Today’s all-district English institute began with this: “Everyone is under pressure for data.” Although I haven’t really sensed that pressure myself, I understand that some folks might feel it. Then we moved to “How do we get the kids to have higher ACT scores?” (In Illinois every junior takes the ACT, and it serves as the basis for each school’s No Child Left Behind status.) Then we were presented with a PowerPoint that led off with “What is our vision?”
Uh oh. “Our vision?”
This is not my vision. My vision of a quality literacy education is not as narrowly defined as what will satisfy a “college professor or employer.” A quality literacy education has much more to do with nurturing citizens who understand and hopefully even enjoy the processes of reading, writing, and other forms of communication.
As the explanation continued to unfold, I had the clear sense that our district’s English chairs, administration and school board were each trying to outguess what each other wants and trying to find the quickest fixes to make it look like important progress is being made in our district’s literacy efforts. Ironically, a lot of good work is being done, but it seems like the decision-makers can’t see it or understand it unless it’s presented numerically in a comparison chart. It seems like the decision-makers of various ilk are talking around each other but not to each other. Everyone is trying really hard to satisfy their higher-ups and constituencies, but they don’t understand what the other parties are saying.
After the large group session ended, the teachers were assigned to small groups. Each group was supposed to work on “essential learning outcomes” for a particular course. Some of us were assigned to courses we do not teach or will not teach in the future. OK, that’s fine. They have to put us somewhere.
We were given a chart with pre-filled goals based on the common core standards and “our vision.” The day’s mandate was to come up with no more than fifteen ways that we fulfilled that goal. Not too hard. Not too interesting. Not too important or relevant. But again the apparent goal of the day was not to produce authentic ways to help our students but to lay the ground work for presenting numerical data to our decision-makers.
Yesterday I mentioned a statement by Jim Burke, and I said I would judge this day by laying Jim’s template over it: “Professional development should be sustained, coherent, and effective. When it isn’t, teachers need alternatives.”
Sustained? I have a hard time saying that what we did today is or will be sustained. In the sense that we’re talking about the same kinds of things we’ve been talking about for 25 years on these all-district institute days, maybe it’s sustained, but it’s really just doing the same thing over and over with different acronyms. Perhaps the decision-makers have a certain type of amnesia. So, in my humble opinion, today’s institute activities could only be considered “sustained” in a limited, perverse kind of way.
Coherent? Coherent means it sticks together, right? That it attaches to other things and fits into a larger context? I can’t see that in today’s activities. Yes, they might be considered coherent from a top-down point of view because we keep hearing things like “The board wants to see,” and “Administration sees it this way,” and “The chairs decided.” Maybe those perspectives cohere to each other, but I haven’t heard much talk about what students need or how to help them. I hear talk about how data is reported and perceived by the public. So, maybe we’re generating something that could lead to a coherent p.r. package, but we’re not doing anything that will be helpful to my students or me.
Effective? That remains to be seen. It will definitely be effective in generating numerical data, but I have my doubts that all of this talking will lead to better learning or teaching.
I enjoyed chatting with my colleagues from other schools, especially about how they accomplish their goals, their class activities, successes, and frustrations. I had a productive chat with a colleague from another building whose students were struggling to find credible online sources. Lunch with my colleagues was terrific as we solved most of the world’s problems.
Was the day a total waste? No. Was it an example of professional development that is sustained, coherent, and effective? Not by a long shot. I guess I’m one of the teachers who needs what Jim Burke calls “alternatives.”
But what’s not wrong? Did I accomplish my goal of maintaining a positive attitude throughout the day? Mostly, but I’ll be glad to see my students tomorrow.