Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

06.12.15Tales of the Unexpected: Caprock High’s Beth Brannon

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Recently, I watched footage of some of Amarillo (TX) ISD’s top teachers, including Beth Brannon, an English teacher at Caprock High.

Beth’s teaching was fascinating and wonderful—full of deftly applied examples of the techniques my team and I study and discuss in Teach Like a Champion workshops, but also totally unique…and sometimes quite unexpected.

In my next post I’ll share a short video of her teaching and take you for a guided tour of it. But first I want to reflect on the idea of “unexpectedness” more broadly.  Classrooms are unpredictable places—complex social units in which  dozens of unpredictable people engage together to explore things they do not yet know—and therefore do not yet know how they will react to.

And each classroom is different: different teacher; different mix of students; different class and school culture; different day; different week; different slant of sunshine through smudgy windows.  And yet someone is always there to tell you what students “will” or “won’t” or “do” and “don’t” do.  Students will feel humiliated if you call on them when they haven’t raised their hands, someone summarily announced to me the other day. This is fascinating because most social science research tells us that our sense of people’s “selves” is over developed—we assume people have a fixity of  self that they are always who they are, and that this is consistent and immutable. But this belief is almost totally wrong. Who we are changes according to the situation. You are an extrovert but are shy at parties where other guests seem perhaps more formal than you are used to.  “Bad” kids turn out to be capable of immense goodness when put in a situation that believes in them and expects as much of them, or for reasons we cannot fathom at all. The goodness is just there waiting for some combination of variables to trigger it.

Behaviors are mutable, influenced by variables. And  in classrooms we teachers control an immense number thereof. If someone tells you students automatically “will” or “won’t,” they are almost assuredly wrong.

I suppose some students might  feel humiliated if you called on them when they didn’t volunteer, for example… if you didn’t explain to them why you sometimes did that and that the reasons were borne out of your respect for and faith in them;  if it didn’t also happen to everyone else in the room sometimes, and if you didn’t make the tone supportive or the question real and your inquiry genuine. But of course you can do those things.

Anyway, one of the most wonderful things about teaching is getting to see “existence proof”—the moment when some teacher pulls off what you had never seen done, and sometimes what you weren’t sure would work out.

Which brings me to Beth.  When you watch the tape, you will see her pull off some things with her 10th graders that are a bit unexpected.  She uses a ton of Call and Response, for example, which can be tricky with high school students in some situations. Some people might say, “Oh, high school students don’t respond to it,” but that’s not the case in Beth’s classroom, where they are happily and productively engaged by it without even seeming to notice it’s there. Voila. Existence proof.

You’ll also see her ask her 10th graders to essentially transition to “the carpet”—without calling it that or even having a carpet, she moves them up front to sit on the floor for instruction in a way that vaguely recalls the multicolored carpets of elementary classrooms. And yet in Beth’s hands, it’s perfectly natural, perfectly mature. It doesn’t feel strange or out of place.  She manages the variables and she pulls it off. There is not much that a great teacher cannot pull off.

Anyway, her video is in the next post with a play-by-play. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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