One of the frustrating aspects sometimes about being a teacher is that I never get to see other teachers teach. We plan together and go to trainings and conferences together and we talk all the time, at least on my team, about how we want to try new strategies or improve our instruction, but when we put our ideas into practice, we’re on our own. Having coaches from the University of Washington come into the classroom to work with us is helpful but I still am not getting to see my colleagues in action. This summer, however, we taught a one-week summer camp modeled on the Youcubed.org summer program for our incoming sixth graders. Even though we ended up with 28 students we decided to stay in one room altogether. Finally, I got to see my fellow teachers teach. It was very cool!
During one of our activities (I honestly don’t remember which one) a boy was sharing in front of the class with his group. My friend was asking the group some thinking questions. This particular boy tried to respond, made a calculation error and just froze, his face getting redder by the second. That’s happened to everyone in some setting or another and we all just cringe inside for the poor guy, right? As teachers we often want to jump in and rescue, “that’s OK, you were super close! The answer is ____. What do you think about ___?” Anything we can think of to help the child save face and recover, right? (Or at least I hope so. I fear that sometimes there are teachers who reprimand for the error or let kids just hang out there. I hope that style of teaching is dying away?) Rescuing children, though, sends the message that they can’t rescue themselves. It fundamentally takes away their power. Not our desired outcome. It was a true pleasure to watch my colleague gently ask this boy questions that allowed him to correct his answer, share a new idea and engage with her in a short math conversation in front of the whole group. It was particularly a pleasure to watch his face return to its normal color! These are some of the “sentence starters” she used:
“Well, I know you remember this, right?” And then she wrote PEMDAS on the board.
“I can see what you were thinking. I wonder how your answer would change if you put a set of parentheses in this expression?”
“Let’s try that…. Did that do what you wanted?”
Through this entire 3-5 minutes she was calm, gentle and smiling. Standing up and cheering, “Mistakes make you smarter!” works for some kids but not all. Calm acceptance of mistakes, as the daily, normal occurrences that they are, is another approach. And a good one, I think.