Friday, March 21, 2014

Dispatch from 1st period English

The following interaction has been edited only of names and profanity.

Setting: 8:47am, the classroom is quiet except for a few crinkling chip bags; students are taking a quiz.  

Me: Alright, when you're done, hold on to your quiz and check your work.
Student: HUH! (shoves quiz at me) Take this I'm done.
Me: Check it over, I'll come around and grab it when everyone's done.
Student: (to the person next to her) He's always getting smart. That's why I don't talk to him.
Me: Student, I wasn't being smart or sarcastic or condescending. I asked you polietly to hold on to your quiz until I collected it. 
Student: (as though I'm invisible) Why's he always talking to me?!?! (now acknowledging my presence) Don't talk to me! Leave me alone!
(other students are not surprised by this student's angry outburst)
Me: I'll never stop talking to you because you're my student. I care about you and I want you to be successful.
Student: (grasping for words, but realizing that there's not much she can say back)
Me:  Alright, when you're done, hold on to your quiz and check your work.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

A new standard for ALL schools

I just finished reading Kathleen Nolan’s Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High Schooland am feeling at the same time encouraged and deflated.

In the text (which I highly recommend to educators in any setting, but especially to administrators - and so-called ‘discipline deans’- in urban schools), Nolan conducts ethnographic research at a large public school in the Bronx.  While she was there, the school was a major focus of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to “take back the schools” (Bloomberg never mentioned who he intended to take them back from… but I’ll leave symbolic action and hyperbole for another day) with zero tolerance and order maintenance procedures.  As a result, there was a major increase in police presence in the school (and in schools across NYC).  Incidents like dress-code violations, tardiness, and the enigmatic “disrespect”, once school-based disciplinary infractions, now resulted in citations and court summons issued by NYPD officers stationed in the halls. 

I have much more to say about Nolan’s findings in the text and how they epitomize the experiences my students share, but that will have to come later.  What I want to explore is the cause for my conflicted feeling upon finishing the text. 

In her conclusion, she discusses the role that small schools might play in eradicating this type of police state in schools.  Nolan explains:
There is much promise in the creation of small schools, but small schools can succeed only when they avoid replicating the same inequalities and problems found in traditional large public schools and when all small schools receive the resources and freedom to adopt the kinds of educational and disciplinary practices that meet students’ needs. (175)

Later, she builds upon a piece by CUNY’s Michelle Fine about a standard for “social justice” in small schools:
This standard gets ignored in all the talk of standards. It asks, does a school offer a sense of respect and dignity? Such a standard is met through establishment of democratic, collaborative relationships with parents and communities, engaging classroom experiences, and appropriate academic and social supports. When schools meet this standard, violence and disorder are likely to decrease. (175)

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by Michelle Fine.  Though the focus of the talk was on standardized testing, she took a minute to challenge the audience to imagine, amid all the talk of anti-this and that, the type of schools we’re FOR. This standard of social justice that Fine and Nolan discuss is at the heart of the type of schools I’m for. 

When I think about the conflicts that I’ve had with students in the past year (even in the past month), the majority of them stemmed from what the student or I felt was disrespectful or a challenge to our dignity - whether real or perceived. 

Imagine a school that put at the forefront establishing a sense of respect and dignity for its students, staff, physical space, and learning. 

I’m certainly not naïve enough to think that we can just hang a mission statement on the wall and this will happen.  In fact, this is a real challenge, but I really think that it’s a worthwhile endeavor. And here’s the best part: it doesn’t cost a dime. 

