Teaching Observation by Dept Chair

TO:                 Joseph Rayle, Chair, FSA Personnel Committee

FROM:           David Smukler

DATE:                        November 7, 2013

RE:                  Observation of Dr. Maria Timberlake


Dr. Maria Timberlake invited me to observe her teaching as part of the review process for her application for reappointment at SUNY Cortland. I observed Dr. Timberlake teach a section of FSA 210 – Introduction to Inclusive Education – which was offered from 2:50 to 4:05 p.m. in Van Hoesen 229. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to observe Dr. Timberlake in action.


The topic of this class was how to approach designing instruction in a way that supports diverse learners. Doctor Timberlake began by welcoming the class and presented a schedule of what to expect during the class period. First on the agenda was an activity that was clearly part of a familiar routine for the students. Three students (whose turn it was) came to the front of the classroom to lead a community builder. At Dr. Timberlake’s request, other students were asked to recall purposes they had learned previously for using brief community building activities in inclusive classrooms. Then the three students presented their activity, which was similar to “twenty questions” and which their classmates found very engaging. They ran it for four different volunteers. Dr. Timberlake debriefed the activity by eliciting ideas for how this activity might be used and adapted to various grade levels and situations.


Then, before launching into the day’s topic, Dr. Timberlake reviewed earlier material to remind her students of the larger course context that this day’s topic would be part of. The review related to supporting positive student participation in inclusive classrooms. She reviewed three principles or “frameworks” for responding to challenging classroom behavior: (1) developing a theory about the behavior, (2) using techniques to slow down adult responses (the mnemonic is “STAR” for “stop, take a breath, affirmation, relax), and (3) understanding that student behavior sends a message, often about an unmet need.


Dr. Timberlake used various approaches to introduce her new topic. A PowerPoint presentation provided diagrams and much of the terminology in a learner-friendly format. She began by focusing on terminology from an assigned reading. She used a variant of the “think-pair-share” format in which she had students write their thoughts down about three terms: “multi-level,” “authentic” and “differentiated,” which she said recurred frequently in the reading. After writing these thoughts, students turned to partners and compared their ideas. Dr. Timberlake asked these pairs to rate their confidence in what they knew about the terms by using an exclamation point to indicate high confidence or a question mark to indicate low confidence. She also used a brief lecture format supported with PowerPoint visuals to contrast the terms “universal design for learning” and “differentiated instruction,” as well as language associate with both concepts. In differentiated instruction the terms “presentation,” “process” and “product” are common; in universal design these become “representation,” “engagement” and “expression. Dr. Timberlake also contrasted what she called “the dot” (doing things one way) with “the star”; being a star teacher involves looking for multiple approaches to presentation/representation, process/engagement and product/expression. During her presentation, she frequently elicited feedback from students to check for understanding and to engage them in the lesson. The students were responsive and their responses suggested that they were well engaged and curious about the content.


This mini-lecture was reinforced with a slide presentation (with music) on the topic of differentiation, showing how it can play out in the context of the classroom.


Dr. Timberlake then divided the students into groups of three for an activity that used a “jigsaw” format. In each group, one student became the content person, one the process person, and one the product person. Each role had a color-coded handout with tables that listed multiple ideas for that area (representation, engagement, or expression). Each group of three was then given a different picture book and asked to begin planning an activity based on this book for a first grade classroom that would address three English Language Arts common core learning standards. These were projected on the screen at the front of the classroom for easy reference by the groups. The distinct roles of each group member allowed them to take charge of one of the three aspects of the lesson that would lead toward an effective, universally designed lesson. After these groups met and brainstormed ideas for their plan, students were reorganized, putting all of the blue, pink or yellow members together in meta-groups in order to share how they each approached their aspect of the planning. In other words, there were now three groups, one composed of all the “content” people, one with all the “process” people, and one with all the “product” people.


During both phases of the group time, Dr. Timberlake circulated between groups, responding to questions, giving feedback and reframing students’ ideas more clearly or with greater depth. As the group time drew to a close, Dr. Timberlake indicated that the next step would be to evaluate the plans students had generated, and that they would be doing this in their next class.


The class period ended with a short question and answer session about upcoming assignments.


Several aspects of this lesson struck me as particularly effective. First of all, I observed strong student interest and participation throughout, despite the complexity and unfamiliarity of the material. Secondly, I appreciated Dr. Timberlake’s manner with students, which was warm, and highly reflective. The use of the community builder routine also drew students into a classroom culture that encouraged risk-taking and participation. Throughout the lesson she accepted students’ input readily, often restating ideas in ways that led to clearer understandings. The students were motivated to participate, and rewarded for doing so by a sense of contributing. Thirdly, Dr. Timberlake created frequent “signposts” in the lesson to help students. She began by reviewing an earlier lesson and ended by anticipated a future one. She framed how the day’s lesson fit into the larger course context, and how one aspect of the lesson fit into the context of the whole lesson. She used mnemonics, such as the dot and the star. She tied aspects of her lesson back to the experiences her students are having in their field placements, for example by basing the jig-saw activity on common core standards, or by asking how the community builder could be adapted for different student populations. Fourthly, she used formative assessment effectively by having students assign themselves “!” or “?” to self-assess their comprehension of terminology in the textbook. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, her lesson modeled the very concepts she was trying to convey. She used multiple means of presentation (prior reading, adapted think-pair-share, mini-lecture, PowerPoint slides, and slideshow), multiple means of engagement (community building routine, frequent student opportunities to respond, examples drawn from their field experiences), and multiple means of expression (well-designed jig-saw activity, based on common core learning standards, supported with handouts and children’s literature, and providing the college students the opportunity to move around the classroom and engage with different peers).


I very much enjoyed the opportunity to observe Dr. Timberlake, and felt that I learned a great deal from her class about how to convey complex material in a way that is accessible to the teacher candidates in our programs. Over the course of her career so far, Dr. Timberlake has taught students with significant disabilities, veteran teachers, graduate students, and undergraduate students. She clearly puts enormous effort into preparing for her classes and supporting her students, and this effort was apparent in the class that I observed, which ran smoothly and challenged our teacher candidates to grow. Our department is fortunate to have Dr. Timberlake as part of our community.



CC: Maria Timberlake


Leave a Comment