At 9:00 AM, on our annual Day of Learning, 58 educators gazed around a circle expectantly, wondering about how they’d spend their day.
At 9:01 AM, a teacher stepped forward to write a question she wanted to discuss on a big piece of paper. Then another teacher stepped into the circle, then another, each sharing an issue that needed attention. Soon our agenda was full and teachers were off to their first session. No one told them what to do, where to be, or what to work on for the next three hours.
How did this come to be? First, a little background:
For seven years, our teachers gather with educators from other centers for workshops and a keynote. We appreciate meeting and eating together, being inspired and celebrated. We’ve had some great workshops and a few incredible speakers. We’ve been satisfied, but we’ve also heard that teachers wish they had gotten more out of the day for a variety of reasons. Simultaneously, our directors are trusting teachers more to influence our shared pedagogy and share expertise with one another and others.
This year, we tried something different. We spent our morning in Open Space and our afternoon implementing the plans we’d made. We trusted teachers to co-create their learning the way that we trust children. We had already begun planning this Day of Learning, when I encountered Laurie Calvert's white paper "Moving From Compliance to Agency; What Teachers Need to Make Professional Learning Work." and I was encouraged by her words:
"constructivist theories are grounded in a body of research that shows people
gain knowledge and meaning from the interaction between their experiences
and beliefs... for real learning to take place, the adult learners must be
both decision makers and the subjects — and agents — of their own learning. "
Harrison Owens invented Open Space Technology by to make workshops more like the coffee breaks in conferences, where he saw the most excitement. Open Space has facilitated whole school systems, corporations, unions, NGO’s, neighborhoods and other communities answering questions or solving problems that are big and urgent. Sometimes over a whole week! We sampled hour-long Open Space sessions at past Days of Learning with success and were ready to unleash the power of teacher’s hearts and minds making them the decision makers.
Generally, Open Space organizers propose a broad theme and then participants spontaneously co-create the agenda. Meetings are composed only of people who feel passionately about the topic, so conversations are energetic and lively, and the learning is deep.
Our theme was “What Would Mr. Roger’s Do?”
“In a world of learning standards, digital distractions and injustice…
How do we make room for play?
How do we nurture children's interior lives?
How can we model challenging bias and building a fairer world?
How can we offer children the compassion, humor, attention to detail and radical respect that Mr. Rogers did?”
We shared some of his work with attendees in advance, to whet appetites and educate some of our international staff's who were unfamiliar with Rogers. He and his work were our point of departure and inspiration for the day.
Here are a few of the sessions that teachers convened:
How can we advocate for peace in our classroom while honoring conflict and struggle?
How do we encourage self worth and positive body image in a world that’s constantly telling kids that they are cute?
How should we facilitate and make room for weapon play?
Given the bazillion necessary transitions in ECE classrooms how do we realize rich curriculum?
How can we become collaborators in children’s learning (rather than dictators, playmates, or silent observers) and still do everything we need to do everyday?
Sessions were filled with thoughtful teachers leaning across tables, talking quickly and excitedly or thoughtfully and deliberately, laughing, crying and creating new solutions and ideas. It was incredible to witness and it was facilitated by a very simple structure.
Open Space has One Law and Four Principles. Here's how they looked for us:
“The Law of Mobility” (AKA “The Rule of Two Feet”)
You can come and go at any time. You are obliged to move if you aren’t contributing or benefitting from the session. Pairing freedom and obligation has powerful results:
[In one session about racial justice, children and families] “I felt like I immediately messed up, and I really felt so raw and uncomfortable and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to leave because I don’t think I can challenge myself on this right now.’ But then I was like, ‘No no no, you’re staying.’ I could change my mind about that.”
“Usual PD, you have to sit there and keep your eyes open even when it’s boring.. The first session, was a hard topic to talk about. If I wanted to bail for any reason, I could leave and go somewhere else... but I didn’t, actually. I stayed.”
In a group of care-givers, this mandate to take care of oneself and one’s own learning was radical.
Whoever comes are the right people.
