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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: The Kind of Professional Development We Need - Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 26, 2015 11 min read
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(This post is Part Two in a four-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

What are the do’s and don’ts of professional development?

Today’s post is the second in a four-part series exploring how we can improve the state of teacher professional development today.

The series began with Part One of an essay by well-known educator and author Rick Wormeli, which finishes with Part Two today. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Rick at my BAM! Radio Show. The final two posts in the series next week will include guest commentaries from multiple educators, as well as comments from readers.

Response From Rick Wormeli - Part Two

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and writer living in Herndon, VA. He can be reached at rwormeli@cox.net. His recently released book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching is now available from Association for Middle Level Education. He can be reached at rwormeli@cox.net and on Twitter at @rickwormeli2:

Rick began sharing his professional development recommendations in Part One. They are continued here:

  • Teacher Smarter, Not Harder: Get on-line! Participate in the national conversations of your field. When we join the on-line discussion groups or single-event PD offerings, we get perspective and divergent ideas, and we see how the nation and profession are moving. It helps us make the small changes locally.Maintain a place on the school’s Intranet to post notes from conferences, article summaries, relevant blogs, etc. as well as questions regarding a topic of interest to you and colleagues.Sign-up to receive updates from thoughtful bloggers whose thinking you value.Subscribe (It’s free) to Smartbriefupdates, which is a Website dedicated to providing a brief description and clickable URL for the top 10 to 12 articles in a particular field every day. They do this for many professions, so go to the Education section and sign-up for the areas that interest you. Sample education topics include: Stem Education, Middle Level Teaching, Special Education, ASCD (general education), Ed Tech, Geography, English and Literacy, Social Studies, Math, Scientific Research, Education Leadership, Education Policy.Participate in E-Seminars, Webinars, and Webcasts by Ed Week, ASCD, Lead and Learn, and your subject associations.
    Join Twitter! It’s free, and takes only 30 seconds to join. While on Twitter, we can see photos, videos, and thoughts of others real-time as they happen. In a few minutes on Twitter a few years ago, I saw educators post the links to live streaming video of Venus passing across the Sun, a famous author’s keynote address, an orchestra’s riveting performance of Edvard Grieg’s work, a tour guide’s explanation of sculpture in Florence, Italy, a surprise discovery under ice in the Antarctic, or the final moments of World Cup football (soccer), and it’s only expanded since then. We can “sit in” on classroom lessons delivered all over the world, and if the teachers allows, we can interact with their participants as they happen.

    For a wealth of new ideas, explore the varied demonstration lessons at TeacherTube, SchoolTube, the Teaching Channel, on-line tutorials, and at publishers’ Websites that often have education authors on video explaining their ideas. Here’s one from Cris Tovani (Stenhouse author).

  • Mentor New Teachers. We learn most by explaining what we do and teaching others. All of us grow in our own thinking and pedagogy when we mentor new teachers in the field. It puts our philosophies to the test. Be willing to change your practices, however, if some come up wanting. It’s wonderful when that happens. We can also become a Lab School for a local university, which will have professors and student teachers in the building conducting observations and analyses, elevating every conversation.

  • Video your Lessons and Obtain Collegial Critique. Every time we do this in schools, teachers comment that it was among the best PD they ever experienced. Start a peer observation program in which one colleague observes another then offers reflections on the observation afterwards. Video a teacher teaching, then sit in small groups and analyze what worked, what to improve for next time, and potential extensions of the lesson.

  • Read Professionally. Make it a regular part of the week. Read five articles a month from hardcopy or on-line sources you respect, or three education books a year, but be sure to annotate in the margins: personally interact with the text, agreeing/disagreeing, starring interesting points, making connections to other ideas, just as you would have students do, then share those insights with a colleague or three. It’s the discourse following the professional reading that brings these ideas to life.

  • Regularly Discuss Hypotheticals and Scenarios. When we are emotionally safe and non-urgent, we think clearly. When we have the opinions of our respected colleagues in our heads, we are better fortified for the immediate responses we have to make dozens of times in every class period. So, identify 30 or more weird, not-easily-decided scenarios that happen in our classrooms, then ask colleagues to sit in groups of 4 to 6 and brainstorm successful responses to them: A student uses swear words in a heated argument with a teacher; one member of a small, student group is not pulling his weight; a student plagiarizes yet asks for forgiveness and wants to re-do the project ethically; three students are chronic disruptors; 11 students don’t do their homework; a parent is angry over a grade you recorded on her son’s assignment. Discuss these and other classroom challenges in advance and your responses will be more effective when they really happen.

