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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Powerful PD: Teachers Take the Learner's Seat

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

"What does it take to get really good at something?" Envision Schools teachers and leaders were given this driving question, launching our 2013 school year professional development. In this workshop, we asked our staff to be learners in a "Slice of a Project" -- facilitated by the Envision education support leaders, including yours truly.

We had taken the inspiration from Expeditionary Learning to provide an accelerated experience through a project as a learner before we asked teachers to design and implement projects. I documented our first "slice" in this Edutopia post. This year we were inspired by Kathleen Cushman who described a similar project on "getting really good at something," in her book Fires in the Mind. Our consulting division, Envision Learning Partners, uses this project slice in their professional development with teachers and school leaders around the country to introduce them to performance-based learning.

The following scenario was posed to teachers:

How many times have you passed over or given up on something that seemed exciting or fulfilling because you just figured you would not be good at it? Getting good at something is a process that often takes time and had work, but also allows us to experience new and wonderful parts of ourselves. Your challenge is to create a guide for your students that "unlocks the secrets" of this process, so that more young people are willing to take positive risks and discover their own talents and gifts.

The teachers were formed into teams with a blend of experienced teachers and new teachers. Immediately, they went to work -- knowing that learning this day would culminate in a guide that presents a claim/argument (e.g., this is what it takes to get really good at something). The guide could be in the form of a Powerpoint, Keynote, or Prezi, a movie, PSA or documentary, a live dramatic presentation, or a flyer or brochure. The audience and assessors would be Envision students who would be joining us at the end of the day.

The teachers received a set of benchmark products, a reading and the rubrics that would assess their reasoning, their presentation and their collaboration. These rubrics are the same ones we use with students as part of the Envision College Success Portfolio.

Throughout the day, the project slice facilitators modeled strategic literacy teaching processes and our system-wide instructional framework based on the workshop model that we call the Envision Knowing, Doing and Reflecting Instructional Framework. The "slice" was not only engaging for teachers, it accomplished several outcomes:

  • We introduced our system-wide focus on building literacy skills and our instructional framework in the context of real teaching and learning
  • New teachers made personal connections with experienced teachers from their school and across our network
  • Teachers experienced performance-based learning from the learner point of view and experienced all the anxiety, challenges and excitement that they will need to manage with their students
  • We highlighted how to integrate the College Success Portfolio tasks and their rubrics into a project
  • We had fun!

In the end, the teachers also learned that their students are tough assessors with high standards; they used the rubric to give the teachers pointed feedback on where they can grow in their reasoning and presentation skills.

We found the best evidence of success with this professional development experience when we walked into classrooms on the first day of school and observed teachers guiding their students through this same slice of a project to get them ready for the school year.

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