Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beyond These Four Walls: PD in Cyberspace

After reading my friend Mardie's blog post (September 25, 2010) "Professional Development--My Way" on Mardie's Muse, I've been inspired to think about the contrasts between mandated professional development in my district and the personal professional development I enjoy on-line. In her eloquent post, Mardie writes about the professional literature she's read lately and the ways folks like Jim Burke, Mary Borg, Donald H. Graves, Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm have been teaching her to teach better with their fantastic books.

I live in a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde world of professional development. Were it not for cyberspace, I'd be languishing in PD stasis. Simply, the professional development I find most meaningful exists beyond the four walls of my building, beyond the geographic boundary of my district.

Like Mardi, my virtual life has led me to professional literature. Since joining EC in January of 2009, I have read many amazing books: Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction by Maja Wilson, Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Tom Newkirk, The Book Whisperer by Donnalyn Miller, Reading Ladders by Teri Lessene, What's the Big Idea by Jim Burke, Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action by Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey, Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements by Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm, The Socially Networked Classroom by William Kist, Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks, and Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle. Each of these books has given me the opportunity to participate in an on-line discussion of ideas and methods via the EC book clubs. And I haven't even listed the books I've read because I discovered them via recommendations from EC members.

In contrast to my mandated PLC, Twitter also rocks my PD world. When I arrived home Monday afternoon, I joined #engchat on Twitter where the discussion about Arts Integration in English classes led me to Elizabeth Peterson's blog "What is True Arts Integration?" and to a fantastic list of drama resources. Today's #engchat has prompted me to create a lesson on tone / mood and character using crayons as symbolic representations of these literary concepts, and during the chat, I gleaned a fantastic lesson plan for John Milton's Paradise Lost. Teachers on Twitter comprise an important segment of my Professional Learning Community as we engage in the common goal of evolving ourselves into more effective teachers. Afterwards, I discovered I had two new followers. I find myself engaged, wowed, and heard on #engchat as I meet with and learn from virtual colleagues.

The verbs circumventevade and avoid characterize my building PLC. Despite a mandate to meet Monday afternoon, reinforced via an email from my principal, we in the English department went our separate ways. I took the time to work on the library display of teachers' favorite and most influential books I'm creating and to communicate with a local author about an upcoming visit to our building. By the time I left the building, my hall was empty, and I did not stay late yesterday. This scenario isn't unique. Typically, we write common assessments during our PLC time. Translation: We write multiple choice test questions. This does nothing to improve my teaching. My sense is that many view this time as an extension of the planning period. Unfortunately, we lose a great deal of student contact time with our weekly early release.

When my district decided to mandate its version of PLCs, the well of meaningful collaboration dried up. I miss the days of shared soup during the cold, gray winter days. I long to collaborate in meaningful ways with my building colleagues as we "tag team" students who teacher shop only to discover we're all running interference together and requiring students to complete comparable literature and writing tasks. Some of us still share resources, but we don't talk much about our practice. We expend our energy on the tests. Always the tests.

Things don't improve when a speaker comes to town. Last Monday, October 11, secondary teachers in my district were required to attend a presentation about alternative assessments and omitting zeros as a way to improve test cores. During his talk, Myron Dueck suggested teachers not post Fs but that students receive an "incomplete" for the entire course when they miss work. Dueck's contention that "zeros allow students to treat "the course components as optional" makes sense to me, but the problem with his proposal is that we are forbidden from posting an "incomplete" at the end of the trimester. To implement Dueck's plan would require a "complete paradigm shift," as one of my colleagues notes. I've attended many of these top-down, mandated presentations that ask teachers to do something in direct conflict with district mandates.

A functional, professional learning community and / or PD arises organically, much like a grass-roots political movement. This explains why teachers value EC, Twitter chat, and other on-line forums that give them "voice and choice" in their professional learning. For a PLC to work as what Jean Lave and Ettiene Wenger call "communities of practice," several criteria must be met: First, there must exist a common concern or passion for something we do and a desire to do it better. Simply sharing a common domain (e.g. being employed in the same building or district) is not enough to create a community of practice. Secondly, the community must commit to nurturing relationships via discussions and showing support for members engaging in common interests and activities. Third, mutual practice marks a community of practice as members share resources, ideas, stories, and tools. Members of a community of practice fill in knowledge gaps, solve problems, recycle assets, and share discourse. Synergy marks a community of practice.

This past July a colleague from another school commented: "Our district has not learned how to do PLCs." Thus, I will continue to embrace the wall-less cyber world of Twitter, EC, etc. I will learn about educational trends and important issues as I follow Dr. Stephen Krashen, Diane Ravitch, Ellen Hopkins, Terri Lessene, et al. on Twitter. Beyond the four walls of my classroom, I'll form my own version of a PLC.