When professional learning isn’t your choice…

As teachers, we have all had times when we have been asked to participate in mandated professional learning. Before you read on, think about the last time you found yourself in this situation. How did you feel about being there? What elements worked for you and what rubbed you the wrong way?

For me, this type of learning reminds me of what our students must feel each day. I admit that I myself have not always been a huge fan of mandated professional development. It is ironic that planning and delivering this type of learning is now a regular part of my current position. Knowing that the feelings around this type of PD are not always talked about in a positive light, I was intrigued to read Chapter 3: “A Model for Required Professional Development” in Jennifer Allen’s book Becoming a Literacy Leader. I was genuinely curious to find out what might Jennifer offer to help me become a better facilitator for required learning sessions.

Right away I loved Jennifer’s honesty as she shared her moments of success and frustration. Anyone who has organized and led professional learning has had those moments where you clearly know you have failed. Jennifer begins with sharing some very challenging years that were not working for her. Paying attention to our mistakes and learning from them is important for all of us, regardless of our teaching context.

I began to think about my biggest fails from this past year. What did I learn? Probably the most important lesson I learned this year was to invest the time to learn the culture of the group. Not all groups work the same way and not all leaders want you to work with their staff in the same way. Asking questions and ensuring expectations are clear, helps things go more smoothly. Many times I am asked to introduce ideas and information that may challenge entrenched ways of thinking and working within schools. Another lesson I learned is to name this dissonance right at the beginning and open up space to disagree, in agreeable ways. My biggest learning continues to come from reflecting about the bumps in the road and what I could do differently next time.

In Chapter 3, Jennifer introduces us to three key ingredients she believes are essential when designing an agenda for mandatory professional development:

  • making meaning of content together
  • individualizing the learning
  • bridging theory and practice.

I loved her example of “My Life in Seven Stories”, but equally was a fan that she left room for me to contextualize these ideas and make them my own. When I thought about the three ingredients for professional development, I was able to immediately connect my own personal experiences with her framing.

Thinking about how groups can make meaning of new content together, I  realized how important good questions are for learning. Thinking in questions helps organize the main ideas and guide professional development but also leaves room for the learners to influence the direction and thus the learning. Framing professional learning through a series of questions signals to the participants that they will be actively making meaning together. Knowledge Building Circles are a great way to dig deep into important questions and make meaning of content together.

The second ingredient Jennifer suggests is to design professional learning so people can individualize the learning. This can be tough with very large groups but by providing choice within the session, we can increase autonomy and engagement. Choice can be as simple as offering a collection of articles to choose from, a variety of tools to use, or even providing the opportunity for groups to make micro-decisions about how to structure a block of time. Jennifer’s suggestion to take what you learn and apply it yourself (p.54), reminded me that we want our learners to be actively engaged in doing the learning and not just hearing about the learning. If your session is about reading, ask your participants to read. Taking off the teacher hat and putting on the learner cap is important for internalizing and personalizing learning.

The third ingredient was a recent epiphany for me. I used to wonder why we even needed theory. Just tell me what to do! Now I understand that theory helps us understand the ‘why’ behind our choices. Jennifer suggests that the bridge between theory and practice can happen by giving teachers time to play with the strategies in the classroom (p. 54). I think an important part of this ingredient is also to scaffold teachers to be able to name and understand what theory might look like in their classrooms before they leave the professional development session. Embedded planning time to bridge theory and practice during professional development has become a regular fixture in my planning. A handy protocol for this is ‘Connect. Extend. Try’. At the end of PD sessions, I ask participants to think about how the new learning connects with what they already know, what extends or challenges their thinking, and what is one new thing they will commit to trying.

Having only finished Chapter 3 of this book, I am excited to continue reading to discover more practical and inspirational ideas about leading literacy. I know I will for sure be stealing Jennifer’s “My Life in Seven Stories” to use at some point with teacher writing groups this year!


Please consider adding your ideas about key ingredients or some ‘tried and true’ ideas for professional learning in the comments. I’d also like to invite you to join our reading community as we read and discuss Becoming a Literacy Leader together.