A preschool teacher and an infant teacher decided to bring their children together. Our center values cross-class collaboration, but a series of scheduling emails can’t generate the same level of excitement as an unstructured conversation. Instead of working to find commonality, two teachers wondered about the same question and shared inspiration which will inform their shared work.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
Our Day of Learning was three days after the 2016 presidential election. Many teachers were worried about the outcomes for education, their health care, the safety of their bodies or the bodies of their loved ones. They’d been balancing their feelings with the crucial and absorbing work of care-giving. They needed to balance bringing their whole selves to work and leaving some of their strong emotions outside the classroom.
The group grieved, told stories, shared worries and fears. They took turns witnessing and supporting one another. When the hour long session was “over”, they knew that another group would be arriving to have a new session, but they were not even close to done. They trusted in the principles and moved their session outside for at least another thirty minutes. After exploring their feelings, the conversation became more solution-oriented.The group named ways to care for themselves and have a healthy boundary and then shared those with the larger group.
When it starts is the right time.
Only two teachers showed up for one session about how to ground curriculum in the natural world. Their talk ranged to a general discussion of the Reggio Emilia approach and both figured they wouldn’t get to the topic that brought them together. Three other teachers arrived twenty minutes later, and it was suddenly clear that the moment was right and their work was more powerful because it started when the conditions were right.
When it's over, it's over.
During our agenda creation, one teacher asked a great question, and others were interested. Later, those interested teachers must have chosen other conversations because the convening teacher stood by her question looking eagerly around. After about ten minutes, she left to find another session that interested her; and she brought the lens of her question with her to other discussions throughout the day. This flexibility comes naturally to many teachers who adapt throughout their work day.
Three hours after that first brave teacher stood up and picked up a marker to begin creating our agenda, we heard from teachers about the day:
“This felt much more productive and thought provoking than other professional development.”
“This is the best day in my history of Day of Learning.”
“This validates what we do.”
“It felt great to navigate my own learning. There’s usually one agenda, and I could choose my learning today.”
“I really needed this today.”
“I’m grateful to be surrounded by so many people who are thinking critically, and reflecting and questioning and acting.”
After reflecting on our process and offering gratitude and appreciation for one another, we examined the next steps that each session offered. We indicated which we would be willing to spend our time and energy pursuing by adding checks and stars. (Each person got three checks and one star to “spend” to communicate their enthusiasm.) Some of the next steps were:
Creating a “family shelf” tradition to emphasize the idea that “Everyone has a culture.”
A new practice of “refreshing” morning provocations, or offering a new provocation in the middle of the morning.
Developing a habit of trying a few different approaches to offering materials to children.
Writing to legislators about our priorities for families, teachers and children.
Teachers from three different centers will create a blog whose audience will be the general public in order to raise awareness about the importance of social emotional learning in the early years.
Initiating a preemptive conversation about aggressive play styles and narratives with toddler families and teachers BEFORE their children enter preschool.
Each of these next steps COULD have been the outcome of a particularly moving workshop, but organizers would have to choose specifically the right presenters for the sixty teachers in attendance. Our humble, open-hearted director said “My question was “What do teachers really need?” and we answered it; You need time and space to process....” With Open Space, each teacher had the opportunity to grow and learn about whatever was most exciting (or upsetting, or curious...) to them. Staff alumni attended as collaborators and co-thinkers, not “presenters” . Everyone (directors too!) inhabited the roles of learner, witness and teacher flexibly. Teachers were given the afternoon to follow up on their initiatives in their teams, and they spent lunchtime sharing stories of their mornings together.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing James Noonan speak about his dissertation, and his words from a blog post entitled "Professional Development (and Teacher Agency) As We Know It" rang in my head as teachers departed at the end of the day:
"In my research, I asked teachers to tell me about their most powerful professional
learning experience and about a corresponding professional learning experience
that they “would like never to have again.” ... Among good and bad experiences I
found ones that were both expert-led lectures and decentralized learning communities,
school-based and external, content-focused and more cerebral, years-long and hours-long, pedagogically experiential and didactic.... I am increasingly convinced that agency is one
of the most salient distinguishing features of powerful professional learning. Indeed, of the
25 powerful learning experiences I studied, 21 involved some degree of teacher agency. Of
15 corresponding negative learning experiences, 13 were mandated. The contrast, while
certainly not conclusive, was striking and suggests to me that instead of carefully balancing
the scales between agency and compliance it is preferable to tip them toward agency."