Teacher Observed: Domenica Vilhotti

Class Observed: English 101

Date of Visit: October 15, 2007

Observer: Glenice Woodard, colleague

Activity: Charette Protocol for the Writing Process

            At North Carolina State University, English 101, Academic Writing and Research, is a requirement for all but a very small segment of the student population.  It is by no means a remedial course; on the contrary, it is four credit hours of intensive instruction in the basic principles of rhetoric and strategies for academic inquiry and argument as well as instruction and practice in critical reading, including the generative and responsible use of print and electronic sources for academic research.  It is an exploration of literate practices across a range of academic domains, laying the foundation for further writing development at the collegiate level which gives continued attention to grammar and the conventions of standard written English.  As a graduate student working toward a master’s degree in American and British Literature, I taught this class for two semesters.  The following report is based on the observation of a fellow teaching assistant teaching another section of this course.  I begin with a description of what occurred in the classroom, specifically [her conducting an activity called the Charette Protocol for the Writing Process.]

The following diagram is an approximate set-up of the classroom where:

T = teacher, S = student, X = myself as observer


“This is lots of fun.  I learned about it when I used to teach other high school English teachers…”

T explains that this (Charette Protocol) is an excellent strategy for team building and points out that it will help the students reflect on their own writing process.  She further explains that the whole point of this exercise is [to be] metacognitive.  She breaks that down for the students so that they understand that metacognitive means thinking about how one thinks.  She then goes on to explain how the exercise will work.


Students will work in groups of 3.  Each member of the group will free-write for five minutes.  Then one person in the group will volunteer to be the speaker.  The speaker must then talk for 2 minutes, during which time neither of the other members of the group are allowed to speak, but must listen actively.  The speaker may talk about any problems at all concerning the writing of this paper, including the kinds of things that one might not necessarily think about, such as noisy roommates, outside jobs, boyfriend/girlfriend problems etc.  As the speaker talks, the other members of the group must take notes.  After the 2 minutes are up, the other two must talk to each other for 3 minutes, as though the speaker is not there, about what kinds of things the speaker might consider doing to alleviate these problems.  While this discussion takes place, the speaker must take notes and is not allowed to comment at all.  Finally the speaker is given the opportunity to respond and thank his/her classmates for their input.  Then the process begins again with each person in the group taking a turn at being the speaker.


T gives students 4 minutes to free-write – “For four minutes, free-write what you will talk about when you are the speaker.  You do not need to turn this in. (because of time constraints, T is rushing the process)

I think that student dialog might have been better facilitated if some of them had moved their chairs to the opposite sides of the tables.



As the speakers begin, the T writes on the board:


Name & Heading


my issue

what I’m doing about it

by when








-  s-1 had to remind other in her group not to speak while she was giving her rebuttal (she 

   seemed offended at suggestions made by classmates

Is she only observing to see who is talking or whether people are taking notes?  She doesn’t stop at any one group long enough to get the gist of what is being said.

-  as students talk, T walks around observing

-  as time passes, T reduces the amount of

   time students are given to complete the

   process a second time


- the next time T walks around observing, she makes marks in her grade book

Is she giving participation grades?  It does seem important that students know that they are being monitored. 





When finally the exercise has ended, T asks for feedback.  “Would you like for me to set aside 7 minutes at the beginning of our next class to finish?”


- the students agree “Yes”


T : Now, fill in the information on the chart that’s on the board.  You have 5 minutes and you must include it in your final folders and get my initials on it before you leave the classroom today.  Everyone who was here today just got a 100% participation grade because you really took this seriously.


T (stands by the door and initials papers as students exit): Good work today!


            How exciting!  I requested specifically of Domenica Vilhotti to observe her class because I was aware of work that she had done in the past with high school English students.  As a former member of Teach for America and professional development leader for English teachers, some of her work has been documented at the Learning Team: Eastern North Carolina web site that she created.  On the day of the observation I had the opportunity to see the Charette Protocol in action.  (More information can be found on the aforementioned web site under the heading Activities & Strategies)  After having watched how involved the students became, I could hardly wait to get back to my own classroom and try it.

            I was quite impressed with the amount of energy Ms. Vilhotti brought to the classroom; the students seemed to feed off of her energy and got excited about the things that excited her.  As a group, the students seemed to want to please her.  They appeared to take everything she said seriously and were putting forth a visible effort to do well.  The overall impression I got was that the students left this lesson with a new appreciation for examining the writing process.  They were made aware of the kinds of things that keep their classmates from doing their best work, and were forced to face their own obstacles to successful writing.  Additionally, they were obligated to think creatively in order to help their classmates.  The end result of this may be that they’ve actually realized that they have the capacity to come up with creative ways of overcoming their own challenges.

            Ms. Vilhotti’s major strengths would be her energy and her expectation level.  Her excitement about the project was passed on to the students effortlessly.  When she asked a question, she expected students to answer and for the most part they did.  This is an excellent example of the adage that you get from people what you expect of them.  She also expected that she would run out of time and she did that as well.  While she seemed to have an aura of rushing for the entirety of the class period, the students didn’t appear to feel the need to hurry at all.  They continued to work at what looked to be a normal pace.  As an outsider, I really got the feeling that the students have become comfortable with Ms. Vilhotti and have built up their own expectations of her.

            Ms. Vilhotti is obviously skilled, and there is little that I would suggest for improving her skill level.  What I would suggest is that she perhaps be more realistic about what she can actually accomplish in a 50 minute time period.  She is so busy trying to squeeze every minute out of her class time that she occasionally misses small things that might be helpful.  For example, when the students broke into groups, it would have been easier for them to talk to each other if they had used both sides of the tables.  Instead, I saw students straining to hear what others were saying from 3 seats away in a room where several people were talking at once.  I also noticed that one student in particular didn’t seem to be participating at the same level as the rest of the class.  Of course no one teacher can see everything or address every situation in a classroom, but I would like to have seen her encourage him to participate more actively.  Ms. Vilhotti had previously informed me that this student athlete had been having some problems in the class.  Personal attention can sometimes go a long way with a student who has no confidence in his own abilities.

            My goal in participating in this formative peer observation was twofold.  First, it was my intent to provide positive feedback in an effort to assist a fellow teacher with the improvement of her teaching skills, but more importantly, to improve my own teaching skills by using the opportunity of observation to discover things that cannot be learned while participating.  It made me stop and reconsider my own energy level in class.  Do I inspire students to do their best?  Do I expect a lot of them, or have I allowed myself to fall into the trap of having low expectations of students because of their status as freshmen?  As a result of having made this observation, I gained several new teaching strategies to try in my own classroom.  I immediately checked my classroom calendar to see when I might fit in a Charette Protocol activity.  Additionally, I made a mental note to openly give participation grades during class for assignments that do not call for students to turn in written work.  Finally, although my teaching style is not remotely like Ms. Vilhotti’s, I began to consider how I might interject more energy into my classroom.  Overall I found this experience not only interesting, but significantly helpful ultimately to improve my skill level as an instructor.