Here are some steps to get stared:
 - Stop yelling at students, making empty threats to them, and generalizing and stereotyping them.
 - Stop “putting kids out” of class and school.  If a student needs to leave class (which sometimes happens), the teacher, student, and a 3rd party need to have a conversation about it. 
 - Try “I” statements. For example, “You need to listen” vs. “I need you to listen”  Don’t think it makes a difference?  Think about how often adolescents are told what to do… and don’t misunderstand, it’s not about begging your students, but rather shifting the focus.
 - Use please and thank you with students. Thank them for coming to class. Thank them for their work or attention at the end of class… It’ll rub off.
 - Explain rules/ policies/ decisions to students rather than giving directives. 
            For example: “No more than 3 absences. After 3 you’re dropped.” vs. “Because this course is accelerated, no more than 3 absences. We will be moving at a fast pace and in 3 classes we’ll cover about 9 days worth of material. As a result, if you miss more than 3 classes, you’ll fall too far behind and will have to take the class over”  - Easy enough.
 - Encourage students to speak up and provide a genuine forum for their concerns… then address those concerns.
 -  Give students genuine choices - in the classroom and outside the classroom
 - Remember: not every interaction has to be a confrontation.  Security and “climate” staff would do well to remember this. 

As I was thinking about some of these, I was heartened because I feel like we do a pretty good job of creating a “social justice standard” at my small school.  Certainly there are things to work on, but our students generally feel respected and dignified and it does translate to fewer incidents of violence and disrespect. 

However, as I was generating this list I could hear the naysayers in the back of my mind telling me this is too warm and fuzzy.  It’ll never work with “these kids” (ugh… there’s that phrase).  You have to be tough… no excuses. 

To this, all I have to say is give it a try.  I work with a tough population - 16-21, dropped/ put/ pushed-out of school at least once, 60% involved with juvenile/ adult justice system, 60% pregnant or parenting - and though these tactics certainly aren’t a silver bullet, they rarely hurt.

I’m not a softy who makes excuses for my kids, but I do treat them with respect and dignity…

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The "Crisis" in Philadelphia Schools... or not

On Friday August 9th Philadelphia schools superintendent Dr. William Hite held a press conference proclaiming that unless the district receives $50 million to alleviate the budget crisis by August 15thschools may not be able to open safely on September 9th. With this announcement it became official: Philadelphia schools are in crisis.

Except calling this a crisis - whether educational, budget, or something else - ignores the bigger picture and completely misses the point. 

A crisis is a sudden, unexpected, or rare moment of devastation or struggle. Hurricane Katrina was a crisis. As was the tragic collapse of the Salvation Army thrift store at 21st  & Market a few months ago.  Wildfires ravaging California or Colorado could also be called a crisis. Though in hindsight there may have been warning signs, these events were relatively sudden, unexpected, and rare.

The current state of affairs in the School District of Philadelphia, while devastating, hardly meets the definition of a crisis.  It was not sudden - it is the culmination of recent funding cuts at the state and federal levels, attempts at short-term solutions and reforms, and decades of poor financial management. It was not unexpected - anyone who didn’t see this financial “crisis” coming was either naive or blissfully ignorant. It is hardly rare - large urban districts across the country are experiencing their own versions of this same “crisis” (look to Chicago, New York, Detroit, LA to name a few).   

So if not a crisis, then what? 
 - A call to action?
 - Business as usual?
 - An opportunity to break unions?
 - An open door for corporate reform?
 - A supreme injustice?
Perhaps all of the above…

The new normal?
In their text The Art of Critical Pedagogy (2008), Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell argue that even though they have alarmingly high dropout rates, excessive teacher attrition, and low test scores, it is inaccurate to say that urban schools are failing. In the face of concentrated poverty, under-funding, and under-resourceing, urban public schools are doing exactly what they are designed to do - fail. 

It’s possible that what’s happening before our very eyes is the next step in the already existing, to borrow Kozel’s term, system of Apartheid schooling. Cities will have two classes of schools. Those who are willing and able will migrate toward private, charter, and magnet schools, while under-resourced public schools will remain warehouses for an underclass of students, those who couldn’t get in or couldn’t make it in the “real” schools.  In this way, we can still claim to have a democratic education system, though that is hardly the case. 

An open door for reform?
Philadelphia has 84 charter schools, the new face of school reform.  One of the hallmarks of these silver bullets, is the absence of unionized employees (Note: Teachers at 4 Philadelphia charters are unionized, the remainder are not).  Charter operators claim that operating outside of the union allows for more innovation and flexibility among teachers. It also affords administration the ability to hire and fire at-will.

