Keep the Teacher-to-Teacher Conversations Going

For the past two years, I’ve worked on the leadership team of Assignments Matter 2.0 with the National Writing Project. This initiative equipped teacher leaders from Birmingham, Alabama and New York City, New York with tools from the Literacy Design Collaborative that helped them explore the question, “What makes a text-based writing assignment effective?”

The teacher leaders took these tools and this question and engaged local teachers in professional development around their own practice of creating text-based writing assignments. The tools from LDC themselves were quite impressive, and certainly, having high-quality tools is one key to professional development that elevates teacher practice and improves student outcomes.

Another key, I’ve been re-convinced through this work is ensuring that professional development sets up space for ongoing teacher-to-teacher conversations.

Something transformational happens when a teacher is with another teacher and says, “Let’s talk about this question, own it, and learn from one another; we’ve got this!” In our work with Assignments Matter 2.0, these teacher-to-teacher conversations cultivated connections and created a reflective community in which teachers’ text-based writing tasks were challenged and complicated to ensure they were text dependent, free from teacher bias, had a strong, precise cognitive demand, and were scaffolded through intentionally planned lessons.

In our work, there were three things that set-up success in teacher-to-teacher conversations: shared language, shared approaches, and grounding in the here and now.

First, a shared language for conversation is necessary. The Literacy Design Collaborative provided the frame. The tools, Template Tasks and Jurying Rubric, provided the language. These are accessible tools that have been well vetted and developed over a series of years. They helped teachers talk about what is going on in their work and what needs to be going on in their work.

Then, teacher leaders at the two satellite sites added a layer that took the language and grounded it in meaningful approaches. These approaches are the practices and actions that establish norms and protocols to ground teacher-to-teacher conversations. Some of these approaches, such as the response group protocol, are defining pillars of the work of the National Writing Project for the past forty years. Others approaches, such as the 4As protocol and the Sparking Conversations protocol, were unique to the local sites, Red Mountain Writing Project and New York City Writing Project.

Finally, teacher-to-teacher conversations must be grounded in the here and now. Professional development fails when it focuses on tools in a vacuum. Rather professional development must ground professional conversations in questions such as, “What does it mean to be a teacher here and now? What does it mean to use this tool here and now?” Having teacher-leaders at local sites lead local teachers makes this work relevant.

It is this grounding in the here and now, that teachers report finding a third space in the Writing Project where they can talk freely and fruitfully about how to navigate the challenges of the day-to-day in the classroom. What could be a dull professional development then becomes relevant and urgent. What may have been a vulnerable moment sharing your own perceived failings in the classroom or instruction is instead a space surrounded by friends who push you to new learning. This is only possible in teacher-to-teacher conversations that are rooted in shared language, shared approaches, and the here and now.

Progress for students and change in the classroom can never be about merely a tool or collection of tools. It must also always include teacher-to-teacher conversations. It’s these transformational conversations between teachers that drive development in their work and ultimately move students’ skills and abilities forward.