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TNLI: Action Research: Professional Development: The Queens Lesson Study

by Janet Price

International High School: A Charter School at LaGuardia Community College
MetLife Fellow, National Teacher Policy Institute

I have a story to tell you--the story of what happens when a group of American teachers attempt to do a very Japanese form of professional development--the lesson study.

A very influential book, The Teaching Gap, has brought this approach to wider attention. The authors, James W. Stigler and James Hiebert, use the lesson study to illustrate how putting teachers in charge of improving teaching has made Japanese schools so effective. As part of their on-going work as teachers, Japanese educators get together to plan a lesson, observe the lesson, assess its effectiveness in terms of expected student learning and then revise it and give it again in a different classroom. The finished lesson and the process by which it was developed are written up and archived for other teachers to learn from and use.

I am fortunate enough to teach in a school where conditions would seem to be ideal for adapting the lesson study to American school culture. At IHS teachers have common meeting time built into the school day. Moreover, I work closely with a more experienced colleague to develop and revise the curriculum we both teach. And in the spring of 2000 we had two unusually strong student teachers. The principal had an intern from a leadership program at Bank Street who was eager to work with us. The stars seemed to be in perfect alignment to attempt a lesson study.

My story concerns what we actually did, what difficulties we encountered, whether it was worth the time and effort and what are the larger policy implications of five educators spending hours and hours to perfect one brief lesson.

Our Lesson Study

We decided to create a lesson study around a short story, "Frankie Mae," that we have taught from time to time in the past. It is a piece about a family of black sharecroppers in the Mississippi delta that works well both for analyzing literary techniques and for studying the history of the Jim Crow south. But we weren't totally satisfied with how we had taught it in the past.

We started with a lunchtime meeting to decide what we wanted students to get out of reading this story. We then assigned one of the student teachers, Stephanie, to draft a set of questions for students to answer in small groups in class while my senior colleague, Noreen, took on the job of designing mastery activities which students would do individually as home work.

We met again about a week later to review and revise Stephanie's questions. We decided to have students work on the history questions first and then do the literature questions in a subsequent class. We also decided to read the story out loud to the students since its use of flashbacks and dialect had made it hard going for previous classes. We thought if two of us read it and took parts it would be more engaging and understandable. We decided to put some framing questions on the board for students to think about as we read the story. Finally we decided to precede the story with the Langston Hughes poem, "Sharecroppers."

We didn't have enough time to work on this pre-activity so we decided to go with the discussion questions for the poem that we have used in the past. We didn't have time to all meet to go over the revisions of the new materials we were developing, so Stephanie and I worked on the Frankie Mae questions and Noreen and I worked on revising the mastery activities.

We decided to try out the lesson in my class first with Stephanie and I team-teaching and Noreen, Erin and Wade observing over the course of three 70-minute class periods. In the middle of this unit, after we had finished the poem, read the story and the students had completed the history questions, we met to debrief and make mid-course corrections. Comparing the answers of the various small groups we saw that they had come to similar conclusions for most of them and that it made sense to focus a whole-class discussion on the two questions where responses diverged. The full lesson study team was there for the lively class discussion that ensued on how the white landowners derived so much power over blacks, how blacks could get more power, and whether it made a difference that the main character was a female--would her experience and fate have been different if she had been a male.

The team met a fourth time to review and revise. We decided that the groups of six were too big and that in Noreen's class she would use groups of three. Noreen noted that in using the old poem activity, I had asked students to change the order in which they answered the questions and that she would undertake to revise the activity so the questions were in this more optimal order. We decided the history questions worked splendidly as did the tactic of only having a full class discussion about questions that elicited divergent responses. But we decided that the unit had dragged on too long so that while it started with a bang, it ended with a whimper. For instance, most students in my class were late turning in their individual assignments and didn't give them much time or thought. The second time around, in Noreen's class, less time was spent on the literary questions and the mastery activity was eliminated--students had plenty of other individual writing assignments to do. Later, we passed on the revised materials to a third teacher who taught the story in her class, this time giving students the choice of answering the history or the literature questions and then sharing their answers with the class. We've concluded that next year we will integrate the most important literature questions in with the history questions, so that they do not get short shrift but also so that the activity does not drag on too long.

Difficulties we encountered

The project was far more difficult to pull off than we had anticipated. In large part this was because rather than being part of our regular duties it was in addition to everything else we had to do. But there were also aspects of our school's culture and our own teaching styles that got in the way. Here is a list of some of our difficulties and some of the ways our project diverged from a classic Japanese lesson study:

We had a difficult time finding the three consecutive class periods necessary to pull off this activity--classes when we didn't have something else that had to be done and when we could all be in one place at one time.

We were not able to all observe all the classes because sometimes we were scheduled to teach at the same time.

For scheduling reasons as well as our reluctance to turn over our class to another teacher, we each taught the lesson in our own class--a deviation from the usual Japanese approach where the same teacher teaches the lesson through each iteration. We thus introduced a variable other than the revision of the lesson and the second group of students.

When we were supposed to be in the role of observer we all were sorely tempted to engage with the small groups, being part of the discussion instead of just observing it. This may have enhanced students' enjoyment and understanding, but it made it harder to assess whether the questions worked on their own and whether, therefore, the activity could work with only one adult in the class, a more typical staffing pattern. I kept reminding the other team members as well as myself to let the students try to answer the questions themselves before giving them any direction, but we were only partially successful in exercising such restraint.

