One of the most powerful professional development experiences for me was working with Lucy West. She was hired as a consultant to the urban school district where I was working as a middle school math coach. Her work with our district transformed my view of professional development and changed the way I teach. I am thrilled to be able to share three resources from Ms. West with you.
Lucy’s work with the New York City School System provides evidence that her methods and techniques are effective. Classroom discourse (accountable talk), teacher development (content-focused coaching), and the development of teacher learning communities are the three areas I am sharing with you. She has given her permission to share “Learning Stance Norms for Professional Learning Communities” as a download for this post. This is one of many resources available through her website.
What I like best about Lucy’s work is her no-nonsense attitude about the importance of making progress in mathematics education. She is not afraid to confront the issues at hand. With her, there is no “elephant in the room.” A favorite quote often heard from Lucy is, “It is not personal; it is about the work,” meaning that we should take the input from our work together—even when it is difficult for us personally—so that we can improve the education of our students.
MY PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT EXPERIENCE WITH LUCY WEST
I got to experience this idea of “it is not personal; it is about the work” when working with Lucy West as I trained as a math coach. I volunteered to teach a demonstration class for my colleagues (about 15 of us) and the local district curriculum team. I was trying to show what I had learned about implementing “accountable talk” in the classroom. I remember very well the outcome of that demonstration class: I heard what I wanted to hear from students and not what they said.
While I was teaching the lesson, a student who I will call Alan gave a response to a question. It is almost humorous now, but it was horrifyingly painful at the time to realize that while I was trying to demonstrate how to get students to listen to each other, I was not listening well to what Alan had actually said. I argued with the first person that brought it up to me in the post-lesson conference, but then the rest of my colleagues assured me that I had not heard what I was sure that Alan had said. I had to not take it personally. It was one of those transformative moments in my teaching—and I have still have to remind myself of it—to realize that I have to listen to what students are saying, rather than hearing what I want them to say. I wish I could say that I have overcome that, but I often still find myself falling into that trap. At least I am aware of it now.
Ms. West’s ideas are sometimes challenging to teachers because they are different and because there is an expectation that teachers will change their practices as a result of the training they receive. Facing our own inadequacies can be painful, and this kind of change can be difficult, especially when we invite others to inspect our work and hold us accountable.
Here are three resources that I highly recommend from Lucy West.
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT RESOURCES FOR MATH TEACHERS
RESOURCE 1: CONTENT FOCUSED COACHING
Ms. West has co-authored two books on coaching math teachers, both of which I own. Agents of Change: How Content Coaching Transforms Teaching and Learning (2013) is an extension of her book Content-Focused Coaching: Transforming Mathematics Lessons (2003). These books are replete with suggestions and techniques for, and the pitfalls of, content coaching for math teachers. Both books give access to video clips of examples of coaching sessions. The 2003 book came with a DVD, but the 2013 book give an access code to view the videos online. More importantly, these videos highlight the role of the coach as an agent of change for the mathematics teaching community.
By asking the question, “What mathematics should student learn from this lesson?” and “What evidence is there that all students learned what you intended?”, West sets the expectation that student learning is the goal of the coaching relationship. When teachers, coaches, and administrators engage each other in this learning stance, they model for their students the learning process. When teachers see the classroom as an opportunity to engage with other adults to learn about learning, then students will also be learning.
The more recent book, Agents of Change, is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on a theory of content coaching, how coaching should be part of a system of change within the school and district, and outlines the roles of coach, teacher leader, teacher, principal, and district supervisor. This is a robust theory on how to change teaching and learning in the mathematics classroom.
The second section describe the skills that coaches need—skills that teachers who become coaches often don’t have—as West points out. Coaches need to have a deep awareness of themselves so that they can help others, and they need to have great communication skills, as well as being able to develop coaching relationships with teachers whether or not they are eager to engage in the process.
The third and final section is a case study of the coaching process amplified by access to video of the actual coaching sessions. The video tracks a specific coaching situation through the preconference, lesson, and post-conference, while the book highlights the coaching moves advocated by West and her colleagues.
RESOURCE 2: ACCOUNTABLE TALK
As I alluded to in my story about Alan above, I learned about accountable talk while working with Ms. West. By helping students listen to and comment on each others’ reasoning, a very high level of math learning can take place in the classroom. When implemented with all students, it also provides evidence to the teacher about whether students understand the intended outcomes in class. Accountable talk moves help to create this high level discourse that we all aspire to with our students.
Adding Talk to the Equation: Discussion and Delivery in Mathematics (2016) is West’s most recent work. It is an investigation based on five video case studies that can serve as a jumping-off point for professional development. She has invested over twenty years in implementing accountable talk in classrooms around the country. This resource represents a culmination of her work to date with the resources so that you can implement it in your district, school, or classroom.
West’s Adding Talk to the Equation, available online for a fee, is a series of case studies showing how teachers can work to implement accountable talk in different stages of development. All of the classes show how accountable talk can be implemented in mathematics classrooms from Grades 1 to 6. The five case studies are: Introducing Basic Talk Moves, Basic Talk Moves with Young Children, Getting Reluctant Learners to Speak, Multiple Talk Moves in Action, and Well on the Way to Academic Discourse.
A printed companion guide provides the transcripts of the case studies, as well as commentary on the process by Ms. West. This is a great resource for professional development sessions at your school!
RESOURCE 3: TAKING A LEARNING STANCE DOWNLOAD
Apart from coaching techniques, accountable talk moves, and a systems approach to change, the most important thing that I took away from my training with Lucy West is an approach to learning, MY learning.
If we are to make progress in helping all students reach proficiency in mathematics, then we need to lead the way in adopting a learning stance of our own. This kind of professional development culture is unfortunately rare in many schools I have seen close up.
As I described in my interaction with my student, Alan, at the beginning of this post, when confronted by my colleagues about shortcomings in my own teaching, I had choices to make. The fact was that I had heard what I wanted to hear in Alan’s response rather than what he actually said. Was I going to continue to “teach” this way? How was I going to improve my own listening skills as I worked with students to improve their learning skills? Equally importantly, how was I going to react when confronted with my own shortcomings in my teaching in front of my colleagues? (It is not personal; it is about the work.) I had to take a stance on learning, a stance that would help me grow as a professional, that would model how to accept input about changes I need to make in my practice, and that would result in better teaching and learning for students in my classroom.
Lucy West has graciously allowed us to reprint her document Learning Stance Norms for Professional Learning Communities from her website.
Whether you want to inspect your own learning stance on your professional development, or you are looking for a set of norms for a professional development culture in your building or district, I encourage you to download this tip sheet.