One of the most profound moments in my teaching career has to have been January 22nd, 2018. We had in-service that day, and one of the opt-in workshops was led by members of the Racial Justice Alliance, a student club at Montpelier High School. You may have heard of them. They are the group that called for the Montpelier School Board to raise a Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School. Their workshop was one of many options teachers could choose, and I knew I had to attend. I had to go because I knew that whatever happened there would be important. It would be real. And it blew away my expectations. It gave me a different perspective on my curriculum that I had not seriously dealt with.
During the workshop, members of the Racial Justice Alliance took turns sharing real experiences they had had in our classes, experiences that had left them feeling disenfranchised, unheard, unseen or unrepresented in our classrooms. In the experiences that were shared, both the student and the teacher were anonymous, to protect everyone involved, but it was nonetheless an incredibly humbling experience. As these students bravely shared experience of microaggressions, it gave us, the faculty, a new lens through which we could see ourselves, our classrooms, and the white supremacy that is woven into the very fabric of the society we have inherited. As a result of this workshop, I’ll be changing some aspects of my curriculum to better represent people of a variety of backgrounds, something I should have done long ago.
To zoom out from this issue, perhaps one of the bigger problems here is that as a system, I have almost no opportunity to benefit from the perspective of other adults on my curriculum. Like many teachers in Vermont, I’m the only person who teaches my subject at my school. So when I want to talk with other people about the best way to teach Newton’s 2nd Law, I have to reach outside the school. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the perspective and reflection provided through my evaluation with the Principal, but it’s not the same as diving deep into the pedagogy of a topic with a fellow practitioner. One practice that I think could be a game changer for providing different and healthy perspective into our curricula is Lesson Study.
Lesson Study is when multiple teachers get together to co-plan a class that they will all eventually teach. They videotape the classes where it’s taught, and then get together to analyse the video when it’s over. They refine the lesson accordingly, and then the process starts again. I had the chance to participate in a Lesson Study group when I was in my first four years of teaching, as arranged through the Knowles Teacher Initiative. It was a transformative process for me, and the truth is I miss it.
It’s worth noting that Lesson Study is a regular part of educator practice in some of the highest achieving educational systems in the world. Ana Partanen writes about it in her book The Nordic Theory of Everything, that it’s a practice of the Finnish teaching system. And The Teaching Gap by Stigler and Hiebert recognize Lesson Study as “the linchpin of the improvement process” for schools. What I experienced with the Knowles Teacher Initiative was a simplified version of Lesson Study.
In lesson study, groups of teachers meet regularly over long periods of time (ranging from several months to a year) to work on the design, implementation, testing, and improvement of one or several “research lessons”.
They describe the steps to a complete lesson study as
- Defining the Problem
- Planning the Lesson
- Teaching the Lesson
- Evaluating the Lesson and Reflecting on Its Effects
- Revising the Lesson
- Teaching the Revised Lesson
- Evaluating and Reflecting, Again
- Sharing the Results
For some schools “sharing the results” means having a “lesson fair” at the end of the school year, which invites teachers from surrounding schools to check out the refined lessons. “This is a festive occasion, and it is considered an important part of teachers’ professional development”. What a delight. I would love to spend some time thinking about how we can bring the practice of Lesson Study to Vermont schools.
Even as an experienced teacher, I don’t feel done learning, I don’t feel done improving my curriculum. I know I have a lot to learn from the people around me. The more we can get out of our classrooms, see how other people are teaching, the better our own teaching will be. Teachers know how isolating our profession can be, which means we also know the value of a fresh or different perspective. I would love to see more educational systems that intentionally help us to share perspective on what happens inside our classrooms.
Anne Watson teaches physics, engineering, and math at Montpelier High School. She is a 2015 Rowland Fellow, during which she arranged a tuition-paying international student program at her school. She is also a 2004 Knowles Teaching Senior Fellow. Anne coaches the boys ultimate team at Montpelier High School and she was recently elected mayor of Montpelier.