Let Your Colleagues Come In (or, So I Hosted a Learning Coach)

--Originally published at Flipping With Joy

I am not feeling the blogging vibe today, yet here am I, touch-typing away to get a reflection in by the end of the day. Why? Because gamification works, or at least it does on me! Andrew Swan has put out a new #flipblogs challenge, and this time, he’s promised badges -- how can I resist? Besides, I may have fallen off September’s 20-over-30 challenge, but I know the reflection of blogging is valuable, so I will try this again for my own benefit, too.

Something happened in my class a few weeks ago that I haven’t yet discussed here: I hosted a Learning Coach in my classroom. A few days after my meeting with most of my admin team, I got an e-mail in which this coach introduced herself and mentioned that said admin team had invited her to touch base with me about my work in flipped classes. After some back-and-forth, we settled on the morning of September 28 for her visit: she would observe my period 1 grade 9 math class in action, then chat with me during my period 2 prep for a bit before she’d have to attend to other duties elsewhere.
Let me admit something up front: anytime another adult enters my classroom, I always feel a bit of panic. Even when I teach with the door open (often), I sometimes worry that I will be overheard teaching something “wrong” somehow. When another teacher (or administrator!) steps into my room for even a minute, I find myself hyper-analysing everything going on in the room: what if something I’ve written on the board is incorrect? Is my class appropriately under control, and I appropriately involved with my students, or does it look like I’m letting Lord of the Flies play out while I surf the Internet? These are ridiculous fears, of course. I’m not above the occasional board-writing error, and I do spend time at my desk rather than stay on my feet every minute of the period, but I do know I’m generally at least a half-decent teacher who shouldn’t feel so scrutinized by other professionals -- especially since the ones I work with have shown themselves to be supportive, collaborative friends rather than competitors looking to tear me down. The prospect of actually hosting another adult in my room for the entire period was still initially a bit terrifying, but hey, I’ve committed before to the “do it scared” mindset in all this. I also reminded myself that a visit from a Learning Coach is not an evaluation; she just wanted to see what I was doing with my classes, and if she had suggestions to provide after her observation, wouldn’t it be to my benefit to take advantage of that opportunity for growth?
With that mindset in place, I decided to take a risk and try a new activity with this class that I had never done before. Sure, I could have tried to impress the coach by doing something safe, but if one of my reasons for wanting to flip my classes is to get more active learning happening for my students, I figure maybe I should focus on pushing myself to develop myself as a provider of active learning rather than on doing what I’ve always done. I even told the coach at the start of the day something to the tune of, “Hey, this could flop, and if it does, that’s okay, we’ll learn from it and move on!”
Here’s an overview of what I tried:
  • Following the example given by Kate Baker at her session at FlipTech East Coast 2018, I had students rotate into their teams and provided them with a list of different roles they had to have represented in their group. (I did change some of the roles somewhat from Baker’s model, but the main idea was the same.) The students were only to take about 2 minutes to decide who would play what role.
  • Students were to compare their answers to a previously-assigned booklet of practice questions. If there were any disagreements, each group member was to try to justify the reasoning behind their answer. (This was my attempt at including some aspect of my understanding of peer instruction as promoted by Eric Mazur.)
  • The group’s “accuracy checker” was to come and see me -- I let this person look at my copy of the answers, comparing it with their group’s consensus, and carry feedback back to their group.
  • To start the hands-on part of the activity, half of each team was to use algebra tiles to represent a particular algebraic expression, such as 2(2x – 1), while the other half of the team represented a different expression, such as –4(x + 3). This was basic stuff that should have flowed easily from our in-class instruction. What was new was that the team had to then figure out how to represent the sum of those two expressions using the tiles -- in other words, how do you represent 2(2x – 1) – 4(x + 3)?
  • There were then a few practice problems the students were to first try as individual exercises, comparing answers with each other at the end.
  • Another section of the activity dealt with using the tiles to work through nested brackets, but when it became clear that no group would reach that point within the class time I told them to scrap that bit.
  • Three questions were assigned from the book for individual practice as a follow-up.
