A Good Workshop

Sometimes a small experience can tell us about a big picture. That is one of the lessons of a superb three-day workshop I just concluded, though another lesson is notable too. It is that a good workshop can do wonders for one’s professional development. I say that who have survived some really dreadful workshops in which not only did I learn nothing, but I came away a dispirited or angry teacher: Someone spent good money and I spent my precious time for that?

But the workshop I just attended left me a sense of accomplishment and learning rather than that unfortunately familiar feeling we often get after a conference—something like the feeling a mark gets after being bilked in a confidence game. But this was no confidence game; it was solid throughout. How did it happen? What do I conclude from it?

It took place in a country that has been working hard and successfully for a number of years to improve the quality of its teachers, though many of my classmates, highly experienced teachers, were also eminently qualified. Note 1: the participants in a good workshop, though not omniscient, are experts in their profession, and are treated as such.

The participants had given up three days of their Easter holiday and expected something solid in return for time lost. Note 2: A good teacher gives precious time and in return expects precious learning and experience. Note 3: A good workshop leader anticipates high professional expectations and sets out to meet them.

The material being covered, the new English A Literature course of the International Baccalaureate program, was developed over a period of years in a truly collaborative effort embracing specialists and classroom teachers as genuine partners rather than handed down by ukase. In Finland this would be the standard procedure since its teachers are seen as respected and knowledgeable professionals and are expected as a matter of course to develop and shape the curricula they teach. One of the main participants in the development of this course was our presenter, a working classroom teacher. Note 4: Good workshops are connected to good programs. Note 5: Good programs are the result of collaboration among professional equals, not the result of imposition by managers unconnected with the classroom.

I couldn’t help contrasting this workshop with those at the last teachers’ conference I attended. At that conference no working teachers gave workshops; neither I nor my colleagues carried away anything particularly memorable or applicable to our work lives. Note 6: Good workshops for teachers are led by teachers.

The workshop was live and required constant face-to-face collaboration among the participants in real time. I had recently experienced an on-line workshop in another course with a world-famous expert in that course. She was good, but I got much, much less out of three weeks of clicking and tapping and strands and pages than I did out of three days of genuine meetings. Note 7: Good workshops (and indeed good courses everywhere that demand more than the simplest grunt-work) are live, not on line.

The work that took place at the workshop bore directly on the classrooms in which the English A Literature course would actually be taught and was intended to help teachers succeed in teaching that course. Note 8: A good workshop has a specific focus on particular knowledge and understanding, and it seeks particular results in a particular place: the classroom.

The English A Literature course has specific criteria for success (and, yes, failure). The participants in this workshop looked at actual essays and listened to actual oral presentations with the aim of understanding and applying the criteria of success to those “performances.” After marking them we discussed each one thoroughly, criterion by criterion. Note 9: A good workshop discussing “quality” and standards must explicitly and thoroughly treat those standards in live and collaborative ways.

The workshop presenter, one of the two or three best I have ever seen, constantly referred his own remarks and ours back to his own classroom experience and ours. The laboratory, the experimental classroom, and the showroom never entered his discussion or ours. Neither did any “technology,” gadget, or software except in connection with solving particular classroom problems. He was not a promoter or a pitchman for a system, a theory, or a product. Note 10: The originators, promoters, and marketers of particular theories, software, and products should be banned from workshops because workshops are not Tupperware parties. Note 11: The best way to communicate workable innovation is through natural word of mouth untainted by “tipping-point vanguards” and other marketing tools. Note 12: Branding and marketing have no business in education. “Representatives” of commercial enterprises should be turned away at the door.

The presenter spoke ordinary English that was remarkably free of jargon, except the course’s necessary terms of art, which teachers had already internalized. Note 13: Ordinary language is an extraordinary joy, but a necessary one. Note 14: Surely teachers who expect their students to know and speak good English may expect their workshop leaders to do so as well.

My school’s I. B. Coordinator approved my participation in this workshop because he supports his teachers’ needs and wants them to do their best. He did not approve it because he thought I would like to take a trip. Note 15: Good workshops have participants who attend workshops for the right reasons and are supported wholeheartedly by their schools’ administration.



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