Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sharp-Shootin' Professional Development: Can a webinar environment hit the mark as a venue for effective professional learning?  

“Aim at a high mark and you'll hit it. No, not the first time, nor the second time. Maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect.”

Annie Oakley

The Standoff.
I work at an Intermediate School District which serves 21 local schools across our county.  School administrators wanted their teachers to experience high-quality professional development that didn't require coming to a common site during the school day, and asked that we provide opportunities online.  

One of my projects involves supporting educators in high-poverty districts to better understand and meet the needs of their students.  The more I researched, the more I realized that this was a multi-year endeavor that required more than a few sessions. A one-shot workshop like "The Ten Best Instructional Strategies for Students of Poverty" wasn't even close to a bulls-eye.  

Nope, there was no silver bullet-such work would be long term, requiring a framework of understanding; an exploration of mindsets and beliefs; the fostering of relationships and leadership capacity; and a collaborative response to systemwide practices and policies-while at the same time exploring instructional practice and taking immediate action every single day to support those students.  This was going to be a long term project, but students couldn't wait for us to get wiser over a course of several years.  

Ready. Fire. Aim. 
 I knew we had to start somewhere, though, so, following a one-day workshop with Drs. William Parrett and Kathleen Budge, I scheduled a 5-session book study on their book, Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools.The first session would be a face-to-face kick-off, which included dinner and an interactive how-to session on the Adobe Connect environment.  The remaining sessions (and there's one more to go) were scheduled to meet monthly via webinar for 90 minutes.

I was worried.  Most of the webinars I'd experienced as a participant were narrated slide presentations, and I knew how easy it was to get distracted because I thought I could multi-task and just listen.  How could I make our book study webinars a truly meaningful professional learning experience without shooting myself in the foot?  

So first, I went back to the basics--what did I know about effective professional development? I revisited Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning (my go-to reference) to set my sights on a powerful learning design.  I watched several webinars, including one where Sonja Hollins-Alexander, author of Online Professional Development Through Virtual Learning Communities shared best practices and strategies for developing meaningful online Learning Networks.  I Googled "Effective Webinar Presentations" and found several practical tips--most were from the business world and focused on speaking skills--but those reminded me of the need to establish an engaging relationship with the audience despite the impersonal venue.  

Go Ahead...
Then, I considered my own experience as a learner.  I thought about the webinars that I had attended that resonated with me, where I felt I'd learned something that impacted my professional practice.  These were the characteristics I identified:

  • Feeling connected to the speaker(s). I liked being able to see the person who was speaking, and I've found that those presenters on camera helped me maintain focus.  Also, some presenters addressed questions I posed in the chat, mentioning me by name.  This simple gesture further personalized the experience.
  • Opportunities to interact with others.  The chat box option, available on most webinar platforms, allowed me to ask questions and discuss content with others. I have "met" several educators through webinars, and we have maintained contact via email and twitter to share resources and ideas.
  • Active learning components built into the webinar. Participating in polls and surveys, and being invited to reflect and respond to content took away the temptation to "clean up" my email while I listened to a webinar.
  • Access to resources.  I found it helpful to have handouts sent ahead of time or immediately following a webinar, and many presenters share web links of articles, videos, books, or school websites that participants can explore later.
  • Timely Topics based on research, but seasoned with practical application.

I also reviewed characteristics of professional development, and noticed that my preferences reflected what we know about effective professional learning for adults:

  • Aligned to the context of our work
  • Opportunities for active learning
  • Collaboration with colleagues
  • Follow-up and Feedback

Time to Calibrate and Collaborate.

At that point, I had enough ammo to get started in planning my attack.  In part 2 of this blog, I’ll share my experiences on the range and my attempts to be a real sharp shooter.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Circling the Wagons

The #PDposse welcomes guest blogger, Jon Harper.  Jon is the Vice-Principal at Choptank Elementary School in Maryland.  In this post, he delves into issues that have a profound impact on organizational health; communication, keeping kids safe, and creating a culture of learning are at the heart of what we do.  
You can follow Jon on Twitter; @JonHarper70bd

Circling the Wagons: The Good, Bad & Ugly

Circling the wagons began as a phrase used to describe what pioneers would do on the frontier prairie when they felt as if they were going to be attacked. It was a strategy used to protect themselves from outside forces such as Native Americans and outlaw gangs.

Over the years the phrase has begun to take on another meaning as well. Nowadays, the phrase circling the wagons can refer to when a group of people stop communicating with others not in their group in order to avoid their ideas and beliefs.

