Friday, March 30, 2012

Professional Development On the Cheap - Suggestion 1 - Content Collaboration Time

There has been a lot of focus on professional development for teachers in light of all the new technology, 1:1 initiatives, Common Core Standards...the list goes on. It's definitely a concern because in order for anything new or different to be effective in the classroom, teachers need training and practice. Which of course has many schools and districts in a bind since everyone is also in the midst of budget constraints.

The question then is how do we pay for the necessary professional development when we don't have the money to do so? One answer is look within - good professional development doesn't have to cost money.  There are ways to utilize the resources in your own building or district and get quality professional development.  All that's really required is a little time, effort and commitment.

Having been both a teacher, administrator, and now a provider of professional development, I have had a wide range of experiences with professional development and the many models that are out there. Each week I thought I would offer one suggestion for providing professional development on the cheap - looking within your school or district and using the resources you currently have to improve and support teacher change.

Let's start with defining professional development (from wikipedia ):
 Professional Development - refers to skills and knowledge attained for both personal development and career advancement. Professional development encompasses all types of facilitated learning opportunities, ranging from college degrees to formal coursework, conferences and informal learning opportunities situated in practice. It has been described as intensive and collaborative, ideally incorporating an evaluative stage [1] There are a variety of approaches to professional development, including consultation, coaching, communities of practice, lesson study, mentoring, reflective supervision and technical assistance
I think teachers in particular lose sight of the fact that professional development is for personal development and growth, probably because so often the professional development they experience is mandated and irrelevant.

This weeks suggestion is something I have experienced myself and something I have seen personally be very successful. The suggestion is to provide designated planning time, where teachers who teach the same content (i.e Algebra teachers or 1st grade teachers) meet together and collaborate on new strategies or skills. It does require a commitment from administration to provide the time, and a commitment from the teachers involved to use that time constructively, but when it does happen, the differences in both teachers and student learning is powerful.

Collaboration on new strategies or skills can mean something like everyone deciding to use a cooperative group strategy to teach a specific lesson, or using a new technology tool as a warm-up, or trying out an exit pass at the end of a specific lesson. Everyone focuses on learning together about that strategy or tool in their time together, plans the lesson or warm-up or review...whatever the focus is, and then everyone tries it in their classroom and comes back and reflects on what happened. Maybe they look at student work, or discuss the problems that might have occurred and how to address those, or maybe it went really well for a few and they share the differences in what they might have done.  The importance is everyone is focused on a similar change/strategy, they try it, share the results and then add to, improve, do a similar lesson or expand to something new. In my experience this works well if these content teams are meeting at least once a week together and trying one or two small changes within that week for discussion the next week.

Learning and practicing and reflecting together to improve instructional practice - slow and steady change. The collaboration and support from peers go a long way in helping teachers feel motivated and empowered to change practice. Creating this culture of collaboration is one way to provide professional development and growth and promote slow, consistent change and improvement in instructional practice. And all it costs is a little time and commitment.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Hybrid PD - Online Community Development Pt. 4 - Student Focused!

I am in the midst of the fourth online unit with my two teacher cohorts, part of the long-term Sketchpad PD we have been engaged in since December 2011. So far, we have had four face-to-face get-togethers and four online units, which have varied in their length. I have been sharing what I have noticed these past several months as well as the planning I have done based on the feedback and interactions from the online units(see the series listings at the end of this post).

What has really struck me, this month in particular, is the focus of all the participants on their students.  I know it seems obvious that a teacher would focus on their students, but what I mean is the actual thought behind what they are teaching, how they are teaching, and how that impacts student understanding. This long-term PD has  focused on technology activities, the math content, the pedagogy, and the Common Core standards, and how all of these components fit together to help students learn and, more importantly, understand the math concepts. I have noticed the teachers are really thinking about what their students need and how they can help address those needs using technology.  Thinking about possible misunderstandings or ways to help students who are struggling ahead of time.  There is a real focus on preparing lessons that challenge students, help them visualize and make connections, and dare I say it - even struggle to reach understanding.  Here are a few comments that exemplify what I am talking about:

"Right away I had thoughts of how if presented the opportunity to explore things like this in partnerships, kids would actually help each other correct things that don't work.  Working together to get through a difficult problem might actually lessen their frustration and help them persevere in solving it. I think as a classroom teacher its also important to have a set of clear classroom expectations and guiding questions ready because I also see kids getting off task from the objectives of the lesson if they become too frustrated. Asking questions that reflect on the objective of the lesson or asking them about using what they already know allows them to correct their own mistakes without telling them it didn't work."
 "I like the fact that Sketchpad allows for a lot of mistakes. If you don't like what you made, oh well, you open a new sketch, just like that. Students experience failure in a gentle way, and build their success little by little.I have noticed that students are not afraid to ask their peers for help, and peers are confident enough to walk to their peers' places and assist them."
" I have found that whenever you get away from the norm of instruction and into investigation and exploration, much more learning takes place. Students are allowed to make mistakes and fumble through the activities and that is where the learning takes place. The key for the students is the motivation to persevere the the mistakes and roadblocks to get to an answer."

