Summer PD Series: Understanding Students

My Post

My new role working at the district level across multiple schools gives me ample opportunity to create and lead summer professional development (PD) sessions. The Summer PD Series is exactly what it sounds like–I will share my PD sessions here. The hope is this will help me reflect on my sessions and their potential impact.

In today’s post I will take you through the first professional development session I led this summer in my new role which was simply called Understanding Students. Really, the purpose of the session is to inspire empathy and care in the classroom, driven from the teacher. It’s about how to authentically build relationships with students.

For some quick background on the design of this professional development, you can read about my first iteration I did with a few student mentors who were working with a few of our at-risk students on campus. For the session I led with teachers, I made some important adjustments that I will unpack below.

First, Here is the Google Slide presentation I used as my backdrop visual:

I am a big believer of not Power Pointing anyone to death, but I do think slides can provide important visuals along the way. I can easily readjust my plans as I go too. For instance in the case of this PD, I had four rounds of 85-minute “classes” with teachers, and after the first 85-minute session, I eliminated some slides that I either couldn’t get to due to time or I simply found they did not help the lesson.


More importantly than the slides I used are a few of the tools I incorporated and the lesson plan itself. Small dry-erase boards for the classroom are awesome, mobile, and support interaction. They help with formative assessment and students are more apt to use them versus writing an answer on a piece of paper. They are also easy to share and move. While one of the cheaper options is to go to a local hardware store, find a sheet of dry-erase board, and have someone cut it up, I found this great all-in-one package on Amazon that you might consider for your own purposes. I also used card stock paper and painters tape.

Alright, let’s talk lesson design. The goal was to mimic what our teachers experience everyday where they must prepare 90-minute lessons for 3 and sometimes 4 classes a day. To provide effective 90-minute lessons, a teacher needs to master transitions and centering each lesson on what students will do, not what he or she as a teacher will do. Keeping this in mind, as a teacher and as someone running a PD session, I “chunk” the lesson and attempt to distill each component and how those components build on each other. My district has their own wording and templates for this. While what I have below doesn’t precisely use their language, the concepts are the same. I do not want to forego writing to the importance of classroom setup and environment. Before my participants arrived, I had desks in a sets of five in the shape of a semi-circle groups. Each desk had a dry-erase board, a dry-erase marker, and an eraser already in place. In the back corner of the room, I had my perspective walk activity set up already, using the painters tape to create the space. The steps taken to set the tone of the session and the environment are a significant aspect to the success of any lesson.

Without further adieu, here is the breakdown of the lesson itself, including the metacognative ‘why’ behind each section as I explained it to my participating teachers:

Understanding Students: Building a Better Classroom Lesson Plan

Do Now (5 Minutes): Name Plates & Connecting Activity–
As participants walk in the door, the ‘Do Now’ instruction are on the board (or slide in this case). This gives participates, or students, something to openly do and engage in from the start of class. In this case, teachers took a piece of card stock, folded it hot dog style, wrote their name on one side with the name of an animal below their name that they somehow identified with, and on the back of their name plaque, they wrote the first name of just one students they felt the struggled with the most to reach or connect with the previous schools year. As they do this, I ask for a volunteer to be our timekeeper. I use student timekeepers to help keep me honest on my lesson timing, and it generates an active role in the classroom. At the transition of each “chunk,” I have the timekeeper reset the clock to the new time frame (i.e. fifteen minutes, ten minutes, etc.). Finally, I have the participants explain to their semi-circle mates why they chose the animal they did under their names. I participate in this as well.

The Why: The name plates immediately support my ability to call participants (students) by their names with no pressure to have them memorized on day one. In a regular classroom, I can reuse these for a few weeks to help me not only remember names, but to changing seating arrangements before students even come in the door. The animal conversation is a safe entry point for participants (students) to share about themselves to those in their group. It is a low stakes, first attempt, at helping them unpack an aspect of their identity and share with their peers. The student name on the back will come into play at the end of the lesson.

Opening Activity (20 minutes)–Formative Assessment Using Dry-Erase Boards–
Using the white boards, I asked a series of three questions. For each question, participants write an answer on their board, but they do not show their answer until I tell them to reveal them. On the count of three, each group member shows their answer, which is proceeded by each member explaining their answer to the group. The questions I asked this time were,

  1. What do you identify as?
  2. What do you worry about most?
  3. Where do you feel most at home?

I typically provide support for them by emphasizing we all have more than one identity, worry or even home, but to choose what came to mind most quickly in the moment.

The Why: This starts a real dialogue about how the people in your classroom are–or at least how they see themselves currently. Students have a chance to open up and start the empathy building process. Just as importantly, this is a great formative assessment for a teacher–one that does not measure knowledge, but instead provides insight into students’ lives, including recognizing students who abstain from the activity, your potential classroom leaders, and unexpected counter-narratives of lived experiences.

