Professional Development Books that Influenced my Teaching Practices

I am asked often enough for recommendations of this sort of thing that I thought I’d share.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe was the first truly useful and completely life-changing professional development book I read. I utterly altered the way I taught after reading it. It seems obvious to think about larger questions and determine what I want students to learn or be able to do by the end of a lesson or unit, but I wasn’t doing it before I read this book. This book is an essential in project-based learning. Some of my older posts written as I reflected on reading this book still get more traffic than anything else on this blog. Try searching for the tags “ubd” or “understanding by design” to read them.

After reading An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger this summer, I completely revamped the way I teach writing, and it’s really working well. For more information about writing workshop in my classes, check out these posts: Writing Workshop Part 1, Writing Workshop Part 2, and Writing Workshop Part 3. One of our history teachers and I discussed how this process could be used in his classes as well, and he has begun to implement it with excellent results. We had an enthusiastic sharing session about it last week. I am so thrilled. The side benefits: 1) students are returning to the work, even after it’s been graded, to refine it further (not every student, true, but the fact that any student is doing this is remarkable to me); 2) no issues with plagiarism, which is a benefit I didn’t even consider when I started (but it makes sense if you are sharing your work with all your peers, you wouldn’t plagiarize it); 3) our classroom is a true community—one student commented on course evaluations that “we are always collaborating” and another said that the class is like “a family.” Students are beginning to ask for workshop. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about how it has changed my classroom for the better, and it’s really because I read this book that I opted to try it out. One thing I’d like to see: an update of this book with consideration of using technology tools. Ron Berger carries around a massive amount of original student work, and digitizing it or doing the projects using digital tools would really help. A new section explaining how to do that would be great (I volunteer as tribute, if the folks at Heinemann or Ron Berger himself are interested).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the summer I went to a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It was phenomenal. The performance-based methods advocated by Folger have increased my students’ engagement in Shakespeare and have helped them grapple with his language and themes. I have used Folger methods with students of all backgrounds and levels, and they just work. I couldn’t teach without this book. It makes me sad that there isn’t one for every play I’d consider teaching, but this volume has Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, and two other volumes have been published that incorporate 1) Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One and 2) Twelfth Night and Othello. I would love to see one on Julius Caesar. I think that play is hard to teach, and it is so frequently taught. Could be useful. Anyone want to go in with me to design a good Caesar unit? Let me know.

Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing helped me understand the importance of modeling, of the teacher as learner. The book includes a DVD, so you can see Penny’s writing workshop in progress. She discusses how her students keep writer’s notebooks, how she incorporates minilessons and conferences, the ways in which she teaches genre, and how she assesses. It’s fantastic.

I have a lot of books on my shelf that I really need to get through. Hopefully, with some changes coming soon, I’ll have some time to do that.

So now it’s time for the real conversation: which resources do you recommend?

Just for the purposes of full disclosure, I’m an Amazon associate; however, none of the authors or publishers have offered me compensation for sharing these books, and I share these books with you because they have truly been helpful to me. The associate links are a convenience for those who wish to purchase from Amazon.

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UbD Educators Wiki

Keep Calm and Wiki OnSome years ago, after reading Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, I started a wiki for teachers to learn and share UbD units and ideas. Despite having over 500 members, the wiki doesn’t see a lot of new content. At this stage, I think only two members regularly contribute new content, and one of them is me.

If you are interested in helping, this is what we need:

  • Units and ideas from teachers in a variety of fields. Perhaps because I am an English teacher, and mostly English teachers keep up with this blog, most of the early contributors to the UbD Educators wiki were and still are English teachers, but as I said, aside from me, only one other English teacher is still actively posting units. I admit to using it myself just to keep track of my unit plans, which is fine, but it isn’t very interactive. If you teach using UbD, especially if you don’t teach English (but even if you do), please consider sharing your plans.
  • Chapter reflections. Miguel Guhlin made shell pages for chapter summaries. I admit I am conflicted about this because ASCD, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe have been so supportive of the wiki, and I would hate to do anything that might prevent people from purchasing their book (which I think all teachers should read). However, I think it might be a great idea for people to use those pages to share their reflections and insights from chapters. If you have insights to contribute, please do.
  • What’s missing? What subject areas do we need to include? Links? Resources? If you think something should be on the wiki that isn’t, please add it.

