As the school year came to a close in June, I found myself having multiple conversations with colleagues ranging from an experienced elementary school teacher to a guest teacher finishing up her Masters. One theme that resonated for me across all the conversations was the power and value of getting out of the front of the classroom (i.e., away from full-class lecture or teacher-driven lessons), along with the struggles inherent in doing so.
One Teacher, One Crisis
I was honored to host a guest teacher for the day who brought in Ozobots to use with our 7th grade math classes. She was hoping to have the students program the Ozobots using ChromeBooks, but that quickly went sour, as the Ozobots didn’t load the programs effectively. We switched gears quickly and re-planned on the fly (and it all worked out by the end), but it made me realize that, when a lesson is designed in such a way that the teacher is the one source of answers or solutions, there can only be one question or crisis at a time. And, if you’ve ever been in a classroom, you know there is never just one crisis at at time, so this appears to me more and more to be a poor way to expect teachers to plan to teach! Even having a second or third teacher only allows you to have a second or third crisis. I think all of our collective school experiences are setting us up for failure as teachers because we believe that we need to “run” our classrooms or “teach” while standing at the front of the room, but that is often a recipe for disaster. It also doesn’t bring students into full engagement, as they are waiting for teacher direction more or less all the time.
Decentralizing Crisis Control
So, as we were re-planning and as I talked to the other teacher about how to bring choice into her math block, I realized one way to think about this shift in instruction is to look for ways to “replace” myself as the teacher, to look for ways to get information to students that do not require being lock-step with me or the whole class. For example, a classroom only needs one or two ChromeBooks for students to share a video. A teacher can make notes or other text information available–my colleague and I sometimes literally copy things from the Eureka teacher texts that we are supposed to “go over” with the students. A teacher can set up a place where he or she can call groups of students (either they volunteer or are asked to come) to do targeted instruction. Students can work independently or with a partner to time themselves on sprints (from Eureka Math/EngageNY) with a timer while the teacher is with a group. Having answer keys and worked problems available means no more wasting teacher time answering questions like “what’s the answer to number one?”
In the Ozobots lesson, I started wondering if there were videos that students could have watched to learn about the programming on their own. Or maybe there were help pages students could have accessed to help themselves. This is part of empowering–creating, curating, and providing resources that allow students to move forward on their own without direct involvement from a teacher. This doesn’t mean that teachers don’t teach; it means that students can learn while teachers are involved in other pieces of teaching such as troubleshooting or supporting when the computers misbehave.
I think that considering some of the following questions is a really powerful and yet very simple approach that I can use when teaching Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
- What can you do to replace yourself as teacher as the source of answers or direct instruction?
- What information can students get from a video or notes sheet?
- How many students can get their needs met using non-teacher-instruction methods so that the teacher is freed up to work with the students who are stuck on that particular day and particular topic?
It’s a bit like academic triage–I see it like a funnel, where the students sort themselves through a series of filters until they have found the work that is most meaningful to them, leaving me with only the crisis cases to trouble-shoot initially.
Making this triage work means being clear with students about the goal of the lesson–which means teachers have to be clear about that for themselves–and being clear with students about both the work that is required and the resources that are available to help complete that work successfully. As experienced teachers, we do not have to start from scratch; one of the things I most appreciate about UDL is that it allows me to use what I already have. Instead, I take resources that are already tested and proven and place them into the framework provided by UDL.
Taking students deeper
Back in the classroom in June, once we had shifted gears to a less complex Ozobots activity, students were able to do most of the work on their own. That freed our guest teacher up to then work with interested students in a small group on the harder work of programming and coding on the computer. They were able to have a small group experience directly with the teacher, which was much more meaningful for them. For all students, the lesson turned into what Jo Boaler calls a “low floor, high ceiling” experience where students had multiple entry points to start but no limit to the level of complexity from there. If this activity had been over multiple days with the goal of having all students do Scratch programming on the ChromeBooks, then the teacher could have started a small group of the most interested students first and then moved on to other groups of students until all students had had a shared experience with programming.