The Power of the (Informal) Peer Observation

A powerful professional development tool exists that may be underutilized in your school: Peer observations. That is, the practice of teachers observing teachers with the goal of improving their own teaching.

When I started a new teaching position mid-year, peer observation played a crucial role in my integration because it gave me insight into the school culture. Through the simple act of sitting in a colleague’s classroom and taking notes (well, six different classrooms with six different colleagues), I was able to see a range of teaching styles and classroom management techniques. I got a clearer glimpse of my students’ daily experience, and I saw new opportunities for collaboration across disciplines.

Here is a simple process that educators can use to refine their own teaching practices and engage in free professional development during the school week:

  1. Form a question or focus for your observation. What do you want to get out of this observation?
  2. As a colleague if you can sit in on their class; branch out to different departments if possible. If they say yes, then pick a time and agree on protocols.
  3. Be a fly on the wall and take notes (doc): What classroom management strategies do you notice? How does your colleague organize his/her lessons? How are they using technology in the classroom? What do they do to motivate students? Note: Try sitting with your back to groups of students; they may be more authentic when they don’t feel observed. 
  4. Thank your colleague.
  5. Keep it confidential: Don’t discuss your colleague’s lesson with others.
  6. Reflect & plan: What’s something new that you saw that you’d like to try out in your classroom?
  7. Try something new in your classroom! Let your colleague know what tool or strategy you learned from them.
  8. If your colleague wants your feedback, offer it – but with caution. Remember that you observed one lesson, on one day, in one school year. Avoid offering “quick fix” solutions and avoid passing judgments.

What administrators can do facilitate peer-to-peer learning:

  1. Create time. Teachers can’t observe their peers if they only have breaks in their schedules for lunch.
  2. Make it voluntary and separate from evaluation: Teachers need to be able to drive their own learning. Teachers may see mandates to observe their peers as an example of unwelcome micromanaging or as “just one more thing” that they need to do. And as Peter DeWitt observes, teachers and observers may be less likely to be honest when peer evaluations are high stakes.
  3. Work to create a culture of collaboration. Teachers won’t feel comfortable inviting peers into their classrooms if they don’t trust each other.
  4. Consider formalizing peer observations if your school has a strong culture of collaboration and trust.

Additional Resources

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Furniture in the Collaborative Classroom: Desks with wheels may be overrated

I loved the idea of desks with wheels. My lessons usually involve some combination of partner work, small-group work, whole-class discussion, inner circle/outer circle discussions, independent work. Movable desks seemed to make sense for this kind of collaborative practice.

And I have noticed  a few distinct benefits:

  • It can be fun to push oneself around in one of these desks
  • It’s very easy to push the desks around the classroom (no heavy lifting required)
  • Scratches on the floor are significantly less likely to appear
  • Students can more fluidly shift between partners
  • It’s easier for students to turn around to see what’s happening in different parts of the room.

With that said, I can’t say that this new desk necessarily makes collaboration easier for my students — particularly since they are already so adept at team work.

An example of collaborative work on a day when we’re working in a room with regular chairs and tables: Students select a poem to analyze, then pair with someone who selected the same poem. I hear analysis building and new insights in different groups, so pairs group with other pairs. Students want to keep this up, so before long, I have two large groups on opposite sides of the classroom discussing their poem and thinking about how they’d read it out loud. Students pull up chairs, some stand, some sit on desks. During this lesson, it occurred to me that standing tables and couches would be nice additions to the classroom. Desks with wheels would get in our way.

Classroom furniture should reflect our pedagogical values. I do see the potential benefits of Node chairs, but it seems like a stretch to dub them “real world” or “21st century.”

A few issues that I’ve noticed:

  • A student says “I feel like I’m trapped in this desk.” This is still a traditional desk in many ways.
  • A student says “it’s really hard to write on this desk. Can we go into a different room?” The writing space is rather small. This can cause discomfort when students need to write an exam. A piece of chart paper spread out over four desks (makeshift conference table) for collaborative writing is also out of the question because there are  awkward gaps and protrusions that form when the desks are pushed together.
  • Students wheel around easily. However, there’s something to be said for asking students to move their actual bodies (stretch their legs) to traverse the classroom.
  • Detachable chairs are convenient for Socratic seminars and fishbowl discussions.
  • Students are still sitting, and sitting in the same way. It’s uncomfortable for students to stand and write on these desks (they’re too low). It’s inadvisable to sit on top of them.
  • A friend who works at a different school notes: “We have these chairs too, and I often see them in rows.”

