I learned so much today in so many contexts I don’t even know what to do with it all.
We started out by participating in a lesson as students that was video taped. An art history teacher took us through an introductory lesson. She began by speaking about how many people feel anxiety about art and reassured us that we were going to develop our understanding together and needed no previous knowledge. This honestly made me a little anxious, because I wasn’t anxious at all and was worried that that caveat from the beginning was a sign that I was supposed to be anxious and was approaching the lesson wrong. I talked myself out of that neurotic spiral relatively quickly and came to a place where I could just be present in the lesson, but definitely had a big moment of self-doubt there in the very beginning.
Her first information about the content was introducing us to what it is that an art historian does. She gave us the 5 basic tasks:
- Describe the piece of art
- Provide a proper context for the piece (historical, economic, cultural, etc)
- Analyze the piece
- Provide an interpretation of the piece
- Propose a meaning
Since we were all brand new baby art historians, we started with step 1. Not every person is going to be able to see the artwork the historian is talking about, so giving a clear, meaningful description is absolutely vital. She showed us a picture of Munch’s The Scream and asked what kinds of words we could use to describe it, and then filled the whiteboard with suggestions of a framework for describing art such as color, movement, depth, line, shape, emotion, and so on. Once we had gotten a great list, we were asked to use that vocabulary to describe a new photograph called “Rebellious Silence” by Shirin Neshat. I will put my money where my mouth is and attempt to describe it for you. The link to see it for yourself will follow.
The photo is a black and white portrait of a woman wearing a black chador (garment that covers all of her body except the face, including ears, hair, and neck) from the shoulders up with some space at the top so that her eyes are about one-third down the photo. The background is white. Her posture is square with the camera and staring straight at the viewer with her eyebrows slightly raised with an otherwise expressionless face. The chador is wrapped so that it flows diagonally out from her head creating stark, straight lines between the garment and the background that hides any aspect of the shape of her figure. On her exposed forehead and across her cheeks, nose, and chin is multiple lines of Arabic script. A band across her eyes is clear of the writing. The light is coming from her left and slightly in front that is making the left side of her face bright. In front of her is a rifle straight up and down so that the barrel begins at her forehead, cuts her face in half at the nose, and continues down and out the bottom of the picture to the stock. The gun barrel is blocking the light to the other side of her face, leaving it in shadow.
If you want to see it, here is a link to an interview with her. She’s a fascinating artist, and you’ll want to scroll down to see this picture. My hope is that you’ll know which one it is from my description, but you can also search for “Rebellious Silence” and jump right to it. Please feel free to comment on my description! Did the vision I created in your head match the photo? Where could I improve my description? I found this exercise very interesting and connected to the “noticing” that we have focused on heavily in the Exploratorium Teacher Institute. “What do you notice?” is a powerful question in many subjects, not just science.
Next, we were divided into pairs. One person would be the describer, and the other would be the artist. The goal was to have the artist re-create the piece of art based only on a verbal description. My partner wanted to be the artist, so I happily became the describer. We were given the Cezanne painting “Still Life, Pitcher and Fruit”. Here is the result:
I see a lot of places where I could have improved my description, especially in terms of size, scale, and proportions. By saying the bottle took up half the height of the painting in some way, it would have made it easier for my artist to get things more proportional. I am pretty happy with how well we communicated about how the pitcher and some of the pears looked both in terms of shape, placement, and color.
After debriefing that, we took off our student hats and put on our observer/colleague hats, started the video from the beginning, and re-experienced the entire thing while taking notes and making observations. The teacher then reflected on her observations while watching the video of her teaching, and she was super hard on herself. There was a lot of really amazing teaching and conveying of information and engagement within the group, but she focused deeply on a few missteps and used very strong negative language in her reflection. I had noticed a few things she mentioned, but at a “note for next time” level and not a “everything is wrong and bad” level. Some other things she mentioned were not anything I had noticed at all. Keep in mind she is doing this in front of the two big bosses on campus, the president of pre-K through 12 and the head of the upper school. It took some serious bravery and chutzpa to be willing to be that vulnerable and that reflective in front of not just the two big bosses but also over a dozen of her colleagues. I am so, so impressed.
After her reflection, we went around the table, and each observer was allowed to ask exactly one question that came from a place of curiosity and led to reflection and delving into the practice rather than judgement or framing it as a “here’s what you shoulda done” or “why didn’t you do XX”. We were also forbidden from starting out question with a validation or a positive comment. We just had to ask the question. Mine was about her initial caveat and what was the history of needing to do that. She said a lot of it was from parent conferences where parents would be anxious about their kids taking this class and worried about feeling or being thought stupid for not being well-versed in it.
After we all went around asking our one question (the best thing was out of the 16 or 18 questions, none of them overlapped. They were all focused on different moments or different decisions, and any that were similar built on one another rather than being redundant. It was amazing), we whipped around again with something positive to say about either the lesson or the process, and I told her how surprised I was that she tore herself apart in her initial reflection, because I noticed so many things that were indicators of skillful teaching. A few other people mirrored this sentiment, so it felt nice to end on a high note and be able to genuinely validate her practice. I mentioned the day before in our presentation that this process of being harder on ourselves in reflection than on others was a symptom of impostership, and I felt like I was seeing that in action right in front of me.