 While the teachers have been learning Sketchpad and learning how to integrate the technology effectively and appropriately in their classes, I think where I am seeing the most eye opening change is in their learning about their students. They really focus on "what do my students need, where will they struggle, and how will I help them get past that struggle to true understanding?" They are not focused on giving students the algorithms or the answers, but rather on "how can I help them get to their own understanding?"  This alone seems to be a reason to promote long-term professional development with teachers. Time to learn, practice, reflect, analyze student work, and get feedback from peers seems to really provide teachers with insight into their own teaching and a willingness to try new things.

For the other posts in this series, click the following links:

Planning for Hybrid PD - Comfort Level and Confidence First
Follow-up On Planning for Hybrid PD - Day 1 
Follow-up On Planning for Hybrid PD - Day 2
Hybrid PD - Online Community Development Pt 1 
Planning for Hybrid PD (part 2) - Develop Community and Supportive Environment 
Follow-up On Planning for Hybrid PD (Part 2) - F2F Feedback 
Hybrid PD - Online Community Development Pt. 2 
Planning for Hybrid PD (part 3) - Make it Relevant 
Follow-up On Planning for Hybrid PD (part 3) - F2F feedback 
Hybrid PD - Online Community Development Pt. 3 
Planning for Hybrid PD (part 4) - Teacher Input  
Follow-up On Planning for Hybrid PD (part 4) - F2F Feedback

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Social Media Burnout: Are Some People Cloning Themselves?

I am exhausted.

I don't mean physically, though let's face it, I could definitely use more sleep (which could easily be solved if I stopped reading in bed). No, I am exhausted with trying to keep up with my social media outlets.  Don't get me wrong - I love tweeting, blogging, discussion forums, Linked in groups, and Facebooking (though admittedly, as my friends can attest, I am definitely NOT a great Facebook participant). But, I think the daily expectation of being social is getting to's a combination of guilt that I am not posting enough, pressure to find relevant things to blog about or tweet about, and that pesky little problem of actually having a full-time job that requires some of my attention.

Wordle: Social Media BurnoutThose of you who tweet know how easy it is to get side-tracked reading tweets, clicking links that lead to the reading of articles and blogs. Which takes you down the path of responding to a discussion forum or a blog post. Next thing you know, two hours has passed! I am always struggling with trying to find a balance and still feel completely inept, especially as I look at some of the folks I follow and how often they tweet or blog. How do they do it?!

I know I am still a complete novice at all things social media, so perhaps I just need to find my groove or better resources to organize myself.  Thanks to my weekly participation in the #edchat live chats on Tuesday's at 11 pm CDT, I have had many in my PLN give me some great organizational suggestions (i.e. Tweetchat, Tweetdeck for example). But, I still find it overwhelming sometimes the amount of time and effort and thought that goes into staying social in a professional way. Am I just not as organized and diligent as I think or have some of these folks out there who seem to be constantly tweeting, blogging and participating in discussion forums cloned themselves?  Is there a resource that will do that?!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Follow-up On Planning for Hybrid PD (part 4) - F2F Feedback

In my most recent post in my hybrid PD series, Planning for Hybrid PD (part 4) - Teacher Input I talked about my plans in my next face-to-face meeting with teachers I have been working with for the past four months. My focus was on teacher input and really addressing the needs of the teachers and giving the teachers the control over the content and focus of what we did.
Lesson Four: Provide teachers with a choice in what the professional development focuses on..  Let them choose topics of interest, or topics they are struggling with, or topics they feel will be of benefit to their specific content are or their specific students.  By providing choice, you are allowing teachers control over their learning and the ability to make it personal. This provides a sense of empowerment and motivation.
Things went well for the most part.  We spent some time, as we always do, sharing what they had done in their classrooms with Sketchpad and lessons.  This is such a great way to start our PD sessions - sharing successes, pedagogical strategies with class set up or student arrangements, and specific lessons. Teachers really love hearing how others are doing things in their classrooms and getting ideas on strategies (from classroom management to assessment) that are working and asking others for their input/thoughts/suggestions, especially in areas they are struggling with, whether that be in Sketchpad skills or integration techniques.  We then moved on to topics that had been suggested and requested in the online component - these were focused on specific Sketchpad skills as well as specific content.

