Monday, June 23, 2014

Lessons Learned from a Summer Workshop

Last week I attended a three day summer professional development workshop series hosted by the state. The theme was supposed to be Common Core State Standards, but I don't think I actually learned much new information about CCSS. In fact, I don't think I learned much that I didn't already know, but a big part of learning, I've always felt, is reinforcement of known concepts, and there was certainly plenty of that. I even reinforced some ideas that I probably wasn't supposed to be getting. But arguably the most important part of the series for me was that it helped to transition by brain from third grade mode to high school English mode, which needed to happen sooner or later.

First, when separated into content and age groups (so I was with more high school English teachers), I was pleasantly surprised to find myself among like-minded people, and that doesn't happen often. One of the first tasks we were given was to separate into three subgroups and rank a handful of classroom activities by how many Speaking and Listening standards they met. The slips of paper were passed out, and I was given small-group discussion (yay!), Socratic circles (eee!), and popcorn reading (oh...). Immediately I ordered them, 1 - Socratic circles, 2 - small group discussion, 3 - popcorn reading. Then I remembered that I actually had a task, and it was to order based on standards, not preconceived biases. Fine. But when I matched the standards to the activities, I found that they actually remained in this order. And when I combined my given activities with the others from my subgroup, they agreed with my judgement, keeping popcorn reading at the bottom. And when compared with the other subgroups, I found that they had all placed popcorn reading at the bottom, as well! Woah. No one had thought that popcorn reading was a useful or effective classroom activity. I was prepared to keep quiet  my dissenting opinion, shying away from hostility, unable to convince anyone because their minds were made up and unwilling to change because that's how it typically goes. I don't want to fight, and the majority of people will not listen to any reasoning that doesn't agree with their own opinions. But I didn't have to convince anyone. In fact, they all agreed unanimously with me before I even had a chance to defend my position!

And in fact, it was a common theme throughout the three days that students should be taught to listen respectfully to arguments contrary to their own beliefs for the sake of argument, finding flaws in their own reasoning or someone else's, calmly realizing when their reasoning isn't sound, justifying their ideas, and peacefully convincing others.

And did I mention the Socratic circles? Nary a presentation went by without Socratic something-or-other being mentioned. We even held a practice Socratic circle in one of the classes, just so that the presenter could be sure that we had experienced it and knew how beneficial an activity it was to students. Because she wanted us to know that the learning students do together in this manner is much more authentic than anything one could teach while standing in front of the classroom.


Maybe I've finally found where I'm meant to be. Aaah, the feelings of satisfaction and gratification, they wash over me.

(For what it's worth, I felt this way when I began to get into Montessori, but it all drained out of me the moment I stepped into the training center. This experience has been the opposite--I went with trepidation, assuming that these teachers were just the same as all the other public school teachers I'd met, but was then surprised to find the opposite.)

Why? What could have caused this? Is this how English teachers have been all along? I wouldn't know, since my education was primarily Elementary, and elementary teachers certainly didn't behave this way, giving students so much credit and acknowledgement. Or is it because of Common Core? Is this the way of thinking that one automatically adopts when forced to study these new standards? In adopting CCSS, did we actually convince teachers to teach students how to learn rather than memorize facts?

If this is the fault of CCSS, I've just decided that I love it even more than I did previously.

If this is how English teachers have always been... well, I'm glad I'm finally home.

Moving right along.

Another common theme that was frequently discussed during the seminar was something called Essential Question, a relatively new concept for me. There's a book that nearly all the presenters had and kept referencing. I may read it and explore it further, but briefly, from what I gathered last week, units of study, thematic units, are now based on a broad question that can be connected to many areas of life and are able to be deeply contemplated. Such questions could be, "What is a hero?" or "Who is responsible for public health?" Things that keep students thinking throughout the unit, changing their minds when presented with new information, and possibly ending up with an entirely different answer at the end than they began with. Essential questions can be designed to be used with one class or a whole school, though either way would be interesting to experience. If multiple teachers were on board, they could all bring something new to the discussion, making it that much more broad and deep, but that's not to say that a single teacher wouldn't be able to do a lot with it, too. More research is needed here. I put the book on my library list.

I have a lot of new references and notes, things to explore and look up, but it's all very messy at this point. There's not much I can make of it with the state that these notes are in currently, short of making another silly notes post, but those aren't actually very helpful to me, I've found. So I'll leave it as it is now, sift through slowly, explore as necessary, and report back with anything that require a full length article.

