Tell Me, Teach Me, Transform Me

professional_development_plantBy Peggy Wuenstel — There is an old teacher joke that goes something like this: “I hope I die during a professional development seminar because the transition will be so very easy”.

I confess to having felt that way when attending trainings that fulfilled state or federal requirements or were on topics not of my choosing. It is kind of akin to enrolling in those core college courses that complete the degree, but are not related to one’s chosen course of study. More often, however, I have come away with some valuable insights, some validations of prior beliefs, and some takeaways to enhance my educational practice. I spent four days out of my classroom last week for two back to back experiences.

Professional development is even more important for me this year, in the job change that I have posted about earlier this year. Attending the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention was a key piece for my self-evaluation of the first semester in this role. One of the key themes of this gathering was the importance of supporting the development and remediating the deficits in oral language that many of our most challenged readers demonstrate. This is especially critical for our students who are learning English or come from homes where conversation in formal, academic language is rarely heard.

One of the ways that we often cue developing readers to review and revise their attempts at decoding is to ask: “Does that sound right to you?” Unfortunately, for many of our students with limited oral language skills, they can honestly answer, “I don’t know”. We may do a masterful job of teaching them to recognize the words, to complete the flashcards with ease, but if they can’t combine these into sentences with the more structured language they will encounter in texts, tests, and in-class conversations; they will not be on  a path to academic success. Even the ways we combine words in poetry or with literary license can cause a competent reader to stumble.

It is one of the great ironies of education that, when they are preschoolers, we invest considerable time and effort in teaching our children to walk and speak. They enter school and we want them to sit down and be quiet. The longer that they remain in the educational system, the more their competence is evaluated without conversation, and increasingly more often by filling in bubbles or clicking on a computer screen. The trend toward texting and “quick and dirty” messages certainly increases the number of our attempts, but not the completeness and complexity of our use of language. There are schools where the “complete sentence” is now a required mode of both verbal and written communication to attempt to address this erosion of language detail and precision.

Another feature of the WSRA Convention was the work of Peter Johnston whose slim volumes Choice Words and Opening Minds powerfully emphasize why educators must hold up their ends of these conversations with not only accuracy but integrity. His reminders that the words that we choose change how students feel about themselves and about learning in general require us to monitor our output, our intent, and our continuing professional development as conversationalists.

There were the practical aspects as well, ways to encourage written comments about shared texts, establishing and enhancing the relationships between reading, writing, and spelling. We learned about specific strategies to teach the non-fiction comprehension that is a key feature of the Common Core State Standards. We watched videos of talented teachers delivering inspired lessons and we went home determined to provide that same level of support to our students. We were reminded of the things that we know, but had somehow forgotten to incorporate. My post convention attendance tasks included a stop at the stationary store for binder rings, colored folders, and personal journals to distribute as Valentine gifts for my students. I promised to assure them that when they wanted to write for an audience, I would be their reader. I vowed to create topics of both conversation and prompts for writing that made it not only possible, but essential for them to communicate their thoughts. My book clubs this week defined for me what distinguishes a book you like from one that you love. Even the first graders were able to define this. It was quite a Valentines’ Day present.

There were also the political aspects, the professional leaders who encouraged us to push back, to refuse to accept the politically correct over the professionally valid. We were charged to be advocates, even activists for what we know is needed in today’s educational climate. We were told to keep the faith while we keep the data. We were told to question our governance as well as ourselves. Those conversations may be important, but they are not as rewarding or able to touch the future as those who have with the children with whom we read, write, and learn each day.

In the two days prior to the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention I read the applications of those teachers competing for the Kohl Foundation Educational Fellowships that will lead to the selection of the Teacher of the Year awards in Wisconsin. I studied the submissions of the high school seniors in contention for the Kohl Scholarships for 2014. Both were love letters to the systems, the histories, and the possibilities that are education today. It was a privilege to read them, to learn from them, to be inspired by them.

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