Professional Development Q&A

How to Bring ‘Surprise and Delight’ to Virtual Teacher Training During COVID-19

By Alyson Klein — November 18, 2020 8 min read
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Dyane Smokorowski, the coordinator of digital literacy for the Wichita public schools in Kansas, wants people who run professional development sessions to make them so engaging that educators get FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) if they don’t sign up.

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A former Disney World employee, Smokorowski is inspired by the Magic Kingdom’s focus on bringing “elements of surprise and delight” to the visitor experience. She’s taken teachers to play pickle ball, brought them to an improv stage, and yes, organized a trip to Disney World to model playful, engaging teaching.

Then, the pandemic hit. Smokorowski (or “Mrs. Smoke” to most of her colleagues) can’t bring a group of teachers together in the same classroom, much less a theme park.
So how is the former Kansas Teacher of the Year adjusting? In an email interview with Assitant Editor Alyson Klein, Smokorowski addresses that challenge as well as other questions about teacher professional development. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

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Before the pandemic, you worked hard to bring “surprise and delight” to professional development. Why do you think that approach helps teachers learn?

Surprise and delight is an element to professional learning where the lead facilitator designs something special and unexpected that elicits a positive response for the teachers.

This could be something as simple as a personalized note that acknowledges the hard work and dedication it takes to teach in the current environment or something a bit more complex such as investigating the attendees’ favorite sodas and having them delivered just in time before lunch.

Often I seek out opportunities for attendees to hear from other inspirational teachers via a surprise video conference. In the current environment of professional learning this is still possible. For example, I visited with a teacher who just read The Playful Classroom: The Power of Play for All Ages by Jed Dearybury and Julie Jones, PhD. The teacher was so impressed by the book that I arranged for a quick Facetime call with one of the authors. Another example I’ve used in recent small group trainings is playing improv games that are great for remote or in-house students. These brief moments where teachers light up, giggle, and take deep sighs of relief bring back a renewed sense of joy. It’s really about making connections with other people, seeing them as unique and talented individuals, and helping them know they matter.

This is true in any learning environment, but it’s especially true now when teachers are feeling additional stress and anxiety. Even the smallest gift of a giggle, an “elbow high 5" or a short video message from an inspiring teacher helps a teacher feel appreciated.

What was it like for a professional development expert like you when everything suddenly shut down last spring?

When we saw the writing on the wall that teachers would be moving to remote learning last spring, my professional development colleagues and I shifted into full gear.

I was invited to co-lead the Continuous Learning Task Force in Kansas at the same time that I was playing a leadership role in my own district preparing teachers for remote learning. We dedicated all of our energies to helping teachers navigate digital tools such as Google Classroom, Seesaw, Flipgrid, and Canvas. All of a sudden, every teacher needed additional levels of support.

Some were ready to shift to full personalized learning where student agency in demonstrations of understanding could shine and others were still trying to navigate basic keyboard shortcuts of copy/paste. Needless to say, we embraced differentiated instruction for professional development sessions.

Additionally, our teachers needed a new set of skills to engage students in virtual settings. The majority of teachers had little to no previous experience in blended or virtual environments, so we dedicated time to host virtual brainstorming sessions and lesson plan design.

Often, teachers requested tips and tricks for students to learn with limited resources in their homes. We explored ways students could use found objects such as cardboard, sidewalk chalk, pantry items, and items found in nature to practice spelling, math, and writing skills. For older students, we often discussed how cellphones were creation tools for video production, photo essays, graphic design, and podcasting.

Our goal was to help both students and teachers be creative and celebrate learning opportunities both with screens and without. We also explored ways to build a positive classroom culture with students through video conferencing so students wanted to attend virtual class meetings and feel comfortable to engage with their teachers and classmates. Much of these discussions focused on parlor games that could support learning such as charades for vocabulary practice or trivia games for review, but we also explored how these games and more could be used for online family engagement sessions.