Being objective about your own practice is incredibly difficult, whether looking back in your memory or watching a video. When I was writing up the videos I took for National Board I felt like everything I did was wrong and bad and horrible, but when we watched them together at the Stanford Group, people were pointing out all kinds of things I was doing that were in alignment with the goals of what teachers should know and be able to do. I didn’t notice them, because the stuff that works disappears into the background, while the stuff that doesn’t work or feels off is a glowing neon sign blinking, “YOU SUCK!” in technicolor. I’m working on acknowledging successes, even small ones, to balance out all the negative things that I notice about myself and my work. It has helped a lot to recognize that being successful must be acknowledged as well, to help build a good foundation. Focusing on only the positive OR only the negative are both incomplete processes. One leads to false confidence, and the other to impostership. I really appreciate that the goal here is to be a mirror for one another to help see what is really happening rather than a cheerleader, coach, or critic.
That was the morning. After lunch we reconvened and did another analysis technique on the class that was taught that morning called “Selective Verbatim Transcription”. The basic concept is have a person sit in your class and do a verbatim transcription of one aspect of your class such as the questions you ask students, your responses to student remarks, the instructions you give, or some other specific category of speaking. The goal is to look for patterns of spoken communication within the context of the class. We were given transcripts of both the questions that were asked and instructions that were given during the lesson and asked to read through them and look for patterns to see if we could find 3-5 categories of communication patterns. My group divided the up by purpose or impact: provoking thought, eliciting clarification, asking “permission”, and giving instructions.
The asking “permission” category was when the teacher asked the students if she could do something, but was really telling them what she was going to do. “Can I change your suggestion to something similar but broader?” I know I do this myself when a student gives a wrong definition of something, and I’ll ask if I can modify it just a little bit or during lab activities I’ll ask if I can see their notebook or touch their lab equipment. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it’s not wrong to be polite, but it’s important to be aware of the power differential and recognizing that sometimes those questions are really commands or statements just softened up a little bit.
There’s a time and a place for that, but it happened many times while we were going through the process of developing our shared vocabulary and people’s suggestions were changed before they got on the board. For instance, my suggestion was describing the subject, and it got changed to “subject matter”. She asked if she could add the second word, and I said yes, because I didn’t feel like I could argue in that moment, but I didn’t mean the subject matter, I meant the specific dude screaming on the bridge, but I figured if she wanted to add that it must be important, and I wasn’t going to cause trouble. I bet students feel that way sometimes when I “correct” their definitions to be technically correct, but not actually what they were thinking, and then I lose the opportunity to have a deep conversation about the topic.
The other groups had wildly different ways of categorizing the different groups of questions. Some of the other possibilities included:
- Yes/No Questions
- Open Ended Qs
- Clarification Qs
- Call to Produce
- Invitation to Consider/Imagine/Think/Wonder/Ponder
- Questions that asked the student to expand or elaborate
- Questions that asked the student to narrow or refine
I’m sure we could have divided them up into dozens of other categories, but I was struck by how some of these were very similar to our divisions and other looked at it completely differently. One person counted the number of times the questions began with different phrases such as “Can/May I…?” or “What…?” or “How…?” to look for those patterns. It never even occurred to me to consider the specific words the questions started with, because I tend to focus on big picture rather than details. It’s good to be reminded that there’s an awful lot of info in the details if you put forth the effort to notice them.
The last activity we did was to take those same transcripts and use them and ONLY THEM (not allowed to refer back to our experience this time) and attempt to reverse engineer the learning objectives. We were asked to come up with two possible objectives, and everyone hit on the same two about developing a shared vocabulary around describing art and then using it to practice describing art. There were four others, one or two of which could have been pulled from the transcripts if we were asked to come up with more LO from the beginning, and two or three that were clearly communicated in a handout with instructions on it, but since that wasn’t counted as part of the spoken instructions, it wasn’t included in the transcript. Overall, I think the lesson did a great job of addressing all of the learning objectives, and I don’t think that not having all of them obvious from this Selective Verbatim Translation in any way indicates that there were problems with her communication. There’s multiple ways to convey information, and speaking is only one of them, but what you say how and when can have a bigger impact than something written on the board or on a hand-out, which is also really important to keep in mind.
After we ended the day, I took the teacher some chocolate, thanked her for her willingness to do that work, and we chatted about how much this type of reflection means to both of us. I am very grateful to have colleagues nearby who are as interested in this stuff as I am. Tomorrow we spend the morning reflecting on our practice and the areas that we want to work on, then use that to develop a rubric for those who observe us. I’ve got a few ideas, but I think I need supper and a good night’s sleep before I tackle that.
Brain is full. Belly is empty. Thinking is hard.