Sunday, May 29, 2016

Taking Control Of Your Professional Development

Recently I was talking to a teacher friend of mine. He is what I would consider a very good teacher. He is engaging in the classroom, works very hard to meet the needs of all his students and regularly reflects on his teaching to understand his strengths and weaknesses. It's through that reflection that he is figuring out how to be better.

He told me about an email he got from his district. Over the summer teachers were going to go to some professional development in their content area. The district had looked over where the majority of teachers were weak and were going to provide them some learning in those areas. When he looked at what this PD was going to consist of he was dumbfounded. This wasn't at all the areas he was weak in. In fact he was one of the highest performing teachers in those areas.

And now he was being forced to sit through PD that was meaningless to him.

The fact is my friend is not alone.

This happens to educators more often that we can count. Many schools and districts are trying to do the right thing by meeting the needs of as many educators as possible when it comes to professional learning. But the reality is most schools and districts are not equipped to personalize the professional development of every educator.

Often we talk about the need for more personalized learning for students. There are countless books, webinars and other resources dedicated to the topic. Yet when it comes to the personalization of professional development there is a barely a slow moment by educational leaders to move in that direction. Time, money and personnel are just a few of barriers they face.

The fact of the matter is educators, no matter their position, can no longer rely on their schools and districts to provide the targeted professional development every educator needs and deserves. 

So, if we come to that realization, the next inevitable question is, what do we do about it?

Lucky for all of us we live in an age where all known knowledge is at our fingertips. The digital age has ushered in a new era where anyone can learning anything anytime anywhere. And the type of professional learning we need is readily available if we know where to find it.

Blogs-I've written many, many times about the benefits of blogging for both kids and educators. This open reflection of what we are doing, learning, sharing and thinking about can have very positive effects on our learning. Reading blogs as well can have a great impact on our learning. There are so many wonderful and thoughtful educators who are sharing various resources, ideas and thoughts for the classroom and beyond you'll easily find many to read and grow from. Start with the Teach 100 list. This is a ranked list that, while I think the rankings don't mean much, it's full of great educator blogs to explore. You can also visit the list of the Top 50  Must Read Edtech blogs and take a look at the Edublogs Awards Nominated blogs. Lots of great blogs in all these places.

Webinars-Virtual learning is nothing new. From correspondence courses to videotapes you could buy, watch and learn new skills, we now can learn virtually, in real time, anywhere in the world. There are so many places to take in a good webinar. Many of your favorite tools and products you use have thought-leadership programs that offer all sorts of webinar experiences. is one of my favorite places to catch a webinar because not only is it easy and free to join, the topics are endless and there are archives of everything. The folks over at ASCD regularly have the authors you read for webinars on their books and various other topics. #Edchat Interactive is redefining what a webinar means. The traditional webinar is passive; sit and get. The webinars at #Edchat Interactive allow you to be on video with the other participants and the presenter, like you are all in a physical place together.

Twitter Chats-Like blogging I've written about the benefits of hashtags and Twitter chats many times. Something simple like spending an hour engaging with other educators can open your mind to new ways of thinking or finding resources you didn't know existed. The Educational Twitter Chats calendar is a great place to start to find a specific chat for a topic you are interested in or even more simply a hashtag to follow to see what others are sharing.

In-Person Events-There are countless in-person events that take place year 'round so there's always somewhere to go. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Annual Conference for example is the largest education conference with nearly 20,000 attendees takes place the end of June every year. There are other smaller, regional conferences that take place throughout the year as well. Check with your local education agency or state department of education to learn more. The problem some (like myself) have with these conferences is they are expensive to attend and they don't exactly have sessions to meet your learning needs. Edcamps can help fill that void. These are free events, generally on a Saturday, put on for educators by educators. The sessions are decided in the morning and everyone is an expert. You can read more about Edcamps and check out the Edcamp calendar to learn when one is taking place near you.

Taking control of your own professional development doesn't have to cost any money or require you to invest a great deal of time or energy. It's a matter of using the resources you are already familiar with and combining those with non-traditional sources like Twitter chats and Edcamps and you can put together a very powerful personalized learning plan for yourself. 

photo credit: New Academic Year in the Renovated Atrium via photopin (license)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Fundamentals Of Learning All Students Deserve

I recently spent time visiting my friends at Anastasis Academy. This is a small, private school started by my friend Kelly Tenkely Several years ago she wanted to put into practice many of the ideal conditions that all learners need and deserve. During my day there talking to students and the staff there were several practices and beliefs around learning that any school, no matter the internal or external pressures could model and fundamentally change the learning environment for all kids.

