Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Making the professional development (or growth) plan relevant

In my last post I rambled a bit about what we call professional development. I remember being in a meeting in one of my former corporate lives in which we discussed what we should call this work we were doing to help teachers improve their practice. We hedged and decided on "professional growth and development."

As Gertrude Stein wrote, "A rose is a rose is a rose." The fact is that it doesn't matter what we call it. We have to do a better job of executing.

Point 1: Not all teachers are in the same places in their careers.
Point 2: Not all teachers have the same teaching styles.
Point 3: Not all administrators have the same experience nor the same leadership styles.
Point 4: Some of our teachers need more coaching and mentoring than others.
Point 5: Ditto for administrators.
Point 6: Not all educators have the same learning styles.

The challenges for districts and schools? Time and money. And, in some cases (yes, I'll dare to say it), unions.

Our habit has become to have one or more days of so-called professional development at the start of the school year. That time when most teachers really just want to make sure their classrooms are organized, they have the materials they need for the beginning of school, and that their technology works. In other words, they are focused on getting ready for school.

Our habit has become to have several in-service days throughout the school year. These pockets of often random professional development to which someone has been invited to address the entirety of the school or to be one of several presenters during the day so teachers can choose the sessions they want to attend. In some cases administrators have surveyed teachers to find out what the teachers want to learn and in others the administrators have made choices based on some criteria. I've presented in the former and the latter. The latter tends to be much more effective and yet, even then, there are unhappy teachers because the session doesn't live up to its billing or the presenter wasn't very good or the content wasn't exactly what they were looking for. Well, yea, you're not going to please everyone but you can hope that most people attend at least one session they find useful.

Some schools still ask teachers to complete a professional development (or growth) plan. Good; maybe. What I've learned of these anecdotally is that too many teachers complete them slightly before or after the deadline, and work on them alone. Once they're turned in, the process becomes even murkier. In other words, the PDP (or PGP) may be an exercise only.

Time. I know it's the most critical concern of every educator. Most of the good ones are already working 12-hour days and weekends. In this case, maybe part of the problem is the inefficient use of the time. Maybe it would make sense for the assistant principal or the curriculum director or whoever is "in charge" of collecting and reviewing the professional development plans to meet with teachers at the beginning of the year, individually or in small groups, perhaps by grade level and/or content area. Talk about the rationale behind the PDP and how it's going to be used. Then schedule brief meetings with each classroom teacher throughout the year to find out how things are going, how they're doing on making notes for their professional development plan, etc. In other words, have periodic check-in meetings so that the professional development plan is a work in progress and in consultation who can help that teacher see his or her work more objectively.

Then when the PDP is finished, yes, more time, but then the assistant principal, curriculum director, department chair, or whoever then meets with each teacher to talk through the PDP. A lot of time on the part of the administrator, but time well spent if at the end of that time the administrator has a clearer sense of how his or her teachers see themselves AND, perhaps most importantly, the kind of professional development they believe they need and want.

Then the administrator could gather with his or her team can review the individual and collective information to make informed decisions about how to make sure their instructional team--those classroom teachers--get the kind of professional development they believe they need and want. And, because they can see the bigger picture and well as the individual portraits, they can make note of who is doing really well and might need a few more kudos (too often insufficiently offered by administrators) and who might need some focused coaching.

The end result? Opportunity for collective professional development that really does meet a need for the entire group as well as more individualized and personalized professional development.

The end result of that end result? Teachers who feel supported by their administration and who will be that much more effective in the classroom.

The end result of those end results? Better opportunities for student learning.

More on executing on the plans in the next post.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Today's password is: professional . . . .

Growth? Learning? Development? All of the above? It depends?

As Ben Wilkoff, Director of Personalized Professional Learning in Denver Public Schools notes, it is the people who create (and sustain) change, not products.

We know a lot about professional learning (or growth or development). We know that it should not be "drive by;" that it should be job-embedded and sustained over time. We know that just as one size does not fit all students, so should we know that one size of professional development does not fit all educators. And yet, because it is convenient or because of restrictions and logistics, we still tend to herd educators into one large room and have someone stand in front of the room to deliver professional development.

Yes, there are lots of us who do our best to be sure we do not "stand and deliver" when we are fortunate enough to work with educators. We plan activities and we try to make sure that the folks who are in our care for that day walk away with knowledge and skills they can use the next day if not that day in their professional lives. We want to be a part of the process that ensures educators can learn and grow, that their skills and their knowledge further develops because of the time we were able to spend with them.

