Dragonish Tendencies: Community and Collaboration

I had every intention of posting during July, I promise, but I found myself in the unusual position of writing too much. July marked the 35th New York City Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, and in addition to celebrating that and my 5th year anniversary being involved with NYCWP, it was also my first summer as co-facilitator of the ISI. I feel so honored, grateful, and just plain lucky to be a part of such an invigorating community, and this summer was even more amazing than I’ve come to expect of the ISI. We spent an intense and wonderful month writing and sharing and writing and writing, and even though I was making lists and nurturing seeds in my notebook all month, I never got around to blogging. Boyfriend and I headed straight to Mexico the day after the ISI wrapped (I highly recommend immediate vacations to stave off the post-ISI blues; much harder to wake up bummed that I won’t see my WP peoples when I’m waking up in freakin’ Mexico) so I actually have some time to post. Don’t worry, I’m still enjoying my vacation!

Way back in the beginning of July, one of our brilliant summer fellows said that she used to think of teachers as dragons: isolated, guarding their classroom caves. I turned this image over in my brain for days, thinking about teacher-creatures curled protectively around their hoarded treasure of knowledge, and I am glad that this is not a picture that matches me as an educator. I love the idea of being a dragon because of wings and firebreath and general awesomeness, but I am not a jealous hoarder of knowledge. I always want to share my classroom, discuss books or theory, or talk about new ways I could approach routine practices. I relate almost every topic of conversation, current event, or environmental observation to teaching and education, which I’m sure makes me a fascinating dinner guest. Often, I force myself to take a break from my enthusiastic activity on the NYC Writing Project Listserv, an email group that connects me to hundreds of NYCWP educators. Reclusive cave-dweller, guarding my treasure? Not so much.

But, maybe a little. While I share eagerly and comfortably in my own outside communities, I can’t say I do the same within my school. I have been a teacher in 3 different high schools in the Bronx, and outside of a small group of teachers in the first 2 of those schools, I haven’t really shared what I do and why I do it.

Mostly, I haven’t felt safe. As a teacher, I invest time throughout the year in making our classrooms safe spaces for sharing, because we can be mean to each other. Even when it’s not our intention, our reactions to the opinions and words of others can shut people down, embarrass them, incite their anger. If I don’t make time for us to know and trust each other, we won’t consider how our words will affect out community. The building and strengthening of classroom community isn’t a time-filler or a detraction from our curriculum; it is a vital piece of that curriculum, embedded in everything we do. But teacher and staff meetings – “professional development,” allegedly – have not, for me, felt like a place to discuss this practice. I have sat through too many meetings about data and standards and realigning performance tasks, in which teachers and administrators become defensive and judgmental, to risk revealing the priceless gems I’m sitting on.

I understand why we are defensive. There’s a lot of finger-pointing in education, a lot of blame. I’ve written about it before, as have many, many others. More will come, be sure. I think teachers often (rightly) feel the need to justify what happens in their classrooms, assure themselves and any potential doubters that they are not the reasons for undesirable data or whatever we are being blamed for at the moment – world hunger, global warming, bad haircuts, etc. I want to be grateful for having the time to meet with my coworkers, especially as it is now a protected and required piece of time in our workday. Collaboration and sharing resources should be easier than ever before. We should be helping each other thrive. But, for so many of the teachers I talk to, these team times range from venting sessions to time spent counting minutes and trying not to lash out at colleagues. Our dragonish tendencies rear up; we put on our thickest skin and hunker down on our piles of gold, sending up smoke signals that say,” Keep back. Dragon.”

The problem of dragonish tendencies is that isolation and defensiveness make us worse teachers. Most of us don’t challenge our held notions by ourselves. Without conversation and sharing to expose us to new ideas, we stay cozy in our caves. Those walls come to contain the world, and venturing beyond goes from unnecessary to unthinkable. My teacher communities, which are comprised of my friends from grad school, NYCWP, fellow attendees of NCTE, and teachers I have met in line while shopping, help me develop as a teacher. They push me, they challenge me, they give me new ideas. They also help me acknowledge and celebrate my own practice; I don’t need to justify my own work by belittling someone else’s, because I have a community that shows me how to appreciate what I do.

I speak to so many teachers who do not engage in their own professional development, because their idea of PD has been sullied by the mandated, administrator-led meetings that demand data review, dissection of standards, or readings of lists off of Power Point sllides. This is not PD. Professional development is not the round-robin reading of a handout. Professional development should do all of those things described above – connect you to a community that helps you appreciate and interrogate your practice, expose you to new ways of seeing and thinking, and create a space for you to imagine, discuss, and plan how to do things you haven’t done before. Fortunately, even if your administration is not professionally developing you, you are not bound to their PD.

Taking charge of your own professional development is easy, really. Here are three simple things you can try, today.

1. Start a teacher book club. That might sound intense, but all you need is one other teacher and a book you have been wanting to read. You can set your own deadlines and expectations, you decide what to discuss and when to check in, you can even help each other plan how/when/where you’re going to read before your discussions.

2. Get on Twitter. I know, you don’t understand all that “@” and “#” business, and you’re never going to keep track of another password, and what you have to say goes well beyond 140 characters and texting language. I know it can just be scary and weird and you don’t think you have time to spend setting it all up and figuring it all out. The good news is, Twitter doesn’t want a lot of your time. It wants a few minutes, while you wait in line at the grocery. It will invite you to spend an hour hanging out, whenever is convenient for you. You don’t even have to tweet anything. Just come see what’s happening. Set up your account, and choose one or two brilliant people to follow: @KyleneBeers for all your literacy needs, @NCTE or another organization that supports your content area, @EdTech for information around using technology in the classroom. Or, check out a blogger or colleague that you like: you can follow me @priscillawhocan and see the inspirational, thoughtful pedagogues I’ve built my PLN (personal learning network) around. In addition to regular Twitter activity, educational minds will engage in Tweet Chats, fun but fast-paced group conversations around given issues. You can find out more about Tweet Chats (and Twitter in general) at CybraryMan‘s page, and by looking through this Storify record of NYCWP’s first Tweet Chat this past July.

3. Find a teacher community. If you’re craving face to face interaction with some like-minded teachers, or new-to-you minds, seek out an existing community. Meetup.com and Facebook are often used to arrange events, and you can find educator get-togethers with some light searching (you can even start with Google). Of course, nothing beats looking up your local NWP site and reaching out. Most sites offer conferences, workshops, and gatherings, as well as providing an online community through Google+ or a listserv.

I know there is never enough time, as Peter Greene of Curmudgucation says more beautifully than I ever could. Thinking about incorporating time for PD into your life seems impossible, because what can you give up? Nothing. Don’t give up time that you value. Don’t think of including meaningful, professional dialogue in your routine as something that requires you to sacrifice. Taking charge of your own professional development is a gift to yourself and your practice. Knowing that you have a PLN or community to turn to makes those mandated afternoon meetings all the more bearable; it can even help you find the voice to push those meetings in a more useful direction. Dragons have a lot going for them – built-in weaponry, tons of treasure, virtually no enemies aside from knights hoping to prove themselves – but you know it’s lonely in those damp caves. So get out in the air, find your flock, and terrorize the countryside of Useless PD!

Who or what is your PLN? How do you keep developing as a teacher? Share in the comments! As always, I love to hear from you. 

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