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For years, professional development went a lot like this: (1) You sit. (2) An outside expert or consultant talks. (3) You listen. Many teachers jokingly refer to this format as “Sit ’n’ Git.”
In the last few years, teachers have started turning this model on its head with “unconference” gatherings like Edcamp, Cue Rock Star, and PLAYDATE, and with online tools like Meetup, Twitter, and blogging. The community-driven experience creates a chemistry and a sense of common purpose not found in traditional PD. “We learn so much from watching one another, not talking ‘at’ each other or reading a PowerPoint,” says Joanne Miller, who teaches fourth grade at Pride Elementary in Deltona, Florida.
Finding a safe, supportive venue to bounce around ideas regularly—whether in a group face-to-face, on a blog, in a staff meeting, with a friend, or alone in your journal—can be crucial to professional growth.
“Teachers can easily use the principles of the Edcamp model to bring unconference-style professional development opportunities to their schools,” says Daniel Scibienski, an Edcamp organizer and ESL teacher at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, New Jersey.
Ready to make your own PD? Here are 10 teacher-tried ways to do it on your own terms.
1 | Go on (adult) field trips.
Why should kids have all the fun? (And wouldn’t you like to take a field trip that doesn’t involve yelling, herding, or getting gum out of someone’s hair?) Get a group of teachers together and hit up the history museum, a learning farm, an art exhibit, or even a trek to a legislative session to watch government in action—anything to give you fresh perspective on a topic or something to buzz about to your students. Going with other teachers is not only social, but it is likely to lead to many new lesson ideas—and maybe some cross-curricular collaborations with other classes.
2 | Let students take the stage.
Miller’s best professional development idea started as a prank. When it was her turn to present a new strategy at a faculty meeting, she pretended to have technical difficulties—and suddenly her students burst from their hiding places and acted out the strategy.
“I modeled with my students while instructing my peers each step of the way. My students were amazing!” says Miller. “After the lesson, I had them answer the staff questions to prove how trained and routine this was for them. All of the staff members thanked me for such an impactful learning opportunity and said it was the best learning experience they’d ever had!”
To recreate the experience, plan to take turns visiting colleagues’ classrooms as their students act out lessons, behaviors, or strategies. You can read about how Miller set it up and watch her kids in action here.
3 | Make tech work for you, not vice versa.
Do you break into a sweat when you see all the technology and social media tools available (and subsequently hide under a desk with a quill pen and papyrus)? So do we, sometimes. But instead of becoming paralyzed by choices, just pick something and give it a deadline, suggests Scibienski.
“Try something for two weeks, and pay attention to how much time you put in and the value you are getting out. Is it just entertaining or are you extracting value?” Or, he suggests, try two tools for a limited time. “See which tool feels more intuitive and offers you more value, then ditch the other one.”
4 | Reimagine staff meetings.
In 20 years of teaching, Andrea Hernandez (now cofounder of amplifiEDucation) of Jacksonville, Florida, sat through a lot of long staff meetings. These often involved “impassioned debates over whether to have a water cooler in the staff lounge,” she recalls. When her principal vowed to do away with “admis-trivia” at the meetings and devote the time to the practices of teaching and learning, Hernandez was thrilled.
“It seems obvious and simple,” Hernandez says, but the decision was “game-changing.”
With the newly freed-up time at their disposal, teachers began hosting meetings in their classrooms; giving “Ignite” talks (in which they present a topic of interest for five minutes while slides auto-advance every 15 seconds); discussing TED talks (like Temple Grandin’s “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds”); inviting guests to speak; and holding workshops to help one another create professional development timelines.
5 | Start a book club.
“I’m always amazed at the way books can spark deep conversations about important topics. This has especially been true when I use them with teachers,” says Susan Dee, a K–5 literacy strategist at Mast Landing School in Freeport, Maine. To launch professional development conversations, she uses picture books such as If You Hold a Seed, by Elly MacKay, to discuss the need for patience, skill, and perseverance in getting little seeds to grow; The Most Magnificent Thing, by Ashley Spires, to remind teachers that sometimes it’s okay to step away, refocus, and try again; and Courage, by Bernard Waber, to encourage her peers to talk about all the things that take courage in their teaching practice.
