How I Lead (Professional Development)

Writing about myself is always a challenge (evidenced by the fact that I instinctively wrote “oneself” at the beginning of this sentence, then went back to revise it).

Here on my blog — as well as in my books and articles, and throughout the many workshops and presentations that I lead — I constantly reference the work of others, usually classroom teachers, in my efforts to both raise their voices and, in some type of Midwestern modesty, push my own abilities to the side.

This week has reaffirmed the work that I do, as well as the approach that I take when leading professional development sessions. For three days, I had the good fortune of working with my friend and colleague Amber White, and we have designed a project that invited teachers to apply to a “teacher technology institute,” where they agreed to participate in three workshop days this June and one more in the fall and, in exchange, they receive their own personal iPad Air, well as a $100 gift card to the iTunes Store so they can purchase apps we are using in the institute. She applied to and was award funds from Literacy and Beyond & the Stebbins Family Fund as well as the Lapeer County Community Foundation to do this work. One of the reasons that Amber asked me to lead this session, I say humbly, is because she feels I have a certain style of presenting and working with teachers that will be highly effective in helping them implement their projects.

It was interesting when, in the midst of the workshop this week, one of the teachers pulled me aside and asked, “How many times have you led this presentation?”

Hesitating for a moment, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. I’ve never led this particular workshop before, but I’ve led similar ones dozens of times. I always ebb and flow with my audience, asking them to try digital writing activities and, based on their response, allowing more or less time for the activity to continue. That’s my style. No two workshops the same. I was mulling all this over, and trying to think of a way to be humble in my reply. I began to answer, and he could sense my reticence.

“I mean,” he clarified, “how long have you been doing this type of workshop?”

“Oh, about 10 years or so.”

10 years. Indeed, it probably has been a bit longer if I count some of my first presentations while in the earliest parts of my career as a middle school teacher. Yet, as someone who has been a regular presenter and workshop leader now for just over a decade, I can clearly assert that my main goal is to stick closely to the core beliefs of the National Writing Project, which remind us that “teachers teaching teachers” remains the most powerful approach to professional development.

With that in mind, I can say that I have developed a few other principles that help me facilitate sessions with teachers. They seem simple. Maybe even cliche. But, they work for me, and (I dare say) those who are in the audience as I lead a session.

Listen as much — or more — than you talk.

Engage adult learners in meaningful tasks, relevant to their professional lives.

Model the process. Share the process. Help in the process. “To, with, and by,” to use the language of teachers who work with our youngest learners.

Provide opportunities to be creative, bounded with some manageable constraints.

Pause periodically to acknowledge the “pulse” of the room, especially when working with technology, and allow people to vent about frustrations and celebrate success.

“Oh, ok,” he replied, nodding his head, snapping me back to attention. I smiled and turned my focus back to the group.

I recount the first part of the story because it was a moment that made me, quite literally, stop and think about what I do as a teacher and teacher educator. Something I need to do more often, and I appreciate the question that he asked.

The second part of the story takes place later in the evening, as Amber and I were reflecting on the day. She also was answering many text messages and emails from teachers who had attended the workshop, all of which were positive. Amber articulated a number of points: activities moved along briskly, but not too fast; modeling of the many tech processes helped people learn the tools; and we stayed focused on the bigger picture of helping students use technology in critical and creative ways.

Minus some minor technical difficulties on the second day, our colleagues — in three days — were able to create and share wiki pages, Google Docs, podcasts, short digital movies, an Ignite-style presentation, and a Twitter conversation. They also honed a proposal for an inquiry-based, technology-rich collaborative unit plan. Guided by a number of protocols from the National School Reform Faculty, we also offered feedback to one another in pairs, small groups, and as an entire cohort.

And, if I may say it, we had fun.

Amber, her colleagues in North Branch, and our experience together — though not an official event related to either of our writing projects — was imbued with the spirit of NWP. As I write this post, I thank Amber for the opportunity to be part of the work this week, and I encourage you to read the 40for40 blog that NWP is producing this summer.

As I quipped at one point in the week, “My brain is full, my heart is full, and my stomach is full.” Classic NWP pedagogy, and what I hope happens for so many other teachers in their work together this summer. I look forward to returning to North Branch this fall, working with colleagues as they implement their project ideas.