It’s easy to see why charter operators (whether they’re non-profits or for-profits) wouldn’t want a unionized workforce.  For better or worse, it gives them more control and flexibility.  That doesn’t mean that it’s all-bad - after speaking with teachers at several different non-union charters I am the first to admit that there are some great perks.  However, as someone who is not a union member (my school is managed by a non-profit and we are not unionized) the lack of a clear contract or collective bargaining power can easily result in a high degree of uncertainty and bullying, particularly around time and job responsibilities. 

…Or union busting?
The most recent developments in this so-called “crisis” have underscored the goal here is not to create strong schools, but rather to push a particular brand of school reform. The benevolent Governor Corbett, no friend to organized workers, said he’d give Philadelphia schools $45 million, but later attached the caveat that in order to get the money unions must make concessions. 
Initially Dr. Hite supported the PFT and rejected Corbett’s demand, encouraging the masses that perhaps we finally had a superintendent who actually supported educators.  Last night, however, Hite reminded us that he was a product of the corporate reform-y Broad Leadership Academy when he called on the SRC to suspend the state school code and eliminate seniority in rehire decisions. This crucial step, which may or may not be taken later this afternoon, would effectively negate union contracts and render them powerless.

But just like in the movies, the conditions and public opinion have to be right to take such a step… and perhaps that’s where we are.  People are frustrated with the schools and have bought in to the rhetoric of lazy, greedy, overpaid teachers. In the face of schools not opening, they’re anxious of any action - unjust or not.

But it’s a “crisis”, what can you do?
 - Eliminate property-tax based school funding.
 - Reinstate local control over schools.
 - Collect delinquent taxes and revisit city tax codes re: non-profits and corporations.
 - Create leadership opportunities for teachers
 - Address overhead/ administrative costs within the district.
 - Create small schools (see upcoming post on this concept)
 - Sell vacant schools.
 - Relocate central office into “under-utilized” schools and sell 440 N. Broad… school staff should be in schools!
 - Work with the PFT to create contract and pension plan that allows for long-term success (realize this is not the same as “demand concessions from”).
 - Stop quitting on “failing” schools and contracting them out to charters. 

These are just a few quick thoughts… but of course, these would all require rational discussion, long-term planning, and the desire to maintain a strong, equitable public education system.

Monday, June 24, 2013

World Lit, Single Stories, and "Drop-outs"

Though Philly education is being cut to the bone, my program was fortunate enough to set aside money to run our 60-student summer school.  The program fits in with our year-round, accelerated model and allows my students to continue their trek to graduation by earning 3 credits in 6 weeks.  I’ve taught summer school for the last three years and I love it. Though three 90-minute blocks back to back to back is a little grueling, I love having more time with my students and the smaller class sizes that this program affords. 

Anyway, all of this is mealy background for a sort of revelation that we had in one of my classes yesterday. I’m teaching two different classes this summer, Memoir (English 3) and World Lit (English 4).  Because it’s the summer and some of the students have already taken (and failed) my English 3 & 4 classes, I like to use this time to try out some new ideas, texts, projects, etc.  This summer, I’m totally reshaping my World Lit class and I wanted to start by setting the stage with the question “Why bother reading stories from around the world?”

It may seem like a simple, even elementary question, but I posed it genuinely and I think it’s an important one to ask, especially since some of my students have very Philly-centric world views (when a student asked where I went to college, I said “in Vermont, up north”.  He nodded his head, “oh north, I don’t really go up that way” [implying North Philadelphia]).

I asked them to individually brainstorm a “quick list” of reasons why reading world lit could be beneficial and then we started to discuss.  First, several students parroted the answers they thought I was fishing for:
  “Understand different cultures.”
  “See what life is like outside of Philly.”
  “Think about different people, religions, and foods.”
  “Expand our world view”
  “In case we travel:
All great answers, but I felt like they Googled my question rather than thinking about it.

