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Making Lemonade From Lemons: Creating Your Own Back-To-School PD

The morning began at 8:00 a.m. My butt was numb, and the math-publishing-company-consultant was racing through the teacher's manual at break neck speed. I'd given out my last two ibuprofen to a fellow sufferer. We still had two hours to go. 

Why does professional development so often feel like hell? 

I have a theory that consultants often suffer from educational amnesia. They know the research, but choose to forget it. What's good for our kids is good for adult learners too. Professional Development is at its best when it's teacher-driven, teacher-centered, collaborative and interactive. And just like student learners, we love choice. 

So why not take responsibility for our own learning? My teaching posse and I did just that last week. We planned an unconference. Our definition of an unconference includes three things: Camaraderie, choice, and commitment. It was a tremendous experience! The best part? ANYONE can do this for themselves!
We talked about destinations and venues. It had to be fun. It had to be somewhere all of us could afford.
Retta was the point person who made the reservations and researched activities for us. My job was to lead the conversation about the content of our professional development sessions. What did each of us want to learn? What are our strengths? What could each of us teach? I also printed our conference t-shirts and put together our swag bags. Retta and I took the lead on these things because we're both from Michigan and are very familiar with the venue. We acted as hosts. Kathie came from California, and Deann flew in from Connecticut. Even though we've been podcasting together for a little over a year, none of us had met Deann! 

We chose Mackinac Island which is located in the straits between Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas.

Automobiles aren't allowed on this island. Everyone travels by horse-drawn carriages or bicycles. It had the best of all worlds: Forest, lake, beach, shopping, yummy restaurants, and most importantly sunsets and a bookstore. 

Learning should be fun. Period. We chose a destination that would allow us to decompress and "percolate" in between our learning sessions. Often times, the learning continued as we bicycled and ate our weight in fudge and ice cream. It truly was magical.




The second important component of our unconference was choice. We spent a long time on a conference call talking about our areas of expertise and need. Kathie is an organizational wizard. Retta makes every lesson feel special and engaging by approaching content creatively. Deann's an expert at cooperative learning and differentiation, and my strength is infusing art, music and movement into all subject areas. By the end of our phone call, each of us knew what we were presenting at the unconference. 

The coolest thing is how tailored this became for our needs. It was relevant to us as teachers and learners. We spent time on our own developing our presentations. Some of us provided handouts or videos. Plus, we were able to practice some of what we were learning right then and there. All of us walked away with an action plan for when we returned home, and we agreed to check in with each other on our progress.
Commitment. It's a heavy word, but when you're planning an unconference with your gang, it's needed. We spent the week at a fantastic vacation destination that was chocked full of touristy possibilities. It was essential that we remembered our purpose for being there. Each night, we talked about the next day. We read through the tourist brochures and discussed what we wanted to see. Sometimes, we split up to explore and adventure, other times we stayed together. Once those things were decided, we agreed on a work window. Then, we stuck to our guns. One late afternoon, we returned to our condo later than expected. The horse-drawn carriage taxis run on island time, and we had to stop for some Mackinac Fudge ice cream. We still honored our commitment. We worked later into the evening to make up the time. 

I can honestly say that this was one of the best learning experiences I've ever had. I came home with tons of new ideas to try with my new students. I feel charged up and ready to go! We chose a vacation destination, but that's not always possible or affordable. You can do the same thing, but keep it local. Go to an art museum together or host a teacher slumber party. However you choose to collaborate at an unconference,  remember the 3 Cs: Camaraderie, Choice & Commitment. 

Grab the FREE Unconference Cheat Sheet below to help you plan your own professional development opportunity. Then, gather your posse and pack your suitcase!


Be sure to listen to our new podcast episode about planning your own unconference! Click on the picture below. Don't forget to check out the posts about professional development from my podcast posse, Kathie, Retta and Deann. Their links are below, too.















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One Cool Way to Leap Content-Area Vocabulary in a Single Bound



Copy the words on your paper. Then use a dictionary to find the definitions. Write the definitions next to each word on your paper. Memorize them. You have a test on Friday.

Raise your hand if you rolled your eyes or groaned after reading those directions. And yet, I'd bet you a Starbucks coffee that this was your experience learning in vocabulary in elementary and middle school! I know it was mine. As a student, nothing could make my eyes gloss over faster than directions like the ones above. 


As a teacher, I needed to find more interactive ways to introduce unit vocabulary in content-area subjects. I finally found one that engaged my students, made the words "stick," and helped my kiddos think about the words in context. 

In fifth grade math, fractions comprise a huge part of our curriculum. It's vocab heavy, and quite frankly, nothing makes most fifth graders break out into nervous sweats like fractions. With this webbing approach, we begin by brainstorming and predicting fraction words we might encounter in our unit. 
Students work in table groups to generate a list of fraction words. They write these on post-its. Then, each group reports out to the whole group. I made a whole-group list on our whiteboard. We discussed any words that are unfamiliar before moving on to the second step.

The second step is what makes this strategy so powerful. Students must talk about the words and negotiate with each other. I give each group a sheet of paper with concentric rings. The word fraction goes in the center ring. Students work in groups to sort the words from the whole-group list. The words most related to the central word go in the closest ring. However, they must also identify how those words are related to each other. Are some more connected to each other than others? 

My kiddos engage in some pretty deep discussions, and sometimes the debate becomes heated. However, they are also learning to defend their thinking with evidence. That means that they are using #3 and 4 in the Standards for Mathematical Practice. They're constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, and modeling with mathematics to support their opinions. 

After small groups plot their words on the concentric web, they meet with another small group to compare their collective thinking. Again, debate occurs. 

I can't say it enough: This little strategy has rocked our world in my classroom, in ALL subject areas. 

This year, I took it one step further and asked my students, "If the word equivalent was a superhero, what would his/her powers be?" I did an example to show them what I meant. I would make Equivalent Woman. She would be a superhero who fought to make all situations balanced and fair. She would be called in to decide tough cases where equations weren't equal. Having a hard time installing carpet? Equivalent Woman to the rescue! She'll make sure that you can convert those fractional measurements accurately. I created a superhero symbol/logo for Equivalent Woman. 

I asked each student to choose one of our unit vocabulary words. They weren't allowed to choose a word that someone else had already chosen. Together, we developed a series of questions to help us think about the word and superhero character.

  1. What is the formal definition of the word?
  2. What do I think it means in my own words?
  3. What real-life problems could my superhero solve, and how would those problems relate to the definition.
  4. How would my superhero be dressed? 
  5. What is my superhero's logo? 
We had a blast with this! In the end, my kiddos created superhero posters for our unit vocabulary. These were on display throughout the unit, and because they were student-created, they were CONSISTENTLY used by my students. You can check out some of their rough drafts below:

My favorite thing about this approach is that my kids come away with increased understanding and retention of the vocabulary... and they're engaged. REALLY ENGAGED.  No one had to copy 20 definitions out a Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 


Interested in reading more about how I teach content-area and tier 2 vocabulary? Click HERE and HERE.

Or you can check out these resources! Just click on the picture.



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