My First Day Back at Camp

This past Thursday, I came back to school. I know that some think that most teachers spend their summers blissfully lying beneath their grapevine or pear tree (I have both in my backyard) but my summer break ended on August 1. Actually, I also spent most of the month of July working from home learning a new sefer that I will be teaching, planning lessons and professional development, and coordinating various technology related items in my school. But that is a subject for a different post which my friend Rabbi Ross has already covered a month ago in excellent fashion in "What are you doing for the summer?".

Actually, I came back to camp. You see every August, I run a series of technology workshops for teachers in my school called, Summer Technology Boot Camp. Thursday was the first session and I had jitters just like the first day of school. I looked up at my colleagues, ten math and science teachers who took time out of their summer break to master a web based assessment tool, Problem-Attic, and wondered whether I would be able to provide them with a meaningful learning experience. I had also just finished reading a hilarious posting satirizing teacher inservice training and hoped that I could avoid the pitfalls outlined in this posting.

I started by stating the obvious. Since I am not a math or science teacher and was a Jewish Studies undergraduate major and graduate student in Jewish History and Education, the last serious math or science course I had taken was high school physics which was taught by one of the teachers now sitting in front of me in the room. I did not pretend to know much about math or science but hopefully I could help them navigate this valuable tool which would be useful in enhancing their math and science courses. Then we got to work.

Thank G-d, the session was a success. There was a positive energy in the room, everyone was actively engaged, and I received favorable feedback from my colleagues both verbally and in writing as well. I left with a natural high which I get whenever I can help facilitate learning experiences whether for my fellow teachers or my students. This is why I love what I do.

I have been thinking about the factors that made this session a success. I came up with five factors that I will describe below. I am writing them here in my own personal online space so I can properly reflect and gain insight for my future growth. If you, the reader, benefit as well from these reflections then that would be an added bonus. If you think of other factors that help you when participating in and/or leading meaningful teacher inservice, please include them in the comments to this blog.

1. Relevance
The session was relevant to everyone in the room. The tool we navigated together provided a large bank of editable questions from every state assessment and common core standard mostly in math and science that could be used to help design summative assessments like exams. It could also be used to create real-time formative assessments, online quizzes, that students could take with their iPads or computers as pre-assessments in the beginning of a classroom period, sending the teacher instant feedback on what the class and/or individual students knew about a topic so they could tailor the lesson accordingly. These real-time assessments could also be exit tickets at the end of the lesson to assess what was gained during the classroom period or homework assignments as well. The key was this tool was very relevant to the teachers in the room. It was geared towards effective teaching and learning in math and science so everyone felt a reason why it was important for them to learn how to use it. This leads to my second point.

2. Engagement
The teachers were engaged throughout the lesson. One strategy that I used to help facilitate this was to "Begin with the End in Mind" as Stephen Covey would say. Instead of starting at the beginning with how to log into this web tool and then how to use the question bank to create your first document, I started by giving everyone an online quiz that I had created using a few math questions the night before. I made a customized shortened link for this quiz using one of my favorite link shorteners,, and wrote this link on the board. Everyone took out their laptop or iPad and took the quiz. We then analyzed the data on how the class did together. I modeled for the teachers what giving this type of quiz would look like in their classroom and why it would enhance their subsequent teaching. Only then did we begin at the beginning and all log into the web based tool and start creating our first quiz. This led to a session that was a bit disjointed, one person pointed out in their feedback that maybe an outline of what would be covered in the session would have been helpful, but it got everyone actively engaged from the first moment of the workshop. This continued throughout the session as teachers designed their own quizzes, some teachers got up and presented ideas to their colleagues, and teachers even quizzed each other.

3. Choice
The teachers all chose to be at this session. No one was forced to go. This is one of the strengths of giving a series of workshops spread out over 3-4 weeks as a part of a voluntary summer technology boot camp. Teachers choose sessions that are relevant to them. They then feel invested in making their experience worthwhile. There is a drawback to this model. Not everyone chooses to come. Sometimes like on faculty meeting days you need to schedule inservice activities that are mandatory for all teachers. And sometimes these activities have to be on topics that the school determines everyone needs to know. This is similar to the experience with students. Students only get to choose certain courses and these electives tend to be mostly in when they are upperclassmen. Teachers are given much more autonomy but not completely so. However, the more choice you can insert into professional development the better.

4. Support
I enlisted my IT staff to give excellent technology support and the technology worked for all teachers almost flawlessly. One cannot discount the importance of this during professional development. If a teacher's first experience with technology is a bad one, if they cannot log in or the internet just doesn't perform properly or their computer quickly runs out of battery, the chances of them pursuing this technology further are very slim. That's why there should always be extra technology support in an inservice session and I find that if I am leading the lesson then I cannot be this support. I enlist others to help me, similar to the way I support others when they are leading sessions. Also, if one is using a web based tool, one should always test every step one plans to do, log in, create a document, export etc at least a day prior to the session. I tested the program two days before and found a bunch of glitches which I was able to solve by contacting support. This was critical for everything working perfectly during the workshop.

5. Feedback
Teachers were given ample opportunity to provide both public and private anonymous feedback at the end of the session. To do this, I created both a blog and a Google form. Teachers were invited to post public feedback on the blog by sending an email to the blog's email address (Tammy Worcester's email to blog trick) which I set up to immediately post. You can read their public reflections here. I also wrote on the board a customized shortened link to an online Google Form in which they could provide private anonymous feedback. Giving teachers opportunities for feedback accomplishes two goals. 1) It keeps you "honest" by providing you the immediate chance to see "how you are doing". 2) It shows teachers that their opinion matters to you which adds to the relevance of the session for them and their engagement in the learning process.

These are some of my observations from my first day back at (boot) camp. I can't wait to come back this week to continue to work with my esteemed colleagues on many other exciting educational technology ventures.