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C'est la Z

You can't workshop a lesson

The other day, Natan scored tickets for us to see an interview with High Jackman and Sutton Foster. We'll be seeing them in "The Music Man" come this fall.

It was fun but it was the taping for a radio interview so nothing earth shattering or surprising. Still, one thing stuck with me and got me thinking.

Jackman told a story about how, during rehearsals, he wandered down from his dressing room to find Foster was working with Jerry Zaks, the director on "My White Knight." He remained and observed, entranced as Foster and Zaks spent an hour or so working on the song. It reminded me of a Master Class taught by Maxim Vengerov, my favorite current violinist that I caught on cable one day.

It got me thinking about how horribly pathetic our model of teacher observation, support and improvement is and that you can't have a master class for a lesson.

The two things in teaching that would be closest to a master class would be either teaching a mock lesson to a colleague or supervisor or an observation. Mock lessons rarely occur outside of teacher interviews but colleagues will observe each other. The problem is, those aren't Master Classes. In a Master Class, you have an immediate feedback loop. You perform, stop, get feedback, rinse and repeat. When teaching, you get some feedback at the end of the lesson and even if it's good you generally can't implement any changes until next year. If you're lucky, next semester. Sometimes you might be able to rush try things in a class later that day but usually not. Of course, if and when you do try that change you likely won't be getting any feedback on that.

The problem is, you can't stop the lesson in the middle becuase, you know, the students and you certainly can't then go back and reteach the last 10 minutes again to them to see if it's better.

Although there are many similarities between teaching and performing there are of course crucial differences. The bar for a performer is pretty simple - will the audience get something out of the performance - enough to think positively about it. That's pretty much it. To get there, Sutton and Zaks worked on a challenging song. There wasn't any audience feedback but rather they worked to achieve the director's vision. When Vengerov runs his class, he's working with his students on their interpretation of the work. These work in performance becuase first, presumably they know what works with an audience and second, an audience may very well go to something to see or hear an artists interpretation. Personally, I'll go to one violinist or anther's performance of a work specifically to hear their interpretation.

When teaching the bar is harder to define, at least if you're serious. about education. My first chairman kept it simple. He said, when you observe a class, just keep asking yourself "is learning going on?" And then figure out where and how. I always liked that and always lived by that. Of course these days observations aren't about learning but about teacher evaluation using garbage metrics like Danielson where it's all about checking off the boxes.

Of course, good teachers do work to improve their lessons. They try different techniques, work within the extremely slow feedback loop and they work with their colleagues even though they're never given the time.

None of this really means anything. Just something I found interesting to ponder. Would a master class work for teachers? Maybe. Maybe you could run a department meeting as one with one teacher presenting and the rest of the department playing students, both good and bad. That would actually be pretty interesting. If anyone tries this, let me know.

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