Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Six Professional Development Activities that Produce Results in the Brief Hours We Have Available

Why don’t teachers use new strategies after attending professional development? A few teachers resist because they are just not ready to change. But willing, and potentially willing, teachers resist because they do not feel prepared.

Professional development often fails to help teachers prepare to succeed with new teaching strategies. A risk of failure creates anxiety, and resistance is a by-product of this anxiety. Time constraints make it difficult for professional development (PD) to help teachers meet a readiness threshold for trying something new. Nevertheless, professional development should offer a reasonable assurance of success.

While trying to find more time and resources for PD, we must find ways to be more effective within the system we have. In the brief time available, we have to solve the problem of failing to transfer new teacher learning to the classroom. Then we can focus on building a system that supports this transfer.

There is always risk trying new strategies, so there will always be a need for a little push. But we need teacher buy-in. You cannot force the best of our creative spirit, and our best ideas are needed to continually adapt and solve problems of teaching and learning. Risk has to be reduced to a level sufficient to create individual willingness, which will become a collective willingness.

There are very specific PD activities that increase the impact on teacher readiness and new strategy implementation:

1. Get the creative ink flowing: Teachers must be able to design and adapt their way to increased achievement. Exacerbated by time constraints, micro-level design feels creepy to teachers because, while being imperfect and ambiguous, it demands specificity and clarity. But like the imperfect experience of learning to ride a bike, teachers need to experience the imperfect ride of the creative process. The status quo hides in the shadow of ambiguity - process cycles from ambiguity to clarity, from shadow to light, are the cycles of improvement.

2. Coaching: A critical moment in improvement happens when the creative ink begins to flow for the first time. New questions arise from a new level of specificity. You need adequate shoulder-to-shoulder coaching to respond to the demand for answers from an initial spike in questions. This support is needed to maintain a sense of achievability. If teachers stay stuck and unsupported too long, they can naturally decide it is unachievable and not worth the effort. The cost of losing teachers here is greater than the cost of keeping them in the first place.

3. Collaboration: Coaching transitions to collaboration. Teachers must be able to share rich ideas and experience as they create and learn from each other. This collaborative wisdom is required to meet time demands as ideas and materials move through revisions more quickly compared to ideas processed in isolation. These groups must be more than just PLC’s; they have to quickly produce quality classroom-ready materials that increase a teacher’s belief that they are doing the right thing to teach their content to students, and that they are ready to succeed when they try.

4. Creating materials of practice: Teachers must quickly modify and adapt materials to increase achievement for mainstream, ELL, and SPED students. During design and planning, both materials and the process by which they are created influence a teacher’s readiness for reform. As teachers brainstorm and share ideas about materials, they individually test and fit new ideas. As materials take form and begin to define instruction, teachers develop a sense of predictability and control for trying new strategies. Teachers begin to feel ready. Failing to provide this opportunity to plan and adapt is failing to create a sense of readiness and stability for new teaching. Design helps clarify instruction and separate important from unimportant content. Research-based strategies look like something during moments of instruction in the classroom. These moments need planned. During instruction, materials help facilitate research-based, reading, and writing strategies, often simultaneously; and materials provide data for clear and immediate student feedback. In classrooms, written materials provide students opportunity to clarify and align ideas to objectives, and help students develop and articulate learning. After instruction, students have an historical record of their learning to study, build, and revise. Teachers have powerful evidence of teaching and learning to share with all stakeholders, and they have evidence for analysis.

5. Designing for analysis: A new level of clarity and purpose is achieved in the design phase if teachers know they are preparing to analyze student work samples after materials are used. During instruction, teachers observe with a more critical eye what is working and what isn’t. After instruction, the stage is set for a collaborative analysis of student work. More is reveled, revisions are made, and reform continues as teachers learn from practice around materials of practice.

6. Designing quality beginnings: It is easy to become overwhelmed with the many ideas and demands about school improvement. To make things more manageable, we need to focus on teaching leverage points. One leverage point for improving teaching is improving the beginning of a lesson or reading assignment. Small changes here can produce big results. By connecting new information immediately to the student, and injecting rich ideas at the very beginning of a lesson, all remaining time and effort spent on the topic are positively affected.

Another way to view quality beginnings is choosing how you are going to begin with people. We make choices about the actions we take based in part on whether or not something looks and feels achievable. We should look for more time to prepare teachers for change; meanwhile, we can begin classroom-focused PD activities that help teachers prepare and produce classroom results. Better teaching has a definite look in the classroom.

Achievement: We need to design it, use it, and analyze it within the system we have.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Leverage Point Series: Learning Teams

The degree of risk we are willing take varies for each individual. Teachers confront a risk when considering whether or not to try a new strategy in their classroom. This risk is as serious as the individual teacher believes it to be, and choices are made accordingly.