Educators aren't alone in this conundrum for their own professional learning. Nearly every profession or field has some sort of expectation that individuals will continue to learn about the work they do. Imagine an auto mechanic who wasn't familiar with all of the electronic gizmos in today's cars, or didn't know anything about hybrid engines.

I was at an IACET training because my organization was interested in non-traditional continuing education credits for its software training. There were representatives from a wide array of fields and professions, though the two women who have stuck with me were the representatives from a plumber's academy. Why note?

Gertrude Stein wrote "A rose is a rose is a rose" in her poem Sacred Emily. William Shakespeare wrote "What's in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet;" in Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene II). In other words, it doesn't matter if we call it "professional development," "professional learning," or "professional growth." It matters that we do it well and that we implement it and sustain it in such a way that the experience itself--the learning, the growth, and/or the development--matters and enables the participants to create, and sustain, appropriate changes in their classrooms.

More on professional learning/growth/development in the next post.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Teaching: Some craft, some science, and a whole lot of improv

Curtain rises. Teacher seated at desk off-center stage right. Desk lamp offers low light illumination. Indirect spot with pale yellow gel. Teacher spends some time writing, looking up something in books, perhaps on a tablet or computer.

Teacher (straightening papers): Well, I think that's it. I think I'm as prepared as I can be. I have my learning objectives, the essential questions on which I want us to focus for the next few days. I've reviewed several resources and prepared activities that I think will engage my students and will help them achieve the objectives. Yes, I think this will do.

Lights fade to black. Lights come up off-center stage left revealing tables and chairs. Students enter noisily, chatting and laughing, texting and sharing what's on their phone screens. They settle quickly, still chattering. Teacher enters classroom area from stage right. She places her books on her desk and busily arranges materials. She posts the essential questions and the learning objectives for students. Some of the students watch, but most keep chatting. She turns to the class, squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath.

Teacher: Okay, class, let's get started.

Immediately students give her their attention. This is well into the school year and they are clear on the processes for class.

Teacher: As you can see, I've posted the learning objectives and the essential questions for today's work. Now we'll be talking about this text and some other resources for the next few days. As is our practice, we'll pause periodically to talk about how your learning is meeting the objectives, but we'll also talk about the essential questions. Today we're going to do something a bit different. I'm going to give each group two numbers. One number will represent a learning objective and the other number will represent an essential question. I'm going to give you a list of resources with which to start, but as you begin the investigation of the essential question and figure out how you can achieve the objective, you may need to do additional research. Don't worry: there will be plenty of opportunities to share and discuss

Class chuckles.

Teacher: Before we get started, are there are any particular questions you want to raise about the text? Perhaps you have a question that should be on our list of essential questions?

Student raises his hand.

Teacher: Yes, go ahead.

Student: Well, I was wondering. . . . and student asks a good questionthat is removed from the learning objectives but is a really great question that raises a perspective or point the teacher had never before considered.


Many teachers have experienced something akin to this. A great deal of preparation for a unit plan with clear and specific lesson plans with clear and specific learning objectives. And a clear and specific plan that moves students through the work and offers a fairly clear and specific path to achieve the learning objectives. Then some student asks a completely unexpected question that captures the attention of most of the class and, even better or worse, is an outstanding question.

Your brain races and you quickly realize that it might be possible to work towards the learning objectives, perhaps a bit less directly, by pursuing this question. You sense your well-planned lesson dissolving. You feel that hitch of anxiety that something could go terribly awry and yet, well, this is a really good question in which the students seem interested, so you emotionally and mentally relinquish your well-planned lesson plan and roll with it.

If only. If only it were that easy, although, for some teachers it is that easy. Why? Well, that's a most interesting and excellent question and I'm not going to get distracted trying to answer it. My point is that teaching isn't scripted. Even when teachers have a sort of script for a lesson plan, it's always mostly a guideline because your 9:12A class is completely different from your 1:37P class.

Being able to roll with it means a) knowing your content; b) being comfortable with the learning objectives and knowing there are several ways to achieve any of them; c) knowing your kids; d) knowing your content and having sufficient pedagogical content knowledge to make adjustments on the fly; e) being able to make adjustments on the fly; f) knowing your kids strengths and limitations to build outlines of lessons that take advantage of their strengths and help them manage their weaknesses; and e) knowing your content and your resources so you can make those adjustments on the fly.

Sometimes the response to the question is to make note of it, acknowledge its value, suggest the class will get to it later, and return to the regularly scheduled lesson plan. Sometimes the question is intended to get the teacher off-topic because (at least) that student isn't prepared for class; it's remarkable how many of us fall for that. But sometimes the question is disruptive in a really good way and we know we cannot ignore it.

