Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School (2015)

HACK 2. PINEAPPLE CHARTS

Boost Teacher Collaboration with a Public Chart of “Open Door” Lessons

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

— HELEN KELLER

THE PROBLEM: LITTLE TO NO PEER OBSERVATION

TEACHERS ARE CONSTANTLY searching for new ideas, solutions to problems with classroom management, organization, and instruction. “I need to figure out how to get my students to understand this concept,” they say, or “I need to find someone who knows how to do ____.” Time and money for professional development are both in short supply, but too often the most valuable resource—the teacher next door—is completely ignored.

The idea of observing other teachers is nothing new. It’s the way we all first started learning how to teach, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher who hadn’t learned something from sitting in a colleague’s classroom. Observing each other teach is one of the easiest and fastest ways to refresh our practice, learn new strategies, and build rapport with one another. And although many teachers say their door is always open, most of the time we never leave our own classrooms.

One reason for this is that everyone is busy—time is such a valuable commodity and no one has enough extra time to find out what another teacher is doing and plan a visit. The other reason is payoff: Even with the teacher whose door is always open, how do you know what she’s doing on any given day? There’s too much risk of showing up at the wrong time, interrupting something that really shouldn’t be interrupted, or going all the way across the building, then settling in to observe a lesson that you quickly realize isn’t all that relevant to you.

If only there were a way to see, at a glance, what other teachers are doing right now in your building. A way to know at a moment’s notice whose door is open for observation and what’s going on inside. A way to decide, if you have a few minutes to spare, where you might go to see some really interesting teaching.

THE HACK: POST A CALENDAR OF “OPEN HOUSE” LESSONS

The pineapple is a traditional symbol of welcome. When it’s displayed on welcome mats and on door hangings, the intended message is “Come in! All are welcome here.” A Pineapple Chart is a systematic way to put a “welcome mat” out for all classrooms, a central message board that lets other teachers know that you’re doing something worth watching today, and if they’d like to come by, your door is open.

What’s even better is that this system is dynamic and customizable; it’s the exact opposite of a one-size-fits all PD.

The chart would be something like a dry-erase board, sectioned off with tape or wet-erase marker into days of the week and class periods. The board would be kept near teacher mailboxes, the copier, or some other high-traffic area for staff. Every week, teachers would add their own classroom activities that others might like to see. These could be lessons in which the teacher is trying a new instructional strategy, when a new technology tool will be used, when students will be actively creating something, or even just when an interesting topic will be covered. This offers other teachers a menu of options for informal observations and allows them to visit places where they have a high interest.

When other teachers see something on the board, they know they have explicit permission to stop by that class during that period to informally observe. They can stay as long as they like—even just a few minutes—and when they’re ready to go, they go. That’s the end: No paperwork, no post-observation conference, just a visit to see what’s going on in other classrooms.

This system offers endless possibilities for learning. Teachers might observe someone in their content area for specific strategies they can use themselves. They can also watch a class in a different subject or grade level to pick up ideas on classroom management, organization, or strategies that can be transferred across curricular lines. Some teachers might sit in on a class because the topic just interests them—how often have you heard people say they wish they could go back and take their high school history classes again? In some cases, a teacher who is trying something new or dealing with a difficult behavior issue might ask observers for feedback. And other times, observations might occur when a teacher just wants to see a friend teach—peer observation can be a true bonding experience.

What’s even better is that this system is dynamic and customizable; it’s the exact opposite of a one-size-fits all PD. Each week, teachers make their own decisions about what they need or are interested in. If they have a packed schedule for several weeks, they may not do any observing at all, but when time is available (or an especially interesting lesson motivates them to make time), they can take advantage of something that meets their own specific needs.

There’s one more benefit to Pineapple Charts and peer observation: Having teachers join each other in the classroom sets a wonderful example of collaboration and lifelong learning for our students. When another teacher visits and students ask why, explaining the rationale sends the message that teachers are always looking for ways to learn and improve, and they’re doing it together, just as they hope students will.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TOMORROW

A full-blown, self-running Pineapple Chart will take some time to grow, but you can try a quick pilot version this way:

·     Post your Pineapple Chart. Grab a sheet of notebook paper, poster paper, or even a dry-erase board you have lying around. Hang it up in a location where most teachers are likely to see it.

·     Ask a key question. Across the top, write “What’s going on in your class today? What time will that be happening?”

·     Recruit one or two teachers. Ask them to write down something interesting they are teaching that day—a topic, an activity, or a strategy—and what time of day they are doing it. If you are a teacher, you should be the first one to share!

·     Send the word. Using an all-staff e-mail or an all-call on the P.A. system, announce to staff that this paper exists, that Ms. ______ is doing ______ in her room today and welcomes visitors, and encourage other staff members to add their activities to your makeshift Pineapple Chart.

A BLUEPRINT FOR FULL IMPLEMENTATION

Step 1: Set the stage.

Explain the overall process of the chart to the staff. This can be initiated by an administrator or a single teacher (with admin permission). Be clear that this is nothing like formal observations, where there can be job-related consequences. The point of the Pineapple Chart is to encourage everyone to share their ideas and practices with others.

Step 2: Create the chart.

Ideally, this would be a large whiteboard hung in a prominent location, with dry-erase markers readily available. (Think about those big surgery schedules you see on TV hospital shows.) Along the left-hand column, divide the chart by class periods or time-frames, however your school sets up its day. Across the top, divide the chart by the days of the week.