After pushing farther, a few students started to get frustrated and offered:
  “Because the District says we have to read it.”
  “cause we need this credit to graduate”
Fair, although I have a ton of autonomy and probably could work around the world lit side of things if I wanted. 

Just when I thought they were tapped out, a quiet guy sitting in the corner mumbled something. 
 “to combat ignorance.”
I had to ask him to repeat it:
 “To combat ignorance.” he said plainly.

I wrote it on the board. Paused and asked him to explain. His peers chimed in and it was settled.  That’s the answer we -as a class- had selected. served as a great segue to the clip from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie‘s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” that I wanted to share with my students.  As they watched I asked them to break down some of the different “Single Stories” that she discusses - reading & writing stories about white British people and snow because she thought that’s what books had to be about; pitying a local boy who worked for her family only to find out his family, though poor, were incredibly talented weavers; and being greeted by a college roommate at Drexel who was surprised that her Nigerian roommate could speak English and didn’t listen to “tribal music”.

I was first exposed to this clip in one of my masters’ classes at Temple and was taken aback by her seemingly simple, yet poignant message.  I’ve wanted to use the clip in class for a while, but this was the first time I went for and, as with the first time using any text, is was a little nervous. 

After discussing some of these and the impact of “single stories”, I asked my students to describe a time when they fell victim to the danger of a single story. 

As they often do, my students blew me away. 

First some students told stories about times they had stereotyped others.  They judged their peers and even total strangers based on “single stories”.  Wanting to forge an even more personal connection with “single stories”, I pushed for times when they’d felt like Adichie when she first arrived at college.

A few students shared stories of being stereotyped because of their skin color or dress.  They talked about being followed around H&M in Center City or being harassed by police in their neighborhoods.  Others mentioned being told by teachers or even family members that they’d never amount to anything.  One young mother described the judgment that she faced the first time she took her daughter to the pediatrician.  She even teared up a bit remembering the harsh words and demeaning tone as the doctor asked her accusatory questions about her child.  However, she beamed with pride as she described how she proved the doctor wrong and talked about what a wonderful mother she is. 

The final “single stories” centered around being out of school and labeled “drop outs”. Working at an alternative school for the last five years, I’ve become keenly aware of the danger of the single “drop-out” story - that of the kid who quits school in favor of life on the corner.  While I have encountered students who openly admit this was part of their story, it is hardly emblematic of my population.  To be sure, my students are not defined by their past, but it is an important part of their identity and when they share it with me I realize that the “single story” of the drop-out is so far from reality.  Many of my students faced trauma, chaos, and crises that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.  They recount crowded classrooms and dispassionate administrators, harsh judges and unfair incarceration, homelessness and accelerated adulthood.  When I first started teaching, these stories led me to pity my students, but even in that reaction I was falling victim to a “single story”.

As we wrapped up our discussion, I brought it back to the student’s comment about world lit as a way to combat ignorance. I reminded students that as we work through our World Lit stories and texts in general, we’ll continue to break down “single stories” and combat ignorance.

These are the kind of classes that can’t be measured by the Common Core and high stakes testing. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Playing Chicken with Philadelphia School Funding


The last few months have been pretty devastating for the state of public education in Philadelphia.  At the beginning of March, despite impassioned pleas from students, parents, teachers, and community members, the School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to shutter 23 schools.  

At the end of May the SRC again convened, heard testimony from a long list of folks concerned about the fate of the city’s public schools, and proceeded to approve a “doomsday budget”.  This $2.3 billion budget includes the elimination of art and music classes, extracurricular activities, and sports.  It also necessitates the termination of hundreds of teachers, aides, assistant principals, NTAs, and counselors. While each member of the SRC and the Superintendent expressed dismay with this budget, all but one voted to approve it, stressing that the District must “live within its means”.  This phrase struck a raw nerve with many school employees (myself included) as the District recently awarded a massive contract to testing giant Pearson, gave raises to many central office employees, and created a number of new top-level administrative positions.  The use of the phrase “live within our means” prompted one teacher to ask why 440 (the District’s beautiful, gigantic headquarters at 440 N. Broad Street) continued to operate its air conditioning.  She reminded the Superintendent that many schools don’t have air condition and “every penny counts”. I think there’s only a bit of hyperbole in this teacher’s statement.  How can the District administration even begin to talk about austerity and living within our means when they’re sitting in a half-empty monument to excessive spending (i.e. 400 N. Broad). 

