August 24, 2012 by ray_emily
In “My Favorite No,” teacher Leah Alcala use a note card system to quickly check for understanding – and then she expertly guides her students through a thoughtful “error analysis.” (Read on to see why I’ve put those words in quotation marks.)
A bunch of you have reflected on and admired this clip, in the past. I liked the video well enough when I watched it a year ago [translation: I missed the point, entirely] – but I’ve had some important revelations since my first viewing, which I’m eager to share with you.
Initially, I thought: Okay, cool. Another method of collecting and analyzing data. Good job, Ms. Alcala, on developing this low-tech, efficient substitute for costly individual student clickers. You’re clever, but you have haven’t changed my life – or really even my instruction. You keep doing your thing, and I’ll keep doing mine. Thanks for letting me into your classroom for five minutes.
Recently, however, I re-stumbled across Ms. Alcala. This second go-round, I have begun to recognize how awesome Ms. Alcala is – and how sometimes-dense I can be. Interestingly (maybe obviously, to those more clever than I), Ms. Alcala deserves our respect not because she developed this low-tech method of collecting data. (Whatever, right? There are a million ways to collect data.) Rather, she gets major props – from me, at least – for regularly facilitating class discussions that prioritize talk about what kids are doing well, even when all parties involved are staring a big, fat error right in the face.
In the video, students and teacher collectively gaze upon a just-produced incorrect answer. Without flinching, Ms. Alcala knowingly asks her kids, “They did some things that I love. What in that problem am I happy to see?” And she waits for the hands to raise and the responses to trickle in.
This is totally bold – and also (I’ve recently discovered) contrary to my instincts. When I posed this question in class earlier this week, I half-expected my kids to groan and ask me to cut to the chase. (In other words: I wrongly assumed that they would feel as eager as I felt to zero in on that glaring error.) Instead, they relished the opportunity to commend one another’s work – and they framed their compliments in interesting, novel ways. Much to my surprise (this seriously should not be surprising, now that I think about it…), my kids got excited about identifying the ways in which their peers were successful.
(Huh. Who’d have thought? Being nice feels good – and feeling good increases enjoyment of any given task.)
One fantastic, unexpected bonus: The kids who didn’t initially notice the thing that was wrong (or who perhaps produced the wrong answer, in the first place) would engage in these most affirming, welcoming discussions. The observations about the good (though incorrect) work would often include eloquent, student-friendly reiterations of key ideas and concepts. Consequently, I found that by the time I was ready to shift gears and ask, “Okay, and what was this student’s mistake?” – that the question was hardly necessary. Most of my kids who’d ‘done wrong’ had already clued in on their error (thanks to a little help from their friends) and could explain precisely how to fix it.
As I noted, attempting this style of “error analysis” (those words belongs in quotation marks!) has been a wake-up call for me. Despite my best intentions, there have been an embarrassing number of lost opportunities – instances where my instinct to immediately zero in on what was wrong prevailed. I’ve been both intrigued and surprised to notice this, as I have always considered myself the type of person with a penchant for focusing on the positive. Oh well: Better late than never.