What I found happened as we started exploring some of the topics the teachers had selected (transformations and related Sketchpad skills) is that it led many participants to other content connections, which they then wanted to learn about.  The session became what I will refer to as 'fluid' and 'flexible' - a result of the teachers making connections to topics they were planning to teach and wanting to find out how to make Sketchpad work for them right then. So, while my original plan definitely focused on content they had suggested, what occurred in the PD became even more influenced by the teacher input as we started with one thing and then went off in a related direction to something not necessarily planned, but completely relevant.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Planning for Hybrid PD (Part 4) - Teacher Input

 Five weeks goes so much faster than expected! It's already time for me to do my next face-to-face workshops with my two cohorts in my hybrid/blended professional development. I will say I feel more excited than usual about the workshops because I really have a connection to these teachers now, something I don't often get to experience in my position.  Usually, I am in and out in a couple of hours, or a day or a few days, but with these two groups, we've been together, physically and virtually, going on five months.  I definitely think it's making what I have to offer and what they have to offer so much more connected and personal because we have had time to work through things, change things....time is not something that is often given in PD and it's been rewarding.

Here's a quick recap of previous 'lessons' from the prior 3 face-to-face workshops:
Lesson One: Begin a professional development experience assessing the background skills of participants.Ensure they are given the necessary tools, starting points, and resources to feel comfortable with what they are going to be doing, see the purpose behind what they will be doing, and know where and how they can get continued support. 
Lesson Two: Work on building a sense of community and support among participants, where they feel comfortable sharing their struggles, their experiences, their ideas and expertise. Providing a safe environment where it is okay to try new skills and strategies and knowing it is okay to fail or struggle and that others are going though similar experiences, gives teachers confidence to try to change and improve their own practices.  
Lesson Three: Make the activities and learning relevant to the teachers every-day teaching practice.  By providing activities that focus on learning the skills, how to integrate technology appropriately, and also cohere to the specific content and curriculum the teachers must follow, it is more likely that they will begin to change their own practice.  If they can see the relevancy to their own daily experience, they are going to be more willing to implement new tools and strategies.
In this fourth face-to-face we have reached a point where the teachers themselves are wanting to go in various directions based on their needs, and so, I wanted to honor this and provide them with some control over the content of what we do together this week. Coincidentally, in the #edchat online pd chat I participated in just last week, the topic was:
 "With the need to leave comfort zones for relevant professional development to take effect, should teachers continue to control their own learning for PD?" (for a nice summary of last weeks #edchat, go to posted by @testsoup's John Walters) 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Conference Presentation Suggestions - What Can You Really Do In An Hour?

 I am sitting here in the beautiful Hilton in Pearl River NY after 6 long hours of flying - rough day in the air with all this crazy rain and thunderstorm action. I am just going over my thoughts and practicing my presentations for tomorrow - you'd think I wouldn't need to do that after all these years, but I am definitely a worry-wart and want to just make sure I have my stuff together!

I am doing two 1-hour presentations tomorrow at the Ten County Mathematics Association Conference in Orangeburg, NY. Both presentations are geared for elementary math teachers, focused on the Common Core Standards - one on TinkerPlots and one on The Geometer's Sketchpad.  I love doing these hour long sessions because they are quick and fun - it's so rewarding to work with teachers and show them exciting, hands-on, engaging software that really helps students 'get' math.  But - of course, the downside being it's only an hour.  The most you can realistically do in an hour is get them excited about the possibility and intrigued enough to want to try it themselves.  You are not going to change anyone's teaching in an hour - really, all you can do is plant the seed, give them some ready-to-use resources, some contact information so they can get some follow-up help, and provide them with some resources for continued support.

My problem is I actually work for the company that sells the software, Key Curriculum.  Which of course instills immediate distrust in my participants because I am seen as a 'for profit' vendor just there to sell my wares.  Which I am of course - I want them to buy the software naturally!  Part of this distrust comes from the fact that often representatives from vendors DO NOT actually have a background in the product they are demonstrating.  Not so in my case, and not so for my company as a whole, which is one of the reasons I actually work for this company. I am, at the heart of it all, a math teacher who works for Key Curriculum because of my love of math and this company's commitment to great math instruction.

It's a tricky path to walk, let me tell you. I have spent my entire professional career, as a teacher and administrator and now an employee of a for-profit math software company, trying to help math teachers become better in their instructional strategies and help them integrate great math tools to help students. So, the dilemma I struggle with every time I do a presentation at a conference, or talk to teachers at a conference or school, or do a workshop with teachers, is how do I get across that I am a math teacher first, trying to share amazing tools for teaching math rather than a vendor trying to sell my 'stuff'? I think it comes down to what every presenter needs to keep in mind - authenticity, relevancy, immediacy and follow-up support.

