PD

#PD by Design

I have written about how I flipped my staff meeting here and would now like to devote another post to the initial stage of that session, which I called the poster & post-its stage. I had come across IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators the previous year. I’d known very little about Design Thinking, yet just enough to get me curious. So when I found this resource which proposed a design thinking approach to address every-day situations faced by educators, I was eager to learn more about it and maybe find possible applications to my particular context.

The poster & post-its activity was meant to be the entry point to a larger reflection process in which I wanted teachers to engage collaboratively to generate possible solutions for a challenge – to find ways of successfully adaptating a newly adopted coursebook to our context. Therefore, I wanted teachers to approach that challenge by first discovering and interpreting the key elements of our teaching-learning reality by collectively braisntorming answers to the three questions below, whose answers I will now attempt to summarize and interpret in this post.

Who are our students?

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Our Advanced students are mostly teenagers. They are mostly overwhelmed by the amount of schoolwork they already have aside from the work we ask of them as part of our EFL program. It is the belief of many teachers that these teenagers are under a lot of pressure from their parents and society in general to prepare themselves to compete for a spot in the best federal universities of our country. They are, therefore, busy and tired kids. They are, nonetheless, seen as bright and fast learners, who belong to privileged social classes. They have easy access to technology, and most of them have a smart phone and a tablet. These teenagers tend to have a very good level of fluency in English but could still profit a lot from more work on grammatical accuracy and on broadening their lexical repertoire. Most teachers see students as capable and demanding individuals who are also dynamic and restless. They are individuals with diverse needs who are not easily pleased.

What are their needs?

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Most teachers believe our Advanced students need practice, lots of practice. Teachers believe students need to be challenged and inspired so that they can become engaged. They also need teachers’ guidance and attention. Many teachers mentioned that our teenagers need to feel respected and heard, and that their motivation hinges on those two aspects. Many teachers also mentioned that our teenagers need to have fun, to find learning a pleasant activity. This approach would lighten the pressure they bring from school, which overloads them with work in a heavy test-taking, score-oriented culture. Some teachers also mentioned that students still need some limits and positive role models. They need to be taught discipline. There was also mention that teachers need to have students do less ‘talking’ and more ‘making’, in the sense of fostering opportunities for students to use the language meaningfully, to do something with the language they have learned all these years. Most teachers also feel that our teenagers need to achieve better command of the language and a higher level of proficiency.

How might we meet their needs?

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A majority of teachers mentioned the need to connect with students to find out what really matters to them, bringing the classroom environment closer to their reality. Teachers feel they need to plan lessons that appeal to what our teenagers like. Teachers also believe that they need to engage in meaningful, authentic interactions with their teenage students. Teachers feel they need to challenge students by promoting interaction in the classroom with a myriad of activities on interesting topics. Many teachers mentioned the need to explore the affordances of technology to engage students, saying they need to find ways of getting students to use their smart phones to do meaningful work in the classroom. It is clear that teachers believe that they need to carefully plan lessons and that they need to share those plans and ideas amongst themselves.

I must say that as course supervisor I am quite proud to work with a group of teachers who have such beliefs and whom I know to be capable of understanding what t takes to connect with our teenage students in order to make the most of their learning experiences, together. It is my impression that our group of teachers shares quite a lucid, down-to-earth take on our students’ needs, and that’s what makes us a reference among other binational centers and language institutes around the country. One of the purposes of this post was to provide feedback to our teachers on the richness of content generated by them during this in-service session. It’s always important to know where we stand and what our shared beliefs are in order to strengthen our bonds as well as our committment to realizing our own and our students’ full potentials, and in so doing, consolidating our reputation. Let us now take these reflections and insights and do great things in the classroom, together.

 

1st ATNU – Advanced Teacher Network Unmeeting

On February 6 I held a meeting with our In-Service Advanced Course teachers. My group of Supervisors had decided that it would be worthwhile to try a different approach to our In-Service meetings, which have traditionally been lectures containing announcements and information about course features, with an audience of teachers passively taking it all in. I wanted to engage teachers in reflection on their own practice, as well as tap into their beliefs and values as educators, so I gave them a challenge, a driving question that would sort of give some direction and purpose for the session. This was our driving question:

How can we adapt coursebook use in order to foster more meaningful learning experiences to our Advanced students?

