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Monday, 11/06/00
Metro pioneering new way of teaching

Xiaodong Lin, a professor at Peabody College, talks about traditional Japanese education during teacher training at Rose Park Middle School.
Staff Writer

For teachers at Metro’s Rose Park Middle School and Pennington Elementary, the tiniest details about cultural differences and educational research were a fascinating exercise in last week’s Lesson Study, a new approach to teacher interaction that could change the way American education does business.

Along with Bellevue, Wash., and Jacksonville, Fla., Nashville is leading the nation with an experiment to transform educational practices by tapping into teacher expertise. And by next year, teachers and the public should be able to see the results on the Internet.

Last Wednesday was the second of five days in Metro’s school year when students stay home and teachers work together in small groups in a Japanese-style study session to devise better classroom lessons.

This is in stark contrast to the American teaching tradition of going it alone. When educators aren’t closeted in their classrooms, they’re expected to attend training sessions in which outside experts tell them how they should be teaching.

The new attention to teacher collaboration is based on The Teaching Gap, an educational comparison of international teaching styles that’s making waves among educators. In the book, authors James W. Stigler and James Hiebert make the case that American education is bogged down with ineffective practices because it doesn’t tap into and continually develop the skills of its own teachers.

"This is not a quick fix, and that’s exactly the difference,’’ said Tom Ward, principal of Hume-Fogg High and chairman of Metro’s Lesson Study committee.

"If this process is nurtured, it is a bottom-up, teacher-initiated, teacher-directed, school and classroom improvement plan,’’ he said. "My inherent belief is that if teachers spend intensive time working collaboratively on lessons and learning, you’re going to see some improvement in scores at the end of the year."

The lesson-study process got national attention after the recently completed Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which investigated teaching in several cultures. After studying videotapes of teachers in their classrooms, the researchers found that Japanese and American teachers, in particular, showed drastic differences in how they taught a lesson and that Japanese students had better academic scores.

One reason, researchers found, was that Asian teachers spend considerable time together to collaboratively craft and hone a lesson on one specific skill.

In America, teachers close their classroom doors and work in isolation. Traditionally, school schedules sometimes include time for individual planning but almost never for working together.

"Teaching is the most isolating profession there is," said Leslye Lapidus of Rose Park Middle. "There’s never been a time allowed to share.’’

That allotted time was the goal of school board member David Shearon, who initiated the push last year to include the lesson-study concept in teacher training. Board members eventually approved five group-planning days for teachers and mandated that each school organize a lesson-study plan.

"If Saturn can’t build better cars without getting their front-line workers in small groups and thinking through their process, how in the world do we think we’re going to do a better job of educating students — which is a far more difficult task — without getting teachers involved in small groups working to improve our process?’’ he asked.

"It’s not that we don’t have capable teachers,’’ Shearon said. "They’re one of the most altruistic groups in the country. They want kids to learn. They have the education and experience to make it happen. What we had to provide was the time and the structure for them to work together.’’

Board member Chris Norris, who took office in August, sat in on lesson study at Sylvan Park Elementary and H.G. Hill Middle last week and saw the process at work.

"It’s based on respect for teachers, that teachers are intelligent professionals who can offer professional development to each other and who do not have to be spoon-fed from people outside the system,’’ she said.

At Rose Park, teachers struggled with adapting the plan to an American school schedule. They got some help from Xiaodong Lin, a professor of educational culture and technology at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, who explained how schools in China use the process and how Japanese teachers work together.

American teachers, she said, can make the transition.

"Lesson study has to be adapted because American teachers are trained very differently,’’ Lin told the Rose Park faculty. "But if you choose a very specific but fairly complex problem, the things you learn from this lesson can be applied to others. You use that one lesson to anchor that analysis."

At Rose Park, five fifth-grade teachers formed a group to improve students’ writing skills — specifically, to help students use possessive nouns properly.

They struggled with developing the lesson and coordinating their daily schedules to make time for collaboration.

"There was some confusion at first,’’ said Rebecca Callaway. "We’re used to having people come in and tell us what to do. Now it’s our responsibility to decide what we need to do."

And it’s tough for Rose Park Principal Oliver Smith to stay out of the process, which must be teacher-led.

"Sometimes I feel frustrated I can’t put more out there,’’ Smith said. "It’s hard, but in the long run, it’s more beneficial. This is the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to improve instruction."

At Pennington Elementary on Wednesday, grade-level groups of teachers had identified the topics of their specific lessons and were sharing their research results with one another.

"It’s amazing, as we talked how many ideas we came up with,’’ said kindergarten teacher Trish Parker. Her group will focus on teaching "directionality,’’ helping students learn right, left, top, bottom and other positions. "There’s a wealth of experience and knowledge in our group, and that’s what we’re trying to tap into."

For Pennington Principal Pattye Evans, the lesson-study plan is a welcome change.

"This is where the rubber hits the road, right here with teachers in the classroom,’’ she said. "They’re learning the concept that it’s OK to ask for help, it’s OK to ask questions. It’s that powerful."

Last month, school board members approved $150,000 for consulting and software that will enable Metro teachers to post their lessons on the Internet.

"We want to showcase the work of the teams,’’ said committee chairman Ward. "We’ll set up a Web site where you can see the lesson and lesson-study observations and conclusions."