Given the choice between the metal cages that are traditional student desks and the Node desk, I’d opt for Node. However, a better solution might be a learning space filled with a variety of furniture that teachers can use to suit a variety of purposes: couches and bean bag chairs for independent reading and informal discussions; a large seminar table with ergonomic chairs for more formal discussions; small tables chairs for collaborative work, etc.

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Interrogating Language and Power with Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”

Teachers can use the following cooperative learning activity to ask students to think critically about language and power, and to reflect on their own beliefs about language.


Materials needed: Chart paper, large classroom space, multi-colored markers that are dark enough to be read from a distance.


  • Write one question at the top of each piece of chart paper. Then, draw a t-chart below the question with “Evidence” on one side and “Analysis” on the other side:
    • How would Amy Tan argue that language can be used to discriminate?
    • What seems to be Tan’s purpose in writing this text? What is she trying to show her readers?
    • What is Tan showing her reader about language and power?
    • Something that intrigued, confused, or surprised me.
  • Post chart paper with questions around the classroom.
  • Post these questions in a list on a whiteboard for students to see when they walk in the classroom.
  • **Alternative: If students are already experienced at making their own strong text-based questions, teachers can ask students to generate questions that will go on the pieces of chart paper.

Note: Teachers with large classes should create duplicates of these questions on pieces of chart paper. There should be no more than 3-4 students per piece of chart paper, so if a teacher has a class with 25 students, he/she will need 2 sets of these questions.


  1. Students complete Mother Tongue anticipation guide.
  2. Lead a brief discussion in which students compare their responses.
  3. Students independently read Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” with the focus questions (above) displayed. Students should gather evidence, and should write in their annotations how they would respond to the questions.
  4. Establish expectations: Everyone participates equally, stay with your group generate lots of new ideas, and keep voices low.
  5. Number students 1-4 (one number for each piece of chart paper).
  6. Distribute one marker to each group. Each group should get a different color marker.
  7. Assign one group to each piece of chart paper.
  8. Students work with their group to read and respond to the question. They should provide quotes with page numbers and analysis. Only the person holding the marker is writing.
  9. After 3-5 minutes have passed, ask students to give the marker to someone in their group who has not yet written and rotate clockwise to the next question. Emphasize that students need to add new insights — this task will get harder as the lesson progresses. It’s important that students avoid simply repeating what other groups have said. Students can build on analysis by examining word choices, and adding other thinking.
  10. Students work with their group to read and respond to the question, and build on the previous group’s evidence and analysis. Only the person holding the marker is writing.
  11. Repeat until students have visited each piece of chart paper.
  12. Once students are at the last piece of chart paper, ask students to give marker to someone in group who has not yet written. That student is responsible for presenting the chart paper to the class. Optional: Teachers can ask students to share out a good piece of evidence or analysis that another group posted.
  13. Students return to their original question and compose a strong, arguable claim that answers their focus question and that is based on evidence that they collected.
  14. Anticipation Guide: Students complete the rest of their anticipation guides.
  15. Whole-class discussion: Lead a whole class discussion in which students discuss if/how their beliefs changed.

Tip: Offer clear directions and expectations before students begin this activity.

Outcomes: Students should select key scenes in “Mother Tongue” to analyze such as the stockbroker interaction, and Tan’s discussion of various “Englishes” that she uses for various settings. They should notice that language-based discrimination has the potential to harm people both financially and physically. In this story, Tan’s mother isn’t taken seriously by the stock broker, and her concerns are not addressed appropriately in a medical setting. Ironically, Tan as a child is able to command more power than her mother simply because Tan uses Standard American English more successfully. Tan’s mother’s English is dismissed as “broken,” even though she reads texts in English, speaks in English, and is able to successfully navigate her environment. Tan sees beauty in her mother’s language, and doesn’t see it as a deficit.

Teachers should also guide students to begin thinking about strategies that native speakers use to subtly discriminate. Teachers can also engage students in critical conversations fluency (what counts as fluent?), and about Englishes that are valued — and not not valued — in school. Ultimately, students should reflect on their own beliefs about language, terms like “broken English,” and ways of speaking.

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Reflections on being a student

Scenario: An instructor at a professional development conference provides each table with a jar full of buttons and a slip of paper with instructions. This is an exercise designed to illustrate a number of things: That inquiry-based learning can be used to draw out our students’ uniqueness (obviously each group is going to come up with something different); that this type of learning can come in many forms (every group has a slightly different task — some are more open-ended than others); that inquiry-based learning requires students to wonder.