Thanks for reading,


When starting to integrate technology as a school, what is the best approach regarding professional development?

This question was posted recently to me on Google+. The question asker, Jennifer Derricks, was prompted while reading my new book for ASCD Arias (yeah, a reader!). Here is my response:

Jennifer, this is a great question, and I will post it right here in Google+ so others can read my response. My answer is multi-faceted because there are several considerations when first starting to implement technology within instruction.

First, look at your building goals, your school’s past successes and areas for professional growth as a school. Where are you at, where do you want to be, and how might you get there? If you haven’t identified these yet, look at your student learning results. Pay special attention to the interim/benchmark assessments instead of standardized tests and their ilk. These common formative assessments can show you trends and patterns that will guide your work.

Once you have a focus for professional learning that has a good chance of impacting student learning, the second step is to consider one possibility for technology-enhanced instruction. When I say one, I mean ONE!! (sorry for shouting). For our school, there was a recognized need to augment our assessments to provide access and accommodation for our students, especially our most marginalized. Using digital tools such as blogs and portfolios have given students a greater voice in how they can be assessed with regard to what they know and are able to do.

Third, it is okay to pilot technology integration with only a handful of teachers in the first year. We selected the willing and the interested. Once they became accomplished in using the digital tools with fluency, they became our building leaders in terms of explaining the benefits of the initiative to the rest of the staff. Some of these teacher leaders have led staff development for us at later times. Our staff development offerings are voluntary, paid, and led by the participants’ questions which they post via Google Form prior to the sessions. It cannot be just the principal leading this change process.

Finally, make this initiative a multi-year focus that is embedded within a current academic goal. One year is not enough. Plan for at least three years for these enhancements to truly take hold in your school and make an impact on student learning. Also, expect an implementation dip during the process, probably the second year. In my experience, this happens when you think things are running along smoothly. This is a sign that teachers are starting to move beyond the basics of the technology and ready for more training with regard to more complex uses of the tools.

Image Source: Renwick, M. Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (2014)

Also, if the technology is not up to the pedagogical challenge (and you’d be surprised at how many are not), it might be time to shift gears and consider different digital tools that better meet the needs of the students and teachers.
Good luck with your schoolwide approach to digitally-enhanced learning!



Twitter for PD? Yes! Twitter to Replace PD? Not so much

I see these types of posts once in a great while and I just shake my head:

To be transparent, the article itself nicely details a process for helping staff become more connected. I suspect the tweet was used to grab attention. Well, you got me, hook, line, and sinker…

I like Twitter. A lot. In fact, I take purposeful breaks from it (see: tech sabbaticals) just so I can clear my head and reflect on all that I have discovered from my personal learning network. It’s an awesome resource because of the number of educators on it, all sharing specific areas of expertise and conversing about best practice. I wish I had Twitter when I was teaching – I would have been so much better than I was.

But Twitter replacing professional development? No. I am surprised that I keep hearing this line. There are just some things that cannot be left to chance.

When moving a building forward in their collective instructional capacities, the only method I have found to have a profound effect on student learning is when everyone is speaking the same language. The proof is in my school. The last three years, we engaged in a reading-writing connection residency. This series of modules and activities have put us all on the same page with respect to the best ways to teach and to help students monitor their learning. This year, we are engaging in specific writing strategies for informative/explanatory texts. No one opts out. Our kids deserve the very best in what we can offer.

This would not happen via Twitter because I believe you would have a hodgepodge of practices implemented at extreme levels of fidelity, with limited ability to have deep conversations with colleagues. Everything shared in this forum is not top notch. In addition, I very much doubt that every educator would engage in professional learning via Twitter at similar levels of depth. Some educators aren’t interested, and we have to respect that.

