Guest Blog: Randall Lahann Back In The Classroom

How do instructors in teacher prep programs “keep their chops?” That is, how do they stay current on how it feels to actually teach children, instead of adults? A week ago, MTR’s Randall Lahann spent his vacation week teaching math in a low-performing Boston Public School. It was through a program called the Sontag Prize. The goal is to both help BPS kids get extra instruction during a vacation week, and to help the district cultivate new teachers and leaders.

A sidebar. Randall is dad of 2 young kids, like Orin and me. We used to have balance in our little office: 3 guys with kids, 3 women without kids, and, well, Colin. Anyway, Erica recently moved to New Orleans to do some new MATCH work there. So our office vibe has shifted. The proportion of office talk about kids is up. I'm just gonna come right out and say it: we're comparing notes about potty training (desperate for tips!). I hope we're not violating any labor laws.

Back to teaching. Randall kept a diary of his week in the classroom.

* * * * Randall writes:

The Sontag Prize, funded by the Lynch Foundation, places teachers in Boston Public Schools during February and April breaks. It was named for this guy. Teachers lead “Acceleration Academies”—full days of either Math or English with the same students for one week. Students opt-in to the program, but are rewarded with gift certificates and prize drawings.

Teacher selection is competitive—something like 150 slots for over 1000 applications. About half of the teachers are from Boston. Teachers are well compensated—cash, as well as a lot of surprise gifts along the way.

Pre-Teaching: Two days of training at Harvard. I have to admit, when there is an urgent, specific, and complex task at hand that has me excited but nervous, I’m not a huge fan of "team building", which was a decent chunk of the training. I was lucky in that one of Sontag teachers on my team of 6 actually works at our particular school full-time. She was able to answer a lot of questions about culture, supplies, etc – and provided a lot of help throughout the week, too.

At the trainings I found out I was at the same school as Ryan Kelly—7th grade math teacher at Roxbury Prep (he also helps out our teacher prep program with Saturday coaching). We were kindred spirits in a lot of ways. Simplest example: of the six teachers at our school, we were the only ones who didn’t teach in jeans.

Day 1:

My teaching experience with Teach For America and elsewhere was never in a "No Excuses" charter school. I was more used to traditional high-poverty schools like this one. Back then, as a teacher, I generally had the No Excuses idea, but I hadn’t ever really thought about it has a consistent philosophy of teaching. It was just a hodgepodge of tricks that I’d kind of developed along the way.

I was treating this weeklong opportunity as a chance to practice all the moves that I'd been coaching about for the past 2 and half years--many of which I'd never used myself.

I introduced myself. Kids weren’t looking at me…doodling…general low-level non-compliance. In my previous life? I would have proximity-controlled and jacked up the J-factor…essentially tried to buy their attention with a stand-up comedy act. That generally worked decently, as I recall, but definitely had a learning-time cost.

But this time, different story. I was using MTR teacher moves left and right – “John, I Need” and “I Need Two More Students Writing Answers..." -- and they worked! From the moment I started in front of the class, I immediately sensed that I was teaching differently than I had before I became a full-time coach of teachers. It was surreal—like that scene in The Long Good Night when Geena Davis starts throwing knives and is all WTF because she doesn’t know she used to be a secret agent. I’d planned on doing all the MTR moves during the week, but I really thought I’d have to consciously implement them. Instead, they just started happening. And it was awesome.

I introduced a stripped-down code of conduct: incentives (school supplies at end of week) for good effort; parent phone calls (both to praise and critique if needed); and sending a student to the principal’s office.

The challenge? From a kid's point of view, it was 5.5 hours per day of ALL MATH. (On a couple days we were assigned some computer lab time. Truth? Kids thought the software was lame, and I’d have to agree, but I didn't mind the personal "recovery" time).

What to work on? In theory, I was given (A-Net) data on my 8 students. In truth, the data wasn’t precise enough to use. Half the time I taught an objective that kids were supposed to be struggling with – and they already knew it. Yay for Do-Now’s. Not really the role they’re supposed to play, but they functioned as my DoITeachThisOrNot Assessments. If students aced a Do Now, I gave them another Do Now scheduled for later in the day.

I chopped up the day into 3 parts.

1. First hour: data exploration task. The students would mess around with NBA basketball stats to try to come up with formulas to determine who the MVP of a given team would be. It was still the lesson structure of I do/We do/You do. Yet there was less guidance.

I wanted kids making a lot of errors -– and then correcting them as the week went on, to see why their formulas were broken, and understand how the equations/stats were working. Overall, it went pretty well. But it took about 50% longer than I anticipated. There was a lot of back-filling about the most basic aspects of fractions and percents that I hadn’t anticipated.

I suppose that’s one nice thing about our teacher residency: everyone does weekly tutoring work with 4th graders in a BPS turnaround school. As a result, the trainees get to see the dire situation of many Boston students in the fundamentals of arithmetic, and therefore can probably better anticipate the middle and high school curricular needs of kids who come from those environments.

2. For three hours I did "standard" lessons -- topics like median, mean, etc. The lessons themselves were modified versions of ones we’ve used in our charter school's Saturday Academy. As with the classroom management moves, I found myself with a new teacher voice. There’s definitely a Math teacher cadence in MTR—at its best it means awesome ratio (kid effort to teacher effort), and constant Checks For Understanding. For those three hours, that's how I sounded too--not like my old teacher self, but like the MTR trainees I coach.

The biggest instructional move I found myself doing more of? "Volleyball," in all its derivations. Ie: “Michael, I need you listening to Orin so that you’re ready to respond to his answer when I call on you.” That sort of thing.

3. I used the last hour of the day to play a couple games and then debrief them at the end. Factoring/probability. No I do/We Do, just a You Do followed by a You Did What? Both this and the NBA business were much closer to how I ran my math classrooms in the past, but with the (huge) added boost that I did them with Lee Canter and Doug Lemov proactive and reactive moves interspersed. Super clear directions…No opt out…Do it agains, etc.

At the end of Day 1, I’d held the kids to 100%. Some redirections hadn’t felt entirely natural to me (like for "on-task shout-outs" -- kid says something relevant but didn't raise her hand). But pretty much landed all the moves. And I was totally fascinated by the idea that I now had automatic moves I didn’t consciously know about. I was through-the-roof happy with all we'd accomplished; the kids learned a lot and were proud of it.

Hubris. You’ll see my comeuppance on Day 2 in the next blog.

* * * *

Randall's diary reminded me of a blog I wrote last year about a Towson State professor, Shaun Johnson, who sought out a summer teaching experience with "real" 4th graders.

Shaun wrote:

[I]n teacher education, my mentors and I both encouraged undergraduates to use inquiry, cooperative learning, and other so-called “hands-on” strategies. Fine.

But these students were having none of it. I had to strip the activities down to their essence. That is, rather than actually implementing centers or a Jigsaw, I spent the first few weeks simply rehearsing rotations, getting in and out of groups, and reading directions.

I like the idea of teacher prep faculty "refreshing" themselves on the act of teaching children. The dean of U Michigan Ed School teaches math to kids quite frequently.