Taking Conference Learning to Task

One week ago I was packing up to leave a marvelous educators’ conference. The Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) conference celebrated its 25th anniversary at a stunning resort location near Dubrovnik, Croatia. Spectacular views to the Adriatic Sea, attendance by just over 400 educators and school folk from the region and beyond, and a strong selection of workshop sessions around the theme of “transforming education through global citizenship” offered all the right ingredients for an outstanding professional experience.

In a nutshell, I could not have been happier with the conference and my attendance. Not a moment of my time or dose of energy felt wasted or superfluous. It was a conference put together with great care and attention to coherence and also ambient experience. Opportunities and invitations to visit Dubrovnik and drink in its unique history and atmosphere were actively incorporated into the program. The keynote speakers were extremely well-chosen to address the conference theme of global citizenship: Michael Furdyk spoke about the student service platform Taking It Global and Heidi Hayes-Jacobs described steps to create 21st century learning environments. Additional invited speakers led well-attended workshops of practical pedagogical importance.

Now, one week later, I am asking myself however, to what end? Yes, I had a rich and invigorating conference experience and enjoyed fun and also reflective times with some of my colleagues but what of it? How does that serve anyone besides me? Who benefits from my freshly gained (and perhaps as quickly dissipating) insights from this great learning experience? I imagine that I am not alone in this experience. It could be that many other conference participants left this spectacular event only to see those precious new ideas for innovation or tweaking quickly fade when they got back to school. They may have found that their colleagues who, during said absence were literally and figuratively “holding down the fort,” did not or could not share the same enthusiasm for new ideas or spare the time to appreciate them. For many of us this situation may be par for the course. Not every school has an active forum for conference participants to share their learning with colleagues upon return. Which is, of course, a shame.

Overcoming this situation would not necessarily require much effort. 5 minutes of a faculty meeting, perhaps. Or a world café style meeting where conference attendants share and moderate conversations around the most compelling take-aways from their conference experience and colleagues can choose 2-3 areas of interest in which to engage. The key lies in honoring time and effort spent on professional learning and providing space for those gains to be shared, spread and built upon. If you imagine sending teachers to a conference as an act of sowing seeds, then surely we must all take an interest in the ensuing growth and harvest that will follow.

One of the thoughts that kept coming back to me at the conference was: given the theme of global citizenship, how adept do I feel in my own capacity to model, (not even explicitly teach yet) some of these principles for my students? All the topics of what and how to change the educational experiences of our students come back to me as a teacher and the role I plan to take in making it happen. Reflecting on this question “in my own private Idaho” appears to be of little use. This is a question whose response insists on company and dialogue and challenge in order to make sense. Without the benefit of outside and other perspectives, I will continue to see things not as they are, but as I am.

This strikes me as the fundamental glitch in our ability to transfer great conference learning and experiences to community benefit and growth. How might we move from “one and done” professional learning events to something like “one and share and extend….”? How might we bring those insights back to our students to let them know that we were learning on their behalf? When will it become commonplace for us to highlight and value learning that takes place outside of our schools, districts, and subject areas?

These are big questions and critical to sustaining the purposeful use of conferences as a wise professional learning option. My time in Dubrovnik could be written off as a delightful vacation opportunity with a little education(al) banter thrown in. But the fact that it was so much more than that would hardly be known unless I broadcast it here. That speaks volumes about how far we have to go.

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Priorities for Positive Professional Development

This month marks workshop season for me. I’ve had the chance to facilitate three workshops in total in the last two weeks (2 versions of one plus a stand alone event). Every time I finish I feel grateful, satisfied and also a little wiser. I’ve been designing and facilitating workshops for at least 7 or 8 years, often for educator conferences in Europe and once in the US. My favorite topics revolve around effective communication and collaborative work.

image by Spelic

One of the things I have learned about myself in this process is how critical it is for me to see myself in my participants. I know what easily bores, tires or frustrates me in a professional learning environment and I take measures to avoid those habits when planning each event. Whatever the specific topic, I have established certain priorities in designing experiences that participants will ideally find stimulating, relevant, and worthwhile. These are:

