The best professional development often relies on the teacher-to-teacher method – teachers sharing their successes and challenges with one another to build a network of support. The following resources from NCTE suggest ways that you can build a supporting community among your colleagues to help ensure a successful (and less stressful) school year.
Later this week, NCTE will host its Annual Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. If you will be joining us, we hope you can connect with educators, administrators, and researchers from across the country and around the world to share and learn from mutual interests, concerns, and experiences. If you can’t attend in person, follow #NCTE16 on social media.
You may have heard the abbreviations PLN, PLC and PLE used in teaching conversations, and they may have even been used interchangeably. To add some confusion to the conversation, PLN can mean a Personal Learning Network or a Professional Learning Network. What are these networks, communities and environments? Though a number of definitions exist for these uses, let’s look at some ways of defining these concepts.
“A personal learning network, also referred to as a PLN, is a powerful professional development tool that allows teachers and administrators to connect with other teachers and administrators across the country. These connections are typically made through social media outlets including Google+, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. A personal learning network allows educators to seek advice, trade best practices, or simply network with other professionals.”
A personal learning network is an informal network in which a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from others. The network may or may not be built around someone’s professional life and could be about their personal interests.
You will find this type of network relates to the theory of connectivism developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Their ideas involve learners creating their own connections and developing a network that goes beyond the people they interact with on a regular basis and which can include people they have never met personally or will ever meet in person.
The Internet and the rise of social media has created an easier way to have a far reaching network around our desires to learn.
But Brianna Crowley writes that “A ‘professional learning network’ is ultimately a personal learning network. ”
Do you have a personal learning network of online and “real world” people? Do you have a separate professional learning network around your teaching, or are they blended?
Many of us connect to other educators using public blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms. The monthly NCTE Twitter chats (#nctechat) are a good example of a part of a professional learning community. We also probably know colleagues that have multiple accounts for social media – one for their personal network, another for their professional network.
A Professional Learning Community (PLC) is a more formal network. Richard DuFour writes that:
The idea of improving schools by developing professional learning communities is currently in vogue. People use this term to describe every imaginable combination of individuals with an interest in education—a grade-level teaching team, a school committee, a high school department, an entire school district, a state department of education, a national professional organization, and so on. In fact, the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.
As an NCTE member, you can participate in many online communities as part of our Connected Community. Although anyone can explore some areas of the site, members have full access to the content there. This is a professional community consisting of people who are involved in teaching at all levels and with many of the same concerns and interests.
We can contrast this with the online communities we have in Facebook for NCTE, CCCC and TYCA which are open to anyone interested. Likewise, anyone can follow our many Twitter accounts and participate in conversations.
In the “Power of the PLN” NCTE chat held in 2015, co-hosts JoEllen McCarthy and Tony Sinanis, we explored ways to expand your capacity for collaboration and use your PLN as an energizing tool for facilitating and enhancing learning relationships. (These fast-moving chats are also archived.)
Of course, online communities are only a part of this professional learning. Much of what we do in education relies on relationships. The way students learn and our own professional learning relies on our personal and professional relationships. In the classroom, in the hallways and at meetings and over lunch and coffee is at least equally important.
Thinking about “professional development” as more than an event, an inservice, workshop or conference and as more than the physical “takeaways” of documents that we are given is possibly new to many people. Expanding PD to include social media and other digital ways to share, collaborate and learn is certainly still relatively new for all of us. Professional and personal learning networks help support learning communities.
Among the questions considered in that particular #NCTEchat:
How does your PLN fuel and energize your learning life?
How have your extended your PLN connections beyond social media?
How do you show/inspire/demonstrate to your students the importance of developing a PLN?
What role does NCTE play in your PLN?
Finally, you might hear the abbreviation PLE used to mean Personal Learning Environments. Rather than people, a PLE is a system that allows learners to create and manage their own online learning. According to Alan J. Cann, a PLE system includes “providing support for learners to set their own learning goals, manage their learning, manage both content and process, and communicate with others in the process of learning.”