In order to get teachers immersed in our context, they were asked to carry out a poster & post-its activity. They sat together in groups of five to six people at round tables in our Resource Center. Each group was given a poster containing three questions: who are our students? what are their needs? how might we meet their needs? Teachers were asked to brainstorm responses to those questions, writing their ideas/responses on sticky notes for each of the three questions. Once they had generated plenty of ideas, they went over their notes with their groups, selecting what they agreed to be the most relevant ones and placing those higher up on the poster. The atmosphere fired up with the buzz of nearly ninety people talking, exchanging ideas, interpreting their findings together.

Now that they had brainstormed and discussed their teaching/learning context, they had a vivid, dynamic image of their students in mind, as well as their challenges in their everyday teaching practice. The next stage would take them closer to the topic addressed in the driving question – coursebook use and adaptation. For this stage of the session, I had reccommended (a few weeks before the session) that teachers read a post written my me on the subject of materials adaptation. The idea was to give them some theoretical and methodological references to help them shape their contributions and reflect on their materials’ use so far in the piloting stage. Each group accessed a Google Doc, which I had previously created especially for this meeting, where they would be guided in their reflection and suggestions for making the best of the coursebook we are currently phasing in in our Advanced Course.

Before we finished the session, once groups of teachers had finished editing their Google Docs, they were asked to leave an exit ticket, sharing their impressions of the session. I will now share some of their responses, sharing some of my reflections triggered by their feedback.

“I think this session was very interesting for learning and suggesting improvements for the advanced course. Sharing experiences with more experienced teachers, was also fantastic.”

This was definitely a concern of mine when planning the session: creating opportunities for teachers with different backgrounds and classroom experience to work together and engage in meaningful discussion. I was hopeful that this kind of heterogeneous collaboration would produce interesting learning for all involved, regardless of how experienced they are, or whether they are new teachers at our institution.

“It was great to have this opportunity to share experiences and generate new ideas with other advanced teachers. The discussions we carried out today will help me plan my lessons and adapt the course materials this semester.”

Hopefully, a great number of teachers was able to take something practical from the session. The fact that they were asked to collaborate in order to carry out the tasks proposed naturally led teachers to share experiences and tacit knowledge, which is especially valuable for those teachers starting out. It’s also a positive way to make the institutional culture known among the people – teachers – who directly contribute to (re)creating it every day, in and out of the classroom.

“it’s important to get someone to keep group on course or discussions become very general rather than specific…” 

This was also an experiment in teachers’ capacity for self-directed, self-managed collaborative work. Some groups seemed to manage to keep on track, being highly productive, whereas others seemed to lag, getting sidetracked in long discussions. This is, therefore, a valuable suggestion for future sessions. I should point out, though, that I feel it’s only natural that it so happens, especially when we are beginning a shift from sessions centered on one person transmitting the information to a hundred passive listeners, to decentralized, collaborative (and often times messy) work among different individuals.

“This was a very hands-on meeting which was very productive. We have had the opportunity to share many ideas and impressions related to the advanced series. There was active participation and a thorough exchange of ideas/concerns/experiences.”

“I really enjoyed the way that this meeting was planned as it allowed us to participate actively and to go deep into the topics discussed. It was also very nice to get to know my colleagues better and to find out their ways to teach the advanced course.”

My two takeaways from these two quotes are hands-on and participate actively. One of my core goals was to have teachers go beyond the generation and discussion of ideas by actually getting them engaged in making something. For me, the posters and the docs they created as a result of their negotiations are valuable iterations of collective knowledge.

“I think this was a very interesting attempt at dealing with such an overwhelming topic. I find the session would’be been more effective if we didn’t need to go through the warm up stage in the meeting.”

This comment has given me some insight on the issue of timing. It had been my idea not to spend too long on the poster & post-its stage of the session. I must confess, nonetheless, that I myself lost track of time at certain points of the session, since discussions seemed to become denser and denser by the minute. This suggestion also reflects a concern I mentioned above, regarding the different teacher backgrounds and levels of experience. A very experienced teacher, having been immersed in the Advanced Course context for a long time, might have been ready to dive into the second stage of the session right away. My takeaway here is differentiation. How might I be able to differentiate without alienating, and still keeping it productive?

There were 43 exit tickets total. Below are a few other comments (highlights are mine and will hopefully speak for themselves):

“it was interesting to share opinions and discuss the questions. i felt there was a sense of focus and that our group feels more ready to tackle this semester. a great way to have the ‘meeting’.”

“A profitable and organized session! I actually had new ideas and heard nice ideas from peers!”

