Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Edcamp or Standard PD? An Edchat Reflection

Yesterday’s afternoon #edchat asked the question “ Edcamps and TeachMeets are becoming a movement for professional development, is this a viable alternative to standard PD?

I logged on expecting to participate in a lively chat and the discussion was certainly lively; I just felt like I couldn’t participate, because the stream was so one-sided. I love #edchat. Patrick Larkin introduced me to twitter and #edchat in July, and I’ve used the weekly chat as my primary tool to grow my PLN, and practice tweeting. My colleagues might argue that I struggle to say anything in 1,400 characters; so making my point in 140 characters has been a steep learning curve.

Mostly, the chats are so engaging and I love the give and take between and among people I’ve never met. But every so often, the chats become teacher versus administrator. I think it’s unfortunate that we transfer this us/them mentality from our workplaces to being online. I don’t know why I think this, but it feels like offline baggage shouldn’t make it into our online spaces. But that isn’t what stopped me from engaging either. This time I felt the teacher/administrator divide, but I also felt the urban versus suburban district divide.

Chat participants overwhelmingly spoke in favor of Edcamps and TeachMeets as a viable alternative to standard PD. Here’s my struggle. I don’t buy the either/or construct of the question, and I feel like the word “standard” is code for boring.

Bad Professional Development is horrific, and I have sat through way too much of it. I particularly loathe when I have to role-play as a child in a classroom. Why can’t someone teach me about instruction or leadership without forcing me to act like a child in class? Can’t I be me, as an adult, and still learn? There’s no question that a principal, district administrator, or outside consultant leading a one-shot session is a waste of time. But that’s not how I view professional development.

First off, I don’t buy into the term professional development. I plan and lead sessions monthly, and I don’t have any idea how to develop anyone. What I know how to do is teach, and encourage learning, and introduce new ideas, and create a safe environment for discussion and sharing. So I lead professional learning sessions, not development sessions.

My urban district values professional learning. New teachers have three full days of learning in August, and all staff have two more days together before students return. Then we have ten Wednesday’s, (one a month), when students have early dismissal and teachers stay ninety minutes beyond the regular day for school-based learning. Combine those fifteen days with weekly team meetings, collaborative planning time and monthly faculty meetings, and a school leader can and should put together a coherent yearlong plan to meaningfully move his/her school forward.

I love the passion, the enthusiasm, the autonomy, the sharing and the collaborating that an edcamp offers. We need all of that in urban professional learning sessions, but not without a coherent vision of school improvement to move teaching and learning forward for student achievement.

Here’s a few selections from yesterday’s #edchat:

Edcamp/TeachMeet is grass-roots PD. Teachers sharing their passions & knowledge w/ each other. #edchat

It is logical that the most productive PD would be created, developed, and run by the teachers who need it. #edchat

Traditional PD is fine when you have a message that everyone in your school just needs to hear. But how often is that? #edchat

Traditional PD can be replaced by the edcamp model at any school - find educators interested in sharing and learning = good to go! #edchat

Other participants wrote about autonomy and choice of sessions, and letting teachers do what they want because they will choose what’s right for their learning and their students’ learning. I don’t doubt that all this is true in the #edchat participants’ schools. But it isn’t true at the secondary level in my urban district. Let me be clear, the leaders I work with, including me, need to do a better job of structuring and leading professional learning sessions. What I know about edcamps/teachmeets, and what I learned reading the #edchat made it clear that so much is positive about the model. I work with principals who treat each of our professional learning sessions as a one and done session, with no coherence from month to month. This must change. But I also work with teachers who cross their arms at each session and scream with their body language, “I dare you to engage me.” We also have so many first, second, and third year teachers. They are learning their content and trying to build relationships with their students, while struggling to navigate the challenges of an urban school day. To expect them to lead sessions and know how we need to move forward isn’t realistic. Any new teacher rides a roller coaster in those first few years, but this is especially true for new urban teachers.

Our schools are skewered in the local media for having low standardized test scores. Teachers feel incredible pressure to teach only basic skills and prepare students for the test. The result is content focused classes with little or no connection to students’ lives or our changing world. In this context, we need incredibly strong principals and teacher-leaders to develop a yearlong coherent professional learning plan to move the school forward. We need to use monthly professional learning sessions to drive the agenda forward, to imagine our schools as better than they are today. And then we must use collaborative planning time, prep time, and team meetings to engage, support, and teach, so every teacher shares in the task of moving the school forward by applying what’s being discussed in professional learning.

I plan on attending Edcamp Boston in May, and I hope anyone reading this will attend also. We need Edcamps to inspire and engage and connect us with current and future members of our PLN. But I’ll bring back what I learn and apply it within the context of the coherent professional learning plan my colleagues and I have developed for our district. One teacher having a phenomenal Edcamp experience and applying new ideas to his/her classroom is wonderful. But it isn’t enough in my district.
I want to figure out a way to bring the Google 20% thinking into my district. I want us to have teacher developed sessions that engage adults across our schools. I want conversations to inspire, and ideas to grow. But the status quo of our schools is unacceptable. We’re better than we used to be, but we’re not where we need to be. So for now, strong leaders have to use professional learning to drive the agenda. Professional Learning must set a path to move student achievement beyond improving test scores and create a roadmap to change the status quo of urban schools.

I didn’t know how to say all this in 140 characters in #edchat yesterday. And I’m not sure I’m saying it well now. So here’s another attempt:

Edcamp style is amazing-in urban district we 1st need nonstandard sustainable pl 2 change T Bliefs and expectations for S success #edchat

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  1. Interesting POV. I think the real issue is that teachers are in different places with different needs.My high school is experimenting with monthly professional learning communities. New teachers, for example, might form a group with a couple of master teachers to look at classroom management techniques (a big one for new teachers). The librarians have formed a group to look at potential uses for QR codes because that is relevant to them. English teachers are looking at how to handle non or resistant readers, calling in librarians and literacy specialists when they have questions. We still have our share of top down training (this year on bullying) but it's more bearable because there is learning targeted to specific needs going on as well. Diffuses the tension you noted in #edchat!

  2. Eric - thank you for taking the time to write this post. Your concerns are legitimate and real world...and you have brought up some great points. I haven't thought of it this way, but I think you are correct when you mentioned younger teachers just not being able to lead PD...let alone know what kind of PD they want or need. They just have too much going on as a new teacher...I also agree with you (I am guilty of this too) that we need to make connections to our PD events. A random PD event here and then another random PD event here leaves teachers confused. I don't have any great wisdom to share, but I enjoyed your post and thank you for helping to push me toward reflection.

  3. I love this discussion. I am the only one in my school w/ #edcamp experience. I wasn't sure what I would find when I signed up but it was quite engaging. I frequently read blogs that recommend a program, an app, a website for the readers to check out. Once I got to #edcamp I had 1 hour presentations on many of the tools I'd been reading about. I don't think there will ever be enough hands on experience with tools like these in a PD format and certainly not at #edcamp. What the event brings is more detailed explanation of their applications and you can envision how they can be used in your practice. We always need to explore on our own and that takes a commitment of time. Remember how hard it was when you first created a blog? Well no one can skip that personal experience on their way to active blogging. We all have many tools to share. They may not be new to you the readers here but there are tons of new folks "future members of our PLN" showing up at your blogs and they haven't heard about your tools yet. If even a few folks pick up a new tool from you, the session is successful. Yes! to #Edcamp Boston!

  4. Gail,

    Thanks for the response. I do think #edcamp has so much to offer, and I'll be trying to get some of the teachers I work with in my district to attend.