By Bonnie Bracey Sutton
[Note: Article updated on 11.10.12 — graphics added. -Editor]
Give a little of your background so we know who you are. Describe your work and how you assist teachers.
I’ve been in education for about 27 years now. I started as a classroom teacher and was a middle school science teacher for over a decade. I then moved on to administrative positions in my school district: I have worked in gifted and talented education, I’ve been an evaluator in education research, and most recently and for the last eight years I’ve been the Director of Instructional Technology for the El Paso Independent School District. My job is to try to try get teachers to use technology in the classroom with their students. I have a really great team of people that go out and train teachers on how to integrate technology into their lessons. Along the way I’ve been the President of the Science Teachers Association of Texas as well as President of the Technology Education Coordinators SIG, which is a statewide group in Texas of Instructional Technology Directors. Most people that know me from outside of Texas know me from my blog, which is now residing on Tumblr and is called HOLTTHINK.
What made you write 180 Questions: Daily Reflections for Educators and Their Professional Learning Communities?
For the longest time I thought just having a blog would be a good enough place to share my ideas and share what I was doing, but after a while I started thinking that a book would be a good place to put ideas that had to do with a very specific topic. The blog I have is kind of self-reflective and bounces all over the place from instructional technology to politics to different kinds of education topics, whereas the book is centered specifically on thinking about Professional Learning Communities or PLCs. What I wanted to do in this book was to give educators the opportunity to start doing a lot of reflection, which is something I think is sorely missing from a lot of professional development these days. What I see happening in professional development is people going in, getting trained on something, which they may or may not use, and then there is no follow-up, there is never anything that happens afterwards so you never know whether that training was useful or not useful.
The purpose of the book was to look at how we look at ourselves as educators. When I was growing up, every evening my parents had this booklet called The Upper Room, which was a daily devotional that had a little message with a meaning, and a prayer. Every night at dinner my father would read the daily passage, which they picked up at church each Sunday. I don’t even know if they still make it anymore, but I liked that idea of having something that made you think or made you jump out of your comfort zone on a daily basis. So that was kind of the genesis for the idea of doing 180 Questions. The “180” comes from the length of a typical school year here in the United States.
One of the other motivations that I came across to make the book was that I had seen many teachers get involved in PLCs, but they all had very little community in them. They had a lot of data analysis, it had a lot of somebody leading the group, telling the teachers what they should do, but not a whole lot of community. I wanted to get the C back into the PLC. What I wanted to do in this book was to bring conversation about education back into PLCs. I found out that my impressions of how PLCs were not working was not unique to my school district.
I’ve actually spoken to many teachers at conferences and gatherings and on my professional learning network and asked them if what was happening in their professional learning community is what was happening in their professional development situations and the same thing kept coming up over and over again: There was this emphasis on data analysis and on looking at the scores, and on trying to outsmart the next test. And so there really wasn’t the idea that I’m becoming a better teacher because of these meetings. There wasn’t that idea of “Here are some things I need to think about to improve myself.” What happened to these professional learning communities is that they had simply become meetings where teachers and administrators looked at student data and were trying to outwit the test.
How did you decide to pick and scaffold your daily “Conversation starters?”
When I started collecting my 180 questions — which came from all different sources: from keynote speeches that I’d seen, from conversations in my professional learning network, from my Twitter and Plurk feeds, from books that I’ve read, from webinars and so on — I noticed that they started to naturally collect into five or six specific categories. When I finally ended up with my questions, I put them into the six categories that show up in the book; like leadership, professional development, technology integration and so on.
These categories just kind of naturally fell out of the sky when I started looking at those questions, and it might be because those are the six areas that currently interest me in education: I’m interested in professional development, I’m interested in instructional leadership, I’m interested in technology, I’m interested in classroom climate. What I tried to do was to make sure that no single category was more important than the others: educational leadership in my book is no more important than instructional technology is no more important than climate. They are all of equal importance, and the reason I did that was because I wanted to show that everything was of equal value in education: the professional development topic is just as important as educational leadership, is just as important as instructional technology.
