"The study groups gave every student the opportunity to open up to each other and talk about their mistakes rather than be ashamed. Also, these study groups became close to each other and we found ourselves really pushing each other to turn in the best contract possible." —Melissa M., student
“Just look around,” he said with a mock tragic tone in his voice. “Soon, all this will disappear, never to be seen again”. Despite his teasing manner, I knew what David meant. It was my last year of teaching, and almost every day I found myself thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’m ever going to teach that”. I was experiencing everything with a heightened intensity because of my sense of impending loss, and it was this that my colleague, who had stopped by my classroom, was kidding me about.
Looking around the room with him, I felt a sense of satisfaction; it was only October, and this class was already a pleasure to observe. The overhead fluorescent lights were turned off, and the scattered desk lamps, garage sale specials, gave the room a soft glow. There was the murmur of conversation and the sound of water quietly falling in the bubbler on the counter. Students were scattered throughout the room, working on a variety of activities they had chosen to do. In the front of the room, two students sat on the rug, a large, beat-up Persian, finishing a worksheet together. There were three or four students reading, and a small group helping each other through a problem set. At the lab tables in the back of the room, there were a few groups going over homework and still others finishing up a lab. The room, in other words, was humming. When he first walked in, David had to look for me. This is my idea of an ideal moment.
“All kidding aside”, he continued, “you need to start documenting this.” I knew that he didn’t just mean recording what the students were doing; he was also talking about the philosophy and the techniques I had developed in the decades I had taught at this high school. He was also talking about the miraculous process by which a random group of students evolves into a tight knit, effective community of learners. He was talking about the alchemy that had already transformed these twenty-five teenagers and me into a living organism.
Up until that moment I had only the vaguest notion of what I would do after retiring in June. I was considering becoming an educational consultant, but had no clear sense of what that might look like. I also had no idea that I would be writing this book. Nevertheless, I knew David was right; I needed to start documenting what was happening in this classroom.
I bought some video equipment and started recording my classes, focussing particularly on the small group discussions that formed the backbone of the learning process for my students. I would lay a wireless microphone in the center of the lab table a study group was sitting at, set up the video camera across the room and zoom in on them. They quickly forgot they were being recorded.
Watching the videos at home, I was able, for the first time, to listen to extended conversations. Up until that moment, my role had been to circulate from group to group, checking in on them, answering questions, posing new questions to deepen their understanding. But I had never sat down for any length of time, because that would have altered the conversation. It needed to be their conversation.
And so I listened. I listened and was amazed. I heard them teaching and learning from each other at a deeper, more adult level than I had ever imagined possible. They were really good at this. They were generous, perceptive, thoughtful and tenacious with each other. Consistently, I saw little communities of responsible and caring people whose common goal was that everyone should succeed. They were dedicated to learning.
I recommend this technique for every teacher -- I know of no other way to see how good your students are at the art of conversational learning without recording it somehow. Like an anthropologist, your presence itself alters the scene you are trying to observe. No matter how well intentioned you are or how much you try not to intrude, they cannot ignore you being there, and their conversation will be different, almost certainly less interesting and useful.
The videos I took of my classes and those of other teachers I worked with became a powerful tool in sharing the power of the philosophy and strategies described in this book. But they were also a great gift for me personally — I was able for the first time to see the true impact this approach was having on my students.