The looming final move of devastation took place on Friday when 3,783 of the District’s 19,530 employees received termination notices. These notices went out to everyone from teachers to food service workers, assistant principals to counselors, custodians to support staff.  In all, 676 teachers, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals, 1202 noon-time aides, 307 secretaries, and a host ofother positions will be laid off as of July 1. The Philly Teacher Action Group has taken up an effort to demonstrate the human side of these terminations through the “Faces of the Layoffs” project. Check it out, it’s pretty powerful. 

All of these moves by the District (particularly the most recent two) are motivated by the projected $304 million budget shortfall facing the SDP.  This shortfall developed for a variety of reasons, including poor long-term financial management, funding cuts at the state and city level, the end of federal stimulus money, and the exposition of school choice options (charters and cyber schools), but regardless of the cause it is no surprise and is nothing new for the School District of Philadelphia which has faced budget crunches around this time of year for the last several years. 

What lies beneath all of this austerity talk of “doomsday budgets” and layoffs is a game of political chicken.  In the past it has played out like this:

Round 1:
 - The District says that it needs more money.
 - The State says no.
 - The Mayor says something non-comittal like we need to support good schools, but doesn’t want to raise taxes.

Round 2:
 - The District says, “we need more money or we’re not going to be able to operate”.
 - The State says no.
 - The Mayor rebukes the Governor and proposes some “innovative” way to raise money for the District (this year it was raising taxes on cigarettes and liquor by the glass, in the past it has been the soda tax and a host of other things).

Round 3:
 - The District moves forward with closures, bare-bones budgets and layoffs in an attempt to show what is happening without more funds. 
 - The next two moves belong to the City and the State. 
In the past, they have come through with additional funding, though certainly not all of what the District asked for.  Certain items are restored to the budget and a percentage of the folks laid off are rehired.  Schools reopen in the fall and some things go back to normal… until the following March when the cycle begins all over again.  

Just because the City and the State have granted additional funding in the past, that by no means that they'll come though this year.  It is a very real possibility that schools will open in September with more students, but fewer supports, teachers, and supplies. Time will tell.  

Though my school has been spared the ax this year (we aren’t District employees and exist in a nebulous provider-area), but we have been a pawn in this political chicken in the past.  However, with the consolidation of high schools next year, our enrollment is expected to jump (not that we have any additional resources to handle such an increase).  My students are acutely aware of what’s going on in the schools because it pours out into their neighborhoods.  They talk about siblings and peers who aren’t going back in the fall because their school is closing, who see it as the end of the line.  Another barrier in a deck already stacked against them. 

While my colleagues and I do everything we can to support our students and their families, it’s exhausting fighting what feels like an uphill battle. Especially knowing that it’s in many ways a “set up” - a game of political chicken to see who can leverage whom to balk first and open their wallet. 

This is not the way to operate a school system and it’s not the way to treat the students, teachers, and families of Philadelphia.  While there may be a need for austerity and living within our means, it certainly can’t be placed solely on the backs of the students and the professionals who work tirelessly with them everyday and it can’t be done without some long-term financial planning for the health of the district as a whole (isn’t that what Thomas Kundson got paid an absurd amount of money for over a year to do?)… that is, unless the plan is to starve the district to death. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dealing with "That Class"

We’ve all had them and if you haven’t, you will -- “That class”… you know the one. The wild-card. The challenge. The pain in the ass. The day ruiner.  Call it whatever you want, but it’s the one class in which things just never seem to come together. I don’t have one every semester by any means, but I definitely have one this spring and they’ve been driving me crazy. 

