What Makes PD Worthwhile?

I’ve written about professional development (PD) several times over the course of the years as I’ve held both the role of presenter and audience member. Most of the PD I’ve experienced in my 25 years of teaching has followed the one-shot, sit-and-get model which research (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Dede, Ketelhut, Whitehouse, Breit, & McCloskey, 2008; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001) suggests to be one of the most ineffective ways to provide PD. The reasons behind the one-shot PD as an ineffective mode of professional growth is the lack of coherence, relevance, and sustainability. In addition, PD that happens to teachers as in they are talked at for the hour or so is not effective either (Appova & Arbaugh, 2017; Macià & García, 2016). This is why my dissertation study focused on examining the influence of PD that included the following:

Conceptual Map of Best Practices of Teacher Professional Development
(Desimone & Garet, 2015)

Disclaimer: While Desimone and Garet (2015) and by extension me (via the findings of my research study) believe that this PD model works, this is by far not the only model of best practices for teacher professional development.

The PD I attended this past Thursday was hosted by the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) under the leadership of Marika Manos, Coordinator of History/Social Science. This PD was designed around a community of practices model in which educators from all levels (e.g., K12, higher education) came together to learn from other educators (collective participation). There were four sessions planned throughout the school year (sustained duration) with the theme of Environmental Principles and Concepts and application of these ideas to the History/Social Science content (coherence, content focus).

I was unable to attend the first three sessions, so I cannot speak to the level of active learning that occurred on those days. But I can attest to the level of active learning during the fourth session in which the esteemed Bob Bain presented on Surfacing & Engaging Students’ Thinking When Teaching History and the Social Sciences.

To begin, what I appreciated was the fact that he not only asked us our names and what we taught…he wrote those down so that he could speak to us on a personal level by using our names. Bob also started his session by sharing that when he teaches or presents, he asks his audience to think about three things as they reflect on their learning:

  • What supported your thinking?
  • What extended your thinking?
  • What challenged your thinking?

I loved this.

By setting us up with questions that he was going to ask us to address by the end of the day, Bob ensured that we would be actively engaged in the learning.

Throughout the day, Bob presented research, shared student examples, personal anecdotes, and asked educators to share their questions, thinking, and understanding. To anyone who walked by the room, it might have seemed as if we were all passively learning as much of the time we were listening and viewing Bob’s presentation. But that takes me back to the blog post by Blake Harvard titled The Myth of Passive Learning. For years, I erroneously believed that if learners were not physically active during the learning process, then the learning could only be categorized as passive. However, Blake points out that while the body may be physically passive, when the mind is engaged in focused cognition, the person is actively learning. But I also think that just because one is physically active does not equate to learning. I’ll expound on this in another blog post.

And that takes me back to Desimone and Garet’s (2015) conceptual model of PD. Everything about the presentation on Thursday engaged me on a cognitive level. All cylinders were firing–I could barely keep up with the amazing amount of information being presented. So yes, the PD definitely fulfilled the notion of active learning.

But here’s the most important take-away about this PD…I wanted to be there. I made the choice to go because I was interested in meeting Bob and the learning about what he had to share. This is the part of PD that I think is one of the most under-rated: participant interest.

It’s an easy hook…and one that (in my opinion) is often overlooked. This is why I love EdCamps and my network of peers. We talk about what interests us and what we know would interest others. We come together to learn from each other. Our discussions are typically content-based, aligned with what we’ve been discussing in the past, sustained over time, actively engaging, collectively participatory…but more importantly…it is of interest to us.

