Study Groups for Voluntary Professional Development

In Chapter 4 of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen describes how she facilitates professional learning beyond the schoolwide initiative. She refers to these opportunities as “study groups”. They are typically designed around a specific educational resource. Jennifer reflects on the importance of having voice and choice in her professional learning.

As a teacher, I often found that my needs and interests were not met within the allotted in-service days designated for professional development during the school year. I was thirsty for professional development opportunities involving new instructional practices. Instead, I found that most of our in-service days were planned months in advance to address state assessment requirements. (pg. 59)

In the past, I had tried to facilitate study groups but encountered several problems.

  • First, I was selecting the text. Teachers didn’t have voice and choice in what to read.
  • Second, I did not have regularly scheduled dates communicated ahead of time. I would ask teachers when they would want to meet, a few would get back to me, and then we tried to make it fit.
  • Third, I saw this as a way to teach instead of an opportunity to learn from the resource and with each other. As Jennifer notes in Becoming a Literacy Leader, “I participate as an equal member of each group. I think the reason study groups work is that the teachers are directing their own learning.” (pg. 65)

By learning from my experiences plus this resource, we have prepared a more responsive approach to personalize professional learning for faculty.

Research Relevant Resources to Offer

In the spring, I thought about what our school’s needs and interests were as we prepared for next year. Some of these topics would need to be beyond our schoolwide initiative of authentic literacy. For example, personalized learning and Responsive Classroom were two areas I knew teachers were interested in learning more about. I made a list of all relevant resources available, discovered through researching publisher websites, professional reading resources, and book search tools such as Amazon and Goodreads.

Select Resources as a Leadership Team

Before the school year begins, our school’s leadership team reviewed the titles collected for consideration. Teachers on the team provided their input, knowing what their colleagues might and might not be interested in.

Offer Study Group Opportunities to Faculty

I typed up a list of titles with descriptions along with dates the study groups would meet (image on left). Teachers can click on a link to a Google Form and enroll in one or more study groups (image on right).

After teachers have signed up, we will need to assign co-facilitators for the groups. One facilitator would likely be a member of the leadership team. The other facilitator would be a participating teacher. These facilitators would cover for each other in case one of them could not make it.

Jennifer also has a routine agenda for the study groups to ensure a successful study group experience (pg. 74):

  • Discussion/Sharing (10 minutes)
  • Reading Excerpt
  • Video Clip
  • Toolbox (15 minutes)
  • Putting Ideas into Practice (5 minutes)
  • Next Month

Just as important to providing teachers with voice and choice in their professional learning, I believe it is equally powerful to have teachers model lifelong, voluntary learning for our students and school community. I look forward to seeing how the concept of study groups will have a positive impact on teacher autonomy and student learning.

 

 

Coaching Conversations in Online Spaces

I’ve recently started a book club around my text on digital portfolios for students. We are currently discussing Chapter 1 in a Google+ Community, using a thought-provoking question or statement for the participants to respond to asynchronously per day.

As we discuss in this online space, I have come back to a text I’ve used in the past regarding coaching:

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This text was referenced in a connected coaching course I took with Lani Ritter Hall a few years back. It is a very practical resource for school leaders and coaches. At less than 100 pages, I can quickly go back and find the most salient points to reference in my work with connected educators in online spaces. Here are a few of my favorite parts of the text.

Coaching conversations differ from typical, spur-of-the-moment conversations. First, they are highly intentional rather than just friendly or informal interactions. In addition, coaching conversations are focused on the other person – her strengths and her challenges, and the attributes she brings to the conversations. A third characteristic of coaching conversations is that their purpose is to stimulate growth and change. In other words, coaching conversations lead to action. (p 3)

This is a lengthy quote. Let me break it down into the three main attributes of coaching conversations:

  • Highly intentional
  • Focused on the other person
  • Purpose is to stimulate growth and change

With each response to someone’s post in our Google+ Community, I try to apply these characteristics. My comments are considerate of where the person is at in using digital tools for student assessment, and where they want to go. This awareness helps me remain focused on the person and their situation, for example by noting specific details they shared in their initial post. My overall purpose, to stimulate growth and change, can be realized by keeping my comments objective and my questions open-ended (“You stated that you want to focus on building a better audience for your students. What activities and tools might allow for you to make this happen in your classroom?”)

When you are a committed listener you focus your full attention – mind and body – on what the other person is saying. You listen not only to the words expressed but also to underlying emotions and body language. In other words you listen to the essence of the conversation. (p 30)

This is where having coaching conversations in online spaces becomes a challenge, for the obvious reasons. We cannot read body language or assume underlying emotions. It is more difficult to express ourselves in this way within this medium. What I try to do is use positive presuppositions (52). This means assuming that the other person has the best of intentions, and to respond in a manner that allows for the person to expand on their ideas. This “pulling out of their thinking” again involves making observations and asking wondering questions.

