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 fiancĂ© (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 fiancĂ© (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. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Jon Stewart Exposes the Hypocrisy of Rhee & Students First

“Radical” Michelle Rhee has been on a real PR push leading up to and immediately following the release of her new book Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.  She’s speaking at the Free Library of Philadelphia tonight to a sold-out crowd who will no doubt eat up each vague generalization that she makes about teachers and students and every misguided assertion about how to reform education that she spews.

And who can blame this audience for their acceptance of and even reverence for her words? She’s an intelligent, well-spoken woman with a compelling narrative, who presents herself as an expert on the shortfalls of urban schools.  However, what makes her so compelling to so many people is that unlike many educational historians and scholars, she doesn’t get caught up in all the messy talk about poverty, funding, and lack of resources and instead proposes a “solution”.  She is also quick to point out the people get in the way of her “solution”. Her appeal stems from her ability to lay out educational reform as a binary - either you are a Reformer who puts students first or you are Anti-reform and don't care what's best for children.  

I have written before about Michelle Rhee and how there was a time when I too thought, “hey, at least she’s doing something”.  It wasn’t until I started working and living in an urban district and researching urban education that I realized the systemic and intractable forces at work in large city schools.  Putting aside the DC cheating scandal and Students First’s political ties & support, I see Ms. Rhee’s reform agenda as being terribly short-sighted and ignorant of the inequities and realities that will continue to plague urban districts if they aren’t addressed at a systemic level. 

This came to the forefront in her interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show on Monday night.  Say what you will about the biases and leanings of Jon Stewart or the fact that his show is preceded by some of the dumbest programming on television (though for some reason I find Workaholics to be hilarious), he did what interviewers almost never do when sitting across from Michelle Rhee: challenge her. 

At first, after watching the five minutes or so that aired on TV, I was concerned that this was going to be just another venue for her to push the message that she’s the only one out there who really cares, she’s putting students’ interests first, blah, blah, blah.  She made her typical statements like, “If bringing common sense to a dysfunctional system makes me radical, then I guess I am and maybe more people should be radical” and “I come from teachers, that’s why I have an incredible regard for what they can do”.  Too many so-called reformers get away with making empty statements like these.  It’s like saying, “I spend time around doctors and I know they work hard, so I can tell them how to best perform surgery” or “I’ve been going to the dentist all my life, so I’m an expert of orthodontia”. 
But Jon Stewart came through for me in a big way.  Towards the end of the broadcasted portion of the interview and certainly in the extended version posted online, he did a powerful job pushing her to be specific and addressed much of what her "brand" of reform ignores. 

In one exchange Rhee referred to teachers as the greatest tool to improving student achievement.  Stewart replied, “That’s true, but teachers are the only tool that gets yelled at.  Teachers are the only tool we look at and say ‘fix it or you’re fired’”.  Stewart’s response demonstrates the inherent hypocrisy and disconnect in the corporate reform model.  You can’t argue that on one hand teachers are the greatest tools to improving achievement and have the greatest impact and need to be supported, but then on the other hand portray them as lazy and needing to be threatened into doing their jobs.  Corporate reform seems to have a paradoxical view of teachers as incredibly powerful and important, but ultimately inept. 

Stewart also pushed her to address some of the social and environmental realities facing urban schools. 
She replied: “Does poverty matter? Absolutely. I mean that makes it much more challenging… To escape poverty, we know the best way to do that is through education”.   
Stewart offered a simple but powerful reply, “Education can only take root if the soil is fertile”

This short exchange gets to the heart of what’s absent in her reform agenda: the structural forces that have a profound effect on academic and educational success. Yes, in a perfect world all the social programs would work together and every student would get the support they need so schools can focus all their efforts on academic success (actually, I’m not so sure that’s my idea of a perfect school… but anyway). Those in schools everyday know that’s not the reality , especially not in urban schools.  Students are hungry, they’re homeless, they’ve experienced major trauma, they’re sick, they have emotional or behavioral disorders, or they have undocumented learning disabilities. To ignore these realities is hardly putting students first. In fact, to expect a child who is hungry or in extreme emotional distress to sit through a two-hour math lesson or to take a standardized test seems cruel and unrealistic.  

Near the end of the interview the two have another great exchange that I’d like to highlight:
     Stewart: Have we abandoned the model of public schooling?  Especially in urban environments
     Rhee: No family should feel like they’re trapped in a failing school
     Stewart: Doesn’t public school become a repository for worst, most troublesome students?...
     Stewart: Your solution is if a school is failing, why not give students an alternative that works. But if you know how to create an alternative that works, why not offer that to the entire system and address the larger problems?

What Jon Stewart is pointing out is one of the major holes in the corporate reform movement: it focuses so much on individual schools and eliminating bureaucracy (which I will admit is exhausting), that it ignores the need for systemic change and even ignores the need for a system at all.   

Further, this whole reform ideology relies on “FAILING schools” to demonstrate the need for charters & vouchers so they can  swoop in and save the day.  It’s like waiting for a person to drown before you throw them a life preserver.  If reformers like Rhee have the solution, why aren’t they sharing it or putting it out there? Why are they sitting back and waiting for more and more students and schools to drown?  

This question harkens back to Diane Ravich’s “challenge” to KIPP to take over an entire district.  Her argument was, if you are having so much more success than the public schools and your model is so groundbreaking, let’s see it in practice.  Take over a district and show them how it’s done.  Of course, KIPP’s reply was essentially ‘that’s not what we do’.  

Rhee tried to wrap up by casting herself as a savior who’s not only putting students first, but also trying to support teachers (though she’s been pretty clear that if you recognize teachers’ needs, you aren’t putting “students first”). Fortunately, Jon Stewart refuses to let her use his show as a soapbox. 
     Rhee: We need to free teachers to be innovative & respond to students’ needs. This dysfunctional bureaucracy that’s driven by these antiquated policies.  Let’s change the laws and policies so they don’t stymie the educators into having to do things in a certain way. Let’s free them up to be able to do what they know is right for kids.
     Stewart: But isn’t that the antithesis of the testing regime?
     Rhee: No. We must have measures by which we understand whether or not kids are learning appropriately. 
     Stewart: The entire system of that metric is somewhat broken.
     Rhee: We should be always working towards finding better assessments.

So there you have it.  Apparently fixing our education system is that easy:
 - Ignore students’ realities
 - Label & close schools
 - Open new schools that can remove “problem students”
 - Test the hell out of kids
 - Vilify, intimidate, and terrify teachers
 - Make them compete for what slim resources remain
 - Tell anyone who doesn’t agree with you that they are selfish and don’t put “students first”
 - Write solipsistic memoir
 - Collect a big fat paycheck & look for a fancy private school for your own children