How has the pandemic limited professional development for teachers?

One thing that became clear over the spring semester is how relevancy, agency, and feedback are the three keys to great learning both online and in person. These three elements 1) Relevance: students needing to experience personal relevance and real world connections to content 2) Agency: students have voice and choice in how they demonstrate understanding and 3) High Quality Feedback: students need to know more than just a letter grade.

They need detailed feedback that helps them reflect on their learning while helping them move forward. Sadly, these elements took a backseat during the spring semester, which quite possibly contributed to poor student engagement. When we moved to professional learning for the fall semester, we spent time highlighting these elements, but the need for teachers to feel confident in both synchronous and asynchronous digital learning took priority.

With the ever- changing need to pivot on short notice looming over teachers, the conversations around deeper levels of learning are limited. I do believe, however, that we will move closer to those meaningful conversations in the spring semester once teachers feel confident in hybrid and fully remote environments.

Are you able to bring any of that experiential learning to this new socially distanced world? How?

Site-based, experiential learning is still happening, but it’s shifted to creating classroom-focused [virtual field trips on Microsoft Teams]. These virtual sessions allow us to have up to 20,000 attendees and have given us a new opportunity to reach thousands of students all at once. To design these experiences, my district ed-tech team has forged new relationships with local museums, zoos, bookstores, and organizations to bring real world connections of content to our students while also providing enrichment learning opportunities.

The district has hosted site-based discussions about animals at the zoo, author visits, a performance reading of Edgar Allen Poe for Halloween, a Day of the Cultural Exchange with a local bakery and with a school in Mexico, as well as interviews with veterans. Upcoming events will focus on Kansas history, civil rights, and more.

How can you model engaging lessons with “elements of surprise and delight” for teachers in remote or hybrid learning environments?

One of my favorite ways to bring in that surprise and delight element is through drama games. For example, as a way to reinforce short story elements or sequence of events, playing String of Pearls is a great activity to build community and practice those skills. Instead of lining students up in a face-to-face setting, teachers simply play with the students on the screen.

The first student on the screen starts the story, the next two students continue the story, and the fourth student shares the conclusion. A great vocabulary activity is the home scavenger hunt. Students can either find something in the house that would represent a vocabulary word or use Legos or even paper and crayons to draw an example of the word.

For example, if the vocabulary word was “change,” there are multiple visuals that could represent the word. One student might grab coins, another could hold up a pair of socks to show changing clothes, and yet another could hold a piece of ice to explain physical change. Use these visuals as a class discussion around a vocabulary word before reading a passage. The students will be able to connect a deeper meaning of text with keywords.

What do you think teachers will continue to need during these difficult times?

I fully believe teachers will need more opportunities to collaborate with each other and others outside of their buildings. Our large virtual field trip events are easily adapted to the classroom level. No matter the content, connections to careers and real world applications exist. Museums, national parks, zoos, and more that rely on field trip events are looking for ways to connect with classrooms virtually.

I fully believe teachers will need more opportunities to collaborate with each other and others outside of their buildings.

Teachers simply need to find the education contact at these locations and learn more about what opportunities exist or be willing to brainstorm with the organization to design a personalized event for their students.

Additionally, teachers are seeking screen-free learning opportunities while still providing accountability and engagement with their students. For example, while on a live call, teachers challenge students to upcycle an old pair of socks as puppets to explain how to solve a math equation or ask students to create paper slide shows to explain their top takeaways from yesterday’s lesson. I believe more of these ideas will be shared through the winter months and into the spring once teachers feel comfortable working in their current environments. My hope is teachers continue to share strategies and student samples on social media so we all can grow from one another.

What else should district leaders and teachers know about trying to make PD more engaging?

Don’t forget that all learners including adult learners want to have fun while learning. It’s okay to engage them in giggles, challenge them to create with hands-on materials, and provide a little special surprise and delight along the way.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.

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