Looking slowly at student work together

A former high school Economics teacher and education policymaker from Singapore, Jolyn Chua recently completed her Masters in Education (Mind, Brain and Education) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has been attending Out of Eden Learn team meetings.

Water truck

“The first picture is a picture of a water supplier that runs around India. In India, they need to carry the water by these trucks, so I see this truck every day. But every time I see this truck, I see the water is leaking. I thought you can change to water and sewer services so the water won’t leak and when there is a traffic jam, still everyone can use the waters. So, I don’t understand why they don’t use the water and sewer services.”

-Out of Eden Learn student, destructionking, Chennai, India, ‘Take a Walk in Your Neighborhood’

Behind every piece of student work is the ever-changing story of a child’s personality, intellectual interests, strengths and struggles. What inspires this child to wonder? What does the child care about? What was the child working on, or trying to understand when working on this?

Inspired by the class we took recently with long-time Project Zero researcher Tina Blythe, my friend and fellow HGSE student Anjali Rodrigues and I led an hour-long Google+ Hangout to look at a piece of student work from Out of Eden Learn (OOEL). The recording of the session can be viewed here via OOEL’s Youtube channel.

Joining us were OOEL educators Anna Moutafidou, Natalie Belli and Rob Martin, who teach in Greece, the U.S. and India respectively. Liz Dawes Duraisingh, Carrie James and Sarah Sheya from the OOEL research team also participated.

We chose to look at the work of destructionking, one of Rob’s students and selected this photograph, from Footstep 3 of Learning Journey 1: Taking Neighborhood Walks. Using the Collaborative Assessment Conference, a discussion protocol designed by Steve Seidel and Project Zero colleagues, we came together to look slowly at this intriguing piece of student work.

By looking slowly and closely, our group began to notice features of the student’s work that we might otherwise have glossed over. In Step 2 of the CAC we ask ourselves: “What do you see?”

The trail of water left behind by the truck. The framing of the photograph by the student to suggest motion. The blue tarp which covers something at the far right of the photograph. …

We learned to pay attention, to suspend judgment and to resist the urge to immediately critique the work.

By looking at student work, our collective curiosity awakened. The next steps of the CAC ask: “What questions does this work raise for you? What do you think the student is working on?”

We wanted to know more about the student’s motivations, prior experiences, aesthetic sense and intellectual interests.

  • Why did the student take this photograph?
  • What does the student know about the water supply system in the city? Is this an issue that affects the student personally?
  • Does the student think that the truck is beautiful?
  • Was the student trying to figure out what works in the city, and what could be improved?
  • Was the student thinking of teaching others about everyday life in India?

We wanted to know more about the student’s living environment and classmates.

  • Where was this photograph taken?
  • How regularly does the water truck come by?
  • Do people in Chennai notice the water leaks from such trucks, and do they run out with buckets to collect the water?
  • What do the students’ classmates think about this photograph?
  • Do they experience similar issues?

And by looking together, we saw so much more than we ever could, alone. We brought each others’ minds to new places as we noticed and wondered aloud. At Step 5 of the CAC, we invited Rob to share his perspectives on the student’s work, to respond to any questions raised or share any other bits of information he felt was important. For instance, Rob shared the following:

  • “Chennai is a very large city and there is a lot of development south of the city. This is where many of the students who are in my school here live. A lot of the roads look like this, these back roads being developed.”
  • “This is an international student, she’s not native to India… I do sense frustration. I hear a lot of similar comments from my students who get frustrated with life in India and ask why life here is the way it is. They always have a lot of ideas about how they can fix things.”
  • “What I found through this particular step and the entire project is that a lot of my students don’t feel very connected to the neighborhood. I believe that a lot of my students live a very sheltered life where they go to their very nice house, to a school, and then back to the house. A goal of this project is for students to actually get out and walk around their neighborhoods. For my students, this is a very scary thing… They were nervous about going around their neighborhood so this was a good experience for them.”

Our discussion on the implications for teaching and learning flowed organically at Step 6.

  • What’s next? If we asked students to build on their work from this footstep, it would be interesting to see what they would choose to focus on.
  • Should the OOEL curriculum develop student interest in the way their neighborhood is, what it should be and what students can do to help?
  • How important are comments and feedback to learning? It seems that having an authentic audience is an important part of the OOEL experience.

One hour flew past and before we knew it, the session had to come to an end. At Step 7, we invited reflections on the experience of using the CAC to look at student work. Here’s a selection of quotes:

  • Natalie: “I think it’s rewarding to be able to share, and also to hear other perspectives of teachers, being able to build off of different thoughts. And I find it very relaxing but very deep looking… Really valuable for uncovering assumptions that we have when looking at student work… What are some of the biases that I’m going in with and what can be uncovered and revealed?”
  • Liz: “Especially for us at Project Zero, where we are trying to manage quite a big project here with lots of students, I think it’s really valuable for us to stop and go to the level of one student doing one piece of work. As a former teacher, I got excited thinking about if I had students doing this, what would it feel like to be doing OOEL form Rob, or Natalie’s perspective.”
  • Carrie: “Though I wanted to hear from Rob earlier, I appreciated that there was real value in having him speak when he did, so that we were engaging with the work in a more open way.”
  • Sheya: “I think this was a great protocol for generating our different perspectives in a really deep way. Hearing what other folks noticed in the photograph and the dialogue and in the text really sparked a lot of questions for me. I think doing this as a team was really beneficial.”
  • Rob: “Gave me a lot of things to think about as far as things I’ve not thought of, that I might ask the students now… I look at a protocol like this and I think, how an I adapt this protocol and use it with 11 or 12 year olds?”
  • Anna: “I value this protocol because it gives us the opportunity to stop and see the different thinking of our students, and to notice things we may have never noticed before.”

I was struck by the parallels between what we encourage our students to practice and hone on OOEL, with what we experienced as a group of educators through this session of close looking. One of OOEL’s learning goals is for students to ‘slow down to observe the world carefully and to listen attentively to others’. Tools such as the Dialogue Toolkit help, as Carrie James noted, by providing a set of moves, strategies and routines to promote rich online dialogue.

Similarly, our group used the CAC as a discussion protocol to slow down and look closely at student work to uncover its complexity (see Shari Tishman’s blogpost on this topic); to listen carefully to each other’s observations and questions; and to foster our curiosity to learn more about our students, and places which may not be familiar to us.

In particular, I am reminded of the words of Patricia Carini in her book “Starting Strong – A Different Look at Children, Schools, and Standards” (p. 163):

“To describe teaches me that the subject of my attention always exceeds what I can see… I learn that when I see a lot, I am still seeing only a little and partially. I learnt that when others join in, the description is always fuller than what I saw alone.”

This session demonstrated the power of educators generating ideas from a shared experience of looking and describing student work. It is one of the important ways in which we can continue to build an OOEL educator community. It was a deeply engaging, thoughtful, humbling and uplifting session for me. Look out for similar Hangouts in the fall.

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