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So, I’ve been thinking about a new professional learning model we are trying out at my school. I’ve been thinking about it A LOT. I really want it to work. But what would that even mean?

Here’s some background. We have always had professional development time on in-service days or after regular school days. And, like many schools, we’ve had some speakers, some workshops, some teachers-teaching-teachers sessions, etc. Individually, a lot of them have been reasonable, even good. However, what we have not done very well is focus on something for an extended time period. Sometimes we’ve had a few sessions on a topic, and we’ve tried to have year-long topics, but (and I’m sure those of you who are educators will not be surprised by what I am about to say) I don’t think you could honestly say that we had significant, dedicated time to learning about and building our knowledge and skill around a single topic. And, there’s been legitimate critique of that.

This year, building off the success of our Summer Symposium (I wrote about it earlier this month), we are trying something new. Last spring and summer we looked at the calendar and found, scratched out, begged, stole until we accumulated eight dates over the course of the year that we could devote at least an hour at a time (maybe more like 2 if we are lucky) to professional learning for teachers–on the same topic! With the same people! We have three interconnected topics we’ve been spending time on as a school so we gave teachers a choice of one of those three topics and formed a group–Learning Design Teams(LDT) for each topic. There’s a leadership team for each LDT made up of teachers who attended the Summer Symposium.

The LDT that I am working with is the Innovative Curriculum group. We are focusing on creating authentic performance tasks and the associated evaluation tools. Before we get to that, we are checking in with each other on the essential questions for our units. I’m trying really hard to both affirm the good work I know my colleagues are already doing in more traditional assessments and provide time and space and a bit of a push to develop the kinds of assessments that will allow us to measure whether students can transfer their knowledge to new situations.

I have some strong feelings about assessment. One of those feelings is that having a “balanced assessment diet” is critical. It’s important to me that every student I teach says, “this assessment is totally my kind of thing” at some point. If every student gets that chance, then I must plan a range of assessments. I also want to get some information from the assessments I give. Otherwise, what’s the point? Finally, of course, my assessments actually have to help me measure my students’ ability to answer that essential question, to determine if they have learned and can apply the enduring understandings I had as my goal. Again, otherwise, what are we doing?

Anyway, I really want everyone to be just as excited and energized by this work as the leadership group and I are. I mean, it’s so important; it’s so fascinating to talk to colleagues and share ideas and make new plans. Who would not be on the edge of their seats? Turns out there are some. I know I am foolish to think everyone will be thrilled by this work, but I can’t help it. And, I have a hard time not feeling a temporarily deflated when it doesn’t go as well as I might imagine.

Today we had our second real meeting. I only took about 10 minutes of the time to do a little review (the rest was workshop time). I didn’t go around checking on what folks were doing. The rest of the leadership team was spread around. There was a solid hour for working and collaborating. It was hard for me to tell what was happening. At the end of the session, I really wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t have a sense of things and was tempted to doubt. When the leadership group met after, I asked what they thought of how it went. I said I wasn’t sure. One of the leadership group said, “if you want to know how it went, this is your answer. People are still here.” I am so thankful for that perspective. I needed another person to see that for me. He was so right. I had wrapped up and said “see you tomorrow” 15 minutes ago. While some people did leave at that point (totally fine), there was no mass exodus. In fact, easily a third of the group kept working. We finally started cleaning up around the last handful of teachers.

I still don’t know what kind of performance tasks people are planning. But, we can get to that. Today, I am grateful for another point of view that reminded me that we have all year to get to our goals, and we made some progress. That is good.

 

Image by Magnascan from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking about whether to change the parameters on a class project.

Here’s the background. Our unit focuses on the monster portions of The Odyssey and several retellings or inspired-by texts. I told the class as we started the unit that their final project would be to come up with a plan for their own retelling or inspired-by story. I’ve mentioned it on day 1 and have been referencing this as our goal as we’ve progressed.

