Practicing What We Preach

March 22, 2016 by

ConferenceThis post originally appeared at ASCD Edge on March 13, 2016.

My school district in southern Maine is sixteen months into our journey to a learner-centered, proficiency-based teaching and learning system. Teachers are working incredibly hard to provide engaging, relevant and transparent learning for each child.

As we embrace this work, another one of our goals is to increase student agency. For us, this means taking charge of one’s own learning and fostering learner voice and choice. Increased motivation to engage in learning is becoming evident, now that many of our students see themselves as active learners empowered to make some choices within their learning experiences.

With these principles employed, we began to ask ourselves, “If learner voice and choice is so important and powerful, then shouldn’t we also empower our teachers to have autonomy over their professional learning?”

How many times have you gone to a professional development session, only to feel frustrated because it didn’t meet your individual learning needs? What would happen if we intentionally encouraged teacher voice and choice as we planned and implemented our professional learning time?

This concept was brought to our building leadership team and the group was enthusiastic about the idea. In addition to our PLC work and Instructional Coaching Model, our current district calendar includes monthly early release days for students. This time in the afternoon enables each school to plan additional professional learning for staff.

We planned our first menu of professional learning sessions and sent out a sign-up sheet to staff. The three-hour time frame was chunked into three blocks of time with several offerings for each time block. Personalized learning time to work individually or with colleagues was offered in each of the three blocks, along with facilitated sessions that focused on topics important to proficiency-based teaching and learning. Some of the topics included methods for tracking learner progress over time, technology integration in the classroom and Understanding by Design unit planning. Staff signed up for the sessions that were most relevant to their current learning needs.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive after the first session and we have continued to offer a variety of sessions for staff to choose from each month. Many consistently say that they love having choice in how and what to learn during these sessions. Another frequent comment has been around the value of having time to collaborate with colleagues.

Wondering how you might increase learner voice and choice for your staff during professional learning sessions?

  1. Stay connected to your district’s goals. What kinds of learning opportunities will advance your district and school goals? All of our decisions are currently made through the lens of creating a learner-centered, proficiency-based teaching and learning system. This helps us stay focused on the work it will take to reach this goal.
  1. Plan ahead. Planning twelve or more sessions for one afternoon can be a daunting task. Organize a small planning team. Our group consists of our principal, instructional math coach and myself. We usually meet to review the staff feedback and make some initial decisions related to offerings. Then we reach out to any staff members who have offered to facilitate a session. Shared documents in Google Drive allow us to collaborate electronically as we finalize the month’s offerings.
  1. Build capacity. This takes time but is essential to the sustainability of this type of professional learning model. Tap into the skills that your teachers possess. If the same few staff members are always facilitating sessions, we run the risk of burning them out. Our principal consistently encourages our staff to take risks and to consider facilitating a session. We have a great deal of expertise in our building and several teachers have led sessions this year.
  1. Check and adjust. Our continuous improvement model, PLAN, DO, CHECK and ADJUST, fits wonderfully with our shift in how we offer professional learning. After each session, we send an electronic feedback form to staff. We ask them to share a piece of positive feedback, an area or topic they’d like more information on, one thing that could be improved, and we ask if there is a topic they would be interested in leading at a future session. This information gives us a path to follow for the next month’s professional learning time.

If we are going to offer voice and choice to our students, we need to model this practice with our teachers, so they can also reap the benefits. If our goal is to provide personalized learning opportunities for ALL learners, then we need to make sure that our definition of learners doesn’t include age limits!

See also:

About the Author

Mary Bellavance is Co-President of Maine ASCD. She is an Instructional Coach for the Biddeford School Department, Biddeford, Maine; a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow; and a teacher-consultant for the Southern Maine Writing Project and National Writing Project. She enjoys connecting with educators via Twitter @MaryBellavance.

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