In closing, here is my reflection of the PD from this past Thursday:

  • The information Bob shared about historical thinking and the gaps between experts (teachers) and novices (students) supported my efforts both as a classroom teacher and professional developer. It’s important to be cognizant of the in/coherence problem. But it’s more than awareness, I need to find ways to narrow the gap.
  • My thinking was extended in that I need to provide more scaffolds for my English language learners. I need to spend more time gaining a better understanding of their comprehension of the content so that I can clear up any misconceptions. In other words, I need to make the hidden visible. NOTE: This is something I am currently working on with the brain dumps.
  • I left the day challenged to be a better educator, not only for my students, but also for the people who attend my PD sessions and who are part of my PLN. I need to not make assumptions about what I think they know. I need to be better at addressing the gaps between expert and novice…teacher/student and teacher/teacher.

I can and will do better.


Appova, A., & Arbaugh, F. (2017). Teachers’ motivation to learn: Implications for supporting professional growth. Professional Development in Education, 7, 1–17. doi:10.1080/19415257.2017.1280524

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (with Espinoza, D.). (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/teacher-prof-dev

Darling-Hammond, L., & McLaughlin, M. W. (1995). Policies that support professional development in an era of reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 92, 81–92. doi:10.1177/003172171109200622

Dede, C., Ketelhut, D. J., Whitehouse, P., Breit, L., & McCloskey, E. M. (2008). A research agenda for online teacher professional development. Journal of Teacher Education, 60, 8–19. doi:10.1177/0022487108327554

Desimone, L. M., & Garet, M. S. (2015). Best practices in teacher’s professional development in the United States. Psychology, Society, & Education, 7, 252–263. doi:10.25115/psye.v7i3.515

Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 915–945. doi:10.3102/00028312038004915

Macià, M., & García, I. (2016). Informal online communities and networks as a source of teacher professional development: A review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 291–307. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2016.01.021

Empathy: A Necessary Skill (Part 1)

I recently wrote an article for the Social Studies Review about two types of assignments I have my students complete that help them understand and hopefully develop empathy for various historical figures. One of the assignments focused on the use of emojis to encourage students to connect emotions to certain key events in the life of a historical figure.

Because I am always looking for ways to improve my instructional practices, I combined the Developing Historical Empathy emoji assignment (from the article) with an Open Mind template. My goal was to narrow the focus to emotions at pivotal times in the story of Muhammad and the origin of Islam.

To begin, I had students brainstorm emotions (in general).

Interestingly (and completely off-topic), I sensed a theme of emotions as relayed by my students from all six periods of world history. I was thankful that some students shared positive emotions to help lighten the mood.

From there, I explained that they were now going to step into the shoes of Muhammad and imagine the various emotions he went through from his tough childhood, revelations from the angel Gabriel, being run-out of town, and eventually returning to his hometown, Makkah.

The assignment was to come up with a minimum of four emotions (thoughts and feelings), draw/label the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain how the textual evidence supports their thinking or understanding.

As Muhammad left no written records, what the students come up with is purely conjecture. But that’s okay…because the goal is for students to learn how to empathize with the plight of others.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another”

Alfred Adler

Because I believe in student choice, I like to give them several options for assignments. In this case, I suggested that students use the emojis from the iPad keyboard as a starting place as they reread the various sources on Muhammad’s life. Students could draw those emoji, name the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain the connection.

The other option was to use simple drawings that used body-language to convey emotions. Students still need to name the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain the connection.

For the artists in the room (and I have some phenomenal artists!), I stressed that they do not have to feel constrained with choosing from the emoji keyboard or simple drawings of body language.

What I noticed today (Day 1) was that students who could identify with certain emotions had an easier time connecting the emotion to the textual evidence. Now, this is completely anecdotal, and I should have more concrete evidence on Monday when the Open Mind is due, but I’m thinking that students who have lost a parent or loved one will be able to better empathize with Muhammad’s upbringing as an orphan. I also suspect that students who have experienced bullying may be able to personally identify with Muhammad when he and his followers were run out of Makkah.

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that  happen.  Empathy is a quality of character that can  change the world.”

