I Pledge To Be – 2014

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Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to make my classroom a more collaborative space. I always felt a bit like my class rules (valuable though they may be) lacked a degree of meaning for my students. After all, the rules were handed to them without consultation or any input whatsoever. With that in mind, last year I got rid of my traditional ‘classroom rules’ and had my students take a pledge.  I asked my students to list the qualities they and their peers should demonstrate to make our classroom a safe and successful place. We consolidated those characteristics into a list and the students stood and pledged to do their best to display those qualities at all times.  They then made word art to place on the wall as a reminder of the pledge they had taken.

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 I also took a pledge. I asked my students what qualities they needed from a teacher to help them feel like they could take chances, feel safe, and make the most of their year. I took those words and made a pledge which I recited in class. This year, I wanted to do something that really showed my students how seriously I took their needs from me as an educator. So, with the help of my wife (the amazingly talented Karen), I made a short video to show them that I would also try to be my best this year.

Enjoy…

 

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Why I Want to Be a “21st Century Educator” Part 1: Real Vs Rote

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I just finished reading Margaret Wente’s article “The brave new world of 21st century learning” in today’s Globe and Mail.  I’ve read enough of Ms. Wente’s stuff to get her schtick. It’s fairly routine, really. Pick an issue (or make something into one), attack the issue/theory/person/organization with out-of-context details pulled from a few web pages and blogs, call for accountability, and repeat. Her work is not meant to be creative or helpful to anyone. It is meant to foster accusation, not conversation. It is meant to garner attention through the angry division of people. And while I feel that it is the very lowest form of journalism, it certainly works. Why else would the Globe pay you to create works that do nothing positive for anyone? It even got me to write about her!  And now, rather than spend another second on her, I’d like to comment on the important aspect of her article. I’m going to explain why I want to be a “21st Century Educator.”

Well first off, I don’t. That’s right.  I am not, nor do I want to be a “21st Century Educator.” I have no desire to conform to some monolithic theory of education that demands I immediately change all aspects of my practice regardless of evidence or common sense. And neither do any of my friends, family, or colleagues who have shown an interest in adopting new teaching strategies and leaving so-called “industrialized teaching” behind. The fact is, teachers are doing what they have always done; examining their teaching for areas of improvement, incorporating new tools, trying to reflect the changing needs of their society and students, and working to support the next generation. Don’t believe it? Talk to the dozens of teachers I know who are taking courses over the next two months (often on their own dime) for no other reason than it makes them better educators.

I’d be lying, however, if I said that I had not begun to revolutionize my way of teaching over the last few years. As an active participant in the TCDSB’s Project NeXt, I have tried to focus on making sure that my classroom and teaching encourages development of my students’ skills in Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Communication.  Over the next few days, I’m going to try to explain what has lead me to this way of thinking and why I think that these strategies are the right ones for my students.

First off:

1) Real-world Vs. Rote

Anyone? Anyone?

When teaching the addition of integers to my Grade 7 students I recall the way they were taught to me (and before I proceed, let me first say that I have only the fondest memories of my elementary and highschool teachers – they were professionals working within a common framework to teach me as well as possible!). I learned a simple formula that we all memorized (well, those of us who could do so) and I can still recall it to this day. The problem, I explain to my students, is that while this made me perfectly able to answer questions on a test, I had no idea WHAT integers really were or how I could use them in a real-life context. I see this all the time. Consider the student who meticulously memorizes the formula for area of a triangle, but is stumped when the triangle is turned upside down. The student who memorizes the various states of matter, but can’t figure out an example that wasn’t in the textbook. My students who use the word ‘bet’ when trying for the past tense of ‘beat.’  These students are not lacking grit or drive. They have worked hard with the information they have been given. What they are lacking is a real-world context that would make their knowledge meaningful and memorable.