There’s no one thing that makes this particular group “that class”.  It’s kind of like Justice Potter Stewart’s obscenity test: “I know it when I see it”, except I see this group every afternoon at 2:03

The group that I’m struggling with this semester is not terribly unlike other difficult classes I’ve had in the past:
- they get way off track
- they want to talk and argue and shout about rappers and their neighborhoods
- they get irked/ frustrated/ irritated with me
- they cut class
- they disrespect each other
- they end up failing the class. 

Also like many of the other challenges I’ve had in the past, these guys (most of the class is male) can be brilliant and respectful and insightful on an individual basis. In fact, I had a handful of them last semester and they were completely different people.
However, last semester there were two major differences:
1) We saw each other 2nd period (9:40 in the morning)
2) There were some very strong females in the class who would never tolerate the childish behavior, nor would the males act that way for fear of embarrassment (gotta love adolescents).  

So this group has been giving me headaches on the regular for the last month or so. But I work in an alternative school (not that it’s different in traditional schools) so this behavior ought to be par for the course and being the seasoned vet that I am… I reached into my pedagogical bag of tricks. 

My first instinct was to flip my frustration right back on them.  Make them accountable for the material whether they wanted to engage it or not.  This translated to independent reading, guided notes, written thought questions, collecting and grading EVERYTHING, behavior charts, blah, blah, blah.  Basically I took it way back to the basics… and the boring basics at that.

The level of success that this approach yielded depends on how you define success.  Some students needed this kick to stay on task and get things done. Others decided that they weren’t going to do it no matter what and continued to talk or disengage.  After about a week, I was left with a small few who were doing very well, a middle group who did enough to pass, but only barely, and a sizeable group who were failing miserably because they hadn’t done any of my “you can’t have  a scholarly discussion so do this seat work” assignments and were now even more disengaged than before.  At the end of the day, I could say that whatever their grade it was entirely on them.  The other thing I could say for certain was no one was learning anything or engaging in critical thought - least of all, me.

This type of “seat work” did not come naturally to me and I found it soul crushing, especially after seeing the results.  There had to be another way…

After a weekend of thought and some conversations with my PLN and others, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore, I had to go in a completely different direction.  Willingly or not I had traveled down the exact “basic skills” path of disenfranchisement that I’ve railed against before and that drove most of my students out of their traditional schools in the first place.  I had totally zigged when I should have zagged… and I ended up falling on my face.  

On Sunday night, I reworked the following week’s lesson plans to be project oriented.  The students didn’t want to listen to me talk and that’s fine.  After all, I shouldn’t be doing that much talking anyway. I decided that my last period class would proceed with an inquiry & project-based framework (I try to organize my classes around this framework, but I sometimes slip).  In some ways, I suppose I would still put the responsibility back on the students, but instead of mind-numbing seat work, I would challenge them to elevate their game.

To offer a concrete example:
We’re working through a unit on irony, more specifically dealing with the question: “Why do  authors use irony in stories?”.  We’ve looked at some interesting texts: ironic photos, news stories, a Simpsons’ episode, Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”, Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”, O’Flaherty’s “The Sniper”, and Dorothy Parker’s poem “One Perfect Rose”. My original intent was to power them through an analytical essay comparing different uses of irony across these texts (and we did still do some formal analysis, but on a much smaller scope).

Instead of guiding them through this analytical essay, I first challenged them to go back to one of the texts and map the irony.  I told them that these maps would serve as the entire class’s refresher for that story so if they do a half-ass job they’re not only screwing themselves, but also their peers (just as I expected, they took this as a challenge and held one another accountable).

After presenting their irony maps, I hit them with stage two of the irony final project: Developing their own ironic work that teaches some lesson or accomplishes a goal.  Just as O’Flaherty used irony to show the devastation of civil war or Chopin used it to rally early feminists, so must they craft an ironic piece that accomplishes some goal. Both the goal and the medium were entirely up to them. In the end, many wrote short stories while some wrote plays or raps.  A few more artistic students chose to do comic strips or other artwork.  