Step 3: Recruit early adopters.

For this to work, your school needs a team of enthusiastic participants to get things going. Privately recruit two groups: teachers who are not shy about having visitors in their classroom and are willing to add their names and activities to the chart when it’s still a big blank space, and another group who will commit to making visits and talking them up with colleagues throughout the building. Have these teachers get the chart going, but be sure everyone understands that the chart is open to anyone.

Step 4: Encourage others to participate.

After the first wave has passed, it may be necessary to gently push others to join in. Although participation should be strictly optional, if you hear about a teacher who is trying something new in her classroom, suggest that she add the lesson to the chart. And if you know of a few teachers who never make observation visits, find one you believe would be a good fit for them and ask if they’d like to go with you.

Step 5: Make room for reviews.

Create time and space for teachers to share positive reviews of their visits. This can take many forms, like setting aside five minutes at the start of every faculty meeting to let people describe something great they saw that week, or adding a second board beside the Pineapple Chart where people can write or pin comments and reflections about specific visits.

Reflections might look something like this: “Go see the Cubist paintings in Heldic’s room—amazing!” or, “Really enjoyed watching students play with Kahoot in Mr. Bowen’s class today.” Tech enthusiasts might reflect in a cloud-based location, like a shared Google Doc where people continually add their own comments about things they learned, or a “Database of Expertise,” a spreadsheet where specific skills are listed (like flipping the classroom or cooperative learning) along with recommendations of people who are especially good at them.

Step 6: Incentivize it.

Over the long term, teachers could be given incentives for participation (as observers or hosts) in the form of professional development credit, being relieved of supervision duties (“10 visits = one day off bus duty!”), or other surprises, like the administrator brings you breakfast or a grab-bag of coupons from local businesses. These are marvelous ways to make professional development fun, and what teacher doesn’t love fun PD?

OVERCOMING PUSHBACK

Making Pineapple Charts work well requires staff participation, and for some teachers, that means getting past these hurdles:

I’m too self-conscious to have people watch me teach. That’s fine. Seriously. If some people never want to write their names on the board, don’t pressure them. If this becomes something mandatory, people will resist. Those who are more shy about having visitors will still get a lot from going to watch other people teach. And if you emphasize and model positive feedback, and incentivize the program, eventually people will start to realize that only good things can come from the classroom visits.

I don’t do anything interesting enough. Some people may get the impression that only the most innovative lessons are worth putting up on the board, and that they have nothing to offer. This is where your early adopters come in: Make sure that the first few people who put their lessons up include some things that might be considered ordinary. You never know what might attract someone. A basic lecture on Roman architecture might entice an art teacher who has a special interest in that topic. And your reputation for a beautifully organized classroom or creative discipline strategies might be the reason someone comes to your room—the topic might just give them an excuse to show up.

This is one more thing we have to do. No, it isn’t. Remember, participating in Pineapple Chart visits is never mandatory. It’s fun, simple, and optional. The draw to visit should come from the learning activities themselves, not pressure from administrators.

What if I visit someone’s room and end up not liking it after a few minutes? Make it understood ahead of time that visits can be as short as five minutes or as long as a full class period. Be sure everyone is clear ahead of time that someone leaving after a short time doesn’t mean your lesson isn’t good; they might only have a few minutes, or they might not find it relevant.

Education unconferences like Edcamps have an understood “rule of two feet,” where people are encouraged to get up and leave sessions whenever they decide the information is not relevant to them, and session leaders are strongly encouraged to leave their egos at the door and not take it personally! If your early adopters model a relaxed, truly open-door attitude, it will quickly become contagious.

I can’t give up my planning time to observe another teacher. Indeed, everyone is short on time. That’s just one more reason not to force teachers to visit. Since this is not a formal observation and you’re not obligated to complete paperwork, it’s perfectly fine to sit in the back of another teacher’s room and grade papers or catch up on email; you can absorb a lot just by being in the room. Because this is not a formal observation, no one needs to give 100 percent attention to what’s going on—you’re there to pick up a few new ideas, get a feel for how someone else does things, see your students in a new light, and show an interest in what your peers are doing. If multitasking is the only way to make that happen, then multitask you must.

THE HACK IN ACTION

At Woburn Memorial High School in Woburn, Massachusetts, teachers began using the Pineapple Chart in the spring of 2015. “There was a ton of enthusiasm as soon as we shared the idea with the staff,” says Abby Morton, the earth science teacher who introduced the chart. And not long after the chart was posted, teachers started visiting each other’s classrooms.

Just as in the example above, Morton had to recruit a few of her fellow teachers to take the lead in signing their names to the chart, but soon other names appeared as well, and the visits began. “People always talked about wanting to see each other’s lessons, but it’s like so many other things in teaching—if you don’t plan it, it doesn’t happen.”

Woburn’s early experiences demonstrate the versatility and cross-curricular potential of the Pineapple Chart. One of the first visits was when an ESL teacher came to visit Morton’s classroom to observe a science lesson. “I was struck by her open, comfortable teaching style, and in the way she encourages all to take part in the discussion,” the visiting teacher reported. Despite the fact that the two work in different content areas, the visiting ESL teacher picked up some ideas that go beyond the curriculum.

Peer observation is one of the most powerful, affordable forms of professional development. By offering teachers an easy way to find the exact learning activities that interest them at a time that fits their schedule, Pineapple Charts make peer observation available to everyone, all the time.