Monday, January 4, 2016

Making a Difference through Demo Lessons

People often ask me how Chets Creek Elementary became the school that it is.  Why did the teachers open their doors in the beginning and let their colleagues in?  Why did teachers agree to do  demonstration lessons?  Why did teachers come in droves to Book Study groups that were often scheduled off the clock?  What did we do to make the culture what it is?

Creating and sustaining the culture at Chets is not really my story to tell.  The inspiration and design for the culture building piece at Chets goes back to the founding vision and first Principal, Dr. Terri Stahlman and then to our current Principal Susan Phillips who was left with the mission of sustaining the culture.  How to create and sustain a culture in a high performing school is their story to tell.  However, what I can say about teaching in this school for so many years is that professional development has played a significant role in and continues to support the culture.  To me, the biggest pieces of professional development that have served to bind us together across the years are demonstration lessons, book-of-the-month, and book studies.  Through a series of three blogs, I would like to share my view about how each of these has played a part in supporting our learning over time.

Teachers watching a demonstration lesson as it unfolds.
Demonstration Lessons -  It is demonstration lessons that are at the heart of our PD.  These are lessons where one teacher teaches while other teachers watch.  After a demonstration lesson, there is always a debrief where those watching list all the positives that they saw and then also ask questions about things they didn't understand.  Some years we have called those Warm and Cool Comments and in other years, "Glows and Grows." With new groups, the comments are usually superficial, because they don't yet trust each other but in a Chets group they jump right to the heart of the matter and get to the core questions, the new information, and the wonderings for implementation. Regardless of the group, the conversation is always enlightening.  The teacher that presented the lesson usually stays to listen and answer questions and to reflect for the group on how she thinks that lesson went and what she might have done differently.

I am not sure who did the first demonstration lesson at Chets Creek, but it was Dr. Stahlman's vision that if we were going to get good at this work, we would have to learn from each other by opening up our classrooms and watching each other teach.  It was not easy to prepare a lesson and stand before your peers and present it.  I will never forget my own first demo lesson.  It was shortly after coming to Chets.  I was a 20 year veteran of the classroom, but in all those years I had only had a very small handful of people watch me teach and those were usually principals at evaluation time.  I was so nervous that Stacy McCollough, whose students and classroom I was using for the lesson, brought over a trashcan because she thought I might throw up!

I think if you ask any of the teachers that do demo lessons,  they would all agree that they were pretty shaky that first time.  It is risky.  What if you fail and the kids are terrible?  Maybe the others will find out that you aren't as good as they think you are.  I'm sure on some level those thoughts go through everyone's mind, so why do we even agree to do the demo lessons?  We probably could say, "No!"  but most of us don't.  You never want to disappoint the person asking, because they have faith in you, and... you know they will help you, if you need it.   I guess it seems like a compliment to be asked.  Besides Chets Creek is a place where it is safe to grow, learn and make mistakes!  And there is this mantra that if you know something, you have a moral and ethical obligation to share it for the greater good! Maybe that sounds corny, but we became a community of learners early in our history.  Instead of trying to be the best teacher, we became a community that believed our best was only as good as our weakest link and that we could only get better by supporting each other, not competing against each other, so... we have learned to work together.  We demo because we know that those watching understand how we feel, and that they know we are taking a risk and... they know they might be next!
Teachers debriefing a lesson they have just watched.
 Of course, as time went on we learned that having something unexpected happen in a demo lesson was  inevitable.  It was okay and that was most often where we learned the most.  We discovered that teachers don't want to see the "perfect" lesson with the "perfect" kids.  They want to see the lesson that doesn't go so well and the class with the "challenging" child, so they get some ideas on how to handle those things when they happen... and they always do!   In fact, it is those "unplanned" happenings that often exploded with the most honest, pure and deep conversation.

After teaching a lesson teachers
debriefing with an audience of teachers
at the professional development site.

Teachers at our county's PD site watching
 and then debriefing a lesson with the
teachers through videostreaming.
It wasn't long before the "demo lessons" broadened to groups visiting our school.  For about five years we hosted over 400 visitors a year literally from around the world who came to watch lessons!   Then for several years we video streamed 175 live lesson to our county's professional development site. The professional development instructors would let us know what lesson they needed when and we would match their needs with what was being taught at the time.  We tried not to present anything artificial, but instead we strived to present actual lessons as they were being taught.  It took leadership that was willing to say "whatever it takes" and lots of trust and collegiality between the school and professional developers to make those lessons a reality, but that was usually managed!  We would film the lesson live while it was happening at Chets Creek while a classroom of teachers taking a class at our county's professional development site from all over the county watched the lesson and then  the teachers who taught the lesson would debrief through videostreaming. While this might not seem like such an amazing task today, at the time the technology was so new that most of us had never seen anything like it. Talk about risk taking!

Professionals from all over the
world watching a lesson live
at a national convention in Hollywood, CA
from CCE in Jacksonville, FL!
One time we even videostreamed a live kindergarten lesson from Chets Creek across the country to a national conference in Hollywood CA.  You can imagine the headaches trying to do the lesson live with kindergartners with the time change and with the technology challenges of the time!  I don't know whose crazy idea that was, but, like I said, we had become risk takers!  Those years or videostreaming live lessons and doing so many lesson for visitors gave many teachers a chance to get comfortable with the idea of opening up their classrooms.  Most became comfortable with the transparency.

We also began having professional development days once a week so one grade level met each week and those days always began (and still begin) with a demo lesson.  I think if you asked teachers, they would tell you that this is a part of professional development that they look forward to - at least the observing part - and one of the activities where they feel like they have learned the most. It also opens up dialog between teachers.  It is not unusual to watch a demonstration lesson and then go back to the teacher later in the week to ask about a resource or a behavior technique or to ask for help in getting your class from where they are now to where you want them to be after watching the lesson.  We know that watching a lesson live is much more memorable than just telling a teacher about a concept. The advantage of the lesson live in your own school is that the observing teacher has ready access if there are questions about the lesson later on. The resource is right there to go back to any time! And that  leads to collegial friendships and partnerships.  From a leadership standpoint, when you have your finger on what the grade level needs, then it's easy to guide the demonstration lessons to meet the need.  Of course, that takes an experienced instructional leader (principal or coach or Leadership Team).

What demo lesson have done is to breakdown the walls of teachers' classrooms.  For years we taught in little isolated cubicles.  We never watched another teacher teach and we never had feedback on our own teaching except through artificial evaluations.  The practice of demo teaching allows us transparency, the ability to observe and take from the observation ways to move our own teaching to the next level.  It takes a lifetime to learn this work, and one thing I know for sure, it cannot be done alone. Demonstration lessons open the doors, provide the camaraderie for open dialog that continues to be a hallmark of our success.

How do we sustain the culture of collegiality?  By embedding demonstration lessons as a cornerstone of professional development! Learning at its finest!

No comments: