How Do We Define “PD”?

When do teachers have time to develop themselves as professionals?

A colleague asked me this recently during a brief department meeting, “okay, what do we really mean by ‘professional development’?”. The question immediately sparked thoughts and urged me to respond by reaching for details to breathe life into such an important moment. The sad thing about our profession–as American teachers–is that we don’t ever get to talk about the big ideas we once dreamed about in school. We don’t get to the “why” or the “what if” during cram-your-breakfast-in-while-policing-the-hallway meetings. Our professional time is diluted by empty technical tasks while our hearts and souls are left (the bell just rang…)

I’m leaving that pause in to illustrate what I’m talking about. There really are not enough spaces for pedagogical thought between teachers; my plan yielded enough time for some deep breathing, a necessary trip to my mailbox, and the previous paragraph on this day. We are scrunched between hours, assemblies, impromptu mandatory conversations with administrators or district leaders, and all the while the kids need to be kept engaged and monitored in the background. We’re never really off the hook for their safety and that is reflected in our blood pressure, coffee intake, and personal sanity.

Yes, of course kids need to be taken care of at all times in school. No right-minded teacher would disagree. However, how often do we consider the professional atmosphere of the teacher? What kind of air does she breathe? What sorts of words does she swim through? And what is the general ecology of her professional environment?

These are questions ignored in every day practice in schools because they are too abstract, too theoretical, and too impractical to make it onto official dockets and agendas (especially those emailed at the last minute and with high importance). But really, what are we missing out on when we discount this ecological element of the teaching and learning environment? What is the cost of our current professional pace?

When teachers are given a space to take a deep breath, a sip of coffee, or even take a glance at a professional journal or article, an important psychological (and emotional) development takes place (that’s what I’m calling it at least). They are freed to leave the always-on mindset of the checklist high and email buzzing in your pocket, and can truly think of themselves and their practice. You read it right, teachers need more time to think of themselves. Ultimately, it’s that kind of focus that will lead to better serving the students and the school as a whole system.

What are your needs as a teacher? Principals, what kinds of time do you provide in your building to allow for personal growth and change amongst teachers? Is “systems thinking” a pervasive idea for those around you?

School Culture: Social or Academic?

Being reflective is a huge part of who I am as a teacher. I am continually evaluating my own sources of motivation. I want to know–really know–what makes me tick. We can all sense when we have a great moment of success in the classroom, with our fellow teachers, or planning a great lesson, but where does that come from? What makes those moments possible? What makes little innovations more frequent and visible to the community? I don’t know about you, but I want to know when the teachers down the hall or upstairs are having eureka moments and what they did to get there. For me, it comes back to writing.

Why Reflective Writing is Powerful for Teachers

When I take to the keyboard and screen, my mindset is open and searching for the roots of those good ideas. I see a million little things every day that inspire me and could grow into something bigger if only I nurtured them a bit more: times when you notice just how vital proximity is between you and a certain student during class, times when a well-placed joke or personal note just does the trick, and times when a little differentiation really turns the lights on for someone who’s just not getting it.

Writing is the way we unpack these moments and take up the task of examining their contents more closely. When the habit of writing to learn is established and practiced, eventually, it turns into the habit of thinking to write. When we carry a reflective thought process with us during the day, a new region of potential begins to emerge in our field of vision; we start to see new possibilities for capturing future great moments, and our thinking to write leads to teaching as a pathway to writing.

When any teacher writes reflectively, it is autobiographical, memoir-esque, and experiential. And so, the audience is wont to interpret such core experiences as imminently true. Now I can only speak for one author, but the intent of writing about classroom experiences in my case is always a mixture of the past, the present, and the transcendent. What I see and hear in my day-to-day is where my writing voice is rooted, but what I read and hear from others is always queued up to fill gaps. This way, I can enjoy the benefits of a writing style that I hope is personal and truthful, but also mindful of the outside world beyond my immediate experience. My purpose in writing is to discern, to explore thinking deeper, and to question what I’ve seen and done so I can better know what my place was and where I’m headed.

A Look at School Culture Categories

This week I was thinking a lot about classroom and building culture surrounding learning and thinking. The “honeymoon” phase has long since passed as most people understand it, and many are showing that look in their eyes. I think what I’m seeing is the loss of social capital between student and teacher during the slow but visible shift from process learning (rules, procedures, and expectations) to more academic content learning (topics, texts, and assignments). Teachers have a tough job to carry students through the getting-to-know-you phase of a new school year on to the let’s-get-down-to-business parts. My question has always been, why can’t this be more seamless? Why can’t our social and academic goals become more closely intertwined as we work to prepare students to be citizens of our world?

