Mary Matthews is a National Facilitator, a CFG Coach, and the technology specialist at Alief Middle School. Donna Reid recently sat down with Mary to find out more about how she has contributed to CFG work in the Houston area. What follows are excerpts from their conversation.
Donna: When did you first become involved in CFG work?
Mary: That was in 1999. I was at Olle Middle School. Because of an [Annenberg] grant, they sent us to a Critical Friends Group conference in Philadelphia and that was my first time being involved in Looking At Student Work. I was so engaged and so amazed at what you could do by using a protocol to look at a student's work. When we came back to campus, we shared some of the things that we did at the conference, and they asked me to be a coach. I finally said yes, and when I went to that training, it literally changed my life.
Donna: Tell me, what are some specific ways that CFGs transformed your life?
Mary: I think because I was a computer literacy teacher, I really taught in isolation. I realized with a Critical Friends Group, I actually had some other teachers to collaborate with. I just saw a huge difference in what I did with my students. And having someone to get ideas from, and to share best practices with, and to bring my own dilemmas, and to try to change what I was doing in my own classroom—that was huge, because before I was really working by myself.
Donna: One of the things that I really admire about you is that wherever your career takes you, you start up CFGs. So, why is that?
Mary: In the beginning, there was money attached to these groups, and when the money went away, I still wanted us to do it without the money—that’s how much the work meant to me. I mean, we met on Saturdays because I thought it was that important to have someone to reflect with and to study with. Critical Friends Groups have a lot to do with who I am, and so it just instantly comes out in the conversations with other teachers. When I came here, they were not as familiar with the work, but I talked about how important the work was, and other specialists that I work with were intrigued with it, so we ended up forming a Critical Friends Group. CFGs are important to me and to the way I work, and the way I think, and the way I interact, and it helped me with my career.
It helps me assess how I'm doing and how I can do things better. So that it all trickles down to the students in the end. That's why I continue to try to work in a collaborative effort with others. Wherever I go, no matter where I go, I'm always going to be trying to get a group of professionals together to help me be reflective.
Donna: Tell me about the work that you do as a National Facilitator for the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF).
Mary: I do enjoy going to those conferences every year with NSRF. I think it's so engaging for people from all over the country to come together in one spot and have those conversations about what we value as educators - which is the students. We value the students. We want them to learn. It’s really amazing once you are in the setting of a group of strangers and you put the forefront on what's so important - which is being able to look at student work. I always take away something from that conference. I think it's powerful work.
Donna: The National School Reform Faculty has an explicit focus on equity. What does that mean to you?
Mary: Equity to me really is: Are you treating all those students in your class at a level where they all can learn? I remember reading a book, "Other People's Children", a long time ago, and I even went to hear Lisa Delpit speak. Her story really touched me. We had a book study. We actually used that book in a study because I was very interested in what she talked about. If you can get teachers to a point to where they can reflect on what equity is and where they play it - just the knowledge of it to me would make them change some of the things that they may or may not do with their students.
Donna: What do you think new CFG coaches should be able to do when they walk out of the five-day new coach training?
Mary: You should be able to look up a protocol and follow it. Read it. And you should be able to engage others in it. Although you haven't done it before, you should be able to do it. Not only that, you should be willing to do it. You should be encouraged to do it. You should say, "You know what, I can do it. I can do it although I've never done it before. I can do it!"
So to me, a new coach should feel empowered that they have some tools, and they have a little experience, they have enough knowledge that they can go ahead and go through that protocol and hold that group accountable to certain standards based on what they were trained to do.
Donna: What is your greatest hope for this work?
Mary: I hope it continues. I know it will in my life. I want to be a light, so I'm hoping that my little twinkles rub off. I'm hoping that people that come into contact with me can feel it. I hope they can feel my passion for it and they feel it enough to want to embrace it because it really is life changing.
Mary Matthews' favorite protocol is the Collaborative Assessment Conference which provides a structure by which teachers come together to look at a piece of work, first to determine what it reveals about the student and the issues s/he cares about, and then to consider how the student’s issues and concerns relate to the teacher's goals for the student. This protocol is unique in that the presenting teacher gives no context before the group begins to examine the work.
Mary shares, "It's shocked me. I've been in so many sessions where things have happened that are unbelievable to me, and it's all because of the way it's set up. You really never know what people are going to see, and you really never know what people are going to say, but to me it's just amazing what can come from that protocol. So really, for me, it's my favorite."
Dear Donna: My notebook from my original CFG New Coach Seminar is in shambles. I usually forget to put the articles back after I make copies for my own learning community, and some of the protocols are so tattered that the copy machine won’t take them anymore. Can you help me replace some of my missing pages?—CAN’T PUT MY HANDS ON WHAT I NEED
Dear Hands: Yes, I can help you replace your missing pages by reminding you of the wonderful resources on the National School Reform Faculty website. Just click on "Resources" on the left side of the page and you will find links to dozens of protocols as well as many articles that are especially helpful for new CFGs.
If you prefer being able to flip through pages in your hands rather than on a screen, check out the new National School Reform Faculty Resource Book. It includes all of the most-used protocols and the $20 cost includes shipping.
If there is something that you still can’t find, then contact me or Tim Martindell in the Houston A+ Challenge office. With enough lead time, we can look through our archives and find just the thing you need.
If you have questions for Dear Donna, send them to CFGCoach@houstonaplus.org. Donna Reid is a Houston-based National CFG Facilitator and a consultant with Houston A+ Challenge.