Collaborating on Collaboration and Professional Development

The word “collaboration” can often have a messy connotation. To some, that five-syllable word is associated with confusion. It can be loud, unstructured, overcrowded, and things rarely resolve perfectly when collaboration is involved.

That having been said, collaboration is also a core value of teachers at Voyager Academy High School. We not only require it of our students, but we practice it professionally.

At our campus in Durham, N.C., teachers work in Critical Friends groups twice a week to share ideas, debrief projects and lessons, discuss pedagogy and encourage cross-curricular teaching.

But just having these collaborative groups in place doesn’t mean they always work as well as we want. And even when they do, it doesn’t mean we always get the results in the classroom that we desire. The values are there, and the system is in place, but — as is often the case — more needs to be done.

As such, we brought a team of five teachers to Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center with the goal of improving our Critical Friends groups. Of course, we knew that was our goal, but that didn’t mean that we were able to articulate that to anyone else. And the irony did not escape us that we needed outside collaboration to help us realize that our goal of providing more effective collaboration. Eagle Rock gave us the place and the people necessary to achieve that goal.

voyager academy at eagle rock

Simply getting off our campus and isolating ourselves in the school was a start. A change of venue, a library of professional development resources, and quite frankly, a gorgeous Continue reading…

Our Report From The School Reform Initiative’s Winter Meeting

In mid-January, some of our faculty and staff traveled across the country to attend the School Reform Initiative’s (SRI) Winter Meeting held in Cambridge, Mass. If you’re unfamiliar with it, SRI is an organization that helps people and organizations create “transformational learning communities that are fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence.”

SRI14_ERSDuring this annual winter event, participants from all over the nation gathered to explore SRI’s core practices:

  • Critical Friends Groups (CFG’s)
  • Facilitative Leadership
  • Collaborative Learning

After a brief opening ceremony, participants split into small groups and immediately began to explore shared professional dilemmas, student work, and lesson plans. Each group featured six to eight participants, which gave each educator the opportunity to receive feedback on his or her own work as well as facilitate another person’s presentation. As an aside, the purpose of a CFG is to use “protocols” — structured conversations — as a means for educators to support each other and gain diverse perspectives on their work. Each protocol is tailored to produce different results, with some participants examining and modifying work while others presented questions or created action steps.

This CFG work is at the heart of the meeting and is a primary reason why Continue reading…

Eagle Rock Co-hosts Project-based Learning Work Day in North Carolina

Editor’s Note: We recently asked Dan Hoffman, curriculum specialist at Voyager Academy High School in Durham, N.C., to catch us up on his organization’s experience with our own Professional Development Center. Below is what he has to say about that collaboration.

By Dan Hoffman, curriculum specialist at Voyager Academy High School

All too often, professional development for teachers involves sitting in a room and listening to a lecture from a disconnected researcher on how we can better our practice. Teachers often believe these “sit and get” experiences are a waste of time. They certainly don’t advance our understanding of the core dilemmas we face on a daily basis in the classroom.

Additionally, new concepts and teaching tools are presented as abstract ideas with which we as teachers must grapple on our own when faced with the ground-level realities of the classroom. As a teacher and curriculum specialist at Voyager Academy High School, I work with the teaching staff and administration to form higher-quality professional development experience for our educators.

At Voyager, we think of our teachers as researchers and that by bringing together our educators in the spirit of critical friendship we can learn and support each other to improve our instruction. Our collaborative form of professional development is rooted in our commitment to a high-quality project-based learning curriculum. This summer we wanted to share both our professional development model and our belief in project-based learning with other educators throughout the state.

In July, we held our first project-based learning workday, which we co-hosted with Eagle Rock’s Professional Development Center. Dan Condon, Eagle Rock’s associate director of professional development, came to Durham to help us design and execute the workday. This was not our first partnership with Eagle Rock. In fact, the summer workday was a culmination of collaborative efforts from throughout the previous school year. Dan arrived at Voyager the previous fall with Michael Saguaro, Eagle Rock’s director of professional development, to help us assess our efforts at becoming a project-based learning high school and to develop collaborative professional development systems.

Our work with Eagle Rock has always been a partnership and our staff appreciates never being dictated to or told what we need to do to change our practice. In fact, our partnership with Eagle Rock felt much more like our teacher Critical Friends Group where we shared ideas, information, and collaborated as partners to improve our school.

And as a relatively new charter — we’ll have our first full graduating class next spring — it was useful to partner with an institution that has already grappled and succeeded with many of the issues we were facing as a young organization ourselves.

Our partnership with Eagle Rock created a unique opportunity to share our collaborative efforts with other schools and educators in North Carolina through a summer professional development workday focused on teacher collaboration around project-based learning. We invited other educators from around the state to visit Voyager, learn about the principles of project-based learning (PBL) and work collaboratively to form the next steps needed to create projects for our own classrooms. Teachers heard from students about their perspective on PBL, and left the workday with the concrete steps necessary to develop their curriculum — and as a special bonus, acquired an expanded network of professionals working on similar dilemmas and opportunities.

At Voyager, we’re already planning our next professional development workday. We are also planning ways to continue to partner with Eagle Rock. As Voyager strives to become a leader in developing a project-based learning curriculum, we understand the value of having a partner like the Eagle Rock Professional Development Center.