Category Archives: PD

Procrastination be damned. Also, Penny Kittle!

Whoops. Left the blog behind for a while, didn’t I?

One of Penny’s books. Want!

Penny Kittle came into town on a cold February day and I anticipate that it will be one of the most memorable PDs I will ever attend, mostly because of all the crying experienced by its attendees! Between reading heartrending texts and doing some of our own intimate, personal writing, there certainly were many tears shed. I think I cried a minimum of five separate times. You know you’re at a good PD when…!

Penny is a teacher and author who specializes in literacy development and English Language Arts. I first heard about her from my friend, Erin, and heard of her again from Kelly Gallagher, who is basically one of my educational heroes (and whose PDs also always make me cry). I looked so forward to spending a day inside Penny Kittle’s brain and was even more jazzed when I got there because I found myself sitting at a table of incredible educators and friends.

To be honest, I think the document of notes (completely disorganized notes, alas!) I took speaks much more to the awesomeness of the PD session than anything I might cobble together now, but these are four things that really stuck with me from Penny’s day with us.

1) The act of giving a kid a book can make them want to read it. I did this with one of my grade eight girls last year. I handed her The Book of Negroes, which some might feel is too advanced for a kid like her, but she fell in love with it.

2) The use of the classroom writing notebook as a catch-all scrapbook/journal/idea explosion. Penny’s got some amazing, creative ideas for quickwrites and activities.

3) Escalating texts. Using multiple texts surrounding the same topic/issue and reading them in sequence, increasing with “intensity” so that kids form first impressions and dive deeper. Seriously, when Penny did this with us in the session using three texts revolving around 9/11, there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire room. (Insert tangent: I don’t even know how she managed to read one of those texts aloud to us without crying herself. I don’t think I could do it. I know there’s got to be more teachers who end up teaching through their tears besides me, right? Right? Up! as a film study, anyone? That montage gets me every. single. time.)

4) Writing conferences. Penny’s got some great leading phrases and approaches in writers’ conferences that don’t have anything to do with grammar/spelling. She really latches on to the idea of teaching kids to write, as in creating ideas and shaping worlds and painting characters. She gets them to expand their ideas rather than quibbling over homophones when she meets with them. It is expected that they go back and check their conventions later, so the writing conference is spent more productively. After all, a flat story with insipid characters is not improved by perfect grammar. In the same way, a truly riveting tale with engaging and charismatic characters nonetheless draws readership even with the odd spelling error.

In case you missed the link a few paragraphs ago, I’ll redundantly stick it in here again. Sorry again about the here-and-there formatting of the doc, but I couldn’t bear to sit on it anymore! What’s nice is that where possible, I tried to include links to texts and resources Penny mentioned throughout the day, so hopefully they can lead you to peruse even more avenues of thought regarding your classes. Please enjoy and share alike!

Other great Penny stuff:
Penny’s online PDF notes that accompany her book, Write Beside Them are available here.
Her site, chock full of resources and things to think about.


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What about English Language Learners?

*dusts cobwebs*

Jeez Louise. I swear, I didn’t forget about this blog. Things have just been incredibly hectic over here… which, I mean, for any fellow teachers reading this blog, you already know. I don’t have to tell you what January is like.

So I’ll begin with some good news: Since EdCamp, I’ve been to more good PD! Shocking, I know. I’ve also been to some lame PD. But you can’t win ’em all, and the fact that I’m going to a Writing PD with Penny Kittle (@pennykittle) next month pretty much means that my PD score for the 2012-2013 year is still chalking up to more good than bad. By the way, Edmonton folks, you really want to register for that PD! Then we can hang out and be nerdy together!

Yesterday, I attended a webinar with Dr. Deborah Short (one of the creators of the SIOP educational model) on how to support literacy with English Language Learners (ELLs), and although I found some things about the layout of the PD to be a little confusing or disjointed, I definitely enjoyed thinking about various strategies I could use in my own classroom. I have to say that although it is only January and although we still have half a year left in which I can start using these strategies, I’m already excited about beginning a new school year with these strategies and routines firmly in place from the get-go.

On a semi-related note, can we take a moment to talk about the fact that it is super lame when you end up going to really good PD in April or May? There’s hardly any time left! I guess it gives you a lot of extra prep time to get it ready for September.

Anyway, there were a lot of cool PD sessions available yesterday that I could have attended (like watercolour painting at one of our local botanical conservatories), but since literacy is my passion, I pretty much saw no other option but the one I went to. Besides, it certainly was a PD that would be immediately relevant in my teaching, because at my school, we have a lot of ELLs.

Working with ELLs is not something I’m unfamiliar with. In my first year of teaching, I ended up doing a short temporary contract at a junior high wherein I was actually teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to some grade nines. Then, at the high school where I taught for the following two years, I found myself teaching many ELLs as well. Being an “academically focused” school, the demographics of that particular student body skewed toward Asian. Despite being skilled mathematicians, some of my students there struggled to form coherent sentences. I have distinct memories of reading passages from some student work aloud just to try to make sense of it, then laughing at the hopelessness of the situation.