  • high levels of participant activity – Whether talking, moving, writing, thinking, keeping participants actively engaged in the topic requires a steady diet of activity throughout a session. Sitting and listening may be good for a while but we all need brief breaks to process and digest what we are taking in.
  • Movement – I like to have participants physically move, by walking, standing, switching partners, perhaps even dancing or playing a short game. Movement injects energy into the space and offers a change of pace. Depending on the group’s needs, with movement you can slow things down or shake them up, calm the waters or stir the pot and it can loosen the atmosphere and allow participants to experience each other in a different light.
  • Experience over content. In an adult learning environment we often assume that content is what people are after. My experience tells that this is a “Yes, and” proposition. People want content – skills, tips, tools, ideas that they can use and apply in their specific context AND they want an experience which will help them connect with and retain this precious content. For this reason, I think of the content as a vehicle for creating a meaningful learning experience for participants. This means that processing time, practice and reflection are built into the plan. Being a realist, this priority has helped me see the need for the next:
  • Doing less.  In order to balance content sharing with high participation, I usually decide to cover less content. In my design I allocate the time that participants will need to share their experiences or  think carefully about a subject. Rushing folks through multiple activities is of little use if participants feel stressed and pressured as a result. I strive to be clear about my priorities and plan accordingly.
  • Being present to what the group needs and offers.  This is a broad, catchall way of saying, have an agenda and be flexible enough to tweak or alter it, if the needs of the group demand it. It is also a reminder to be open to the wisdom and experience that resides in the group and seek ways to tap into it – for ultimately, this is the reason we come together at all.
  • Designing a learning experience that I will like.  So far I have enjoyed the privilege of creating the learning experiences that I value. I have not had to deliver anyone else’s message or curriculum. So when I create a plan, I do so with my audience in mind as well as considering which content and methods excite me as the facilitator.

When I manage to pay attention to and recognize these priorities from the design stage through to the workshop’s conclusion, the results for participants and me are remarkably positive.  What has also become apparent to me when I work with adults is how important validation and recognition are. My teaching roots are in physical education, an arena where different people can feel inadequate and lacking at different times and the sentiment is often quite visible. So much of my work is grounded in cultivating an atmosphere in which all skill levels can feel welcome and free to express themselves. In my workshops, a similar frame of mind is critical. Creating a safe environment where participants feel encouraged to share and bring their whole selves to the learning lays the foundation of the work I aim to accomplish with any group.

To this end, I invest time and energy thinking carefully about the language, both verbal and body, that I use to communicate my essential values. I say, Thank you, after nearly every interaction. I try to listen without interrupting. I use an invitational tone of voice. I move around as I speak. I laugh at my own mistakes. These are habits which express who I am and they also represent a conscious and deliberate way of  “showing up” for participants and clients in these special learning spaces.

In my most recent workshops, participant feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And while the content was certainly of interest, what people most often acknowledged was how they felt as a result. Following a workshop on inclusion activities, the room did not empty until 15 minutes later as participants were still deeply engaged in conversation. Inclusion took place. In fact, one participant offered me the best facilitator feedback I believe I can ever hope to receive: “You practice what you preach.”

 

A hat tip to Laura Thomas (@CriticalSkills1), a facilitator over at Edutopia, who sparked my interest with this post on a recent experience she had with a group of educators. Let there be more positive professional development experiences for educators. We deserve them!

 

Inclusion, Intent and Extraordinary Value

It’s workshop season and I’m pulling my resources together trying to design adult learning experiences that create value for participants. When I am in this phase of mapping, planning, sketching and drafting, a number of competing ideas come up for me. I find myself zooming out, then zooming in; attending to the details while keeping the big picture in mind – these are the intellectual challenges that I love in this work. And this time I see that I have created a special task for myself. The workshop that I want to deliver struggles with the premise of the workshop that was accepted.

