This exercise, as described below, is a report of a recent teacher observation that was conducted in one of my 10th grade history classes.
I asked Mr. El Alam who is the teacher at my school to observe this class where I was the teacher, and then provide opinion on its effectiveness for the students. It is Mr. El Alam’s job this year to ensure that our school has a well functioning teacher evaluation process. He has worked with helping teachers to develop their teaching for many years and I have the upmost respect of his opinion.
Our class is currently studying imperialism in Africa, and more specifically apartheid in South Africa. Due to my personal connection to the topic I always feel more adventurous as a teacher during this unit of study. This adventurous spirit can make me more inclined to want to try new methods of teaching. It is for this reason that I asked Mr. Elam to observe this class. I wanted to try and find out if a different approach to delivering material to the students resulted in more or less student engagement during the lesson. As my overall study for this course is more specifically about student participation in class, I asked my observer to focus on student engagement during the lesson.
This lesson was different for me because I was for the first time going to use music as a way of explaining a larger topic. I had chosen a series of songs and artists who wrote and performed songs which showed resistance to apartheid. I was unsure of how this lesson would work, but I had high hopes of it being successful because of how important music is for so many young people today.
A week before the lesson I emailed Mr. Elam some focus questions which would help guide his observation. I did this to ensure that he looked carefully at what I considered to be the most important areas of focus for the class. The questions were as follows:
1) Please look for student engagement. At what times did they seem more engaged or less engaged, and what might have caused this?
I asked this question because I was eager to see if the different style of teaching that I used for this lesson actually worked. Mr. El Alam would be comparing different parts of the lesson to see when students were most engaged as well as when they were disengaged.
2) Are my explanations of content during lecture time too “long winded”, and at what points was I losing student focus and concentration?
Earlier in the week while lecturing on the same topic I noticed more than one student “zoning out” while I was speaking about something that I considered to be riveting. I realized that I tend to talk in circles and over emphasize some parts of my lectures, resulting in some of my learners losing concentration. I want to naturally avoid this, but without the help of someone like Mr. El Alam, and this observation, I am not sure how often this takes place, and the effect that it has on the students. Are they able to recover from this and regain concentration, or is it so severe that the stay disengaged for the rest of the class period?
3) Do they prefer analyzing my handouts and discussing them, or watching the music videos and listening to the music?
Insight into this question will allow me to better plan lessons once I am more aware of what my classes seem to learn from best.
4) Did students feel comfortable speaking and asking questions in this class?
This was really the most important consideration for me, and the observer’s opinion of this question a big part of why I wanted this lesson to be observed. If I am going to be conducting an extensive study on student participation I really want my class to be an environment where students are not afraid to verbally contribute during lesson time.
I arrived at school early to meet my 8:00am class on the day of the observation. I wanted to ensure that all video and audio were well arranged for the lesson. I cleaned the white boards in the room to ensure that there would be no distractions and I wrote a detailed agenda on the board. Our objective, which was also written on the board, was simple, Describe Resistance to Apartheid. I drew a few musical notes next to this to show that we would be using music as a way to understand this. I began the lesson by having students reflect on the film Cry Freedom, which we had recently finished watching in class. The rationale for doing this was that I wanted students to remember what apartheid was, and by discussing the film it would allow us to remember the characters and plot, and then relate this to the broader topic of study. To ensure increased student participation during this exercise I asked students to conduct a think/pair/share activity before I opened the discussion up to the entire class. I asked students to consider what part of the film resonated with them most and how this segment of the film reflected the policy of apartheid. I seldom do think/pair/ share exercises and immediately regretted not doing them more frequently once we started the class discussion. I felt like the think/pair/share resulted in increased frequency of student participation, as well as more complex, and better formed responses from the students.
After our warm-up discussion about the film it was time to continue with the rest of the lesson. I began by handing out one of the first worksheets of the day. It was a timeline of resistance to apartheid in the 20th century. I immediately sensed that the students were going to be less excited about reading and listening to my explanation of the handout than they had been discussing the film. As a result I kept my explanations of each event on the timeline brief. Next it was time for me to start the music. I actually announced this and at least one student let out a muffled cheer. This quickly turned to a groan once I reached for another handout and distributed this to the students. This particular piece of paper was the song lyrics to the first song that I was going to play. We spent about five minutes analyzing the song lyrics and this seemed to interest most students. After we had finished dong this same process for about 5 songs the period shifted to where I required that students group themselves in groups of four to attempt to write their own songs of resistance. This was met with either great enthusiasm, or looks of terror from some students.
This period seemed to go more quickly than most probably because I was having fun and was so engrossed in a topic that I feel passionate about. Throughout the lesson I was very conscious of student engagement , but I truthfully am not sure that students were as enthused as I was about the lesson. I love all the music but am perhaps not as aware as I should be that it might not have appealed to teenagers. As a result of this I was eager to hear Mr. El Alam’s report of the lesson.
We met to discuss the lesson only a few hours after it had taken place. Mr. El Alam took lots of notes during the observation and had mostly positive things to say. He mostly commented on my focus questions, for which I was thankful. Mr. El Alam was interested to observe that most of the students in the class that he observed are also students that he teaches in his math class. He kindly said that students do feel comfortable speaking in my class and asking questions. This was a huge relief to me because it really validated all the work that I have put into this course over the last few months. If he said that they were not comfortable speaking, how could I consider any of the data that I have collected on student participation in my classes to be a valid representation of overall student participation at PRS?
Mr. Elam then moved onto the question of student engagement and at what times students seemed more or less engaged. He said that students did seem to be engaged throughout the lesson but there was a moment when each activity that I had student involved in tended to go on for too long. According to Mr. Alam this was when students tended to become disengaged from the lesson. What this says to me is that I need either smoother transitions between activities, or that I tend to dwell on each activity for too long.
Mr. Elam brought up a really interesting flaw in my teaching which on reflection, I totally agree with. He was concerned that I was not using wait-time effectively. In more than 3 instances he said I asked the students a thought provoking question, but only waited a second before answering it for them. This really irked me because I had just recently finished writing about wait-time and necessity of waiting 5 seconds for students to answer. I was doing exactly what I had criticized other teachers of doing. If nothing else comes out of this exercise, this comment from my observer was very important, and definitely resonated with me.
Mr. El Alam was also concerned that I tended to tell students how to interpret the songs rather than allowing them to analyze the lyrics for themselves and arrive at an answer.
Very interestingly Mr. Alam tended to think that I had very equal participation in this class when comparing the different genders and the ways in which they participated. This was an interesting comment because this class just so happened to be my focus group for my larger study on student participation.