Disclaimer: This post is long and mostly me reflecting on my professional development today; however, I think it’s worth a read, especially if you’re interested in how professional development is organized for teachers or if you’re looking for resources on teaching reading to high school students.
Today was a professional day for me. I had the chance to listen to two great women, Chris Tovani and Samantha Bennett, talk about teaching reading to high school students. The best part of the day? Both women are still working full-time in classrooms in addition to traveling the country to teach other teachers about how to be more effective when it comes to helping students grow as readers.
This may seem like a small point, but, I’m convinced that there is something to be said for finding speakers for professional development days who still spend the majority of their time in the classroom. It is so different to listen to a practicing, classroom teacher than to listen to someone who used to teach and left it to pursue another career in education. This is not to say that educational consultants cannot be effective presenters in schools; I’ve been to some great sessions led by consultants, and I admit to even having entertained a daydream or two about pursuing such a career myself.
But….teachers are a tough crowd, and it’s important that they feel their time is being used well when it comes to professional days. If they don’t buy in to the presenter’s topic or approach, or if they feel that they cannot identify with where the speaker is coming from, it is very likely that as an administrator, you’ll see teachers filling seats in an auditorium but tuning out the speech in favor of getting a pile of papers graded or catching up on some lesson planning.
I, for one, found myself 100% engaged in today’s sessions and tracking with the things I was hearing. I think that this is in no small part due to this feeling of : “This speaker knows what it’s like; she’s a real teacher and therefore she gets it and I don’t have to worry she’s going to give me unrealistic goals or pat answers to tough questions.”
The other element to today’s professional development that I loved was that we didn’t just talk about teaching; we saw it. Chris planned meticulously for two hour-long sessions with a group of about 25 students in one of our freshmen global history courses. After a keynote to the whole staff about reading and strategies, 2-3 representatives from each department spent the rest of the day in a workshop.
First we were prepped to watch Chris teach and then the students arrived and we observed two lessons. We took notes but were not to talk to each other or the kids. We were flies on the wall as we watched how she got the first lesson started, gave the kids a task and let them work and then visited each table and had one on one conversations with individuals to extend their thinking about the texts they were reading and annotating. After the first hour-long lesson we had a break and then debriefed about our observations. Next, the students returned for an afternoon lesson and they tied what they had read and annotated in the morning to the task of writing. Again we observed and then debriefed after.
As teachers, we all know that students need examples and modeling of what to do in order to be successful once we let them go to work. Basically, today, I was given the rare opportunity to become a student and watch as Chris and her assistant Samantha modelled to me how to teach reading more effectively and tie it to writing.
A few of the ideas that I will take away from my observations of Chris & Samatha’s teaching are below:
- The people who are reading, writing, and talking in a class are the ones who are doing the work and therefore doing the learning. The less I talk, the more active my students become in their own learning.
- As a follow up to the point above, it is very important to be aware of the minutes I spend up in front of kids talking versus the minutes kids spend working independently, with a partner, or in small groups. At the bare minimum, this ratio should be 50-50, but it would be better to strive for limiting my direct instruction to about 1/3 of a given class period so that students can be actively working and learning for 2/3 of the class. Action Plan: Ask a colleague to observe me in class and time the minutes I talk vs. the minutes kids are working; then, strive to improve the ratio by implementing a ‘workshop’ model more regularly.
- “Rigor” is not the same thing as “hard.” Activities which are rigorous are challenging but not overwhelming; hard ones can be discouraging to the point of making a student want to give up. Rigorous tasks lead students to feel stretched but efficacious; hard ones frustrate them and often result in a sense of failure. To be more rigorous in my instruction, I may have to sacrifice some of my content and go deeper with fewer topics to ensure students have the opportunity to wrestle with meaning and grow.
- It is very important to have students reflect on their learning. Exit slips, debriefing sessions, and journaling are just some ways of doing this. The reflection answers the question “so what?” for the student and “what’s next?” for the teacher. The more that students reflect, the better sense I will have as a teacher about what they need next to built upon their understanding and move forward. Action plan: Build in a routine for closing my class periods – I already have a set routine for how to startclass but often just let the period run out without tying up loose ends (apart from assigning homework). Bonus Suggestion: once I have a regular exit strategy, build in commenting back to kids – for example: Have them reflect on a question on an index card or post-it, collect them as they exit and then respond to student thoughts with a brief written comment. Start the next class by handing back comments to them as they work on that day’s warmup. Keep the written dialogue going each day from class to class so that even if you don’t get a chance to call on a student on a given day they are still getting feedback from you in a different way.
Today was a day that I really appreciated as a classroom teacher. It was valuable not only for learning about teaching reading but just about the metacognitive aspect of teaching and learning in general. I was able to reflect as an educator on my own practice, engage in dialogue with colleagues, and set goals for myself on how to try some new planning, instructional, and assessment strategies in my own classroom teaching.
I would strongly recommend the book I read it but I don’t get it by Chris Tovani to anyone struggling to figure out how to teach reading effectively to secondary students. Furthermore, if your district is looking for a professional development speaker in the area of literacy, I would urge you to explore inviting Chris and Samantha to your school to work with your teachers. I learned more today than I have at any conference or from any other speaker I’ve heard since entering the profession and can’t wait to start implementing some of these ideas!