From my time there I found there are 4 Beliefs Of Learning every school needs to have:

  • All Learning Is Interconnected
  • Personalization Is At The Core Of Learning
  • Inquiry Drives Learning
  • Learning Happens As Part Of A Larger Community

All Learning Is Interconnected-One aspect of learning that many educators believe in but have a hard time actually executing is the belief that what I teach in my classroom is connected to all the other learning that students are doing in their other classes.

Even I am guilty of this.

When I was a science teacher I found it easy to integrate math into my subject, history too. But I did a terrible job of bringing in language arts concepts. I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. And my colleagues felt the same about my subject. It's very easy to see the subject we teach isolation as the most important.

The reality is all learning is interconnected. This is something that is embraced by the students and staff of Anastasis every day. They don’t think in individual concepts. There isn’t a math class or a history class. The students learn in topics, most of which are chosen by them (more on that later).

When we learn ourselves that learning isn’t siloed. So why when students go to school are those subjects taught and learned in isolation? If we want to improve learning we have to come to the realization that all learning is interconnected.

This type of interconnected learning isn’t unique to Anastasis. And it could be replicated at any school with any subjects with any groups of students. Once students see the connections that what they’re learning makes they begin to see what which they learn in the greater context of all that they know.

Personalization Is At The Core Of Learning-With the advent and adoption of technology in the classroom it seems we couldn’t escape the word personalization. Online access to teaching resources, coupled with technology in the hands of students was supposed to make learning personal. While this has happened to some extent we are far from true personalization in the classroom.

The students at Anastasis are not.

When a student enrolls in the school they are asked a series of questions that help to understand exactly what type of learner they are. This not only helps the teachers understand, and the staff to group similar types of learners together but it aims to help the student understand how they learn best. Once those individual learning style traits are discovered by the student they can begin to understand the circumstances in which they learn best. And it's the use of these profiles that help the educators there best craft their environment for each kid. Once we know what specifically is driving and motivating a student it becomes easier and easier to help that student grow as a learner.

Again, this is something that could be done in any school anywhere. It could be a simple one-on-one conversation or the same questionnaire used at Anastasis. Either way, actually taking the first several days of school to learn about our students and help them understand what kinds of learners they are can go a long way.

Inquiry Drives Learning-As part of this commitment to personalization the students at Anastasis work around larger issues of knowledge rather than individual concepts. For example in one room I talked to a young lady who was building a webpage as part of a project related to gender inequality.

She is 9 years old.

Throughout the year the students choose issues they want to examine in greater detail. Many of them choose concepts that are hard even for adults to research and understand. The death penalty, economic instability in their community, politics, nuclear war, the lists go on and on. And this is not just happening in the older classrooms. Even the youngest students also have a say in what they learn.

And it's not just the issues that they want to learn but it's the methods in which they get to learn them that is important. In one room students were investigating some design principles related to physics and they choose to build a rollercoaster. We walked in a room where 4 boys were building. What was unique was there wasn't a teacher in sight. They were using saws, drills, all sorts of tools by themselves building a roller coaster. They weren’t off task. They were most solidly on task. They were using the tools, materials, and methods that they felt would get them closer to their goal.

Again, not something that couldn’t happen in any school anywhere. Admittingly it would be a difficult transition to full student autonomy for most but even just allowing students to choose their own paths of discovery could go a long way to reach inquiry driving learning.

Learning Happens As A Part Of A Larger Community-During my visit to Anastasis I heard about countless adventures and service visits and trips all the students take on an almost weekly basis. While I was there the youngest students (4-5 years old) went to visit their “Grand Friends” at a retirement home nearby. But I also heard of excursions to a rescue mission to feed the homeless, a visit to a community garden to see how it could be replicated in their own community and more. The students spend as much time in their classrooms working on individual learning objectives as they do in their community working to understand their place in it.

And that's important.

Kids need opportunities to serve and learn what it's like to be in a community outside of their classroom and school. Why couldn’t time be split between the school house and students completing service projects? Why couldn’t students adopt a cause or a charity they care about and work to raise awareness, volunteer or collect money to donate? Is it possible for most schools to send their students out on field trips once a week? Probably not. But the idea of learning in the greater context of the community is something that could be adopted by all.

I did talk to Kelly about push back. Some will read this or learn more about Anastasis and say “Yeah, but...” Sure they are private. Sure their students are somewhat affluent. Sure they have small class sizes. But Kelly and her school are committed to showing this can work with a little effort. That's why she spends the same amount per student as their public school counterparts. It's not about the money. It's about the culture. It's about what they value as educators. It’s about what learning means to them.

So why don't we work to redefine learning? By focusing on learning being interconnected, personalized, inquiry-based and vested in our communities we can help to foster a deeper understanding and help to create learners that will always love to learn.