Barack Obama

However, even if students have not experienced personal loss or threatening behavior, they can certainly empathize with the various hardships in the life of Muhammad. My students have quickly learned that talking with their peers is a good support system, and I suspect that they will be able to help each other gain a better understanding of Muhammad’s life by walking in his shoes.

The newest layer to this assignment is for students to add a personal connection by reflecting on their life in comparison to Muhammad’s and how what they learned may impact them in the future. This written reflection will hopefully provide insight on whether this type of assignment has the potential to help students develop empathy (or not) and whether empathy is a skill that can be transferred to other situations.

Stay tuned.

Brain Dumping Data Analysis

If you have been following my posts for the past year, you are aware that I have been keenly interested in retrieval practice. I regularly incorporated retrieval practice (in the form of brain dumps) with my GATE/PreAP students last semester. Their reflections revealed the value of brain dumping on their long-term retention of information. Thus, I decided that I would fully roll out brain dumping to all of my world history classes this semester.

We are about five weeks into the quarter and my students have done four different brain dumps. The first three were small in nature as they focused on one main concept. The brain dump my students recently finished covered four main concepts: origin of Islam, Five Pillars of Islam, rules that guide a Muslim’s life, and a brace map of Sharia.

To recap, my students use pencil in their initial brain dump and pen for when they engage in collaborative learning with peers. NOTE: Some of my students used black pen which makes it hard to see the difference initial versus collaborative recall.

For this brain dump, I cued my students while they were discussing their learning with peers. I saw the faces of students light up as they remembered the information after my verbal cues (e.g., dates, key terms). Thus, I felt that by giving students hints without outright stating the answer was helping them to make stronger connections.

The last step was for students to pull out their notes and continue to add to the gaps in their brain dumps in pen. Luckily, the following student used red pen so it’s easier to see what they did and did not remember.

I told my students that what they wrote in pen were the things they needed to study as they were clearly not remembering those facts. Because I teach middle schoolers, I know that they don’t always have the best study skills or time management. Therefore, I stressed that they should ignore the pencil items and focus their attention on the pen.

After the quiz, I went through each student’s brain dump and looked at their performance. In the majority of the cases (approximately 90%) there was a direct correlation between what the student remembered on their own (pencil) and the questions they got right. A similar correlation was found between what students wrote in pen and the questions that they missed. I am assuming that the information written in pen or out-right missing (see first image) posed an issue for students because they:

  • Did not spend enough time studying that information
  • Did not have enough time to relearn the information
  • Did not understand the information or how it was related to the concepts
  • Were not in class when the information was presented and applied
  • . . . ?

The next step is to pass the brain dumps back to students and give them access to the quiz questions. I want them to reflect on their brain dump and the effort they put forth on the quiz. Hopefully, they will see the correlation on their own as they prepare for the unit test.

Only time will tell.

Brain Dump #1

My world history class (500-1500 C.E.) is a semester-long course. Don’t get me started on how, why, or the injustice around that as that’s a story for another time. One of the benefits of teaching a semester course is the ability to course-correct half-way through the school year. I don’t have to wait until August to start anew. I can do that in January (at the half-way point in the school year).

Having implemented brain dumping with my GATE/PreAP students, and reading their reflections on the benefits of that on their ability to retain information, I decided to institute regular brain dumps across all of my six world history courses this semester. I don’t have the GATE/PreAP class this semester, so all of my world history classes contain a heterogeneous mix of high-achievers, English language learners, and special education students. I see this as a positive because these students were randomly assigned to my classes so I should be able to get a good idea of the impact of brain dumping on the ability of my student to retain information over the long-haul.

Friday marked the introduction of brain dumping to my students. This was a timed exercise in which students were given three minutes to dump the contents of their brains onto a blank piece of white paper using only pencil.

The second part was another three-minute timed exercise in which students shared their brain dumps with their group. Anything they did not have on their mindmap, they could add in pen. The point being, what was written in pencil are things they remember and the items written in pen are those they need to spend a bit more time on since they did not remember it without prompting.

