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Why You Can’t Learn [Blank] From A Book

Ever since I was a little kid I loved beating my dad up. Our wrestling matches were epic. I especially loved when he fought dirty. Using his beard stubble as sandpaper on my face was a favored tactic of his. He also taught me a knuckle in the ribs works wonders in a scrum.


(Thanks for teaching me the art of fighting dirty dad)

 I loved watching and pretending I could fight like Batman.

 I loved watching the World Wide Wrestling Federation. (King Kong Bundy for the five count)


I loved Rocky.

And if you know me at all you KNOW I love[d] martial arts movies.

When I was six my friend Gene Oboski’s mom gave him a pair of boxing gloves. We used his mom’s kitchen timer to time boxing rounds. We would go three rounds in his room a few times a week. When I got older we continued this practice at another friends house. Three rounds of boxing in his backyard or garage. Sweat, fear, hard contact, the taste of cool cement in your mouth.

When I bought my first car I spent way too much time driving to: friends, girl-friends, comic book shops, pizza shops, and used book stores. The used book store martial arts aisle was my favorite. Just looking at the books filled your imagination with all of the awesome new moves you could pull on an opponent. I remember buying an Aikido book and a Judo book.


As I was paying for the book, the young cashier looked at the books, then looked at me and said:

“You know, you can’t learn Judo from a book.”

As I sat in my car I remember thinking “YOU can’t learn Judo from a book, but I’m not only a great reader, but I know the ins and outs of mixing it up… I CAN learn Judo from a book.”

I was wrong of course.

A few years after that I took my first Budo Ju-Jitsu class. All those years of watching and reading about fighting were doused with the cold hard reality of class instruction and full-contact sparring. I loved it. I started spending all my time at the Dojo. I would show up at 3pm and stay until they closed at 10pm. I started teaching the kids’ class first, and then the adult classes. I finally saw myself in a career. I could do this for a living. I didn’t need college.

And then the Dojo went out of business. My teachers, Jack and John, were great teachers, but far too nice to run a business. They didn’t charge belt fees, they didn’t make people sign year-long contracts. Someone had “[swept] the leg” on my future. As I talked to Jack and Jon in their tiny office, they both said to me: “you should teach.”

“Teach what?”

“Anything” Jack said, “you’re a good teacher- you remember what it’s like to struggle with something new, you connect well with your students.”

So now I had a goal. Figure out “what” I wanted to teach and become a teacher.


Even before I started my credential program at Chapman University I started substitute teaching. What I saw in the classroom didn’t jive with what I was learning in class: from my teachers or their books. Everything seemed so easy when they talked about it in class. But in class, all it took was a kid making goat noises, a fire alarm, a single double entendre to whack your lesson out of alignment.

I learned so much more in the classroom. I even started doing observations while I was substitute teaching. Instead of reading a book or taking a nap during my “free” period I asked teachers if I could watch them teach. I developed favorites and their class became my learning lab.

You would have thought I would continue that practice as a teacher, but I didn’t. Our prep periods are sacred. Teaching is the most draining job I have ever experienced. During my prep period I’m: scrambling to make copies, adjusting lesson plans, eating because I’ll have a lunch meeting, grading, making calls, meeting with an administrator…. the list is endless.

So I teach, in my room. Alone.

Sure I went to the occasional conference, read a book or an article on some new teaching strategy or lesson plan. Often I would overhear an idea in the teacher’s lounge. But I never saw those ideas in action. I was just “learning Judo from a book.”

That was my life until Sean Ziebarth took over the Instructional Rounds process at Fountain Valley High School. My high school had introduced Instructional Rounds a few years before, but I never had time for it. Hearing some teachers complain about how some of the administration was running the process didn’t help stoke my curiosity. But once my friend took it over, I decided to trust him and try it out.

What are Instructional Rounds? Click on the link to read a more detailed description by Robert Marzano, but just think of medical rounds. A group of professionals watching another professional in their practice and then talking about the experience afterward. For me the most mind-opening part of Instructional Rounds is being in the classroom.

