Reflecting on My Recent Professional Development Effort: The Power of Teacher Vertical and Cross-Curricular Collaboration

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All professional fields incorporate professional development (PD) into the structure of their occupations. There are always ideas to share and experiences to be had with the intent of growing employees or to simply improve one’s self. The unfortunate reality–at least in education–is a great deal of professional development can feel inadequate at best and a waste of time at worst. It is with this understanding of my own PD experiences that I went into planning a professional development of teachers in my cluster of schools with trepidation. To be transparent, I was nervous I would let my colleagues down and planning a PD experience that lacked the right substance and the right balance of experiential learning and collaboration with some dreaded sit-and-get as well. This was not my first rodeo–I had developed and delivered PD for others before, but rarely do I feel I hit the mark or pushed a narrative forward. Well, this time, this PD, felt different. I walked away after three days of rigorous work with my colleagues believing we had all experienced a PD worthy of our time, energy and effort.

Here’s some quick background–my district launched our academy school program three years ago (four if you count the planning year), and each summer the district has poured money into holding a summer academy institute for teachers of academy designated schools in the district. I was a part of the first year’s planning and execution of the institute. Considering it was a bit scatter shot and took a great deal of human capital to pull off, the first institute was fine. I remember leaving after three days leading sessions and working with other schools feeling relief that it was over and we had all survived. Fast forward to the next year where I had a bit more control of leading teachers from my school and cluster. We took a leap and got representatives from all five of our schools together for one of the three days to discuss project-based learning in our cluster and what that should look like. Again, a little scatter shot, but the sessions were starting to feel more tailored and important to my teachers. I left that year feeling accomplished but again relieved it was over.

Now we come to this year just twenty-four hours ago. To give you an indication of of how far this year’s institute moved forward, I can confidently say I left yesterday beaming with the feeling of giddy excitement over what transpired. As I told my colleagues and posted on social media yesterday, simply, “Wow!”

Below is a quick reflection of the three days and why I feel they were successful for myself and my colleagues, but for anyone interested, you can read on to see exactly what we did.

Reflection: 
In order to design this PD to be impactful, I did my best to recall the best PD I had in my ten years of teaching as well as pick the brains of my colleagues for what they wanted from the experience. I also made sure to leverage the good work several of my colleagues were doing and asked them to be part of the experience and planning. This makes all the difference, I feel. Ensuring my teachers had an experience and not just a ‘talking to’ was imperative to me. I also wanted to make sure they had a chance to plan–I mean really plan! To make both a reality, I paced the three days to be balance of learning new concept and discussing strategies with time to collaborate and plan for the upcoming year. The result really was stunning. The fifty teachers who attended (30 from my school and 5 from each of the other four schools) were all on board with agenda and engaged (mostly) in the process of collaborating not only with teachers in the same subject or grade level but vertically as well. What also helped the process was learning on my colleagues to help differentiate the experience for our participants. Middle school teachers came to work with their new colleagues attending the institute all three days to help acclimate them to our culture and preparing them for next year. Our STEM partner, State Farm, came in to work with our STEM teachers on building their Scrum/Agile knowledge to help them plan their year and increase Scrum use in their cross-curricular projects. The ability to meet teachers needs where they were and be flexible made a big difference in the success of the institute this year. (Hmm, sounds like what we are hopefully trying to do in our classrooms too…)

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I want to believe the success of the collaboration and planning was with the goals I tried  to set that provided teachers a choice, including choosing their own groups to collaborate with and develop projects, combo lessons with teachers in the same subject, cross-curricular activities, or all three. In addition, the discussions we had centered on innovative practice and developing our identity as a cluster of schools. The result appeared to be a success where teachers felt productive and inspired. I cannot thank my colleagues enough for the talents and attitudes they put on the table. When all was said and done, each school left with a process, project, lessons, and more for going into next year. The best part is these creations were often times vertically developed and designed to be cross-curricular in nature. I have never been more proud or excited to be part of a learning process where I felt like everyone grew, including myself.

Alright, with that quick reflection done, here’s what we actually did each day:

Day 1:
We started with a perspective walk (which my new colleague–finally–Buffy Hamilton captured beautifully on her blog) where in smaller groups we unpacked beliefs and misconceptions surrounding project-based learning. As a large group, we discussed these beliefs and misconceptions and how they impact our practice and the culture of our home schools.

Next we unpacked our new notebook. I know this means nothing to you as you read it, but essentially it’s a twenty page document that lays out the practices and tools we want to start using universally in the cluster–essentially, providing a united front in our goal to the innovative and transformative group of schools in our district. We evaluated the usefulness of the notebook and how it might impact our practice using a dotmocracy process.

A gentleman by the name of Jeff Spence, a local serial entrepreneur, then came in to talk through a recent event we did on campus where two of our 9th ELA teachers combined their classes for a series of lessons where each teacher helped facilitate learning based on their pedagogical strengths. One of the teachers spoke with Jeff–Nadine Bell. Together they discussed the origins of the innovative approach and their impressions of the lessons, which essentially helped inspire what is possible when teachers are willing to collaborate and think outside the box of what is possible in their classrooms.

After lunch, it was all about collaboration. Teachers self-selected teams and got to work taking the ideas fresh in their minds into their work designing and developing projects and innovative lessons. I spent time facilitating groups and encouraging in-depth discussions.

We ended the day with a ticket-out-the-door having teams/teachers reflect on what their biggest takeaway and inspiration for day two.

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Day 2:
Day two started with bringing in Walt Olney, a corporate trainer, who specializes in instructing on and facilitating Agile/Scrum training. While at least one academy in my school was using Scrum project methodology this past year, most teachers still had not heard about the process or how it could translate to education. Walt did a great job helping teachers see the benefits of the process and how it translates to different levels as well as how many universities and almost all fortune 500 companies use Agile/Scrum to execute their projects. While I don’t think Scrum will suddenly be pervasive across our cluster, I do think more teachers will take it up over time. The benefit is our students will be knowledgeable and hopefully understand a process used in the world beyond public school walls.

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The second half of the day was all about collaboration and planning again. In total over the first two days, teachers had nearly six hours to actually plan with in several different groups. In order to help promote progress on their work and what they had just learned about Scrum, teams of teachers used a Kanban board to track their progress.

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Day 3:
The morning of day three was all about the inclusion of technology when designing the processes for students and project-based learning. Specifically, my wonderful colleague Brooke Webb led the charge helping our teachers consider their usage and potential usage of our Desire2Learn platform we have embedded in our online portal. Rhonda Stroud, our LSTC, also lent a great deal of insight into using the program to heighten classroom functionality in general as well with PBL.

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Finally, the rest of the day was–you guessed it–all about collaboration and planning. We ended the day pitching our ideas and showing off our work, which was genuinely inspiring. So much was accomplished.

If you want more information about what went on these past three days, feel free to reach out. I know I’m only skimming over the process here. In any case, thanks for reading. Hopefully there is a nugget to take away for anyone out there who has to consider the design of their own PD.

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