When a community of learners participates in strong, evidence-based training, it builds trust and raises expectations. It says, “If I am going to implement this in my classroom, I want to see results, both now and in the future.” This only occurs when students get strong, consistent instruction year after year. As John Hattie found in Visible Learning for Teachers (Routledge, 2012), there are five practices that expert teachers use to profoundly effect student learning (pgs 28-32):

  • Identify the most important ways in which to represent the subject that they teach.
  • Create an optimal classroom climate for learning.
  • Monitor learning and provide feedback.
  • Believe that all students can reach the success criteria.
  • Influence surface and deep level outcomes.

While I agree that there needs to ample room for personal learning, it shouldn’t come at the expense of ignoring what the research shows. It’s not fair to kids.

A while back, a teacher on Twitter asked what digital resource is a must for all educators. I replied that the tool doesn’t matter – it is who is on the other end of the connection and the types of conversations that occur that make the difference. This led to more conversation about the power of Twitter, how it connects the world, how you can follow anyone, etc., etc. Preaching to the choir! But what if Twitter went defunct a la Google Reader? Are we versatile enough to apply the concept of connected learning to other tools, such as Google+? If we truly are life long learners, then the answer should be yes.

Best Practice Fits All

When you hear professional development described as “one size fits all”, what do you imagine? Heads resting on hands? Glazed eyes? Sidebar conversations running rampant? I can relate– I have sat in too many of these types of meetings myself. However, I have come to think that this type of PD is really one size fits none.

Instead, when I consider one size fits all, I imagine a baseball cap with the elastic head band.

medium_3747476234photo credit: permanently scatterbrained via photopincc

This may be a better metaphor for how we might want to approach effective teacher training. These hats can be worn by many users regardless of head size. They adapt to who’s wearing it, but it is still a hat. That’s how I truly see one size fits all professional development. Educators need to work more like a team if we expect whole schools to make a lasting difference on student learning. We cannot have lone rangers.

It’s not like the jury is still out on what works. Look at the work by Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock (2001), Hattie (2009), Wiliam (2011), and Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde (2012). They are all pretty much saying the same thing about what best practice looks like:

– Formative assessment
– Self-assessment
– Feedback and Questioning
– Integrated Units of Study
– Direct Instruction (i.e. gradual release of responsibility)
– Collaboration and Peer-to-Peer Conversations
– Student Interest and Ownership of Learning
– Independent Practice

We can call these things whatever we want: Project-Based Learning, Inquiry Circles, Flipped Classrooms. It probably helps to give these practices snappy names so we can wrap our heads around them during the teaching process. But let’s not mistake them for something new; these philosophies work because they are grounded in the best practices listed above. We can wrap the Christmas presents in whatever type of paper we want. But what’s inside is what matters, and especially in how well we use them.

When doctors receive training, they don’t go off into isolated corners of the room and do their own thing. They understand that certain methodologies must be adhered to when performing a procedure. Now, there is often more than one way to achieve a desired outcome. But the pathways toward that outcome don’t diverge that far away from each other. It’s the same with teaching and learning. There should be no one prescribed way to help students achieve their goals. Yet to refuse to learn more about practices that have large amounts of evidence to support their use, and instead stick with what we feel comfortable with, is at best being obstinate and at worst neglectful.

The onus for hosting successful professional development is on two groups: School Leaders and Teachers. School leaders who prepare these activities need to listen to their staff about their interests and requests. Leaders should differentiate what’s offered to ensure that the learning is relevant and applicable for all teachers. But they concurrently have to look at students’ needs using assessment data, learning artifacts, and evidence-based practices. Where these two areas converge is where staff development should probably receive its focus, delivered through the lens of what a school does well. It’s important that we are all on the same page. If certain practices are effective, shouldn’t we all consider employing them?

Teachers need to come to this same learning opportunity with an open mind. Maybe the topic of PD is not what they want to focus on nor spend their time with. But what if the training is really good stuff? Like, focusing on embedding formative assessment within instruction, which can double a teacher’s effectiveness (Wiliam, 2011)? If there are opportunities for staff to voice opinions about professional development, through surveys and by serving on a leadership team, then there is a good chance that what is offered to us as educators will make a positive impact on kids and their learning if applied correctly. The alternative is a lottery system, where if a kid is lucky, they will get a teacher that is using great instructional practices that every educator in the building should be using in the first place.