It’s about watching something with a 360 degree view: walking inside the action, around the action, seeing the action for more than one second. Instructional rounds is not sitting in a conference hearing about an instructional strategy and it’s definitely not reading a book or blog post on an instructional strategy. It’s about watching a real teacher, teach real students, in real time. It’s about having the time to reflect on what you saw and discuss what happened and how it would look in your class with a group of peers. It’s about opening your class to others so they can see the same.

Instructional Rounds [a snapshot]

Two days ago Sean, Elizabeth, Shannon, and I loaded up my car and went to our first official off-campus Instructional Rounds at Plaza Vista Elementary. I almost danced the moment I walked onto the campus. I love elementary schools. I considered teaching elementary, my wife is a kindergarten teacher, and I just love the buzz and excitement in an elementary classroom.

Plaza Vista is considering adopting Instructional Rounds so they invited us to use the process at their school with a pair of their teachers and their principal.


Sean Ziebarth going over the Instructional Rounds Protocols

While we visited several classrooms I’m going to focus on our visit to Scott Bedley’s classroom.


We walked in the door. Not a single student was in their seats. What the heck was going on? Everyone lined the walls facing the walls. Was this some weird punishment? Then I noticed the whiteboard squares.


Cool. They all have their own whiteboard to solve problems. Scott used Haiku Deck images to get the kids thinking about a possible problem. Then he said “Use this picture to inspire you to create your own problem.”


Let me repeat what Scott said.

Use this picture (he used full screen images from Haiku Deck to create his question prompts)

To inspire you (Yes, he used the word inspiration. Image the learning environment and the expectations in the class when you ask the students to be inspired)

To create (That’s right, no worksheets. Students will create their own learning product)

Your own question (BAM! There it is. Complete ownership of the learning process. Not just answering a question, but creating the question.)

I walked around his 360 degree learning environment. The whiteboards made looking at student work easy. Every board had an A partner B partner on the top so Scott can quickly ask students to check with their B partner. He showed three more pictures. Repeated the “Use this picture to inspire you to create your own questions” phrase. Some students used the picture literally.


Because they had the freedom to create their own problems some students went beyond the image and created a problem based on what THEY liked to think about.

 bed7aThis student must be reading Sean’s mind. 

My favorite part of the fifteen minute observation was watching a student who used the images literally (for the first two questions) finally break free of the picture model and find an image from his mind to create the question.


Someone must play Minecraft…

Here are just a few things I thought of during the observation.

  1. I used to have more whiteboards in my room. I’m going to replace my two bulletin boards which are sadly underused with whiteboards.
  2. Scott used white paper behind a window to create even more whiteboards. Can’t install a whiteboard because there’s a window there… no problem.
  3. No more waiting for students to find paper or pen. No more students borrowing paper from each other. (Usually the same students are hit up for extra paper- a big thanks to parents everywhere who buy far too much paper for their students and wonder where it goes)
  4. This gets students up out of their desks. Love it.
  5. I have students create their own questions. [Link] I’m glad to see others doing this.
  6. I love using pictures to inspire the questions. It’s both a scaffold and a leaping off point.
  7. I loved the language of the prompt. The use of the word “inspire.”

I found out later that Scott has his students do a gallery walk and take pictures of the problems they want to tackle. Cool.

Yes there are times I see a picture and that changes my teaching. Yes there are times someone tells me about something or I read about something and I try it out in my classroom, but Instructional Rounds (I.R.) SHOWS me that it works. You end up noticing many things while you are in the room. For example I noticed that Scott has permanently placed “Agree” “Strongly Agree” Disagree” “Strongly Disagree” signs high up on his classroom wall.


There is a promise in those signs. They tell me (and his students) that controversy will enter the class. It’s a promise that movement will be a part of the class. It’s an organizational structure that makes a process less about the process and more about the learning.

