How do you really know if what you’re doing in the classroom is working?
It’s 4 PM on a Friday and you’ve had a hard week. Lately, you find yourself asking the question, “What week hasn’t been hard?” You are in the middle of a year that began with big changes to your practice based on professional goals you set for yourself connected to the school-wide instructional focus your principal has introduced to the building. All of the changes you’ve made this year in your classroom practice were done dutifully with as much fidelity to the school’s strategic plan as you could offer. All of these changes were supposed to lead to student learning growth. But it’s January and you simply don’t know if that’s the case.
It’s at times like this where a few things tend to happen: 1) you continue to implement the changes half-heartedly since you don’t see evidence of their positive effects; 2) you give up on the changes and revert to the way things were last year because you assume they’re working just as well as your former practices; 3) you adopt a whole new set of changes mid-year thinking that something else may work, causing the room to be slightly more unpredictable and chaotic. All of these are signs of a very common form of professional despair, which can be triggered easily during these winter months in this middle part of the school year.
Such times of despair provide us as teachers with an opportunity to take stock. These are not times for massive changes to instructional or curricular practice. Rather, these winter months are time to deliberately make sense of all that is currently happening around you. So much has happened since Labor Day and if you don’t take the time to investigate the effects of those changes, you’ll lose sight of what remains to be done this year with your current students. But you can’t reframe and understand whether or not all the changes you’ve made have had positive or negative effects if you don’t allow yourself to approach your practice in a slightly new way. Instead of making a new year resolution to get more organized or lesson plan more efficiently, make a resolution to ask better questions about what you’re doing in the classroom. In the rest of this post, I’ll explain how asking better questions may clarify and refocus your work in the remaining months of this year.
What is a “better” question?
The work of asking better questions begins with figuring out what a “better” question about your teaching practice looks like. Though important, it’s not useful to only ask, “Did my students learn?” This question tends to elicit answers that rely on only two pieces of evidence: in-class assessments and standardized testing data. Asking “Did my students learn?” limits us from looking at the array of effects impacted by the implementation of new methods or strategies in our classrooms. It also limits our discussion of the numerous social, spiritual, and academic learning outcomes we expect for our students in our Catholic schools.
Student and professional learning is complex; the questions we ask about whether changes this year have led to student or professional learning growth should be similarly complex. For example, if you adopted a project-based learning curriculum, don’t just ask if students met their MAP growth goals. Ask if collaboration and cooperation have increased in the classroom. If you have tried to differentiate your math instruction more intentionally this year, don’t just assess if students’ math learning has increased. Inquire into how your questioning techniques have shifted with individual students based on their differentiated learning needs. There are many incisive questions we could and should be asking ourselves that are fundamentally consistent with the work we are already doing.
We don’t need to do something different; we need to take what we’re already doing and ask higher-order questions about how or why the work is impacting desired social, spiritual, and academic learning outcomes.
How frequently should I be asking better questions?
The frequency with which you ask better questions depends on the broader purpose of the work itself. If your school has made its instructional focus providing opportunities for all students to do enrichment-level work, you may take time once each week to review what you did to accomplish this goal in your classes. At the end of the month, you would have four “data points” to examine that can help you improve or shift your practice related to this goal for the next month. If your school has put more time and energy into making individualized learning plans accessible to parents and students, you may ask yourself at the middle and end of each grading period how the methods you’ve introduced with your students/families has worked or not worked. No matter the frequency, keep track of the evidence you are collecting.
Which brings me to my last point.
How do I go about answering the better questions I’ve asked?
The key to answering these better questions is to keep track of what you’re finding. Like any good researcher or scientist, ask the question and collect the evidence. This evidence should be in numerous different formats: formal student assessments, brief daily or weekly teaching reflections, lesson planning notes, student work products, etc. If it is something that is generated in or around the classroom and it relates to your question, it’s evidence. Then take time every 3-4 weeks to look through that evidence and unpack what trends you’re noticing. The act of asking better questions doesn’t have an inherent start or end time. But it does require that you hold yourself responsible for the things you are learning once you have started asking these better questions.
Like the Jesuit spiritual practice of the examen, asking better questions will help you re-center what matters most about your teaching practice. You will begin to discover (or uncover) what matters most (to you, to your students, to your school community) about what you’re doing in the classroom once you take the time to more carefully interrogate the intricate, complex relationships between what/how/why you are teaching and what/how/why students are learning.
