Learning by Observing Colleagues in Action
It’s Morning Meeting time in Angie Morrison’s second grade classroom. As they do each morning, Angie and the children gather in a circle to greet each other and begin their day together. A comforting sense of routine settles over the group. But something’s different this morning, too: Seated quietly outside the circle are several teachers from other classrooms. The visiting teachers jot a note or two as they carefully observe Angie and the children moving through their meeting.
Such peer observations are becoming part of life at Newman Elementary, thanks to a new initiative called Lab Classrooms. This project creates opportunities for teachers to learn by watching their colleagues teach during the normal school day. In sessions lasting as little as one hour, teacher observers meet with the host teacher, observe a lesson in the host’s classroom, and then reflect together on what they’ve observed.
At Newman, as at many schools, teachers have little time for visiting each others’ classrooms. This is unfortunate, says Lisa Foster, who was a teaching assistant at Newman before becoming a teacher there. She credits informal observations during her years as a teaching assistant with providing “so much of what I know about teaching. I worked in lots of different classrooms and saw lots of teaching styles. But as a teacher, you’re in your own classroom all day.” The Lab Classrooms project helps break down this isolation.
The project was also designed to support teachers who are newly hired or new to the profession. Recently Newman has added several teachers to its faculty at the beginning of each year, and observing in the Lab Classrooms is seen as a way to help them get oriented. For example, since 2001 all of the teachers at the school have been trained in the Responsive Classroom approach, but most newly hired teachers arrive without that background. According to retiring principal Robert Abbey, in addition to learning from workshops and publications, “it can be really helpful for them to see what Morning Meeting and other Responsive Classroom strategies look like in another teacher’s room.”
The Lab Classrooms project was piloted in 2005/6 by eight experienced teachers who hosted observations of writing workshop, math, and Morning Meeting in their classrooms. To prepare for their roles as hosts, during the fall these teachers practiced facilitation, developed observation tools, and observed in each others’ classrooms. Then they invited ten teachers in their first or second year of teaching at Newman to be the first observers.
Morning Meeting in a Lab Classroom
When the group visited Angie Morrison’s classroom in January, they selected a day when the observing teachers’ classes would be at specials or could be covered by teaching assistants, so no substitutes were needed. The whole process took only one hour: a fifteen minute pre-meeting, twenty-five minute observation, and twenty minute debriefing.
A teacher assistant covered Angie’s classroom while she met the group of observers in the conference room, welcoming them and describing her class, as well as what she had planned for Morning Meeting. She asked each person to choose a focus for her or his observation and distributed handouts to take notes on as they observed.
Then the group proceeded to Angie’s classroom to observe the meeting. Afterwards, the teaching assistant resumed leading the class while Angie and the observers went back to the conference room and shared what they’d noticed.
Second-year teacher Lisa Foster said she noticed how much Angie used non-verbal signals to direct student attention. “I could see that they must have really practiced that, and what a difference it made. I realized I probably use my voice to give directions more than I need to.”
Angie found that she learned from the experience as well. “I knew there would be teachers especially interested in how to integrate academics into Morning Meeting, so I tried to do a lot of that. And it worked out great. I realized I could be doing more academics during meeting than I had been.”
By March of 2005, each new teacher at Newman had visited three Lab Classrooms, observing math and writing lessons at their grade level as well as Morning Meeting. The next step is to make the Lab Classrooms available as a resource for all teachers in the school, including those changing grade levels and those wanting to learn new techniques. Robert Abbey is excited about the program’s potential. “We see this teacher-led program as a truly sustainable professional development model because it costs almost nothing and takes place during the day in school. Best of all, it provides an opportunity for the staff to work towards common agreement about best teaching practices.”
Newman Elementary Demographics
Number of students: 775
% of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 3%
Number of teachers and teaching assistants: 99