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In April, Digital Scholars Alex Groff and Lena Deskins from Durham, North Carolina attended the Highlander Institute’s Blended and Personalized Learning Conference (BPLC) in Providence, Rhode Island as part of their ongoing professional development through the Digital Scholars Initiative. During their tenure, Scholars receive funding to cover extended employment time, teacher coaching and professional development opportunities.

Alex, a history teacher from Riverside High School, and Lena, an AIG teacher at Sandy Ridge Elementary, came back inspired and ready to try new ideas in their classroom. Below are some of their thoughts about what they learned at BPLC and why professional development is so important for teachers.    

What was something new to you?

Alex: In Providence, Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, include not just teachers but also students and parents. Teachers and administrators in Providence talked about how this led to all sorts of insights and it increased students' and the community's sense of ownership over their school and their learning. 

Lena: I know it is kind of crazy, but when I thought of personalized learning I did not expect to hear so much about listening to the student voice. I was very surprised to hear about how the principal at Orlo Avenue Elementary, Ms. Yanaiza Gallant, listened to the students’ thoughts on all aspects of school. It makes absolute sense though. As a teacher of gifted students, I listen to my students on the things about which they want to learn and how they want to show what they know, but the thought of the principal listening and enacting school policy based upon their input struck me as novel and enlightening.

What are you most excited to bring back to your classroom?

Alex: I was very excited to see the ways that teachers are using technology to build stronger relationships with students. I think most teachers, myself included, fear that more screen time leads to fewer connections, both teacher to student and peer to peer. However, one teacher at Classical High School talked about how she would do regular one-on-one conferences with students just to see how they were doing. Another teacher had students peer reviewing each other's independent work. I look forward to incorporating these practices and to sharing them with others during Learning Labs. 

What made the most impact on you?

Lena: I came back from Rhode Island with a fire lit to get things moving in our district to inspire all teachers to see a vision of technology integrated as a tool to allow them the chance to pull small groups, as well as facilitating partner learning. I also want to encourage schools to listen more to students as they make policy changes that impact them. It was a beautiful thing to get the chance to see students empowered by their voice and independent in their learning.  It also created a sense of responsibility that the students handled so gracefully. 

Why do you feel professional development (PD) is important for teachers, especially the kind of PD that gets teachers out of the classroom? 

Alex: I think it is very easy as a teacher to get stuck in a rut. There are so many things that have to be done on a daily basis that it is easy to default back to what has worked before. Teachers also tend to be conservative with lessons, because if a lesson goes poorly, it can affect classroom management, pacing and grades. The problem, however, is that students can feel stuck in that same rut. Being able to see what other teachers are doing and talking with them about what works and what they struggle with encourages us as teachers to try different things, to take risks and to create a more exciting environment for our students.

Lena: In an era so focused on testing and data, professional development allows teachers to see a way to engage students to take on the responsibility of knowing what they are strong in and where they need more work. It promotes a growth mindset and empowers stakeholders. It also allows for connections to be made with other educators that lead to extended collaboration. Being able to meet educators from across the country was amazing. Meeting the innovators of new systems and resources was also impactful.