Thought Provoking Email

Last night I received this email from L after I sent out the assignment rubrics and marks yesterday morning.


הי ניקי, לראשונה מזה  14 שנות עבודתי בהוראה, קיבלתי התייחסות כזו אישית ממדריכה בהשתלמות.

 תודה ושנה מצויינת


Translation: Hi Nikki, This is the first time, in my 14 years teaching, that I have received a personal response such as this from a leader in a professional development course.

Thank you and have an excellent year,


Answer same day:

ל, ריגשת אותי!

שבת שלום,




You moved me!

Good Sabbath,



Most of the teachers wrote back and returned my blessings for a good new year and a few remarked that they hoped I would run additional courses in the future. Some commented again on the positive learning experience they had received.

I was struck by L’s response but realized quickly that instead of smiling to myself and enjoying the compliment, the remark troubled me and opened up a flow of questions:


What did I do that was seen as being so personal?

Is this really (so) unusual?

What causes a teacher to feel seen and heard in a learning framework?

What does the Education Department have to say on these issues? Are there guidelines? Is this an issue?

Why is personal response so absent in many professional learning frameworks?

and maybe more importantly: Is this the dialogue that is so missing in the eyes of a few of the teachers I have interviewed for my PhD. It is indeed becoming more and more apparent that this is a key concept!


I have complained in the past that the decision to shorten courses to 30 hours makes it far more difficult to form significant relations with the lecturer and within the group. I have written often that it bothers me that I don’t know all the names of the teachers in these groups and I don’t always know how to match the narratives I read on the online campus with the faces I see in class.

What is the connection between personal attention and response to significant learning? We talk about it all the time in reference to pupil learning and it is somehow disregarded when considering teacher education.

Where do I place emphasis on personal and professional relationships in these courses?

I begin my courses with the letter I write to participants. The letter, inspired by the work of Dr Julian Kitchen, tells about myself and the way I see the course. In my experience, it immediately forms a sense of intimacy between myself and the teachers individually. The letters I receive in return have a personal tone to them and many teachers remark that they were excited to read my letter and to have a chance to present themselves in their own words.

Another feature of the course is the opportunity to write a narrative about the teaching of writing. Teachers are invited (required) to compose a text which describes a successful project, lesson or interaction, to present a dilemma or a problem or to describe another aspect of their work in detail. Teachers are given the stage on the online forum and then receive significant feedback from peers – compliments, thoughtful questions, ideas, advice, empathy etc. In addition, I respond, in length, personally to each and every teacher narrative. A face to face session invites the teachers to further engage in peer conferencing and evaluation surrounding the narratives before revision and reposting on the online forum.

The final assignment of the course is mainly reflection on what happened in the teachers’ classrooms and what significance the learning experience had for them personally and professionally. Maybe this opportunity to look inward and to communicate those thoughts with others contributes to the feelings of sharing and personal connection.

I return the assignment with a rubric explaining the grade and a personal comment. Usually I write which part of the assignment I found most interesting. After reading L’s email, I ask myself  how other lecturers communicate with teachers about their assignments. Are the assignments returned? Are marks sent by email? What kinds of comments are written?

It seems I have little knowledge about what really goes on in other courses. I need to follow this lead as it will throw a lot of light on the stories I am hearing in my interviews with teachers.



Wordle clouds as a way of looking at my freewriting

Not all of the reflective freewriting is up to sharing on this blog – some of it is just intuitive rambling to start me thinking. This kind of writing indeed helps me identify my knowledge in a specific area and helps me generate the questions I need as I dive back into the literature.

I have been using the 750 words web site to give me motivation to write every day. It seems to be working and I may reflect in detail on the influence of that tool in the near future. Meanwhile, if I’m not posting some of what I am writing I will present the wordle cloud as a record of what I’ve been thinking about.

I often use Wordle clouds as a way of looking at a text from a different perspective – somehow breaking it up and jumbling the text like that and emphasizing terms and concepts which are high frequency gives me an additional way in to my thoughts.

Question of the day: Why qualitative research?


Assignments in…


My computer is now full of assignments sent in by the teachers who participated in the course at Z.

Formally, I have to read the assignments, fill in the rubric I created and gave along with the task, and assign a final grade to each teacher. I also will need to write a few sentences to each participant before I send the work back by email. In addition, I need to choose three assignments, one at a very high level, one of medium quality and one at a low level and submit them to the Department of Education.

I am curious to read these reflective texts and to compare and contrast them with the feedback these teachers wrote on the last day of the course.

