Professionals Developing Professionals: Yeah, That’s a Better Theory for How it Ought to Work
Jason Sellers, Staunton High School, Technology Liaison and Co-Director
Ralph Córdova, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Director
Patti Swank, Highland High School, Co-Director
Words Matter if We're to Attend to How We Might Grow
How do professionals develop professionals? Strange question, eh? Well, that idea, and others around how we become, have been the spot-on focus of the Piasa Bluffs Writing Project Collaboratory (the Collaboratory). In typical fashion, slighting the forthcoming January 21, 2011 Midwest blizzard, 40-plus teacher-researchers had braver things to do: we were going to fail...and fail hard. And we wanted to do it together as we celebrated our ideas, ingenuity and willingness to be disturbed.
Disturbed? Yes, the openness to be nudged, pushed, pulled and dragged to new places - places we’d make together to explore amazing new possibilities. Finally we could help each other pursue those professional questions that our daily professional settings seem to dismiss in favor of the high-stakes culture that standardized testing has created. We are brave together, and the importance of honoring failure as part of the process of becoming stronger teachers became a “Woo-Hoo, I failed!,” mantra of our work that day, and is an underlying thread of all our Writing Project Collaboratory activities.
Making Visible the Invisible
Before going on, please indulge us in a necessary caveat, as we look together at the back story leading up to our conference. Are you holding on tight? We're all about making visible the invisible. Otherwise, what we’re sharing here may seem all linearly organized and tidy. It’s not tidy. Nothing’s tidy. That’s design. In our three years of life as a the Collaboratory — an innovative cluster of National Writing Project site spaces, community partners, K-12 schools and universities — we are tackling the problem everyone knows. And we wonder why so few seem to bring upon any semblance of innovative change.
Many teachers in our local contexts have little desire for professional development (we’re teachers, we know this) as it usually comes in the form of some expert swooping down, issuing pearls of knowledge and then swooping away with no vested interest in the local community. Given this pervasive conception of professional development being akin to someone throwing answers, like rocks at heads of people who haven’t yet asked their own questions, our site's ways of knowing pushed us to rethink that metaphor: "professional development." First as a noun, we didn’t like what it connoted - what is has always been, nothing changes, a stagnant pre-packaged set of curricula. Hence, teachers bring to most opportunities for professional learning all of their worst experiences. Second, because it is a noun, it connotes little to no sense of movement, action or trajectory. As a Leadership Team, we wondered what a slight shift in words could allow us to see. That’s how “Professionals Developing Professionals” was born.
Histories of Ideas Matter: Surfacing a Language of Inquiry to Name What We Do and Who We Are Becoming
Our leadership team had met our friends and conference guests Maureen Carroll and Leticia Britos of Lime Design Associates in the fall of 2009 on a visit to Stanford University’s d.School. That sojourn itself is indicative of how our site leadership team conceives of innovative continuity approaches. Continuity for us is a process of reaching, shaping and embracing multiple conversations with others as we articulate inward and outward our shared vision for being. Traveling together, on the plane to and while on the BART in San Francisco, allowed us the time-away to re-see who we're becoming as a site. We began to articulate the impact we wanted to make in our local contexts with the schools, teachers and institutions with which we work. During that visit, we noticed a very curious overlap in the shared and complementary theoretical underpinnings in the principles behind the d.School's Design Thinking and that of our Collaboratory. Our approach, deeply collaborative in nature with a keen attention to process pedagogy, is grounded in the National Writing Project's principled elements for how to justly co-construct professional communities of practice. On the plane ride back, sitting in a close cluster of rows, we envisioned what we needed to do next.
Design Thinking's recursive process (understand/empathize, learn, ideate, prototype, test, revise) is not new to NWP's theoretical and pedagogical ways of knowing. What was new to us as a site, however, was the gift and investment we gave to ourselves during that trip: we learned how to become a stronger leadership team as we re-searched and lived a design process in an altogether different setting. Suddenly, while in Silicon Valley, we became hyper aware of the multiple ways major corporations can summon design approaches to solve their vexing problems. And we learned we had been doing this "magic" stuff all along. We realized that we were simply learning a design language for thinking about it. We were becoming bilingual, at least, and, mutli-literate at best when we allowed ourselves to linger in our Nepántla (an Nahuátl Aztec word for "state of in-betweenness") our very own handcrafted third space to start some heavy lifting.
In that third space we began to further make visible the unfolding story of our history: we're developing a language of becoming — how we become professionals who envision and enact new possibilities from the local classroom setting to the global world community. And how a site becomes, grows and makes a difference in teachers' and students' lives ought to matter. How the "magic" is conjured and the necessary shared experiences to make a difference matter even more. It's not magic, we know, but it may as well be if we do not learn a language for enacting and sustaining systematic professional transformations.
Making Local Ripples Aligned to National Writing Project Principles
Since that fall 2009 visit, our site has further articulated and developed a language for how it thinks about its Invitational Summer Institute, Continuity and Professional Development. And we call this process ResponsiveDesign. We believe it best connotes how we have methodologized a way to coconstruct and coauthor professional learning communities. And now, we find ourselves working with over 300 teachers at Belleville 118 and the East St. Louis Charter High School where summon our ResponsiveDesign learning ellipsis (Córdova, Swank & Taylor, in press) to create innovative solutions to 21st century educational problems.
