How to Transform Educational Books into Professional Development

How to Transform Educational Books into Professional DevelopmentIn the last post we explored three ways in which educational books can be used (or misused) during professional development to impede our progress. One of these points touches upon making professional development more focused by (1) starting with the end in mind (or with what enduring understandings you want participants to walk away), and then (2) focusing only on the parts of the book that pertain to these understandings.

In Instructional Coaching, Jim Knight talks about the “art form” of instructional coaches being able to take a book and present/teach its contents in a simplistic fashion. He explains that ideas “will catch on much quicker if they are (a) powerful and (b) easy to use.” As implementers of professional development, I believe that we must own the process of making our resources and books as absorbable as possible (and not be so quick to blame teachers who may not “get it” the first time around). As Knight declares, “Teachers do not resist change so much as they resist poorly designed change initiatives.”

With my thoughts and Knight’s research in mind, here are the steps that I generally follow in order to “transform” a book into professional development: 

  1. Determine your enduring understandings, keeping in mind that the majority of the time less is more when it comes to professional development. Understandings should be based on an ongoing assessment of “where you are” and then deciding “where you want to be.” An emphasis should also be placed on practices that possess significant effect sizes related to student achievement.
  2. Select the book that addresses your understandings in the most practical way possible. As mentioned in the last post, ideally, the book should be (1) 200 pages or less, and (2) based on actionable research, which is a combination of “how to” and “here’s why.” A few months ago I wrote an article for Education Week that examines the importance of being able to effectively navigate Amazon in order to find these types of resources.
  3. Read the book and highlight any useful information that you may end up using for professional development at any point in the future (saves you the time of having to reread the entire book if/when educator learning shifts to different enduring understandings). Pay special attention to visuals – photographs, charts, graphs, etc. – that will help you to better tell your story. One option to save time is to only read/highlight the chapters that relate to your current focus.
  4. “Extract” the highlights that pertain to the enduring understandings on which you are currently focusing, while having the discipline to ignore everything that does not directly relate to your present efforts. This is the step where the planning (and therefore, learning) can easily start to go downhill through the inclusion of research/information/ideas that may appear to be useful, but only serve to dilute your message by promoting mile wide, inch deep learning. Think laser focus, less is more, depth over breadth, etc. Typically when I extract my highlights I simply go through the book, front to back, and type the relevant information into a word processing document.
  5. While reviewing your extracted highlights, start to plan what the professional development will actually look like. While there is no precise “formula” that will get you to where you need to be, the one rule to always keep in mind is that professional development should model best practice. For example, if you are focusing on differentiated instruction, your professional development better be differentiated. Not only will participants experience firsthand how learners can benefit from the approach, but they will walk away with multiple explicit strategies to use in their classrooms.
  6. As you wrap your head around what the professional development will look like, convert your extracted highlights to slides. When I first started presenting I used to simply copy and paste the key highlights/quotes on to my slides and call it a day. While I do think that some quotes can be effective, over the past few years I have transitioned to delivering these messages through the use of visuals (photographs, drawings, videos) and hands-on activities. (Disclaimer: The majority of the time I rely on a slide deck when facilitating professional development. However, I never hesitate to ditch the deck if I think there is a better option given the content that is being presented.)
  7. Towards the beginning of your slides, rationalize why the current topic has been chosen as the focus while being careful not to disrespect the past and current work of your participants. Or, take a risk by planning to have the participants “uncover” why certain needs exist. For example, for a future session on writing workshop we are going to have teachers discuss our existing structure/resources for writing instruction, and then (hopefully) arrive at the consensus that more is needed. Around this time might also be when you would show/explain where the present professional development falls within the context of past and future learning.
  8. Transition from examining needs to revealing the essential question that encompasses everything that is going to be learned. Essential questions do not necessarily have to be answered, but they should lead to some form of inquiry. For a session on encouraging more student opportunities to respond, I first quoted Total Participation Techniques:

Think about the typical question-and-answer session in most classrooms. We call it “the beach ball scenario” because it reminds us of a scene in which a teacher is holding a beach ball. She tosses it to a student, who quickly catches the ball and tosses it back. She then tosses it to another student…

This quote transitioned into our essential question, which was, “How can I create more beach balls.” Everything we explored that day connected to this question in one way or another, and the question was revisited towards the end of the learning.

  1. Incorporate the learning targets, which should directly correspond with the enduring understandings. For a previous session on Common Core Mathematics, the targets were (1) “I am somewhat familiar with the Practice Standards,” and (2) “I am starting to think about teaching with rigor.” The statements not only touch upon content, but each one also clarifies what the educators’ depth of understanding should be by the conclusion of the period. Present these targets in the order in which they will be investigated, which helps in creating a mental roadmap of the professional development in the minds of participants. Revisit the learning targets towards the end of the instruction.
  2. Think about how you are going to provide follow up once the session is complete. I always try to ensure that the learning/reflecting/progress is ongoing, rather than relegated to a handful of select days throughout the year. In general, perception is reality. If educators do not feel like they are being supported, something different needs to be done. Part of the ongoing assistance also involves an assessment of the initial professional development, which includes more than just surveying teachers to see if they enjoyed it.
  3. Upload all of your resources to a folder in the cloud (e.g. Google Drive), so participants can access them during, after, and possibly before the actual professional development. These resources should include the slide deck that is created, along with any accompanying handouts, and the link to everything can be distributed to participants as soon as possible. Take a less is more approach with handouts. Too many can be overwhelming, while including only a few one pagers sends the message, “These are important!” After all, anything with a staple in it doesn’t get read.

These ten steps represent a simplification (but not an oversimplification) of the process that I generally follow to transform books into professional development. More or less, the first five steps involve isolating the appropriate information, while the second five involve framing said information in the clearest, most absorbable, and most “educator-provoking” way possible.

For more on professional development, I encourage you to read 5 Non-Negotiables of Professional Development and then Revisiting the 5 Non-Negotiables of Professional Development.

What are your thoughts on “transforming books” into professional development? Do any of my steps stand out? Are there any that I may have missed?

Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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