Last year, after I read the assignments, I went back and chose sections that I wanted to use in my paper at the AATE/ALEA conference in Hobart. These quotes were an important part of my presentation. On the other hand, I didn’t know how to use those reflective texts in my research.

As I don’t yet have ethics authorization (that’s another story…) these materials will have to remain in the background, as the backdrop for my own narratives about these courses. I see these texts as a means of looking at the professional learning achieved by the teachers from different angles.

What I need to do now, I think, is to revisit each assignment, after I have graded it etc, and highlight different themes which arise. I imagine it will be easier if I keep some kind of table with the name of the teacher and page number relating to a particular theme – comparison with other PD frameworks, experience writing narrative, change in classroom practice etc. Then I will be able to revisit relevant texts and also see which themes are more prominent. I am sure that the next batch of papers, from the group at A, will be very different, even though they received the same task.

In addition, I should be trying to identify participants who may be willing to be interviewed in the future.

By the end of April, I will have around 100 of these assignments. It is a shame that I can’t relate to them as data in the normal sense but these teachers did not sign an ethics agreement at the beginning of the course. I am limited to using them in my own reflection and study.

An extra task will be recording comments and my own reflections on improving the course. Just as I made several changes this year, I am sure I will receive ideas for new modifications from reading these papers. If I leave this reflection to next September it will be a far more difficult process and will be less effective.

I am going to save trees and ink and work on screen with this. I’m not sure I will manage but it is certainly worth a try.


RF image:

Incredible Teacher Narrative

The course at Z is going extremely well. I feel as though the 26 teachers participating are involved and eager to try to change things in their writing instruction and that many are thinking about their own learning and really taking ideas and thoughts back to their classrooms.

Last week we had a virtual session and the task I gave was to write a professional narrative connected to the teaching of writing and/or writing with students. Beforehand we discussed the rational of the task and I even brought an example from last year’s group. Many of the participants in this group are not too computer confident and I was worried that they wouldn’t manage finding the virtual campus, posting their stories and responding to others. All in all my worries were unwarranted and most of the teachers wrote and posted narratives. At the moment they are reading and responding to other stories.

The night before this week’s session, I was busy collecting the stories (for future use…) and responding. I respond to each and every narrative and try to be involved in the responses too. Many of my responses at this stage are questions which will help in the revision process to come.

One story made my heart race and brought tears to my eyes. I read it again and again before I wrote a detailed response. Immediately I wrote an email to the teacher author and asked her permission to bring her narrative to the group session. She readily agreed.

O wrote that at our last session she wasn’t able to concentrate – not in my lecture, not on the PowerPoint presentation that went with it and not on the workshop we did together. She said that concentrating on the writing process wasn’t possible for her. O told that that morning she had been on a hike with her class and that at one stage an eight year old boy fell off a cliff. He was extremely lucky that he wasn’t killed and that he was only injured fairly lightly. She told of her experience, of the phone call from the principal telling her that the incident was already reported on the Internet, of the terror, the helplessness and the frustration of not being able to protect her student.

O went home after our session and didn’t sleep all night. She was terrified of walking into the classroom the next morning and facing this reality. The injured child was in hospital and she had a whole classroom of traumatized children to deal with. After hours of deliberation, O remembered what we had been talking about in the course session and decided, at 4 am when she finally got out of bed, to devote the day to writing with her pupils. She decided to spend the day writing with her students to different audiences with different goals.

Lacking confidence, O entered the classroom and after a brief discussion, explained to the pupils what they could do. Some wrote to their injured friend in hospital, some wrote to the people responsible for the hiking trail, some wrote thank you letters to the parents who helped on the hike and helped deal with the complex situation and some wrote rules for behavior on trips outside school. During the writing time, O was free to move between the pupils and talk privately to each and every one of them. She could hear how they were coping and how they were feeling.

The pupils wrote and wrote. O was surprised that even her weakest students, those that usually refrain from writing, were creating important texts. She wrote that she sensed that the act of writing was helping these children process the experience and regain confidence and control. She admitted that the classroom interactions, the writing and the activity helped her regain her self confidence as a teacher. The pupils were so involved in this process that they asked to continue the next day, they had discovered that they enjoyed writing for real purposes and for real audiences. They had experienced writing as a means of sincere self expression.

A few days later O decided to tell this story as her narrative about writing. She told her story bravely and as a result received a lot of positive and supportive feedback from the other teachers. This event has changed the way O sees writing instruction and has changed the way many of her pupils view writing tasks.