This year, I find myself in a junior high school whose student population comprises something like 80-85% ELLs and only 15-20% native English speakers. Although I’ve dealt with ELL support before, I never had to face the challenges I face at this new school. Trying to figure out ways to reach all the kids in an effective way while still providing adequate challenges for my Pre-AP kids has been extremely trying at times. When it works, things are really exciting, but when I find myself at the occasional crossroads where twenty-two of my kids are good to go and only one kid finds himself stuck and unable to continue with the task I’ve presented, I feel lost, anxious, and to be frank, rather weary. It is tiring trying to keep up with all the different levels of language learning happening in my classroom. I have ELLs who speak better English than some high school students I know. I have ELLs who read, write, and converse fluently, but sometimes get stumped on trickier, more nuanced words/concepts like “reluctant” or “controversy.” I have ELLs who are still in such a formative stage of their language acquisition that they cannot tell me why they are late to class. How do we plan for all these young people? And how can we support the ELLs who are newest to English, who arguably need us most (but who, let’s face it, are often ignored in favour of keeping the others “on schedule”)?

First of all, we need to think like an ELL. I watched a webinar a few months ago that opened with an exercise that I’ll not soon forget. The speaker told us that she was going to show us an image. We could think whatever we wanted about it. Then we’d have to describe it. Okay, simple enough. This is basically what came up on the screen:

Easy enough, right? “Where’s the challenge in this?” I wondered.

“Now, here’s the catch,” the speaker said, “When you describe this object, you cannot use any words that contain the letter N.”

Huh. Let’s think about that. You can’t say line. You can’t say point. You can’t say triangle. You can’t say intersect. You certainly can’t say polygon. Think about what you would say! Personally, I didn’t get much farther than “three-sided shape,” and even though I think that accurately describes a triangle, you can imagine that it would be a heck of a lot easier to visualize it if I could use words like line and point. This brain-crunching process that I experienced in this short exercise was meant to acquaint me with what it’s like to be an ELL. You know what that stupid thing is. You have words you want to use, but you can’t use those ones. You are limited to only a few other words that would never really be your first choice and you really have to ponder for a while before you can spit out your thoughts.

What I liked about the session with Deb yesterday is that she didn’t just theorize about teaching ELLs. She presented us with some concrete ideas and strategies that we could carry forward and implement immediately in our teaching, regardless of the subject being taught. There were definitely a bunch of strategies she discussed that are already in place in my classroom, but there were other ideas that, although being pretty simple and intuitive, I’d never really thought much about before! More importantly, perhaps, some of the things she talked about provoked further thought processes about pedagogy and best practices for me. When my brain gets all tickly like that during PD, it’s almost like I can feel the potential growth taking root. That might be really nerdy to say, but hey, I love my job. Nerding out over literacy is what I do.

I took pretty detailed notes during this session — probably much to the chagrin of my tablemates who had to endure the irritating sound of my nails clicking away incessantly on my keyboard — and now I’m very excited to share the document with you! In my typically-OCD manner, I got a little cray-cray over the formatting of this document; I’m hoping that you find it to be a reasonably well-structured resource that you can take and peruse for ideas and perhaps reshare with your teaching friends! You’ll notice, now and again, that there are italicized comments written in violet. Those are my own personal, random thoughts about teaching and pedagogy that I inserted along the way. 🙂 Enjoy!

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about my February PD session with Penny  Kittle (Squee!), my experiences using learning centers in a high school English class, and a general reflection about some of the emotional challenges I’ve faced in this profession.

Happy weekend!

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EdCamp: a PD oasis in a desert of duds

BAM, consonance on D and S!

More importantly, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the strange creature that is professional development. I distinctly remember being a student teacher and looking so forward to my first PD experience. I thought, “Oh WOW am I ever ready to be professionally developed! This is going to be so great and.. developing! And.. professional!”

Fast forward a handful of years and that naïve enthusiasm has pretty much vanished like a bag of potato chips during PMS week.

PD is perhaps one of the biggest enigmas in my field of work. It’s called professional development and yet, when you go, you often leave feeling irritable and tired. You feel kind of like you’ve wasted your time. Like the stuff the people were presenting about was exactly the same stuff you heard about last year. And the year before that. Catch words/phrases like “21st-Century Learning,” and “differentiation,” and “inquiry” sort of get tossed about like the daily weather report. Everyone’s already heard about it but we’re going to talk about it anyway. Turn around, see someone you haven’t mentioned it to yet. Discuss ad nauseum. Feel developed yet?

Don’t get me wrong. Much of PD is like this but once in a while, you go to a session that restores your faith in good PD. I HAVE had worthwhile, enlightening, brilliant PD sessions. I would be remiss to write any kind of post about PD without mentioning Kelly Gallagher at least once. You might have already read my post about my first-ever (and so far, only) Twitter #engchat experience, but I joined in that day solely because he was facilitating the discussion(s). His books are on my wishlists and his website is a gem of a resource. If you teach English Language Arts/literacy, you definitely want to peruse that site. Other than Kelly’s PDs, I’ve attended some other great sessions on adolescent writers, film studies, teen cognitive development, differentiation, and assessment.