Anyway, I officially introduced the project the other with this hyperdoc. I planned for the project/presentation to be a group project. I’ve done “make a book plan” as a final assessment many times. I always do it as a group and plan on about 3 days of work time before the presentations. I have found that the groups generate a lot of ideas in their class time and then use the homework time to solidify and make progress. It has been one of my more successful group projects over the years. I knew several students had been thinking about it. However, I didn’t know they had been THINKING about it. Well, it turns out several of my students have been thinking about enough that they really wanted to do their own plan and one asked about doing an independent project/presentation.

I told my student I would consider the question and have more information the next day.

Honestly, after some consideration, I felt I could honor the request, with a few modifications. Here’s why. The group aspect of the project is for idea generation and to get work done in the time frame I am willing to devote to the work. This time the directions specify some individual and some collective tasks in the process. So, I am considering allowing those who want to work independently (if it is a small number) to do some of the collective tasks of sharing with each other but then allowing them to revert to independent work. I think having some amount of talking through their ideas with someone else is critical, and I can’t give on that, but if I have a few folks who are so engaged by the idea that they want to go it alone, I’m going to let them.

I came to class. Some groups formed. Some students decided to work independently. I told the independent folks that I was counting on them to be honest about their progress on day two and seriously consider joining forces if it seems the task is too large for one person, no judgment.

I crossed my fingers and set them to work.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking about a week-long professional development program that I organized with my amazing colleagues @_brandonjacobs and @SharronJRussell for teachers at my school. We have now run the program for two summers, and it’s working really well.

The Summer Symposium, as we call it, was started as a way to have time to integrate topics that we may focus on in isolation during the school year. We were finding that those of us in the administration were clear on the connections between these ideas, but that wasn’t making it out into the larger community. And, we didn’t necessarily have enough time to spend learning and really understanding the individual ideas.

The Summer Symposium draws teachers from all three divisions (we are a PreK-12 school) and all subject matters and brings them together to work collectively and individually on their craft. We combined in-house expertise with outside experts to create a schedule that blended new learning with time to think expansively and collaborate deeply. And, we made sure to start each day with breakfast and conversation.

In planning the first Symposium, we were optimistic but also anxious. Would we have the right balance between new learning, application, and workshopping? Was this particular week in August, which was not our first choice, a good one? Would we be able to make good on our claim that the many topics we hoped to tackle were in fact connected and better addressed together? And, like first-time event organizers everywhere, we worried about whether our group would like what we spent so much time and energy planning.

We have been formally using Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework for the past few years. So far we have focussed primarily on stage 1 (identifying desired results) and stage 2 (determining evidence and assessment). Being intentional about a shared pedagogical language means that we can talk about our craft and our units across disciplines and divisions and work together effectively. During the Summer Symposium, teachers developed a  new appreciation for the importance and value of serious, intentional, and iterative unit planning.

Over the course of the week, teachers got a chance to deepen their own understanding of some of the elements of the model. Both weeks I thought that we would just review stage 1 of the unit plan (skills, concepts, enduring understandings, essential questions) quickly and do a brief Essential Question sharing. WRONG. We spent a lot of time workshopping essential questions, narrowing them down to just a few, identifying which questions were questions we might ask students in class or on quizzes, but not necessarily essential questions, getting specific about what our true goals were, and how we might write EQs that lent themselves to interdisciplinary thinking. But, how could we move on to assessment before we nailed down our desired results? 

When I talk about assessment, I like to talk about a balanced assessment diet and the importance of developing a range of assessments; the photo album is another metaphor. I like mine better because it is clear that there will be different types of assessment in your balanced diet, whereas the photo album might be filled with all landscapes or all selfies, which is not the point. Anyway, once we had those rich essential questions, it was much easier to plan both traditional assessments and performance tasks. The group was energized to think about asking students not just to demonstrate their knowledge but also to transfer it to new situations. Even teachers who felt confident in their understanding before the Symposium came away with a  new appreciation for the importance and value of serious, intentional, and iterative unit planning.