I wanted to make sure that even though there is an order in the book (you have to put them in order because it’s a book, you have a beginning and you have to have an end) is that you can pick and choose the questions at random, you can pick and choose the ones that fit what you’re doing at your school, you can pick and choose the ones that are important to you, and you’re not stuck necessarily going from page 1 to page 360. You can actually start on page 125 if that’s important to you or if that particular question would get the conversation going in your PLC.
Do you think most teachers believe they are a part of a PLC?
I think most teachers are part of a professional learning community whether it’s formally called that or not. The idea of PLCs is not new; it started formally way back in the early 1990s. I believe the idea back in the 1990s was to have teachers working together teaching themselves on topics that would make them better educators for their students, a community of learners, led by the teachers themselves. What’s happened over the course of the years is that the idea of PLC took off at about the same time that the idea of data-driven decision-making took off, and they kind of morphed together so that a lot of the PLCs now are data-driven disaggregator meetings which was, I don’t think, the original intent of professional learning communities.
Back in the ’90s when I was a middle school teacher, I remember we had “Pods” and these really were just the grade level meetings. All the teachers would get together and discuss students that we had in common and so we would talk about where the students were failing, where the students were succeeding, how we could help those students and so forth, but it was much more informal than what we’re doing now with PLCs. I think what’s happened now is that in many places some kind of instructional coach on a campus is leading the entire conversation, and while it’s okay to lead the conversation a little and it’s okay to be part of the conversation, the administrator or the instructional coach shouldn’t be the one driving the entire conversation.
The teachers should be the ones that are driving the conversation, the teachers should be the ones that are coming up with the ideas to improve student learning, the teachers should be the ones that are coming up with the methodologies. That’s where this book comes in. Hopefully they will look at this book when the conversation about improving teaching and learning in the PLC has run dry. 180 Questions is just conversation starters. It isn’t designed to take over your PLC meetings; it’s designed to just get you talking back on the topic of teaching and learning and get you back on the topic of how do you improve yourself and how does your professional learning community improve themselves as educators.
Can you give some examples of a PLC? From the very beginning kind to a professional one.
I think most educators are familiar with the concept, even if it is not formally called a PLC. A PLC can be as simple as grade level people all meeting regularly. All the science teachers meeting together at high school, all the English Language Arts teachers meeting together at a middle school; that’s their professional learning community. I think that the informal learning communities of the past became formalized: we started having to meet on regular bases, we started taking attendance, we started doing all those things that take the fun out of the community.
I think one of the things that you do when you start making something mandatory is you start taking the fun and start taking the organic conversation out of it. One of things I hope that this book does is put the conversation back where you can have this kind of icebreaker question that people will talk about for a few minutes. If there is something that they want to delve more deeply into, each question has a corresponding page where the questions are extended either by a QR code that they can scan, there might be a little quiz, there might be a video, or there might be a writing by an expert on that topic.
I had some of the people that inspired the question actually write what they meant about that question. There’s all different kinds of things that are embedded into this iBook. One of the really great things about using iBook with an iPad is that you can really create some very interesting content that is not limited to a single page whether it’s embedded sounds, it’s embedded video, it’s quizzes, it’s little games that can be played all within the book. So if your PLC grabs this book then hooks the iPad up to a projector, all of a sudden they’re looking at the quiz or looking at the question. The questions are designed in the book to kind of look like slides on a presentation. Everyone understands how Powerpoint works so the question pages look sort of like Powerpoint slides, and can be used as such.
What are the challenges in teaching and learning that are the most difficult when thinking about using technology?
I think one of the biggest challenges that teachers face when it comes to using technology is that when they see technology used, whether it’s at a conference or some kind of professional development, they have a really hard time transferring what they’re seen in a presentation to what’s happening in their classroom. Most professional development that I’ve seen for technology integration doesn’t affect the teacher immediately. In other words if the teacher can’t look at what’s going on at a training and immediately put that mentally to work in his or her classroom they tend to shy away from it.