I collected their first brain dumps because when we do another one on this same topic, I will pass out their first attempt so that they can (hopefully) see growth over time.

What I loved hearing from the conversations of students is the fact that many remembered the details of the various themes of geography after being reminded by their group. This realization served to lend value to this process as believe students gained confidence in the knowledge that they had the information in their brain, they just had to activate it.

One may ask why use valuable class time for this exercise if you only have 20 weeks to teach 1000 years of history. And I would ask: How can we afford not to? Isn’t the whole point of education to help students learn the content so they can apply it to their lives?

This is a valuable strategy to employ with your students. If you consistently apply it, I believe you will soon find yourself in agreement with me: Brain dumps are worth it.

Where’s the E?

Most teachers have–from time to time–encountered a completely random question from their students. It’s the nature of the profession. However, if you are a teacher of middle school children, you know that these random questions are not so much from time to time but rather most of the time.

For example, earlier this week I was talking to my students about an extra credit opportunity based on the grade they earned on an assignment. I put the grade scale on the board with the accompanying extra credit points:

  • 100 – 90% = A = 5 extra credit points
  • 89 – 80% = B = 4 extra credit points
  • 79 – 70% = C = 3 extra credit points

You get the picture, right?

Well, as I’m getting the students ready for the extra credit assignment…I’m explaining the steps, what they have to do, when the grades will be updated, and then suddenly a hand shoots straight up in the air.

I saw the students quietly talking while I was explaining the assignment, so naturally I figured someone was going to ask me a question about what I just said because they were talking while I was talking.


What occurred next is completely normal in a middle school classroom…

  • S1: Why isn’t there an E?
  • Me: What?
  • S1: You know, we have A, B, C, D, and F
  • Me: . . .
  • S2: Yeah, so where’s the E?
  • Me: Um, I . . .don’t . . . know . . . ?
  • S1: It makes no sense
  • S2: Yeah, there really should be an E

It was a question about the grade scale.

At this point, I busted out laughing, because what else can you do when posed with a random question like that?

I suppose some teachers might balk at being interrupted with what may seem like a completely off-topic question…and sometimes I’m a bit taken back, too. But truth be told, I want my students to ask questions. It shows that they are engaged…that they are thinking…and that they want answers.

Other reasons why I love random questions is because it shows that…

  • Middle schoolers are still curious about things
  • Middle schoolers harbor little fear when it comes to asking the weird questions
  • Middle schoolers have no problem seeking an answer the moment they have a question even if it’s not remotely related to the task or topic at hand
  • Middle schoolers are not afraid to ask me questions (Yay!)
  • Middle schoolers think I have the answers (Ha! Yeah right)

I felt the need to share this because I know that some teachers may get perturbed by the random question. But why? Isn’t the curiosity of kids one of the best parts about being a classroom teacher? I love their thinking and where it takes them. Oh sure, random questions interrupt my train of thought (especially if I’m on a roll)…but I have to say when I stop and engage with my students, it’s all worth it in the end. I mean, don’t we tell our students to not be afraid of asking questions because someone else likely has the same question, too?

I’m convinced that middle schoolers have tons of random questions that pop in and out of their heads. And I love the moments when one of them shares their question with me. Not surprisingly, their peers are typically curious about the answer as well. And it gives all of us a chance to be human. To connect. Bond. And better yet…to have a good laugh together.

Have I mentioned that I love my middle schoolers?

My #oneword2020

On our first day back from winter break, I had my students begin by choosing #oneword that they would like to be known by the end of the year – December 2020. I asked my kiddoes to think about the person that they would like to become and narrow it down to one adjective (or noun) that would best describe them. I told them that this #oneword would perhaps be easier to remember than a list of resolutions that many of us are quick to shed before January is even over.