Despite the fact that the main page has included a note that all the materials can be viewed by lurkers, and that you do not have to join the wiki to see anything, I still receive requests to join at the rate of one or two people a week, and none of the new members has made contributions in years. I don’t mind lurkers. If the early contributors had minded lurkers, we would have put the information behind some kind of registration wall. I am opposed to making people jump through hoops to access the materials, but I think this wiki has the potential to be a much greater repository than it is, and it can only become a great repository if we build it together.

I would be interested to know if people join with the intention of contributing but then feel shy about sharing their work online (overheard and paraphrased at the ISTE conference: Share your work. Teachers don’t share their work because they don’t think they’re doing great work. They ARE doing great work, but no one knows about it if you don’t share). Do people skim over the note about lurking and join because they think they will get to see more more materials if they do? I am genuinely curious, and I am not sure of the answer.

My hunch, as much as I hate the idea, is that folks are joining without reading that page, thinking they will access more materials if they do. The reason I think this might be the case is that I had a wiki for my students, and even though I clearly stated that only my students would be permitted to join the wiki, I still received requests until I finally had to turn off the ability to request membership because I was really tired of processing the membership denials for teachers who simply didn’t read. In the case of the UbD Educators wiki, over 500 people have joined, which is awesome, but they haven’t contributed, which is a lot less awesome.

On a side note, most of the visits to this blog are from folks looking to read UbD-related content, so I know there is real interest in the subject, and I know that teachers are looking for guidance and ideas. It might be nice if we could build up the wiki a bit so that they had some resources. In case you are worried, the materials are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, Noncommercial, Share-Alike license, meaning that work posted there can freely be used and remixed with credit given to the original author, but not for profit.

I guess I will get into how I feel about sites like Teachers Pay Teachers some other time. Not sure I want to stir that particular pot right now, and to be honest, I’m not really even sure why I feel the way I do about the site, so until I can articulate my thoughts more clearly, I’m just steering clear. I will say I think teachers fall into two camps when it comes to sharing: 1) people who share everything; 2) people who refuse to share anything. I have been lucky enough to know a lot of teachers who share, and I have benefited enormously from their ideas. Through their generosity, they have made a better teacher. At it’s core, that is all the UbD Educators wiki is about—sharing ideas so that we can all benefit and become better teachers.

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First Week

I just finished my first week as Technology Integration Specialist at Worcester Academy. My preliminary verdict? I’ve never been this happy at any job before. I have been working on SMART Board training and Wikispaces training for faculty, learning how to use Schoology (a great tool that is overshadowed by big competitors Moodle and Blackboard), building LEGO robots, and just generally becoming acclimated to the new environment.

I’m really excited about the role I will be playing in the school. In addition to my technology integration duties, I will also teach a middle school class on digital citizenship and a tenth grade English class, and I will co-sponsor the school’s LEGO Robotics club for middle schoolers. I am super excited about the LEGO Robotics club, especially after one of my new buddies from Carolina Day School reached out to me via Twitter to suggest a collaboration between our two schools.

Besides having colleagues who are excited about technology and are doing exciting things with technology integration in an environment that encourages and requires technology integration, I also have a variety of tools at my disposal. I have never been able to have access to all the tools—including professional development—that I need to do my job. That may sound like an astonishing statement, but most educators can completely relate to it. In fact, that’s the most overwhelming part: not knowing what to use.

I haven’t even taken time yet to process my first ISTE experience on this blog, but that will be forthcoming. I’m really excited about the year ahead. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, moving my family so far away, particularly when my children are on the autism spectrum and don’t like change. They had no memories of ever living in any other house than the one we lived in. They have adjusted surprisingly well, and I think once school starts, they will be happy. I like New England, too. Moving can be such a stressful event, and our move didn’t go as smoothly as we’d have liked. (Word of caution: Don’t hire Summit Van Lines to move your things. They gave us a low initial quote, but turned out not to be terribly cheap in the end, AND they took two weeks to deliver our stuff. I was not happy with them at all. They were almost impossible to communicate with, in addition to the other issues. Steer clear!)

In all, it’s looking like a very good change, and I’m really happy.