I recently pulled out some essays I completed during my Masters Degree in History. I wanted to show some students the type of complex wring that would one day be expected of them if they attended university. As I examined them looking for a good example, I was surprised when I realized that I remembered almost none of them. For each essay, I had read multiple books, written for days, and often presented my findings to my professor and peers, and yet, I barely even recognized the content. Why? The reality is, for all my hard work (I did the two-year course in 12 months), it didn’t matter to me. My goal was always to complete a good product on time. I was always accountable for my work. I had a lot financially riding on my efforts. I cared. But the minute it was done, it no longer mattered. Deep down, I knew it would be read and graded by one person, and then never see the light of day again. 12 years later, I would have to re-learn it all if I needed to use it.

While I often have to deal with disengaged students (more on them in a later post), I worry most about my high-achieving, driven students who long ago learned that academic tasks are just a means to an end. I worry that their many talents and skills are being wasted. I worry that they will consistently sacrifice learning for grades. They are the students who ask me “How many pages does it have to be?” or “Do we have to show our work?”. They will be happy with an “A” whether they truly learned anything or not.

I want my students to be able to solve the many problems their generation faces. Memorized knowledge alone will not give them success.  I reject the notion that creativity and competency are somehow mutually exclusive of each other. My best students are able to meld the two into something new and meaningful.

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Love, Hate and Then There’s You

We are the spark
We are the great
We keep our cities
Loud and proud
We keep their ears glued
To the streets
We are the underground”

                                               – The Von Bondies – “This Is Our Perfect Crime”                                                  from 2009’s Love, Hate and Then There’s You

There are times I feel a bit like a member of an educational underground. In these moments (mostly when I’m not on Twitter), it seems like the concept of 21st Century teaching and learning (or ‘New Learning’ as the always insightful Stepan coined it recently) is not very present in the way my Ministry, my school board, my school, or even my own class operates. At those times, I feel less like a member of a growing group of educators who are embracing those strategies, and more like someone lost in a wilderness of curriculum expectations, standardized test prep, real-life limitations, and doubt-imposed defaults to the status quo.

That’s why events like last Saturday’s TCDSB21C EdCamp are so important to me.  It was beautifully organized by the members of our amazing TCDSB21C Team and lead by a frenetic Mario Addesa. There I was surrounded by people who were engaged and interested in changing the way we teach and learn. Some had just started to consider 21C, while others were light-years ahead of me. Some I had met recently, while as a member of the Project neXt teaching team. Others I have known for years. Some I knew only as fellow TCDSB ‘tweeps’ before finally meeting face-to-face.

I was fortunate enough to back-up Stepan’s vision of a “Love, Hate, Continue” session. The idea was to provide a safe space for people to share the aspects of TCSB21C that scared them, excited them, annoyed them, helped them, challenged them, and made them hopeful. Educators from all over the board shared with us and we recorded the results. (Find them HERE) As always, when I meet with my fellow educators I learn about amazing projects and resources I never knew. It was terrific to hear how educators were wrestling with the same things I did. They had similar frustrations and moments of joy. They looked for encouragement for when they taught ‘outside the box’ and encouraged each other to take the next step.

We need more days like last Saturday. We need them in our schools. We need them in our board. We need them to bring together educators from around the province and the country. There are educators out their who need to share brilliant ideas, to see that there is another way to learn, and to know that they are not the underground, even if it feels like that sometimes.

“I like the beat
Of a different drum
The kind of sound
You can’t help notice
And chances are
The crowds will grow
To see the sounds below.”

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Forty-Four

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So I haven’t been blogging lately. It’s not too surprising when I reflect upon it. Once I get into school mode, I get pretty consumed. Don’t watch a lot of TV or even read much except for occasional holiday binges. So I kind of knew this would happen. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.

That’s why I was pleased when I was invited by blogger extraordinaire Royan Lee to take part in a fun little exercise meant to challenge me to get back at it. (the photo collage above is a nod to his original post) The challenge works like this:

1.  Acknowledge the nominating blogger.

2.  Share 11 random facts about yourself.

3.  Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.

