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Two-Way Mirrors Reflect
New Teaching Model

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Imagine other educators' observing you through two-way mirrors and listening to everything you say to your students. Lisa Ahlstrom and Maria Nichols teach in the San Diego (California) Unified School District. They recently spoke with Education World about "starring" in their own daily "shows"; their classrooms have two-way mirrors, video cameras, and microphones. Their students benefit while the two help other educators in their professional development. Included: Things you should know or do before using a two-way mirrored classroom for professional development.

Lisa Ahlstrom knows what performing in a fishbowl is like. An audience of educators watches her every move from behind large two-way mirrors as she teaches her kindergarten class at Fulton Elementary School, a schools in the San Diego (California) Unified School District. Small microphones hanging from the ceiling and video cameras record every sound and action in the classroom. Educators watch Ahlstrom's classes to learn from a master teacher as part of their professional development. This new approach is a far cry from dry professional workshops that often fail to capture and communicate the excitement of superior teaching.

"Honestly, you cannot ignore the fact that there are teachers watching," Ahlstrom, who is in her tenth year of teaching, tells Education World in discussing her role modeling for other educators. "On the other hand, my first responsibility is to the children in my classroom, not the observers.

"Being in the demonstration classroom has taught me a great deal about myself as a teacher," Ahlstrom continues. "I must plan effectively, execute those plans carefully, and then be able to debrief the lessons clearly and honestly with the visiting teachers. This forces me to stop and be truly reflective about my own teaching."

WHAT MIRRORS DO

The mirrors give visiting teachers an "eye" into the classroom. Teachers can observe the classroom environment, the latest teaching methodology, and student interactions with the teacher. The program is part of the district's wider plan to improve instruction as well as student learning.

"The students are unaware that teachers are viewing on the other side of the mirrors," Ahlstrom says. "The mirror allows teachers to see in without creating a distraction or disturbing the students' routine."

"The mirrors combined with video and sound equipment allow teachers to view and then later review on videotape and dissect what they've seen," Jennifer White, a program manager of literacy in the district, tells Education World. "After observing the live class, the teachers can look at part of the video, observe a specific element of a reading workshop conference, and see how the teacher helped the student become a stronger reader."

COMPARABLE FACILITY

Maria Nichols teaches a mixed first- and second-grade class with two-way mirrors and sound and video equipment similar to those at Fulton Elementary at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy, a K-6 magnet school in the Paradise Hills area of San Diego.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say I forget the observers are there, but I am very comfortable with it," Nichols tells Education World. "Most likely, that's a result of many years of having in-classroom observation of teaching and learning before we built the training facility. I don't make an issue of the mirrors, so the children focus on their learning, and observers can see them engaged as they would be without observers."

Nichols says the two-way mirrors accomplish "unobtrusive, authentic observation of teaching and learning." She teaches 11 second graders and eight first graders. Their reading levels on the Developmental Reading Assessment range from 3 to 38, or emergent to fluent. Many ethnic backgrounds are represented in the class, with three students classified as English language learners and many others who speak another language at home. All but two students exceed grade level in reading, writing, and mathematics.

HOW TO DO IT

In addition to the two-way mirror classrooms at Fulton and Zamorano Elementary Schools, the San Diego Unified School District has another such facility under construction for ninth- and tenth-grade English classes at Mission Bay High School at a cost of $1.1 million. The Zamorano facility cost $700,000 and the Fulton lab classroom $80,000. The Fulton lab classroom was so much less expensive because it was created in an existing structure.

Before launching a construction project for a two-way mirror classroom, Jennifer White advises, a school district needs to make sure it has "strong thinking about its course of study. What do you want teachers to learn from the facility?"

Once a district decides to go ahead with a two-way mirror set-up in a classroom, White offers the following tips for success:

  • Select a teacher who is very comfortable with making his or her teaching public. The participating teacher must be a learner who will be coached and is willing to receive professional development in teaching.
  • Choose a strong facilitator or trainer to work with the educators who observe the class. The facilitator must be able to dissect and define what's going on in the classroom during debriefing sessions with the observing teachers to make sure the experience of watching the model teacher actually helps their practice. The facilitator intensely analyzes the reading process that occurs in the class to deepen the understanding of the observing teachers.
  • Create a strong workshop model for the observing teachers' overall day of training, which includes workshops after the actual classroom observation.
  • Invest in high-quality video and sound equipment, and work with excellent technicians to determine the placement of equipment in the classroom. In classrooms in White's district, for example, facilitators can flip switches to pick up generalized sound in the classroom or pick up just a teacher and student speaking if desired.
  • Invite principals and other administrators to observe with teachers. When administrators understand the teachers' new instructional goals, teachers find it easier to put their new ideas into practice.
ANY PROBLEMS?

Lisa Ahlstrom and Maria Nichols agree that the difficulties of their positions are minimal. However, they do feel minor hardships at times.

"The pressure to always be 'demo-quality' on a daily basis is tough. But it keeps me at the top of my game and has pushed me tremendously," says Nichols.

"Obviously, this is a real classroom, and some days are better than others," Ahlstrom says. "As a teacher, I am putting myself out there, and I am doing the same to my students. Not everyone remembers that even demonstration teachers and students are subject to rainy days and the phases of the moon."

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