St. Gregory is now in its second year of its Critical Friends Group (CFG) group project.   Each teacher and administrator is assigned to a group of about 8 or 9 colleagues, diversely representative of department, division, and domain.   The groups are continuing from last year, strengthening internally in their sense of connection, collegiality, and trust: they met last year once a month, and this year twice a month.   Each group is wholly facilitated by a faculty member, not an administrator.

Before each of our “regular” sessions, a member carefully prepares with the group facilitator a problem or topic to present, and then at the meeting presents it in a carefully formatted and managed protocol process.   A teacher might discuss a change of assessment she is trying, or a classroom management tactic, or a project-based learning initiative, or any number of other possibilities.  After the presentation, a healthy hour long conversation ensues, with much feedback provided.   The conversations in which I participate are lively, reflective, and inspiring;  nearly everyone leaves with ideas  to apply, or questions to consider, for their own teaching.

We’ve expanded this year our use of CFG time; we now hold sessions twice a month.   The second session is devoted to peer observation, a culture of which has not existed widely at our school (as is the case at many schools), but which we are gradually escalating.   In the most recent session, we processed two different observations.

A math teacher reported on visiting a Foreign Language teacher’s classroom, and following a careful protocol of comment and response, a fine conversation emerged about the use of time in the block period; the teacher’s process of connecting with each students and building a classroom community; a discussion about the period’s closing moments; and a discussion of the teacher’s use of manipulatives (in foreign language!) and the ways he is using classroom-generated videos for both grammar and history learning .   Clearly over the course of the conversation, both teachers drew insights that they will use for innovations and improvements in their teaching.

In the second, a different foreign language teacher reported on observing an English teacher’s classroom.   The conversation, again structured, addressed ways of boosting comprehension and critical reading by challenging students to become “literary detectives.”   We discussed origins for the teaching technique, whether it was applicable to foreign language instruction, and how the students were enjoying it (they were loving it).   Developmental differences among different grade level students were discussed.   The English teacher also explained a lesson technique she uses when students are debating certain ideas and interpretations: they line up in different corners of the room, and then listen to each argument and counter-argument, moving corner to corner as they process each argument and change their minds.  Every participant seemed to consider the implications of this technique for their learning.

Teaching is more powerful when it is reflective and collaborative; unfortunately, in far too many schools (and not at all especially at our school!), school culture has presented barriers which block such practices.   My appreciation goes to our fine St. Gregory faculty members who are so effectively guiding us in this significant advance!

[CFG’s are supposed to be confidential, so I am on thin ice with this post.  I asked and received permission from my group for this.]