First Person

Commentary: Meaningful professional development

Jessica Cuthbertson is a literacy coach in Aurora Public Schools and an active member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative through the Center for Teaching Quality

Recently, three dozen teachers from multiple states, including Colorado, convened in California for the winter meeting of the National Writing Project’s Literacy Design Collaborative, a professional learning initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The second cohort of the collaborative is currently engaged in a two-year commitment that involves shared professional learning tied to Common Core Standards and the prototyping and implementation of “modules.” Modules are teacher-created curriculum plans that span a two-to-four week period of instruction in secondary literacy and other content areas.

The weekend’s work serves as a powerful framework for professional learning at its best – an extended experience where teachers were recognized as professionals and actively engaged in the process of relevant and rigorous learning.

Each teacher’s own district, school and classroom context was at the forefront of the work. An outsider looking in on these teachers might, at first glance, think that it was all about the modules themselves. Indeed, each teacher received at least an hour to present their work and receive feedback from their small group using a supportive protocol. But reducing the learning to just this task is akin to seeing exceptional classroom instruction as merely the result of a lesson plan.

Learning, at both levels, is much more complex. Regardless of the topic or title, each teacher presented detailed plans for critical and provocative learning. Each teacher asked questions that were thoughtful and complex. Each teacher worked to ensure the students experience learning that will change the way they think as readers, writers, speakers or thinkers.

Shouldn’t every teacher walk away from a professional learning experience feeling this way? Rejuvenated and inspired to change elements of their practice to better support and accelerate student learning?

The answer seems obvious, but the reality is that professional development is too often about doing, not learning. The result of this is classroom instruction focused on activities or tasks instead of meaningful learning. Or, at its worst, professional development can result in confusion, remediation or denigration of the very professionals the learning is supposed to empower.

So what can professional developers at the school, district or state level learn from the National Writing Project’s LDC initiative? The following elements were key factors in the success of this professional learning experience:

  • Time: Teachers had time to write, discuss, read, reflect and question. Every participant received the same amount of time to share and receive support specific to their work.
  • Creativity: While each teacher is producing a module using a similar template and process, the content and context of each module is unique to the teacher and the students it will serve. Teachers were encouraged and supported to be creative and to think outside the box to ensure that their module was meeting the needs not just of a range of learners, but of their specific learners.
  • Clear Commitments: Clear communication, organization and planning on the front end ensured that every teacher arrived prepared to share their work and left the weekend with clear commitments and next steps between now and the summer meeting. Teachers will carry out their work in unique and varied ways with their specific students, but understand the shared commitments and data they need to bring to move the work forward.
  • Professionalism: While feedback and support was provided, each teacher was trusted as a professional to make the revisions that best suited the context where they work and the students they serve. Ongoing support for feedback will also be provided as teachers finalize and implement their modules. In every conversation, teachers were honored and respected as pedagogy and content experts, elevating the conversations and creating a community of camaraderie among the teachers.
  • Can meaningful professional learning really be this simple?

    Time, creativity, clear commitments and professionalism ensured every teacher learned and contributed to the conversation. Infusing these elements into our site-based and district level professional learning can shift professional development from something that is done to teachers, to something that is done by teachers.

    First Person

    I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

    PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
    Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

    For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

    Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

    1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

    I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

    2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

    I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

    3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

    During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

    4. Money matters.

    Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

    5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

    More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

    6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

    If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

    Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

    First Person

    I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

    PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
    Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

    Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

    This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

    But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

    Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

    Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

    I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

    I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

    I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

    After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

    This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

    Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

    Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

    Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.