Authenticity for me means letting your participants know right up front what you expertise is, and how you are relate to what you are presenting. For me, I share my teaching experience and personal struggles with teaching and being an administrator. I bring up strategies I used with my students or related student stories as where appropriate. When your participants feel you can truly relate to them because you have been there, I think it makes what you have to say and share authentic.

Relevancy means know your audience. Make sure the materials and topics you are presenting truly relate to what your participants are teaching or experiencing in their classroom and that these materials/resources/products are going to help make what they do better or different. You would be surprised at how often presenters don't do this. For me, this means doing math with the teachers that they would be doing with their students - help them see how the tools I am demonstrating make their teaching more engaging and help their students learn. So tomorrow - we are doing several specific activities directly related to Common Core standards they have to teach....relevancy matters.

Immediacy is something so many presenters/vendors miss. Teachers want to go to a presentation and walk away with something they can use TOMORROW! If they don't, then they won't use whatever it is you were trying to show's that simple.  Even if you helped them see the relevancy to what they teach, if you don't provide them with some ready-to-use resources, they are most likely not going to go out on their own and try it. I always make sure my participants walk away with the actual lessons we did in the presentation, both the student worksheet and the teacher notes, as well as the ability to download the software for free so they can use it the next day.

Follow-up Support - a key factor in sustaining anything is support.  A teacher may leave a presentation completely pumped, ready to try it the next day, and then...after they try a lesson and it goes well and they want more, where do they go?  Or, if it went bad, where do they go?  Usually, no where, and they never try again.  I like to make sure my participants know I am an email away, for one thing.  But more importantly, I make sure they know that the software has built in resources (tutorials, videos, sample activities, etc.), there are free webinars, online courses - I WANT them to keep using this software because it's so amazing for student learning, so I want them to know I am going to help them as much as I can.

These four principles work whether you are a vendor, professional development provider, school leader - anyone who is trying to support change in teacher practice. Be authentic - let them know you believe in what you are promoting and have some experience; make the presentation relevant and connect to what they teach and what they NEED for their students; give them materials and resources they can use immediately, because they are going to leave excited (we hope!); and finally, follow-up with them - see what help they need and continue to support them as they change.  You will find this goes a long way in creating sustained change in teachers.

Okay - enough reflection.  Off to bed.  Long day tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"The Assessment Tail is Wagging The Dog" - Reflections on Francis Gilberts LWF2012 Talk

(I cannot believe I haven't posted for a week! My goal of at least 2 posts a week, preferably more, seems to be getting more difficult, especially as my travel schedule picks up.  I will have to be more diligent.  The good thing about the travel though is I am out and about talking with teachers, teaching myself, and so getting some fodder for my posts.  This should get the creative juices going).

I wanted to reflection on another talk from the Learning without Frontiers 2012 because I find them quite thought provoking, especially as I go back and re-listen to them.  (See my previous 2 reflections, "Technology Is Neutral" and Mobile Devices In Education). The talk I want to focus on this post is from Francis Gilbert, a teacher in the UK. Francis gave a great talk called Escaping the Education Matrix, which I have posted below.

I agree with all Francis' points, and, even though he was speaking from a UK perspective, I found what he said about assessment and teacher evaluations creating a 'regulatory' matrix that controls the ways in which teachers and students operate in school and which defines and impacts teacher and student self-esteem to be applicable to the US educational arena as well.

I want to focus on the assessment component he speaks of (standardized testing as well as teacher observation/evaluation) which directly creates  the "regulatory discourses" that control teachers, or create the "matrix" in which they live in and teach in,which is directly related to self-esteem. As Francis puts it "the assessment tail is wagging the dog" and "creates the atmosphere we are creating for our education system".  Meaning that assessment is dominating everything that goes on in education, and as a result, we forget the intrinsic reason for education and why teachers do what they do.

Francis' gives an example of a teacher who had a heart-attack as a result of a low rating on an observation, which immediately made me think of all the horrible things going on currently here with NYC posting the ratings of teachers based on standardized test scores (read these two related stories on "the worst teacher in NYC": The True Story of Pascale Mauclair and Value-Added Evaluation Hurts Teaching). This trend of rating teachers based on the standardized test scores is becoming prevalent (Texas is about to do the same), and it is not going to improve anything, but rather, as Francis' points out, ruin the self-esteem of teachers and make us lose site of the purpose of education.

So, what is the purpose of education?