Yes, there is a great deal of craft to teaching. There is some science in the art of teaching. But because those students are unpredictable and because some of them just might surprise you, in good and bad ways, the best classroom teachers are able to handle just about anything. And that's why teaching is a whole lot of improv.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Revenge of a Second Grader?

This is how I'm picturing this: the second grader gets up in the morning knowing he has a math test. As he dresses himself, without any reminders or haranguing from a parental unit, and as he contemplates his reflection in the mirror as he brushes his teeth after breakfast, he plots how to get revenge against the Common Core on his math test. He figures he'll show "them" the error of their ways.

When he gets to class, he is calm and lucid. He's gone over his plan several times and he's confident it will work. He waits with barely contained impatience to get his math test. And when he does. . .pow! The plan is launched.

If you've not seen the articles (some of which are reposting of the original mindless, uninformed rant against Common Core), there are a couple of versions of the 2nd grader who took revenge on the Common Core. Those are the words of others, not me. It is far too ludicrous for me to have imagined the original concept, but I can fill in some blanks on my own, which are, of course, equally ludicrous.

In this problem, the student was asked to write a number sentence to show a solution for the problem and then explain the number sentence. It's a pretty good math problem and the student worked it out correctly, creating a number sentence to answer the problem. The student's challenge was with the explanation. However, in his defense, the expectation for the explanation might not have been clear to him; I think it was worded awkwardly. I liked the student's answer because he tells me he thought through the answer and agreed that he was on the right track. The issue here is not the Common Core, but the way the problem was worded. I think the student did the best he could under the circumstances.

To the writers of word problems, three things: 1) audience, people--don't forget to whom you are writing and the academic and content area vocabulary with which they are likely familiar; 2) make sure the expectations are clear from the likely reading level and perspective of said audience; 3) Dan Meyer's TEDTalk. Go watch it. Now.

Someone else posted this problem and the reply from a clearly frustrated parent. I wish I knew the origin of this problem as it's not clear from the paper. Probably best.

I appreciate the parent's frustration. Quite honestly, I think it's odd to solve a problem with clear and specific numbers using a number line. If the person designing this problem was remotely familiar with the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP), that person might know that SMP 5: Use appropriate tools strategically. Does it really make sense to use a number line to solve a problem when you already know the task is to determine the result of 427-326? In a word, "no." If a student is having trouble with place values, there are far better tools to use than a number line. So, in my opinion, this is another example of a bad math problem and that has nothing to do with Common Core.

However, I also know that far too many educators and parents are suffering from misunderstandings, misinformation, bad or non-existent professional development, and/or poor implementations. So this problem, if created by the student's teacher, is likely because this teacher is trying to create Common Core-like problem and has no idea what he or she is doing.

Teachers are being told not to use worksheets, but even that is misinformation. It might make sense for a teacher to give students a worksheet to test their knowledge and understanding. Maybe not 25 problems that nearly exactly alike, but, looking at this sample, giving students fewer than 10 problems to make sure the students know place values and adding up to two-digit numbers. But fewer problems will tell a teacher that more quickly and as accurately and with less frustration on the part of the student. It's faster to diagnose where misconceptions might be if students work through about 5 problems and discuss one of the problems that might seem particularly difficult, either in pairs or groups. And maybe some of those problems use three-digit numbers or include some basic subtraction, just to see if students can reason through the process. That hits up SMPs 1, 2, 3, and 7. At any rate, after a relatively short amount of time, clarity abounds--for teacher and students--and then the teacher can move to word problems, provided those problems are authentic tasks.

If teachers aren't familiar with the instructional shifts, Standards for Mathematical Practice, and the Anchor Standards for Reading as well as Webb's DOK, they're going to spend a lot of time spinning their wheels, frustrating themselves, their students, and their students' parents. And offering up more "proof" for the anti-Common Core people.

Here's a shameless plug: I did a workshop recently for several curriculum, instruction, and assessment folks and we talked about the instructional shifts, Standards for Mathematical Practice, the Anchor Standards for Reading as well as Webb's DOK and using those as resources to help educators think about their own instructional planning and practice as well as how they think about doing their assessment (assess at the same level at which you teach) and how they use their curriculum. If Common Core is something with which you are still wrestling and something for which you need to continue to prepare your teachers or your district, find me on Twitter (elainej) or LinkedIn and let's talk. Maybe I can help.

BTW, as a completely weird aside, have you noticed that curriculum, instruction, and assessment are the educational form of CIA? Hmmmm. ;)