Onto that curriculum planning framework, we layered sessions about Positive Education, diversity and inclusion, interdisciplinary teaching and learning, and some effective use of educational technology. (I mean I had a captive audience–I wasn’t going to let that opportunity go!) Every time we had some specific new learning, we then had time to integrate that into unit plans and consider the new totality of our ideas. It was the best kind of hard work–the kind where you go home tired from thinking and excited about what you will do next. Every night I reworked what I was sharing the next day so that it was as close as I could get to what the group needed or wanted next. I have not worked as hard as I did that first summer in a long time. It was so worth it.

I knew it was a success when one of the teachers who attended the first Summer Symposium said, “It all fits together; It’s like you planned it.” As we got ready for the second summer, we certainly changed some things around, but we made sure to keep time for a lot of collaborating and sharing. This time we also added a celebration at the end of the week where we invited the teachers who participated the year before as well as Division Heads and our Head of School. 

I’m already looking forward to next summer.

Image by Andrew Martin via Pixabay.

So, I’ve been thinking about the idea of a “Taking Care of Me List” since I read Erin Ott’s Edutopia post in the summer. I loved the idea. It’s a short article. Probably better if you just skim it for the idea.

Ok, you’re back.

It’s definitely more accurate to say, I LOVED this idea. Partly, I loved it because it’s a more substantial version of something I usually do. (I routinely asked students on the first day to tell me what they need from a teacher or what I need to know to be the best teacher of them. I take notes. It’s been fine.)

And, I recognized that a “Taking Care of Me List” would be a logical and not-so-big next step to go from “fine” to really good.

So, in advance of the first day of school, I wrote my own version of Ms. Ott’s ‘taking care of me’ document. I titled mine “taking care of Ms. Eiteljorg and English 12.” I wanted to make the connection to the class as a collective, which is something I try to emphasize in several ways. Here’s what I wrote.

How to Take Care of Ms. Eiteljorg and our English 12 community:

  1. Bring all of your materials to class every day. Book we are reading, something to write with, laptop and/or notebook, notes. Don’t forget an open mind and a lean-in kind of attitude. There’s no sense in bringing all that stuff if you are not going to engage yourself in class.
  2. Act like this is your favorite class, even if it isn’t. I love this class. I want you to love it. In my head, I know not everyone will love it, but in my heart I imagine that we all want to be here and are  so excited to get to what we are doing that we can hardly contain ourselves. So, pretend you are into it. On the days that I am not feeling 100, I’ll pretend too. It will be better.
  3. Contribute.  Share your ideas, your questions, your writing, your reading, your opinion. Then, back it up. Listen to the ideas of others, disagree, don’t invalidate identity. This class will be as amazing as you make it. If you decide to contribute nothing, that’ll probably be what you’ll take away from it, too. See #2.
  4. Give me a chance. I like to mix it up in class, and I will ask you to think about ideas and opinions different from your own. We will do all different types of learning activities, and I will always have a plan. I will totally respect your thoughts, constructively shared, about the plan or the work, once we’ve all given it a try. I spend a lot of time thinking about what we are going to do in class; I LOVE to plan, so please don’t tell me how much you don’t like what we are doing before we even get going. It makes me sad. See #2.
  5. Do your work and do it yourself. Give it your best shot and turn work in on time. If I want you to investigate what other readers and critics have said about our book, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, I don’t care what they think; I care what you think. Plus, it makes me feel bad that you will spend all this time looking up other people’s ideas but not respect your own thinking and ideas. Finally, I hate having to spend time chasing down where you got ideas that are not yours. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. I won’t be happy about it. Neither will you in the end. See #2.
  6. Commit to this learning community. I really believe and come to class each day with the idea that we are making sense of things together. No individual in the room is as smart as the collective of the room. I will wrestle metaphorical alligators if it means we will figure something out. Please do not let me wrestle them alone. They are large. I’m more like a small or medium. See #2.
  7. Let’s not be super secret about the mistakes we make.  Please ask. And please let me notice habits about your work and share that back to you. I won’t ever do it in a way that aims to tear you down. Also, let me work with you in class without having to have secret conversations about how you like run-on sentences. We are in it together, so let’s just know what we each need to work on so we can do that work together. My mistakes will be public too.
  8. Join me in looking out for everyone.  I try to pay very close attention to each individual and to get to know both the group and the individuals. Let me be helpful. And, I won’t be able to notice everything. If you see someone needs an invitation to enter the discussion, you can be the one to make that invitation. If someone is having a tough time, extend yourself, let me know; I will too. Notice when someone does or says something really worth a shout-out and give the shout-out yourself. Neither all praise nor all correction should come from me.