I was incredibly pleased with their focus and the products of their work.  More importantly, my students were engaging in critical and authentic thought. 

I realize now that one of the major elements missing from that particular class was a clear and challenging goal… or at least one that was visible to the students.  In Michael Smith & Jeff Wilhelm’s book Reading Don’t Fix no Chevy’s they discuss the necessity of learning (and specifically reading) to be useful or utilitarian, in other words, accomplishing or working toward a goal.  Perhaps this was one of the issues with my 7th period guys - they didn’t recognize what we were doing as useful, or certainly not as useful as arguing whether “Ace Hood or Wayne is more bubblegum”. 

My advice on dealing with classes that try your patience and could push even the most dynamic educator to pass out the worksheets:  resist the urge to regress.  Believe me, I know the “basic skills” path is well worn, especially in urban schools and with challenging kids, but you have to take the one less traveled by, as it will make all the difference (excuse the obligatory Robert Frost…)

Further, talk to your peers.  Reach out on Twitter.  Ask the Google-man: “what do I do with a class that is awful”. You will find resources.  You are not the first teacher to have a class that sends you running for the Advil in the desk drawer at the end of the day and you certainly won’t be the last. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Don’t Waste my Time: Seeking out Meaningful Professional Development

 I’ve been teaching for about five years and I can count the number of meaningful district-run professional development opportunities I’ve had in that time on one hand. It’s not for lack of trying on my part. I regularly scour the “PD Planner” on SchoolNet.  I’ve gone to schools all over the city to attend workshops and classes on a ton of topics, but by and large, they’ve been busts.  Fed up with District offerings, I broadened my search.  Using my newly formed PLN (I joined twitter last June and have found it to be an invaluable professional resource… check me out @MrTeachPhilly), I started seeking out different opportunities.  Below are some of the resources that I found: 

#engchat  -  This hashtag was the reason that I joined Twitter in the first place.  I read an article about a teacher in Philly who started a weekly Twitter chat for English teachers and how quickly it had grown. I thought I’d give it a try.  The first time I tuned in, I just “lurked”.  I tried to join the conversation, but it seemed to move too quickly and I didn’t yet understand Twitter.  After a few weeks of slowly breaking in, I now look forward to #engchat every Monday night.  There’s always an engaging topic and a great group of educators from all over the country who contribute. I’ve gotten some wonderful resources and inspiration from these folks. Not an English teacher? No problem.  There are tons of #chats for different subjects and levels. 

Educon 2.5   -  Educon is another opportunity that I learned about through Twitter (and felt foolish for not knowing about before).  It’s a conference that takes place every year in Philadelphia at Science Leadership Academy (SLA).  SLA is one of the District’s “special-admit” schools and exists in partnership with the Franklin Institute.  The conference is put together by the school’s dynamic staff and students led by Principal Chris Lehmann.  The theme changes each year, but the focus is always on building connections, transforming learning & instruction, utilizing technology, and cultivating inquiry.  Workshops are led by educators, entrepreneurs, techno-folks, and various others involved with education across the country.  More than anything, Educon is about conversation and learning from one another.  
In addition to great speakers, including the always powerful Salome Thomas-El whose words had me ready to walk out of there and start my own school, I attended 6 workshops on a wide range of topics including Fostering student voice, What does a 21st century classroom look like?, Spoken word poetry, Cultivating the “ethic of care”, Students’ lives outside of school, and Pushing back against high stakes testing. 

Though I really encourage folks to come check out Educon 2.6 next year, there are experiences like this in cities across the country. Sure I had to sacrifice a weekend and a few dollars to attend Educon, but many of the workshops, panels, and conversations were the breath of fresh air that I needed half-way through the school year. 

