For a number of years, one of my primary responsibilities as a university technology center director was to conduct one-day professional development workshops for K-12 teachers. At least once—often twice—a week I’d find myself in front of a group of 24 teachers from at least a dozen different school districts and private schools. Most of us had never met and would probably never see each other again after 4:00 PM that day.
Drive-by, flash-in-the-pan PD is at the top of everyone’s list of “worst practices.”
On top of it all, I had an insanely busy schedule AND was usually conducting a workshop I had done dozens of times before. How tempting to hit the autopilot button and just start “downloading” my canned content to the captive participants for six hours. If I didn’t catch myself, I could pretty much sleepwalk through the entire day with all the same examples, jokes, and practiced ad libs I had done countless times before. Yuck.
Here’s my simple “card trick” that went a long way toward drawing teachers in and preventing me from entering autopilot mode.
At the beginning of each workshop I’d give each participant two index cards and ask them to write on each card their name and one takeaway they wanted from the day, whether it was an answer, a technique, a lesson idea, a management strategy, or whatever was on their mind. I’d collect the cards and give them a few minutes to introduce themselves to each other while I organized the cards.
Organizing 48 cards is actually much easier than it sounds. Many will be duplicates, most were things you were planning for the workshop anyway, quite a few will cue you into the sorts of examples appropriate for the group, and only a few will be off-topic.
Once I had the cards arranged on my table, I’d go over the agenda. As I previewed each section and activity, I’d note in general which categories of requested “takeaways” would be included. Once I started into the material, I’d continue to acknowledge the cards and move them from one side of the table to the other. “So Becky, do you see now how you can…?” “John, does that help with the problem you were having with…?” And so forth. I’d deal with the off-topic questions individually while the participants were working on one of the activities spread throughout the day.
At the end of the day I’d ask, “Did you all get all of your questions answered. Are you each taking back to your school what you came for?” There would always be a happy consensus that they got what they wanted and were appreciative that we had customized the workshop as we went along.
I found the “two-card trick” to go a long way toward creating an atmosphere where the participants felt that they had real input into the direction of the workshop and were happy that they were getting what they wanted out of it rather than what I wanted to teach them. (Even though I’d end up doing at least 95% of what I had planned anyway.)
If that trick can work in the dreaded “flash-in-the-pan, one-shot” workshop, I rather imagine that it would also be a nice addition to more properly implemented PD with follow-up and the whole nine yards.
Roy Winkelman is a 40+ year veteran teacher of students from every level kindergarten through graduate school. As the former Director of FCIT, he began the Center's focus on providing students with rich content collections from which to build their understanding. When not glued to his keyboard, Dr. Winkelman can usually be found puttering around his tomato garden in Pittsburgh.
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