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Notes from Best OST Literacy Practices: Building a Culture of On-gong Professional Development for Your Staff March 26, 2015 Networking Meeting

May 09, 2015  Anne Lawrence

The broad theme of this year’s Bowne Foundation Networking meetings is best literacy practices in Out of School Time (OST) programs.  The March 26th meeting opened with a welcome from Anne Lawrence from the Bowne Foundation.  She began with the announcement that though the Foundation will be closing in December 2015, it has awarded a legacy grant to the Center for Educational Options to support and continue the Foundation’s support of library development and literacy professional development including Networking meetings. The Networking meetings were started 10 years ago to serve as a forum of sharing best practices, ideas, concerns and questions in the OST field.  Both Anne and Suzanne Marten, facilitator from the Center for Educational Options, look forward to continuing the professional development work and the Networking Meetings.

Suzanne framed this third session of the 2014-15 school year as looking at professional development for staff around literacy.  She noted that the issue of staff turnover is a big one in OST.  It can feel like directors and program coordinators are in a constant cycle of orienting and training new staff.  Yet we know from experience that professional development for staff is essential and that having regular structures in place for professional development can really assist us in bringing new staff in and keeping “old” staff engaged.  Surveys and research have shown that staff in OST programs tend to stay longer in their positions if they are engaged in professional development. When the topic of literacy is layered on top of professional development for staff, the issue is further complicated.  Sometimes staff are not comfortable with their own literacy skills – they may feel ill-equipped to support literacy development because they are not “teachers”.

BronxWorks has been thinking about and working on on-going professional development for their staff for some time.  Suzanne introduced Kimberly Haynes, Program Coordinator of the Afterschool program, who has been at BronxWorks for 14 years, and Tayo Woli, Program Assistant, who joined the Afterschool program about 3 years ago.  They were invited to share how their thinking and practice has evolved in providing professional development in literacy to their staff.

Philosophy of Professional Development at BronxWorks

Kim invited participants to think about the word “culture” and keep that in mind as she talked about her own thinking and what they continue to worked to create at BronxWorks because that is what we each strive to create in our programs.  Kim explained that her journey into afterschool programs began as a parent, and that she learned on the job.  She brought with her an enjoyment of books and that passion for literacy has only grown as she has worked at BronxWorks.  Over the years she has come to appreciate the value of hands on experiences and being exposed to a wealth of resources from which to pull for new ideas and further development.

In her role as coordinator, Kim works to layer the professional development they provide to staff.  She and Tayo have created monthly staff meetings that are not just about business and logistics (though that information needs to be communicated) but also about ON-GOING professional development.  She described on-going professional development as a way to provide support AND to educate staff.  They believe that on-going professional development is necessary so that they can present ideas or materials over time.  She stated that at BronxWorks they have learned that it is important to break things down so staff don’t get too much at one time.  She also noted that is is important to engage staff,  posing questions and eliciting their vision or ideas.  She and Tayo work to integrate staff’s ideas and  visions with BronxWorks values and structures so that staff feel valued and heard.

As an example, Kim and Tayo shared an agenda from their February 6th staff meeting (attached).  A number of the items are logistical and/or informational, but the meeting begins with inviting staff to write and share on their vision; they posed the question to staff: What do you want your children to know and be able to do after they have had an experience with you?  Kim noted that while staff often come in wanting to gripe because they only get together once a month, she maintains her focus on “how do we move forward.”  Beginning with a prompt and soliciting the ideas of their staff, give Tayo and Kim a way to change the dynamic of staff meetings to that forward movement. 

Tayo also noted that while they only are able to have staff meetings once a month, they also look for moments to provide informal professional development.  This often occurs when an issue presents itself and Tayo and Kim can model ways to act or respond.  These opportunities are usually one on one with staff members, but they monitor these so that issues or themes that are emerging can also be worked into the more formal or planned professional development of their monthly meetings.

