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Professional development academy boasts huge turnout

How much of a draw was the 2013 AFT Professional Development Summer Educator Academy, July 9-17 at the Maritime Institute near Baltimore? Just ask the AFT convention, meetings and travel department, which had to book space at two nearby hotels just to handle the overflow crowd—more than 400 educators and union activists who spent the week exploring courses that will deepen their professional knowledge and build their local unions' capacity to deliver cutting-edge training at the district and building level.

Attendance was up more than 20 percent from 2012, a reflection of grass-roots demand for effective tools and resources that can make a difference in the high-stakes, low-supports environment that too many schools now find themselves in. For 10 days, academy participants dug deeply into some of the critical issues in education: effective strategies for reading and math, working with English language learners, parent and community partnerships, and classroom management, among others. Much of the training was tailored to reflect the demands of the new Common Core State Standards (in fact, this year's academy also included a cadre of AFT teachers who are reviewing new standards proposed in science). The popular course Strategies for Student Success, for example, strengthened skills related to the Common Core, such as teachers' ability to work effectively in professional learning communities and their ability to craft measurable objectives in lesson design. A new module on second language acquisition and literacy development fosters the instructional practices that mainstream educators of English language learners need to ensure success with the Common Core standards.

Teachers at Professional Development Academy

"All teachers should have this opportunity," says teacher Tammy Jackson, who participated in the academy to help build training capacity in her local, the Birmingham (Ala.) Federation of Teachers. "It's a wealth of information and just a wonderful, engaging experience to work with people from all over the country."

Not everyone at the training was a 20-year classroom veteran like Jackson.

This year, the academy made a special effort to reach out to educators who will launch their teaching careers in 2013-14—student teachers like Edell Brewer, a senior at Alabama State University. One of more than a half-dozen student teachers at this year's session, Brewer says the opportunity to work with veterans who were his classmates in the academy course Instructional Strategies That Work for All Disciplines. The training, he says, has boosted both his knowledge and his confidence substantially in the last few nervous weeks before he takes charge of his new classes.

"You feel better as you get to interact" with classmates, says Brewer, adding that he will enter his chosen career knowing "I will do whatever I can to make this happen."

The importance that all union levels place on this training was made clear by AFT president Randi Weingarten, who attended one academy session shortly after getting off a 13-hour overnight flight from the Middle East.

The AFT president beamed as she surveyed the hundreds in attendance (and even interrupted her remarks to grab photos of the academy audience—see one above). Weingarten called the scene—an overflow crowd of AFT members who gave up part of their summers to bolster their classroom knowledge and skills—a clear rebuttal to those who roil the dialogue surrounding school improvement with the 'bad teacher' myth.

"You in this room are the ones who empower," Weingarten told the crowd. "You take the risk to do what's right, to advocate for our kids, and make sure teachers get the respect and dignity they deserve."

The work between the walls of the academy, she said, is the real reform. There needs to be more opportunities like it if the Common Core standards are to succeed. The union supports the standards, Weingarten added, but believes a grave disservice was done to the effort—and to teachers and students—when too many decision-makers decided to "lead with testing and not support" in the rollout of the Common Core.

"Testing has become the reform. No wonder our members push back hard," Weingarten said. Under Common Core, "it's all coming at our members at once. As a union, if we don't help them, then shame on us.That's why all of you are here this week—because you know this as well as I do."

Early learning also factored large in this year's academy. One of the newest additions to the academy lineup was training that focuses on Ellen Galinsky's Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Skills Every Child Needs. Galinsky's ideas carry great weight in early learning circles, and AFT early childhood educators explored new Mind in the Making modules that translate the book's content and theory into actionable practice.

Educators from around the country attended the training—geared to parents, teachers and early childhood education providers—and based on the recent work of neuroscientists and child development researchers. Reviews of the new modules couldn't have been more positive.

"This takes concepts to a whole new level, and really helps bring them home," said educator Kristen Lind of Cotuit, Mass. [Mike Rose/AFT photo]

July 17, 2013