Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Mandel Teacher Educators Go to School

By Allison Lester and Suzanne Mishkin

[This is the final article in a four-part series featuring recent graduates of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI). MTEI is a two-year journey of discovery, helping educational leaders transform their educational communities into places where teachers learn together, exploring both Jewish content and how to enrich learning for students.]

The yellow school bus rumbled as we boarded outside our hotel in Skokie, Illinois. Forty Jewish educators from across the country, leaders from a variety of educational settings, community agencies, and related organizations sat eager and excited to begin the drive. As we drove away from the hotel, leaving the conference room behind and taking our learning on the road, this was the moment “where the rubber meets the road” for us, where we took many of the practices we learned from our professional development seminars, and brought them out for field testing.

Over the course of a year and a half, we attended seminars at the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI) on developing ongoing and authentic inquiry teaching practices to support us in transforming school cultures into ones that are rich in inquiry and Jewish content. During one of our sessions, we designed a lesson to try out together at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago in a process called Lesson Study, led by MTEI faculty member, Dr. Jennifer Lewis. Lesson Study is a form of professional development that originated in Japan, now widely used to improve instruction through cycles of study, collaborative planning, observation, and analysis (Lewis, Fischman, Riggs, and Wasserman, 2013).

Following the Lesson Study, I (Allison) met with Suzanne Mishkin, an MTEI participant and educational leader at Solomon Schechter Day School, to discuss her experience creating, implementing, and studying the lesson in her school.

“This first taste of Lesson Study was exciting to me,” Suzanne shared. “Having the Lesson Study at my school was helpful for me to continue building the structures needed for ongoing learning through collaboration with colleagues. I also saw this as a way to root all of us, MTEI participants, in an authentic context and learn together.”

In this cycle of Lesson Study, we came together to identify a teaching problem we wanted to investigate: How do we create a meaningful havruta text study lesson? In a way, the lesson plan became our hypothesis: If we teach this lesson in this way, we think students will understand the havruta text study better.

Typically, Lesson Study is done in small groups of six to eight teachers, who study a shared problem of practice over time and develop a lesson to field test new ideas about teaching and learning. However, given our large group and our limited time together, we took a modified approach.

In small groups, we modified a previously written lesson plan in an effort to anticipate the needs and interests of the Schechter students. This process was exciting and challenging, as there were many opinions and experiences in the room. It was deeply thought-provoking to have experienced educators share different approaches that they thought would be meaningful to students. A small group continued working into the late night to finalize the lesson plan. In fact, edits were made up until the moment the lesson was taught.

A pinnacle of the Lesson Study experience is the research lesson, when the team that developed the lesson observes one of its members teaching their lesson plan. At Schechter, students arrived to find 40 pairs of eyes staring at them. Within a few minutes, though, they were wrapped up in the lesson we had designed. While we watched our lesson come to life, we were gathering data about what students were saying and writing as they worked in havruta pairs.

We learned that the observers’ role in Lesson Study is not to focus on the teacher, but rather to focus on the students. In Japan, teachers say that Lesson Study “gives them eyes to see students.”

“The observation is less about the individual teacher (although, of course we learn from the person teaching), and more about the actual lesson. Did the facilitation moves we decided on work? Did the order make sense? How did the students react and respond? Did the lesson successfully meet the goals we created and how do we know?” Suzanne explains.

After the lesson was over, we thanked the students as they left the room. We then analyzed the lesson itself, sharing the data we collected and how we thought our lesson design fared. As a group, there was a lot of ‘Monday Morning Quarterbacking’ – What worked? What areas of the lesson needed improvement? We thought critically about what we would have done differently now that we saw the students in action, such as how much time was given to each activity, the pacing, and the materials provided to the students. We reflected on what we learned about students’ thinking and learning from our observations.

Finally, Suzanne and the Head of School, Dr. Lena Kushnir, (also an MTEI graduate), shared how they have infused MTEI core values and practices into their professional development. For example, last year, all teachers at the school went through a student work protocol, developed by MTEI faculty Dr. Sharon Feiman-Nemser and Dr. Lewis, where they examined one piece of student work with a small group of teachers that do not normally work together. Looking at the student work, they practiced the skill of nonjudgmental observation, in order to glean new insights about student thinking and learning. Through this experience, the teachers were able to peek into each others’ classrooms and curriculum, break out of their habits, and learn from each other.

“We need more opportunities for teachers to come together to study our practice,” Suzanne stated. “Lesson Study is a way for us to do just that. It allows us to collaborate and think critically about what the students are learning and not learning in the classroom. Having a conversation around the Lesson Study experience will usually produce not only a productive discussion, but also give the teachers ideas of things they may want to try in their classrooms when they return or areas of data they want to collect in their own classroom.”

Suzanne’s words resonated with our MTEI cohort and myself. With the daily demands of teaching and packed work schedules, it’s easy to forget how much the teacher, learner, and content is interwoven within a context. It’s even harder when a professional development experience can seem divorced from our work settings. Taking our learning outside of the hotel conference room – on the road – and into a classroom setting provided us with a needed opportunity to go deeper, talk about the art of teaching, and let us think about practices—why they work or do not work.

By bringing us back to school, we were reminded that learning is not simply a mental activity that occurs in a vacuum, but rather, the experience of many interacting factors that are alive and present in the learning environment. Through this experience, we were able to slow down our practice, ponder inquiries, design an experiment, study our hypothesis, reflect, and revise our ideas with the help from others. We were able to grow our practice together as educators.

The Lesson Study session, curated by MTEI, honored us and the work we do as educators and educational leaders by making space for collaborative learning, helping us to work together on deepening our practice, and valuing that teaching and learning is rooted in context.

We can’t wait for where the next MTEI school bus will take us!

References:

Lewis, Jennifer M.; Fischman, Davida; Riggs, Iris; and Wasserman, Kelli (2013) “Teacher Learning in Lesson Study,” The Mathematics Enthusiast: Vol. 10: No. 3, Article 5.

Allison JoAnn Lester is a Graduate Research Assistant for the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI). She is also a second grade teacher at Adath Israel Congregation’s Jarson Education Center and a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati, OH.

Suzanne Mishkin is the Director of Sager School at the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, IL. She is also a graduate of the 8th cohort of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI).

MTEI is a program generously supported by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation.