Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Professional Development Thoughts and Recommendations

Hello There,

I have been thinking about professional development and how important that has been in my life. I was a "late bloomer" in the educational world in that I returned to university life in my late thirties and started teaching in my early forties. I saw myself as the perfect teacher candidate because I wouldn't leave the profession because of pregnancy. Half way through my first year, however, I thought about leaving because this career is darn hard. Professional development classes provided by our district saved me from throwing in the towel! Seriously!

In January of 1992 I signed up for the Jordan Writing Project, and that experience provided some tools to use with my seventh graders. Next, I enrolled in the Six Traits of Writing classes, and that supported a foundation for teaching writing. In fact, I can't think of a year when I did not take advantage of three or four professional development opportunities. Nor can I think of a one in which I did not glean something that made me a better teacher. Oh, some classes/workshops were better than others, but I never walked away empty handed. I still adhere to the belief that few professional development courses are a waste of time.

Our district mandates teachers to participate in school professional development days and individual professional development days. As I study the effects of professional development, I see the wisdom in this. Quoting Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher (2004) of San Diego State University, "... several researchers [including Allington and Johnston; Darling-Hammond; Joyce and Showers] suggest that the professional development of teachers is critically linked to student achievement and literacy levels of students."

They further state, "... it is not a program, a set of books, or a box of materials that creates a high achieving school. It is always teachers who matter, and what they do matters most" (2004, p. 3). With that said, I want to share some professional development experiences I recently enjoyed.

Courses and Presentations ~

Randy Olsen of Crescent View Middle School facilitated a workshop centered upon enhancing classroom discussions. The evening I attended, he demonstrated how he and his colleague Jolene Jenkins incorporate online discussions in their classrooms. Using Google Groups, these two educators opened up a world of communicating via written words that develops critical thinking, reading and writing. This discussion tool is especially supportive of students who hesitate to comment in class.

Randy is enthusiastic and willing to share the ins and outs of how he brought this instructional/technological strategy into his students' lives. Because of what I learned, I better organized my Google Group of board members of the Utah Council of Teachers of English/Language Arts. The process takes time, but it isn't all that hard, and it is extremely useful because I can draft the meetings' minutes on the discussion site for non-attending members to see in real time. Additionally, they can "chat" with me during our meeting, thus adding important input.

Another evening I dropped by the Jordan Council of the International Reading Association (JCIRA) meeting. Keri Corfield and Christie Despain, elementary school literacy facilitators, shared their expertise AND many helpful literacy products. Now, I am sure secondary colleagues might wonder what I extracted from the hour I spent with a dozen or so elementary teachers. Let me tell you, I walked away with a wealth of ideas and materials that can be adapted in the secondary classroom.

Guided reading is not a term often heard in the halls of middle or high schools, and yet I believe it can provide an avenue through which secondary teachers can differentiate curriculum. I want to research this more because there are undoubtedly many differences between elementary and secondary classroom conditions. But I surmise that the tools shared with the attendees at Monday's presentation could work with literature circles. Keri reminded us that lit circles, in and of themselves, are not guided reading; however, if teachers sit in with groups and facilitate the discussion using graphic organizers; comprehension cards, etc., circles can provide a guided reading experience. This, of course, is dependent upon being able to assess students' reading levels and matching them with texts that build comprehension. Thankfully, the ability to do that is coming our way via Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI).

Conferences ~

I recently attended "The Literacy Promise" conference, sponsored by The David O. McKay School of Education Alumni Association and the Brigham Young University-Public School Partnership. I gleaned so much valuable information, but my favorites were Timothy Shanahan, Chris Crowe, Donna Ogle's break-out session and Cathy Collins-Block's keynote address. Other wonderful presenters included Patricia Wolfe and Janet Allen, but I have attended their presentations in the past.

If you were unable to go to this conference, you can find presenters' handouts at the following site: This is perfect segue into another favorite professional development resource - the Internet.

Websites ~

I am constantly amazed by the expanse of educational resources available on the World Wide Web. I imagine there are sites that address nearly every teacher and student need. And most of the shared materials are free! For example, Randy shared PowerPoint presentations that can be used in classrooms to review tips for finding reliable websites; for structuring inquiry projects; and for defining plagiarism. All these PP presentations were found online! Just a few revisions personalized the slides for their particular classrooms.

I have also bookmarked scores of wonderful sites - some I use in my professional development classes and some function as my personal professional development courses. For example, I have learned valuable information about differentiating instruction. A recent website I want to share with you is about teaching the Holocaust. I know that social studies and language arts teachers introduce their students to this topic in upper elementary grades, middle and high school. This website offers an online course that supports educators in teaching this emotional unit with excellence. You can access this site and others near the end of Link 2 Literacy's page.

Books ~

When I attend educational conferences, I always browse through dozens of books provided by sponsoring vendors. I have shelves full that I have yet to read from cover to cover, but still I find that perusing chapters is very rewarding. In my current position, I find my library of teaching and learning texts has served me well. I enjoy books written by both practitioners and researchers, but when I think about sharing an instructional strategy, I see what the research says about it.

Now some effective tools do not boast of extensive research, but that does not mean they are not worth trying. In fact, such tools can provide the focus of action research, the results of which can be shared with others. One such tool is the Discussion Web developed by Donna Alverman, renowned reading educator from the University of Georgia. I have used it in a variety of settings and found it very helpful in deepening discussions.

The book I am currently reviewing is Improving Adolescent Literacy: Strategies at Work by Fisher and Frey. I recommend this book for two reasons: it was a required text in my reading comprehension class at the University of Utah and the instructional strategies shared by the authors are all researched-based. They include anticipatory activities; read-alouds and shared reading; questioning; note taking and note making; graphic organizers; vocabulary instruction; writing to learn and reciprocal teaching.

I was especially impressed with chapter 2: "Attention Getters: Using Anticipatory Activities to Inspire Learning" by Frey, Fisher (researchers), ElWardi and Mongrue (practicing teachers). Anticipatory activities should pique curiosity, stimulate questioning, induce recall of recently learned information and activate students' background knowledge. The four instructional strategies for gaining student attention, as suggested by Eggen and Kauchak (2001) are demonstrations; discrepant events (demonstrations that involve a surprising or startling occurrence designed to command the students' attention, p. 17); visual displays; and thought-provoking questions.

Some of the ideas require a significant investment of preparation time, but one idea I particularly liked does not. The authors call it "Thought-provoking Questions Through Quick Writes," but I entitle it "Beyond Quick Writes." The process and examples can be found on the LiteracyLinkUp wikispace: Beyond Quick Writes.

The point of this lengthy posting is that we can find many ways to professionally improve our teaching. Depending upon interest and time, we are fortunate to have so many available resources available to us. I hope you find this site numbered among them.

Best Wishes,