One of the questions I asked O was whether she had told her principal about the way she decided to cope in the classroom. She replied that she hadn’t . I suggested she show the principal (if not all the other staff) her narrative – they can all learn from it as we did in the group.

Since reading  O’s story she is with me all the time. I am thinking about her terrifying experience, about her coming to my course after such a traumatic event and not telling anyone and about how she used writing to help her students recover.

Apart from receiving a lot of satisfaction that the materials we discuss in the course are making a real difference in the professional lives of teachers and their pupils, I was excited to see the process of writing itself encouraging the creation of new texts. O described how the writing done by her pupils encouraged her and stimulated her to write and I told her that her narrative had stimulated me to write a narrative of my own. I have no doubt that the writing of many teachers in the course will be enriched by the sharing of O’s story.

In a reflective discussion in her classroom, O told her pupils that she too had written a story after the traumatic event. Her pupils were very curious to hear that their teacher enjoyed the benefits of  writing too.

I still have a lot of thinking to do about the links between O’s story and the learning in our course and about professional narratives being links in a chain, a chain which strengthens and supports both writers and readers.

I am waiting to read the responses on the online forum, to see O’s text revised and to see the influence of O’s story on other narratives being created by teachers in the group.


The location of the hike.


Coffee Shop Thoughts


Yesterday on the way to Z I had time to stop at a coffee shop for a break. I knew I would have time to do some work so I brought a book on teaching writing and my notebook for free writing. When my sandwich and coffee arrived I had to decide what I would do. I decided to free write on a topic worrying me at the moment and as a result made a decision which turned out to be an important one.

I wrote:

“I have been thinking a lot about cutting the course down from 60 hours to 30 hours. I can see myself making a lot of mistakes. At the moment it is irrelevant that I don’t agree with the cut in hours or that I am frustrated that I had no say in the matter. What is relevant now is how I choose to use those 30 hours available to me and I how I make them significant enough for the teachers to come back for more.

I must be wary of trying to pack too much into too little time. What I can see happening is me racing through the “material” and not letting the teachers talk, collaborate on and process what is being learned. Slow down should be my message to myself. Giving the teachers time to discuss what they have been doing in the classroom since the last session is not a waste of time – it is reflection, it is socially processing the new knowledge.

If each teacher presents her peers with a short oral narrative on something she is doing in her classroom or reflects aloud on questions she is dealing with, these must be seen as real learning activities.

I believe that in this way, the teacher participants will be more active in their learning, they will be taking responsibility for putting new knowledge into practice. They will possibly be made more aware of their learning.

last year at K there were a few teachers who complained that the course was too theoretical. They weren’t actively involved and didn’t understand that the activities and strategies presented could and should be explored in the classroom. If I had given 10 minutes at the beginning of each session for discussion in small groups, they would have heard what their peers were experiencing.”


When I finished my free writing (and my snack), I made a decision to change the timetable for the session.  I really had planned too much. After the session I was convinced that I had made the right decision. The discussions and the writing exercises really were essential.

This decision will mean that that there will be topics I don’t touch this year but tht is realistic when I remember that I only have 30 hours…



New Course at A, New Excitement

Yesterday I opened course number 2 for the present school year, close to home, at A. I heard, ahead of time, that they had closed the enrollment (at 30) because there were too many teachers but in fact there were only 26 in the group. I was so worried that there would be a large group that I planned the session a bit differently.

My main problem in planning the opening session was that I knew that a few of the teachers had been present when I did a session for DK last year in her course at the same centre. When I stood in for her and did some introductory activities and a lecture on writing, I knew I would have a problem if the same teachers enrolled in my course. On the one hand I knew the taste of the course would encourage them to enrol but on the other hand, I wouldn’t be able to return to the introductory activities.

The group is very different to that in Z in that many of these teachers have been in contact with me in the past. At least 3 have studied in my courses on inclusion and four are from my school. At least 10 others teach at schools in which my professional learning colleagues work.

I haven’t had time to read their questionnaires yet but it will be interesting. I particularly want to read why they chose this course.

When I arrived at the centre I saw something that worried me greatly. There were teachers standing in a line and the receptionist was handing them a big folder (binder) of pages advertising courses and the teachers were choosing according to categories like “Oh, for this one I don’t need to use a computer” or “Great, this one finishes by…”. Is that how educators should be choosing their professional learning? Is that what happens when teachers are coerced into taking two 30 hr courses in a year? I want to hope that nobody chose my course for those kinds of reasons.

