Professional Development: Teaching Outside the Box

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I regularly lead literacy professional development workshops, training series, and semester long classes for parents, teachers, after school directors and staff, and summer workers. My workshops delve into a variety of topics including reading aloud effectively with young children, choosing age appropriate books, music and movement to promote literacy skills, engaging struggling readers, and promoting literacy leadership. The topics are varied but my goals are to support and enhance teachers’ and adults’ literacy practices with children. Professional development for teachers and parents makes sense: to keep up with the latest research and literacy best practices; to feel supported in doing one’s work successfully; to meet changing standards and expectations; to tap into and connect with a community of learners. I’ve been leading this work for over fourteen years and have learned quite a bit about the conditions that support adult learning.

Many adults come to professional development trainings with a backpack of poor learning experiences acquired over time.
"In order to learn, all of our voices need to matter"
“In order to learn, all of our voices need to matter”

Adults are a bit timid about making mistakes. We like being good at things.  If you spend time with young children, you begin to notice how many new things they are willing to try and learn. It’s quite amazing.They just don’t give up easily. But as adults, we shy away from being novices. Maybe we don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. Maybe we’ve forgotten that learning is a process, not a product. So adults are reminded that in order to truly learn, we have to take risks together, we have to be willing to expose ourselves a bit.

I also tell participants that I expect the learning environment to be respectful—that in order to learn all of our voices need to matter. All questions are valid, all perspectives are welcome.

In order to truly learn, we have to take risks together, we have to be willing to expose ourselves a bit.

So maybe some of you are thinking, c’mon, these are adults, they should know better! But my experience tells me that many adults come to professional development trainings with a backpack of poor learning experiences acquired over time. Maybe they were teased by classmates, bored in school and over looked, or even shamed by an unthinking adult. These memories stay with adults more than we know, and can affect our willingness to share our ideas or influence our ability to fully participate.  When I start off workshops with these two guiding principles I’m casting my own special spells…I want to ward off self-doubt and criticism.

It’s important to create a lively learning environment. My workshops are full of play, movement, music and more.  As adults we are used to sitting and listening a lot. But most adults (and children) benefit from learning that involves their bodies. So my workshops start with stretching and breathing—to warm our bodies up. And yes, this typically leads to lots of giggles and laughter. But we learn in our bodies and if our bodies are “asleep”, our minds work slowly.

To keep the learning active, literacy games are frequently integrated throughout the workshops. One fun literacy game is called “Magic Ball.”  A large ball is introduced that has “magical” qualities. As the leader I decide that the ball is “heavy”.  As the ball gets passed around the group, participants have to act out passing a “heavy” ball. After the ball makes its way around the circle, another leader gets to turn the ball into a magical quality. The ball becomes “sticky” and participants have to act out sticky as they pass the ball around.The game continues for awhile. Adults typically have fun and take risks when playing this literacy game. They revel in having an opportunity to play! It’s also important for adults to see that literacy can be “outside the box.” In this game the participants are learning about adjectives and acting them out.

Lastly, whenever I lead a workshop for adults I never leave myself out. By this I mean I bring myself fully to the event. I try to be my funny, friendly, and honest self. Sometimes this means I share a personal anecdote, like how I dreaded reading aloud because I stuttered as a young child and it felt humiliating. But how I also fell in love with children’s literature as an adult and found myself in the position of teaching adults to read aloud. In order to overcome my shyness I had to practice, practice, and practice teaching reading and speaking in front of others, until it felt like coming home.

I do take risks by showing myself in this way, but my willingness to be visible and rooted in myself invites others to do the same. I think this creates ripples of openness that supports the learning environment.  Or at least that’s what participants tell me.

Anna Adler photo for Aspire Blog cwAuthor Bio:  An educator for over 22 years, Anna Adler brings a diversity of teaching experiences to her current focus on literacy leadership and professional training.  Anna began her career as an early educator, spent years teaching school age children in public and private elementary schools, and most recently taught at the college level.  Anna Adler currently works for ReadBoston, a non-profit children’s literacy organization.  ReadBoston partners with organizations, schools, early childhood centers, after schools, and parent programs to provide literacy professional development, books and best practices.  As Manager of Literacy Programs, Anna develops literacy curriculum and leadership training for teachers, directors, educational leaders, and parents.  Anna has taught at city, state and national literacy workshops.  During the summer Anna’s creative side takes center stage and she can be found storytelling as part of ReadBoston’s Storymobile, a citywide initiative that travels to 80 programs each week, providing storytelling and books to young children.

Image found on Usembassykyiv’s Flickr feed and used under a Creative Commons attribution license. 

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  1. Anna, when I got to the sticky ball part, I’d still been thinking “ice breaker activity” – not out-of-box literacy – and then you brought it home – acting out adjectives – I love it!

    I had several instances of real joy, volunteering with kids during “pull-out” sessions on reading aloud. It humbles me how the kids were willing to let down their guard to this guy who was merely the parent of a schoolmate – and I was doing it by the seat of my pants.

    What a wonderful thing you do, broadening thinking and spreading new approaches, and planting seeds of respectful, curious, joyful, affirming learning and literacy!

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