Reflections on the Middle Level Education Institute

Posted on August 4, 2012

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This past week I attended the Middle Level Education Institute (MLEI) at Bowdoin College.This institute has a long history as a place where Maine’s middle level educators can meet to learn from consultants and each other as they work on team and individual projects. I’ve been involved with MLEI for several years as a consultant, but I decided to attend this year as a participant. This allowed me to work on my own project (this blog) and to observe the facilitators and other participants through my professional development lens. I left with the impression that everyone felt this was a highly effective PD experience and I’ve been pondering why ever since. What did they do right?

Teachers working on the marshmallow challenge

Participants work together on a marshmallow challenge. Photo by Nancy Doda.

  1. They took the time to build a learning community. So often, I feel pressured when I’m leading a workshop to jump right into the content and I never really get to know the people in the room. Even when I worked with a cohort at another 3-day institute, I didn’t take the time to do this well and I regret it. The four facilitators did this intentionally, starting well before the institute began. They created a wiki and asked each participant to create a personal page, so I felt I knew something about everyone before I even met them. During the institute there were opportunities for whole group discussion as well as partner and table talk, and there were activities that caused us to regroup often and talk with other people. There was a back channel for comments and questions that we were prompted to use for specific purposes but that was also available throughout the three days for sharing. We ate lunch together every day which led to informal discussions.  I think the size of the group (around 35 or so) made this community building easier, but I believe it’s possible with larger groups too.
  2. They modeled good practice. Chris Toy introduced his Mr. T model that’s an acronym for model, reflect, and transfer and throughout the three days that’s exactly what happened. The facilitators did not simply describe their practice, they modeled it. When Mark Springer and Nancy Doda introduced  how students can have a voice in curriculum decisions, they let us experience it as we negotiated our curriculum for the institute. Jill Spencer didn’t merely describe active strategies for engaging students but modeled them too.
  3. They provided ample opportunities for reflection. Throughout the three days we were introduced to a variety of tools and strategies for reflection and the facilitators built many reflection pauses into the schedule. Again, this was part of Chris’ Mr. T model and I appreciated the time to think about what I had just experience and to ask myself, “What does this mean for my practice?”

Perhaps the most significant outcome of this institute for me, as a professional development provider, was a reminder of the power of team teaching. Some of the most satisfying experiences I have had as a teacher of teachers have been when I worked with a partner or a team of facilitators. There’s something about teaching collaboratively with people who trust each other and share a passion for their content. Everyone in the room senses that trust and passion and wants to be a part of it. That’s how I felt at this year’s MLEI.