A PD model that creates experts, not robots

Why our ELA department dropped seminars in favor of real, ongoing professional development

pd-elaDuring my forty plus years in education, I have spent countless hours sitting in professional development sessions. Most of these were one-day seminars, with every teacher in the school or district in attendance. You might have attended sessions like this yourself. They were often conducted by outside “experts” who knew little about the problems teachers faced when planning for effective learning environments.

There was usually minimal participation on the part of administrators, and follow-up support was rarely provided. In spite of all of these drawbacks, many administrators have continued to spend large amounts of money on this type of professional development without considering whether it has provided any systemic growth.

As my district’s ELA coordinator, I began to take a close look at what we were offering in the way of meaningful, sustained professional development. Working in a district with a small instructional department, I knew that we had to be very creative and cost effective, but we also had to be innovative. To that end, we began our professional development make-over by partnering with a local college to offer year-long training in the form of a series of three-hour graduate courses.

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Our goal was to design courses that would address the needs of our teachers, with very specific guidelines as to their content and delivery. We wanted to form a cohort of teachers and literacy coaches who would study the best practices in literacy instruction. They would read and discuss information from current researchers in the field of literacy, pose questions, and reflect on teaching practices. These teachers and coaches would share this information with other teachers by creating professional learning communities at their schools.

Our first cohort began in 2005 with a group of twenty elementary teachers and literacy coaches. In order to create an excitement about literacy that would be apparent on the first day of school, we began with a week-long class during the summer followed by monthly sessions for the remainder of the year. This first class focused on how children learn to read, the strategies that good readers use, and how to create a literacy rich environment. Each participant earned three hours of graduate credit at no cost to them, but over the years that has become less important to teachers as they have come to highly value the knowledge and insights from the course.

The next year, we not only added another literacy course for the first cohort, but also added a second cohort with principals, district administrators, and veteran teachers. The first cohort continued that summer with their second literacy course focusing on teaching writing workshop, and writing in response to reading. The second cohort participated in the same training as the previous first. The next year we added a third cohort as the first cohort entered its third year of literacy training.

It was a natural progression at this point to design a third course for these teachers and literacy coaches around becoming a literacy leader and ways of differentiating for adult learners. By this time they were guiding grade level planning meetings, modeling instructional strategies, facilitating book studies, and assisting teachers who wanted to do further research on the best literacy strategies. Teachers were excited about what they were learning, and this excitement was apparent in classrooms. We saw significant increases in our students’ academic achievement, not only in ELA, but in all content areas.

To date, more than 400 teachers and administrators have participated in our courses and this summer we celebrated the start of our tenth cohort. I have remained the instructor of record of these classes, but over the years they have evolved into more of a teacher-directed project. The courses have changed in order to meet the new challenges, and pedagogy that educators face. Teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators who have completed the three years of cohort often come back for what they refer to as a refresher. These same teachers and coaches take on the role of instructor and often lead the classes. During the week of summer course work or during one of the monthly classes, the superintendent often comes and participates with the teachers in the class.

Our professional study plan is simple. We continue to look at the needs of our students, and then look at what teachers need to do to meet these needs. Finally, we establish cohorts of professionals with a desire to study the latest in best practices, collaborate with other professionals, examine their beliefs about literacy, and engage in inquiry all in an effort to create this same type of environment for students.

Felicia Oliver is ELA Coordinator for Spartanburg District Two in South Carolina.

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