Surely a school’s civic culture has a strong connection with its academic identity. Some schools lean one way or the other strongly, but if both are not present and acted on by teachers and leaders, what does that look like? A school with no civic engagement is plodding through curriculum, advancing from A to B, one book to another, and doing little inspiring of students to do more than collect credentials, points, and grades. One with a mind to serve and work within its community may be more comfortable and personal, but where does it leave students when they graduate?

The school that misses both targets is what concerns me the most, that is what I hope no school has to become: a “custody school” as Jonas Hoog. terms them. In those such schools, success is just getting through the day. In this school, teachers count down the days to the next break and to the end of the year constantly as though escape were all that mattered. This kind of sentiment can be present in any school, but the more socially or academically focused a school’s culture is, the more quickly these sorts of attitudes are dispersed. Anyone is susceptible to the occasional fleeting bout of worry about survival through a particularly stressful day or class, but that emotion’s prevalence or predominance is a key indicator of a school culture that may be lacking in direction.

Where Do Teachers and Leaders Fit?

Leadership in a school is always decentralized, even when it is not. Principals and administrative staff may set the agendas, write the “do now” emails, and carry walkie talkies, but their ability to set building tone and cultivate an atmosphere of learning is only made possible through the permission of each active teacher, department, and stakeholder. These agents within the school do the lion’s share of the culture creating work in both the social and academic realms.

When a principal decides Priority X needs to be done, she had better understand a variety of scenarios for how her building leaders will embed their own version of her message into their daily practice. The principal should have a clear idea of what the teacher’s lounge and hallway chatter will sound like.

What will the doubters say?

Who will dismiss Priority X simply because it is an administrative idea and how persistent and pervasive will such attitudes be?

What will the department heads cover in their formal and informal modes of communication?

And when will thoughts of Priority X occupy the minds of every other teacher, busily hurrying through their necessary day-to-day affairs?

Will the delivery of it induce undue stress or panic?

Will they know who to go to for questions?

Is there a culturally established procedure for “getting answers” that leads in an unintended direction? Each of these questions, and all of their possible permutations, represent the complex thought process of a leader concerned with not just a message or mandate, but with school structure and culture.

It is the responsibility of school leaders to ensure that each member of their school body has the opportunity  and voice to carry out what they believe is right.

The Question I’m Left to Ponder:

How Do Leaders Build & Sustain Culture?

Just Throw It Up and See What Happens

Here at the end of the Digital Literacies Resource Development Retreat, I’m brought to my laptop in reflection. When I look back at the last three days I see in my mind the shadows cast by many incredible educators. I hear the voices of people from many corners of the country, and I feel the effects of being where trying new things is encouraged.

Being able to step away from our familiar desks at school, offices or couches at home, or that old familiar coffee shop affords us a unique perspective. While being disconnected from those locations, but connected in person to a cadre of high functioning professionals, there was a general feeling that a lot of important work was going to be done.

The retreat did not disappoint. Aside from breaking for meals and stopping around 7:00, there was near non-stop writing, developing, conversing, questioning, and thinking. There was never a moment when I wasn’t able speak my mind or pose an honest question to a variety of people and expect a thoughtful response.

With all the possibility for continual chatter, it struck me that so many of us were able to spend a majority of our time working independently. The collaborative atmosphere waved above our heads as a flag deeming that we had claimed this space and time as our own. There didn’t need to be a schedule about who would meet with whom at what times or in what ways; we just worked.

This weekend made me think about my dream classroom, about that school-topia we all wish to create for our kids. We want learners to be in control, but not be afraid to give it up. We want learners to write without fear of letting the words go in favor of new ideas. We want groups of learners to collaborate and work independently at their own pace in a way that allows the most authentic progress on projects.

The spirit of innovation and tinkering seemed inherent in our crafting of resources for the space on Digital Is. My resource evolved hourly it seemed, as I conferred with Christina Cantrill, Troy Hicks, Tracy Lee, and others. Being in an environment where learning, writing, and collaboration were all so closely tied emboldened me to tell new stories, ask different questions, and listen in new ways.

The philosophy of the retreat, to quote one of my fellow developers, seemed to be just throw it up, and see what happens. That attitude disarmed us all as we allowed it to permeate our thinking.

It wasn’t a philosophy that came about in a committee or a study group. The words uttered are simply a casual sampling of our evening activities. After a long day of work, we retreated to playing pool in the lounge. After considerable failure, at the price of great entertainment, it was Lindsay Sorenson who tried to encourage us to be confident in our play.

