Thursday, September 22, 2011

Considering Classroom Observations

For a developing teacher, the thought of having another teacher in the room observing you when you are teaching is nothing short of unnerving. He or she sits in the back madly scribbling in their notepad, so if you make eye contact you can't help but wonder what they might be thinking, might be writing, or worse, judging about you. It is a scene that I have now been on both sides of, as both the observer and observed.

The Observer

The class that I observed for my practicum requirement was a L2 writing workshop that involved four advanced esl students workshopping their papers with an experienced teacher acting as the facilitator. I came to the classroom to specifically observe the group process in a writing workshop environment, while keeping my own experience of hosting writing workshops during the year I taught EAP writing in China in mind. In the class that I observed, the students were going through drafts of a rhetorical analysis paper, an assignment that I've seen even L1 English writers struggle with in the writing center.

During the two workshop sessions I observed I attempted to transcribe as much of the dialogue as I could as well as describe the actions that took place between the participants. Overall, I was amazed by the level engagement by the students, how with only a little prompting from the teacher they were able to provide constructive criticism to one another and cite examples using supporting details from their peers' papers. When they were asked to find thesis statements and three of the students looked through the student's paper that was being discussed and found three different thesis statements, it took little commentary from the instructor for the student to realize that he/she had failed to provide his readers with a clear direction. The instructor seemed to have truly mastered the art of facilitation in always asking just the right questions to elicit responses.

I am wondering how much of what I witnessed was tied to the actual amount of in-depth instruction in rhetorical analysis students had prior to the workshop. Or was their ability to provide higher levels of feedback more related to how the workshop was facilitated and structured? I suspect the answer is a little of both. Nonetheless, the experience made me wonder how much of my own Chinese student's ability to provide valuable feedback in writing workshops back in Xi'an were either because of instruction, level of fluency or workshop facilitation. I would like to argue that it was due to the level of fluency, yet now I'm not so sure.

The Observed

I think the hardest aspect of being observed as a new teacher is having to face up to seeing the areas where you need to improve. In hindsight this seems rather absurd, to think that you might object to an aspect of professional development that can only contribute to making you a better teacher. In fact the majority of teachers find a great deal of benefit from observing or being observed (Richard & Crooks, 1988). Why is it then that myself and my fellow graduate students almost cringe and tense up at the very mention of a scheduled observation my a senior teacher? I suspect that part of this fear is tied to the notion of someone seeing you exposed and revealed as an amateur to someone who has learned the ropes and may be passing evaluative judgements along to you following the observation.

So far though, in the first informal evaluation by one of my coordinators, the process has not been as painful as I had suspected. I say this despite having been observed when one activity went well beyond the time I had allotted for it in my lesson plan and another that went terribly awry. I now feel that for this observation I was fortunate to have these things blow up in my face. The teacher/supervisor was able to point out to me that I needed to use more gambits with my speaking activities as to provide the appropriate amount of scaffolding for students. She explained that if I begin to do so, then I may see my activities more closely following the allotted amount of time that is set aside for them in the lesson plans. I understood how providing more scaffolding was tied to my issue of pacing.

My second informal observation occurred during a low level reading lab, where the focus is mostly on extensive reading, increasing fluency and building comprehension. Here again I encountered the similar issue of my pacing seeming to lag and I found that I was spending much more time explaining things and fretting over classroom management issues than I should have been. When I went for a walk with the observing teacher to discuss the observation, she focused mainly on the issue of classroom management. She explained to me that I needed to split up some of the male students in the class who talked a lot and seemed to take most of my attention and time. She suggested that if I were to place them near the front of the class, then I might see less issues with both pacing and management. But she pointed out that most of all I need to be more firm with them, to stop being Mr. Nice guy.

Now that I've gotten through these initial informal observations, I'm actually looking forward to hearing what my coordinating teachers have to say through the formal evaluations when they focus on specifics. These observation experiences made me realize that even when things don't go according to plan, the end result is usually beneficial in the long run. Had everything gone well, the opportunity for development and learning may have been missed.

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