When we got to the stage when I asked the teachers to try out “looping” there was all over agreement and cooperation. Maybe the timer I brought did the trick? I asked them to free write on the topic of “Difficulties in Teaching Writing”, a topic they can all relate to. I put the clock on for three minutes and asked them to write quietly without stopping. Then I asked them to stop, to circle the 5 most important words they had written. I then gave them another three minutes on the clock to continue writing, this time concentrating on those five central terms. Apart from the teacher who corrected maths exams throughout the whole session (3 hours!), they were all quiet and did quite a bit of writing.

This wider participation may have been due to several reasons:

  • The teachers were trying out a strategy to be used in the classroom
  • I wrote on the program for the course that teachers would be expected to write
  • It is that kind of group…

I told them that the discussion on how they felt during the writing and how they reacted to the task would be in the virtual campus so I better set up the discussion group quickly. There is no doubt that I will find the 30 hour time limit frustrating. I need to be careful that it isn’t always the collaborative work and the discussions that I skip.

This week I have my second session at Z – I had a few email responses which were very positive.

An Inspiring Book – Relevant and Easy to read; Long roads, short distances: Teaching writing and writing teachers

I have just finished reading one of the second hand books I bought from Better World Books.

15 minutes free writing:

I was surprised to find this book in the catalogue and even more surprised when I began reading it. This narrative was written ten years ago but very much reflects the type of work I am doing and the type of texts I am producing. 

Miller Power works (worked?) with students learning to be teachers and writing teachers and taught them methodology through writing. Her course was based on the students reflecting and writing narratives and on the author responding at length to the stories which appeared in journals and assignments.

I quickly connected to Miller Power’s style and chose to read this book without pencil in hand, something I rarely do. There was something about the name of the book and the opening texts which signalled to me that this short book would be read and reread by me.

There are a variety of texts in the book, many written by students.

Some of the important messages for me at this stage are:

  • Somebody else wrote of her experiences teaching writing teachers to write. There are many more texts out there waiting for me to discover them.
  • It is extremely interesting to read narratives of someone else’s work, somewhere else in a different context. Many details are different but many of the dilemmas, difficulties and triumphs are similar.
  • Jumping to conclusions about students or teachers is a terrible mistake. listening is the only real way to avoid it. (It relates to my conclusion that I must spend much more time and effort getting to know the teachers and for them to gain trust in each other, early on in the course).
  • Very often personal narratives which seem unrelated at first glance, turn out to be very relevant to teaching writing.
  • The view that writing is a born trait is more common than I thought it was.
  • A short course, CAN make a difference, though not always.
  • Our own experiences can and should be utilized in our teaching.

I promise there will be more…


Miller Power, B. (1997). Long roads, short distances: Teaching writing and writing teachers.Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.



15 Minutes Freewriting – An Idea from Borko

“… To foster such discussions, professional development leaders must help teachers to establish trust, develop communication norms that enable critical dialogue, and maintain a balance between respecting individual community members and critically analyzing issues in their teaching (Frykholm, 1998; Seago, 2004).  

This week I ran a workshop for my group at K. I was pleasantly surprised beforehand that so many of the participants did writing activities in their classrooms and sent me examples of student texts.

After thanking those that made the effort to send me material for the workshop, I explained that our aim is to learn from the students’ writing and to experience examining texts looking through “positive glasses” and not through the “groan, spelling mistake, terrible writing…” glasses. Our aim was to look at what the students KNOW about writing, rather than point out heir problems. I asked the teachers to treat the work of their colleagues with sensitivity and respect.

The workshop wasn’t bad and I had plenty of positive feedback from the participants but after reading the article by Borko, yesterday, I understood something that is starkly missing in the course – a real feeling of being a learning community. I can’t really blame the size of the group or the participants because in N the same situation exists (though less so).

I must spend a lot of time and energy at the beginning of the course forming a group, gaining trust from the teachers, hearing far more from them about what happens in their classrooms. I must also think hard to determine ways that the online section of the course (which incidentally has more discussion between the teachers themselves on their practice – through the use of teaching narratives) can help foster trust and security within the group.

I am worried that one of the teachers felt badly about the way questions were asked and the way others saw the work of her students. I have made a note to talk to her. I read here yesterday that if teachers come to a course sure that their practice is perfect, no learning will take place. It is my responsibility to help those teachers on their road to questioning and learning.