PhilaSoup  -  Professional development absolutely does not have to be based in instruction and it certainly doesn’t have to place in school.  PhilaSoup is part of a growing “-soup” movement where people concerned about a particular issue get together to discuss innovative ideas and share a meal (in this case, soup).  PhilaSoup takes place once a month at different locations around the city.  Educators and education-supporters pay $10 at the door then eat delicious homemade soup and talk informally before listening to four short presentations, each by a teacher who has an innovative idea for their classroom.  After hearing the ideas, everyone votes for the project they like best and at the end of the night, the winner gets a grant (the money from the door).  The dinners have been a great way for my fiancé (also a teacher) and me to get to know other teachers from all over the city and to support great teachers directly. 

TAGPhilly & ItAGs   -  The Philadelphia Teacher Action Group has a ton of great opportunities for teachers and other folks who support education. Recently they started this year’s ItAGs(Inquiry to Action Group) and I’m really excited to be participating in one on Project Based Learning.  These groups meet for six weeks around a common topic or idea.  They are not classes led by an “expert” (though the facilitators are exceptionally qualified). The idea is to participate in genuine inquiry about a specific topic, collaborate with like-minded peers, and bring the topic back to your classroom.  The groups are free and completely voluntary. is the epitome of professional development.  A group of teachers united by a common interest or objective collaborating, raising questions and concerns, and working better understand a pedagogical practice.  It is a sustained effort that can be tailored for each individual educator.  There is no reason that school districts couldn’t co-opt this ItAG model for professional development.  In fact, they’d save a ton of money on “so-called experts” who come in to do their stock workshops and peddle their books…

Teachers Lead Philly  -   Another great network of teacher-leaders in the Philadelphia area.  This year, I’ve been to two TLP meetings (both of which included a meal… a nice bonus at the end of a long school day) and I left each one feeling a new level of motivation and energy.  The first meeting was about teacher cross-visitation and observation and the other was about teacher evaluations.  Both meetings were very well facilitated, with short information/ overview sessions and ample opportunity for collaboration and discussion.  This type of PD is a great step toward empowering teachers as professionals and encouraging individual and collective development. 

Reflective Teacher Network   -   Like the ItAGs, the Reflective Teacher Network is a group of teachers that get together to engage in genuine inquiry.  In this case, the meetings are once a month and they’re focused on reflective practices, something that is absent in too many teachers’ lives.  In small groups of three of four, teachers work together to discuss and address challenges in their individual classrooms.  The focus is on shared experience as well as action through inquiry.  I’ve had a great experience with RTN as it brings a great new perspective to specific issues that I struggle with everyday.  Other teachers helped me work through struggles with truancy, differentiation, and a number of specific student concerns. 


I have gained more from these professional development opportunities in the last 6 months than I did from four years of district-presented PDs that probably cost more and were facilitated by “experts”. There are many aspects of these resources that make them fundamentally different from what I have experienced as PD in the past and maybe things like PhilaSoup and #engchat don’t fit into the traditional PD category, but I think that’s the point.  Why so many schools cling to the “sit and get” model of professional development is beyond me. 

My wonderful and talented fiancé (who teaches 4th grade) and I were talking about the nature of professional development the other night.  She was preparing to lead a PD workshop for her peers the following afternoon and was lamenting the fact that she was required to make a PowerPoint and have a Do Now for her colleagues. “Why can’t we just have a discussion? We’re colleagues and peers, we should just be able to come together and discuss pedagogy,” she bemoaned. 

I couldn’t agree more.  Too much professional development is pitched as “Here’s how you              when it should be “Let’s discuss or collaborate on                  .  This shift isn’t easy, I’ll be the first to admit it.  Workshops where we work together to address a deeper issue or collaborate about pedagogy are much involved and tiring.  There are certainly times when I’ve welcomed the opportunity to sit in a room, turn off my brain and listen to someone else talk for an hour, but just as we know our kids don’t learn much that way, neither do we. 

As professionals, we need to call for and seek out meaningful opportunities to develop and collaborate with one another.  We all know teaching can be isolating and it’s easy to get wrapped up in our own classrooms.  But to do better for our students and keep our own creativity (and sanity) we need to reach out.