A PLE is often associated with distance education or formal online learning, and it is likely that you have built your own professional “environment” using a combination of free, online services and also real world connections to people you work with and have met online or at conventions and other professional events.
What are some of the benefits of Online Professional Learning? You can recharge your teaching, learn new techniques and strategies, and connect with other literacy professionals—all without leaving school or home. The following are the Top 10 Professional Learning Offerings from NCTE in 2015:
Interested in purchasing some of these or some of our other titles? As a special treat, use code “Holidays15” in the NCTE Online Store to save 20% on all NCTE books, On Demand Web Seminars, Investigations and NCTE-branded gift items!
Like any significant change to a major system, edTPA (a new performance-based assessment for licensing teachers) presents challenges and tensions for those who must accommodate this change. Those tensions were recently documented in the November issue of Language Arts by Amy Johnson Lachuk and Karen Koellner, two teacher educators in an elementary education program that offers degrees leading to initial teacher certification. In their article “Performance-Based Assessment for Certification: Insights from edTPA Implementation,” Lachuk and Koellner describe efforts to adjust programming in light of their state’s recent adoption of edTPA.
While the edTPA is new, the tensions it has brought are tensions familiar to many teachers. One is a tension between wanting our students to learn things for themselves through inquiry and wanting to give our students the answers. Lachuk and Koellner write:
As teacher educators, we aim to offer teacher candidates opportunities to reflect upon and inquire into their practices. We also aim to help them experience the complexities of teaching, so that they can grow in their practices. However, a formal, performative assessment such as the edTPA makes managing the tension between telling and growing even more complicated (cf. Berry, 2008); Berry questions: “What would motivate prospective teachers to seek their own solutions to teaching problems when their formal assessment is at stake?”
Lachuk and Koellner also found that the edTPA required candidates to think about teaching in ways the preparation program had not previously felt the need to push:
For example, writing and using supporting evidence about their planning, teaching, and assessment practices are how candidates are evaluated on their ability to engage in the assess-plan-teach cycle. . . . Several candidates were very skilled in writing retrospective reflective narratives about their teaching, yet when it came time to structure these reflections as academic arguments in which they used evidence to support their claims, they struggled.
The new reality meant teaching new skills, but it also meant eliminating some lessons. “[B]ecause edTPA is a time- and labor-intensive examination, we need to accommodate the process by requiring fewer assignments as part of the student teaching course.”
An even more significant tension may be the tension between wanting to give their students accurate, reliable information, and also wanting to be perceived as sufficiently knowledgeable. Lachuk and Koellner write:
Because the edTPA was a new examination for faculty, too, we wanted to project to teacher candidates that we had a firm grasp on what it was asking them to do, when in fact we did not. For instance, we created a series of face-to-face workshops and hosted several drop-in sessions for teacher candidates who were submitting and preparing their edTPA portfolios. These support workshops and drop-in sessions were intended to coach teacher candidates throughout the process, adhering to the guidelines for faculty support provided by Pearson publishing (the publisher of edTPA).
Participating in these face-to-face workshops was particularly difficult for Amy, who was concerned about unintentionally giving teacher candidates misinformation that would negatively impact their performance on the examination. Although she was familiar with the examination, Amy felt uncertain about her interpretation of the edTPAese, or the way certain concepts (such as finding a central focus for writing) were defined and interpreted in the examination. At the same time, however, for the sake of candidates’ peace of mind, she felt that she needed to present herself as knowledgeable and confident about the examination. Throughout the time she was helping to support teacher candidates with preparing their edTPA portfolios, Amy felt herself confronting this tension between appearing knowledgeable and confident while actually feeling rather uncertain.
But Lachuk and Koellner do feel confident that all these various tensions will lessen over time. “[C]andidates will be more familiar with the requirements and will have experienced more of the supports throughout our program (rather than only during their student teaching semester when they take the exam).” As with any change, the tensions felt now will shape our adjustments to that change and will ensure that, down the road, tensions will ease.
