So I just finished two workshops (an hour-and-a-half apart, if you drive fast), and both of them were versions of workshops I’d done successfully several times before, on topics I’m really familiar with. As I was leaving the office, I said to my boss, “y’know, I’m feeling much more prepared than I was last year. I hope I haven’t jinxed myself by being so prepared.”

I think I did jinx myself. I feel like I learned something about good preparation vs. what y’all might call pseudo-preparation (preparation that feels good but doesn’t lead to learning).

Before I write about what happened, though, I have to say that learning something about good teaching through the experience of knowing that you just gave a bunch of students an experience that could have been way better… well, it feels pretty crummy. Even being able to blog about it and maybe contribute to the collective wisdom of math teachers, it still feels pretty crummy to think of the students who are going to have to lead peer-mentoring sessions next week and not only do I suspect that they aren’t as prepared as I could have helped them to be, I don’t even know how prepared or unprepared they are. Blech.

This is not to say, by the way, that they didn’t learn anything. I think they had some good experiences and I know I said a lot of stuff that if they remember it will be really helpful. It’s just that… well, let me tell you what happened.

I had done this workshop for the peer leaders before and I had done stuff with them I liked. So I prepared by planning out the list of things I was going to do. I made copies and found materials and planned out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to make connections among the activities. I knew the content I was going to cover, what I wanted to write on the board, etc. I was really well prepared, way better than last year.

Last year, I had prepared on the fly, as I was driving from Philadelphia to Dover. Prepping while driving meant no writing, no looking for problems, no making handouts. So what I did instead was visualized the workshop. I had imaginary conversations (out loud! yay for talking to yourself while driving!) with the students. I thought through the logistics of each transition over and over, planning what I would say and how the students might respond.

So this year, when I was running out of time to do all the activities and say what I wanted to say, the narrative in my head was all about what I wanted to do and say. I wasn’t as focused on the students and what I wanted to hear from them — I didn’t have a plan in my head for how to listen to my students. And so I was wrapping up the workshop and realizing, I haven’t listened TO them. I’ve listened FOR what I wanted to hear to be able to say my next thing, but I haven’t been having dialogue.

I’d characterize what I spent the morning doing as pseudo-prep. Pseudo-prep for me is planning what experience I’m going to have, what has to happen in the lesson, what I want to say and cover. That only partly works because it’s not preparing to work with my students (as they say, I was preparing to teach content, not teach students). For me, an alternative way to prep seems to be to take long drives before teaching… meaning, to think through dialogues with students, to imagine what I might hear from students and different alternative paths the lesson might take based on those different dialogues. Somehow, I need to find more ways to prepare myself to track and attend to what I want the students to learn, experience, and talk about, and fewer ways to track what I want to say and do.

Summary:

Pseudo-prep, for Max, means (and this will probably be different for you since we all have different processes that help us get ready to do stuff):

  • Focusing on coverage
  • Preparing a sequence of activities I want to be sure to do
  • Planning out what I want to be sure to say and write down
  • Focusing on my actions, not the students’ experiences
  • Planning only one possible sequence of events
  • Not asking myself, “what do I want to learn about my students’ views of this?” and instead asking, “what do I want to tell my students about my views?”

Alternatively, ways I can prep that actually help me do good workshops and lessons:

  • Focusing on what I want to learn about my students.
  • Focusing on how I will track any shifts in their views.
  • Planning different activities that I might use.
  • Thinking about what I might hear from students that I could use to diagnose what they currently think & feel.
  • Thinking about how the activities I have planned move students along a journey towards more nuanced ways of thinking about mentoring vs. tutoring.
  • Having imaginary conversations with students where I think about every crazy thing they could say — so I can feel calm when listening to them say those things!
  • Focusing on the logistics of flexibility — how can I support myself and my students to be comfortable if I decide to do something I didn’t make a handout for. Can I project it? Have them take notes? Send them a summary by email later? What will work best?

I’m thinking that these two kinds of preps can actually take the same amount of time, and the latter works better for me and my students. What does pseudo-prep look like for you? What have you learned about how you prepare best from reflecting on those crummy feelings after a lesson that you know could have been better?