I’ve always thought that the willingness to participate and the ability to discover were closely related. The National Writing Project provides educators with such a rich variety of learning opportunities to participate in and then helps ensure that discoveries are able to happen.

If we can exploring the meaning of digital and how it affects what we call writing–a challenge both broad and complex–in such a setting, think about what such an atmosphere would allow our students K-12?

Deep in the Heart

Here at the Purple Sage Ranch in Bandera, TX, I am removed from the physical world I’m used to. The National Writing Project’s Digital Literacies Resource Development Retreat provides a space and time for me to do some much needed processing.

Being removed from our usual surroundings is an important factor in reflective writing. Doing any sort of self-assessment begs for new perspective, for a vantage point high on a hill or a stone seat deep in a river’s valley.

When I hear the word “digital” in my head, my brain’s gears shift and click into position. I’m on guard about this word: it’s loaded.

Being at a retreat focused on what Digital Is, I’ve promised myself time to meditate on paper as well as in digital space. I feel like my own removal from familiar mediums is vital in securing the fidelity of my time and thought.

I hope to write more this weekend about how we understand the spaces in which we write and learn: from Gibson’s dark cyberspace to TED’s beacon of light in learning.

Our first task: write a 140 character text which describes our purpose and exploration this weekend.
Wow, someone actually checks these alt texts? You win a prize!This tweet lays out some of the core ideas that I hope to tinker with. In fact, I should have included the word “tinker” in there now that I think of it. I foresee a product that packages my pedagogical philosophy into a sort of passport for people on the precipice in their practice. Now, say that five times fast.

Atomic Learning: An Inquiry into the Water of Knowledge

How can public reflection promote the growth of new teachers?

This question is valuable to me because I have experienced the first year of a teacher when aided by public reflection. Without my own cataloging, questioning, and sharing during this time, I would never have garnered the kind of useful feedback that teachers need in order to grow strong out of challenging situations.

The philosophical background to my decision to blog my whole first year is that I believe in sharing and creating knowledge together. Neither do I believe we are empty vessels to be filled (by teachers or whomever) nor that we are wells waiting to have knowledge drawn out; on the contrary, we won’t get any water at all or find a use for it unless we can put hydrogen and oxygen together. It’s the combination and the connection of those elements which makes water and nothing else. There is no planet where water is from alone, no way to create it from nothing either. It takes two very separate nucleii (well, three if we’re counting atoms and not different elements) to make bonds, then we get water.

Knowledge is like water in more ways than just its creation. We are satisfied by it, quenched by it, and it is the most ubiquitous part of any culture or being. Water is versatile and adapts to its surroundings, it changes form so it can stay together.

How can we, as learners, address the bonds that we need to make? What questions will guide us to the nucleus of our problem and how do we know whether we’re an H or an O? Water’s chemical composition is static and vital to its use in any sense. If you add even one extra oxygen atom (we’ve now got H2O2) then you’re swimming in, drinking, and skating on top of hydrogen peroxide. With knowledge, we have to have the right balance of the familiar and the strange in order for it to apply to our practice.

Hydrogen is the most basic of all elements, for all intents and purposes, everything was once arranged like this element with the most simplistic atomic structure. Oxygen is more complex, boasting a diatomic structure (think of it like a set of identical twins that have to be together and wear matching dresses). It also has a perfectly filled outer shell, something hydrogen only wishes it had with its singular orbiting particle. But when you put these two elements together, the most simple and familiar and the highly organized and complex, you get a magical new creation capable of so much more tha the two separate.

When we consider the water-like characteristics of knowledge, it becomes clearer to us as learners we need to marry our own experiences (which seem simple and familiar to us) with the confusing complexities of something else. The bond that we make when ready to encounter new information is strong. If we’re able to model this atomic curiosity for our students, this flexibility to find learning anywhere, and our bond with that learning presents itself, then our job as teachers becomes a little bit easier.

If we can use our personal understanding of how learning works, then our experience will more directly translate to students.

What is it about public performance and reflection that deepens our sense of self-understanding?

As teachers, it is clear that the profession has been shifting from a more isolated and individualized job to a more collaborative professional field. In the most forward-thinking  schools, teachers are empowered to share best practices with their peers and seek continual improvement through conversations and open demonstrations. There are no business secrets or competitive programs pitting teacher against teacher. The most successful schools embody the ideal that brought all of us into the profession: sharing in the learning experience with students.

How do you take your students on learning journeys? What elements of public reflection do you practice and model for students as a learner yourself?

We’ll Fix It in Post?

