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Building Community and Instructional Muscle the Tch Plus Way!

May 12, 2015 / by Paul Teske

At 6:00 AM on a drizzling Seattle morning, I found myself in a warehouse with barbells, kettlebells, squatting racks, exercise balls, and ropes and gymnastic rings hanging from a 20-foot ceiling. I had just joined what I used to dismiss as the Cult of CrossFit. This was clearly not going to be my grandma's workout.

My reasons? Pure vanity, spurred on by my son grabbing a nice handful of my gut and giggling "chubby." Evidently, the elliptical trainer wasn’t cutting it any more. And honestly, I was getting a bit bored with the rhythmic hum of passively monitoring my calories slowly burning away as I watched Ellen, perused People, and read research articles on video-based professional learning. Seriously, I read A LOT of research; but it wasn't helping my waistline.

Interestingly, my switch to CrossFit has actually taught me a lot about the types of professional learning practices we're promoting in Teams. Who would have thought?

At a loss to describe exactly what CrossFit is, I defer to the Internet. (Yep, I read that, too.) Wikipedia said, it's a "physical exercise philosophy" that incorporates "elements from high-intensity interval training, Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics, powerlifting, gymnastics, girevoy sport, calisthenics, strongman, and other exercises." And another site highlighted that "CrossFit is also the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together. In fact, the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it's so effective."

At my first session of Blast Off training, a month and a half regimen that precedes truly working out in full CrossFit fashion, I met Helena, another newbie. She and I would be each others support for the first session as our trainer, a triathlete named Billy, put us through the wringer while we learned proper technique -- presumably so we wouldn't maim or kill ourselves or each other. I saw Helena and Billy many times during our Blast Off Training those six weeks, and Helena and I, along with a set of other new folks, witnessed each other's buffoonery -- like trying to climb a rope to the ceiling, jumping on top of a 20 inch box from a standing position, doing chin-ups with the aid of a huge rubber band thingy, and squatting in all styles and forms of discomfort. Alas, we made it through, and we were let loose to do a full "WOD," or Workout of the Day.

So what in all this do I actually see as relevant to Tch Plus?

Just as CrossFit shakes up the typical workout, Plus and video-based professional learning disrupts how PD is typically done, and accentuates individual effort alongside collective goals. When I show up to CrossFit there is a workout on the board (consider it my "learning plan"), and I know others who are there will be doing the same thing at the same time, struggling through the same set of lifts and contortions that push our limits and make us a bit vulnerable. This process goes beyond learning something new and just trying it out alone in the comfort of one’s own space. I was constantly trying out new lifts and moves, and I was constantly getting feedback from my trainer and peers as I continually worked toward perfecting my technique. Every session, I work on the various lifts and moves, and every session, I get feedback.

Everyone in my small group sees me and struggles with me. This can be intimidating and requires trust and the acceptance of failure as we learn together. There really isn't any hiding my "unique" form as I do an overhead squat with others, so too there isn’t any denying the left turn my instruction took as I watch myself on video privately or with peers. In fact, everyone that day goes through the same regimen, and their times and other stats are put on a big board. Peers and coach offer feedback and support continuously through WODs.

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While I'm not suggesting that we as teachers should post our instructional stats about ourselves within our communities, I am arguing that there is power and value in being part of a community that is working toward and struggling with personalized goals together, and cheering each other on as we push our comfort zones in the classroom. As John Bransford, the famous learning scientist wrote in How People Learn, "Practice doesn't make perfect. It makes permanent." The point of this statement is that it takes feedback and continual reflection and analysis of one's practices to actually get better, and that practice without feedback can potentially reinforce bad habits.

While writing this piece, I remembered Billy taking video during my second full class doing an exercise called Ball Against the Wall. For this move, you squat holding a weighted ball, and in the thrust upward the ball is propelled up, bounces against the wall, and is caught on the return, resulting in another squat. While it sounds easy enough, it totally isn't. In this video, I'm second from the end in the blue shirt, next to the woman in the pony tail. And I have terrible form! In a mere five minute clip, I see what I'm doing wrong. I don’t squat. I'm catching the ball with a bent back and I look like a gym nebbish. If I continue to do this, I'll need chiropractic help. Billy told me as much the next time I did this exercise.

While embarrassing, I know what to work on next time. My vision of what I thought I was doing did not mesh with reality. As we know, this is a foundational part of our Tch Plus work. Video helps us illuminate our practice -- the good and the bad. I now know that next time, I need to get my butt down, squat, and propel the ball through my legs, not just my arms. This will mean slowing down to make sure I have the move, perhaps sacrificing speed, making sure I got it and am making the most of the exercise.

As I've watched Plus partners such as Fresno, Upland, Teton, and Educate Texas grow over the last year, I'm seeing less focus on the technology and more on a set of practices that help them get better. Plus practices are becoming a normal process of getting better at what you do. Plus isn't just about documenting and sharing; it's about diving deeply, practicing, and offering feedback through trusted collaboration. Way to go on building your instructional muscle!

Topics: Professional Learning, Growth Mindset

Paul Teske

Written by Paul Teske

Paul stumbled into education 20 years ago when he was asked to direct a one-act play and coach the Knowledge Bowl team in his northern Minnesota home town. Since then, he has worked in all levels of education, from teaching 9th/10th grade and college English, to coordinating post-doctoral programs, to directing K-8 after school technology programs throughout south Seattle. He was the technology instructor for the Teacher Education Program at the University of Washington, and he also designed curriculum and directed research and teacher learning efforts as part of Educurious, a nonprofit specializing in project-based learning that links students with experts in the field. He now works for Teaching Channel Plus as the Vice President of Engagement, helping states, districts, and schools launch and sustain professional learning on Plus.

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