9.  Come by my office or the makerspace to say hi. It’s not that we don’t have time to hear about all you interests in class, but we don’t have time. So, come chat with me about your favorite book, that game/concert/performance you are in, the show you love, your favorite kind of pie. I’m all ears, and I love a reason to put off answering emails.

I didn’t read it all out loud or try to talk about it in the moment. I put it on our class webpage and asked students to read it and come in the next day with questions. I teach seniors; I would do it differently if I taught 9th graders or was new to a department or school.

Then, as Ms. Ott did, I asked students to write me their own letters in response. Here are my directions.

Now it’s your turn. Write me a list of things I need to do to take care of you as an English student.  How can I be the best teacher ever to you? Tell me everything you can think of, and then throw a few extra things in for good measure.  Here are some basic requirements:

Should be 300 words minimum. 

Each item much have a 2-5 sentence explanation after it so that I know exactly what you mean.

Illustrations or other images are welcome but not required.

I received such useful, illuminating, funny, thoughtful, interesting comments in return. Here are a few highlights.

Keep it fun! I always love when a teacher loves what they are teaching. Just from the two classes we’ve had otgether I know that you love what we are talking about. Please keep your positive and exciting energy for class because it’s really nice to see!

Let me be creative/choose things: It’s obviously important and necessary to practice academic/analytical writing while in English class, but please include at least one or two projects where there is a relatively creative option, as this is a place where I excel and will guarantee my dedication to the project. If there is truly no room for a creative project, at least include one where there is a choice of prompts/mediums to give us a modicum of choice.

I’m a really big picture type of person. That is where I do my best work. But, finding evidence to back it up is where I struggle. I tend to need more help in this area.

One student spoke in the third person and told me that he/she was NOT a troublemaker and was likely to ‘dwell on the past mistake for an unnatural and even unhealthy amount of time. …and will continue to apologize profusely even aster things have been set right.”

Be reasonable…A teacher who doesn’t make a big deal if someone is talking out of turn–I do this a lot because I love participating but sometimes I get a little out of hand–and a teacher who listens to the feedback of the students and actually takes it into consideration. I consider myself a reasonable person, so I respond well to a reasonable teacher.

Collaboration: I want to be able to grow from the class and in order to do so I would love the opportunity to have guidance from you. This includes availablity to meet when I feel stuck or confused as well as telling me what I can do better to make the most out of the class.

I can be loud. One problem I have had over the years for me is my lack of a filter sometimes. Whether it is calling out, talking with friends, or lack of attention I can be disruptive. I have improved on this a lot but it still comes up now and again but I will be keeping an eye out for it to prevent it from happening as much as possible.

I get hungry. Simply for future notice, I was wondering if you allow students to eat in class. It varies from teacher to teacher and I did not want to eat it that is not something you allow in class. If you would prefer I do not eat, I totally understand and do not mind it.

Encouragement and Guidance: I admit that I like those science and math classes more because I prefer to think in that way. This sometimes causes me to be over cautious or prudent about everything in English class. With proper encouragement and guidance, I can do much better.