In our business, there is not enough time for professional development, so there often is not adequate time to prepare teachers for planning and using new strategies. We expect teachers to take risks and figure some things out on their own. Some teachers will plan and tinker their way through using a new strategy, and some will continue teaching the way they know how because they don’t feel ready to do something new.

I love working with teachers over a period of days and watching them move through different phases of change. Unfortunately, however, "days" of training are too rare and hard to come by. What we have available are short blocks of time. The challenge is helping teachers in the brief time available meet a personal threshold of risk-taking sufficient to try a new research-based strategy.

One way to help teachers prepare is having them work in small groups. They need the collective wisdom to quickly solve problems and refine ideas. And we need others to help us identify "blind spots" in our teaching. But these small groups must produce tangible support for teachers that they can apply to their threshold for change and the risk it represents. These groups have to produce classroom-ready materials that facilitate better teaching.

Refine your group work so a teacher begins with specific objectives students struggle to understand, and finishes with new materials that close the instructional gap. We know what the research-based strategies are, but we need to give them form and make them ready to teach. Both process and materials influence the threshold for change; they help teachers believe it's going to be okay.

After instruction, your small group should meet again to analyze student work samples. This completes the short cycles of improvement that create a steady march toward achievement.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Leverage Point Series: Strategies That Teach Content, Reading, and Writing

If there are students in your school struggling to read and write, and if you have teachers struggling to find their place supporting literacy, consider this leverage point as a starting place.

Learning to read or write is overwhelming, and teaching students to read and write can be equally overwhelming. Because of this, either teacher or student can shut down and avoid the anxiety altogether. In fact, both can develop strategies to avoid a confrontation with a literacy problem.

Five years ago, when it was time for us to walk the walk of literacy integration, when it was time for us to show evidence of this walk, I knew I had to find a way to meet teachers wherever they were on their literacy journey, and I had to show them easy ways to teach reading and writing while doing a better job of teaching their content. And time...we had to show teachers how to support literacy without adding more time.

Planning for my next summer institutes, I put out on the table strategies from Direct Instruction, Classroom Instruction That Works, reading, and writing. I was looking for common ground. I had to find overlapping strategies or concepts that could be used as a leverage point.

To make a long story short, the overlapping concept that emerged from my exercise was Main Ideas, Supporting details, and Organizational patterns (often expository). Ideas, and how those ideas are organized, can be used as a synergistic focal point to support teaching content, reading, and writing.

While designing materials to help teachers clarify and teach content that is better aligned to objectives, it is easy for us at the same time to help them create materials that support reading and writing. Teachers become more confident teaching their subject while helping students identify main ideas from the text, and then discussing with them how those ideas are organized to make or enhance meaning. Expository text becomes less of a mystery as they seperate important from unimportant, and learn tools to understand similarities and differences.

Building on learning how to find ideas and patterns in text, students get better at articulating ideas and providing supporting details. They begin to see how to organize those ideas to express a sequence of events, a cause and effect relationship, or a problem and solution. They learn how to describe an item with clarity and focus.

Rather than being overwhelmed and avoiding Six Traits, we celebrate a welding or history teacher’s commitment to teaching students two traits: Ideas and Organization. When they are ready for more traits they go there; meanwhile, we have a starting place.

Focusing on ideas and organization, teachers discover better ways to teach throughout the lesson, beginning with better ways to activate prior knowledge and build background. By the way, activating prior knowledge and building background is another big leverage point in design. Richer ideas and better understanding injected at the beginning of a lesson creates higher-order opportunities throughout.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Leverage Point Series: Materials of Practice

In the right setting, teachers quickly learn how to modify and adapt materials to increase achievement for mainstream, ELL, and SPED students. Creating the environment in which teachers collaborate on these materials is a leverage point for implementing and analyzing classroom improvement.

As teachers brainstorm and share ideas about materials that teach content and create readers and writers, they have an opportunity to individually test and fit new ideas. More important, during design as materials take form and define instruction, teachers develop a sense of predictability and control for trying new strategies. Failing to provide this planning opportunity is where we fail to help teachers prepare for change. They need the rich ideas and support of working together to answer questions as they make materials classroom ready.

Once prepared, written materials payoff in classrooms as they help facilitate research-based, reading, and writing strategies. Students have materials that help them clarify objectives, ideas, and patterns as they develop images of learning. After instruction, students have an historical record of their learning to study, build, and revise.

For teachers, written materials provide instant feedback that can be shared with students. After instruction, teachers can use the student work samples generated from materials to conduct an analysis that targets more improvement and revisions. And the materials provide evidence to all stakeholders of high-quality teaching.