4.  List 11 bloggers.  They should be bloggers you believe deserve a little recognition.

5.  Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they’ve been nominated.

Before I begin, I want to note that this challenge has been making the rounds, and I’ve noticed that many of my most prolific blogging colleagues have already taken part in it. With that in mind, I’m going to nominate some people in my Twitter PLC that I know for a fact do not have professional blogs. But I’d like them to. Maybe this gentle nudge will get them to consider it.

Anyway, off we go…

11 Random Facts about Me:

1. I’ve never had a cavity.

2. After nearly two decades away, I am again, an avid comic book reader.

3. There is no activity I like better than playing basketball.

4. I teach the same grade as my mother.

5. I was born and raised in London, Ontario.

6. I don’t know what a ‘predicate’ is.

7. I don’t have Facebook.

8. I walk to and from school each day.

9. I have size 13 feet.

10. I once worked as a stock boy at a Farah Foods…as a twenty-something.

11. I have a Master’s Degree in History.

Royan’s Questions:

1. Which season is your favourite, and why? 

Fall, because I like jackets.

2. How do you feel about paying $5 for a cup of coffee?

Seems silly but I’ve done it occasionally.

3. What’s one habitual thing you do on a daily basis that you actually can’t stand doing?

Waking up early.

4. Would you rather be a small insect or a large carnivore?

Well, I’m already a large omnivore. So large carnivore seems like it would feel familiar.

5. What song do you perpetually wish they would play when you’re out on the town, but they rarely do?

Search and Destroy by the Stooges.

6. At what age did you first have your heart broken, and who was the breaker?

At 12 by NAME REDACTED.

7. What is your opinion of subtitled foreign films?

Better than non-subtitled foreign films.

8. Tell us about a great restaurant in your town.

The Combine Eatery.

9. What’s your favourite thing to do in the outdoors?

BBQ.

10. Name a dead education theorist that influenced/s you.

Maslow.

11. On a scale of 1-10 (1 not so much; 10 very much), how messy/dirty is your car?

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The Magnificent 11 (I’m sure they’ll forgive me if they have already done this, or are otherwise engaged at the moment…)

And my colleague, Antoinetta Giampaolo, who is working on her first blog as we speak…

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

First, tell us 11 random facts about yourself.

Second, answer these questions:

1. Is there a song makes you cry?

2. Is there a food that you hated as a child, but enjoy now?

3. If you were going out for a fun evening, would you prefer a pub or a club?

4. What would you change about your school?

5. Name a book everyone should read.

6. What activity would you like to be better at?

7. Which historical event do you wish your students knew more about?

8. What artistic medium do you like the best?

9. What superpower would you like to possess?

10. What regret do you have from your childhood/young adulthood?

11. Do you think you would find today’s school experience easier or harder than the one you had?

There we go! Thanks Royan for getting me moving. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep the momentum going.

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I Pledge to Be…

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For the last few years, in lieu of a set of classroom rules, my students have taken ‘the Pledge.’  ‘The Pledge’ works like this: in groups, the students brainstorm the qualities and traits that they think will be key to having a successful year.  They use descriptive terms like ‘respectful’, ‘polite’, and ‘curious.’ We choose the dozen or so suggestions that are common among the groups. They then work in pairs to create an artistic representation of one of the terms. The terms are then posted in the class so we can refer to them when needed. When all is complete, the students stand and pledge to be “loyal, kind, responsible,”…and so on. It has proved a nice collaborative way to set a tone for the year…

I’ve always felt that the activity both afforded my students some agency and encouraged them to take responsibility for their own learning and actions. This year, however, I decided to add another aspect, one that I think was lacking. This year, in addition to the qualities that THEY needed to display, I asked my students to record a second list. This list would be the qualities they needed from ME to help them have a successful year.

