Sunday, February 9, 2014

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” 

At the end of each year, I read Dr. Seuss' "Oh the Places You'll Go" to my first graders. I love this quote because it resonates with some of the core values I hold to be true in my teaching: trust, value, and choice

As educators, we spend 9 months building trusting relationships with our students and families. We value every student and family's unique perspective, background and experience, ensuring their voices are heard and respected. Finally, we create opportunities for student choice, for authentic and engaging work.

Why, then, do we ignore so many of these best practices in educator professional development? I believe the pillars of effective professional learning should directly mirror those we strive to achieve in classrooms with students.

When my students have a rough patch, behaviorally, I remind them that I am not their babysitter. If I spent my time monitoring their every move I'd have exactly zero time to teach. Because I teach almost exclusively in small groups throughout the day, my students spend about 1/2 of their day working independently, in partners or in small groups on specific tasks, away from me (while I'm teaching other students in small groups). It would be impossible for me to monitor what they're saying and doing every moment of their day - and I don't need to! Instead, I intentionally foster a community of trust and respect in my classroom. When given the expectations, structures, and supports even 6 year olds can be trusted to stay focused on the task at hand and to take responsibility for their learning.

Instead of trying to micro-manage, track and control every moment of educators' professional development, we should shift our emphasis to creating a culture of trust. If we create the opportunities and structures for educators to improve their practice, we must trust that they will, in fact, act as professionals and pursue their own development. Accountability can play a part, of course, but "seat time" alone should not be used as an indicator of professional learning. Instead, we need to look at other ways to track and evaluate educator PD through competency based learning opportunities and aligned accountability systems.

As educators, it is critical that we value and respect our students' unique experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives. In DPS, two indicators of our teacher evaluation framework are devoted to this very idea. By valuing and respecting each of our students we create a culture of equity and foster a motivational environment in our classrooms.

An important component of quality PD is the ability for educators to share and learn from one another's unique experiences and perspectives. In my work helping with the implementation of personalized learning in my building this year, I've been lucky enough to work closely with many veteran teachers at my school. I can't count the number of times I have overheard talented teachers emphasizing their own "stupidity" or lack of understanding, usually related to a specific new tech tool or style of teaching. Teachers are so accustomed to being told "You need to learn X, Y, Z" that we forget how much of "A-W" we bring to the table already! The sheer body of expertise that exists in each building is an immense resource, just waiting to be tapped.

My students learn best when given opportunities to choose their own path, process and drive their own learning. While I have a set of standards that each student will need to master by the end of the year, I strive to create opportunities for my students to practice and show mastery of these standards in a variety of ways. As my students grow more comfortable with the customizability of our classroom, the ideas for these paths often come from the students themselves. Naturally, I also have a handful of students who are working 1-2 grade levels above or below our first grade standards. I don't force these students to complete work that is far above or below their level, but instead allow them to work on tasks that are "just right" for them.

Allowing for this level of choice and flexibility in my classroom can make things more "messy" for me. I can't sit down and grade 25 multiple choice tests to determine a grade. However, the pros far outweigh the cons. By empowering my students, I am able to foster an environment in which students learn to take initiative, advocate for themselves, ask tough questions, and take ownership of their learning. By stepping to the side and allowing my students to take control, their creativity, passion and commitment can take them to new, previously impossible places.

Naturally, educators are more engaged in their professional development when it it stems from their own questions, ideas, and interests. While there will probably always be a certain (hopefully small) set of mandated, "top-down" required PD, the more we can create opportunities and structures for professionals to have choice in time, place, process and content... the better off we'll be. Educators naturally lean toward professional development that is authentic, applicable, and valuable for their own practice. Instead of attempting to anticipate each and every PD need in the district and mandate requirements that might fill those needs, we need to step aside and allow the professionals to work out their next steps and needs, then build our school and district support around those ideas.

This shift in PD is not simple, quick, or without complications. However, the challenge is well worth the effort. By sharing and working together, we can advocate for ourselves to ensure professional learning opportunities are authentic, applicable and beneficial to our work with the most important people in the world: our kids.