I think that’s true of any kind of training, not just technology integration: if the teacher doesn’t see an immediate use for it in the classroom and can’t see that it’s going to help them or their students immediately, then they shy away from of it or put it on a back burner, put in a closet, or just forget about it. So one of the things that we have to do with the technology integration is we need to somehow change our mode of training so that the teacher sees the immediate benefit to it and it’s not just a theoretical benefit. It’s almost like we have to make an individualized education plan for the teachers that we are training. I tried to make the questions here relevant to what is actually happening in their classrooms.
How will this book enable educators?
The book, if used correctly, gets the conversation going back to how they can improve their teaching and learning, which is something I think is sorely missing right now from all kinds of professional development. One of the questions that I have in the book is, “In your last training, what do you remember most?” I think that’s a really good question to ask anybody about any training. There’s so many trainings where people will say something like, “Wow that speaker was really funny,” but then you push back a little bit and say, “Yeah, but what was he talking about?” It is okay that the guy was funny, but what was his message? If all anyone can remember was that the guy had really pretty slides or the lady had some really great emotional story to tell, or had a real tearjerker of a story or she sang a song, then we wasted some money or time or both.
I am trying with the book to leave an impact. I think that this book will enable teachers to start thinking about their teaching and learning again and not just from a theoretical point of view. I purposely tried to make the questions challenging. Some of them are very very tough, some of them are designed to get people thinking about maybe things they’ve never thought about. For instance, one of the questions is, “Could you sit in your student’s chair for a whole class period?” That’s a great question because it deals not only with comfort, but if you really start thinking about it, the butt-bone is connected to the head-bone and so if a student is not comfortable in class, how can we expect them to pay attention? If they are fidgeting or if that chair is harder than stone, how can we ever expect them to start listening to us when there butt is actually telling them that it’s not happy?
So the questions here in the book are designed to get you thinking. If you just think about the chair question briefly or just say yes or no as an answer, you miss the point. If you really start thinking about it, maybe the entire PLC could try sitting in the student’s chair for a whole class. Maybe that PLC would really want to see what it feels like to sit in a student’s chair. Then you start thinking, Okay, if that’s an uncomfortable chair and we’re asking our students to stay all day in that chair, by seventh period those students are really uncomfortable. How can that last period teacher ever hope to have any kind of success when the students have been uncomfortable all day?
I think what this book gives teachers are questions not only that they can ask themselves, but if they start thinking deeply about the answers, they can actually start talking to their administrators and they can start talking to other teachers and they can start talking as a group about the answers to these questions. To me that’s very empowering. I think that’s what you want to do: self-reflection that causes change for the better. Because it’s one thing just to complain and it’s one thing just to bitch about something, but it’s something completely different to actually think deeply about it and then have some ammunition when you go in to start having a conversation with an administrator or start having a conversation with your PLC.
Is the primary audience teachers? Who else can use the book, what would they learn?
The book was primarily written for teachers working in PLC groups. When I first started the book I had really envisioned it as just a self-reflection kind of book where teachers would just ask themselves questions. But as it grew, it morphed into the professional learning community book it is now. So while it’s geared at teacher groups primarily, I think it also can be geared toward administrators because they need to have conversation starters, they need to dig more deeply with their teachers, and a lot of times administrators don’t know how to start a conversation. So if you start a conversation off where everybody’s talking about the same thing, it’s kind of neutral, there’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s just something to get people talking and is inside five minutes at the beginning of your professional learning community meeting. Individuals can use it, too, just change the “we” to “I.” Really the book is geared not just to teachers but all educators in general, and that’s why on the cover of the book it says daily reflections for teachers it says daily reflections for educators and their professional learning communities.
Tim Holt is the Director of Instructional Technology in the El Paso Independent School District. He has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, and another in education leadership. He has been in the education field for over 26 years, first as a teacher, then as an education facilitator, a researcher, and a director of instructional technology. Tim is a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas (STAT) as well as a past president of the Technology Directors Special Interest Group (TECSIG) of the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA). He recently received the “Make IT Happen” award from ISTE. Tim recently completed his first book, 180 Questions: Daily Reflections for Educators and Their Professional Learning Communities. It is available at the iTunes Book Store. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org