Sharing Books and Magazines: using staff meetings to explore and share resources  

Another regular structure or activity that BronxWorks uses is engaging staff members around reading materials.  Kim and Tayo explained that sometimes staff need to get to know what books and resources

you have in your program and have time to delve into those books.  They have found that giving staff time during staff meeting is a great way to provide this opportunity.  Sometimes staff also need time and opportunities to read or get information about different ideas and concepts in the field.  For this purpose it is also great to have time in staff meetings to read and to discuss or share these ideas.

In order to experience how Kim and Tayo do this at BronxWorks, they led participants in an activity they do in their staff meetings.  Each table or small group received a selection of Teaching Tolerance and Instructor magazines (professional magazines for the field) and a selection of children’s books.   Each person was asked to find something in the collection on their table that interested them – a book, article, or activity.  After reading their selection, participants used a guide sheet to make some notes and then they shared out in their small groups around the following questions: 

  • What is your book or article and why did you choose it?
  • What is your book or article about? (brief summary and/or what stood out)
  • How would you adapt or tie it in to your age group of youth or to themes at your program? 

 As participants shared what they found and discussed their ideas, they noted several key ideas:

  • Giving staff time with materials insures that they know what is available and have a chance to think about how to make it their own.
  • Working with materials can provide opportunities to connect to issues that are coming up with children in ways that allow for discussion and problem solving.
  • Providing accessible professional materials like Teaching Tolerance and Instructor can broaden your staff’s expertise.
  • Introducing a variety of books and materials can support staff in tapping into their own interests and passions, and connecting those to subjects that the children need or want support in.  For example, sports and math or theatre and bullying. 
  • Giving opportunities to practice reading children’s books out loud to colleagues and receiving feedback is great practice for reading to children.  We all need a chance to rehearse and this practice can support staff in feeling better about being able to read alound with young people. 

 Reflecting through Writing: Eliciting Staff’s Thinking and Expecting Accountability 

Having regular and expected structures for discussion and reflection help engage staff.  One practice that Kim and Tayo use is having staff write in response to reflection questions.  They call these prompts “Anecdotals” and staff have come to expect that they will write on one of these questions monthly as part of a BronxWorks portfolio process.  For the portfolio each staff member selects 2 pieces from the work they have done with their children over the preceding month.  They then write about that work, selecting from one of the guide questions below.

Reflection Questions from BronxWorks Monthly Anecdotals:

  •  “Today my kids really learned something about the theme.”
  • “Today I really learned something about my kids.”
  • Values in action
  • A Favorite Lesson
  •  “My day/week with __________” (the story of your relationship with one particular child)

 The participants looked at some sample anecdotals from BronxWorks staff members and then were invited to think about their own programs and youth, select a guiding question, and write about their own work.  This writing was then shared with a partner at their table.

Participants reflected on what stood out to them and what they were taking back to their own programs:

  • The anecdotals or reflections allow you to see how invested your staff is in children’s growth.
  • Creating regular reflection time and structures for the staff really encourage them to respond in personal and honest ways.
  • These kinds of reflections allow staff to come up with their own values and hold each other accountable.
  • Giving staff opportunities to practice things like reading aloud to children is incredibly valuable.  Plus, there are built in opportunities to provide feedback in a setting of peers and to model how to give that feedback, which can also be used with children. 
  • Having an opportunity to write and reflect slows the process down and allowed one participant to think further about a situation at their program and how not to respond from a place of anger. Responding from a place of anger you will make a mistake. Reflecting allows you to step aside and respond more thoughtfully.
  • Working with middle school children can be especially challenging; this age group can be harsh and intimidating.  Reflection time allows staff time to process for themselves and with each other and with supervision.  It is another opportunity to explore how to strike that balance between authority and flexibility.  
  • Making staff stop to catch a moment, a relationship, a small victory, and having to write it down, is therapeutic.
  • These reflections build character in staff, helping them to take pride in their work and to model for children how to take pride in their own work. 

The session closed with the group noting how we ALL need time to reflect, whether we are line staff or supervisors and coordinators.  Kim and Tayo also highlighted that reading through their staff’s anecdotals each month gave them such a window into what staff were thinking about, worrying about, and accomplishing.  They are able to respond both personally in a way that makes staff feel visible and heard, but also in a way that benefits the entire staff by bringing important questions and ideas back to the group in subsequent staff meetings or professional development.