Wear Your Guests' Shoes (Again)

I want to talk about the importance of reflection... again.  I covered this in some depth in chapter 2 of Teach with Magic, but I've gone even further in the few years since writing it and I wanted to update my personal path to being more reflective.

When I started teaching high school three years ago, I was teaching a brand new curriculum - economics. We had a textbook, sort of. I mean *I* didn't have one and my students didn't, because there weren't enough, but they did technically exist. Also, we knew we had a new adoption coming in just over a year, so building any base off the textbook seemed especially pointless.

We're talking straight up Tabula Rasa here. Blank slate. Nothing.

Which, honestly, for me, was a good thing. It was a chance for me to put into practice all the strategies I'd been building for years and sharing with other teachers. While I often tried new things with my World History curriculum, the fact is that it was basically done and adding anything meant cutting out something else - and pretty much everything was good, if not great. It's hard to be motivated to do the work of designing a new lesson when the one you already have is good.

I spent the whole summer between jobs researching, stealing and building. I was fairly happy with much of what I'd put together. Then I ran smack into reality. Lots of it failed completely. I way overestimated my students' abilities. I figured, being seniors, they could handle more than my 7th graders had. In reality, they often couldn't, or wouldn't, even match the abilities of my 7th graders. Of course, we were fresh off of 18 months of school lockdowns, so it was a readjustment for all them. I realized quickly that something had to change.

I started by having a short student survey at the end of most of my new lessons (particularly the ones I had put a bunch of effort into.) Most received positive feedback overall, but I wasn't seeing (or feeling) much improvement in their participation or learning. I knew that the few that got negative feedback should be tossed, but that was honestly about all I got from these short surveys. 

So, I started surveying myself at the end of each lesson. 

-What worked?

-What didn't?

-What should be changed?

-What is your overall rating?

I tried putting myself into my students' shoes. Instead of being frustrated that they weren't performing at the level I hoped or responding to my lessons in the way I wanted, I tried to see where things were going wrong. 

In One Little Spark, Marty Sklar talks about the issues faced by Disney's Animal Kingdom when it first opened. The Imagineers had designed the paths to be purposefully winding and left many of their twists and turns obscured. Their idea was that guests would feel like explorers since they didn't know exactly where they were headed. The reality was that they ended up forming lost crowds at many of these points as they stood frozen, trying to figure where to go next. The Imagineers had made a rookie mistake. They designed for themselves, not for their audience.

My personal reflections showed that I had done the same on many of these lessons. In many cases it was a situation where I just needed a lesson to cover a topic and fill up a period. I was back into first-year-teacher survival mode. The fact that I expected my students to do well in that circumstance is a sign of my hubris at best and pure ignorance at worst. You'd think after 20 years I'd have learned. 


Those daily reflections, however, started to open my eyes to where things were going wrong and it is one of those things I simply cannot believe I hadn't done before. More frustratingly, I've never heard of ANY teacher doing such a thing. It's so simple, so why not?

 Here's a look into my madness:

Lesson log (21-22)

Think of all the times in your career when you've done a lesson and said to yourself, "Next year, when I get to this, I need to..."

What always happens? You get to that point next year. Do the lesson again and then say at the end, "Oh yeah, I was supposed to .... Well, next year I'll be sure to do it."

Uh huh. Sure you will.

I had an advantage, in a sense, in that my Economics course was only a semester. So, I wouldn't be waiting a whole year. I'd be waiting about 5 months to do it again. If I didn't fix it, it was coming back broken very soon. This log meant that I could quickly be reminded of the ideas I had while running the lesson. It also served as a warning of "DON'T DO THIS ONE AGAIN AT ALL!" when I saw the ratings for each.

My scale was not defined but basically came down to:

1- Do not do again, period. (In fact, let's just pretend it never happened.)

2- Do not do again without significant rethinking and redesign.

3-Do again if necessary, but don't expect students to enjoy it or even really respond.

4- Worked, but could use some small changes.

5- Excellent, near perfect. Goal achieved. Keep it up!

You'll notice, there weren't very many 5s. (Also, some that I called 5s at that point I've since done again and score lower. I was definitely grading on a curve that first year!)  Thankfully, there also weren't any 1s as I had dropped those after the first run in semester 1. 

I found that doing this helped with two unexpected things.

First, it helped me quickly recover from lessons that didn't work. I'm very hard on myself and often a bad lesson can put me into a bad headspace for awhile as I tried to figure out exactly what went wrong. With this log in place, I didn't have to dwell on failures. I could just log them and get back to it in a few months when it came around again. Second, it helped me better anticipate where I might run into issues with other lessons I designed. When I saw the same issues coming up repeatedly, I knew not to do those things. Likewise, if I found something working repeatedly I knew I should repeat it more often!

The next year, I did the log again. A few times, certainly more than I'd like to admit, I'd do the log then look back at the one from the previous semester and I realized I made the same notes. You see, the log really only works if you look at it again before redoing the lesson. As noted, I also found myself scoring a bit more harshly. The longer you teach a subject, the more you learn what works and what doesn't. For me, it leads to being more critical of myself and my lessons. I am at a point where I don't have to do lessons just to fill a day any more. I have more than enough to fill the course. So I can be more critical and know I have backups in wait if needed. 

I also did the log year 3. 

And will do it again for year 4.

Well, assuming there is a year 4... I may be doing a year 1 log all over again instead! Whatever I end up teaching, I know this is a practice that is here to stay. Try it. It's easy and takes very little time. It a great way to decompress at the end of the day and will help avoid some of that "Next year I'll..." lie that we keep telling ourselves. Most importantly, it is a way to regularly put ourselves in our guests shoes and figure out what is really working and isn't.

Go survey yourself!