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Rounds for Teachers

A time-honored tradition borrowed from medical practice is helping teachers gain new insights into their students' work

May 29, 2008
Steve Seidel

In a semi-darkened Harvard conference room, a gathering of 35 professional educators watches a videotaped dance performance on a large screen. In the dance, a dozen or so teenaged girls, dressed in black and trailing red scarves, move in time to rhythmic music, following choreography that alternates between short solos and group interaction. Although this is the second time they have viewed the five-minute tape within a span of 20 minutes, and although it is early on a Saturday morning, the assembled group watches intently, trying to pick out details they may have missed the first time through.

Dance videos are not typical of the work teachers bring to Senior Lecturer Steve Seidel's "Rounds at Project Zero," a monthly collaborative assessment discussion group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that is based on principles from hospital medical rounds. But the protocol Seidel follows to encourage reflection and uncover insights about the performance is familiar to the regulars in the group, many of whom have been rising early and trekking in to Cambridge on Saturday mornings for close to a decade to discuss students' artwork, math projects, poetry, essays, and research assignments. "What emotional qualities did you see this time?" asks Seidel when the tape is finished and the lights come up. "What questions does this piece raise? What do you think the students were working on learning?" Only after everyone has a chance to offer opinions and observations do the teachers whose students performed the dance — two women who run an after-school neighborhood outreach program sponsored by the Boston Ballet — reveal that the dance is a blending of hip-hop and Bhangra, an Indian dance form, assigned as a choreography project to enhance self-confidence and to give the girls a chance to work on creativity within boundaries.

"There is an enormous amount of data about teaching and learning in the things students do and make, yet as educators and researchers, we rarely pay enough attention to it," says Seidel. An expert in portfolio assessment, Seidel is director of both the Arts in Education program and Project Zero, a long-lived research HGSE group that investigates the development of learning processes in children, adults, and organizations.

The idea of rounds for educators came to Seidel in 1996, when his father, a physician in Maryland, invited him to attend Saturday morning medical rounds on the pediatric unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "As the cases were presented, I was struck by the commitment at all levels — from doctors straight out of medical school to 30-year veterans — to support each other's work and to think together to advance their capacity for diagnosis," he recalls. "Educators don't usually have that kind of opportunity to share their collective expertise, and I think they should."

By asking questions and encouraging conversation, Seidel's aim is to help teachers see what they are accustomed to seeing in a different light.

With a small amount of money "to buy coffee and bagels," Seidel began hosting three-hour gatherings at Harvard on the first Saturday of the month from October through May. Open to teachers, researchers, and education administrators interested in sharing their work and talking through professional issues, the meetings incorporate elements from medical rounds — such as case histories, focused presentations on research or new practices, and an opportunity to share expertise — in a format adapted to meet the needs of educators. Seidel estimates that approximately 150 people are currently on the Rounds e-mail list, and monthly attendance averages 30 to 40, including some participants who travel from as far away as New York City. Newcomers, who often hear about the gatherings from colleagues, are regularly joining the group.

Each session is divided into three sections, beginning with a presentation by a participant who has volunteered to pose a practice-based question. On the morning the dance video was presented, the meeting opened with a lengthy discussion inspired by an art teacher and a writing teacher who work together at a Boston-area independent school. Their question — When is teacher collaboration a creative process? — inspired consideration of a wide range of topics, including the transformational quality of learning, the difference between forced and voluntary collaboration, the impact of disparate teaching styles on collaboration, the importance of trust in one's colleagues, risk-taking, and the idea that creativity is a process that can be learned.

Reflecting on the exercise, Seidel says, "I try to be pretty diligent about not letting people give advice. That's not what it's about. The point is not to give feedback, but to think about the question from the perspective of your own work. That opens a conversation that is beneficial both to the participants and to the person who brought the question."

Creating a structure for conversations also helps Seidel "to wring every last ounce of learning" out of the second part of each session, which focuses on analyzing student work. Whether the project is a middle-school science experiment, a third-grader's poem, or even a dance video, the protocol is designed to make all participants feel supported and to elicit new insights about their work and students.

"If you're reading a child's poem," Seidel observed, "you are getting information about the nature of poetry and, in particular, what it means to learn, grow, and develop in the context of the discipline of poetry." By asking questions and encouraging conversation, Seidel's aim is to help teachers see what they are accustomed to seeing in a different light. "Maybe we will ponder where the student got the idea for the poem, a question that could lead us to consider aspects of the learning environment or to discover insights about how children of that age express their emotions," he noted. "I think one reason people keep coming to these meetings is the sense that our conversations help ideas to come into focus. It's a reflective time, but there is provocation in the reflection that forces you to think about your own perspectives as an educator."

Since September, 2001, the last 15 minutes of each Rounds session has been set aside for participants to consider their role in the broader world. "The first meeting after September 11, we spent an hour reading and discussing the work of a student in Manhattan who had written about the devastation," Seidel says. "Since then, we have come to treat the time at the end of each session almost like a Quaker meeting, where people can share whatever thoughts they want." At first, participants talked mostly about the impact of September 11 on educators, but the comments eventually turned to what it means to be a teacher at a time of war. "I'm not sure that's even the right question anymore," says Seidel, who believes the focus of this segment of the meeting should continue to evolve.

Seidel, who is also a professionally trained actor and stage director, sees his involvement with Rounds at Project Zero as a natural step in his own professional evolution. "I've been a teacher since 1970, but it wasn't until the late 1980s that I stopped directing and acting in plays," he says. "What I've come to realize about Rounds is that helping teachers develop a deeper understanding of their students' work is not so different from the director's role in helping the audience and actors reach a collective understanding of the playwright's message. What I loved about the theater is the same thing I love about doing this."

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