The Good
There are often times when students and staffs feel pressure from outside sources, and during those times it is important to come together for the sake of unity and protection. Students and educators nowadays are under more pressure than ever and it is our job to do all that we can to not only keep them safe, but to also help them feel safe.

This can be accomplished by “circling the wagons” as a community, a school, a classroom or even a small group of friends.  As leaders of districts, schools and children we must recognize when this is needed. It can take the form of circle time, a staff meeting or simply a chat with a small group.
Either way, when we realize that our students and staff members do not feel safe, it is our job to “circle the wagons”.  As Simon Sinek so eloquently reminds us in Leaders Eat Last, “The power of the Spartan army did not come from the sharpness of their spears, however; it came from the strength of their shields.”

The Bad
As previously mentioned, nowadays “circling the wagons” can refer to when groups block out any ideas that differ from their own. This is not good. In fact, it is quite bad! Too often we (teachers, schools, districts) operate in our own little silos. When ideas are not transferred back and forth, change is virtually impossible.

Take a moment to watch the powerpoint “Shift Happens” to see just how fast our world is changing.  In today’s world the opportunities to communicate, learn and grow from one another have increased exponentially. “Circling the wagons” may help us feel safer, but it will not help us to grow and learn from one another.

One hour spent outside your “comfort circle” is all you need to start to grow.  Read Peter DeWitt’s post, “Twitter Chats: An Hour Well Worth Your Time” to find out one way how. Then again, if you are reading this I am sure you already venture outside your “comfort circle”.  But, maybe you have a staff member that could benefit from reading Peter’s article.

The Ugly
Probably the worst result of wagon circling is that prejudices begin to form and mud begins to be slung. When groups do not communicate with each other, they begin to form their own, often uninformed opinions of each other.

“If people are informed they will do the right thing. It’s when they are not informed that they become hostages to prejudices.” 
~Charlayne Hunter-Gault

We cannot open a newspaper, or click on an online journal, without reading about one group attacking another. Whether it is over the Common Core Curriculum, Parent Involvement or Teacher Evaluations, mud is slung from many sides. And, yet all sides claim to have the childrens’ best interests in mind.

When we “circle the wagons”, and prevent communication from coming and going out, it is our students that suffer the most. As adults, we are often able to, for better or for worse, live with our prejudices and opinions. But, when we limit what our students have access to, simply because an idea comes from an outside source, they suffer. And that just can’t happen. Not in today’s world! Not when communicating and sharing with one another can take place with just the click of the button.

DeWitt, Peter. “Twitter Chats: An Hour Well Worth Your Time”. Finding Common Ground. Education Week. Retrieved on January 19, 2014.

Fisch, Kark. Shift Happens.

Hunter-Gault, Charlayne. Prejudice. Retrieved on January 19, 2014.

Sinek, Simon. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. New York,NY: Penguin Group.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Old West Wisdom for Trail Blazin' Teachers

A "trailblazer" is...
  • a person who makes, does, or discovers something new and makes it acceptable or popular
  • a person who marks or prepares a trail...for other people to follow

Keep a look out for my next post... 
"Code of the West for 21st Century Teachers"

Special thanks to Kathy Weiser, owner/editor, Legends of American, for granting permission for me to adapt work from their cite. 

trailblazer. 2014. In
       Retrieved January 11, 2014, from

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Is the Water any Good?!

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."

We’ve all heard it before, but implicit in the adage is the underlying assumption that the water is good.  In the case of Professional Development (PD) this is not always true!

I have been guilty of serving-up PD that didn’t hit the mark.  It's in humble reverence for the amazing educators in our school that I share my "epic fail."

I was recently reminded of the most basic PD principle; if something is content-heavy or complicated make sure the path and process are light.
We are in the midst of a two month “Flipped Faculty Meeting” series.  The content delves into some intensive reading research and learning about culturally responsive teaching.  It is scholarly and involved.  This complex content is paired with an online learning approach that utilizes our school’s Moodle platform along with some faculty online forum postings.  The online forum process is also new to many staff members.  Both the content and the process are complex.  How did I miss it?!

Fortunately I’m surrounded by an amazing team of teachers that communicate their professional needs in an open and trusting manner.  (Best of all....they are gifted. They truly "get" the importance of relationships and are doing inspiring work with technology integration.)  A leader on staff met with me to solution-seek a means to moving forward on our PD plans so that each and every staff member was learning in a manner that was responsive to their needs.  When collaboration along these lines occurs our kids are the winners!