The Core Lesson (20 to 25 Minutes): Defining Care in the Classroom–
This is the interactive lecture portion of the session. I am introducing concepts that while somewhat familiar to a few, they are relatively new and need unpacking to equip and use. Using a theorized and researched definition care from Nel Noddings and a few of her peers, I bold the new vocabulary words I need my participants to wrestle with in the definition. For each bolded word/phrase, participants answer my questions on their dry-erase boards and we build our definition and understanding of the new concepts together. (Take a look at slide 4 in the presentation to see the definition and bolded words.) The lecture ends by connecting the new concepts to something I know my participants are likely aware of and connect prior knowledge to–Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Here I concentrate on the bottom of the pyramid and how we as teachers can, should, or are already addressing those physiological needs, which we connect back to how the elements of care we had just discussed are nearly impossible to achieve when those needs are not at least partially met.

The Why: I purposefully point out to my teacher participants that my “lecture” is 1.) interactive and 2.) short (no more than 25 minutes). While not all lectures can be just 20 minutes, most can–again, is your lesson teacher-centered or student-centered? A student-centered lesson avoids lectures that are 1.) terribly long or 2.) lacks interactivity. The actual goal of this particular lecture is to construct common meaning from unfamiliar concepts, so as the lesson continues, we can own those new concepts and use them knowledgeably and purposefully.

Taking Ownership (20 minutes): Applying the New Concepts Using a Perspective Walk–
The back corner of the room has painters tape on the floor creating eight distinct “pie” sections, each with on the concepts my participants just unpacked (see slide 6). Participants are asked questions to which they select a pie slice to stand in that best represents their answer. Once they have chosen their slice, they turn and talk to a partner, relaying their thoughts and connecting it to their own classrooms. The two questions I asked here were,

  1. Which element of care do your students need to be the most successful in your class?
  2. Which element of care do you feel is least in your control?

The Why: This brings the concepts to life. The activity is interactive and demands discourse about what these elements look like (or don’t) in their classrooms. The questions purposefully asks them to first consider the needs of their students and then their own. Typically, the second question is very revealing about a teacher’s care philosophy and mindset, which ties perfectly into the lesson’s closing.

Closing Activity (10 Minutes)–Reflection and Ticket Out the Door–
While I would typically avoid bringing in a new concept at the end of a lesson, there are exceptions. In the closing, I provide two new pieces of information to pair with their new knowledge of the elements that foster care. The first is the “I must do something” perspective versus the “Something must be done something.” I simply ask my participants to tell me the difference, and with little hesitation they point out “I must do something” shows ownership. The second piece of information is the “being with” and “doing for” philosophy. Here we work together to unpack that as teachers we are “doing for” our students all the time, and sometimes with the false assumption they should be giving back. Where we all struggle is “being with” our students where we stand beside them through their struggles whatever histories they bring to the classroom. Finally, I ask them to look at the name they wrote on the back of their name plate and ask, “If you could have a do-over with that student this past year, what is the “do something” you would have tried and how would you have “been with” the student more”. I ask them to write it down and take it with them as they leave the room.

The Why: This is meant to solidify owning the learning and supporting reflective teaching practices that lead to better relationship building in classrooms. This reflection includes unpacking the assumption or presumption that there is too much out of our control to reach every kid or ensure each kid knows we care about them. The hope is they walk away wrestling with their own philosophy of care in their classrooms.

Still here? Great. I hope the breakdown of the lesson was helpful to see the full vision. Here are some realities I want to share about how the sessions went. As expected the first session was the weakest. You’ll notice on the slides I have a lot more I was trying to cover and connect in the lesson, much of which I scrapped after my first session where I could myself trying cram it all in. The adjustments I made after the first session made the other three much better in terms of flow and timing. Another interesting takeaway was only a few teachers really did the closing activity, writing down their do-over and taking it with them. For better or worse, by the last session, I told them I simply encouraged the writing, whereas with kids I would have demanded it. Part of me wishes I would have demanded it and modeled having to show it to me as they walked out the door like a true ticket out the door, but I struggle with the fine line with adult learners of respecting their professionalism and not wasting their time. I certainly hope to become more confident in my decision making in this area.  Otherwise, I had great participants and discussions, and I was happy with how I modeled an engaging, informative, and valuable 85-minute lesson. The initial feedback was positive from participants, and a few asked for more information and help in their classrooms. I will take that win all day long.

Next week I will have a similar post that will breakdown a PD designed to improve the development and use of rubrics in career and technical education classrooms.

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