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Connected Learning Webinar

Today, I enjoyed a conversation with a number of colleagues about the “The Digital Influence on Looking Closely at Student Work.” Definitely worth a listen, and be prepared to write down lots of ideas about how to engage deeply with students’ work as a tool for assessment and professional development.

  • Andrew Sliwinski – Co-Founder of DIY.org; designer and engineer focused on improving how we play and learn
  • Kylie Peppler – Assistant Professor in the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University; Director at Creativity Labs
  • Tina Blythe – Co-author of “Looking Together at Student Work”; Learning Group Leader at Project Zero

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Welcome IWP Colleauges

IWP LogoThis morning, I am looking forward to a conversation with colleagues from the Indiana Writing Project about the ways that I use blogging and Twitter as a writer during their Advanced Institute: Get Your Write On! My colleague Susanna Benko will be getting the conversation started, and then I will be joining in to answer some questions that they have prepared for me.

Since I am sure that the time will go fast, I’ve prepared a few opening remarks here on my blog for them to read ahead of time. Then, we can use our time together for more of a Q/A.

How do you see yourself as a writer who uses digital spaces – like blogs and Twitter –as a way to reach others? What do you most often write about? Who do you see as your audience(s)?

One of the beliefs that I hold as a writer in any space, and especially in digital spaces, is that I want to contribute to the conversation. How can I add value to what other people are saying? How can my new ideas, reflections on old ideas, and notes that I scribe from other presentations offer something to other educators? If I am not contributing to the conversation in a productive, professional way, then I need to question why I am writing at all here on my blog, with Twitter, with my wiki, or any other digital forum.

As the title of my blog suggests, I most often write about ideas related to teaching writing in this digital age. I do not do personal blogging, and I reserve Facebook for any family photos or political opinions. So, my topics are mostly educational and, somewhat benign. I want to blog more about educational policy and politics, though I haven’t brought myself to do so yet. Here, I stick with topics related to writing, literacy more broadly, and educational technology.

My audiences vary, and are worldwide. Sadly, lots are spambots! However, I do know that I reach other educators because, most importantly, I hear back from them. They put comments on my blog at @reply me on Twitter. Again, I try to add to the conversation. I rarely check stats, but I know that I get many enough on my blog from Google and other search engines to know that it really is a person seeing my work.

What challenges do you see for teacher-writers who want to use digital spaces as writers more often, and how do you suggest teachers navigate those challenges?

This is a timely and useful question. And I have both a philosophical and technical answer. In terms of the philosophy, as we find ourselves in an increasingly hostile political climate, we as teacher-writers need to offer insightful visions into our classrooms that the media, policymakers, and the public may not see. While there are a number of overtly political blogs and bloggers, you do not have to take that stance as a teacher-writer. In the process of writing about your own experiences, you are taking a stance that shows how important the work of teaching is.

In terms of the technical challenges, the barriers to entry on blogging and social networking, at least initially, are really low (as you are likely figuring out today). Once you are part of the edublogosphere, then the technical hurdle is getting noticed (that is, having others find your blog or tweets, read them, and reply). There are some technical (and rhetorical) moves that can help with that such as linking to other blogs, using @replies and hashtags, and becoming active in regular Twitter chats.

What other advice might you give writers who are wanting to blog or use Twitter –especially novice users of either medium?

This sounds so cliche, I know, but just jump in, as you are today. You have to start somewhere, so just get started. Dip your toes in the stream of ideas, and you will soon be swimming. For some more specific advice, I would encourage you to:

  • Learn about RSS and begin using a tool like Feedly or Flipboard
  • After you sign up for Twitter, begin to use a social media management tool like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite
  • Take the advice of estblished edubloggers, of which there are too many to name here in the time I have…
  • Contribute and add value to the conversation!

My hope is that these responses get the conversation moving along, and I look forward to hearing more thoughts on this from my IWP colleagues later this morning.


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Digital Writing from Saskatoon Schools

During the 2013-14 school year, I was invited to work with teachers from Saskatoon Schools via webinar, including teacher-librarian Tamzen Kulyk. She and her students have created videos that document their learning through a digital writing workshop, and I am happy to share them here.

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I appreciate how Tamzen has highlighted the importance of audience and feedback as well as describing her work this year as “transformative.” I am glad to have played a small part in helping her establish a digital writing workshop this year.


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