Let me explain. The title of my workshop is: “The What, Why and How of Inclusion Activities” and in a nutshell, it is billed as offering participants a framework for when and why to use activities which are designed to foster inclusion in a group setting and of course, practice selected activities as we go.  Sounds reasonable enough. For participants there’s a predictable outcome: ideally they will leave with some specific activities that they can use in their classrooms and offices. In practice the workshop looks something like this:

Participants arrive, we do an activity, I talk, we talk, we do another activity, I talk, we talk, next activity, I talk, we talk …time to wrap up, I talk, we talk, round of applause, participants depart, done.

There are worse models, to be sure. Participant involvement and reflection are central to any plan I create. At the same time, I want to do more. I want to bump up against the boundaries a little. The phrase that keeps coming up is: “mess with.” I want to “mess with” people’s ideas and assumptions about how this process works. It is not particularly hard to select a series of activities which may be useful, practice them a little, create a handout for folks to take home and send people on their merry professional way. In principle, that sums up most of what I have planned. Yet the call for more persists.

Here’s what more might look like:

  • After having participants circulate in the room for a minute or two, stop and ask them to note down: 1.) Their hopes for this workshop  and 2.) Their intentions for participating in the workshop.  The purpose here is to invite participants to make an internal commitment to the time they are about to spend on something. Asking about hopes and intentions alerts participants to their role in co-creating the learning experience they are about to have. That is more.
  • Create space for activities completed in silence. We tend to talk so much, especially in the role of facilitator, that we forget how powerful and revolutionary it can feel to let go of talk for a time. Just because we are not hearing each others’ voices  does not mean that dialogue will disappear. Calling for silence and restricting the use of voice can feel like a huge counter-cultural demand. And yet if we just go ahead and do it, model it, let it be – our results are often stronger for it. That would be more.
  • Create space and time for participants to connect input with pre-existing knowledge and experiences. Again it is so easy to fall into a trap of delivery. We offer a workshop and we should deliver new, interesting stuff to the participants. And yet, what allows any learning to stick is when it finds an anchor, a connection that already exists in the individual. Even if that connection is the realization: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” The key is reflection. The learning is not in the activity, it is in the reflection on doing the activity.  In our insufferable quest to squeeze lots of content into skinny little time pockets which should then be applicable, portable and transferable, we often do ourselves and our participants a great disservice.  Deliver less and value the wisdom and expertise of the room. This, too, is more.

While these ideas do not strike me as radical, I can acknowledge them as unconventional. They are not the professional development norm in education circles. And I know that I have to brave experimenting with them. I’d like to “mess with” my participants’ notions of what compelling adult learning can look like and I expect them to teach me in turn. Actively co-creating the learning experience is what I am after and it gets to the heart of what Inclusion Activities are actually about.

Inclusion assumes that every member has a contribution to make to the group’s success.

In Will There Be Donuts? a book that advocates for designing and running real meetings, author David Pearl says:

The question I always ask clients – and have them ask themselves – is how can this meeting create extraordinary value for everyone involved? Not just value but extraordinary value. Not just for me, but for everyone, most particularly the other participants…

When people are queuing up in the corridor for your meetings, camping overnight in sleeping bags for the doors to open, we’ll know that we are creating extraordinary value. And it’s the intention that gets us there.

(David Pearl, Will There Be Donuts, Harper Collins 2012., p. 76)

Applying that mindset of “creating extraordinary value for everyone involved” to my workshop planning, it becomes absolutely clear that the path to more for participants and me starts with clear intentions – internally formulated and explicitly stated. Every participant who walks through the door must be aware that her presence is valued, his voice is essential, that our work is shared.

This mindset also underscores the importance of only employing inclusion activities if inclusion is the genuine intent. When participants are encouraged to behave as if their voice mattered only to be quickly reconfigured back into traditional roles of power distribution (teacher-student, boss-employee), then they will quickly learn to resist such offerings and see them as a form of mockery. So I will make a point of asking participants to consider this intersection of intent and impact before trotting off to simply “try something new” with their unwitting groups.

In this way, the workshop as conceived and the workshop as advertised become one and the same: Art in the making, adult learning experiences eager to take on lives of their own. More than the norm. More about participant growth and connection than about content delivery. More about listening and sharing than about telling and showing. I’m going for more. Wish me luck.