But I'll leave this particular post with the aforementioned reinforcement of a concept I wasn't supposed to be receiving.

For a little bit of context, this seminar series was held in a large, suburban high school. For the first two days, attendees were organized into small groups of 10 to 20 adults, and we moved between classrooms as a group, watching and participating in different presentations, each about an hour long. There was to be a schedule of what group went where at what time, but there wasn't proper communication, and everyone was rather confused, like a pack of new freshmen. We ate breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria and had whole group assemblies in the assembly hall. It was all so very high school.

On top of that, many teachers from my previous school were there, and I... well, though I'm almost embarrassed to admit, but I avoided them. As much as I got along with the other high school English teachers, I didn't sit with them in the cafeteria or assembly hall, either. They had their own schools to sit with, and that was fine by me. No one else from my school was in attendance, and even if they were, I wouldn't have known them well enough to sit with them, probably. So I spent these times sitting by myself, avoiding eye contact with others, choking down the sub par food that was provided, flipping through notes I had taken, reading a book I had brought along--much the way that I spent my own high school (and even college) years.

The third day was to be a work day in which attendees could work with their school and create units or lessons based on what they had learned on the previous days. I was placed in a new group with other solos.

It was fine, really, I'm not bitter about anything, but for whatever reason, I just wasn't feeling it. It happens. We all have off days, and this was one of them for me. I'm not sure if I brought it on myself by having preconceived notions of not getting much out of this particular day or by deciding that I didn't like the way this particular activity was being carried out. I may have, or it may have been a coincidence. Whatever the reason, I wasn't much help to my group, nor did I have much to add in conversations. And I feel like that's not usually who I am. I would typically have had much to add to professional development conversations. One of the rules I tend to live by is, you get out of anything as much as you want to get out of it. I spent much of my school years trying to determine how the information I was presented with applied to my life directly, trying to pry everything I could from teachers and professors, taking ample notes, deciding what information was most pertinent to me, diving deep into concepts, exploring until the topic was exhausted but revisiting when I could apply the information in a new way. I took learning into my own hands and was regarded as a good student. But it doesn't matter what type of student I am or was, because everyone has off days, days where what's happening in the classroom just isn't beneficial to them. And this was that day for me.

I spent the morning quietly, trying to get by saying as little as possible without seeming completely awkward. We separated into subgroups, and mine had an alpha. Usually I feel comfortable in a leadership role, but today, since an alpha was already present, I felt more comfortable sitting back and letting her take over. I did as little work as possible, writing notes to myself as to seem busy.

At lunch, I ate quickly, then headed outside through a side door, not feeling brave enough to avoid eye contact with teachers from my old school any longer. I found a tree to sit down in the shade of and rested there for a long while, enjoying the solitude. Eventually I lay in the grass, using my book as a pillow. Sunlight flickered through the leaves, shining a kaleidoscopic pattern across my face, the summer breeze blew soft music through the blades of grass by my head, and all was peaceful. Time to resume was drawing near, but I couldn't find the motivation to go back inside. This is what my students feel like, my brain told me. I nibbled a patch of sweet grass, feeling young. Time came and passed, and I remained, my skin breathing in the warm air. I examined the empty windows of the school, writing poems idly in my mind, matching words and listening to them flow attractively. It is getting a little hot, I mused to myself. If I go back inside now, I wouldn't have to go straight back to class right away. I could just wander about the school a little until I felt ready. I hesitated, realizing. That's probably exactly what my students tell themselves, too.

I did go back in then, exploring the empty halls until I satisfied. I found my classroom an hour past time, my "classmates" still working away on the project they had been at before we left, though I was still unable to concentrate on what I was "supposed to" be working on. My brain had a new concept to play with, or rather an old concept to revisit.

Hadn't I decided long ago that if someone chooses not to participate, that's alright? There's no way to force him to learn, and forcing him to do an assignment just makes him frustrated. It's not the end of the world, and it's much more respectful to leave him to sit quietly, as long as he's not disturbing others. A cursory glance through the articles I've written tells me that I never actually wrote about it, though maybe I overlooked it. I remember the exact moment I first had this thought, watching a teacher fight in vein with a child, back when I was a para. Somehow in my first year of teaching, this memory must have left me. I was in survival mode the whole year, after all. Nowhere to go but up. Surely I can learn from my mistakes, and I vow now to give my students space when they need it, recognizing when they're having trouble connecting to an assignment and allowing them time to decompress when necessary.

So, ultimately, it was a beneficial third day, though the lesson I learned wasn't quite the expected one.