Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to Seed Critical Professional Development

Introducing Ms. Kate Jorgensen, my teaching partner for several years, but more importantly, a close and dedicated friend.   Here, she offers a reflective account of a summer professional development experience - one that unexpectedly turned out to be challenging and transformative.  When I read Kate's piece, I thought I caught lightning in a bottle - such a wonder-filled surprise! 

Several colleagues boldly told me that the Greater Madison Writing Project (GMWP) is “the best professional development” teachers could ever experience. Although these remarkable statements came from people I deeply respect, I found myself laughing and questioning these profound claims that the GMWP is professionally empowering. I was skeptical, at best. However critical I might be, I always continue to yearn for new experiences that confront and alter my intellect and disposition. And so I applied for the GMWP Summer Institute (2012). Luckily, I was accepted and attended the Summer Institute at Olbrich Gardens.  I couldn’t have been more wrong about my negative assumptions. The GMWP is, by far, the best professional development I have ever experienced. So what makes it special and what did I learn?

  1. Attitude. The GMWP is part of the National Writing Project. The NWP is a network of sites, anchored at colleges and universities, and aims at a future of high-quality education through engaged writers and learners. The NWP believes in the knowledge and expertise of educators and considers teachers at the core of professional development. At the center of their philosophy are “teacher-leaders” --- those “who are well informed and effective in their practice.” In turn, these teachers can be the greatest resource for educational reform and research and professional development. This approach to professional development honors teachers at the center (Jim Gray, 2000). Of course, this requires an attitudinal and paradigm shift from the top-down model to teacher-as-leader model. Teachers don’t need to be “fixed” by top-down administrative decision making or trendy and expensive programs. (To be clear, I am not blaming my leader here for the low-quality professional development. I recognize principals and administrators have their constraints and are also at the mercy from those above.) What we need is to take ownership of the professional development process and our teaching.
  2. Structure. This model not only begs for an attitudinal shift but also demands a structural shift in professional development. Instead of sit-and-get lectures, the GMWP Summer Institute asks teacher-leaders to engage in reflective writing and inquiry-based learning. While there are many parts of the GMWP Summer Institute I found stimulating, my favorite are the Teachers Workshops (TWs). A T.W. gives teachers a chance to explore a topic or area of interest of their own choosing related to writing instruction in their classroom. Teachers design a workshop based on an authentic question they have about their instruction and their students writing practices. They also present their plan for addressing and exploring the question. This presentation requires a literature review and relevant research, as well as a reflection piece following the T.W. By participating in others’ T.W.s teachers gain an appreciation for colleagues’ expertise, experience, and knowledge. Better yet, these same people offer feedback on your T.W. inquiry.
  3. What I Learned. My T.W. highlighted the writing, thinking, discussing process. The curricular theme was politics, the Election, and the question of compulsory voting.I offered examples of writing prompts and how to analyze competing texts as a way to prepare students for discussion. I also presented how to use discussion as a way to promote deeper thinking and clearer writing through position papers. The questions I asked myself and my collegial audience were:
    1. How can writing encourage, and prepare for, participation in a four-corner discussion?
    2. In what ways can a four-corner discussion encourage writing and therefore deep thinking?
    3. Is this process valuable and meaningful?
    4. In what ways can it be modified to be more effective?

The most valuable answers came from the last two questions, because really I was asking others “how can I make my teaching and therefore my students’ learning more effective and powerful?” Just the act of listening to my peers question parts of my practice and offer ideas and suggest resources would have been uncomfortable in years past. But because all the participants in the GMWP Summer Institute value teacher-at-the-center professional development, I could digest their feedback. It was genuine, authentic, and non-judgmental. Of course I recognize this type of professional development takes trust and respect. I am hopeful that one day this experience will repeat itself and the experts will speak and people will listen.  Only in this dream the experts are the teachers

Kate Jorgensen - Lover of family (especially her nieces), friends, running, outdoors, music, educating middle school students. and all things social and political. 


  1. What an excellent reflection and informative piece about the Greater Madison Writing Project. Thanks for sharing your perspective and providing others with a better understanding of where knowledge and expertise in teaching really resides, within the teacher. I have started calling it "The Dorothy Principle." -- Susanne Treiber, GMWP 2011 Particpant

  2. Kate-
    Ain't it grand to be treated as a knowledgeable professional with a story to tell and the ability to tell it? I am so pleased you found GMWP to be inspiring and uplifting. Your post is a rousing endorsement for the process Jim Gray initiated. I am certain he would be pleased.