“Isolation is now a choice educators make. If you feel alone, it is because you are not willing to connect.”
This quote from George Couros first appeared in 2013 (according to a Google search), and due to various technologies, including social media, this quote is even more appropriate now than it was four years ago. At the same time, (1) it was also true long before 2013, although to a lesser extent, and (2) this idea could apply to any profession, not just education.
Nonetheless, many educators (for one reason or another) still generally work in silos. This fact is surprising, considering there are countless studies in which former teachers cite “lack of support” as one of the main reasons why they quit the profession. (Seriously, for related articles, Google “why teachers quit” and click around.)
That being said, whenever I facilitate professional learning, I try to model the notion of breaking out of isolation, by showing (explicitly and implicitly) that the days of one person having all the answers are long gone (if they ever existed in the first place).
For the past two years, the majority of the professional learning I’ve facilitated has focused on Writing Workshop K-5. Here are five ways we intentionally broke out of isolation during this time.
1. Social Media
Twitter and Facebook are the two main social media platforms we’ve been using to learn about Writing Workshop. On Twitter, search #tcrwp (Teachers College Reading and Writing Project) for information specific to the workshop framework. On Facebook, I have been able to gather resources and answers to questions by crowdsourcing from my personal page. At the same time, we have made extensive use of the Facebook group, Units of Study in Writing TCRWP. (You may also want to check out the Facebook group, Units of Study in Middle School: Reading and Writing Workshops TCRWP.) As we started to learn about Writing Workshop, teachers were told about these resources, and we have conducted optional Twitter 101 sessions.
I have been intentional about getting into classrooms and taking photographs of Writing Workshop in action, which I then push out over Instagram with my district’s hashtag, #YourSalisbury. Using IFTTT, these photographs are then automatically embedded into my Twitter feed and Salisbury’s Facebook page.
You can find a hashtag and/or a Facebook group for pretty much anything in education.
As Writing Workshop was rolled out, we established an expectations document, which was linked to towards the bottom of our pacing guide. The language surrounding the document reads, “The purpose of this document is to establish minimum expectations for what should be taking place in every classroom…Although the form is optional, Writing Workshop should follow this format even if you choose to not fill out the form.” In short, we wanted to define what Writing Workshop should look like across all classrooms, while ensuring teachers still have the autonomy to make it their own.
About a half-year into Writing Workshop implementation, the wording from the expectations document was used to create a feedback form. Teachers were provided time to get into each other’s classrooms to observe and then give feedback using the form, and administrators also used the form to give non-evaluative feedback. (On a personal note, I didn’t use the form as much as I would have liked.)
I love the phrase “defined autonomy” (coined by Robert Marzano), which encompasses the idea of everyone heading in the same direction while still being respectful of stakeholders (e.g., teachers) as professionals.
Starting with the 2016-2017 school year, it was mandatory for every grade level to spend about 40 minutes per day on Writing Workshop. However, for all of 2015-2016, pretty much all of our professional learning focused on Writing Workshop, and teachers had the option to be proactive with its implementation. During this year we brought in two consultants, both of whom I can highly recommend. The first was JoEllen McCarthy who works with The Educator Collaborative. JoEllen joined us for a full-day in March 2016, and she mostly focused on establishing a writing culture, the workshop framework, and mentor texts. The second consultant was Pam Koutrakos who works with Dr. Gravity Goldberg. She joined us for a half-day in November 2016 and she mostly focused on establishing a vision for Writing Workshop, the mini-lesson, and simple ways to approach conferring with writers. This August, Pam will be coming to us for another half-day to facilitate a deep dive into conferring.
As much as we’d like to think we “know” a certain topic, there’s no shame in admitting that we couldn’t possibly facilitate a learning experience that’s comparable to something that’s put on by someone who literally lives and breathes the very same topic.
4. Site Visits
Middletown Township Public Schools hosted us for two site visits (at no cost), the first in March 2016 and the second in December 2016. The agenda for both days was identical, and it can be found here. Each day included classroom observations, a formal presentation by their administrators, a teacher panel, grade level debriefings, and a reflection.
Both elementary principals and I attended both site visits, and all of our Instructional Support Teachers and our Instructional Coach went to one. Classroom teachers, evenly distributed amongst grade levels, filled the remaining slots. No teacher participated more than once, and those who went were asked to turnkey what they learned to other teachers.
Most of the time, there’s no better professional development than “seeing it in action” (in actual classrooms).
The Writing Workshop books that I have read, include: Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher; The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They're All Hard Parts) by Katie Wood Ray; How's It Going?: A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson; Assessing Writers by Carl Anderson; and A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop, which can be found in the Units of Study bundles.
If you’re using the bundles, I would read or skim through A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop at least once. If you’re new to the workshop framework, take a look at Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, and if you want something more comprehensive, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They're All Hard Parts) is the way to go. Finally, How's It Going? should be required reading for anyone using workshop, as it could very well be the definitive resource on conferring (which is the heart of the workshop framework).
There’s no reason to wait for the learning to come to us when we can go out and get it ourselves (by reading books).
To better educate myself, last summer I attended the The Summer Institute of the Teaching of Writing at Paramus Public Schools. And, I created a website that serves as a one-stop-shop for all of Salisbury’s Writing Workshop resources.
In the End
Although these five ideas are framed within the context of Writing Workshop, they can be applied to any initiative. In fact, I would go as far to say that all five of them (and more) should be seriously considered whenever significant change is implemented. And, even when we’re not caught up in the middle of an “official initiative” we should never hesitate to break out of isolation to constantly move forward for the benefit of our students, our peers, and ourselves.
Next week, I look forward to keynoting on these ideas at the Paramus Summer Institute with a brand new presentation – Writing Workshop: Isolation Is the Enemy of Great.
How do you break out of isolation?
Connect with Ross on Twitter.