This coming Friday, I’m giving a short presentation to the Parent’s Association (PA) of my school about professional development (PD). The PA pays for faculty PD, and as I was driving home today, I was mentally drafting what I might say, how I might show my gratitude and also help them see how useful PD is. I get SO much out of PD. I can’t imagine what my job would look like today without the conferences, classes, and resulting connections with fellow educators made along the way.
My first thought is to ask the parents to think of a positive memory that stands out from their own education, something warm and fuzzy. My own memory that came to mind isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but it is where my mind went:
Sixth grade. I, like many other sixth graders, was a bit of a mess. My English teacher, Ms. Kravitz, was consistently a bright spot for me–she was a reader with tastes similar to mine, and we used to swap books. At some point early in the year, I was reading a book called City Kid by Mary MacCracken. This is a true story, written by a special education teacher, about a student in her class who starts fires. Ms. Kravitz would give you extra credit if you encountered a vocabulary word in your personal reading, and I guess there was one in that book, which she ended up borrowing from me after I was done, and thus began our book swapping relationship.
You might be thinking that this was when I knew I’d be a librarian, but that didn’t happen until I was in my 30s. I wish that were what this story was about!
The story is instead about Chris B. Popular boy in my class. Oh, the crush I had on that boy–he was smart, funny, cute, and charming. Once, when Chris got in-school suspension, I, who never ever acted up at all, considered getting in trouble on purpose so that maybe, as we sat together all day in a classroom, he would speak to me. Forget love–I would have been thrilled had he said so much as “hi” or “suspension sucks, doesn’t it?”!
On the day in question, Chris misbehaved in class, and Ms. Kravitz reprimanded him in some way. I have no idea what the details are. What I do know is that I wrote him a note saying “Ms. Kravitz is such a bitch.”
A bit later, it’s the end of the day, and everyone is packing up to head out to the buses or carpool. Mrs. Somers, my math teacher, comes into my homeroom and says to Mrs. Rogo, my homeroom teacher, “Wait. Don’t dismiss yet. There’s been a note.”
Reader, I died. I knew it was my note. I looked at Chris, who of course ignored me. I looked at Mrs. Somers, who was looking right at me. They knew.
Next thing I remember, I was standing in Ms. Kravitz’s room, apologizing for writing the note. I didn’t say why I wrote it. I didn’t say, “I don’t really think that! I just wanted Chris to like me!” Maybe she knew. I have no idea. I have seriously tried so many times as an adult to find her on Google, just so I can apologize authentically. As it was, I mumbled the words and then ran as fast as I could to catch the bus.
When I got home, I cried so hard, I could barely breathe. I felt so bad about what I’d done. I worried about how much trouble I was in, but more importantly, I had hurt this teacher I loved, who had been so kind to me and connected with me in a way no other teacher had, and there was no way to fix it.
Then the phone rang.
No, it was not Ms. Kravitz.
It was Mrs. Somers, my math teacher. All I remember of what she said was, “It’s going to be okay.” And that gift–that reassurance, that forgiveness, that awareness that sometimes kids who have screwed up need to be reminded that screwing up is part of growing up–has stayed with me. I didn’t decide then to be a teacher, but something in me was forever changed by that objectively small gesture. Mrs. Somers was just a regular teacher to me–I liked her, but were it not for this incident, I might not remember her well at all. Yet even a “regular teacher” cared enough to make that call.
Now what on earth does any of that have to do with PD?
My thought is that, for me and maybe for most of us, the things that we remember fondly about our own education might be easy to imagine happening today. The connections with teachers; the a-ha moments of discovery; the triumph of getting over the hurdle of learning something challenging. And in many ways, life for a sixth grader today is much the same as it was for me–crushes, doing stupid stuff to impress peers, being curious about the adult world. But in other ways, it is so incredibly different, and those ways greatly impact education, or at least they should. Even after 10 years of working in a school library, I continue to be floored at times by how access to information has changed the game of education. The internet is, when you stop and think about it, totally insane!, but for kids today, it’s all they have known. And every day, researchers discover new things about our brains and about learning and thinking and creating. One of my favorite classes in graduate school was a class on the psychology of learning, and I imagine the syllabus for that class would be very different today because of how much more we know. And at the time I was taking the class, I was struck by how different the content was from the education course I took as an undergrad! PD is the best way I know to tap into some of that new knowledge.
To that end, I’m currently taking this course on Making Thinking Visible with four colleagues. I had learned some about thinking routines from a Project Zero (PZ) conference I went to last spring, as well as from some other colleagues who have done PZ summer institutes. (PZ is, in short, a research group at Harvard that is doing really cool stuff around how kids develop habits of mind and coming up with ways to help kids become sensitive to opportunities for deep thinking.) I had noticed, in a class earlier this year, that students who had done PZ thinking routines in their humanities classes the year bef0re had a different, really powerful way of discussing their ideas and responding to their peers, and it really intrigued me. I wanted to learn more, and thanks to the PA and my school, I get to take this course.
I’m learning a ton from the class–really enjoying trying out the routines with my students and also having fun bouncing ideas off my colleagues and other folks from around the world who are also taking the course. It’s not all smooth sailing–learning and trying something new means messing up, not unlike the sixth grade me. It means being vulnerable; feeling incompetent at times; getting out of my comfort zone. It would be easier to just keep doing things that seem to consistently work, and there are definitely days/lessons where I fall back on that or where that is entirely appropriate. But the real fun comes in stretching and trying something new. Most of the PD I’ve done has focused on respecting and listening to and trusting the minds and hearts of the kids, and helping them to find and share their voices. Maybe education has always done that to some extent, but my sense is that Ms. Kravitz and Mrs. Somers would have loved to see these changes in the landscape.
I’m not sure what I’ll say to the parents on Friday, but writing this post has helped me start to think about it!