List, Jot, Write Long

We expect students to write every day at school. As teachers we scaffold this process, by helping them come up with ideas, get those ideas down right away, organize their thoughts in a way that makes sense to them and others, and then start to compose a piece of writing that effectively communicates these ideas to an authentic audience.

As a staff, we have an expectation that we write every day, too. Our intended audience is our students. Our purpose is to develop writers in our classroom by modeling this process, then gradually releasing the writing responsibility over to our students.  At the same time, I have encouraged my staff to write for themselves. They could blog and share their great teaching ideas and connect with other educators, or just journal after a day of instruction to reflect on what went well and what to work on for next time. The audience for this type of writing are colleagues and/or themselves.

With the new Educator Effectiveness Initiative in Wisconsin, also known as Act 166, all educators will be expected to write a little bit more. The audience? Their immediate supervisor.

Starting in 2014, teachers and principals will no longer be evaluated once every three years. Superintendents and principals will now be observing schools and classrooms several times annually. What is replacing the long narrative evaluation tool are several pieces of evidence over a three year period. These artifacts can include walkthrough forms, checklists, video observations, peer coaching sessions, and documented informal conversations.  Although this is another thing coming at public educators in the midst of Common Core, Response to Intervention and Smarter Balanced Assessments, the concept of making several observations over a multi-year period of time instead of the one time dog and pony show should be a welcomed change. The writing part for staff comes when they are asked to curate and reflect on their pieces of evidence that has helped them meet their professional goals.

I am all for giving my staff information ahead of time. Not too much that they are overwhelmed; just enough periodically so they have an awareness of what is coming. The process we are using this year to start becoming more reflective practitioners by 2014 is a tool Regie Routman encourages for goal setting: List, Jot, Write Long. It is adapted from an activity developed by Jennifer Allen in her educational resource Becoming a Literacy Leader.  Always trying to model the teaching process in my own communications with staff, I have taken part in this activity myself.


The first of three steps is to list five ideas important to you. I chose to highlight three of our school’s shared beliefs about literacy, along with two recommendations from Richard Allington. I circled one of these ideas (#4) to write more about later.


After listing my initial thoughts, I jotted two more ideas from each main idea. I think the concept is to help flesh out my initial thinking and develop details for the last step.

Write Long

This is the end product, the culmination of a prewriting activity to help develop individual and team goals. As you can see, it is very reflective: I probably ask more questions than answer. That is okay, because this process is designed to help me discover what I want to focus on as a learner for the school year.

The Next Step

With my beliefs and aspirations made visible, I feel like I am in a better position to set some goals for the school year, for my students and for myself. Using building objectives and district initiatives, I wrote my own goals as a staff member in my building. One goal is student-specific; the other encompasses the entire school, from more of the principal perspective.

This process of starting with a simple writing activity and slowly progressing toward a final product has been helpful. Going from an initial idea (“Students should be reading and writing 50% of the school day.”) to a comprehensive objective along with strategies and assessments was made much easier because I started with our beliefs of practice and worked up.

If you think this activity is the type of learning that could work for your building, I highly recommend Jennifer Allen’s resource and Regie Routman’s professional development series. Have you done something similar in your building? How could an activity like this be used with the students in your school? Please share in the comments.

Flipped PD

I recently flipped my staff professional development. This change was born out of necessity more than anything.

The concept of flipping instruction has been used a lot in education, for both students and staff. My elementary school decided to try it because we didn’t have enough time during the day to truly learn with one another. In the past, we spend the majority of our limited time together watching a video or reading an article with little time to discuss what we saw or read. At the same time, it was recommended at a summer leadership institute that teachers spend 20-100 hours per year reflecting on their own practices, collaborating with colleagues and discovering better ways to help students learn. Something had to give.

Here is how it worked for us.

