Not Another PD?!

The groans and whines can be heard around the district, as teachers drag themselves into another professional development meeting. Effective professional development can help to transform and restructure quality schools. It should motivate and excite teachers to learn new ideas and teaching methods. However, many PDs often fall short. Why?
Professional Development is often forced upon us, particularly at our school sites. The district requires certain topics and although they may be helpful, these meetings are usually squeezed in after school when we're exhausted or so close to the start of school that all we want to do is get into our classrooms to set up! As you look around the room, you see teachers on their phones, having sidebar conversations, dozing off. . . 

Well some friends and I came up with a solution: an unconference! What is an unconference? (Spell-check does not recognize this as a valid word; it keeps underlining it as misspelled!) An unconference is a set period of time to learn about topics that YOU have an interest in, as well as to build relationships.  Tracy, Retta, Deann and I met a couple of years ago online. I know that sounds so "21st century" but I was drawn to reading their blogs because they sounded like teachers I wish I taught with. From what I read, they were doing deep thinking with their students, creative and outside-the-box activities, plus they shared my philosophy about how children learn best. We share a passion for teaching and desire to continue learning, even though we have taught a total 132 years!  (In other words, we are no spring chickens; LOL) You know we started our podcast, We Teach So Hard a year ago (!) but we also wanted time to learn from each other in person, so the unconference was born!
The most important tip is to find your tribe! Find teachers you want to spend time with, teachers who have similar philosophies about how children learn, teachers who are supportive and will cheer others on, teachers who have an expertise in an area you'd like to learn more about. 
Decide what you want to learn and which friend has the most knowledge to teach it! Tracy is one of THE  most creative people I know so she taught us about integrating math and art, as well as how to create more visual and interactive lessons for students. Retta always focuses on the social and emotional well-being of children; we were excited to learn how to keep kids stress-free and engaged while learning. Deann is an expert on using cooperative groups to raise the rigor of teaching.
Location can be inspiring and beautiful or it can be your local Starbucks with plenty of tables and outlets. We chose Mackinac Island in Michigan as our location since we were planning on spending a few days together. Tracy and Retta are both from Michigan, then Deann and I flew in. Oh my goodness, talk about a charming and breathtakingly beautiful island! There are no motorized vehicles on the island; you walk, bike, or take horse-drawn carriages. This alone set the tone of slowing our pace! One of our requirements when finding a location was that it needed to have a large work area and free wifi. Be sure you know how much everyone wants or can afford to spend. Your unconference does NOT need to be in an exotic location! You can even meet at someone's house, in their living room or backyard! 

I'm sure you guessed the problem with having an unconference in a location with much to do: making sure we actually sat down to teach and learn! Set a work and play schedule then stick to it! We started off our mornings on our own: taking a walk or doing gigong (breathing, body movement, and meditation), or catching up on the news. We scheduled a teaching block every day, as well as time to eat and do some exploring around Mackinac. (Notice the fudge and ice-cream pics below; yes, we made time to eat fudge and ice cream every. single. day. Since Michigan is evidently known for their fudge and ice cream!) 

I'm impressed with how well we stuck to our schedule; we usually worked 3-5 hours per day (in shifts), often in our PJs!  The great thing about planning your own PD is that there is TIME to ask questions, try out what we just learned, get frustrated, ask more questions, and get the support and ideas of all other participants. 
Research has shown that when there is choice and time, there is greater teacher buy-in and greater likelihood to implement new learning. This was by far the BEST professional development I have ever attended! I learned what I needed to learn, deepened my friendships, and had a great vacation!
(from top left, clockwise)

Tune in to episode 47, recorded together on Mackinac Island! Click on image below.

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