Mahopac Central School District, Mahopac, New York
Like so many others around the country, the Mahopac Central School District in New York scheduled teacher conference days throughout the year. And, like so many others, these conferences were usually passive exercises, with teachers convening in the auditorium, surreptitiously grading papers while half-listening to a keynote speaker.
“Although the teacher enjoyed these speakers, we didn’t feel we were modeling the kind of instruction we wanted our teachers to be engaged in in the classroom,” says Adam Pease, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and staff development. “It was like, the teachers had learned some things here and there, but when the students came back the next day, nothing really changed about instructional practice. So we decided our PD days should model what we wanted teachers to be doing with students.”
If they wanted to change instruction in the district, administrators knew the PD days would have to be redesigned to nurture a culture of innovation. So applying innovation to the redesign, they came up with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach to PD.
The new “un-conference” conference days make teachers active participants in their PD by engaging in differentiated, teacher-directed, collaborative projects. It’s a powerful, inexpensive, easy exercise that can be implemented in districts across the region, says Pease.
Teachers can either propose a project that they’d like to do during the conference day, or sign onto a project proposed by another teacher. Teachers receive parameters to propose an innovative project that aligns to district priorities and meets specified criteria:
1. The project is an attainable challenge that will “stretch” proficiency in Google Apps.
2. The project is tied to at least one of the five district priorities.
3. The project uses at least one Google App for Education (Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites, Classroom, etc.).
4. The project includes at least two participants who will collaborate electronically using Google.
5. The project has a direct and positive impact on teaching and learning.
6. Teachers are motivated and excited to complete the project.
“We had done so many different models of PD over the years, but none of them have resonated like this one has,” says Pease. “It was amazing to see teachers get so excited about having big chunks of discretionary time when they could work with colleagues on something they were passionate about.”
Post-conference surveys show teachers overwhelmingly prefer the Choose Your Own Adventure approach over more traditional conference days.
But making the transition was not without bumps. Pease says it was challenging to have teachers take a risk to propose a project that would “stretch” their learning. Teachers, like students, are not accustomed to those in charge giving them the leeway to create programs they could all use.
“There were questions of accountability and we needed to build trust with teachers that failure was part of learning,” Pease says. “By allowing teachers to work collaboratively, and using teacher leaders such as department chairs, building technology leaders and others to support the change, teachers grew into and ultimately thrived in this new system of PD.”
Moving forward, the district would like to develop a central repository to house completed projects and to showcase student work. The district would also like to increase its online “footprint” as it shares projects via social media.