  • While all this was going on, I again followed Kate Baker’s example for something: I told each team what time I was going to check in with them, and I spent up to about 10 minutes with the team checking that each person had completed the notes for the assigned video and also completed the relevant practice booklet (the one whose answers team members were to compare at the start of this activity). I used that opportunity to further clarify who did and who did not have access (and who really did have access but just didn’t do the video-viewing homework), how they felt about the clarity of the video, and how well they understood the material. Between these scheduled visits, I circulated more informally among the teams, checking in with each as needed.
As the Learning Coach and I chatted after the class, we together pulled out these reflections about the class (possibly among others I’ve forgotten):
  • Most groups spent longer than the allotted 2 minutes to assign the roles -- it’s very interesting to see how much weight they put on this decision. Perhaps this is something that they could get quicker at with practice?
  • Students who had not completed all the practice booklet before then had a tendency to derail the time into trying to complete it (or copy the answers from someone else) during the comparing time, when the intention had been that those who had it done could do a quick check against each other before seeing the “real” answers. I wanted those who didn’t have the work done to pass over that for the time being and just let the group get to the hands-on bit -- was that a good decision on my part?
  • I really liked that the students who did have the work done were able to get feedback on their practice booklets both from each other and from a “correct” source. They normally can check their work in the back of the book when I assign textbook work, but the answers to work I’ve made up doesn’t always get provided...I liked that they did have the opportunity for affirmation this time around.
  • The students who watched the video (which was most of them) affirmed that it was clear and easily understood. A couple of students specifically commented that they felt more comfortable with the video lesson than when I teach the students more traditionally in class using the document camera.
  • My hard-of-hearing student affirmed that the captions combined with a webcam view of my face work well for her in circumstances when she has to keep the volume low, because she can put the words into my mouth so to speak (through lip-reading); she did say that when she’s at home she can just crank the volume up so the captions aren’t as necessary there. I think I’ll still provide them for the time being at least, since the captioning system in Camtasia really isn’t that big a deal to use.
  • The coach and I did both observe that the students talked about the tiles and math for at least the majority of the period, though when they ran into difficulty, at least one group started trying to make up a game using the tiles as playing cards of a sort rather than using them for the intended activity. We talked some about the need to help our students develop grit and dig into questions that don’t have obvious answers.
  • I did find that having scheduled check-in times for each group seemed to cut down on the “Miss! Miss! Miss!” factor -- since groups knew I would come to visit them soon, there was less need to come get me right away for anything but the most urgent of questions.
  • I was able to check in with Every. Single. Student. That’s the beauty of the flip right there: no hiding, no being overlooked.
  • I do wish I’d had a more structured activity sheet (not the list of roles and agenda) put together ahead of time to have the groups complete rather than asking them to do it on their own paper, since that would have clarified my expectations a little more. I also slipped by not working through the answers ahead of time myself, because when groups started giving me -14 as a solution I wondered why they weren’t getting a variable term as well -- well, duh, it’s because my hasty choice of expressions led to there being no variable term (since 4x and -4x are the results of the expansions and create a zero pair together).
The Learning Coach said she learned a lot from what she’d observed, which humbled me as I was actually somewhat disappointed in how it had turned out. We also talked about what she’d observed when she’d visited a flipped class in the same subject at another school the day before. (I hope to be able to collaborate with the teacher doing that flip at least a little bit before the end of the semester.) Overall, the experience was much more positive than my initial gut punch of panic had feared, and I am sure I will host this coach again in the near future. (Maybe I’ll even get her working with the members of my Professional Learning Committee, but those are thoughts for another post.)
So I hosted a Learning Coach, and it was not awful :).
(This picture of me is -- oh well!)
I guess the lesson to learn is not to be afraid to open your doors to share with other professionals, even if you feel like you’re still growing in your own practice. They may well be able to offer support and helpful advice to you (hopefully offered in a spirit of collegiality and not condescension), and even your fledgling efforts may be of inspiration to someone else. You never know where your efforts will take you -- or those around you.

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