And because I don’t ask students to do things that I wouldn’t do myself, I also chose #oneword that I would like people to use to describe me by the end of 2020…

I chose my #oneword because in the hustle and bustle of work, school, and life, I feel as if I’m juggling too many things…trying to straddle too many worlds…I’m flitting in and out of conversations, trying to pay attention to everything, but missing many things. To be clear, I am good about putting my cell phone away when I’m with friends, but that doesn’t mean that my brain isn’t somewhere else when it really should be here…in the moment…with my friends. I have felt very guilty about this for quite some time. In fact, in all of that craziness, I know I am not giving my full attention to my friends and family, and I should…because I know that life is short and that we cannot get back lost time.

So my #oneword for 2020 is to be present when I am with friends and family. It’s going to take quite a bit of effort, and I expect that I will fail quite a few times along the way. However, by December 2020, I hope that my friends and family will look back on the times we spent together throughout this year and know that I was present whenever we were together.

Wish me luck.

Teacher Choice & Voice

An interesting tweet showed up this morning which, honestly, made me shudder. And judging from the comments (in Twitterverse), quite a few educators and I are on the same page.

To be clear, I am not against coaching. I think it’s a valuable tool for teachers. However, that value is dependent on a number of factors including (but not limited to) interest and need.

NOTE: For the purposes of this post, I’m only going to focus on inservice teachers because preservice teachers need a different kind of support structure as they are new to the profession.

Interest: If teachers are not interested in being coached, no amount or type of coaching is going to work. It’s just not. Forcing teachers to be coached without their consent is futile. Just watch teachers forced to sit through mandated PD. #exerciseinfutility However, if teachers are open to being coached, then the conversation should begin with options for coaching: face-to-face versus video, realtime versus delayed, face-to-face versus ear-piece, peer versus outside coach, etc. Could this coaching support include bug-in-ear coaching? Sure, if the teacher is open to that.

Next teachers should be a key part of the structure of coaching and feedback. Teachers should determine whether the feedback is immediate or delayed. They should have a say in whether they would like the feedback in writing or delivered in a face-to-face conversation. The bottom line is that teachers should be an integral part of the coaching process, not something that a coach does to them.

Teachers should have a voice and choice.

Need: Some teachers know what they need, others may be wearing blinders or are just plain clueless. If teachers express a need for coaching, then they should be part of the coaching design process (see previous paragraphs). Now if the school leadership determines that a teacher needs coaching, the teacher still should be an integral part of the coaching design process. Telling a teacher what they need to improve upon is important, and all teachers should be receiving this type of feedback during the evaluation process (for sure) as well as during non-evaluation years. If the school leadership believes that coaching should be part of the solution or support, the teacher should still be part of the conversation regarding format, frequency, feedback, etc. No ifs, ands, or buts.

At no point should teachers (who are adults) have things done to them without their input. Teaching is part craft and part science (this is not the blog post within which to split hairs)–so yes, there will always be room for improvement. Students change, standards are revised, learning strategies are refined…no group of students are the same. Ever. Teachers who believe that they don’t need to improve are the ones wearing blinders.

If coaching is on the table (whether brought up by the teacher or school leadership) under no circumstance should the coaching process be dictated to the teacher. If teachers are interested in being coached, awesome. If they would like to have a co-teacher in the classroom with them, great. If they like the idea of recording a video of their lesson to watch later alone or with their coach, fine. And if they prefer wearing an ear-piece to get feedback while teaching, that’s totally up to them.

Teachers should have a voice and choice.

My point is that teachers should have a say in how they improve their practice. Although I would find it extremely invasive to have a voice telling me what to do (or not) via an earpiece, if other teachers are open to the whole bug-in-ear thing more power to them. Just count me out.

P.S. Yes, I’m aware of CT3. I didn’t care for it when I had to review the process in one of the doctoral classes. But once again, if teachers want to wear an earpiece so that they can receive real-time feedback from someone sitting in the same room as them, fabulous.

Just let teachers have a voice and choice in the matter, please.