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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

What Good is a Workshop If I Don’t Get to Do Any Work?

Teachers out geocachingI just got home from a trip to San Diego (I live in San Jose) where I attended and presented at a technology conference for K-12 teachers. As a teacher for more than fifteen years, I have experienced MANY teacher trainings and professional development sessions.

These have been at schools where I have worked, at other schools, and at conferences and conventions. Personally, I am finding that the ones from which I benefit most these days are the ones I discover and choose to attend myself, not the ones my employer necessarily provides. It’s not that my school doesn’t do great professional development; it’s just that most of it covers things I have already learned or taught myself – or I am the one delivering the training. To expand my horizons as an educator, I have to look elsewhere.

That’s how I ended up attending and presenting at several conferences per year starting a little over a year ago. As I participate in these opportunities, I learn a lot from watching other presenters. You either need to be charming and engaging as a speaker, or you need to get your participants working hands-on. Ideally, you provide both. (Just like classroom teaching – funny, isn’t it?) I like to think I am this kind of double-barreled presenter when I offer a workshop like the one I did in record time this past Saturday.

I’ve blogged before about geocaching with students. I proposed to do a hands-on session for teachers at this conference. But I only got an hour in which to “do my thing.” Hmm. Just how much hands-on activity can you do indoors in an hour with GPS receivers? (They only work outdoors, you know.) Well, I only get about 45 minutes with students when I do this, and teachers are smart people, so . . . I went for it.

Preparing for the activity took longer than the activity itself. First, I got to take twenty GPS receivers and eleven camouflage-painted mint tins on the airplane in a carry-on bag. That was fun. When I got to my hotel, I had to take all twenty GPS receivers outside to turn them on and check their batteries. Five needed fresh batteries, and one had no batteries in it at all. But out on the balcony of my room, I was still out of direct sight with the sky, so I had to lug them all downstairs to an open area to get a signal lock in San Diego. (When you move receivers some distance it can take a while for them to get a new lock.) Then I made sure they all had the correct menus displaying and took them back upstairs. The next morning, the same day as my session, I hid ten of the mint tins in the area around the conference center I had to take a reading of the coordinates of each of those hidden boxes with one of the GPS receivers. Then, back I went to my hotel room to use my computer to receive these “waypoints” (coordinates marked in a GPS) from the one receiver and transmit them, one at a time, to each of the other receivers. Even though our entire outside time during the session took only thirty minutes, all this prep time would be worth it. Unless nobody showed up. Ugh.

I did end up getting around eight people in the session, and after quickly giving an overview of what we would be doing I said, “Let’s just go outside and try it and you’ll really get what I’m talking about.” We did an activity in which each of the containers contained a paper with an example of a physical or chemical change (this idea comes from the EduCaching curriculum), and the finder had to decide which type of change each example was. We only had time for each person to find about three or four of these geocaches before we had to go back inside. We debriefed really quickly, but I think the most significant outcome of the activity was that instead of being a presenter, I became merely a sideline facilitator. These people are professionals after all. Who better to come up with ideas for integrating this into their particular subject areas than the experts themselves?

The comments I got during and after the activity were the most satisfying (and made lugging all that equipment on the plane back and forth even more worthwhile for me). One woman told me, “This was so much better to just do it. I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about if you just explained it to us inside.” A gentleman said, “I could see how this could become addicting. I wanted to keep finding more, even when we ran out of time. The kids would really like this.” Someone called out, “You could do this for physical education!” These comments took place just in the time it took us to walk back inside to the conference room. Once inside, people had questions and suggestions about how this could be used with kids. I told them what I’m telling you: the possibilities are endless.

And when it comes to professional development, why not emulate this same idea? Don’t just sit me in a room and make me listen to you; take me out into the field and let me try it myself. If we can have these experiences as teachers, we’re far more likely to create the same kinds of active learning experiences for our students.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, great, for THAT KIND of learning, but teachers have to learn how to use the new attendance program and gradebook software; how can you do that outside? I’m not suggesting you go outside. But I am imploring those who plan professional development to make it more meaningful and interactive for teachers by making it immediately hands-on and based on interaction and relationships. Instead of one large room with all the teachers in it, train a small cadre of people who will pick it up quickly to then each take a small group in a comfortable space with laptops or in a lab that does not have to be full to be effective. Six or eight teachers working with even just a few computers among them are more likely to catch on and ask for help when they need it than the entire staff of a school being forced to watch and listen to the same speaker in a large-group setting. And I bet you’ll find that you can accomplish more in less time when you work in smaller groups. You won’t have to deal with all the large-group management issues and strategically-planned potty breaks that some people never seem to come back from.

If this is something your school tries, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Image is from Flickr user krossbow, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.

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