Consider how Wiggins and McTighe classifies evidence of learning:

1. Final products: (e.g., projects, models, exhibits)
2. Quizzes and tests
3. Public performances (e.g., presentations, role play)
4. Oral responses (e.g., questioning, interviews)
5. Observations (e.g., using observation checklist)
6. Written responses (e.g., Organizers, notes, summaries, papers, reflections)

In the chaos of our system, in place of custom written materials, we often find quickly manufactured quizzes and end-of-chapter questions. However, students struggling to read, write, and understand need more. Raising achievement requires more.

Defining similarities and differences, note-taking, summarizing, cause and effect, problems and solutions, and main ideas and supporting details, requires teacher who can adapt and modify materials to make content accessible and understandable to their students. The students of these teachers master content while becoming readers and writers.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Leverage Point Series: Get the Creative Ink Flowing

All other leverage points in this series are dependent on the first: Get the creative ink flowing. Whether activating prior knowledge, comparing and contrasting, or developing an engaging curiosity in a struggling reader, if you want classroom change, you have to let teachers roll up their sleeves and plan materials that become the new change.

Rather than a teacher learning a new strategy, if we were talking about someone learning to paint, no one would argue how illogical it would be for the new painter to learn to paint without painting. We easily understand the value of the new painter mixing color, taking brush in hand, carefully loading it with paint, and feeling the pressure of the strokes on canvas. However imperfect the young painter is at applying the new strokes, feeling and seeing key elements of painting come together is invaluable to achieving a sense of predictability and control in the art and craft.

Our teachers’ canvases are their “materials of practice”, and yet we ask them to learn new teaching without working on their canvases all the time. I’m not talking about units, curriculum maps, or even lessons; I’m talking about materials of practice ready to use in classrooms that define instruction, that define a research-based moment of classroom instruction.

Sometimes a lack of time and budgets force us into sending a large group of teachers into a room so they can listen to the latest great idea; but however challenging, we must find a way to get the creative ink flowing. Like through the hand of the young painter, there is no replacing the experience of a teacher with pen in hand breathing life into a new strategy as elements of instruction are aligned in the materials they use. Quality requires this creative ink.

While designing materials (evidence of good teaching), content is clarified and aligned to objectives, flow becomes focused as teachers turn to each other to clarify ideas, teachers think through good beginning, middle, and ends of lessons. However imperfect, teachers begin to see themselves and their students succeeding in the new strategy as revisions and plans take form. They are designing predictability and control into the art and craft of teaching.

I’ve heard the best of teaching shared and explored around the development of classroom materials. Yet, too often teachers attend workshops on a new strategy, and then they are expected some time in the future to make the strategy appear in their practice. Rarely does this happen. What usually happens is the best intensions to "finish later" are quickly consumed by the relentless flow of other ideas and priorities. In the blink of an eye good intentions become faded memories.

We must support teachers creating and talking about classroom materials that are the new strategy. These materials help develop students who read, write, and think - they model to students how to comprehend, articulate, and organize clear ideas.

We have to be more relentless than our challenges; we have to make time for teachers to collaborate around materials of practice. You’ll see later that these same materials set the stage for analyzing student work samples.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Leverage Point Series: Introduction

Over the next weeks, I'll post a series that highlights the most important lessons learned while providing staff development to teachers. This ongoing evolution of lessons learned targets ways to LEVERAGE results from the challenges we face.

You don't have to be in education long to recognize how time, specifically a lack thereof, influences much of what we do. This is especially true with professional development. Knowing what it takes to improve teaching, the lack of time often forces us into training situations we do not prefer.

But sometimes challenges like this help us find solutions we would not have found in more ideal situations. It is precisely the frustration created by a lack of time that makes me continually challenge and discover what is important, how certain teaching strategies reinforce each other, how some content strategies also teach reading, how all teachers can easily support writing without taking more time, how teachers can feel confident trying a new strategy in a short time, and more.

As we continue, we'll see how teacher-created "materials of practice" benefit teachers, students, and stakeholders while defining and improving instruction. Focusing on students who do not understand, we will see how designing research-based materials expand the circle of understanding in classrooms, which leaves fewer students needing individual plans. We will talk about how instructional design should first focus on the beginning of a lesson or reading assignment, because richer ideas and deeper understanding created here will create better understanding throughout. And we will talk about how every teacher can easily teach reading and writing while becoming better teachers of their own content.

It's true, there is not enough time. And trying something new usually ends up being harder than we anticipated. But we just keep trying and we find ways to get it done.

You do not have to wait to discuss ways to overcome the challenges to implementing the best of what we know about teaching and learning. Write anytime (Prestonww49@yahoo.com)