One of the benefits of learning in online spaces is the spaces of silence that naturally occur, especially in asynchronous situations where time is not a factor in posts and responses.

Committed listeners…recognize the value of silence in conversations and avoid unproductive listening patterns that interfere with the deep listening of coaching conversations. (p 30)

One of our teachers pointed out the benefits of silence during a prior online learning community. “When you are not expected to answer a question right away, it gives you time to thinking and reflect on possible responses.” This period of reflection can allow learners to develop smarter responses, an advantage of learning online vs. in person.

I became very intentional about trying to separate my coaching from my mentoring. I tried to be transparent when I was mentoring, ask permission before I did it, and most importantly, to be intentional about not doing it. (p 92)

There is a fine line between coaching and mentoring. “In coaching conversations, instead of giving advice, the school leader supports her staff by paraphrasing what is said and asking powerful, open-ended questions that lead to deeper thinking” (57). Mentoring is different. A mentor gives direct advice, in fact telling the person on the other end of the conversation what he or she might want to try in their practice.

I am sure there a few members in our Google+ Community that would like to be told what to do. However, it is more important that they arrive at a deeper understanding for student-centered assessment on their own terms when possible. Of course I will offer advice when asked. But I believe the best learning happens when we can build a deeper understanding together, with the learner doing the lion’s share of the work.

This short animation, also shared during the Connected Coaching course with Lani Ritter Hall, nicely sums up this concept for me of coaching and learning in online spaces.

Why Should Educators Blog?

After finishing a rewrite for my upcoming book Digital Student Portfolios, I took a moment to briefly reflect. Where am I at? Where did I start? This post is my 232nd on my blog, now two and half years old (young?). I am pretty sure I am a better writer now than when I started.

Just yesterday, I was fortunate enough to come across a kindergarten teacher’s first blog post.

As I read her initial writing, I was almost envious of her position. Her writing was fresh, full of enthusiasm, and excited about the future. Not that my posts necessarily lack any of these qualities, but getting started in becoming more reflective about one’s own practice is very exciting. I left a comment, recognizing her accomplishment and expressing my anticipation of future posts from her.

This lengthy intro leads into my primary question: Why should educators blog? 

To quote John Belushi from Animal House, “Why not?” But I know that this is not always a possibility for many current practitioners. We have families. We consider our time away from school sacred. We are working a second job and don’t have the time. I get it. I have been there at one point or another.

At the same time, to want to write about our own practice via a blog first requires a burning desire to do so. This need circumvents all the reasons not to write. That feeling of a need to share, to express our current thinking, or to reflect on our experiences, can each be the catalyst for us to start blogging.

So what might be the impetus for our initial post?

Because I have so much going on in my head

Whether it stems from our need to share and reflect, or our fear of losing what we have learned, blogging can provide that needed online space for this purpose. For me, the act of writing out what I have learned is a very challenging process. That probably means that it is also important at a cognitive and metacognitive level. I have to think back about what happened and consider the artifacts, such as images of my learning, before inserting them into the post.

Because I would like to go back to what was in my head

In their book The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research (Corwin, 2009), Nancy Fitchman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey describe blogging as a teacher’s “personal pensieve” (91). This is in reference to the Harry Potter series, in which Dumbledore, the head wizard, keeps personal memories magically stowed away for later retrieval.

The idea is that the teacher is not only dumping their thinking into an online space, but also intends to come back to it for future reflection and learning. Using categories and tags can help in this later process of searching for previous posts.

Because I have something important to share

Maybe our experiences, readings and online interactions have led us to some new thinking. Educators are notorious for not wanting to share their ideas with reasons such as, “Why would I share that? What I do is nothing special.” We also know, especially if you already are a connected educator, that this reasoning is not accurate at all. What a particular idea looks like in a certain classroom or school is very context-specific. Just because it has been applied in a different setting doesn’t mean it is unoriginal.

Because everything I have to share is important

We all need to be sharing what is going well in our schools. The current political climate that does not favor the individual teacher, along with non-educators cherry picking standardized assessment scores to push forward their personal agendas, has created a situation where not sharing our best work is a default knock against our profession. If there are no opposing viewpoints, who are the public to believe? Make your students’ learning visible as often as you can on your blog.

Because “Why not?”

Okay, it is hard to argue with John Belushi. I previously gave some reasons why some educators may not have time. But don’t you already write a classroom or school newsletter? How hard would it be to just copy and paste the text and images onto a blog, and let everyone in the world see it? Or at least your students’ families?

What we have to share on a blog is significantly more important than what any person or organization could possibly provide. What you could post is the real deal. No conjectures or agenda. Just your and your students’ experiences on a daily basis. If you are still struggling to come up with a reason to start blogging, try starting here.