Archive for November, 2017

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So, I’ve been thinking about observing classes. Last spring I joined our upper school division head in doing short, unannounced observations of classes. The observations are only 10 minutes long.

Last year I followed up with a short conversation and then an email that summarized my observations and our discussion. I made it to see 35+ classes last spring. I was very nervous at first. I have worked very hard to build positive relationships with as many teachers as possible; it’s the only way I know to get people to consider using technology in the classroom and keep using it once I am not around. Adding observing to the list of things I do changes things. I admit that I started with some folks with whom I felt comfortable. I steered clear of departments in which I teach, unless I asked if I could come to see something in particular. I built up my own comfort with this new role and moved to other teachers and departments. I loved it. (I wrote about it twice last school year.)

This school year I am continuing with general observing and have three teachers that I am evaluating. For those teachers, my goal is to see a class (still 10 minutes) once a rotation (7 teaching days), with a goal of 20 observations for the year. As a group, the evaluation team in all divisions is using many ideas from the Marshall Method for mini-observations. So, we are doing lots of short observations, having a brief follow up conversation, and sending an email with several positives and one item that might be a question or a suggestion. For the folks I am not evaluating, but simply observing, I just send a follow-up email.

That’s a lot of introduction to get to my point. It’s going great overall. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • I make time for this every week and block out time on my calendar to make time for this work.
  • It really does only take 10 minutes to see a lot and then another 10 to write a follow-up email.
  • A lot of teachers reply to my email which leads to either a face-to-face conversation or email exchange about strategies, technology, or students.
  • Some teachers still want to make time to sit down and hear more about what I saw.
  • One teacher who is being evaluated, but not by me, asked if I would still come in and observe because my feedback was very useful last year.
  • When I get to see teachers a second time, I start to notice their “signature moves,” some of which I am adapting for myself or recommending to others.
  • As I get to know teachers as teachers rather than lunch table companions, I can recommend or share techniques from one teacher to another or suggest that a teacher observe another teacher in particular.
  • The culture of the classroom, although invisible to my eyes, is obvious to the rest of me.
  • In particular, I tend to focus on student engagement and class culture.

Earlier this fall I had a real victory with a particular teacher. First, a little background. I waited quite a while before observing this teacher last year. I wasn’t too sure there was much enthusiasm for my visit; the follow-up conversation was difficult to schedule. This year I checked in with this teacher about a student I teach whom this teacher had taught the year before. We had a lovely conversation and it turned out my write up had been helpful to the teacher later in the year in other circumstances. Then, after my first observation this year I got this reply to my follow-up email:


Thanks for this. When you have a few minutes (ha) I would love to hear more of your impressions, thoughts,  and—in addition– advice. I found our conversation from your previous observation enormously helpful.


teacher-who-might-not-have-been-very-excited-to-see-me-last-year (not a real name)

Now, not to reveal too much here, but to receive this email made my day. As I have said before, I play the long game. I think I first learned this when I taught in Chicago Public Schools. I just kept showing up, not quitting, figuring out a little more, ignoring the little stuff (and some big stuff), trying again, hoping that people were giving me another chance (just like I was trying to do). Don’t get me wrong, the little and big stuff does get to me. I just try not to let that be visible in public. Because it’s a long game, sometimes it’s hard to see the progress. This email was great proof that it’s not just a long stalemate; it’s a long game, and I am putting points on the board.

So, I’ve been thinking about contour line drawings. It’s fall and that is what my personal kids were dong in art class; so, that is what I did as well. The other thing I have been thinking about a lot is layering. At the moment, I just don’t seem to think any of my art is finished if there is just one layer.

A colleague of mine was relating a conversation between two former students. One asked the other why he always worked abstractly or something like that. He replied (and this part I do have correctly) that he “couldn’t hide behind brushstroke” like she could. This led the good-brushstroker to reconsider the other student’s opinion and even seek it out when it came to composition in particular. This little story really got me thinking.

