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Realistic and Effective Approach to Professional Development

Realistic and Effective Approach to Professional Development: The Literacy Week By Shannon Croston, Literacy Coach, American School of Guatemala, Guatemala scroston@cag.edu.gt @Shannon_Croston

How many times do you sit in a professional development (PD) knowing that you will never have time to try out the ideas? Also, sometimes PD is very shallow because it is one afternoon and often not discussed again. Here at the American School of Guatemala, we have tried out several ideas for making professional development meaningful, realistic, and effective and what we found to be most successful is the “Literacy Week.”

Our elementary school values focus. Three years ago we did a book study on Focus by Mike Schmoker and have done our best as a busy international school to make sure we are guided by the priorities set as a school. Our principal, Jeff Richardson, and assistant principal, María Chacón, agreed that we would focus on literacy until we saw a significant improvement in our students’ reading and writing. They wanted to apply this to our professional development as well.

At first we tried mapping out our Tuesday afternoons with engaging and relevant topics but felt that no matter how interactive the sessions were we were not seeing big changes. The principals, along with myself and the Spanish Literacy Coach, Maura Herrera, designed our first Literacy Week and it has grown to become a part of our calendar each September and February.

We program a week dedicated to growth in literacy. There are several workshops in the afternoons and classes to observe. Teachers choose at least one workshop and one class to observe during their planning time. What has made it so effective are the following criteria:

  1. Focus & Choice

  2. Workshops

  3. In-class Observations & Debrief Conversations

  4. Goal Setting & Follow-up with the Coaches

Focus and Choice:

The principals and coaches decide on the big idea for the focus based on the big picture of where we have been, where we are going, and what we have all observed in classrooms. We have had weeks focused on mini-lessons and workshop structure, independent reading and writing routines with conferring, and small group instruction. The ideas are big enough that there is room for choice. From there I send a survey to the staff with various small topics under the big focus and teachers express their needs and wants. Then we get to work planning the week.

Workshops:

Using the survey data, we plan out 3-5 workshops to be given by teacher leaders and coaches. These workshops set the tone for the rest of the activities. We do our best to offer a balanced mix between Spanish and English, while encouraging our teachers to feel comfortable attending in their first or second language, as we learn best together. We are careful that our workshops are highly interactive and, whenever possible, include time for planning or trying out the strategy with a team member.

In Class Observations and Debrief Conversations:

Then we look for teachers who can and would be willing to model what will be addressed in the workshops. We look for a balance of Spanish and English, each grade level if possible, and different times of day to accommodate for teachers’ planning times so they can attend without needing a substitute. We plan the timing of the observation so that teachers will have time to arrive, get a quick introduction, observe for about 20 minutes, then have time for the best part: the debrief conversation.

After observing, the group meets together in a comfortable area just outside of the classroom and the teachers share surprises, “aha” moments, and wonderings. The coaches facilitate these conversations allowing teachers to make meaning together and push each other’s thinking. They often reference the workshop and comment on how it all makes more sense seeing it in person. We gather questions they have for the teacher they had just observed and that teacher will later email the group answers to their wonderings. Teachers are often curious what it took to put something into place and tips for how they can get started. Everyone in the group writes a quick note of appreciation for allowing us all to observe.

Goal Setting and Follow Up with the Coaches

As coaches, we do a lot of listening during literacy week. We listen for how teachers process what they observe and what they think about the workshops. We take careful note of what they are wondering and what they want to do with the ideas. We always ask teachers to set goals, but it looks different each time. Sometimes we set a goal for learning for the week. Other times we ask the teachers to set a goal by survey at the end of the week. Most times we ask the teachers to set goals at the end of the post-observation debrief conversations because they have a visual fresh in their mind and have just participated in rich conversation about the topic.

We gather the goals and follow up with teachers, in team meetings, in person, or through email over the next couple of weeks after Literacy Week. Many coaching cycles grow out of Literacy Week.

The combination of big picture focus plus choice makes it meaningful for teachers. The combination of workshop followed by an in class observation then debrief conversation makes the learning so much more meaningful than anything else we have done. Finally, having the coaches at each session and following up with teachers as appropriate afterwards instills that change happens and the new ideas are implemented. Each time we have a Literacy Week it evolves and grows, and feedback from teachers is better and better. The best part, from my perspective as the coach, is that it bonds us as a community and now we are seeing a total shift in how are students live their reading and writing lives at our school. 

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