If you're interested in personalized professional development, please join the conversations in the edcamp Denver and Blendtastic Bombastic communities on Google+!

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Variety of Needs, a Variety of Learning: Ideas on Personalizing PD for EVERY Learner

I often describe myself as “detail-oriented” or “dependable”, and I think most people who know me would agree. So you can imagine how difficult it is for me to have missed the cutoff for this January blog post and be sharing my thoughts about the month’s theme, professional learning, in February. While I don’t like missing deadlines I am thankful that life’s chaos kept me from finalizing this post until after edcamp Denver on February 1st. The opportunity to help organize the event, hear the incredibly positive feedback that continues to pour in afterward, and to speak with educators from around the state (and from Washington D.C.!) has helped me to solidify some thoughts that have been rattling around in my mind for quite some time around the topic of PD. I would like to frame these thoughts as just the beginning, the start of not only my own processing of what PD could look like for educators but also the beginning of the conversation. I would be thrilled if readers would share their thoughts, questions, connections, or challenges to the ideas I’ve been pondering quite a bit over the last few months.

What if professional learning accounted for the needs of each learner, school, and district?

I’ve been lucky to experience PD from a lot of different perspectives. As a teacher I have worked in several districts and school buildings, participating in PD as a new teacher (both to the profession and to a building) and as a more experienced learner with a clearer idea of what I expected and hoped to gain from a professional learning experience. I have attended PD sessions with and listened to the feedback from teachers who represent lots of different backgrounds, experience levels, and areas of interest and it seems that no 2 teachers in the room ever have quite the same exact needs at the same time. This makes sense given how many different content areas, teaching styles, student populations, and individual learning preferences we represent, and it fits with the same phenomenon we have in our classrooms. All my students may need a concept like multiplication, but no 2 students need quite the same delivery method, pacing, or scaffolds when working on that concept. By giving teachers an opportunity to articulate where they are in their learning, what their needs are currently, and where they would like to go we can help craft PD that is relevant and meaningful to teachers. When you couple this self-driven approach with frequent conversations and check-ins with representatives from a team, school site, or even district leadership there becomes a balance between the needs of the larger organization and the needs of each teacher. The goal is not educators each doing their own thing all the time behind closed doors, the goal is to strike a balance among a lot of different needs and to engage in ongoing conversations at all levels so that in the end the learner, and the students in our classrooms, are benefiting from the time and money spent towards PD. 

What if PD was differentiated to meet everyone's needs and learning styles? 

I've recently had the chance to think about PD from the “other side” of the conversation, working with a team of colleagues and administrators to discuss the PD structures we have in place for a diverse and complex building of learners within a K-12 school, and more broadly thinking about the district level and how the needs of so many teachers can be met in meaningful, authentic ways. Being on the flip side of this process has opened my eyes to many of the strengths and challenges that currently exist in our traditional PD system, and has provided the opportunity to speak to an even greater demographic of staff within a district. (Have you ever given much consideration to what PD might look like for a paraprofessional, a building administrator, or a central office staff member and thought about how they might feel fulfilled and challenged in their jobs while also getting re-connected to the work of students and teachers at the classroom level? I hadn’t, but it has been pretty fun to imagine how this might look.)

I think one of the struggles that comes up constantly is the idea that we should use any one method or structure to deliver PD. While I firmly believe in using online communities of practice and love to have certain information delivered via a webinar or online learning management system, there are times when that doesn’t meet my needs. Sometimes I prefer to engage in a completely online learning experience, other times I like to meet face to face. I find immense value in self-directed learning but once in a while a bit more structure is what I need. Learning from someone with a lot of experience who is incredibly knowledgeable on a topic can be amazing, but other times I prefer to learn with someone who is just starting to delve into a topic alongside me. I tell my students to constantly consider their audience and purpose, and to make informed choices about their learning based on a lot of different factors (This is something that +Chris Moore does phenomenally with his 5th graders and that he shared with me in a PD several years ago. It has changed my entire perspective and has helped me push my students to truly know themselves and think about things far beyond the classroom walls or the rubric of an assignment.) As adults in any profession don’t we always consider the purpose, what we are trying to accomplish, and what tool or method will best meet those needs? Who we are as learners plays a huge part in that decision-making process and teachers should be able to make informed decisions about their professional learning based on their own knowledge of self.

