Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.24.15Denarius Frazier’s 100%: Subtlety and an Ounce of Prevention (Video)

denariusOne of the best clips we added to our collection this week was one of the simplest… or maybe it wasn’t that simple… just subtle. My colleague Erica Woolway describes it:

The clip shows how Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School math teacher Denarius Frazier uses the 100% tools, especially Radar and Be Seen Looking to keep students on-task and productive with the subtlest of reminders.  That of course is always the goal: prevention over cure; strive for the least invasive intervention possible to preserve time for academics.

First the clip shows Denarius bringing students back from their Do Now with clear observable “What to Do” directions, he uses a Swivel—a careful and intentional scan across the full extent of the room to make sure everyone is with him. Doing this—looking carefully and thoroughly–regularly shows students that he cares and notices whether they follow through. And the more it becomes a habit, the more likely he is to do it at times when he needs it even more—when he’s distracted, say.

Denarius makes his scan from what we call Pastore’s Perch, the corner of the room and the vantage point from which he can see the whole room easiest and with the least range of eye and head movement necessary: Simpler to see means more likely to see what’s happening in the classroom accurately- positive or otherwise.  After giving his direction he uses a super-subtle Invisible Column—a gesture that makes it look like he’s craning his neck to see around something to get a better view. Of what? Maybe Denarius really does need to see something better. Or maybe he’s just using it as a bit of pantomime to make it a bit clearer how carefully he looks to see what his students choose to do… and whether they follow through. Most students, it turns out, will do as their teacher asks when they know the teacher sees and cares. Especially when the tone is calm and steady and thoughtful, as Denarius’ is.

This tiny moment illustrates an important piece of guidance for using 100% at the high school level – using it with subtlety and finesse is especially crucial there. The least viable reminder tends to work best with students who are on the brink of adulthood.  (Generally with all students, you could say, though what’s “viable” is often a bit less visible in HS.)

We also noted that Denarius strategically places his document camera, not front-and-center where you might expect it, but in the corner of his classroom, allowing him to scan with ease and efficiency from a Pastore’s Perch-like position all class long.

And in fact, as Denarius reviews a problem at the projector, you can see him regularly looking and scanning to make sure he sees what’s going on (Radar).  Several times, he adapts a move we call the Quarterback (QB)–a scan from a crouched position. We typically see the QB used when a teacher is conferencing one-on-one with a student – he or she will look up briefly to scan the class, and return to the conversation with an individual student. We see it used expertly here at the overhead projector – a bit of writing on the projector, followed by a brief scan from the QB crouch.

Denarius begins his review by calling on a student in the front row: “I think you said something good; I don’t think everyone can hear you. Strong voice,” a good reminder for collegiate tone and volume.  In response to the answer, Denarius polls the class: “Good, snaps if you agree. What about C?” The second student to answer needs a similar reminder to use his “strong voice.”  He too responds more audibly. This is important because, as Denarius notes, the behavioral always serves the academic.  You cannot discuss thoughts and observations you cannot hear. Audible participation is a necessity.

Another a poll of the class–“Good, snaps if you agree”–results in radio silence. “Mmm, I didn’t hear any snaps. Why do you disagree?” Denarius replies. He uses a Cold Call to follow up. “Track Precious.” Precious begins but Denarius says calmly, “Sorry Precious, we’re waiting on 4.”  Students look at Precious to establish that they are listening and Denarius responds with “Thank you,” as Precious picks up her explanation. This tiny moment is textbook Firm, Calm Finesse.  Good discipline emphasizes purpose (we need to listen to Precious because her ideas matter) instead of power (when I ask you to look up here, I expect you to do it).  The use of “Thank you” signals that civility is in place, but also that the four students the class was waiting on (however briefly) have now joined in. This moment also illustrates the power of Universal Language.  He says “we’re waiting for four,” a subtle but important upgrade over, “I’m waiting.” His use of “we” language signals that reviewing student work is a shared academic endeavor and all students need to be a productive part of the group. Two other aspects of Firm, Calm Finesse are also evident throughout this whole clip – Catch it Early and Bright Face. An observer of this classroom would hardly notice that students need to sharpen their tracking or their audibility, yet he catches and briefly addresses them both.  But he does so with a calm and peaceful smile to convey warmth and caring, not to mention the belief that everything’s going to be OK.

“It’s crucial,” Denarius himself notes, “That students, especially freshmen, understand that we let nothing interfere with learning here.” He added that he likes to be especially attentive to the details and small things during the first weeks of school to build expectations and healthy habits “from the way they enter into the classroom to the way in which they respond to a question out loud.” In thinking about these details, Denarius is very explicitly thinking about the long view, he says. “This year I have the pleasure of teaching both freshman and juniors. This has equipped me with a great vantage point to see exactly where I want the freshman to be.”

To knit all of this together, these 42 seconds of teaching reveal that the tininess of Denarius’ moves, the seeming mundanity of them, is the source of their (and his) power. Keeping reminders subtle can make them steady, constant, non-emotional. It allows his 100% moves to remain in the service of academic content. Yes, he needs everyone attentive; but the goal is always the math.

Thanks to Denarius for sharing his classroom with us!

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