I recently returned from the National Writing Project annual meeting, Literacy in the Common Core working meeting, and a day of sessions at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention--all in one weekend in the desert town of Las Vegas. It will take some time to process all the information that was generated or gathered at those three events, but I did make a few observations about content delivery that I can apply to my classroom immediately.
First and most pleasantly, the best presenters used humor. With a witty comment or a comical picture, we could laugh in spite of the talk that centered around assessment and standards implementation. Sometimes the presenter used himself or herself as the target of the joke. Perhaps we should be able to laugh at ourselves and help students see events from a different, lighter perspective.
These presenters also acknowledged that the space and environment was not conducive to working in groups but that we were going to do it anyway. Fortunately, my desks are easier to move than the convention center seats. I currently have six rows of four desks in my classroom. Two rows face one direction and the other four are perpendicular to those two. There are also two tables. The desks are large and difficult to arrange in very many configurations. As much as it may surprise my coworkers, I prefer these row arrangements simply because it is easy to arrange into different group variations. We can quickly do an elbow partner share or turn four desks together for a small group discussion. It is also nice to begin the class with independent work, notes, or writing, which seems to work best in rows (in my classroom, anyway).
Most helpful was the fact that before each think-pair-share or small group activity, presenters gave clear directions and time limits for the tasks at hand. Each task was small and manageable in a short time frame. There is a fine art to giving directions for small group work. Does the teacher provide instructions, then groups convene, then repeat instructions? Remarkably, there is little need for repetition if the directions are short and simple. And when the group is finished with the task, it is actually possible to pinpoint the transition moment by the short lull that occurs in the conversation. If the teacher can bring the class together at that precise moment, there may not be the need for raising voices or clapping. But sometimes signals are still necessary (clapping worked nicely for one presenter).
Finally, I learned that it is sometimes okay to stand and deliver. If the content is narrative in style with accompanying pictures that enhance the story, then don't be afraid to be that sage on a stage if it is appropriate for the situation. I listened to a teacher of the year tell her story and inspire me with her message. She made us laugh with the pictures she chose for her visual accompaniments. I had no desire to think-pair-share or work in small groups to discuss anything. I listened; I smiled; I enjoyed. It was also possible to listen, smile, and enjoy because she spoke for only twenty minutes. So I am writing a note to myself: Don't be a sage for too long or the audience will stop smiling.
As I begin to process the information I was purposely seeking at these big events--research on teacher efficacy, the benefits and disadvantages of teacher autonomy, effective professional development, student achievement in writing--I will begin applying this knowledge to my research and to my classroom. What I have learned in observing presenters at this and other conferences, though, is more classroom management and content delivery than I had to go on the first few years or so of my teaching career. So here is another piece of advice: Find opportunities to attend professional conferences--local, state, or even national conventions. Sites affiliated with the National Writing Project provide several of these opportunities every year at mini-conferences with additional institutes offered during the summer. At the very least you will see other teachers in action. Bonus if you learn new content! You will be glad you did.