Making Feedback about Teaching Visible

In an earlier posting titled “The Language of Learning,” I discussed the importance of helping students understand the language they use when making-meaning of difficult content.  Now…let me share some rough draft thinking that a colleague and I are exploring about the importance of understanding this same language for teachers.

First a brief review of what we mean by Language of Learning:

  • It is the language that learners use when making-meaning of difficult content.  The six categories detailed in The Language of Learning document outline different ways to enter content.  When learners examine their process, they find patterns that have become their “go-to” language when learning.  An analysis of language allows learners to continue using the language that supports their learning but also to experiment with language that might provide new entryways to understanding or that might be more effective in different content areas.

Summary, connections, predictions, opinions, questions, and reflection – what is your go-to language when you are stuck – when you need to unpack an idea – to make sense of something that isn’t immediately apparent?

My go-to is personal connection; I tend to make sense of something unknown through my known.  Trying to find an experience or a text that made sense to me helps clarify my current struggle.

As I reflect on my own teaching style, I realize that I incorporate my connection-tendency into the content and structure of my lessons.  In hindsight, I wonder which learners were supported and which were frustrated by my language choices.  What if I had consciously balanced my use of language as a way to provide access to understanding for those learners whose entry was different than mine?

We propose that once the language of learning is made visible, it is possible to use this language as an objective lens for analysis and, therefore, feedback about written lesson plans and about classroom sessions.

Let me provide a brief example.  A colleague of mine shared a written copy of a lesson plan she created that introduces poetry writing to students.  I used the Language of Learning as a lens to both name the language she used and to assess the developmental level of that language used in her plan.

  1. (5) Fine Dining/Fine Writing. What is the difference between eating and dining? List definitions on board. Target 1 question
  2. Hand out snacks—everyday (cheap) peanut butter and freshly ground peanut butter. Maybe saltines and really good crackers for spreading peanut butter. Or you can use store bought cookies and homemade cookies. Target 1 connection
  3. (5) Scholars can make two columns in their journals to describe the taste of each version.  Share these descriptions. Target 1 opinion
  4. (5) What is the difference between the everyday and gourmet versions? List on board next to “eating/dining? List. Target 2 opinion

 I continued this analysis through her 15-step lesson and I discovered her lesson offered the followed language opportunities for her students:

  •  Questions:            6 opportunities
  • Summary:              2
  • Opinions:               5
  • Connections:        5
  • Predictions:          0
  • Process reflection: 0

Then we met to discuss my findings.  Just as I would do for students as they analyze their own language (outlined in the post Students as Researchers), I entered our conversation by sharing what she is doing now in this lesson:

  • She used a variety of language to support learner’s entry to understanding the content. She used four of the language categories.
  • She provided a variety of activities for content exploration and for learner engagement.

Next we discussed how she might extend her practice in order to support a wider range of learners:

  • We discovered that she relied heavily on Target 1 questioning; therefore, entering the next plan she could explore balancing Target 1 questioning with Target 2 questioning.
  • The one category from the language document that was not represented in her plan was “Reflection.” Therefore, in the next plan, she could build in process reflection time, which was a goal outlined in the intro to her plan (she was shocked this was missing from her lesson!).

For the analysis of the complete lesson, click here: Poetry Lesson Plan.

This is a concrete, visible way to discuss teaching that has the potential to minimize the feeling of judgment.  Having a supervisor “evaluate” teaching, regardless of the framework used or the relationship with the supervisor, can feel like a personal response to style rather than an objective analysis of content and structure. Of course, there is an art to teaching, but this process provides an entry of science, which can build the relationship between the teacher and supervisor leading to a more philosophical conversation about practice.  It also provides a concise lens for critical reflection for the teacher (see post titled “Summary, Reflection, or Critical Reflection”).

We are excited to explore the Language of Learning and the implications for teachers.  We suspect that intentional use of language in the classroom has the possibility of 1) increasing rigor, 2) enhancing motivation, 3) providing access to understanding for a larger % of students, and 4) nurturing academic mindsets that keep learners engage in the content.

We would appreciate questions, comments, reactions, and suggestions about the thinking shared here.  Help us continue to develop a process to support teachers in their continued journey to support all learners in our classrooms.

Janell Cleland (blog author)

Jodi Wirt, Assistant Superintendent at Lake Zurich High School, Lake Zurich, Illinois