That said, I’ve definitely found myself in more bad PD than good, and have occasionally been embarrassed by my own “Oops I fell asleep” head bob. I use the desert analogy in my post title not simply for the alliterative delightfulness, but also because when we think about deserts, we think about… well, I think about camels. But generally, we think about thirst. And I thirst for good PD. I thirst for PD that is meaningful, worthwhile, relevant. PD that is real. PD that does what I think PD is supposed to do.

What I think PD is supposed to do is present something new. We keep saying, “Oh, let’s talk about differentiation in a new, exciting way!” but then we default to “What is differentiation?” and “What are learning styles?” and the same stuff we did last year. I’m not interested in talking about theoretical stuff anymore. I want something concrete. I want teaching ideas. I want cues. I want what Kelly Gallagher calls “ways in.” I want fresh perspectives that are coming directly from the front lines — from educators who, like me, face the joys/fears/excitement/self-loathing that comes with being in the classroom every day with young people, hoping to make a difference.

And there is a lot of PD that is led by people who are no longer actively working in a school setting. I don’t know how to feel about those sessions. And what I’m about to say may be more ignorant than anything else… But the truth is that when push comes to shove, and I’m faced with a choice of “Hear from someone who is teaching/working in schools TODAY” and “Hear from someone who has worked in a downtown office for five years,” I’m going to pick the former. Not because I think the second person has nothing to offer, but because I think teaching is one of those professions that evolves on a daily basis (and that strangely/paradoxically/maddeningly/[insertadverbhere] also never changes.. hmm).

I also think it’s somewhere between hysterically funny and horribly tragic that we’ll actually go to PDs on inquiry- or discovery-based learning and have a person LECTURE us for two hours straight. What? Did I miss something?

I’m lucky to have made friends and worked with some pretty fantastic professionals in my first real teaching job. The ladies in my department were (and still are) just utterly fabulous human beings, and I really learned to be more vocal about my work and to share my ideas because of my friendships with them. One day, one of my English Department colleagues, Erin, started talking about something called EdCamp. It’s supposed to be an “unconference” and is essentially PD that is organized and facilitated and attended by teachers. EdCamp is for people who want to talk about what they want to talk about. There are some driving concepts behind EdCamp: 1) EdCamp is generally free or low-cost. 2) EdCamp topics are decided THAT day by the people in attendance so that they can discuss what matters to them. 3) EdCamp strives to provide opportunities for people to ditch the theoretical nonsense and get to the practical application of teaching principles/ideologies in their classrooms. 4) EdCamp is collaborative and it is centered around professional sharing. 5) EdCamp is awesome.

Erin and some others assembled an EdCamp Edmonton organization team and put on the first EdCamp Edmonton last November. It was everything I hoped it would be. My best friend (French Immersion, 1ère année) even came with me to soak everything up. I invited my friend Megan to join in, too. Megan, by the by, has the greatest teacher Tumblr ever, and is a forward-thinking, ingenious, incredibly-well-dressed woman who I admired even when we were Ed students together. I continue to be fascinated by her ideas and vision and frankness about everything she does.

We were joined by a bunch of other wonderful, inspiring people, who helped to make EdCamp 1.0 a success (Click that link to check out our Google Doc from the day!), so I was looking forward to this year’s EdCamp with great zeal. And rightfully so.

Some highlights of this year’s EdCamp for me included meeting new people and finding inspiring Tweeps to follow, as well as seeing some familiar faces from last year. I was also super stoked to contribute to a wickedly amazing Google Doc that became yet another invaluable piece of PD documentation. I loved eating a predictably delicious lunch made with love by Erin’s parents. I felt enriched and challenged and hopeful while talking about Project/Problem-Based Learning, Poetry, Reading Comprehension and all things ELA, awesome websites for educational use, and current events in the classroom. We did a particularly fun activity towards the end of lunch hour that was named, “Things that Suck,” wherein some contentious educational topics were presented and we physically moved to place ourselves on a continuum of “for” or “against” and debate back and forth. We debated grades, technology, homework, and… something else. It was so. much. fun.

And throughout all of this, perhaps the one thing that was the BEST part of EdCamp was this: I felt, as I did at the last EdCamp, that I’m not alone in the way I feel about my job. Here you had a passionate group of educators who got together on a Saturday to discuss their craft, to bemoan the obstacles and policies that hinder us from doing what we’d like to do, and to celebrate the things we have been able to do. We were a group of people who see that rigorous, standardized testing is killing our kids (and us); who see that assessment practices need to change; and who realize that in the most paradoxical way, the best way we can teach is by stepping aside (sometimes) and giving our students the space they need so they can actually learn. I can’t tell you how amazing that felt. It makes me laugh to think that schools spend hundreds of dollars per teacher annually to send us to PD and yet, some of the most meaningful PD I’ll get all year was for free.

EdCamp came at just the right time, especially while I’m nearing the first report card and really coming to terms with this whole new world of teaching challenges and with the room for growth in my professional practice. EdCamp and the fantastic, beautiful people who attended it reminded me to keep trying to do things differently, not to let myself be jaded, and to keep pushing myself to do what’s best for my students rather than what’s easiest for me.

Hope I’ll see you at the next one.


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