It’s a fine exercise. We decide that we’re going to make a flower. Someone makes an abstract bee out of black and yellow buttons; another uses white buttons to form a cloud. Still, I’m annoyed that I have to “wonder” about what I can do with all of the buttons. I’m surrounded by 20 other education professionals from around Europe, and I’d rather spend this time sharing resources and strategies with them in a coffee-fueled brainstorming session.

During the “whole-class reflection,” the instructor references one session in which a group of teachers left the buttons in their jar and didn’t bother making anything. “What does this tell us about those students?” she asks.

The correct answer is that these students clearly lacked curiosity. Another answer, though, is that it’s really okay to not want to “wonder” about buttons; it’s possible that these seemingly lazy conference participants were simply braver than the rest of us who chose to dutifully play along.

My takeaway: Sometimes students genuinely need intellectual curiosity, and we need to find ways to teach this. However, sometimes inquiry-based learning doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to because our questions aren’t meaningful for our students.

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Reflections on Co-Teaching

I get to co-teach for the first time in my professional life as an educator in my new position at the International School of Düsseldorf. And. I. Love. It. I work with other educators in sciences, math, and humanities to teach an interdisciplinary course — but that’s not what I’m thinking about currently. Rather, I’m reflecting on a co-taught lesson that was completely voluntary. A colleague and I planned and implemented this lesson together because 1) Our schedules lined up, and 2) We saw an opportunity to help our students develop their writing skills through a joint writing workshop session.

What I liked: I got to see how another teacher plans and implements lessons; It’s helpful to have two teachers circulating around the room while students analyze, write, and revise; My students got to work with new peers and learn from these new voices.

The process:

  • (Work in a highly collaborative environment, preferably with desks in the same office so that you see colleagues often)
  • Decide on a day of instruction, objectives, and what you’ll teach prior to the lesson
  • Plan the lesson and student groupings
  • Assemble materials
  • Teach

I know that co-teaching, like any form of lesson implementation, isn’t always successful. On those occasions when a co-taught lesson falls on its face, however, I imagine that it’s nice to have someone else who was there so that you can reflect and figure out how to make improvements as a team.

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Checklists to Promote Learning (and Independence):

Here are a few checklists that I use to help students self-edit writing and engage in peer review activities. I like that these tools make expectations for writing and peer review clearer; checklists are also a great way put responsibility for self-critique into the hands of students.

Basic Editing Checklist: I usually fill this checklist with common writing mistakes that I see in my classes. In other words, that the checklist will look different for each group of students.

Editing Checklist for Poem Explication: Students can use this checklist to self-assess and ensure that they’ve met assignment requirements. I also use this during peer review activities (see rubric on the second page that I use to assess the peer reviewer). If students are unfamiliar with peer review, this resource helps them to provide specific feedback. As students get more advanced — that is, when they’ve internalized the checklist — they’re able to give higher-quality feedback during peer review on their own.

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What if teachers had more time?

I’ve been wondering: what would happen if educators had the time, space, and incentive to write outstanding lessons, do quality action research, and submit their work to peer reviewed journals? As it turns out, novice teachers might benefit the most from time set aside to write curriculum and connect with colleagues (Allen 2013).

Regardless of how well preservice programs prepare teachers, demands of the induction years leave little time for reflection and collaboration around issues that impact student learning. The Met Life Survey of the American Teacher (2009) found that the average teacher spends only 2.7 hours a week in structured collaboration with other teachers. In contrast, teachers in high-performing countries on the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) typically have more than 10 hours a week to work with colleagues, teach significantly fewer hours a week, and participate in up to 100 hours of professional development each year (McKinsey, 2007; Tucker, 2011). While most teachers have 45 minutes per day or 225 minutes (3.75 hrs) per week set aside for planning, duties such as meetings, parent contact, and paperwork quickly consume this allotment and more.

Teachers feel frustrated and ineffective when they don’t have time to create quality work, and these feelings of inadequacy may lead to burnout. Perhaps, then, more teacher education programs should consider emulating Trinity University’s Summer Curriculum Writing Institute (SCWI), a program that invites graduates to return during the summer to design curriculum for an entire week with other MATs. According to a 2013 Teacher Education Quarterly article, this ongoing professional support for Trinity MAT graduates contributed to lower teacher attrition rates.