Renowned scholar Les Perelman has dedicated his career to the support of powerful and authentic writing instruction. He has been an outspoken opponent of assessment practices he sees as counterproductive to developing strong writers. We wanted to learn more about the role he sees teachers playing in both advocacy for better assessments and the development of them.
What role, if any, should teachers play in the scoring of assessments? Why?
Teachers should be involved in all phases of the assessment process to ensure that the assessment instruments test what should be taught, not what is easy to assess. However, they should not be the only people at the table. The design team should also include assessment professionals, representatives of school boards and education departments, parents, and, I would propose, one or two high-scoring recent graduates. [These former students] should be part of both the teams designing the general formats of assessments and each specific test.
The selection of training samples for each scoring session should be done primarily by teachers, with input by assessment professionals. The actual scoring sessions, however, should be run and staffed by teachers. With Internet technology, tables of teachers can be situated anywhere, trained on the same samples, and grade papers from almost anywhere. The system can be designed so that teachers will not be grading the papers of their own students. The composition of the teachers grading these tests should be as diverse as possible, and students should see pictures of these groups to diminish the effect of stereotype threat on students of color.
There are two very powerful arguments that can be used in proposing teacher grading of high-stakes tests. First, it would encourage teacher buy-in and eliminate the current almost adversarial situation felt by many teachers where their best teaching practices and their own expertise are at odds with testing companies and professionals who design and grade the tests but never enter classroom. Second, the monies spent on the grading session would serve a double purpose. Not only would they fund the scoring of essays, but they would fund extremely effective professional development.
During my whole career in writing program administration, I observed that if we didn’t have opportunities for teacher grading sessions, we would have to invent them. Getting teachers in a room and engaging them in conversations about [. . .] the key features in effective and intellectually adept student writing is one of the best venues for professional development. Moreover, it is an excellent method for engaging teachers in other fields who may be involved in writing-in-the-disciplines initiatives.
What advice do you have for people who want to take action to improve the way we assess writing in this country but fear for their jobs if they do?
This is a very difficult question. People have families and obligations, and it is not my place to tell someone to risk their job. There are, however, two strategies I can suggest that may be useful in some situations.
First, use the strategies presented in Linda Adler-Kasner’s excellent book The Activist WPA for reframing the conversation. Accept the general goals presented to you, but then argue correctly that the current implementation actually subverts those goals. Propose intellectually and pedagogically honest strategies to achieve those goals that reinforce best teaching practices. Use the same vocabulary, such as “college readiness,” but define those terms in relation to effective teaching and the document jointly developed by NCTE, WPA, and NWP, Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. In some contexts these strategies will not work, but in others, they have a chance.
The second strategy is for teachers who are also parents. While it may be dangerous to oppose mindless testing where you work, as a parent and a taxpayer, you have a constitutionally protected right to do so in the district where you live. As a teacher, you can help lead the opposition by building alliances with other parents. Meanwhile, if the teachers who live in the school district where you work take similar actions, we are all helping each other, and most important of all, our children and students.
In light of all you’ve learned in your research and through tools like the Babel Generator, where do you find hope in the future of assessment? What’s the bright spot in a landscape that looks pretty bleak?
Fortunately, I do not think the landscape is that bleak. What the BABEL Generator proved was how stupid these machines are. They do little more than count obvious and often trivial features. It took my team just a few weeks to build our first prototype, which we expected to fail with at least some machines. I still remember sitting in my office with my three students and trying out the alpha version of the BABEL Generator. We were amazed that it received top scores on all four machines we tested it on.
The most effective argument against automated essay scoring does not rely on abstract rhetorical theory. It is simply that these machines do not work; they do not do what they claim to be doing. Students can be easily taught to generate essays that receive high scores but that are atrocious pieces of writing.
These are arguments that everyone can grasp quickly, and the BABEL Generator is a tool that people can use to make these points in dramatic and unambiguous demonstrations.
Be the little boy who cries that emperor has no clothes!