Sometimes I think to myself, after perhaps a very long and unsuccessful day of teaching, I wish I were a film maker or television producer because then I could simply say, “meh, I’ll fix it in post.” Meaning of course that I wish I could go back and edit, tweak, cut, and enhance my lessons, actions, and reactions to be more suitable. What I really should be thinking, I realized, is “meh, I’ll fix it AND post.” Meaning, that I should just write about what went wrong and reflect! Teachers don’t have a post-production phase and then a studio. We don’t have a special multi-colored key board to tune up and down the pitches of our practice, but we do have our words.


I can’t imagine how much differently this year would be turning out without this blog. I’ve come here to write often with a full heart overflowing with joy, other times with a heavy one weighed down with frustration. At the risk of sounding like a small child talking to his imaginary friend or diary, I think I need this blog; I can tell it anything. Then again, unlike a journal locked away in a drawer or a made-up companion, this blog is connected to something bigger than myself. I get to speak here and be heard. I can listen for dissension, affirmation, and comments that add to my understanding of what I’m encountering in teaching.

Unlike what I learned from the theories in my education classes and the experiences I’ve had in the classroom, reflective writing provides me with a chance to process information. Without time to write, I’m left to sort out the ideas in my head, and they don’t last long up there. When I write, my ideas take form on the page (usually the screen though) before me and I can subtly choose what I want to store in my longer term memory. I like to think of my brain as a computer that has representative parts like the memory I mentioned.

Let’s say my eyes are like a web browser that allows me to take in vast quantities of information constantly from many sources. I get to store some of the unprocessed information in my temporary memory (my RAM) and only when I decide that I want to download some of it, does it go to longer term memory (my hard drive disk). You’re all familiar with how computers work I’m assuming, it’s nice to have a bunch of web browser tabs open and be “reading” lots of stuff at once, but you never really learn it until you save it and apply it later. It’s not until you make that hard drive disk needle write to the platter, orienting all those zeros and ones, that there is a chance for storing what you experience.

It’s easy for me to get lost in analogies, especially technology ones, but I always come back to this idea. If I am browsing browsing browsing all the time and never taking the time to process it in writing, then am I spending my time wisely? I have to remind myself to stop and write, because if I don’t, then my temporary memory will get full and I’ll crash.


If you asked me how long it’s been since the beginning of school, I couldn’t answer without reaching for a calendar; everything still feels new. I can read the eyes of my fellow teachers when they ask me–grinning–so…how’s it going? They want a story, an exciting rubbernecker they can chuckle at first and then offer me advice on how to overcome it with time. They’re consoling gestures are at the ready, locked and loaded. I’m not usually one to disappoint, but I’ve been returning a lot of grins lately.steve_gun

It’s become a disciplined routine for me to write this blog each week, one I’ve come to look forward to rather than begrudge. The pouring out, reflection, metacognition, exfoliation–call it what you will–has been as cathartic as my marksmanship class was one semester during college. Shooting up small groups of thoughts each week has allowed me to track some subtle emotions about teaching that would have slipped by unnoticed otherwise.

This past week, I gave my first essay test over a novel. For my freshman, it was not their first exam or their first essay. Each week they spend time writing silently for short periods of time on a topic of their choice. They are provided with a list, which they staple into their journal covers, each quarter with plenty of starter ideas to choose from. I ask only that they write 100 words on the subject they choose; each quarter the word requirement increases and they–well, we–become more aware of their writing abilities.

This week was exciting for two reasons; first, because it focused on one of my favorite things: individual student writing conferences. Meeting one-on-one with students in a comfortable environment provides an open channel for learning like no other situation can. Conferencing gives me the chance to get in touch with the kids who are quiet and more reserved, but also to reinforce the positive behaviors I’m seeing from each student as an individual.

Reason number two: data trends! I’ve been polling my student population each week about three basic ideas which I believe are key to successful learning. They simply rate, on a scale of 1-10, how well they understood the weeks activities, how much they enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) them, and what they would change. This is the third week I’ve been tracking during meaningful sessions and I can’t wait to crack the spine on some spreadsheet analysis (call me crazy, but I love graphs).

Along with reflecting through writing, I’ve been finding these weekly polls very helpful. Just judging by facial expressions, groans, and eye movements, it’s hard to say what students’ truly think. I make sure students respond anonymously and honestly. I tell them not to please me, I need to know what they think. Putting value in student voice is a practice I cherish as a teacher. So many students feel teachers and schools are against them, holding them down, and praying they fail. Any authentic inkling to the contrary gets students thinking…”wait, can I actually give my input on this assignment?”

I crave each student’s feedback and the challenges brought to me each week by them.