Say hi to me in the hallway. I am almost always happy to talk with someone one on one, so I am always ready to talk about anything and everything. I have also been known to come and talk to my teachers and stuff because I just enjoy the time.

So interesting, right? And that’s less than 10% of what I got.

I wrote notes and commentary on each list, made a copy of it for myself, and gave a copy (with commentary) back to students. I’ve looked back at these multiple times already.

I used to get to know my students so quickly when I taught in self-contained classrooms and spent hours a day with them. Now that I only see them once a day, it can seem like it takes such a long time to get to know students. This activity really helped. I will certainly be using it from now on.

So I’ve been thinking about doing student assignments again. I wrote about it a little while ago too.

This time I did the in-class writing for our summer reading book. The prompt is a little different than last year. The book is the same, but because I changed one of the essential questions for the course (it’s so much better now), changing the prompt a bit made sense as well. 

This is writing done in a single class period; students will have the topic in advance; they can come in with notes. We will spend an additional class period organizing thoughts and getting feedback on the initial idea. It’s not a surprise. However, I was wondering whether it really was too much to tackle in this one short assignment. My addition to the topic certainly makes it more interesting, but it also requires more thought.

I sat down to write the paper myself. I spent about a class period’s worth of time. Here’s what I discovered:

  • It’s a challenging topic and requires that students think not just about the book but about their personal experience with the book and how that experience is influenced by or connected to other reading experiences.
  • It’s also a reasonable topic that gives students room to move.
  • Although using evidence from the text will be important, referencing episodes or chapters may be more useful than actual direct quotations.
  • It made me clarify my own ideas more and get to more of a conclusion, even in the limited scope of this project. 
  • It also made me push my personal connections to the text in a way that ended up being surprising. I found connections to my other reading habits that I hadn’t thought about before.
  • I also realized that I did not organize my writing in the way that I said might be a good idea. A student had asked about a potential paragraphing strategy that I agreed would be an option, but I didn’t end up using that format.

So the next day I went to class. I put some process notes and guiding questions on the board for people to be working through with their planning. Then, I told the class that I had written the paper yesterday. I shared what I learned and how I ended up tackling the topic, always stressing that my plan was only one plan. I didn’t read them my paper, although I did share the gist of it and some personal connections I made. The class was pretty surprised. And in thinking about it later, it wasn’t just surprise, it was respect and feeling respected. 

I am reminded how much students appreciate me being a learner alongside them. I’m happy to share the fact that I am wrestling with the topic not only because it’s good work to do but also because I want to ensure that it’s work that is worth their time. They get that I might (or might not for some) read a lot more books than they do and that I get to set the syllabus, but they also appreciate and respond well to us being in it together. I can say we are a community of learners and are working on our collective understanding all I want. I can even write it down and pass it out. But if I’m not making my work visible, then my lovely ideas about community are just ideas. 

 

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

So, I’ve been thinking about the first day of school. It just happened. TODAY.

While there’s plenty to reflect on about first days, beginnings, etc, etc., I want to investigate the impact of the fact this fall semester class actually started asynchronously with summer reading. I don’t get to make a pitch for the book, to sell it, to set the stage. I got to share a brief introduction with some guiding questions on the summer reading list, but none of this was in person. Everyone reads, or doesn’t, on their own and then it’s a mystery until fall. We don’t meet in person; we didn’t check-in or send notes about our reading. Our first collective moment was this afternoon, even though we have been on this shared path for the entire summer.

Walking into class, it was a big unknown. Of course, we spent some time on class basics etc, but teaching seniors who know each other and have already had 5 other ‘first day classes’ earlier in the day, we got to talking about the book pretty quickly.

Many students, and I am not exaggerating when I say it was the overwhelming majority of students, immediately THANKED ME for choosing this book. I heard things like “this was the best summer reading book ever.” I am not making this up.

VICTORY!

Well didn’t that just set us up to have a great conversation?!

