Aug 24

How To Plan Better Professional Development

[Only 16 days until the release of our book, Building School 2.0! Pre-order it today!]

So… after yesterday’s post, several folks asked me to talk about how to make PD better.

There are as many ways to make professional development better as there are ways to make our teaching better… what follows are just a few. The overarching thing to remember is this – we have to be one school. The same set of values that we look for in our classrooms should be what we value in our professional development. With that:

  1. Root professional development in the work teachers do. Asking teachers to do exercises that are not based in the work of the day is inauthentic. For example, if your school wants to do a deep dive into reading across the curriculum, ask teachers to bring their current unit plans and work together to ensure that all readings that students are assigned have reading comprehension activities attached to them. Have teachers work together to study a text like Subjects Matter and apply lessons learned, and then come back together for reflection after the work has been implemented.
  2. Don’t come in with answers – come in with questions. Inquiry-based professional development, where teachers are working to collaborative to solve challenges the school faces is incredibly powerful. We’ve looked at issues of culture, of student performance, of cultural competence as a faculty, where we asked ourselves hard questions and then looked to solve them. You don’t solve hard questions in a single meeting, of course, but a committee of teachers can come up with a powerful lens or frame on a problem, ask challenging questions, and then take the outcomes of the conversation back into committee to then craft next steps. When real problems are taken up by the whole faculty, solutions can come from unexpected places, and often the wisdom of the room will end up solving the problem in ways that a single voice ever could have.
  3. Don’t plan professional development yourself. We have a committee structure at SLA that is fully teacher-led. Committee chairs come together to set broad professional development agendas for the semester, and then the different committees plan professional development in consultation with administration. Everyone has a stake in planning useful PD, because we all sit through each other’s sessions. When we all feel responsible for each other’s learning, people spend the time to make it meaningful.
  4. Prioritize – I’ve seen too many schools and districts that treat every single PD session as an opportunity to present a new idea, as if one two-hour PD session is ever enough to fully learn an educational idea enough to then be amazing at it in the classroom. School faculty should figure out what are the primary goals of the school that year, and then seek to weave those goals through all professional development for the year (or two.) When everything is a priority, nothing is, but when we set a few big goals and then ensure that the overwhelming majority of the professional learning is in service of those goals, amazing things can happen.
  5. Follow-up. If PD happens in a meeting, and then the work isn’t prioritized by administration, it’s a waste of time. If we want teachers to believe in collaborative professional development, then time must be set-aside for implementation and reflection. Otherwise, we’ve created yet another “one-off” professional development session that is easily ignored by those who choose to, and worse, disempowering to those who actually want to see the topic / idea implemented powerfully.

These are a few ideas and values to get you started — there are many more that I encourage people to share in the comments. Simply, in all we do, be thoughtful, collaborative, and empowering when structuring professional learning. When we do that, we can create those values in every classroom – for every student – in our schools.

Apr 04

Intentionality and Serendipity

We had some visitors to SLA the other day, and when they were doing a debrief with me, a person asked me to unpack a statement we say a lot – “Standards, not Standardization.” It lead to a conversation about balancing being intentional in everything we do while also giving students voice and choice which bears some unpacking here.

First, the SLA learning ecosystem – with the core values, shared curriculum planning tools, common project rubric, grade-wide essential questions and aligned subject-specific standards – means that students can expect a consistent language of teaching and learning. The purpose of that is make sure that students spend as little time as possible trying to figure out the adults. By having a common language of teaching and learning, there is a framework that is empowering for students because it becomes much easier to move across the disciplines and learn.

Next, creating the space for 33 kids in classroom to all be able to thoughtfully investigate an idea and build toward making something powerful requires thoughtful planning. And it requires a balance of structure and freedom that takes a deft hand. Not enough structure, and there’s a real risk of having a lot of “inch-deep, mile-wide” work from students. Too much structure, and you’ll get “recipe-based teaching” where the vast majority of the student work looks far too much alike because the students weren’t given the freedom to make the work what they wanted or needed it to be.

A great example of how that work comes together is the work spearheaded by Roz Echols around creating a structure for our Capstone projects. Every year, 125 seniors create original inquiry-projects where the topics are completely student created. The structure of the capstone project has to be flexible enough to encompass student plays, event planning, and more “classical” deep research projects. The framework for the Capstone projects (found here) is simple, elegant, and it allows students enough of a roadmap to plan a year-long project while being open-ended enough to encompass so many different ideas.

Thoughtful frameworks for learning are at the heart of the idea “standards, not standardization.” The kind of intentionality required to allow students to engage in deep learning that is empowering, authentic and personally meaningful requires teachers to think about their classes not as day-to-day, but unit to unit and as part of the larger ecosystem of the school. When we are intentional about helping students to interpret standards, skills and content in ways that have meaning for them, understanding that there are many ways for students to manifest their learning, then we create the space for those moments in our classes where students can surprise us in wonderful ways by bringing their creativity and ideas to the subjects we teach.

Thoughtful structures can move us intentionally away from a scripted classroom and move us much closer to the kinds of classrooms where students and teachers have a shared sense of purpose and a shared sense of responsibility to each other. And in those classrooms, the ideas can flow freely, and those serendipitous moments of learning when things come together and the learning is powerfully communal can happen accidentally by design.

Jan 23

The Night Before

I’m going to bed as soon as I hit publish on this post.

I’m going to bed because in about 10 hours, hundreds of educators from all over the continent are going to be showing up at SLA for EduCon. EduCon is a special conference where educators from many different roles within the education world come together to dream big about what education can be. It is, as Ben Herold of EdWeek noted today a vendor-free space to talk about pedagogy.

It’s also a ton of work. EduCon is planned and run by SLA students, parents, teachers and me. The planning starts in August and ended tonight when we proof-read the program one… last… time. And this is our eighth year hosting the conference.

There are moments every year when I think to myself, “We can’t keep doing this.” But we do. And there are some really good reasons for it. So many attendees have told us that EduCon is one of their favorite professional learning of their year. And we at SLA learn a ton as well. It’s kind of wonderful to have an amazing PD experience with brilliant educators from all over the country right in your school. And yes, the conference raises important money for us every year that serves as the start of my fundraising every year as we try to stave off the Philadelphia budget cuts.

But the best reason for us to keep doing EduCon every year is watching the kids see themselves and their school as important voices in the national discussion about the future of education. This evening, as I was answering emails from attendees about the weather forecast, potential dinner spots, travel plans and what have you, dozens of SLA students were setting up classrooms, prepping coffee stations, running last-minute checks on the video feed and prepping their sessions. And I was listening as they talked about being proud of their school and the role it plays.

And that’s why we do it. Because our kids look at all of you who have come to learn with and from them and they realize that they really can help to change the world. EduCon is that moment for many of our students when they prove to themselves that they can be active, authentic agents in the world beyond their school.

As powerful as the learning all the educators will do over the next three days can be, for me, that lesson may be the powerful thing that any of us learn all weekend.

Thank you to all of the hundreds of students, teachers and parents who have worked tireless to prep for EduCon. Thank you to everyone who got in a car, train or plane to come learn with us this weekend. And thank you my co-chairs, Meenoo Rami, Amal Giknis, Julian Makarechi, Alisha Rothwell, Jasmin Gilliam and Zee Driggers for all the time you’ve spent. Thank you to the amazing Diana Laufenberg who came in this week and troubleshot everything so that the weekend would be awesome.

Welcome to EduCon everyone. Welcome to our school.