I used to give one teacher 15 minutes or so of each meeting to present something she does in her classroom. This was always popular with the participants but the time given was really was only to share ideas. I never dared use the time for the teacher to raise dilemmas or share difficulties or for the participants and I to critically evaluate the ideas or practices for the benefit of everyone’s learning.

This is an area which definitely deserves more thought and discussion.

That’s it for now…

Borko, H. (2004). Professional development and teacher learning: Mapping the terrain [Electronic version]. Educational Researcher, 33(3), 3-15.

Feedback Discussion in PL Course

Freewriting 4 –

Well, it is already Tuesday morning and I am up early ready to reflect on my last meeting at K.

As soon as I arrived, two teachers waited for me and extremely politely apologised for their rude behaviour last time. They admitted that although the materials are interesting, they allowed themselves to disconnect and to make lots of noise. The remarked that they were aware of my frustration towards the end of the lesson. Of course I thanked them but told them that I had already decided to make the lessons far more practical and more active. I explained that I am well aware of the difficulty in coming to a four hour lesson, straight after an exhausting day at school.

Before I began, another of their colleagues from school asked to have a few words with all of the participants. From her look I could see that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. In the end we had the discussion she was waiting for before the break and didn’t open the meeting with it.

The first hour or so of the meeting I did differently – I involved the teachers more and lowered my expectations for the material we would cover. There was a friendly, interested atmposphere in the room. Another thing I did was to tell them my expectations more explicitly: “I expect you to take this rubric as an example and go back to school with it. Find a group of teachers and experience building something similar, for your own students, according to your own needs…”

The discussion that teacher wanted to lead was that the course is boring, that she (and all the others, of course) is interested in practical easy solutions to the problems that she faces in the everyday classroom. Theory doesn’t interest her, she wants to learn very simply and quickly what to do in class that will change her students’ attitude and achievement levels in writing.

Of course there are no simple answers and recipes in teaching writing. Writing, in itself, is a complex process. She spoke the whole time in “the royal we” and I was happy that at least a few others took the opportunity to tell her that they see it differently.

“I haven’t received anything I can take back to my classroom in all the meetings we’ve had” she remarked. Others talked about the value of the course, what they have learned, what they HAVE done in their classrooms and the following results.

I explained that maybe I should have given a “try this in your classroom this week” list at the end of each session. I gave several examples of practices which could (and should) already have been tried in the classroom). I understand that my underlying understanding that the teachers are intelligent and motivated and will certainly sift through the experiences, simulations, models and activities, in order to decide what is suitable for their own classrooms. In reality, at least one of the participants was waiting all this time for me to hand out a recipe book or maybe a hand-full of worksheets. I don’t work that way…

Another issue that needs thinking here is what happens when a teacher holds such narrow understandings of learning?

Teachers and lack of time

Freewriting 3 –

Yesterday I took a full day in the middle of the week to attend to my studies and to get on with the reading GP suggested. I got up early, got the kids on the go ad then quietly sat down with a hot cup of coffee at the computer. I waited weeks (or probably months) for an opportunity like that.

Often, even when I have a day off or I finish early (which doesn’t happen now that principals and deputy principals have moved into a 40  hour week) I am so snowed in by school tasks that I don’t get to the tasks which are really important to me. One of the thoughts I have been having about teachers and their chronic lack of time is that teachers never “clear the desk”. Teachers never reach a stage that they know they have completed all the tasks awaiting them and that everything is completed. I remember the feeling from the days when our kibbutz school was open all 60 days of the summer break and I used to spend most of them there, in my classroom, preparing the new schoool year. Even then, when the first of September arrived, I had the sense that I was not ready for the new school year. Crazy, isn’t it?

Those “never finished”‘ “always on the run”, “can’t do the same thing twice”, “must rethink that activity” aspects of teaching are what keep it challenging. The pace keeps you lively and involved but…

Why isn’t there more time for reflection, personal learning and reflection? Why do I have to “steal” time in order to devote a bit more to my professional learning?

Out of the three days holiday we had for Purim, one day was devoted to my own professional learning group – Leaders of Professional development in Literacy. We have been meeting together and learning in a formal framework for the past six years. The seconfd day was devoted to professional feedback meetrings with the teachers at school. This year the principal and I are doing the meetings together. It’s going very well but is extremely demanding. As I said, the last day was devoted to reading and summarizing the Victorian report – Inquiry into Professional Leasrning, Feb 2009.

I’m off to get dressed soon and going to school for “Healthy Eating Day” – today’s message is the importance of eaing breakfast. It will be great but… I would prefer to “steal” another day for my studies.