Dee says books “create a non-threatening way to have important conversations, without them becoming personal.” Also consider forming a club to discuss the latest teaching memoir, pop-psychology book, or education documentary—and enjoy the fruitful conversations that result.
6 | See lessons through students’ eyes.
Chris Aviles, a K–8 education technology coach for New Jersey’s Fair Haven School District, found a bold way to keep tabs on his teaching. He straps GoPro video cameras to his students’ foreheads! This helps him see what their day is like and how his lessons went. “It’s basically all about looking at a lesson, at the classroom, at the environment through the kids’ eyes,” says Aviles (see Cool Teachers). “It was amazing to see kids turn and talk to each other…and how often they were discussing the lesson when a teacher might otherwise think that they were disengaged and talking about something else.”
If video cameras aren’t your style, there are many other ways to get student input that could change your teaching. Aviles suggests surveying kids about their experiences, interests, challenges, and goals—or inviting them one-on-one to “show” what they’ve learned, in lieu of testing.
7 | Break down the walls of your classroom.
No, we don’t mean remodeling! Try handing over your classroom stage to others on a regular basis. Invite guest speakers to present; host or attend videoconferences with faraway teachers and experts; swap classes with a colleague; pair up with another teacher to present a cross-curricular lesson; or ask a student “expert” to teach a topic. All of these strategies can give you a fresh look at new teaching styles and ideas—and reveal different ways your students learn. They’re also great for expanding the range and diversity of perspectives available to the kids in your class.
8 | Go speed geeking.
Take a cue from speed dating to find your next “sweetheart” tech tool or classroom idea—and have fun in the process. Like speed dating, speed geeking involves rotating around a room to meet potential tech matches.
Kim Cofino, a longtime tech teacher and now a consultant-inresidence at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand, adapted the practice for elementary teachers by dividing them into two groups. Each group included six presenters, and each presenter had four minutes to present on a favorite classroom tool—from ePortfolios to class wikis to SmartBoards. The remaining teachers rotated until they had seen all six presentations. Afterward, the two groups shared and compared favorites.
“The buzz in the room was amazing! Teachers were visibly excited and energized by the discussion, and it was obvious that everyone found at least one thing that sparked their interest,” says Cofino. Plus, “we laughed, a lot. How often can you say that about a faculty meeting?”
9 | Write and reflect regularly.
Many teachers swear by blogging because of the community it creates and the forum it provides to talk through problems and get feedback. But the process of simply writing things down is vital, too, as it helps you to zoom out and gain perspective on your teaching.
If you aren’t quite ready to go prime time with a blog, consider starting with a private one. Most blogging platforms let you refrain from publishing your blog until you’re ready. You can also limit access to a few friends. Just the act of writing blog posts—even if you never show them—can be cathartic and bring out ideas you never knew you had. Or, keep an old-fashioned journal—and commit to writing in it during the first 10 minutes after you arrive at school or the last 10 minutes before you leave.
10 | Develop your PLN.
You probably already have a personalized learning network, or PLN, even if you don’t know it (or don’t like acronyms). All it means is a collection of contacts or resources to which you turn regularly to get ideas. This could be your Twitter feed, the blogs you follow, the webinars you attend, or even the Pinterest pages you bookmark.
The key to making a PLN a valuable part of your professional development is to use it regularly and to curate it to fit your needs. To avoid aimlessness or information overload, set aside a finite daily or weekly time slot to immerse yourself in the latest ideas and permit yourself to wander.
Also, remember that PLNs can be for students, too. Their PLNs might include a classroom across the globe they communicate with regularly, a favorite author’s webinars, or a wildlife webcam. It’s all about coming together to share the best stuff.
Illustrations: Phil Hackett
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