Some of the revisions made in Noreen's class were less related to making the activity more effective than to fitting it into the limited time she had, or suiting her particular teaching style. This was even truer when the third teacher, not part of the lesson study team, taught the lesson.

Although the lesson study team spent at least four hours meeting, we petered out at the end and never debriefed on Noreen's revisions, let alone the third teacher's experience. Conversations became more informal and on-the-fly as the work proceeded.

Visiting each other’s classes in addition to teaching a full load of our own was exhausting and caused us to neglect other things we needed to do.

We were constantly battling distractions and disruptions--the guidance counselor needing to pull out students, hearing tests for the tenth graders, the art teacher pulling out a student who was part of an exhibition, etc.

Benefits we derived

In spite of all these problems, everyone involved seemed to feel it was worth their while. Noreen, the veteran teacher, observed that while she had enjoyed success teaching this story in the past, she had taught the story so often that she was too close to it to make any substantive changes and she needed someone else to look at it in a new way "to freshen it up" and to help students get everything they could out of it. She also valued the experience because, in a year where the school was undergoing a major restructuring and we were also involved in introducing a new community service curriculum, it was "one of those rare times when we were able to devote time to refining a lesson." But she noted "if we tried to do this with everything, it would be impossible.” She said she would like to do a lesson study again next year, but this time start from scratch with material we have never taught before. She didn't think this lesson study had any dramatic effect on her practice "because we do this kind of work and this kind of collaboration all the time anyway."

Wade, on the other hand, was a social studies teacher at a conventional large high school before his internship at our school. He said he really enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers and "see the flow of ideas that collaboration coalesces into a more effective lesson." He found the amount of time we spent on developing the lesson and level of detail in our planning to be "staggering." He concluded that what he got out of the collaboration was process--a process he wants to use when he becomes a principal. His idea is to start by asking each department to do a departmental lesson study each year and share them with others in the school to promote more interdisciplinary work. Meanwhile, he was enthusiastically received when he presented our work to the other students in his Bank Street program.

This was a great project to do with student teachers because it gave them the chance to roll up their sleeves and plan a lesson as equal partners--a role neither Stephanie nor Erin were shy about playing. We modeled collaborative planning and we modeled careful attention to detail--for instance, attention to the order in which tasks are assigned to students and to whether work is best done individually, in small group or whole class.

Personally, as a relatively new teacher who is stronger teaching history than literature, I benefited enormously from this exercise. Although Noreen has always been generous with her time and advice, the formality of the exercise helped me get exactly what I needed from her to do a better job teaching a piece of literature--a soup to nuts, blow by blow analysis of what to do when and how.

Not only do we now have a perfect gem of a unit to teach next year. I also believe I've learned some strategies that are generalizable to other activities and units. For instance, the use of simple focusing questions for students consider as they read the story, versus more complex questions to explore afterwards is an approach I will use again. Likewise, limiting whole class discussion to areas where there are diverging opinions is a sound strategy to balance whole class and small group work. I’m now more sensitive to the need to vary the size of groups, keeping them smaller for activities that involve close reading of a text. Also, I think I am now much more comfortable exploring literary technique.

Nearly a year after we completed this lesson study, Noreen and I met this week to plan another activity and found ourselves applying the lessons we had learned from the “Frankie Mae” study.

Policy Implications

The Teaching Gap makes a strong case for the urgency of teachers taking ownership over the process of improving teaching. It is hard to imagine how teachers could do this without common meeting time during the school day. The question is what is the best use of this time. At my school we have far more common meeting time than most teachers enjoy, but we use most of it for making budgeting, personnel and scheduling decisions, developing our assessment system, conducting peer evaluations and doing student case management. We also develop and revise curriculum but much of that is done alone at home. Sharing and jointly revising curriculum is a hasty ad hoc process, particularly in recent years, when an inordinate amount of time has been spent responding to the state education department's new testing program which threatens our performance-based assessment system. Many of us our deeply frustrated that for all the time we spend with wonderful colleagues, we don't spend enough time discussing what we do in class. Sometimes it's a case of "water water everywhere and not a drop to drink."

Is the lesson study the only way or the best way to build reflection on classroom practice into teacher meeting time? Perhaps not, but based on our experience, it is worth experimenting with. Is an approach so grounded in the culture of Japanese schools transplantable? Yes, but in a flexible way. It's a case where adaptation not replication is called for. It worked as well as it did in our school because we made changes where we had to accommodate our scheduling and other needs.

Is the lesson study an approach that district and state policy makers will embrace, given their responsibilities for overseeing hundreds of schools, thousands or millions of students--their need to solve massive problems like the shortage of certified teachers and to “put out fires,” to respond to the scandals that hit the newspapers. Is it politically viable to get the support necessary to do something as incremental as engage teachers in lesson studies? How can policy makers be convinced that lasting, meaningful school reform is more likely to happen by teachers slowly changing schools than by districts and states quickly making changes--a new testing system most typically--that affect every student everywhere? How do we convince policy makers that they would do less harm and maybe even some good if they stepped aside and supported `teachers making reform?


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