“I much prefer this over the traditional meeting. I think the activity was fantastic for generation of ideas. It was very focused and could have been more productive if people kept the conversation on task.(…)”

“The discussion was relevant and productive. Thank you for the opportunity. I’m looking forward to our next meetings.”

“Very organized and productive!!! I was glad you opened a channel for us teachers to express our real concerns about the book. Hope we find our way out of the main problematic situations.”

“The session was thought- provoking and insightful. The steps were clear and meant to fit a very demanding audience. The group discussions were interesting throughout the session. Most of all, it gave room to the ” Thank God I’ m a teacher” feeling we need in the beginning of the semester!

I will end this post here, for it’s already quite long, but I’ll be coming back to this session in future posts where I hope to explore the richness of content generated and beliefs shared by this amazing group of teachers.

I take this opportunity to thank each and every teacher who participated in this session for their commitment to their own professional development, and to being eager to provide meaningful learning experiences to our students. Thank you.

The 1st Advanced Planning Hub

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We share because we care. (design by Clarissa Bezerra)

Today we launched the Advanced Planning Hub project, with our first face-to-face gathering over at Casa Thomas Jefferson – Sudoeste Branch. This was an idea I had after analyzing the results of a recent survey I carried out with our Advanced level teachers. The purpose of the survey was to foster some reflection on the work developed throughout our first year using Viewpoint (Cambridge University Press) with our Upper-Intermediate level students. This was also a way to get feedback from our teachers as to how they evaluate the effectiveness of the material, as well as identify possible issues or difficulties that may have come up during these two semesters. The overall result of the survey was very positive. Acceptance of the newly adopted material is very high among our Advanced teachers, and we all know that’s key for successful teaching and learning in any course.

There was one aspect that called our attention in the survey results. Apparently, a few teachers had been having some difficulty planning and delivering the Conversation Strategy lessons (lessons C in Viewpoint) in a way that would be more meaningful for their students. It is worth mentioning here that the majority of our upper-intermediate and advanced student population is made up of teenagers, which makes our reality very peculiar, since most, if not all of the EFL/ESL materials available at this level target older learners (young adults and adults). Teachers felt that the way these lessons are structured sometimes yields quite mechanical responses from students. Therefore, we needed to find ways of making these lessons more meaningful, fostering more authentic communication in class. That’s when the idea of the Hub first occurred to me. As course supervisor, I’d been not only teaching with the material, but I had also been talking to teachers about it, as well as observing a number of classes. I knew that there were teachers who had been planning and delivering highly engaging, effective Conversation Strategy lessons, for example. What I needed to do was get those teachers who’d been struggling together with those who had been having all sorts of great ideas for those lessons, and let the magic of sharing work its wonders. And so it was that at 10:00 am today, we had a beautiful collection of thirty eight teachers (that’s about 40% of the total number of Advanced level teachers this semester, so wow!) eager to share their wonderful ideas with each other.

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The Hub in action.

For our F2F gathering today, I had put together a workspace within our school wiki – The Advanced Planning Hub – a place for teachers to share their lesson plans (lesson goals, step-by-step procedures, and supporting materials) and also find help when they have run out of ideas. So this morning, I showed them our new workspace. Our Hub gathering began with two of our teachers, Diana do Amaral and Cristina Bolissian, sharing/presenting a lesson plan of their own, which they had sent me the previous week and which had been shared on the Hub workspace. After that, teachers worked in smaller groups, sitting in round tables spread in the room, and engaged in very productive lesson-planning dynamics. They organized themselves into the different levels they are teaching this semester and went about feeding our Hub with great lesson plans.

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Macaroons of appreciation! (photo shared by teacher Anna Lúcia)

Time flew by, and it was already 11:30 am when I interrupted their busy work. I asked if anyone would like to share something they had learned during that time spent together with their fellow teachers. Some of them volunteered to share all kinds of tips, ranging from handling technology in the classroom (like using the class software and configuring the right screen definition for it to work properly) to actual methodological aspects, such as asking more challenging questions to engage students, and how the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs may help us do that. After that, it was time to go, but not before getting a small token of appreciation from their supervisor – ahem, yours truly – in appreciation for the fact that each one of these educators had chosen to spend two hours of a lovely friday morning planning lessons together, having a good time together, and showing that they care for their own professional development and for each person sitting next to them.

This post goes to all of the people who helped this idea fly today. Hopefully, this was the first of many Hub gatherings to come!

Here’s to caring and sharing!

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