Fast Forward to Our Conference
And so this back story became our process that informed how we thought about our first-ever Piasa Bluffs New Literacies Conference. We wanted to provide an opportunity for our current Writing Project Collaboratory members to grow as teacher-learners and also to build on this opportunity to expand our networked community of learners. We are on a journey to grow and move — and change.
Given this attention to how we envision people grow professionally, and assist each other to reach far, we wanted to afford teachers in our local area to explore alongside us some risky professional ideas of becoming on this special day of innovating, failing and relearning. Our challenge was to create an experience exciting enough to entice teachers from our area on a Saturday morning in January in the Midwest with grey skies and snow, and have them leave energized and ready to take what they experienced back to shake things up with their students in the classroom. We wanted them to experience first-hand being with other expert leaders, not just their own Writing Project leaders; we wanted them to see how their own leaders engaged in the creative process too. Thus, we held hands that morning and leaped together across a great divide into a new space. And this leap of faith requires a human qualities we see less and less in our schools today: empathizing, collaborating, envisioning and creating.
What does empathy have to do with design process? In traditional design, a product begins in development, then it becomes a prototype, and as it weaves its way through the company, each department reshapes it to suit its needs, resulting in a very different final product. Then the company goes about the business of convincing the public that the product they are able to produce is the product that the consumer wants. Our process is different. In the ResponsiveDesign work that we do in schools, we create a space for teachers, administrators, and our team to come together and talk about what’s important before the product, a learning experience, is developed. We invite the “consumer” into the development process helping them to own it; rather than convincing them of the value of our final product, we invite them to share in its construction.
Maureen and Leticia began the morning by explaining that when trapeze artists and gymnasts fail to execute a movement, they throw their hands up with graceful poise and smile, as though the mistake had been intentional all along, their hands up in the air beaming at the audience applause. For us, as teachers, to acknowledge our fear of failure, we stood up and moved around the room, and when we made eye contact with another participant, we raised our hands and each yelled, “Woo-Hoo! I failed!” Much laughing ensued, and most of us hadn’t even had our first cup of coffee.
At the conference, one interesting experience that built on this concept had us generate ideas for a great restaurant and a terrible restaurant. Then, with dramatic flair, Maureen tore up the “great” ideas and had us rework the “terrible” ideas. As a Collaboratory, we grow out of history of living with and learning from failure. Failure, for us, means simply when we’re figuring out how to develop responsive learning experiences for an ever-shifting population, generation of students grounded in a human-centered theoretical approach to learning. This masterful navigating through landscapes of failure toward insight requires that we empathize and bring into focus others’ real needs, and avoid a knee-jerk response to solve their problems from our own existent egocentric bag of tricks. This interactive, growing-together approach is collaborative at the very least, and, synergistically brilliant in its utmost capacity to transform and put into motion our individual dreams and aspirations. When we make our passions known, and, our community celebrates them...watch out, we enter our element. Then, nothing is impossible.
We harness and study failure to solve our problems. Our buggaboo is that we usually do this alone, and rarely do we share it in the company of others. Unfair at best since we cannot teach and show each other how we solved the problem, and at worst because when we do not share, we’re left not really knowing how we actually solved that problem. When we take the time for reflecting and looking back, we might just be forced to develop the language to account for how we went about successfully, or not, solving our vexing challenges. Thus, celebrating failure, which is usually viewed as a stop sign, a blocked path, was not something to be avoided, but embraced as opportunities for learning. It is by making mistakes, missteps, or errors, that we learn.
That morning at the conference, we wove empathy-building into the design process by interviewing a partner to design their “dream car.” Car? YES! We focused our attention to building something useful, very everyday useful, in order to get ourselves out of the 'box' of our educational world, where often times we engage in useless tasks. We used the information we collected through interviews to develop a prototype car, received feedback, and then revised. Designing something with the user involved in the process requires the interviewer to suspend judgment and focus on the needs of their partner. This listening leads to empathy - becoming a partner in someone else’s dream and idea. Thus, we began to envision this process in our respective educational settings.
The Next Sojourn...Want to Jump on Board?
When we began envisioning and planning our conference back in January 2010, we anticipated the expectations and needs of teachers in our area. We met regularly as a team, and, even made huge last-minute changes that fundamentally shifted the framework of the conference; scary, but we were willing to take big risks to create a memorable experience. We weren’t afraid to fail. We built the Piasa Bluffs New Literacies Conference as it was in the air and flying, using design principles grounded in our deeper ways of knowing, our own funds of knowledge, to anticipate and respond to the needs of our community. Though the plane we built looked more like the Millennium Falcon than a sleek jet, as Han Solo says, “She’s got it where it counts.” The brave teachers who showed up that cold January morning were willing to be disturbed, to help each other grow, to engage in the hard work of developing as professionals, and we all emerged moving creatively and confidently through the world making new differences.