Here are their responses:

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I was really pleased with how seriously and enthusiastically they built these lists. And they definitely left me with some take-aways:

1. Patient – either first or second on every list, this was clearly the quality that my students value above all others. And why not. When they fail, make mistakes, or poor decisions, I can respond with angry disappointment or calm encouragement. Patience from me will embolden them to own up to their errors and try to improve.

2. Passionate, Positive. Courageous, Enthusiastic, Optimistic – clearly these students are looking for an element of dynamism. They will not be content with a reserved or disinterested teacher. They are hoping to see me visibly excited about their learning.

In the spirit of agency, and increasingly trying to remove myself from the central role in the classroom, I will be continuing to offer my students as much choice, responsibility, and agency as I can.

And in the spirit of the moment:

I pledge to be…patient, understanding, caring, fair, courageous, enthusiastic, respectful, caring, assertive, kind, funny, encouraging, optimistic, honest, reliable, loyal, and passionate in all that I do at school this year.

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Respect.

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As I was reading a thoughtful post by TCDSB VP Kevin Kerr this week, (read it here) I began to wonder about our professional development model. Kevin (and many others lately) have been arguing that the top-down (or “expert to novice” as Kevin terms it) model for delivering PD to educators is not an effective system. Even as I write the word ‘delivering’ the problem is clear. In most PD, I am no more an active participant in new learning than I am in the shipping of a product by receiving it at my front door. The focus is entirely on the product, with no thought to the people involved in the process. Why is that? What can we do about it?

Respect

It starts with respect. I know I need to be careful when I say that. I would never suggest that there’s been a lack of respect shown me by the educators who have delivered PD to me over the years. Overwhelmingly, they were talented individuals who were respectful of my thoughts, my time, and my needs. They were not, however, operating in a system that respected my ability to determine my own next steps as an educator. It was a system that assumed I had no idea what I needed to improve and little interest in seeking out that new learning. It was a system that looked at my school’s test scores and decided what I needed to do better (a ludicrous prospect that is rampantly being debunked in the United States: home of the standardized test) with no consideration of how I was actually teaching. There was no agency on my part, yet I was often asked to leave one PD session and drastically change some aspect of my teaching. There was no consideration that I might have very different talents and needs than the colleague sitting next to me. It’s no wonder that so many initiatives died a quick death after those PD sessions.  It’s also no surprise that so many teachers came back to school engaged not by the content of the day, but by an idea they got from conversing with a colleague at another school.

What Next?

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The Project Next initiative that I was so fortunate to be part of was a step in another direction. I was introduced to a group of teachers who shared a general interest in technology and life-long learning but otherwise had very different backgrounds. We were encouraged to share, to be creative, and to learn. We shared our successful practices and improved those we weren’t crazy about. Given agency for our learning, we were and remain voracious consumers of new ideas and many of us have dramatically made-over our classrooms and teaching to incorporate 21st Century competencies. All because the board chose to respect us, to trust us, and provide a well-designed framework for our learning.  As we try to change the way we teach our students to encourage greater responsibility, engagement, and improved learning for them, our system of professional development must adjust in a similar manner to ensure that new learning is meaningful to the teachers who will be carrying that learning deep into the 21st century.

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Making ‘Kinections’

When i returned home from the Connect 13 Conference in Niagara Falls this spring I brought with me (along with a lot of new learning and inspiration) an Xbox Kinect. It was graciously donated by Dr. Camille Rutherford of the Brock University Faculty of Education. She wanted some of my TCDSB 21C colleagues and I to test the Xbox out in the classroom and see what we could come up with. One of the most innovative ideas was a mapping and transformational geometry activity created by Stepan Pruchnicky (see it here).

There are a lot of obvious curriculum connections for the use of the Kinect. As a Phys-Ed teacher, I was able to make great use of games like “Kinect Adventures” for active participation and coordinated movements. Students used “Just Dance 4” to help them prepare their dance routines. Truth be told, however, none of these uses are very innovative. Sure, we had a lot of fun and took part in some engaging activities but I figured that was all.

