Over the course of this school year, at the Heart of Texas Writing Project, we put on four days of professional development open to TCs and other teachers from the greater Austin area. Each session had a different focus and featured the work of several of our local Teacher Consultants. For the first three mornings of workshops we met on the UT campus on a Saturday from 9 to 1 and, on average, drew a nice sized crowd of 50-60 participants. However, our most recent professional development day on April 14th brought in over 100 teachers from the greater Austin area!
Guess the title of the workshop that brought so many teachers in from near and far!
Teaching Writing to English Languge Learners: Building on Strength.
So many teachers registered that we had to move into a bigger room with clip-on mics and stadium seating.
There were over 100 attendees, and I believe that each of them walked away feeling better equipped to identify the strengths of their ELL students. I was incredibly impressed with the Teacher Consultants who put on this day (not one of whom would claim to be an 'expert' of ELLs). The organizers had been working toward this day for months. Back in September, they had formed a study group for teachers of 'multi-lingual writers'. The time they spent each month engaging in inquiry around working with ELLs changed each their views of themselves as teachers of ELLs. On the 14th, the expertise in the way they engaged us in meaningful and impactful discussions and introduce us to an incredible number of resources was inspiring.
The workshop began with a poem pulled from Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing up Hispanic in the United States. It was read aloud in Spanish first and then, in English. Later, we each read from a choice of at least 10 vignettes written by language learners about their experiences learning in school. These opening texts were carefully chosen and helped to set the scene for us to hear from the perspectives of multilingual students.
When participants went to break-out sessions they chose either to hear 4 elementary teachers share about Growing Units of Study with Quality Latino Children's Picturebooks or 3 middle and high school teachers share around the topic I Have a Voice, Too--Their Words, Our Stories. Both sessions touched on the work that teachers are doing day in and day out in their classrooms and their personal inquiry studies and stories.
In the closing session, I led the group in looking at student work using the framework that Katherine Bomer sets up in her book, Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing. We practiced how to get together with colleagues, look at students' writing, and name what they're doing well. We practiced training our eyes to see the brilliance pop out at us as opposed to the developmental 'errors' that can, too easily, distract a teacher. We discussed how to, then, use that brilliance to move students forward.
The prevelance of an additive perspective as we engaged in discussions and looked at student work was felt by all.
In contrast, this year, at my school, our admin hired an 'expert' from a local educational service center to come provide professional development to our staff on ELL Strategies. While the presenter was enthusiastic and well-versed in the tools that she presented, her time with us lacked the deep discussions and the strong additive perspective that I craved.
When I think about the difference between these two types of professional development, I feel so empowered as a teacher. I feel enlightened about where we need to put our focus and our energy.
When we go to workshops that add to our 'toolbox' or advertise 'take-aways' we are looking to collect a set of tools that will help us to fix, mend, or adjust our students. The underlying tone, whether intentional or not, is one of identifying deficiency. We feel armed and ready to face problems we are already anticipating.
On the contrary, when we enter into conversations looking at each student and at his or her work and words in order to "mine for gems", we can not help but to find them and to want to keep finding them. We smile and feel inspired. We feel renewed and so do our students.
We need not be in search of the experts. We have the resources at our fingertips that can guide us in productive conversations and inquiry: our students' writing. We need only search for the beliefs in ourselves that fight out thoughts of deficiencies and help us to narrow in on and name the strengths.
We need not fix our students' writing. We need only to build on the strengths that are waiting to be found on the page.