 

 

I want to give a shout out to Elena Aguilar whose excellent post on Edutopia is a foundational reminder for me in this process: “10 Tips for Delivering Awesome Professional Development”: http://t.co/SBluT0jKjD

 

 

 

Why It Is Unlikely That I Will Ever Become a Curriculum Guru

pixabay.com

pixabay.com

Most of the 20+ years that I have taught have been dedicated to elementary Physical Education.  When I am in the gym, scrambling to shift and adjust equipment between classes, playing my eclectic mix of 70’s –  90’s pop, and doing a cartwheel on my way to pick up the next class, then I am in my element.  Once the kids arrive and I’m responding to a series of requests and questions all within the first 30 seconds while I try to get everyone moving as soon as possible, then I reconnect with the gritty reality of how many decisions in a single class period? and remind myself, this is a choice.  Teaching is so familiar to me. I have earned my 10,000 hours of practice and while there’s still so much to learn and certainly to improve, I feel at home in my methods, my philosophy, and in my commitment to doing right by kids.

Down the road and to the left of my day-to-day teaching are those conceptual edifices: curriculum and standards, scope and sequences, benchmarks, exit criteria; essential questions and enduring understandings, and so on. They hold their ground and need constant refurbishing.  Where they stand in relationship to me and my teaching and student learning can confuse me on occasion.  Of course, there need to be  structures for determining what we are teaching, why we are teaching it at all, and how it should be taught.  This makes sense to me. There needs to be *a plan based on students’ needs; a way of deciding how those multiple and varied needs will be met in achieving the desired learning outcomes.  Accepted.

As one would expect, my colleague and I create a road plan of what topics we intend to cover with each grade level every year. We have objectives, a clear time frame in which to fulfill those objectives, and we have a wealth of lesson plans and activities to get us where we believe (and our curriculum says)  our students need to go. Great.

And yet, whenever we sit down and are presented again with fresh standards and their intended outcomes – pages and pages of color-coded charts, loaded with text and cleverly notated with abbreviations like: S1E7 24, well then, I have to admit, my eyes glaze over and I wish I could be doing something, anything else, but this.  Although the conversations my colleagues and I  get into over the categorization and terminology  of our craft are stimulating  and often charged, most of us also struggle with the process of documenting and (ultimately justifying) our inventory.

What’s funny about this situation is that I’m a language lover.  I can formulate and reformulate until the cows come home. Wordsmithing is second nature.  When it comes to curriculum writing and mapping, however,  I would be your girl, if only it excited me enough. And sadly, curriculum design and standards alignment, just do not do it for me. Yet. Participating in the conversations, having the need for the “refurbishing” process explained to me once again, and engaging with the material – these all have value.  Even so, I feel like a very impatient middle-schooler while sitting in that room, folding and unfolding my arms while I try my best to appear focused in front of my peers.

Becoming a connected educator has helped me to appreciate that although this post feels embarrassingly confessional, like I’m telling a dirty little secret, there are probably at least a few folks out there who can empathize. I am connected and therefore not alone. And there may be someone out there who will say, “Hey, I hear you and I can help!”  Perhaps there’s someone out there who can say: “here’s how I learned to make that process work for me.” Because I don’t want to shut out the possibility.  I never used to eat cheese and now I enjoy mozzarella.  I know that I can learn and change.

While it does seem highly unlikely that I will ever become a curriculum guru, I do intend to continue becoming a better teacher.  Being and staying connected with my diverse and highly engaged Personal Learning Network (PLN) means that I have every opportunity to keep working at just that.

 

 

*”a plan, based on children’s needs” – maybe that’s where my disconnect originates – I’m not always sure that standards and curriculum are truly developed with kids’ diverse needs in mind. That’s a conversation for another post.

Team Building and Reflective Conversations

Team Building and Reflective Conversations

Other possible titles: Building Reflective Teams through Conversation, Building conversations reflective of teams… At any rate, the workshop itself offered a rare chance to mix and mingle with brave educators willing to take risks, have fun and be open. Creating space for learning, connection and laughter – this is my vision for professional personal real human development. This group helped me to recognize that. For that and their cheerful collegiality I remain deeply grateful.