A few quotes from students:

As a first-year teacher, I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. There was no time to plan for more than the next day. This week has given me the time I needed to pull back and think about the curriculum and my students and their needs. It has been like a vacation for the mind. (Participant, 2008)

After a stressful and often overwhelming year, it became easy to lose sight of my own dreams and hopes when I decided to teach. This week has restored my energy and refocused me around high expectations and best practices for teaching. (Participant 2007)

There were certainly limits to this study. As Allen points out, the students discussed in the study self-selected to attend Trinity’s summer institute; it’s also unclear how universities might sustain ongoing professional development programs, or keep track of all graduates who may live across the United States (2013).  However, are several interesting points to consider:

  • High-quality induction programs are associated with lower teacher attrition rates. In particular, novice teachers need opportunities to learn from well-matched mentors.
  • Teacher education programs do a service to graduates when they offer continuing support, and provide opportunities for students to expand their professional networks.
  • Schools will benefit if teachers have a desire to return year after year, and if they are becoming better teachers with each school session.
  • Teachers crave sustained periods of time to do their work, particularly in the early years of teaching. Short bursts of time aren’t cutting it.

I’m wondering: How can teacher education programs get better at supporting their graduates? How can individual school districts get better at providing time and support for educators to do high-quality work?

Works Cited
Allen, L. V. Z. (2013). The impact of induction support on teacher development, teacher retention, and the teacher quality issue. Teacher Education Quarterly, 40(3), 75-92.

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Thinking Out Loud: What if Universities Harnessed the Power of K-12 Teachers?

Student bodies at universities are more diverse than ever. Students who fill lecture halls increasingly come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and have a variety of learning needs. Even so, many universities decline to question the idea that a Ph.D. from an ivy and a book publication somehow makes a person qualified to lead a class, and continue many harmful practices that marginalize vulnerable students.

Universities around the U.S. could address high drop-out rates by tapping into the pedagogical expertise of innovative secondary educators and educational coaches who have been helping “diverse” students for years. However, I’m guessing that the following might function as barriers to progress:

  • The low-status of teachers and teaching
  • The belief that content knowledge is more important than an understanding of how learning works and an understanding of how to motivate learners
  • The belief that a book publication is the best indicator that someone has content knowledge
  • A failure to critically examine the ways in which professors (who predominantly come from privileged backgrounds) might need assistance in understanding, connecting with, and generally meeting the needs of students with less privileged backgrounds
  • A willingness to blame adolescents, iphones, and secondary educators for dropout rates and lack of student engagement

On a related note:

Dear Professors: Stop Lecturing. Now.

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Wish List: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

I regret that I haven’t had the chance to teach Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a labyrinthine text rich in political, historical and social meaning. During a graduate seminar, I co-planned and delivered a unit on Conrad’s novella – but I don’t need to tell you that a graduate seminar and high school classroom have a few differences.

Here is a rough outline of a process that would need to take place over a few weeks, and not a few days. This basic outline would need to change according to my students’ needs:

Teaching tool: Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Edition, 2005)

  1. I have a unit on postcolonial theory that I would teach first so that students are familiar with this concept.
  2. Closely read and analyze the novella. Students generate text-based questions (as well as larger questions) that we attempt to answer in class. We’d keep a running list of questions on a board, and try to make connections to postcolonial theory.
  3. Students read and discuss a series of excerpts from letters and articles by figures like Henry Morton Stanley, Roger Casement and King Leopold in order to enhance their understanding of the novella’s context.
  4. We could then pair segments of the novel side-by-side with letters and articles to compare and contrast.
  5. Students then raise – and discuss – a host of new questions about the implications of Conrad’s vision of Africa; about representations of Congolese natives and European middlemen; and ultimately about the logic of empire that is revealed through Heart of Darkness.

If you’ve taught this novella, I’d love to hear your ideas: How did it go? How did you make this text accessible for your students?

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Application Season is Here & “Undermatching” is Still a Problem

I teach at a rural secondary school where more than half of the students qualify for a free or reduced lunch. My students are like those at every other school: They’re caring, hard-working, and want bright futures for themselves.  Many of them excel in sports, lead community efforts, earn high scores on the SAT. Like thousands of other students from low-income districts around the U.S., however, the majority will be submitting applications to attend community colleges and state schools that are close to home — if they choose to further their education at all.

This problem is called undermatching, a phenomenon in which high-achieving, but low-income students like mine decline to apply to competitive and “elite” colleges. The social implications of undermatching are potentially dire. Students who opt to enroll in two-year colleges tend to be less likely to graduate than their four-year college going peers; those who enroll in community colleges part-time fare even worse. Furthermore, if students living in underserved communities aren’t able to get their foot in the ivy door, they will be missing out on access to important connections and opportunities that may be their best tickets to upward social mobility. Prestigious universities will continue to function as sites where class privilege is reproduced because they will primarily serve those who already have advantageous backgrounds.

What’s the Cause?

