Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

06.12.23Casting a Spell: Ben Esser studies Maca Torres & Maria Jose de Vicente’s classroom magic

Ben Esser has featured on the TLAC blog and in TLAC books as a teacher. He’s since moved to Chile where he supports and coaches colleagues. He recently shared this reflection on the culture-building magic of his colleagues, Maca Torres and Maria Jose de Vicente.

Unimaginable as it may be in the northern hemisphere, in South America the school year just started, and with that comes the focus on establishing strong classroom culture. One of the most challenging things about helping teachers hone their classroom management is that many of their best colleagues often seem to be magical in their ability to get students to follow their directions while making a classroom feel warm and focused.

Maca Torres and Maria Jose de Vicente at Colegio Villa Maria in Santiago de Chile are two such teachers. They cast a spell on their second graders via moments that are so subtle you might miss them. If not for this video…

At the start, Maca is walking to the left side of the screen to get to a spot where she can easily see every student, and more importantly be seen looking while Maria Jose gives careful What to Do directions. I place my marker on my desk, just like Lucy and Aurora, and then please bring your eyes here because we are going to give the directions for this game. [“Dejo el plumón sobre mi mesa, así como está la Luci y la Aurora y van a mirar para acá.] The task is clear and observable and she starts narrating right away students who have done it. She pantomimes putting the whiteboard marker down, points to Lucy’s desk as a reminder of what to do, then points to her own eyes, reinforcing that she’s looking for them to follow her directions. Because she does this all the time, she is calm- serene.

I love what she says (and doesn’t say) next even more. First, she stops talking, stops circulating and positions herself at the front of the room. After a few seconds, she says, “I’m missing a few pair of eyes,” [Me faltan ojitos,] she pauses again and looks, then “Markers on your table; we aren’t drawing.” As she pauses, even the rustling in the room stops. When she says, “I’m missing two pairs of eyes,” [Me falta dos niñitas que estén mirando”] a second time, her tone remains warm and inviting, as if she cannot imagine that the last two girls will fail to meet this expectation.

Her tone invites; her anonymous individual feedback nudges; her confidence ensures. There’s a process to her magic– the what to do cycle*—but she combines it with a positive tone and confidence and so wins with a smile. That is the really hard part of this to replicate, but there’s no better place to start than by watching a master at work.

I’d like to say slightly more about what Maca does while Maria Jose casts her spell. It is as important to notice what she doesn’t do as what she does. Maca switches to a formal posture and does not move or say a word. She is modeling how every child should be paying attention. There are a million other things a teacher might be doing while Maria Jose is narrating and correcting. Maca could be writing on the board. She could be answering one of the million darling little questions 8 year olds want to ask their teachers every moment of the day. Instead, Maca stands up/squares up and communicates clearly: I look forward to giving you directions as soon as I have everyone with me.

Below is shot of Maca’s stand up/square up side by side with her much more informal posture a moment later as she begins instruction:

It’s also a valuable contrast with the inviting, informal register she uses to explain the difference between common and proper nouns in this second clip:

Here were two other things from this second clip that I particularly loved:

  • In less than 90 seconds, Maria Jose and Maca explain the academic task, clarify the format of student work, and check for understanding. Beginning teachers are often skeptical of the value of scripting and practicing really precise directions- isn’t this a waste of time? No, a waste of time is angrily lecturing 8 year olds when they haven’t done what you wanted because your directions weren’t clear. Because Maria Jose and Maca give directions this precise all the time, their classroom is joyful, and they take much less time repeating or clarifying.
  • Part of the trick with really precise directions is that they should have a purpose. Maria Jose interjects a few seconds in to point out which side of the white board girls should use because, of course, we’d like to see beautiful handwriting. The message: even in the midst of using our white boards, we use our best handwriting. If every girl’s answer is the same size, in the same place, with neat handwriting, the mental load on Maria Jose and Maca is much less as they check each board. Format matters.

*The components of the What to Do cycle are:

  • What To Do Directions: Give clear, concrete, observable directions for the task you want students to do.
  • Be Seen Looking: Look deliberately for follow through after your directions. Make sure that students see you looking so they know it matters to you and they know you’ll notice whether they do it.
  • Narrate the Positive: Acknowledge (but don’t praise) students as they begin to do it: “Thanks, Chris, for getting started right away. Thanks Jasmine.”
  • Correct When Necessary: Use the Least Invasive form of correction such as Positive Group Correction (Make sure your pencil is moving) or Anonymous Individual Correction (Still need two see two students writing).

Transcript to Video 1:

María José: Dejo el plumón sobre mi mesa, así como está la Luci y la Aurora y van a mirar para acá porque vamos a dar las instrucciones de este juego. (I place my marker on my desk, just like Lucy and Aurora, and then please bring your eyes here because we are going to give the directions for this game.)

(Breve pausa)

No todas me están mirando. Me faltan ojitos. El lápiz, o sea perdón, el plumón está sobre la mesa. No estamos rayando. Me falta dos niñitas que estén mirando. (Not every eye is on me. I’m missing some eyes. Markers on your table; we aren’t drawing. I am missing two girls’ eyes.)

Transcript to Video 2:

Macarena Torres: Aparece una oración aquí y ustedes tienen que identificar, identificar el sustantivo propio, es decir, esa palabra que es especifica que nombra a una persona, un país, una ciudad, y que va con mayúscula ahí tienen una pista bien grande, la mayúscula. ¿Hay alguna pregunta? ¿Se entendió lo que vamos a hacer?

(On the board, a sentence will appear, and you will need to identify the proper noun– which is to say, the specific word which names a person, a country, a city…and which will have a capital letter– there’s a big hint. Are there any questions?)

María José de Vicente: Si, miss Maca y hay que escribirlo. (Yes, Miss Maca, we need to write the word.)

Macarena Torres: Aa eso sí.

María José de Vicente: Lo encuentro, lo busco en la oración y en silencio solita lo escribo en mi pizarrita. (I’ll look for the word in the sentence, and then silently and independently write it on my little white board.)

Macarena Torres: Y escribo solamente esa palabra, una palabra es la que debo buscar. (I write only that one word, the one word I was looking for.)

María José de Vicente: Y vamos a usar esta parte de la pizarra, la que tiene rieles, para que escriban con letra preciosa. (And we’ll use this part of the white board, with lines, so that we write with beautiful handwriting.)

Macarena Torres: Haber me repite lo que vamos a hacer, para ver si se entendió. ¿Quién entendió lo que vamos a hacer? Súper. Ana, ¿qué vamos a hacer? Espérame, espérame un poquito, todos miramos a Ana para verificar si comprendimos. (Let’s repeat so we can see that we understood. Who gets what we’re going to do? Ana, what are we going to do? Wait a bit, everyone’s eyes on Ana to check that we understand.)

Ana: Va a aparecer una oración, tenemos que leerla y encontrar el sustantivo propio y escribirlo en la pizarra. (A sentence will appear, and we need to read it and find the proper noun and write it on our whiteboards.)

Macarena Torres: Excelente. Y vamos a hacer una cosa, la que ya está lista se va a tocar la nariz, la que ya lo escribió se va a tocar la nariz, y así yo voy a saber q esta lista. ¿ya? Listo, comenzamos. Todos los ojitos acá para leer la oración en la mente y buscar sustantivos propios.

(Excellent, And we are going to do one more thing, which is that when you are ready, touch your nose, so that we know you are ready. Ok, ready, let’s begin. All eyes here in order to read the sentence in your mind and look for the proper nouns.)

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