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:
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.