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RPG’s in Education

This morning I was thinking about an activity my 7th grade social studies teacher assigned called the Redwood Controversy. My classmates and I were each given different roles. In order to understand how great this assignment was, I need to preface my description of the activity and my role in it by explaining I was easily the most liberal child in my class. In our class election, I was the lone student who voted for Walter Mondale. I remember going with my parents to the polls, begging them not to vote for Ronald Reagan (I knew they planned to). I remember desperately trying to change their minds. The Redwood Controversy (look: you can buy it here) is essentially an RPG, or role-playing game, in which students are given roles in a senate hearing about a logging company wanting to begin logging on protected forest land. I was outraged. How could a company want to do that? Of course they were in the wrong. Then Ms. Snyder assigned me my role: I was to be the logging company’s attorney. It was a big role. I had to research my position and answer my senator classmates’ questions. I knew the case wasn’t going my way, but as the game progressed, I wanted to win. Even though I didn’t agree with my own position, I was increasingly frustrated by my classmates’ inability to see how reasonable my arguments were.

Well, I didn’t win. The environmentalists won the day in my class. Some few days later, I was called to the assistant principal’s office while I was once again in Ms. Snyder’s class. I was terrified. I had never been called to an administrator’s office for any reason. I couldn’t imagine what I had done. My fear must have shown on my face because I remember he said to me, “I’ll bet you’re wondering what you did.” He reassured me that I was not in trouble. He had a certificate in his hand and he read it to me, presented it to me, and congratulated me. Ms. Snyder had given me an award for my performance in the Redwood Controversy debate. When I went back to class, I remember she caught my eye and gave me a sort of smile. Being recognized for my hard work felt good. I still have the certificate somewhere, and naturally, when I looked for it to include the exact wording here in this post, I couldn’t find it, but I remember Ms. Snyder wrote that I defended my position well without becoming overwhelmed. This learning experience stands out in my mind today as one of my best. I had to think about my arguments and do research about my position. I had to look at an issue from a point of view that differed from my own, which was actually the most important part of the learning experience for me. Taking on a role, especially one I wouldn’t have chosen, taught me a great deal about the environmental issue at hand. It was early exposure to bias, too: I remember seeing some of the materials my classmates had and realizing that the information was presented to them in a much different light in their materials than it was in mine.

My point in bringing it up again (because I’ve written about it before) is that it is easily one of the most memorable learning experiences of my K-12 education. I think I learned more about environmental issues and controversy in that one assignment than I did in the rest of my education experiences, even in college. I still remember it quite clearly. Admittedly I don’t haven’t done any research to back this up, but I am wondering if role-playing gives students an active way to learn that will not only make students learn better but also personalize learning. Any readers have similar experiences with RPG’s? I do intend to see if I can find some research to back up this assumption, and I am sure I’m not the first person to examine the question of how good RPG’s might be for education. After all, I think a lot of us remember playing Oregon Trail in order to learn about what westward expansion was really like for pioneers. However, I haven’t noticed it being used a lot. My current school has Mock Trial, and I know other schools do Model U.N., but I haven’t personally witnessed (or experienced) a lot of teachers harnessing the power of RPG’s, whether computer games or physical games, to teach students. One time in which I used an RPG to great effect was a Thoreau lesson I found on Discovery’s website.

I’m wondering if introducing students to reenactment might not be a great way to pique students’ interest, too. Historical reenactors, such as Civil War Reenactors and Society for Creative Anachronism members, are often viewed as huge history buffs. They read everything they can get their hands on about the time they reenact, but they reach a certain point at which they really want to live it, not just read and learn about it. Rather than being the endpoint of serious historical interest, reenactment could be the gateway for learning. Have any readers taken students to reenactments, had students participate in reenactments, or invited reenactors to school?

Many long-time readers know I have participated in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It took place the week after school let out, and I have never wanted to get back into the classroom so badly the week after school let out as I did that week. I immediately wanted to take everything I had learned back into the classroom. Essentially, drama, RPG’s, and reenactment have many similarities and involve many of the same kinds of thinking skills, decisions, and learning experiences.

I can’t help but think we really need to be doing more with RPG’s in education. Do any of you have resources you can point me toward? Interested in joining me on this research excursion? Might be a good project for a group wiki on RPG’s in education, which could be a collection of ideas, resources, and research citations (wish educational research wasn’t so often behind a paywall).

Are you in?

photo by: Minette Layne

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