by Brooke Machado
It's the reality: teachers work mostly in isolation, rarely discussing with one another what is working, or not working, for ourselves and our students. Squeezing time out of our hard-pressed day-to-day schedules is difficult. So last year, when I was invited to take part in a pilot group called “Critical Friends for ELA,” joining required some balance and investment of my time as a busy professional. Thankfully, what it yielded for me far exceeded what I put in.
Critical Friends are teachers who provide paramount assistance to one another by involving themselves in a constructive and encouraging environment over time to consider together how well they are meeting learning objectives and how tasks can be improved. The term critical should not be perceived as pertaining to criticism or disapproval, but rather as being essential or imperative.
I joined a group of practitioners who agreed to meet for five organized discussions about our students’ work and standards-based teaching. Our focus on assignments put everyday student work through a cycle of peer review and deliberation with the aim of observing the connections between each assignment’s intended outcomes and its alignment with the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (CCRSAE).
I shared one of my daily warm-ups and its resulting student work. The following questions then guided our discussion: What did my students learn from completing the assignment? Which CCRSAE best match the content and performance demands of the assignment? What evidence is there that the students understand the content, and to what extent have students demonstrated proficiency with the targeted CCRSAE?
Throughout the process, my emotions ran the gamut. I will admit, I felt nervous as my teaching became public. What would my peers think of my ideas? Am I on the right track? This is a warm-up, not a major project—is it worth our collective time? But what followed was a thoughtful dialogue, where my colleagues offered their own experiences with the subject matter in combination with strategies and tools they use in their own practices. Their response confirmed that what I had was pretty good, and I was encouraged to make it even better. I went forth creating new warm-up activities based on feedback from my peers. Trying out new versions of old ideas invigorated me!
For me, Critical Friends went beyond fulfilling professional development requirements: this cooperative, teacher-directed approach flipped the traditional model on its head. Compared to stand-alone trainings and workshops, our series of meetings resulted in a sustained exchange of ideas and in growth of my knowledge and skill set. The time permitted me to improve my own assignments and learn new methods of instruction, as well as to see others’ work and offer feedback, all the while encouraging me to find greater learning experiences in my classroom.
Allocating time to meet with colleagues presented a number of challenges. In a teacher’s world, “I’m all caught up!” is a laughable declaration. In the face of our myriad tasks—aligning curriculum to new standards, grading assessments, providing students with feedback, differentiating instruction, etc.—we all agree that there is more to do than the day allows. However, meetings with my group breathed new life into how I see the assignments I give. Beyond the sharing of effective practices and materials, I gained an abundance of new knowledge and a support system to help me meet the needs of my students.
In its essence, Critical Friends reveres and emphasizes reflection as an essential part of a teacher’s life and reduces the sentiment of “I’m doing this alone.” While building trust amongst one another, we worked to come up with solutions to predicaments we commonly share.
What Critical Friends is and what it accomplished for me make it a valuable learning tool. When we teachers are given and can pursue the opportunity, time, and place to improve our practices and celebrate successes together, we win by not going it alone.
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