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Hacking Federally-funded Prof Dev with an Open MOOC

Written by Stephanie West-Puckett
February 05, 2014

In mid-January, the Tar River Writing Project (TRWP) launched TRWP Connect, a professional development partnership with EB Aycock Middle School to engage faculty in exploring connected learning theory and practice.  With SEED II federal funding allocated for high needs schools, we brought six our of most innovative teacher-consultants together to develop a scaffold for and to facilitate an online professional development experience that foregrounds participatory learning through making, connecting, sharing, and reflecting in a constellation of digital spaces.  Our TRWP Connect model builds on and remixes the National Writing Project’s Making Learning Connected Massive Online Collaboration (CLMOOC), which I helped facilitate in summer 2013, by using many of the same digital tools and conceptual practices to engage participants first as makers and learners and then as teachers who can critique, appropriate, and adapt connected learning for their own classrooms.

As a connectivist MOOC, TRWP Connect, like CLMOOC, is designed to build teacher capacity, leadership, and innovation using open platforms like Google Plus, Google Hangouts on Air, Twitter, and WordPress Blogs.  Open to anyone who is interested in connected learning, making, teaching or learning with digital tools, TRWP Connect is providing an interface for EB Aycock partnership school teachers to engage a variety of educators in our network from different schools, grade levels, subjects.  Similar to the hallmark NWP summer institute, this model operates on the premise that every new node we create on our professional network is a site where cross-pollination and empowerment can occur.  Through these connective nodes, we are sharing our passions for making, creating, and teaching; leveraging our on-the-ground expertise in the form of teaching activities and  strategies; collaborating on difficult problems facing our students, our schools, and our profession; and learning what it means to learn and teach and in a digitally-networked world.  Instead of a top-down approach to school reform, this model assumes that the best answers and ways forward will emerge from the collective as we build strong peer networks coalescing around shared purposes, interests, and issues in the profession.

Sounds cool, right?  Sounds like we’ve designed a system of professional development with the goals of promoting creativity, professionalism,  sustainability, and empowerment, right?  Yes, but…

The federal SEED grant funds for professional development are earmarked for high needs schools and include some particular, and I think, particularly insular provisions .  For example, the request for proposals stipulates that we partner with one high needs school, plan extensively with the administration to address the school’s (not teachers’ or students’) needs,  and engage a large cohort of partner school faculty in at least thirty-hours of high quality professional development.  According to DeSimone, whose article Improving Impact Studies of Teacher Professional Development was circulated widely during last year’s SEED funding cycle, crucial elements of high quality pd involve flexible structures (workshops, informal conversations, reading groups, etc.), active learning methods, a duration of at least one semester, relevancy to classroom issues and concerns, and participation by faculty who share affiliation to one department or school.

The first four elements of DeSimone’s findings resonate with my own knowledges of effective professional learning practice, but it’s the notion that we work with homogenous groups (one department or one school) that strikes me as antithetical to what I know, as a writing project teacher, about transformative learning.  And this gets even more codified when I read the white paper from the US Department of Ed called Job-Embedded Professional Development which calls us to close down the learning borders, focusing our attention “inside the building ” to target (and as I read indoctrinate) a critical mass of school faculty through hierarchical train-the-trainer models.

If we take these SEED directives and the documents circulating around them as a mandate for how we, as writing project sites, should do our site work in the current climate of per-project funding, then we are at-risk of re-inscribing organizational silos and reifying school politics as opposed to providing spaces, like the NWP summer institute, where teachers can make new connections and use those nodes as places to make, play, experiment, and try on new identities and positionalities.  In my experience of writing project, intersectionality and openness are central to who we are and what we do, and if we are to hold onto this ethos, then we’re going to have to think together about how we can exploit these prescriptive federal grant guidelines.  TRWP Connect is but one example of how we’re making connections happen on the local/ not-local level, and I’m curious as to how others are receiving and refiguring these constraints to strengthen and grow teacher networks.

Cross-posted from my blog.

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