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Getting started with each other and the Discussion Sketch

The situation

Beginning teacher Cara and mentor teacher Judy first met several weeks ago, a few days before school. That meeting was sudden. When they first reported to school, their principal introduced Judy to Cara as the "mentor" that Michigan law requires to be appointed for every beginning teacher. Both knew "mentoring" was probably a close and potentially important relationship, but neither of them had appreciable experience in such a relationship, and they were total strangers. They were close to saying something polite like "Let's do lunch sometime" and going their separate ways.

Fortunately, both had a dry sense of humor and a relatively high tolerance for ambiguity, so they sat down and talked about what "mentoring" might mean. They discovered a shared preference for a collegial form of interaction. [Working together] Cara saw the value of having an experienced local guide and conversation partner. Judy was happy to support a new teacher, so they thought they would get along and agreed to try a few things.

Shortly before this session, Judy downloaded the PDF versions of some tools from this website and printed them to show to Cara. Judy was using those tools for the first time. Naturally, there was a little confusion, both for Judy and for Cara, about which form worked for what...

The interaction

JUDY (mentor teacher): I enjoyed your lesson this morning. I like the new bulletin board you put up.

CARA (beginning teacher): Thanks. I figured I’d better change it before parent conferences. What did you think of the math lesson?

JUDY: I made some notes. Of course, I don’t think anyone but me could read them. I mostly kept track of what the kids were saying. I tried to get your questions too, but you might have to help me out there.

CARA: Well, what did you think?

JUDY: I think you’ve come a long way since September. I heard you asking the kids for other ways to solve problems. That was nice....

JUDY:  But before I say anything else, why don’t we look at some of these tools? We have a good thirty minutes before the kids come back so we can really get into it, and I think my feedback tends to be more helpful when it’s based on specific data from the classroom.

CARA: Okay. So, what are these forms you have?

JUDY: Well, these forms are supposed to help us analyze what went on during your discussion. (She lays them out). Which one do you think we should use?

CARA: I'm not sure; there always seems to be so much going on in a discussion that it's hard to choose.

JUDY: I think these forms each focus on different things. There were about eight of them on the site, but I just printed out these four. They seemed the easiest ones to start with. What were you most concerned about with the discussion today?

CARA: First, whether I’m asking the right questions. Sometimes the kids just sit there and look at me.

JUDY: All right, I’m going to put these two aside then. This one deals with student leadership during discussions and this one focuses on whether students are learning what you wanted them to. Both of these other forms focus on the teacher questions.  Which one would you rather use?

CARA: This one--it seems a bit more open-ended; maybe we could make it what we want it to be.

JUDY: Okay, now how is this supposed to work? (Flips the papers around a few times until she gets them lined up next to each other. Tapes them together). There we go. Now, you started out by asking what a column was. The form asked whether this question is object-based or response-based. Hmmm...

CARA: Sounds like it might matter but I'm not familiar with that language.

JUDY: I’m not sure, either..

JUDY: Let’s switch to this other form ....

The tools in use

To take notes on Cara's discussion with her students, Judy had chosen the Discussion Sketch [Analyzing discussions], perhaps because it is an open and flexible form, and perhaps because she thought that she and Cara should be specific in analyzing Cara's discussion with her students.

Judy took notes on that discussion using Side 2 of a blank Discussion Sketch. She also printed 4 (of 7) tools that were made to analyze Sketches and brought those to her conversation with Cara. You can check out all 7 tools in Analyzing discussions.

In one of the tools, Judy and Cara do not recognize the terms "object-based questions" and "response-based questions" [described in Questions tool]. However, they probably would hear the difference in those two types of questions and would recognize their different uses. More response-based questions might have helped Cara to figure out what Tyrell was thinking. This same tool also raises the issue that Cara and Judy later spend a good deal of time on: How do the teacher's responses to student comments affect the mental tasks that students perform?

About the partnership

How did Cara and Judy get as far as this observation with note-taking? Maybe, they built trust by first agreeing on an idea of partnership, getting acquainted professionally and talking specifically about what they would be doing and how. [Find guidance on all four points in the Partnership section.] Maybe Judy invited Cara to observe her first.

In this interaction , Judy shows some appreciation for changes she has seen in Cara's performance over time, a show of good intention. For her part, Cara directly invites an assessment, giving Judy permission to speak freely .

By shifting attention from her opinion to her notes, Judy invites Cara to join her in analyzing the information that Judy has collected in the Discussion Sketch. To show that Cara has the lead in this activity, Judy hands over some of the lay-beside forms she printed from the site, and asks what Cara which one she wants to use..

A few awkward moments ensue, but a bit of fumbling is normal. It seems Judy understands that she doesn't need to appear as though she knows everything in order to be an effective mentor.

Judy asks Cara to lead, and Cara does state her interest in the questions she asked during the lesson. That narrows the initial choice of tools to "Teacher's questions: Object-based or response-based?" and "Questions and student tasks." [See the list of tools in Analyzing discussions].

The initial choice of the "object-based or response-based" tool proves a dead end; Judy and Cara can check it out another day. They settle on "Questions and student tasks," and their work gets underway...

Using the story, by analogy

Judy and Cara's situation probably is different from yours in various ways--subject matter, age of students, kind of school--so that you cannot take their case as direct guidance for you. But perhaps you can reason by analogy here. Cara was curious about the questions she asked during discussions with students, and you might be too. Cara worried that she fell into a pattern of evaluating students' comments rather than finding out what they think, and you might be worrying too. Judy's sparse notes in a Discussion Sketch form helped Cara to remember and examine her lesson, and you might find that also.

Both teaching and mentoring are complex activities. If you add in initially unfamiliar tools, you can expect to do a little wandering and trying-out before tool-supported analysis of teaching becomes familiar and productive.

On the other hand, the Discussion Sketch tool is open and undemanding; you can use it flexibly to record information that helps you and your partner remember some details of a discussion with students, and so to examine the lesson more carefully than you could do otherwise.

On Side 2 of the Sketch, don't bog down in the question whether a teacher's remark should go in the "teacher statement or question" column or into the "teacher response" column. On the fly, you often cannot tell where it belongs, so leave that decision for later.

If you are engaged in a joint investigation that you think is important, you will be able to decide which tool matches your purposes and be able to modify it to suit your situation.

The next episode: Setting tasks during discussion.