Sharing Classroom Practice

Open Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Photo by @cogdog

A few colleagues at my school and I are looking to arrange a simple format that will allow a group of committed teachers to drop in on one another’s classes – either while on prep time or covered by another staff member – and to basically know that if our colleagues’ doors are open and the moment is right, would it be all right for someone from the group to visit, and see what’s going on?

Could we observe, jump in, or teach alongside them?

You know: can we visit?

These visits could be brief, and only a few minutes, or last as long as they need to. What the process requires to get started is to see if enough people are interested in being involved in seeing where the idea might take us as a group. While being arranged as the most informal of “Learning Teams,” we are not as concerned with creating a tangible output as we are with creating a shift in our community’s habits of practice, with the hope that such a change could foster immediate benefits in student learning by creating opportunities for:

Meaningful Connections with a variety of adults

One of the chief researched pieces of evidence about the effectiveness of ‘character’ education, and the building of a respectful and empathetic student population is that the cultivation of a variety of meaningful connections to positive adult role models promotes a necessary sense of responsibility and accountability. By following up with our current and former students in one another’s classes, and perhaps seeing them demonstrate a separate skillset than we might have seen in our own subjects – not to mention forming new connections to students we haven’t taught yet – we hope to promote an environment that might create a more interconnected community in our school’s hallways, and possibly allow for a different groundwork for this spring’s (and future) Grad Transition Exit Interviews.

Modeled interest in one another’s areas of passion and expertise

A time-honoured conversation among teachers in which I’ve noticed a sharp uptick over even the last few years has been around student-engagement and passion for course material (or, rather, the lack thereof). While I might usually chalk this up to the type of learning being conducted in school bearing little or no relevance to the learning students (or even adults) engage in outside of school, I also wonder:

  • How much of the passion we might have for our subjects is reflected in the culture outside of our classrooms?
  • How are the various lessons of our individual disciplines supported and reinforced in one another’s classrooms? 
  • What are the implicit messages students receive about the skills and values we say we are trying to teach, by not modeling it ourselves? 
  • How does our English coursework support the thinking we are trying to promote in Math? 
  • What skills are your students bringing from their elective courses into your history class? 

Our hope is that by making consistent appearances in one another’s classroom spaces that we will be reinforcing our explicit goals of promoting lifelong learning and critical inquiry, as well as making visible to our students the implicit regard and respect we have for one another’s role in the learning process as a congruent educational experience.

Demonstration of a community of learning

Most of you who will have read this far may agree that our intention in our classrooms is to create a ‘community of learning,’ and for our students to thoughtfully engage in creative, collaborative activities and ‘construct knowledge,’ whether by using digital technology or the horseshoe their desks are arranged in to share their ideas with their peers. Along with asking kids to “Think Outside the Box” without an example of what this might mean, we similarly limit the potential for collaborative problem solving when we do not engage with and learn from it in our own practice. It is important, as noted above, that we model this behaviour for our students, but also engage in it ourselves so that we might become better guides to them throughout this process.

Additionally, there are implications for our own practice that I feel so many of us say we want, and likely spend our careers trying to cultivate to varying degrees of success, but which is difficult to bring about. By this I mean things like:

Practicing ‘Open’ Behaviour 

People we generally refer to as ‘creative’ will often tell you that it is not an innate skill or genetic gift, as John Cleese says in an excellent lecture on the subject (that you can watch here): “creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating.” Being open with one another about how we go about our teaching will have the immediate effect of informing how we see our own practice: offering a point of reflection, an opportunity to collaborate, or…

… well, nothing.

 Not everything leads to something else, and the ability to ‘think outside the box,’ as they say, has to come as a result of the ability for things to fail, for things to be picked up and ultimately discarded, and is generally brought about by people being open to all of these possibilities, not just the ones that we’re able to prove or demonstrate coming to fruition.

Creating Community Connections

We are hoping to enact a grassroots change of culture that existed in the cafes of Europe at the dawn of the Enlightenment, and is part of the workday at Google (where 20% of employees’ paid time is spent on projects of their own design, irrespective of their failure or success). Because while this spirit of openness and collaborative inquiry might exist in your corner of your school at the moment, I don’t think it is controversial to say that this isn’t an area our buildings thrive in school-wide, and that efforts to change this culture at staff meetings, pro-d and staff get-togethers are isolated opportunities that are ill-equipped to affect a change in the habits we each bring into work every day, and which we could all do more to reflect upon, interrogate, and look to change going forward as individual schools.

Or not.

Because we’re more than OK if others have got enough going on, or appreciate the ability to have their door shut and teach. I don’t think anything less of someone who might delete our invitation out of hand (or even those who might have moved on back there in the first paragraph). But I talk to enough people about enough of the above on a regular enough basis – and hear the familiar refrain that “that wouldn’t happen here” – to know that some people might want to email me back and see where we might take this initiative this time around, who might want to let interested teachers know when they’re going to be having presentations in your class, or debates, or experiments that we might like to watch, or who might want to watch similar things happen in other classrooms.

Are you, or your door, open to the possibility?

2 Comments:

  1. Bryan, I agree with the idea of reducing barriers and challenging compartmentalization, (or isolation). Affirming, through collaborative behaviour, that the teaching community shares a similar purpose–of releasing students into the post secondary world as knowledgeable, curious, and critical beings ready to engage with a range of opportunities and possibilities, is a worthwhile goal. If students can see we are working together, in an open environment of support and respect, rather than in competition with each other, and that we can show we care about their success beyond the confines of our own classroom walls, I think we can begin to make the grassroots change you are talking about.

  2. I’ve always considered my door open to people who want to come in and jump in and participate. I’m still waiting for that to happen, though.

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