  • Cultivate Personal Creativity. My whole lesson today is based on accessing those three Websites, but the school’s Internet is down, so what can we do instead? Small groups are not working in my class, what can I do? How do I get these students to stay focused on their group tasks? I’ve backed myself into a corner explaining an advanced science concept, and it’s not making sense to me, let alone to my students. What should I do? I’m supposed to differentiate for some of my students, but I don’t see any time to do it. My school’s current electronic gradebook system doesn’t allow me to post anything but norm-referenced scores, and I want to be more criterion-referenced in my grades -- What can I do? Because I’m a veteran teacher, I’ve been asked to be the rotating teacher using a cart and moving from classroom to classroom each period so the new teacher can have his own room -- How will I handle this? These are all problems that can be solved through creative thinking. Unfortunately, teachers are not encouraged or taught to think creatively, nor do some teachers take the time to cultivate personal creativity. We can’t get creative students, however, from non-creative classrooms. There is no book, video, or presentation we can see that will tell how to respond successfully to every classroom challenge, but we can solve our own problems if we are creative. This is not saved for, “When I have time,” because we will never have the time. It’s critical for students’ success for teachers to be creative and to develop students’ creativity. The quandaries listed above and many practical tips on how to cultivate creativity in others are available in my May 2012 article in the Middle Level Section of the NASSP Website:

  • Study Executive Function. Weirdly, many schools of teacher preparation don’t teach this very often, but it provides the answers to many of the issues that flummox us daily. Executive Function in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is where we find the capacities for time management, impulsivity control, being aware of the consequences of our words and actions, honoring deadlines, reading social situations correctly so we can respond appropriately, and more. These are all issues with which our students struggle. When we have the perspective and tools for helping students build executive function, we don’t take students’ digressions from these capacities personally; we are empowered instead. To get started in this area, read, Late, Lost, and Unprepared by Joyce Cooper-Kohn, Laurie Dietzel), Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson, Richard Guare, Smart but Scattered Teens by Peg Dawson, Richard Guare, and Colin Guare, or my piece, “Looking at Executive Function”

  • Conduct Instructional Roundtables. These are grassroots in nature, started and conducted by teachers. They are one hour or less and advertised in advance via e-mail or postings at the teacher boxes in the front office: “For those who are interested: Thursday, May 10th, 3:30 to 4:20 p.m, my classroom: How to Help Students Monitor Their Own Progress. BYOSS - Bring Your Snack and Strategy.” Everyone who attends must bring one idea photocopied 12 times (because usually less than 12 show up). Each person presents one strategy he/she finds useful, and the group has to find a way to extend that idea to something else or improve it in some way. So, if 7 people show up, each one walks out with 14 ideas.

  • Ask the Larger Questions of What We Do. This shows us how our efforts fit in the larger enterprise, and it provides perspective for why we do what we do. Exploring our responses to these questions generates perseverance and solutions. On a regular basis and with each other, ask the big questions:

Why do we teacher everyone, not just the easy ones?

What is the role of a school?

How does my approach reflect what we know about students this age?

Why do we grade students?

Do our current approaches serve students best?

How do we communicate with parents?

How does assessment inform our practice?

Is what we’re doing fair and developmentally appropriate?

How can we counter the negative impact of poverty/mobility on our students’ learning?

What role does practice play in mastery?

What is mastery for each curriculum we teach?

What is homework, and how much should it count in the overall grade?

How are our current structures limiting us?

Whose voice is not heard in our deliberations?

What do we know about the latest in cognitive theory and how are those aspects manifest in our classrooms? If not, why not?

Are we mired in complacency?

Are we doing things just to perpetuate what has always been done?

Are we open to others’ points of view - why or why not?

Does our report card express what we’re doing in the classroom?

How are modern classrooms different from classrooms thirty years ago?

Where will our practices look like 15 years from now?

To what extent do we allow state, provincial, country, or international exams to influence our classroom practices?

“Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.”

  • Clinical psychologist, teacher, author Haim Ginott

Former Middle Level Director for NASSP, Patti Kinney, reminded me years ago that the most common place most school reforms fail is when leadership doesn’t spend enough time building teacher capacity for the change. This holds true for individual professional development: We need to build capacity for PD in teachers. This means providing not only the tools, but also the time, access, and compelling invitation to make it a teacher lifestyle, 24-7. When interviewing for a new teaching position, let’s ask about PD opportunities, and when interviewing applicants for an open position, let’s inquire about their PD experiences and expectations. It’s our culture.

Great PD happens in schools in which we are encouraged to change one’s thinking in light of new perspective and evidence. To do this, the emotional/political atmosphere must be accepting of candor and constructive criticism. Teachers don’t always have the tools for critiquing colleagues constructively, so building those skills may be a prerequisite to new building initiatives or individual growth. As writer and educator, Margaret Wheatley, says, “We can’t be creative unless we’re willing to be confused.” Effective schools can’t afford to have teachers spending most of their daily energy convincing others that they know what they’re doing. It needs to be a safe place to make mistakes, an inviting place to draw insights from those mistakes, and our passion that we improve classroom practice as result.

Thanks to Rick for his two-part contribution!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for Part Three in a few days...

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