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Professional Development – It’s all about timing

July 2, 2012

Teacher Musings:
Last week I attended a professional development training designed to help teachers vertically align their teaching with AP classes.  For English this means getting students from sixth through tenth grade to develop the type of analysis and writing skills that will help them be successful in both AP Literature classes and AP Language and Composition classes.  I went to this training with my usual goal of getting a few good ideas out of four days, but not expecting what I heard to be revolutionary.  This might seem like a cynical attitude, but, as I have explained in earlier posts, I have found that “stand and deliver” professional development often does not help improve my teaching as much as time to talk to my colleagues about what work is actually happening in my classroom.

Well, last week I was very pleasantly surprised.  This four-day training gave me tons of resources and ideas for how I can improve my teaching, and left me feeling excited and energized about the changes and improvements I want to implement in my classroom.  Just a few of these new insights and ideas include:

  • A better understanding of how close reading works, and how to get my students to move beyond just generally identifying writing techniques and actually being able to explain the effect of those techniques on the reader.  One of the tenets of this training was that we must always ask students to find something concrete in text (such as metaphor, detail, rhetorical strategies, etc.) and then explain how it contributes to the reader’s understanding of the abstract (such as theme, tone, central argument, etc.).  This realization represented a “d’oh” moment for me because it is something I was trying to get students to do well all last year, but I never figured out a mechanism for doing so.  This concrete and abstract connection seems like it will help me develop that mechanism.
  • More content knowledge of grammar.  Confession time: I’m a horrible speller, and when colleagues start throwing around the terms phrases and clauses I have to look them up every time.  I don’t buy into the idea that all English teachers are grammar know-it-alls, or that we should be.  But I did know that my own content knowledge was weak in this area, and spending an entire day practicing activities that taught grammar and using some fantastic grammar resources from the program helped me build my content knowledge.  I still have a lot of work to do around how to teach this, but I think I now have some tools that will help my students improve their intentional use of grammar.  This will help me build on some of the success I had this year where students did more focused editing of their writing due to the portfolio system I used.
  • A chance to network with a bunch of fantastic teachers.  There were teachers in this training from all over the state, and I was lucky to sit next to a department head who had a ton of knowledge about where state assessments are headed, and what types of writing and reading students are going to required to do as the assessments change in response to the Common Core.  Additionally, at my table, there were a couple teachers who use Socratic Seminar as a whole-school routine and they were able to give me some very concrete suggestions about how to implement Socratic Seminar in my classroom, especially when incorporating some of the close reading strategies I was learning about.  This was incredibly helpful, because my personal goal for improvement “next” year is to use student discussion to more effectively improve student analysis of text.

So, what made this professional develop exceed my expectations?  It was a combination of factors that I will definitely keep in mind as I plan for the professional development sessions I will be leading in the near future.

  • Firstly, our presenter was both incredibly knowledgeable and willing to elicit ideas and information from his audience to supplement what we were learning.  He was confident enough that he wanted our participation, rather than feeling like he had to be an authority.  This led to lots and ideas and insights that all the participants were able to gain from each other.
  • Secondly, the presenter made the participates participate: in small groups, in pairs, etc.  We didn’t spend that much time just sitting and listening.  This kept us awake, but it also gave us time to collaborate and share ideas with each other, which is a crucial part of professional development for all teachers.
  • Finally, the timing of this professional development was perfect for me.  I was just after school ended, so all the work I did with my students this year was fresh in my mind.  I spend the last week or so of each school year mapping out my curriculum and long-term plan for the next year.  Armed with this, I was well-prepared to incorporate all the new ideas and strategies I learned about this week.  Most importantly, I was learning about concepts and strategies that I was ready to learn about.  None of this professional development involved a huge paradigm shift for me.  I have already come around to the belief that students need choice in what they do, that students need to write in a variety of modes that are not the five-paragraph essay, that students should be reading and re-reading more in-depth instead of just “covering” lots of novels, etc.  Armed with that mentality, and having tried to implement some of these principles, I was well-prepared to learn new strategies and concepts that I then was able to readily consider implementing.  I learned a lot, and could have been potentially overwhelmed if I wasn’t in the right professional and mental place to absorb what I was learning. This makes me wonder how much of professional development comes down to timing.  Is it the right information, presented the right way, for the right person?  Just like with students, we adults are aren’t all in the same place professionally, and we need our learning to be differentiated so that we learn what we are ready and able to implement in our classroom in that moment.  And, just like with students, this is far easier said than done.  This week I was one of the lucky ones.  This professional development moment for me couldn’t have been timed better, and I can’t wait to get back in the classroom to get these ideas rolling!

Yummy Stuff:
We are swimming in lettuce and greens with our CSA farm share box, which is exciting for summer time!  I recently planned to use a whole bunch of dinosaur kale in a casserole, but only had room for 2/3s of it.  This was exciting, because I knew just what to do with the rest – Kale Chips!  These salty snacks are enjoyed by our whole family, and I can eat and embarrassing amount in a very short time span.

Kale Chips

1 bunch of kale (curly or dinosaur)
2 tsp of olive oil (or enough oil to coat the kale)
pinch of salt

1) Pre-heat oven or toaster over to 350
2) Tear or cut kale leaves away from the stems and tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces that are all about the same size.  Wash and thoroughly dry the leaves.
3) Put the kale in a  bowl and drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt.  At this point you can also add optional spices (like cumin, chili powder, nutritional yeast, etc.)  Toss the kale until fully coated.  (If you have olive oil in a Misto sprayer like us you can skip the bowl and spray oil directly on the kale when it is on the baking sheet, and save the trouble of getting a bowl dirty – just be prepared to use your hands to do the tossing!)
4) Lay the leaves out on a baking sheet in a single layer and bake until leaves are crisp but not burnt – about 10-15 minutes, checking every 5 minutes.

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