Published Online: January 12, 2011

My Students Help Assess My Teaching

"Today is an opportunity for you to challenge and push me to become a better teacher, and a time for you to challenge and push yourselves to be better learners."

So I began my ninth-grade English class one day before the winter break. My students and I were about to review video clips from a lesson I’d taught a few weeks earlier with Kelly Young, a talented instructional strategies consultant.

Our faculty, under Principal Ted Appel, has been working with Kelly for some years. Lately, he’s been videotaping teacher lessons, then meeting with us to review an edited version of the tape. We always begin this process by offering our own critique and reflections, followed by Kelly’s comments. It’s a very positive experience that falls entirely outside of the official evaluation process. The total focus is on helping teachers improve their craft, and the exercise has been universally acclaimed by teachers so far.

This chance to closely examine my teaching "at a distance" has been one of the most significant professional-development experiences I’ve had. In concept, it’s far different from the massive Gates Foundation-funded effort to videotape teacher lessons and have them evaluated (using checklists) by people who have never visited the school nor developed any kind of relationship with the teacher—which I criticized here.

A Transformative Experience

Kelly, who directs the Pebble Creek Labs, accepted my invitation to share the video and our critique in the presence of my students. I wanted to show them that I was committed to becoming a better teacher and also to model for them the value of being open to constructive criticism of the work we do.

What I didn’t anticipate was how transformative this one-hour class period was going to become.

Kelly began with a quick review for students—using both text and images—of the culture of a Pebble Creek Lab classroom. He asked them to keep these points in mind as they viewed the video:

Leaning In—When we are engaged, we are learning forward, not slouching back.

Who’s Doing the Work?—Students are working and learning, not sitting back listening to the teacher.

Everybody Has a Job—All students are working all the time, listening and taking notes/annotating; asking questions; reading, etc.

Tools of the Scholar—Pen, pencil, highlighter… The vast majority of the time, students have a writing tool in hand.

Multiple Touches on Text—No "light" touches—we read the same text multiple times in different ways to deepen our understanding.

Changing Trajectories—So you can read, do, or be what you want. We work hard so that students can accomplish their visions and dreams.

Next, Kelly asked students to take notes on general impressions as we viewed a five-minute edited clip of me giving directions for the activity—an exercise where students were reviewing the qualities of a good teacher and preparing to teach their own lessons in small groups. After giving students a minute to write and share with a partner afterward, he asked a person from each group to present.

Students, still unsure how serious this activity was and how much they could risk, were all positive—both about my work and (under Kelly’s questioning) their own engagement in the lesson.

Then I heard "Ralph" say something under his breath. I quietly asked him if he would be willing to share what he said if Mr. Young called on him. He responded, "Maybe." I interrupted Kelly and said I thought Ralph had an insightful comment to share, and Kelly asked him to speak. After a short pause, Ralph said, "Mr. Ferlazzo talked too long."

A line had been crossed, and students were clearly wondering what would happen next.

Kelly immediately asked me, "Mr. Ferlazzo, what was your analysis of that clip?"

I replied, "I talked too much."

Other students then began to say that I sometimes spent too much time giving instructions, and others said they would get bored as a result. Kelly pointed out that, yes, I was doing all the work then, and they didn’t have a job for far too long. He emphasized that there were many good elements in the lesson, but that we wanted to be honest to figure out how we could all get better.

Zeroing in on Our Work Together

During the next clip, which showed some class members reading to others in small groups, Kelly asked students to consider whether everybody had a job. After writing for a minute and discussing with a partner, students began to share:

"We were leaning back when the person was reading."

"Sally was making noise with her pen instead of listening."

"Most of us didn’t have a pencil in our hand."

Kelly pointed out that more students were doing the work than earlier, but certainly not everyone.

Prior to showing the last clip, he asked students to consider again who was doing the work. In this portion of the video, I was asking students to write a reflection about what they did well when they were teaching in small groups, if they liked it or not, and why. In the video, students shared with a partner and then with the class. Kelly—after a "pair-share" procedure—asked students to talk about what they observed.

"We were all doing our work."

"Mr. Ferlazzo didn’t talk as much, but he did talk when we were trying to write."

"We were all writing and followed directions."

Kelly pointed out the differences between how "everybody had a job" and had the "tools of a scholar" in hand during the last portion, as opposed to previous portions of the lesson.

There was a sense of an "aha" moment among my class. Students hadn’t been lectured to about how they needed to act to be serious learners. In the period of a few minutes, they had actually seen video showing themselves when they were serious learners and when they were not.

A Final Question

The last question of the day was:

"Having watched this, let’s consider what we are going to do to make sure we are always learning at the highest level. What does Mr. Ferlazzo have to do? What do I [as a student] have to do?"

Responses included statements like:

"Mr. Ferlazzo has to stop over-explaining and talking so much."

"I have to work harder and not get distracted."

Kelly explained that a good lesson should have a few minutes of explanation at the beginning and a few minutes for closure and reflection at the end, with the bulk of the time spent on the learning activity. He described a ratio of roughly15:70:15. My taped lesson was more like 35:30:35.

He and I both told students that they will need to help me stick close to the ideal teaching schedule and not talk so much.

A poster listing the qualities of a Pebble Creek classroom—our classroom—is now hanging on the wall in my room. We’ve begun to take a moment or two at the end of lessons to talk about whether we’ve demonstrated some of the qualities in our time together and what we might need to improve.

Most important, this experience affirms for me that the surest way to become a better teacher and transform my classroom is to get student feedback at every opportunity. Power is not a finite pie. If they get some, that does not mean I have less. When we provide constructive ways for students to feel empowered at school, we create more possibilities for genuine learning to occur.

Earlier this year, our class spent time exploring how the brain develops, and how learning new things results in new growth of neurons and "dendrites," the branches of neurons.

We now have another new poster on the wall. This one quotes Judy Willis, the neurologist-turned-teacher and author.

It says: Remember that the person doing the work is the one growing the dendrites.

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