Recently, I was invited to attend a symposium on the life and presidency of George Washington held at the wonderful Mt. Vernon estate.
This symposium, put on by the Ashbrook Center with a Socratic discussion led by the great Dr. William Allen, involved a heavy series of primary source readings drawn from the work of Dr. Allen and others. As you can see from the portion of the reading guide that I have posted below, it was intense and really very in depth (click the image to enlarge it).
One of the professional goals of attending the symposium, besides connecting with civic education stakeholders from across the country (and it was great to see old friends and colleagues from North Carolina and new ones from Florida!), was to determine whether or not this sort of model might work in Florida with our teachers. Before I discuss my thoughts on that, let me first say that Ashbrook has done a great job in selecting strong readings and discussion leaders for the symposiums, and the 4 sessions that I attended were simply fantastic. I cannot say anything negative about the quality or the content. From a professional development angle, however, I do have a couple of concerns.
1. How do we make sure that our teachers, already swamped with work and short on time, read the amount of material necessary to make a Socratic discussion engaging and effective?
2. Is a Socratic discussion enough for our teachers? Should there be a component that has them actually DOING something with what they learned?
I am not sure that I have the answers to either question, but I do have a couple of ideas that could possibly work. To the first question, I think that perhaps if an incentive could be provided to teachers, financial or otherwise, they would be more likely to do the readings. At the same time, looking back, while the reading packet itself was thick, each of the four sessions really only covered perhaps 50 PDF pages, give or take. This is, I think, doable for our teachers, especially if they are given strong guiding questions to consider as they read. Ultimately, I think that we have to recognize that our teachers are professionals, and are eager for content sessions that engage them and build on what they have already learned.
Which brings us to the second question: should they have to DO something with what is covered in the Socratic discussion? I believe that the answer, ultimately, has to be yes. Teachers will indeed do required readings and work for this sort of symposium if they think that there is something tangible that they can take away from it. What might that look like? The first and most obvious answer would be to ask them to create a lesson plan that contains the new content while being aligned to the appropriate state standards (and this, by the way, is significant; you have to show them from the beginning that what is being discussed can be connected back to the standards). Perhaps another product might be a collaboratively developed breakdown of the primary sources into a ‘kid friendly’ structure. We want to make sure that the teachers feel comfortable using this new knowledge in the classroom, so we need to make sure we show them ways in which it CAN be used. I would venture to say that this expectation of some sort of product need not be fulfilled immediately; this could be the follow up portion, combined with actually implementing within the classroom what they have created as a result of the symposium. This is especially important if we wish to remain faithful to current PD models.
Ultimately, however, the Ashbrook Center symposium was simply fantastic, and if you are looking for something engaging and enlightening that can build your content knowledge and help you as an educator, I cannot recommend it enough to my fellow teachers or, indeed, my fellow citizens. I look forward to continuing the discussion with Ashbrook’s Michelle Hubenschmidt, Jason Ross, and the other fine folks from the organization on how we can make this work well in Florida.
If you have attended one of Ashbrook’s symposiums in the past, or have ideas on how we can answer the two questions I have posed here, please shoot me an email or leave a comment!