1. Leadership matters. Monica Smith, the district’s Director of Secondary Education, and a former Guidance Counselor and math teacher, invited me to lead the PD. In between the two workshops Ms. Smith and I had lunch together, and I talked with her about her role in the district and the district’s structure. She impressed me with her perspective. She has been in her current position for a good handful of years and has self-consciously incorporated her guidance counselor experience into her district leadership. She says she recognized tension between the district’s two high schools when she assumed her current position and prioritized overcoming that tension in her first years. Now, after her efforts, the two schools plan together and share resources. They collaborate because they recognize that the district’s students benefit from their work. Ms. Smith says there are many students each year who move between the two schools. Consistent with the district’s desire to ever-improve its graduation rate, students’ needs are met when teachers across the district are on the same page. Now, Laurel County’s teachers speak the same language, and they talk to each other. Because of that growth, Ms. Smith has identified her next priorities and continues to help shape the county’s educational future. That's what leaders do. They don't automatically thrust their own agendas on everyone else. Instead, they survey their surroundings and initiate plans for growth; even when the first steps are small, they're still bold.
2. Teachers rely on each other. School started in Laurel County on Wednesday. I worked with these two groups of teachers on Tuesday. Their first day back was Monday, when they had day-long faculty meetings and evening Open Houses. They had had very little dedicated time for preparing to face the students that walked through their doors only a day later and very little time to reconnect with each other. Teachers need both. I like to think the practice and philosophy I introduced and developed during the workshop is valuable, but I talked a lot during the three hours I had with each group. I was self-conscious about that; even going in, I built in time for the teachers to do work similar to the kind of work they can ask their students to do. But teachers will grow professionally simply through having time to talk to each other about their plans, through planning together, through reflecting together, through assessing together. Such collaborative time fits with all of the best practice advice, but the school-day and school-year schedule provides very, very little of it. Therefore teachers are faced with doing some of what is best for their professional lives, and thus clearly beneficial for student learning, on their own time. They do it, because they know it makes a difference and because it’s important to them. A school that prioritizes teacher collaboration must, must, must also provide dedicated time for that collaboration. Even when such time is not provided, though, teachers work together. I gave the Laurel County teachers a couple opportunities to work together. I wish I had given them more; next time I will.
3. Sharing is scary. One aspect of working together that many of the Laurel County teachers did not immediately embrace was the sharing of the ideas they generated and the paragraphs they generated. I sensed that many of them had not been asked to share their writing with anyone in quite some time. And yet – and I know this is a predictable point, but it is one well worth repeating – we ask our students to do just this all the time. So two conclusions can be reached: first, teachers need to write more, such as with their students, and they need to share at least some of that writing with an audience, like their students or their colleagues or professional publications; and second, teachers need to recognize the trust relationship that students enter into when they submit work to a teacher to read. We can’t take that trust relationship lightly. We can expect students to turn in their best work – that’s part of their responsibility in upholding the relationship. Similarly, we must nurture that relationship through every step of the writing process. Assignments need to include choice and encourage risk and authenticity; class time needs to be devoted to writing work, including exploration of mentor texts, conferencing, drafting and revision, and interaction between peers; and feedback needs to always encourage and direct. Even the best writers in our classrooms will benefit from the feedback of an interested reader. The struggling writers in our classrooms need more than the reinforcement that comes with pointing out errors. All students need to be encouraged to keep writing, to try new things, to share their attempts. Clearly, teachers too need this encouragement: so keep writing teachers! try new things! share what you write! It absolutely will make a difference to the way you teach and the way your students learn.
4. No writing assignment matters without a plan for feedback. The feedback plan needs to involve a philosophy, a commitment to student success, and an organizational strategy for students and teachers to keep track of the narrative data generated by student writing and teacher feedback. Encouraging a feedback philosophy was a significant part of my PD focus in working with the Laurel County teachers. But philosophy alone does teachers very little good. Instead, that philosophy – whatever effective feedback is in theory, for example – is only relevant when it is tied to meaningful practice. At the heart of that practice, then, is the reality that teachers and students alike need a method for making sense of the writing that comes at them. Students have to be taught how to process the feedback they receive. This can be a simple mapping or planning of revision strategies if given the chance to revise. It can be accomplished through short, deliberate conferences. Either approach works – and the two in conjunction can work very well – as long as students are given the chance to make sense of what they’ve been told. In the same way, teachers have to organize their sense-making. They have to find a method of keeping track of how students are doing individually: what they need to learn, what they are being told in response to their writing, what they have done well. Teachers also have to find a method of keeping up with how the class as a whole, more or less, fares on a particular assignment: remediation needs, minilesson priorities, plans for next year and next week and the next day. Carl Anderson suggests organizational methods in Assessing Writers. Mark Overmeyer does too in What Student Writing Teaches Us. I referenced both of these books on Tuesday, and I showed Laurel County’s English teachers how I manage the narrative data I receive. More than that, though, I encouraged the teachers to find a method that works for them and to adopt a philosophy that makes that method matter to them and to their students.
Now, two days later, those Laurel County teachers are seeing their students for the second time. I know the excitement remains. I know they are deliberate in their practice. I know they are starting the year right. And I know their students will benefit because of it.