How can we take advantage of different tools and delivery methods to make learning more authentic while ensuring proper scaffolds are in place?

I understand that for many of our learners an online or asynchronous delivery method can be cumbersome, overwhelming, or confusing. Should we say to them, “Ok no problem, just don’t ever use those things.”? No, I don’t personally think so. But we must consider what scaffolds they need and how we can alter those online experiences to be meaningful for them with small chunks to bite off at a time. Learning the tool while using the tool is something I value tremendously for students, and for adult learners as well, but that doesn’t mean throwing my kids into the deep end by giving them a website address and expecting them to navigate to the site, sign up for an account, learn the tool, and produce a final product that demonstrates all their content knowledge - especially if I haven’t taught them how to point and click yet. I take them through small steps towards the end goal, embrace the idea that I must "go slow to go fast", and check in often about where they're at so I can adjust the pacing and delivery as needed. I'm careful not to hold the large group back while waiting for every single student to be caught up with us, but I make sure to walk kids through clear steps and then make use of the "experts in the room" who can now teach their peers. Many of our colleagues need this same assistance and most buildings have any number of teachers who would be great resources. I believe it could be transformative for schools and districts to foster an environment where everyone can be open and honest about their strengths and challenges and where time to share and help each other is built in and valued on an ongoing basis. 

Conversely, there are a lot of teachers who are ready to jump in feet first with a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) or find their way around an online community of practice with 10, 100, or even 1,000 members. Some teachers know exactly what they want and where to find it, so why not give them some time and space to learn, reflect, implement, reflect again, and so on? These teachers are not being served by putting so many limitations on their learning, and it is holding them back from becoming inspired, innovative teachers who can forge the way and share this amazing thinking with their students and colleagues. 

What if we crafted PD with the learner in mind, not the initiative or end goal? 

I’ve been fortunate to not just think about PD from the perspective of the learner, or consumer, but to also be a facilitator, a creator of PD, hoping to meet the needs of the people in any given session and to become a valuable resource for them before, during, and after a session. Whenever I think about how to structure PD or present to educators I first think of what I would want as the consumer. “How would I feel if…?” “Would I find value in this experience? Why, or why not?” I try to talk to session attendees and to colleagues who represent lots of backgrounds, experience levels, and learning styles because their feedback guides how I plan something the next time. After facilitating or participating in PD I enjoy reflecting on the experience and thinking about what worked and what didn’t, from the perspective of both the creator and the consumer. This feedback and reflection is invaluable in helping me to learn and grow myself, and to continue to refine PD for the learners and students we want to help. Very rarely, though, do I spend a lot of time pondering how best to teach a specific tool at a certain level to all participants. For me it is more about sharing, answering questions and being responsive to the needs in the room at that moment. Instead of measuring my effectiveness by asking, "How many teachers walked out of the room knowing exactly what to use Google Drive for or how to navigate TenMarks?" I usually ask myself, "How many teachers walked out with some new piece of information that is valuable to their practice? How many teachers connected with someone new who can now be a valuable resource for them? How many teachers left inspired or excited to get back to school to plan and implement something they learned today?" These are the questions I ask myself because those are the takeaways that have a lasting effect and a huge impact on teachers and their students.

Can PD be flexible and responsive to a teacher's changing needs within a school year?