Part of this problem could rest with educators like me who haven’t done enough to connect the dots for students, and convince them of the possibilities that are open. I encouraged a few promising students  to look beyond the nearest state school with little luck this year. I shared links to newspaper articles, and college websites. I talked about application fee waivers, and showed them how they might actually save money if they got into an elite college. Amherst College, for example, boasts that all students will graduate debt-free. What kept them from applying? One very understandable explanation is that they wanted to be closer to loved ones. I also suspect that these students weren’t convinced that I was correct about their potential as applicants, or entirely convinced that attendance at an elite institution would be worth the cost of moving far away, or surrounding themselves with students whose families can afford to fork out $50k annually for tuition, room, and board.

I can’t say that I entirely blame them for their skepticism. While I’m interested in ensuring that my students look to attend colleges that truly excite them, I worry that if educators focus exclusively on funneling more low-income students into elite colleges, they will ultimately do a disservice to the students and communities that they serve by perpetuating the classist notion that “elite” colleges are truly where the “smart” people do, and should, go.

Before we address disparities in enrollment at elite colleges then, we need to re-examine our own beliefs about  “mediocre” versus “elite” colleges. If students like mine are attending less-than-prestigious universities in droves and graduating with as much ambition as any other student — then why would anyone view their degrees as average, or the colleges that they attend as mediocre? Likewise, if we know that SAT scores are more of an accurate measure of family income than of academic aptitude, and if we know that admission to an ivy league may be less the result of individual uniqueness than of carefully manufactured resumes, then why do we still look at those enrolled in ivies with awe?

As Columbia University Sociologist Shamus Khan correctly notes, “talents are costly to develop.” That is, the achievements that impress university recruiters like starting a business, producing a documentary, or perfecting an instrument through years of lessons, are out of reach for many students who may lack the time, resources, or connections to pull off before their senior year. Some students simply need opportunities for do-overs and more time for personal growth. Unfortunately, our current education system is rather unforgiving to those who deviate from linear growth trajectories. Students are expected to understand the value of school, earn good grades, not get in trouble, network with teachers (and not annoy teachers), participate in extracurriculars, and develop unique interests — all before the age of 17, regardless of their personal circumstances.

Where do we go from here?

One solution is to do nothing at all. There are those who question the merits of an ivy league education, and argue that it’s entirely possible to access various privileges associated with attendance at an ivy league without being enrolled in such an “elite” institution. Guillaume Dumas, for example, gained access to lecture halls, parties, and conferences hosted by elite schools by masquerading as an enrolled student and working part-time. Dumas is now a successful entrepreneur and questions the value of a degree.

The problem is that the odds of replicating Dumas’ impressive antics are quite slim; Dumas relied on deceptive practices that would make many of my students squirm, and he exhibited a kind of social ease that usually comes from those who are already enjoy a certain amount of privilege — ease that many of my students would need to learn through a greater diversity of social and cultural experiences. Dumas felt comfortable conversing with well-known professors, networking on campuses, and working low-end jobs. He had enough money to commute around the country, and it seems clear that he didn’t have dependents to support. What Dumas ultimately proves is that a degree may not be necessary for those who are already able to move fluidly through privileged spaces.

What should teachers do if they have students could benefit from legitimate access to professors (and writing centers and career counselors) at an elite institution? A starting point is to communicate the specific intellectual, cultural, and social value of elite universities while also acknowledging the class biases that are built into the structure of the university and its admissions processes. Teachers can also take responsibility for creating opportunities for students to showcase their leadership and research skills that will pique the interest of college admissions officers. For example, my English department created short-term, peer-tutoring positions last year when we realized that some of our middle school students needed help with discussion skills; we’re also hoping to put students in charge of our literacy initiative efforts so that students have the chance to collaborate with librarians and community members.

Teachers can also share responsibility with guidance counselors for inspiring students to apply to elite colleges. Perhaps teachers should consider inviting college representatives and alums into their classrooms if they want to change college admission patterns. After all students need to hear about possibilities from multiple voices; they need teachers who can recognize their potential and steer them towards befitting opportunities. Students can then choose a path that’s most in-line with their needs and values.

For my students not attending elite universities this year, I’m not too anxious. Some of my students attending two-year colleges will transfer successfully to four-year universities. I know that they’ll be fine — particularly those who are adept at networking, and who have already demonstrated the ability generate tremendous strength in the face of obstacles. Still, I suspect that some of their lives may be more difficult because of the choices that they’ve made. A diploma from an elite college could make it easier for them to be groomed as leaders, not just employees, in their chosen fields. A diploma from a highly-selective college could make their lives easier, because others would look at their degrees and immediately recognize the outstanding potential that they possess.

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