First of all, I really relate to the one student’s recognition that brushstroke (or technical ability to represent what is in front of you) was not his area of expertise. I used to have more ability in the brushstroke department, but as it turns out if you don’t practice, you not only don’t get better, you do a little backsliding. Shocking, I know. The fact that I can see this change in technical proficiency does not make me feel good and probably contributes to why I have trouble even calling the things I make art. It’s so easy to see the expression of that skill, and therefore it’s easy to be impressed by it. While I could with practice get back some of that skill, it is just not something I have enough time for at the moment. I’ll get to it. That’s where the layering comes in. Taking bits and pieces of other works or images or whatnot and combining them is a way of working with which I can experiment. I can put pieces together, move them around, move them again, try something else, all in a reasonable time and, if I don’t glue anything, I can put it down and look again a few days later. Lots of actual drawing or painting I can’t do.

For these images (part of my ongoing taxonomy work where I try to make 5 images in a series), I started with those contour line drawings of chairs on music score paper, kept with my Audubon birds theme (preferably in a totally different scale), and added some other this and that. Also, I cannot say enough how much the self-imposed 5 images requirement is a catalyst.

Here we go. In no particular order, this is what I made.

Very basic in a lot of ways. I like the different scales of the chair (which is a kid-size chair) and the bird.



Maybe the garden image on the right doesn’t work–wrong size, too dark? The bird and chair combo works for me.


This one also includes a woodblock print. The chair got a little too washed out. The blue stripe on the right seemed too dark, so I added some thin paper over it to tone it down.


I thought there needed to be something significant on the left, and so I added a print of a cabbage, which extends the size of the image. Not sure about that. I do like the birds in the tree/cabbage.


The bark paper on top of the image around the chair works for me. Not sure if there needs to be something else here too.

So there you have it. Conour line drawing of chairs, birds, music, and other spare parts.

So I’ve been thinking about homework. Anyone who has taught for any length of time has thought about homework. I have assigned a lot of homework in my time, and I don’t say that as a badge of honor or to brag.

My ideas about homework have changed over the years. Some of that has to do with my experience assigning, correcting, and reflecting on the homework that I give my students. And, some of that change has to do with my experience as the parent of students who have to do the homework that others assign. Full disclosure–I know there are those on the no homework at all bandwagon; I just can’t get there for reading and writing. 

When I first started teaching I was just trying to make it through the day, follow the directions, and not mess up too dramatically. My school had rules and expectations about homework, although we did not necessarily have the resources in terms of books to follow through on those rules, and I tried to do what I was supposed to do. However, in the end, I really could not give much homework.

When I came to 5th grade at my current school, there were a lot of resources and therefore a lot of potential for homework– spelling, vocabulary, reading, writing, and math, sometimes social studies, projects etc. I won’t pretend that I have never assigned less than worthwhile homework, but I can honestly say that over the years I worked hard to strip away anything that I didn’t think was really worth the time. Teaching in a self-contained classroom, I gave the vast majority of the homework. So, I could balance things. If I wanted students to do any social studies, I cut way back on language arts. Language arts represented the bulk of 5th grade homework, and there were not many other items. Over the course of two nights, I generally assigned some reading and a blog comment. It definitely took students some time to do the work, and I honestly felt I saw the positive results. The comfort with writing that my students developed and the level of thoughtfulness and critical thinking about the reading that they acquired over the course of the year would not, I think, have been possible without this very regular practice that happened at home and was then discussed and expanded on in class.

Looking back on it now though, and comparing it to the homework load that I see in high school and in my own kids in middle and high school, one of the key characteristics of that fifth-grade homework was that there was generally one key item. There might be some vocabulary that from this distance might qualify as skippable (is that a word? Maybe we shouldn’t skip the vocab), there was some math practice, not a lot, and then the main item–usually language arts. Students always had two days to work on a reading and writing combination. The work was structured in such a way that there was, if students did not put it off, time to read, think, and write. What I heard from families was that students did spread the work out, as intended. 

What I worry about with the homework that I assign now (to seniors) is that it doesn’t get translated into a chance to spend some time thinking and working at a personal pace on ideas that we are talking about in class. When I started teaching in Upper School, I was told assigning work in two-night chunks was not going to work. I was told this repeatedly, by many people. Students would just put it off and then not complete the work. As the newbie, I believed it and made my assignment sheets accordingly. I’m starting to wonder if I should rethink this.

Time to ask the people actually doing the homework. Duh. When I asked the 5th graders, they were overwhelmingly in favor of the two-night plan for reading and writing. Why aren’t I asking these almost-adults?