Before Our Professional Development Day

In late August, I asked my teachers to view online videos about teaching poetry from the Reading-Writing Connection. I also handed out the ASCD article Every Child, Every Day by Richard Allington. The expectation was they would complete these activities by our October 12 PD day.

As the date drew closer, I shared a Google Doc to help guide teachers’ thinking as they watched the videos. Creating a two-column document, I wrote higher level thinking questions on the left side related to the videos, such as, “What does the concept ‘Whole-Part-Whole’ mean to you as a teacher?” On the right side staff wrote their responses to these questions.


We also took stock of where our beliefs were as a staff. Instead of sitting down, filling out the surveys together and then tabulating them by hand, we used Google Forms and submitted our beliefs before we ever got together.

During Our Professional Development Day

Because much of the sitting and getting was done when it was convenient for each teacher, the majority of our time was spent talking with colleagues and sharing best practices. Not to say there wasn’t structure; there was. For example, we used the Last Word Protocol instructional strategy to facilitate discussion about Allington’s article. It gave myself and the other teacher facilitators an opportunity to model some effective instructional practices, an area that tends to take a backseat when curriculum and assessment directives are handed down to buildings.

Each session was connected to our building goals, which are connected to our district and state initiatives. To keep things fresh, we made sure that no session lasted longer than 45 minutes. I wouldn’t expect kids to sit through an hour and a half presentation, and I can’t imagine my teachers would want to do the same.

After Our Professional Development Day

With the help of technology, our learning from today has not ended. Many of the documents, resources and learning summaries were uploaded to our faculty Google Site for later perusal. This web tool has quickly become a hub for all of our important information.



Our professional development day transitioned from these activities to self-directed, focused collaboration. I spent my afternoon working with teacher teams and addressing technology questions.

When I tweeted out that I flipped my school’s PD, I got multiple replies asking how it went. Thinking back to one teacher’s comment (“I had so much fun today!”), I think things went very well.

Our School’s 21st Century PD Plan

After much thought, lots of professional reading, and many conversations with practitioners and experts, I felt ready to put together this coming year’s professional development plan. I find it helpful to create a visual of the goals. Using Grafio on the iPad, I was able to develop a snapshot of what this year’s learning will look like:


What I Feel Good About
“Year 3” in the middle just signifies that we are in the third year of our three year professional development cycle. We are using the Regie Routman in Residence series Reading-Writing Connection. The Optimal Learning Model (OLM) is a framework of instruction similar to the gradual release of responsibility process. (Last year our main focus was implementing the OLM; the year before was an introduction of the OLM).

The three main components of the plan are continuations of where we are at and where we want to be. Example: Last year half the staff had iPads for instruction and intervention; this year all staff will be using them. If we don’t set aside time to learn how to effectively use these powerful teaching tools, we aren’t tapping into their true potential.

I also like that all learning is supported by our foundation, the Optimal Learning Model. Anything we set out to learn as a staff, as a grade level team or as an individual comes back to this framework. It is the coatrack that we can hang our instructional hats on. Teachers have autonomy within this framework to pursue specific interests they believe will best address their students’ needs. At the same time, we all move together toward the same vision of ensuring students receive the best learning experience possible.

The Unknown
At first glance, it looks as if this plan does not address some of the pressing topics out there in education, such as Common Core and Response to Intervention (RtI). However, as Prego states, “It’s in there.” We will address the new standards when we agree as a group what is essential to see in the classroom during instructional walkthroughs. Likewise, RtI is embedded in our plan, whether through PBIS or strengthening our core instruction.

A new shift to note is giving technology as much of a focus as it has, being one of the three main goals for the building. We have allocated a significant amount of our Title I dollars into purchasing iPads and apps. It’s a bit scary when I think about investing in this yet-to-be proven tool for instruction as we have. However, the potential that this technology has to engage students and make the learning tasks more relevant for them is too strong to ignore.

What are your thoughts? Have I missed anything, or have I given something too much focus? Your feedback is appreciated.