of man-hours and attentiveness I had put into constructing these finicky strategies....AND NOW...they could live on to benefit another! I retorted, "I'm so glad you asked"! I shared with him the class formats and methods for teaching writing that would allow him to help more students more efficiently, pace student apprehension on pace with the 6 week assessment intervals, differentiate for students at different levels, as well as give him the peace of mind that would allow him to maintain the rituals of his new class culture. Out of this conversation arose further concerns and inquiry, on part of Mr. Poh, about methods for facilitating essential classroom practices that are staple for any academic agenda(i.e.- reading formats, promoting student self-monitoring and self-direction, constructs for comprehension checks, finding the balance/instructional practices for introducing new material to diverse learners with differing abilities, strengths & weaknesses).

Teacher Awareness: "Spidey-Sense" and Easing Teacher Cognitive Load

I could appreciate Mr. Poh's inquiry, it really shows the promise he holds as a passionate, effective educator. All the concerns that Mr. Poh was bringing to the table were all things that teachers must concern themselves with if they wish to prove effective AND establish an ethic of practice that works toward continuous improvement. Mr. Poh had clearly activated and was actively cultivating what I like to call his teaching "spidey-sense". I said to him, "do you see how we moved from culture to juggling the concerns for instruction? It all connects, It all connects! It seems like there is just so much to consider, and it is so much indeed!" I reinforced to Mr. Poh that we were not getting off track by talking about these things, because all of these concerns are essential and would need to be considered (surely if not now, then later).

I could tell that Mr. Poh's concerns for instructional methods occupied much of his cognitive load which, of course, impacts his classroom awareness or "spidey-sense". Teacher awareness is a core component of teacher effectiveness. In addition to a deliberate wielding of the pedagogical, content, and curricular dimensions (see Shulman, 1986) of teaching and learning, teachers need to be attentive to the socio-emotional and cultural dynamics of the classroom that impact student learning (see Gay, 2000). It is essential that teachers develop a strong, effective plan for instructional delivery, and general class management (i.e. - behavioral and course logistics) that allows them to embody a confidence in their systems and methods. Developing such systems allows teachers to establish confidence because it provides them with a well-devised, carefully examined foundation to rely upon. These systems provide the base-level foundation for a state of awareness that frees the teacher cognitive-load to attend to the many other challenges and concerns that impact the progress of the learning environment on a daily basis. When teachers can establish and command classroom systems that regulate classroom instruction and expectations (behavioral and academic), they ease their stress- relying on the pre-devised, carefully constructed knowledge of established system protocols- and can more readily attend to the rituals and nuances of promoting, protecting and refining class culture.

I completely sympathized and understood when Mr. Poh had expressed the desire to "hold his students' hands" in order to make sure they were understanding what was being taught. This is something that I struggled with immensely in my first year teaching as well. However, in my daily reflection of my practice, I learned to devise instructional formats and systems that I could trust. I shared with Mr. Poh the formats that I had devised that allowed me to trust that my students could indeed be self-directed. I explained to Mr. Poh, "using these formats and procedures allowed me to provide my students with a solid footing to engage in and command the process of self-directed learning." I showed him a number of general instructional formats that I had tailored to specific content; where I had provided students with a step-by-step breakdown and apprehension pathway for learning objectives.

I explained how these formats allowed me to "step back" as a teacher and monitor student progress through established check-points for understanding. I continued, "by doing this I was able to increase my efficacy in five ways I could think of: (1) I enabled capable students with the tools to navigate their own apprehension of an objective. (2)I made myself more available to students who needed more assistance along the way. (3)I was able to meet more students at the initial point of any misunderstandings. (4) I was able to identify more opportune moments for differentiation(both remediation and enrichment).(5)I taught students an effective method for (as well as the value and necessity of) reflective apprehension (i.e.-metacognition) when presented with learning challenges or novel learning tasks".