I’m hoping the short story above highlighted two things:
  •  Planning PD for the digitally connected age requires leaders to be more purposeful than ever before.  We cannot assume that an entire staff or building has the same exact needs.  Nor can we project our own readiness-level with regard to a content area, tech/tool, etc. on anyone else.

  • Listen to your people.  Put the power of their learning in their hands and support them in an unswerving and wildly passionate manner.  By collaborating with the all-stars on staff you can successfully plan PD that offers multiple pathways to collective growth.

Remember…we can’t always assume that the “water” is inherently good.  Be reflective and critically evaluate the process you’re using to move to new frontiers.  Here’s to wishing you the best of luck in moving forward.   

Photo Credits:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Teach me to teach better - some ideas for better PD

Widely agreed upon by all tweeps was the idea that professional development (PD) needed to be a learning experience that allowed teachers to do rather than just listen passively.

Too often, PD is treated like a college lecture, the complete opposite of what we are asked to do as teachers with our students. The most successful sessions that folks remembered were those where choice was involved and the opportunity to learn something new and practice it were provided.

Turns out teachers do want to learn and be inspired, but enough bad experiences with PD have put them off in a way that is sometimes hard to get them back.

We all just want materials that we can take back into our classroom the very next day. If the ideas are too esoteric, they won’t translate the way they need to

Not too ironically, teachers are a lot like the students we teach. We want to be a part of what is going on so that we can have some ownership in what we learn AND we are not all the same. Since our needs are wildly different, one size can’t fit all.

Here is some of what I’ve learned:
  • PD can be flipped the same way a classroom can be – as per Sharon Plante
  • PD should include a way to get teachers involved, hands on activities
  • PD should provide choice – perhaps allowing teachers to take part in a G-survey and then allow that to drive sessions
  • PD should be differentiated and meaningful to everyone
  • PD should be planned with teachers – organized with purpose and in advance
  • PD should be led by teachers sometimes
  • Guest speakers should sometimes be brought in for PD: Folks like Alan November from November Learning or Dave Burgess, author of Teach like a Pirate
  • PD should include the opportunity to learn new technologies and the time to play with them and brainstorm ways to use them effectively
  • PD should be collaborative with our colleagues – a conversation, something worthwhile that engages us
  • PD should offer variety – like an edcamp  - teachers should be able to choose on the day
  • PD can happen in the back channel and we should be aware of what is happening that isn’t in front of us
  • PD should encourage open minds and inspire further learning – it doesn’t have to happen in the meeting – Twitter Chats are really useful PD
  • PD should offer and allow time for reflection of learning – make it important
  • Blogging about PD is one way to reflect on what is learned and how it will be used
Professional Development is integral part of how we improve as educators. We want to be treated as our students do, with respect and professionalism.

What was your most memorable PD experiences and why? Do they fit into any of the above categories? Please share

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why Reinvent the Wheel? Because We've Got Places to Go!

"The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all."
--Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was a little girl, I was enthralled by the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder-each "Little House" book immersed me in Laura's adventures;  the triumphs and trials of everyday living; the trails and travels into the new and unknown.  Through it all, Laura's experiences were not hers alone: she was surrounded by a family and community that valued hard-work, collaboration, and relationships.  I recall with fondness how I admired the ingenuity of these people who left behind what was familiar and established--to forge new possibilities in faraway places that they could hardly envision.

This is where the PD frontier takes us--gone are the days when our professional growth is limited to a state-mandated number of hours to be "trained" by sitting in metal chairs, provided with a ten-pound binder of materials while listening to a presenter tell us how to be be better educators. Gone are the days when we took those binders back to our classrooms, put them on the shelf next to the others, closed our doors, and continued to teach as we always had.  Maybe we tried a thing or two we learned, but did we feel like much had changed? And if it did, how did we know?    

Progress is being made.  Like the railroads creating an alternative to the isolated and slow-going wagon trains, many schools are now embracing some form of Professional Learning Communities so that educators can collaborate, plan, and problem-solve.  Risky for many, but is it enough for those of  us who keep wondering what is beyond where the wagon trail ends?

The PD frontier is open to our interests, curiosities, our own professional wanderlusts.  And we are not limited to the speed of a covered wagon, following the tracks of those who went before us.  The Wild Wild West (WWW) has created a vast open land that we can travel through 24/7 via numerous social networks, blogs, webinars, MOOCs and chats. And, like Laura, you are not alone in this excursion.  The PD Posse is a collaborative community of educators committed to learning, relationships, and professional growth.

Join us in 2014 as we explore new trails together, going beyond the edge of those settled areas of professional learning.  So, grab your boots and get ready to go to...the PD frontier!