Then today I did something I’ve been trying to do more and more. I let go and just watched my students. Today was one of those crazy end-of-the year days when there’s somehow both too much and not enough for students to do. A number of students had been begging to play Just Dance, so I let them hook up the Kinect and just play for a bit. And right around the time that the outgoing, athletic boy turned and high-fived the reserved girl who usually has her head in a book, it came to me. This two-person dance was a community-building collaborative exercise.

One of the pillars of 21st Century education is Collaboration. One of the TCDSB’s Catholic Graduate Expectations is ‘A collaborative contributor who finds meaning, dignity and vocation in work which respects the rights of all and contributes to the common good.’ And yet respectful collaboration is not easy for all students. Some struggle to work with peers outside their social circle. Others struggle to work with anyone at all. As teachers, we spend a great deal of time trying to encourage true collaboration. As I watched one boy teach another a new dance, two normally shy girls get an ovation from their peers, and a student on a modified program coordinate the entire activity, I realized that this could be another tool I could use to promote a sense of community in our classroom. Not only that, it could promote risk-taking and a sense of safety for students who struggle with taking chances in front of others. Revolutionary? Not really I guess. But anything that will help my students work together well is important. With that in mind, I’ll be looking to have my students do some ‘Kinecting’ in the fall.

P.S. Thanks Dr. Rutherford for the use of the technology and some new learning.

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Class Creatures!!!

Check out the terrific sculptures my class created at their art workshop! They don’t get nearly enough time to devote to this type of learning. Just the problem-solving alone was fantastic. Now if only they could review their finished product and try again with an eye towards improving their technique further…something to think about.

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You can find them all here.

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Fortune Favours The Bold

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‘Fortuna fortes adiuvat’ – an ancient Latin phrase linked to both Pliny (the younger) and Virgil. The phrase urges one to take chances. I love the idea that teachers should be willing to try new things if they want to experience exciting learning for their students. Teachers, however, have legitimate reasons to be cautious, don’t they? When they think outside the box, they put themselves at risk and provide potential ammunition for detractors of all types, whether they be colleagues, administrators, or parents. I really believe that in some instances (students safety for example) teachers do need to play it safe. Sometimes, however, we are so concerned with safety that we hesitate to even entertain making a big change or trying something different. I believe that advances in technology (and the way we think about things like social media) mean that teachers need to reconsider the ideas they might have once considered impossible.

I’d like to share two situations with you; each showing how using social media with your students can be a potential success or failure.

Situation #1: My mom starts a classroom blog.

My mom has been a teacher for almost 40 years (with a substantial break early on to stay home with my brother Mark, my sister Jess, and I). While she falls into that demographic of teachers that we are quick to assume have little use for classroom technology, she has been a prime example of how age is nothing but a number. She was an early smartboard adopter and has always been creative in all aspects of her teaching (I wish I could figure pull off the rectangular desk formation that she’s been using for years). So I didn’t hesitate to recommend that she start a classroom blog.

I had been using the Edmodo class blog since the start of the year and was really enjoying it, so I showed it to her. She liked what she saw and over a couple of phone calls that weekend, she got her blog set up. She and her class used it excitedly for the next couple of weeks. Things were going great.

And then it happened. That thing we all fear. A ‘security’ breach. Someone (“Dr. AwesomeSauce” or something like that) appeared in the middle of her class with no explanation. It shouldn’t have been possible. And yet it happened. Next move? For many of us, we shut the blog down immediately and say to ourselves, ‘won’t try that again’. Mom did nothing of the sort.