Wrapping up the Morning

It was obvious that the trajectory of our brainstorm session was moving further and further away from the elements of building class culture with which we started; yet, the logic of constructing a viable class culture led us into concerns for class systems/formats (for both instruction & management) that would be necessary to establish and ensure the effectiveness of the class culture we wished to build. Mr. Poh and I engaged in a rare moment of silence in an attempt to wrap our minds around all that had evolved in our conversation. We exchanged glances that spoke to a feeling of being overwhelmed by the grand complexity of all that is involved with building a classroom of effective instructional practice. "Mr. Poh, we certainly have our work cut out for us!"

Our brainstorm session had grew to an inevitable point of tension that, if it could talk, would say, "we have ideas, understandings, and clear conceptions of what we need to do, but what's next?!?!" I quickly hit back to an idea that had come up in our debriefing from the day before: Regardless of any finite details or plans for class culture that we would invest the students in, we would need to devise a meaningful and reflective formal process through which we would facilitate its installation. This was the next step.

The Contingency Plan

We had about 25 minutes or so before Mr. Poh would have to begin teaching for the day. "I'll continue working on devising this 'formal experience' for introducing this new class culture", I told Mr. Poh. He responded, "alright Mr. Gordon, in the meantime, I'll try to hone in on more of the specifics of the Samurai philosophy I want to use." I asked Mr. Poh, "so how are you feeling about all this now?"

He responded, "I think this is all good... the things we talked about today were all of the things that I've been very concerned about and have wanted to address for the longest time. I feel good about what we've started."

"Great, man! I'm so excited to get the ball rolling, now all you have to do is to ride out the last few days of this semester and then the real fun will begin!" I asked him "how are you feeling about these last few days?" He responded, "to be honest Mr. Gordon, I don't even feel like I'm going to make it til' the end of the day! Especially with the way class went yesterday." I quickly thought back to moments in my practice when some of my management systems required serious revamping. Mr. Poh needed a contingency plan, something to hold him afloat until the end of the semester. I gave him this piece of advice:

"The students know that things are in disarray right now; and they are very comfortable with misbehaving. What I noticed yesterday is that the students continue to misbehave throughout the duration of class, even after multiple warnings. You told me that you are not teaching a new lesson and are only reviewing and giving students time to continue work on their paper assignments. Since this is the case, your students know exactly what it is they should be doing today- use this. Come into the classroom and set clear expectations for behavior. You may want to use a tactic that I used, which I called 'three strikes your out!' Let the students know exactly what you expect of them today as far as their assignments are concerned, and admonish them that they know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing and let them know that if they disrupt the learning environment in anyway more than twice, they will be removed. Remind them that you are giving them protected time to complete what they otherwise will be responsible for completing at home, alone... AND that they should use this time wisely because you are there to help them, if need be, but you will not be there to help them at home. Simply set up the rules of the game, let them know the role that you will play and the role that you expect them to play AS WELL AS the rules of engagement. Once you do that, once you establish the rules of the game, stick to your guns, stick to your plan of action no matter what. By doing this you will put more pressure and responsibility on the students to monitor their own behavior, significantly decreasing your stress and difficulty with class management."

Mr. Poh responded, "Mr. Gordon, that sounds like a great idea, that's what I'm going to work on doing today! I think that just might work for me. Thanks Mr. Gordon, Thanks a lot!" I kindly responded, "no problem Mr. Poh, I just hope it works! It certainly sounds like it could work, but sometimes you never know until you actually implement it!"

With a mind set on this new mission, Mr. Poh prepared to leave the teachers lounge with an air of a confidence and hope. He had about 10 minutes before he had to teach, just enough time to step outside for a cigarette- a habit he had recently re-established to cope with the stresses this first semester had brought with it. It is a habit I hope to help him rise above yet again. However, first thing's first, we had to see if the contingency plan would work. I gave him the morning to practice this strategy while I continued to plan for next semester. I planned to follow-up with an observation of his afternoon class. I am hopeful all will go well. The pieces of the puzzle have been identified and are slowly coming together. Day Two- Morning Complete.

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