Thursday, May 17, 2018

Teaching Teachers: Preparing for a New Prep

As our local schools go through their annual staff planning, I think back to my teaching days, and worry for any teacher with a brand new prep who will be given a book, a syllabus, and little else. Schools and content providers need to think about how to prepare teachers for success in courses they haven't taught before.

Teaching a course is like driving across the United States. The standard curriculum defines the overall journey, but the details are up to the teacher. As a teacher, I needed guidance but flexibility. If you handed me a 200-page document in August that described a course in depth, it would have been too much and too little. It would have been overwhelming to digest all at once, but wouldn't have given me enough granular guidance that could have helped once the course was underway.

Every teacher needs to understand the journey at a high level before she starts planning for the year, and then needs more detail along the way. All of this could be done with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous content that provide consistency, coherence, support, and logistical flexibility.

Course Overview

Ideally, teachers should start getting a grasp of the big picture by the end of the previous school year, but certainly at least a month before reporting for duty in the Fall.
  1. The Big Ideas: What are the major concepts? What ideas and connections are at the center of what students need to know? There should probably be fewer than 10 of these.
  2. Major Activities/Work: What are the (no more than 7) most important specific things you expect students to do? 
    • Dissect a frog.
    • Read A Midsummer Night's Dream.
    • Prove the Intermediate Value Theorem.
    • Write a 10-page paper explaining the branches of the US federal government.
  3. Learning goals for the year with some sort of taxonomy to help make sense of it all.
  4. Technology: What is the role of technology in the course?
  5. Resources: What resources can you point teachers to? Scope & sequence(s), Instructional strategies, textbooks, how-to guides, lesson plans, communities.
Ideally, I would also have each teacher take a version of the same summative test(s) that their students will take. This should be self-graded and not shared with anyone else, but the experience would help teachers understand the goal.

Unit Preparation

As the year progresses, the teacher will need to plan each unit (generally spanning a few weeks of instruction). This is like figuring out how to get from Mt. Rushmore to Yellowstone Park as you work your way across the US. As the teacher plans, she will need guidance and resources that are specific to each unit.
  1. Content overview. Even an experienced teacher could benefit from support to deepen their knowledge and clarify what is and isn't in this course. 
  2. Prerequisite knowledge and skills. Research and common sense both indicate that prerequisites shouldn't be taught all at once during the first month of school. Each foundational topic should be taught just before it's needed.
  3. Curriculum/pacing guide
  4. Other resources: 
    • instructional strategies
    • lesson plans
    • formative assessment
Collaboration

The glue that can hold all this together is a collaboration strategy that helps each teacher find a support system. Twitter, blogs, asynchronous discussion groups, and collaborative document spaces would help teachers learn, share, and innovate continuously. The same collaboration structures would give administrators, curriculum developers, and PD developers insight into what is and isn't working, and who is struggling or excelling.

This approach will ensure that PD is aligned to curriculum, focused on student learning, sustained over time, and supported by collaboration (all of which are critical attributes of effective PD). This will help teachers and students own and enjoy the journey as they hit all the right destinations along the way.

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