Spring is in the air. Trees are beginning to bud. Flowers are starting to blossom. And bees are doing their critical work among us, which makes me think about cross-pollination and how it connects with improving middle level education and ourselves through professional learning. While I don't claim to be an expert on bees, I do know how critical they are to what happens during the spring season. Here's what I know about our busy, buzzing pals: new flowers grow because bees jump from petal to petal, picking up new bits of pollen information, carrying it off, and spreading it around. Admittedly, there's more involved to that apiary process, but the connections to middle level education and the professional learning process are powerfully evident. In brief, bees are doing what we should be doing.
First, in This We Believe, the research shows that effective and amazing middle schools should be driven by "ongoing professional development [that] reflects best educational practices" (pp. 30-31). Therefore, just as bees never stop their cross-pollination work, we should be ever-vigilant and ever-mindful as we learn and grow. Great professional development shouldn't only happen on a designated PD day or when the district has brought in an educational consultant from the outside. Rather, buzzworthy professional learning should be something we constantly seek out—to better ourselves and our profession and to model lifelong learning for our students.
And as pedagogical professionals, we should emulate bees and practice professional learning through the power of cross-pollination. What does that mean exactly? That means that we can't just buzz around our own learning gardens, reading the same books and articles, visiting the same sites, talking with the same people, and exploring in the same way. Just as we challenge our students to stretch themselves and make learning engaging and exploratory, we need to push the boundaries of our ZPDs (zones of proximal development) and make professional learning buzzworthy. Here are 5 quick ways to get started:
1. Take peer observation to the next level. Nothing is more powerful than seeing best practices in action, but too often, we only buzz around teachers in our departments or shadow other leaders in our grade levels. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by emailing someone who teaches another grade or subject or someone who leads in another building, and set up a peer observation appointment and a post-observation appointment to discuss what was learned along the way. This can be particularly powerful for the transition process to and from the critical middle grades. Find out what's really happening at the elementary level with literacy. Discover how high school college and career readiness is really evolving. Instead of just guessing or wondering, let's get into each other's learning gardens, buzz around, and bring great ideas back!
2. Make teacher and staff interactions and learning active. It's difficult to get to know everyone in the school house—especially if your school is big and the faculty is large. As a result, we tend to buzz around the same corners and the same people we know, which is comfortable—but there are other folks to know and other places to learn. We also tend to see professional learning as an independent endeavor during which we passively absorb content and deal with it in isolation. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by turning staff learning into an active exploration. Having a large school can be a hindrance with this work, and that was definitely the case for one of the middle schools where I was an administrator. To work on this issue, we created a five-event social staff interaction game called the Pentathlon. Every month, we gave people five things to do that would get them buzzing around the school and connecting in different ways. Walk down another grade level's hallway during your planning time. Visit an art class. Talk with the head custodian about the best part of his day. It was completely voluntary, but those who participated learned a lot about the school, the staff, and themselves. And it improved our school's culture—especially as Pentathletes were crowned each month with banners above their doorways. On another professional learning day, we created "Mix-it-Up" lunch appointments (and "chat and chew" cards) for the faculty, so they could eat with other people in the building, talk in a relaxed atmosphere, and learn from each other. That was cross-pollination through social-interaction in action! And nobody droned on and on about it.
3. Explore other social media connections. Learning through online forums like Twitter has greatly expanded the field of professional learning because it connects folks around the world who also care about education. But there may also be a problem with that model because we tend to join the hashtags we know and discuss the topics about which we feel comfortable. For instance, I tend to buzz around #mschat and #satchat every week, which are both exhilarating tweet ups, but I don't check out other chats that may also help me grow. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by joining other tweet ups in other content areas, other states, and other countries around the globe. Google "Educational Twitter Chats" and explore the full calendar that's available. Then schedule a time (maybe with your team) to visit one new tweet up each week or monthto see what other people are discussing and sharing.
4. Reflect and share about learning in different ways. With the pace of our days, typical professional learning can feel like a drive-thru service: quick, convenient, and easily digestible. As a result, it can be difficult to find time to reflect and share about what we've learned—even though we know that those actions are essential to the learning process. So we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate by lingering on the pedagogical petals longer and finding unique ways to reflect on what we've learned. For example, as a middle school administrator, I once had a math teacher who openly admitted that he was in a rut with his teaching. He was organized beyond organized. He had his lessons all planned out. But he wasn't going anywhere. We lingered on his professional learning and discussed his goals and tried something new: reflective journaling. Every week, he wrote his feelings down about what he wanted to try, what he thought about teaching and learning, and whatever else was on his mind. By the end of the year, he had discovered some new things about himself as a teacher because he had lingered, reflected in a new way, and made professional learning buzzworthy for himself.
5. Make PD conferences places for new connections. When we have the opportunity to go to a face-to-face learning event, such as a conference, we may spend time planning out the sessions we want to attend, the learning goals we want to address, and the resources we want to order from vendors. But do we plan out who we want to meet and connect with at the event—beyond the people from our own schools? Michael Fullan talks about the need to "deprivatize" education to help it (and ourselves) grow. In order to do that, we need to do what the bees would do and cross-pollinate with other people at professional learning events. Fortunately, many conferences (like the AMLE Annual Conference) are providing more time and more ways for attendees to connect, so take advantage of those moments and get engaged with other attendees who have new ideas and solutions. Get email addresses. Grab Twitter handles. Jot down phone numbers. And reach back out to these fellow busy bees after the conference is over. In other words, to make face-to-face PD buzzworthy, do more than fly with the bees from your own pedagogical garden!
So what are you doing like the bees would do to make professional learning buzzworthy for the critical middle grades and beyond?