Planning a 30-hour professional development program in a school:
Key Concepts: Teacher as learner/writers, Cultural change, moving into the classroom, texts and literacy, Teacher professionalism/autonomy, Context—problematizing
Before you begin:
In your initial contact with administrators, you want to do a lot of listening. Listen to not only what is being said, but how it is being said. Listen for clues to how the principal thinks about his or her staff, what professional development has been provided in the past, what the administrator sees as the needs of the teachers. Listen for the underlying tensions and listen for what is not said. Is the administrator responding to outside pressure, does he or she have an instructional plan? How does the administrator seem to view the teachers and the students? Remember that you are hearing only one person’s perspective. You cannot necessarily accept everything at face value. You might use this question guide, not necessarily asking all of these questions but keeping them in mind. Have a menu of options available for how you could do the professional development. You will need to work around the structures that are in place, and this may require inventing new models of professional development. Leave room in the negotiations for teachers to express what they would like to see addressed and what is important to them. You want to do this at the first opportunity.
Devising the ideal program plan:
First, let me say that any plan is always contextual. There is no one ideal plan. You want time with teachers outside of their classrooms in which you can engage them in a great deal of writing. True cultural change will only come through the writing. They need their own words to be heard before they can do this for their students. They need to form a community. It is also useful and more economical to present some ideas to them and engage them in analysis as a group.
You also want to pay attention to teachers’ reading—their reading of their students, of student work and of what transpires in their classrooms. You want a component that gets closer to their actual classrooms. Demonstration lessons can be effective, especially as a beginning strategy for establishing credibility. Look for opportunities to engage as thinking partners with teachers, where you can think together about what you are seeing in the classroom. Another essential component is going from student work to the next instructional level. You need to learn to read student work as data, not as a stopping place, but as a starting place for the next round of instruction. You want to develop teachers’ ability to problematize their instruction in the sense of viewing it as a problem to be solved.
You want to begin by involving teachers in the planning. You need to find out what they perceive their needs to be. I think the stance here is that we want to tailor our professional development program to what you would want to know or get better at in the teaching of writing. As a site, this allows us to introduce new language and to frame concerns as well. So if a teacher says they are interested in comma usage, you can say, I would like to broaden that a little to working on editing skills, or rubric development can be expanded to “assessment of student work, and how to use assessment to inform instruction, for example. Usually in this type of exercise, questions are raised that pique a lot of interest, and the atmosphere can become quite positive, even in a mandated pd situation. Here is an example of the program for our kick-off day at Bakersville School.
Set up clear lines of communication (who should you connect with about making arrangements for your visit?) and meet regularly with representatives of different constituencies in the school. Seek frequent feedback from all stakeholders. This works best if you plan this as a routine. After each session you could plan to schedule a debriefing session, for example. Know who to go to with what type of concern. Always verify and double verify arrangements ahead of time. Do not be afraid to bring up issues or problems. Share with stakeholders what you are seeing.
Understand the context of the work. Every school context is different and every context matters. Find out what teachers have been doing in their classrooms, what other initiatives are going on at the school. How have they been receiving professional development, what is the administrator’s leadership style. What kind of a culture of collaboration do you have in the school? How do teachers work together as a team and under what circumstances? Here is a list of potential questions:
You want to involve teachers in writing as soon as possible because this will change the culture of the school and people’s relationships to each other better than anything else. It will allow teachers to feel heard and seen and to begin to relate to each other in new ways. This will often be difficult. You might encounter resistance. You want to make it inviting, couch it as something that we can try out that could be done with students, but you want to make time for this because it is important. Know that resistance may be part of the process of growth. You might begin with some low risk activities like the name freewrite or the random autobiography, a writing marathon, or drawing their neighborhoods and finding stories. Teachers should experience the writing, even if they are initially resistant. One way to approach this is by relating the writing directly to the classroom. “We are going to try this activity so you can see how students might respond to it, and so we can demonstrate something you might use in your classroom.”
Classroom Demonstrations and Debriefing:
No matter how you end up structuring the professional development, you want to bring it close to actual students. Use student work and collaborative planning right from the beginning. In any demonstration in a classroom, collect the student work and work together to analyze what it tells you. Engage teachers in noticing, questioning and interpreting. This is essential to the work and not an add-on. Make these tasks genuine. Do not have a predetermined solution. Listen to the teachers’ perceptions and hear how they approach student work. You can then frame probing questions to help them to think more deeply. Here is a suggested plan for debriefing the demonstrations. If you are only debriefing student work, start at step 2.
Always respect teachers as learners and as professionals. Often they will ask for reassurance. My inclination is to explore with them how they might know when they are being successful and to help them to evaluate their own work rather than providing reassurance. They should be encouraged to adapt and expand practices and bring back student work to the group. A Story about one way to do this is here. Look for what each teacher can bring and contribute. Remember that this professional development work is identity work. You are helping teachers and through the teachers, their students, construct a different identity for themselves. You need to work on pointing out strengths in teachers as well as students.
The closer you can get to actual classroom situations, the better. Demonstration of practices by teachers in their own classrooms is probably ideal, but may not be a starting place. Demonstrating with them and planning with them is really helpful because the work becomes integrated with their daily realities. When planning a classroom demonstration, follow these steps.
Theory is important. We need to understand why we do what we do. Theory in practice tends to work best. In our handouts, we include the theoretical underpinning of our practice and often provide references for further reading. Then we demonstrate the practice and include alternate activities that address the idea we are trying to get at through the practice. Sample handouts
Listen carefully to how teachers use language. Be explicit about how you are using language. When you use an ambiguous term like “writing workshop” be sure that you make explicit what you mean. You can be explicit about writing project culture. The writing project is very teacher-centered, or we tend to do a lot of collaborative work, etc. I don’t think this should come in the form of a lecture, but just periodic acknowledgements that we come from a particular perspective that may be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable in some settings. Acknowledge the discomfort and go back why you are doing what you are doing. You might even acknowledge that some of the ways we communicate in school can be dysfunctional. Be especially careful to distinguish the writing project from approaches that can be seen to be similar, such as “writing workshop.”
Goals and Plans:
Be clear about your goals, but flexible in your ways of attaining them. Year-long plans will need to be modified. Check in frequently to evaluate where you are and where you want to be. Remember that while it is helpful to have indicators of success that are easier to count, you need to keep your eyes on the prize. We are about starting the engine of teacher empowerment more than about imparting a specific content. If these are the goals I have for this work, what are the implications for program design? Here is a planning session centered on Common Core.
You need to document your work as you go along. Save student work samples, plans, and other forms of documentation. More importantly, you need to set up a time to write a reflection after each session with the teachers. You should take care to first carefully describe, as objectively as possible, what you remember of the actual events that transpired. Try to quote people directly if possible. Cross check your recollections with other writing project people. Then record your interpretations, tentative though they may be, of the events that have transpired. Entertain possible interpretations, but also be sure to record your impressions of what these events meant to you. Finally, discuss possible implications for your work, and what questions this session raises for your team to discuss. Share and discuss these reflections as a team along with implications for future work at the site. Keep a record of these observations. If possible, periodically have teachers do similar reflections and collect them as data as well. Add additional reflection and clarification as you discuss the reflections with your team. If you can archive these on a wiki, a google doc, or some other shared space where others can comment on them, that is extremely helpful. An OP can be another really useful format for processing observations and reflections on a team.
Beyond program evaluations, you will want to think about how to assess changes in teacher attitudes as well as in student writing.