Transforming Instruction

by Sandra Herbst

In the past two weeks, I have had the incredible opportunity to work in six classrooms in both Ontario and Manitoba doing demonstration lessons for elementary and secondary staff.  In all six instances, the teachers wanted to learn more about co-constructing criteria with students.  In my March posting, I shared the structure that these demonstration lessons take; however, I would like to write just a little bit more about one aspect that I have been exploring with teachers over the last ten months…and over 100 lessons!

Co-constructing criteria with students, regardless of the grade level or subject matter, takes time.  I don’t mean hours and hours, though.  Once students and teachers are familiar with the four-step process, it requires, generally, about 30 or 40 minutes.  However, if at the end of thirty minutes we think that the only thing that has been accomplished is the identification of criteria, we are missing the power of the process.

After the demonstration lesson, teachers share the evidence that they collected (please refer to my March blog (Classroom Observations: Who is Really in the ‘Driver’s Seat’?) for further details.  Our conversations compel us to more closely examine instructional decision-making and design.   As these discussions begin to wrap up, I invite the teachers to play the lesson back – to rewind the tape about that which just transpired and view it through the lens of the ‘action words’ from their curricula.  In other words, what verbs or processes did they see unfold before them?  As the teachers generate that list, I write it down as an artifact of their thinking.

In other words, as students:

  • Examine models or samples to determine what quality is, they are thinking both critically and analytically.
  • Sort their brainstormed ideas, they are re-grouping and classifying.
  • Identify a criteria for each grouped list of ideas, they are synthesizing and categorizing.
  • Place additional samples beside the criteria to determine what is the same and what is different, they are comparing and contrasting.
  • Work together to co-construct criteria, they are collaborating and negotiatingwith each other.

Even though this list is illustrative and not exhaustive, it allows us to see that the process of co-constructing criteria helps us to meet curricular outcomes and expectations.  It is true that we can get at these verbs and actions of our curriculum in other ways.  We could copy a worksheet that asks students to draw lines between things that are the same and draw dotted lines between things that are different.  In doing that, we have asked students to compare and contrast.  Or we could have them engage in comparing and contrasting as they look at further samples in relation to the criteria that has just been set and complete statement stems such as, “In this sample, I notice that…” and “Next time, this work could include…”

To get at this idea, you don’t need to have teachers observe a demonstration lesson.  You could informally capture video of students at work for five or six minutes.  At the beginning of a staff meeting or during a PLC, teachers could view that video and identify the verbs of their curriculum that they see at play.

You might ask teachers to bring a sample of student work to a committee meeting or other gathering of teachers.  Teachers share that sample with another colleague and as the work is being described, the colleague who is listening writes down the processes from the curriculum that are being highlighted.

You might invite teachers to bring a curricular document – the one that they are the least familiar with – to the next professional learning session.  As they learn about new strategies to use with students, they refer back to their curriculum and, in particular, to the front matter of the document, in order to make connections between those strategies and the process words contained within.

These are just a few ideas of ways to support our work with our adult learners.  These ways can begin to transform the often-used phrase, “This is a good idea, but I don’t have time to do this in my classroom.  I have lots to cover in my curriculum and not a lot of time to do it in.”  Those sentiments are honest and heartfelt.  And yet, when we begin to understand that the act of looking at samples, of co-constructing criteria, of self-assessment, of peer assessment, and of collecting evidence of learning in and of themselves provide us with opportunities to engage in the outcomes or intentions of our curriculum – especially the processes – then we can’t afford not to use them.  What a great way to address multiple expectations at the same time in a seamless and authentic manner!