with Jennifer Carlson, Hamline University
Recently a group of colleagues and the two of us, Jennifer and Paul, experimented with what might have been the easiest PD experience we ever set up.
A half dozen of us, from Minnesota to Malaysia, agreed to meet on Zoom over a month’s time: three Saturday afternoons, every other week. We chose the topic, Uplift, in advance. During our first Zoom we talked about what Uplift in education might be. During the following two weeks we used WhatsApp (1) to share moments of Uplift in our teaching and working roles and (2) to reflect about the role of Uplift in learning. After two weeks we checked in with a Zoom, then spent two more weeks on WhatsApp before finishing with the final Zoom. Four weeks, one topic. Free and entirely voluntary.
We did not start with a firm definition of Uplift, nor for that matter did we all end with the same definition. Not everyone who participated was able to be at every Zoom. Some contributed a lot to the discussions, others little. We benefited from the experience in different ways and to different degrees. The process was self-organized, easy, non-threatening, and we loved it.
Paul: My colleague Bill Tihen first introduced me to the notion of Uplift to address the uneasy feeling that teaching often feels like a deficit model. Students are missing knowledge, points are deducted, and we tell students they need to catch up. Learning, however, is an additive sort of thing. We enjoy discovering, questioning, hypothesizing, catching on, seeing something from a new angle, having a sudden insight, and gaining a new perspective. Especially perhaps when we are furthering our knowledge about something we know about, or getting better at something we already do well.
So how do we shift from a deficit to an additive model of learning? Well, in part, by identifying and practicing Uplift. We talk about it as a practice, something that you need to continually work on, intentionally. It is a practice in the way that a painter works on their art, a writer on their craft, a Buddhist on their meditation. We think it’s a practice that teachers should think about and do more of. The WhatsApp messages focused me on Uplift as a practice. My awareness of Uplift increased and I began to look for it consistently each day. My awareness also brought into relief moments when I chose different paths – ones that had nothing to do with Uplift.
The experience made my interaction with students and colleagues a bit better. I am willing to say that it made me a better and happier person. It also piqued my interest in sharing this model, since a small group can pick any topic they would like to think about, for any length of time, for no cost. It’s a Meetup with support between sessions; it’s a support group; it’s a community of learning; it’s a reminder to reflect; it’s an essential question. And the format is nearly universally available.
Jennifer: When I learned of and joined in with Paul and Bill’s interest and work with Uplift, I made the connection that I had been doing Uplift in my university courses. For the last few years, I have been consciously making the commitment to inject each class session and module, whether face to face, blended or asynchronous, with positivity, hope, joy and … well … uplifting moments. My version of Uplift provides defining moments of happiness. This has taken the form of photos, positive quotes from diverse authors, filmmakers, artists, and poets, notes of encouragement, and reminders to students to take a moment to be good to themselves. I have thought of it as an approach to a hopeful humankind, yet very person-focused, and a celebration of positive personal experience.
This additive approach to learning and collaboration shined through in the messages from colleagues in the Whatsapp messages and Zoom discussions. Suddenly, for me, Uplift was everywhere. I realized that it was simply being open to seeing it, feeling it, and sharing our experiences and noticings of it. My heightened awareness of Uplift caused a shift in how I communicated, collaborated, and communed with others. There was much more joy, happiness, and a greater willingness to let the small challenges slide away.
Where do we go from here? We have run a successful trial of an easy approach to focus attention on a specific area of teaching and learning. The approach can be adapted to any topic, led by any colleagues who can agree on a time to meet, and without cost.
We could defend the approach by referring to the literature. We could replicate the process with our same group, exploring a different topic. We could each create a new group, with new colleagues, on new topics. We could suggest a PD model for schools in which each participant creates a WhatsApp group, on a theme, with colleagues elsewhere in the world.
Or, in the spirit of Uplift, simplicity, and collaboration, we could simply share with you how good it feels to be in charge of your own professional development, in a non-judgmental, self-selecting community, on a topic of your own choice.
Give it a shot!
We met in Summer 2018 in the visiting scholar program of the Leysin American School Educational Research Center, Jennifer as a visiting scholar, Paul as the host and director. The Center’s motto is “Continually becoming the professionals we already are.” Its main theme is self-regulation. And its guidelines for effective professional development include these four attributes: classroom-based, collaborative, autonomous, and on-going.