The new year has come; it’s back to school after a much deserved Christmas break. A new year always brings with it the opportunity to make resolutions and to think about what we can do to improve ourselves in the new year. Resolutions are all well and good, and I highly recommend taking the time this January to make a professional resolution for 2018. But today, I want to raise a different issue. For most of us in Archdiocesan Catholic schools, our work doesn’t fundamentally change just because the last two digits at the top of our papers do. Now that one third of the school year has passed, most teachers in the Archdiocese aren’t asking themselves what they should be doing differently. They’re asking themselves a much more pressing question: what do I have the capacity to do with these remaining few months of school to continue to help my students learn given what I have learned about them in the first third?
The bad news is you didn’t have enough planning time during your hard-earned vacation days to come up with any solutions to this question. Who ever does, right? The thought of what to do now looms large in these first weeks of the new year, especially as winter NWEA testing and Catholic Schools Week festivities quickly approach. The good news is you’re not alone. Your fellow teachers in Catholic schools throughout the Archdiocese are working alongside of you in solidarity toward the same mission this winter and spring: re-engaging student interest in and re-enlivening classroom spaces for spiritual and academic growth.
And we here in the Catholic Schools Office continue to work hard to reach out to you in support of this incredibly important work. As can be seen in one of our office’s infographics, this support often comes in the form of phone calls, e-mails, visits, or workshops. You may be saying to yourself, “What does all of that have to do with what I need to do day-to-day? With these students? In the middle of the year?” While there’s no easy answer to these questions, we’ve recognized that the CSO needed to do something else to help teachers address these questions in a more practical way.
As one of our CSO 2018 resolutions, we designed this resource sharing website and blog to establish a forum for inquiry and discussion and to help enhance the professional quality of our schools. The resource sharing feature of the website will provide suggestions and ideas for content that may help you improve your practice, as well as a space for teachers to submit ideas, links, or resources for broader dissemination. The blog will contain regular posts about bigger topics related to curriculum, instruction, teaching, and learning posted at least twice a month.
You may be excited for the resource-sharing but may be wondering, “A blog? What good is a blog about academics in the Archdiocese and how is that going to help me?” As a former middle school ELA teacher, I never grew tired of reiterating the importance of purpose, genre, and audience to my students. So let me use the rest of this first post to delve more deeply into each of these three things in order to flesh out just what role the blog will play on this website.
Purpose: The more we communicate with each other about teaching and learning, the more effective teaching and learning will be across the Archdiocese. The sole purpose of this blog is to make that vision a reality. Let’s open up our classrooms, expand our ideas about what constitutes ambitious instruction and effective teaching, and continue to communicate with each other about our professional vocation using any means available to us. We can’t live out the Gospel mission in our schools if we don’t have academically rigorous schools. And we can’t have academically rigorous schools if we don’t care passionately about teaching and learning. I think this blog can be a place to raise questions and explore ideas that we otherwise may not have the time to ask or research on our own. This space serves to highlight the curricular and instructional strengths currently in place in RCAB schools, to address persistent dilemmas that plague teachers in the Archdiocese, and to drill down into concrete strategies for educators’ growth and improvement.
Genre: The posts on this blog will be concise, easily digestible accounts of how to strengthen some concrete aspect of teaching and learning. The posts will be somewhat informal without sacrificing being professionally meaningful. Example topics include: how to design well-differentiated math lessons; how to best interpret student assessment data to improve instruction; what ambitious, authentic standards-based lessons look like; what other teachers in the Archdiocese are doing to help aid student learning; and many more. A key feature of the blog genre, in general, is that there is also a tight relationship between the post and the audience. If you want to see a topic discussed, we can easily produce a post about that topic.
Audience: The most important thing to remember is for whom this blog is designed. It’s for you - our teachers - the instructional backbone of our schools. We value the professionalism and purpose you bring to your work and therefore we want to continue to provide resources to help you in your professional development. Which leads me to one of the key outcomes I hope this blog brings about: functioning communities of practice engaging in authentic inquiry about teaching and learning. This blog is designed to encourage this audience to continue the conversations introduced on this website and to use ideas generated after those conversations to influence instructional practice. This website is not a compendium of all knowledge related to curriculum and instruction. Rather, it’s a place for a community to digitally gather to become partners in developing a more rigorous professional culture in Archdiocesan schools.
We know it can be difficult to fulfill the responsibility to make sure that authentic, ambitious, and faith-filled teaching is happening in our classrooms. This resource-sharing and blog space has been designed to help better support your work.
CSO Academics Blog
Director of Academics, Andrew Miller, will post regular commentaries in this space about teaching and learning throughout the Archdiocese.