Summoning the calm and courage that 40 years as an educator bestow, she called me for assistance and we hashed out the problem. Then she contacted Edmodo to sort out the rest for her. A student had the rather clever idea to make his own class blog on the same site. Then he connected to the class blog with the same password he used as a student and voila – ‘Mr. WickedSick’ was born. So there was no real security breach (although it wasn’t long after that Edmodo contacted me looking for more detailed teacher credentials – perhaps in an effort to make sure that little ‘hack’ would no longer be possible). Confronted with this development, my mom chose to use it as a teaching experience. The student in question apologized to the class. Certain students expressed the anxiousness they felt when the stranger appeared in their digital midst, and it launched into a productive conversation about the responsible use of social media. They have used the blog for the rest of the year without incident. A good reminder that this is a learning experience for students and for us, but we don’t give up on our students after one issue. Nor should we give up on new technology the first time something goes wrong.

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Situation #2: Students on Twitter?

For a couple of years now, I have encouraged my students to follow me on Twitter. Not to get accounts of their own, but simply to take a look at my page from time-to-time so I could share online resources with them (I previously taught in a web-less portable) and post rubrics and success criteria for assignments they were working on at home. This year, after being inspired by the amazing work done by a former ‘mentee’ of mine, Christian Litonjua, I decided to take the plunge by having my students complete an assignment on Twitter. You can see my previous post …But I’ve never been to Afghanistan! for the details, but essentially, I wanted my students to improve their perspective writing by taking on the perspective of the characters in ‘Lunch With Lenin‘ (a terrific book of short stories by Deborah Ellis) and tweeting in character. I hoped that the engaging format and small character limit would encourage some concise and focused writing and I was excited to see how it went. After reviewing the goals of the activity, I created accounts for the main characters we were examining, gave the kids the password and sat back to see what would happen.
After all, a lot could go wrong. They could they could invite or follow strangers. They could delete the account or change the settings. They could mess with the tweets of their peers. I held my breath.

This is what happened. They tweeted. They tweeted a lot. Over 250 tweets (the minimum requirement was a total of 125 for the class). One girl tweeted 30 times. They got pretty good at it, too.

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They tweeted questions and answered each other. They figured out hashtags and the proper etiquette to direct a tweet towards another character.

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They tweeted to characters in other stories. Characters who never met in the book.

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And they tweeted back.

All in all, over 250 tweets without one inappropriate action. Not one. They grew in their understanding of perspective. They made connections between stories. They worked on their social media etiquette. They showed me a thing or two about letting go. They showed me that I can trust next years class with this.

We were bold, and fortune favoured us.

(P.s. My mom is still having a hard time using Twitter effectively. If anyone wants to start the conversation, perhaps we can get her to answer. You can find her at @CMcPteacher)

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“Nothing to fear…”

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“…But fear itself.” This oft-repeated quote (first uttered by Franklin D. Roosevelt at his first Presidential inauguration in 1933) neatly sums up my thoughts about collaboration between educators. There is so much to be gained from sharing between colleagues, yet many are wary. Why? Could it be our top-down P.D. model?

In my ten years of teaching, I have been to dozens (if not hundreds) of P.D. sessions. The overwhelming majority of those sessions have involved me being taught strategies meant to improve my teaching. At the same time, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have been invited, in a professional development context, to share what I am doing in my class. Oh sure, there’s often a request that I try a strategy out in my class and return to share how effective it’s been, but being asked to bring something new to the table? It never happens. In fact, the only time my lessons are ever really examined, is during my periodic teacher performance appraisals.

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Could it be then, that we have been trained to believe that our lessons really only exist to be ‘critiqued’ or ‘enhanced’ by others? That we have nothing to share, because effective strategies are only brought to us by board personnel? (note: Just want to point out that the board personnel I know clearly don’t feel that way. I’m talking more about the sub-conscious message teachers receive rather than the message intended by those who develop P.D.) This could certainly explain the guarded attitude that some teachers feel about sharing their lessons…

I find myself joining a larger chorus of educators calling for more teacher-directed P.D. opportunities. Perhaps a Genius Hour – type project, where teachers can share the things they are passionately developing with those who are keenly interested in new developments. Anyone have examples of this that they can share?

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