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

    With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

    PHOTO: Patrick Wall
    Layla Gonzalez

    This is my story of how we came to America and why.

    I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

    We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

    The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

    We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

    In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

    Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

    Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

    When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

    We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

    And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

    Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

    As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

    Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

    First Person

    From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

    PHOTO: Patrick Wall
    Jennifer Palumbo

    As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

    You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

    Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
    I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

    Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

    But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

    They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

    By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

    I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

    And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

    They are like me but in a way backwards.

    They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

    My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

    I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

    We can break through!

    Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.