As a consumer of PD I have occupied a lot of different mental spaces and had a huge variety of needs in any given school year. Some of these needs could have been anticipated ahead of time based on my own goals for my professional practice, where I felt my areas of strength and struggle were, or on my experience level in teaching. Many of my needs, however, cropped up unexpectedly and were dependent upon the students I had that year and the situations coming up in my classroom, both for me as the teacher and for my students. It is important to have goals, both from an organizational perspective and as the individual learner, but rigidity does not serve the responsiveness we must embrace in our classrooms and in our practice. One school year I was certain that my goal was unit planning and backwards design, and I prepped accordingly all summer long. The first day of school, and subsequent weeks and months with 30 highly impacted students and not enough furniture for them to sit in, showed me a different path. I needed to focus on new ways to approach behavior management and learn to balance the needs of K-7th grade levels in one classroom while still keeping my cool each day. If (when) someone tried to sit me in a PD about using a specific reading strategy or math tool I was frustrated because I felt mentally I was in no place to be focusing my limited time and energy on anything other than what my kids and I needed each day. It took me a long time to let go of the learning someone wanted me to participate in and to be ok with not investing in it 110% so that I could instead create the learning I needed to best serve my kiddos. I had to come to terms with and embrace the drastic difference between what I planned to learn and what I actually needed. I will always say it was the school year that just about killed me as a teacher and a human, but I definitely learned more than I could have imagined I would about the state of our education system, various teaching strategies, and most of all myself. I only wish PD was structured in a way that could have met my needs that year and would save teachers in this position from expending valuable energy and time on fighting the system and trying to make it work for them, and for their students.

What if we trusted teachers to, as +Ben Wilkoff puts it, "choose their own adventure"?

We trust teachers with 30-40 students every day. We ask them to foster classroom environments where students take risks, learn from the things that work and the things that need adjustment next time, and to help students become independent so they can make well-informed decisions. I find it somewhat dichotomous that we don't create the same kind of environments for most of our adult learners by creating a culture of trust and acknowledgement that these learners can guide their own journey far better than we can craft it for them. In my 4th grade classroom I lay out the standards we are expected to cover in a year, and I put the ownership of the learning in the hands of my 9 and 10 year old students. I provide constant opportunities for them to learn who they are, what their learning style is, and how to make informed decisions and choices based on the task or purpose at hand. In doing so I believe they are learning so much more in the course of a unit or a year than I could ever create for each of them myself. They are also fully invested in nearly every learning experience they jump into because they see where they came from and where they are headed, they understand the relevance and value the learning holds in the larger scheme of their education and their life. Imagine the possibilities for our education system with a similar take on the profession and adult learning...

How much more impact would learning have on a teacher's practice and on the students in their classrooms if reflection time were valued and provided in the schedule often?

Teachers need built in time to connect to the new learning they acquire, and to reconnect to themselves as the learner so they can continue to monitor their progress and set goals for future learning. The most brilliant knowledge in the world can be easily lost if learners aren’t given the time to process all the amazing things they just started to soak in and to build that new information into their practice. Often times PD feels like a cram session where as much information as possible on a topic is thrown at attendees from the time they walk in the door until the time they walk out. If a learner wants to reflect, spend time processing, and apply the learning to their practice they usually have to do so on their own time, but isn't the reflection and application of this new knowledge really where the biggest classroom impact begins? What if for every -x number of hours spent in PD there was a dedicated -y number of hours to reflect, share that learning back with colleagues, and continue the conversations during implementation? 

How can you shift towards a more personalized approach to PD in your own practice, your school, or your district?

As I said earlier this is just where some of my thoughts begin on a very large, but imperative, conversation on personalizing professional learning. What thoughts or reactions do you have on the topic? How does your school or district structure PD? Does it work, does it need to be altered? What does your dream PD look like for yourself and your colleagues? Share a comment, blog post or vlog of your own, or jump onto Twitter, G+, Tumblr, (insert social media of your choosing...). You can also come join the conversation within a fairly new and totally awesome Google+ Community: Blend-tastic Bombastic Personalized PD. I really do believe that as educators our voices are powerful and that together we can re-shape the system so it works for ALL learners, both the students in our classrooms and the staff in our buildings.