Then, at one point, a student said, “…I was talking to X about this part earlier today…” in reference to something we were talking about. I had to pause, hand on my heart, (almost tears in my eyes) and tell the class how happy it made me to hear that. I also had to tell everyone I ran into for the rest of the day.

However, besides just sharing my excitement, this little happy moment reinforces for me the idea that summer reading which is enjoyable, excites the readers, and gets people talking is the goal. It’s not the time to cram in one more everyone-should-read-this book. Since there are so many good books out there, I don’t have to choose something that isn’t worth reading or that doesn’t give us the opportunity to have complex and significant text-based discussions.

Plus, imagine the response to my next unit and book choice (a classic) when I have the social capital of having first put forward a crowd-pleaser? I’ve earned credibility as a good book picker; someone who is interested in texts that students like.

So, that’s it. I mostly just wanted to tell some more people about this. Bring on day 2.*

 

(*Yes, I have been teaching long enough to know that there are going to be ugly days. On those days, I’m going to remember this first day, because my students also earned my respect and goodwill today.)

I make a mean peach pie.

So I’ve been thinking about hobbies for a while. Even though as an administrator I am a 12-month employee, summer is still different and a time for more hobbies. One of my summer hobbies is making peach pie. I only do this during peach season and prefer to make the pie in the evening and then eat it in the morning for breakfast with bacon or sausages. I see you shaking your head. Have you tried it? Unless you have something against breakfast meats (or meat substitutes) there is no way around the fact that it is a perfect breakfast, just add your favorite breakfast beverage; I prefer very milky tea.

Anyway, I really got thinking about the idea of hobbies last year after reading a post by Austin Kleon from his weekly newsletter. I followed the link to Austin’s earlier post about hobbies and read Ann Friedman’s post about them that he wished he had written. Feel free to read each post yourself, none of them is long. You will be glad you did.

Ok. You’re back. What did you think? I had and continue to have many thoughts.

Here are my a few of them:

  • We would we all be a little better off if everyone had a hobby, other than trying to take away the rights of people who don’t look like they do.
  • I reserve the right to have very odd hobbies that no one else likes and to not like the hobbies of my nearest and dearest friends and family.
    • Sub-point 1–I love that they have their own weird hobbies and interests.
    • Sub-point 2–I love that they know and appreciate my love for my hobbies that do not actually interest them.
  • I know people better when I know their hobbies. 
  • I can see that my personal kids also know me better through my hobbies, especially the ones they do not share.
  • Again, yay for general craftiness. I would appreciate more of that. I am baffled when a house/apartment/family doesn’t have a hot glue gun. (I mean this is America and the word gun is involved.)
  • Hobbies are also a privilege as they require some amount of time and freedom. 
  • Hobbies are meditative too. 

In the past two years, I have carved out more time for my hobbies and interests. I haven’t slacked off at work; I don’t ignore my family. I do spend more time doing some activities that are appealing to me, make me lose track of time, give me satisfaction, make me feel better for having done them. Since I don’t have an unlimited amount of time, I have had to make some trades. Some of these trades are win-win; the thing I was spending my time on before wasn’t worth doing, and now I have a better option. Some of my trades have been more about priorities at the moment. My blogging definitely took a hit. However, for the most part, I’m comfortable with my choices.

I recognize that in some ways this is a luxury to have time. When my kids were smaller, I didn’t find much of this time during daylight hours, which, it turns out, is when I prefer for my hobbies and interests to take place. And, I also developed some bad habits of wandering the interwebs unnecessarily. That’s a quick way to have no time for other activities.

I also sometimes find myself in a place where everything needs to be very purposeful, but I don’t really believe that. Only my “I have to be busy” self belives that, and she is no fun so I don’t talk to her much. My current hobbies are not that purposeful to anyone else. They neither make the world a better place, nor contribute to counteracting climate change. And, my family surely at times shake their collective head and say, “you and your hobbies…” I just shake my head right back.