Professional Development…just the phrase makes my heart sink. Why? It usually feels bad—sort of thrown together, full of buzz-words and jargon, and abandoned by November. It does not have to be this way. We can do better. I’ve had three excellent rounds of PD in twenty years as a tracher. Maybe they had something in common.
The best PD ever—five days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, learning how to make Shakespeare come alive in the classroom. We spent five hot days in two small cement rooms, doing choral readings, physical-izing (not acting, mind you!) the words, talking about the language. We also saw FIVE plays, went backstage, heard several lectures by experts, and chatted with the actors. Oh, and we did some dancing, too. We stayed in dorms, ate out for lunch and dinner, and talked to each other constantly. And it was free, because CHS got a grant. What made it great? It was graduate school for English and Theater teachers.
The second great PD week was a stay at Reed College, organized by the Oregon Council for the Humanities. The topic for the week was the intersection of science and the humanities. About a month beforehand, I received a graduate level packet of reading in the mail, to be completed before I arrived. This series of articles required me to pull out all of my old reading comprehension strategies to fully comprehend it. It was great. The week that followed was, once again, a series of in-depth discussions, formal and informal, lectures by experts, and a tour of Reed’s nuclear reactor. We also did some weeding around the buildings while waiting for someone to arrive. Once again, we stayed in dorms, although we ate in the quite excellent Reed cafeteria. What made this one great? Once again, it was the intellectual ideas and discussions.
The last great PD was very different. It happened the week after school was out for the summer, which is a really good time to plan a new class. It was organized around project-based learning, a movement I have always loved. It engages my students fully and allows me to say “yes, that’s brilliant!” far more often than other styles. Even my Honors Juniors love to break out the watercolors and glue guns occasionally. I volunteered for the week, working with a teaching partner. We were well matched by style and knowledge base and happy to be exploring a new class. We spent morning on some theory work, thinking about why specific strategies were effective, then, in the afternoons, we applied them and designed lessons and projects. We went out for gossipy lunches in a cheery group. What made this one so great? It was absolutely useful—and a lot of fun.
What do these three very different weeks all have in common? First, we were treated as scholars, not teachers who need “something to add to your toolbox “(a phrase I hate!). In their own ways, each week fully engaged my brain in the same way I want to engage my students. They were deeply intellectual weeks. I learned new ideas and ways to look at the world. I was a student. Second, the teachers were excellent. They knew more than I did and thought about how to present their ideas effectively. Once again, they respected our intellectual capabilities and stretched our minds. Finally, they were totally voluntary. No one made me do any of it. I had total control over the time. Good food did not hurt our experiences
So, what would I like to see this year for PD? I would love to spend a year on American Realism, the late 19th century literary movement. I don’t quite get it so I do not teach it well. You might say we kind of skip it some years, to be honest. I would love to read some novels and participate in some discussions led by someone else and outside of the district, an expert in the field. That would be very helpful. Or, I would like to spend the year exploring the impact of poverty on my students and how we can work to reduce the negative impacts and create a more equitable school, in a meaningful way, not superficially. Once again, here are some excellent books on the topic, some serious experts in the field within one hundred miles of Corvallis. Either of these topics, thoughtfully done, would engage my mind. Barring that, at least let me complete all of the “safe schools” and first aid trainings I need to be able to take my kids to the university library in November….