I find it fascinating that we watch game film in sports, that we encourage student teachers, BTSA teachers to watch others teach, that we know the value of “seeing” and yet as veteran teachers we rarely get out of the room to watch others teach. It’s uncomfortable asking another teacher if you can watch them in action. That’s the importance of having Instructional Rounds formalized at your school. There are many teachers on our campus who don’t or can’t do the observation part of IR. Maybe they don’t have a prep period this year, maybe they took on a new prep and are swamped. Regardless, most of our teachers on our campus participate in IR by having one of these, outside their door.


Imagine what that does to your school. A school full of classrooms where drop-by visiting is encouraged. I have to tell you that knowing that someone may pop in my class at any moment makes me want to elevate my “game.” I love my students and want them to experience the best I have to offer, but that sign outside my door helps me on my “off” days. (BTW you can always give the “not now” sign to an observer and they’ll come back another time.)


As the student teacher coordinator at Fountain Valley High School I strongly recommend the following to elevate your teaching:

PS: My class works on their student blogs once a week during “Writing Wednesdays.” Feel free to shoot me an email, grab a visitor pass, and stop by. We are freeway close. See you soon.

PPS: I want to thank the following teachers at Plaza Vista Elementary for trusting us and giving us their time in joining us for rounds and opening their classrooms: Toni Wilson, Rebecca Nakagawa, Scott Bedley, Christy Smith, Anna Nguyen, and of course their super nice Principal- Mr. James Parker, who volunteered to take notes on the poster paper so that his teachers could focus on talking and listening.

Irvine Rounds

PPPS: Free burrito to the first person who can identify the movie where I found the image for this blog post’s featured image.


  1. Great blog. Time to reflect and time to watch and share is revitalizing. I love it. And I hate it when I fall out of the habit! I need to get those “agree/disagree” signs back on the wall.

  2. Love this post! This is something I should definitely bring up to my principals. As a tech coach, I’m actually doing this right now on my own, but formalizing the process would show that it is beneficial for everybody, and that can start the change things!

    BTW – I cheated to answer your question, but the movie is Sanjuro.

  3. The best thing a book can do is prompt us to go try something new or think about things in a new way – this post is a big ol’ barrel of gasoline we get to spread over the many sparks of interest that teachers everywhere have for IR. So many teachers I know and work with feel a powerful longing for this kind of work, but alone in their room or trapped in the machinations of the typical day there’s no chance to get their head out of the weeds. Something new feels intimidating, impossible to accomplish in its bigness, and we forget that it can and should start small and grow over time – even 15 minutes of sitting in a colleague’s class per week is a rush of fresh water flowing into us. I’m completely spoiled – I float in and out of classes every day, and when my day has taken a difficult turn I just go shoulder up to a group of students and I feel happy and light again…yeah, every teacher deserves that freedom, that source of inspiration.

    Thank you.

  4. Two more comments/thoughts:
    1. It took a financial and executive decision on the part of our former principal Mr. Herzfeld to put an emphasis on Instructional Rounds at FVHS. Mr. Ziebarth is given a release period to oversee and keep the momentum going. You are going to need to make it a priority. Priorities get time and/or money.
    2. We have collaboration time at FVHS, but too much of it is out of our hands. IR gives YOU the ability to pick how, when, and for how long you are going to learn something new that interests you.

  5. Inspiring to see this given value through the school’s structure and carried out with so much enthusiasm… agree as well that there is a LOT to learn from the Primary sector on classroom dynamic and culture which can be grown with patience / imagination… PS I have a sofa in my room (earlier post!) @thinklish

  6. Always enjoy your posts, and I’m especially happy to have found this one. I’ve noticed the #observeme movement and investigated it further because I liked the idea. Not only was your additional information helpful, but the lesson that you observed was amazing too and I loved reading your reflection.
    I guess sometimes good things need a new name to create buzz so they can be revisited when they have been forgotten. I’ve been teaching for 17 years and I missed Marzano’s instructional rounds somehow, but I find it interesting how a new name/movement can lead back to some original and good ideas.

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