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When your workshop isn’t awesome

When your workshop isn’t awesome

A few weeks ago my workshop should’ve been awesome. But it wasn’t.
I thought it was going to be. I had three 90-minute sessions lined up – all of which I’ve done before – that I thought fit together quite nicely:
Powerful technology, powerful students. The media focuses too much on students’ negative uses of technology without recognizing the powerful and positive uses that also are occurring. We will feature examples of youth who are doing amazing things with technology. You will be inspired!
[I always try to work in some big picture / our world has changed / sense of urgency stuff into every workshop that I do. I know that educators hunger for the practical but, as Simon Sinek and others remind us, without ongoing reminders of the WHY behind our efforts, it’s easy to revert back to traditional practices. Session A was supposed to be inspiring, informative, and – as we looked at powerful extracurricular uses of technology – thought-provoking regarding how to pull that power into day-to-day instructional practices.]
How do we know if our technology integration is any good? It’s often difficult for us as leaders to know whether technology usage by students and teachers is productive or just eye candy. This session will begin with a discussion of frameworks that help us think more deeply about effective technology integration. We then will apply those frameworks to multiple video scenarios that allow us to refine our understandings of powerful technology usage and how to better coach teachers.
[Session B was intended to take us from Session A’s bright vision of technology-enabled student empowerment into critical reflections about instructional technologies and deeper thinking work. We moved in and out of small groups, talking about the video scenarios and where various educational uses of technology fell regarding cognitive complexity and student agency. If Session A focused on the WHY, Session B focused on the WHAT.]
Deeper thinking, technology infusion, and student agency. It’s difficult to create lessons that focus on deeper thinking, student agency, and rich technology infusion. In this session we will focus on the challenging task of operationalizing the high expectations we now have of classroom educators. Bring your construction helmet; we’ll be doing complex lesson design work!
[In Session C, we then were supposed to slide into design work, modeling the process of what it could be like to identify cross-disciplinary standards and then create unit plans from scratch. This work also was done in small groups, which then gave each other feedback to improve their units using the frameworks and language we had learned in Session B. Session C was intended to take us into the HOW that educators crave so often.]
Off the rails

So that was how the day was supposed to play out: three sessions, each of which has always gone well in the past. But that’s not what happened this time. Not on this day with this group…
Session A, which I’ve done multiple times, always to rave reviews? That session, instead of being inspiring, was interpreted by some attendees as teacher-bashing. Obviously I was NOT striving for evaluation comments like ‘choose your words wisely when critiquing what our current practices are‘ and ‘several people I spoke with seemed skeptical and defensive after the first session‘ and ‘the first part of the session seemed that you were not on the teachers’ side.‘ Somehow this time my language was different, or my tone, or my exact words, or the tenor of my presentation, or something compared to previous instances. Instead of being inspired and reflective, they were defensive. Not all of them. Many comments stated that the first session was ‘very engaging‘ and that they really liked ‘seeing examples of what kids are doing.’ But the ones I unintentionally put off were enough to pull down many of the rest.
Session B was the session in which we moved into the more practical realm of looking at technology integration video examples and figuring out how to make them better. We spent some time answering questions and addressing concerns from Session A. Then we did a quick overview of some technology integration evaluation frameworks and worked in small groups to analyze, dissect, and rebuild various technology-infused lessons. But, despite the troubleshooting focus at the beginning and the small group collaboration and discussion in the second half of the session, some of them didn’t feel it. A few participants thought that it still was too much talk by me and not enough talk by them. Some said that ‘we needed to be doing more‘ or that they wished for ‘more practical application.’ One attendee even said that this second session felt like ‘a barrage of how horrible we are as teachers.’
Session C, our collaborative design session, was our best one and they echoed that in their comments. But unlike any other group I’ve done this with, several commented that the set of three science, writing, and speaking/listening standards I gave them to design with was ‘overwhelming‘ and that they wished that I had made ‘the lesson topics narrower. We struggled with how broad our topic was.‘
So there it is: a workshop that was supposed to be great but went a bit off the rails instead. Not for everyone, not by a long margin. I got plenty of comments like ‘learned great stuff and can’t wait to use with kids‘ and ‘I loved the interaction – the bouncing of ideas and inspiration‘ and ‘I liked the overall structure of this session; it was much more well-planned, practical, and immediately useful to me than that of many other sessions that I have attended‘ and ‘I wish my entire staff could have been here.’ But the overall evaluation averages weren’t where they usually are. Instead of hitting my customary ranges of 4.6 to 4.9 (on a scale of 1 to 5), for this group my averages were as follows:
Your comfort level and safety as a participant: 4.21 (average)
The quality of what you learned: 3.94 (average)
The amount of what you learned: 3.76 (average)
Your ability to interact with others: 4.13 (average)
Your overall experience: 3.90 (average)
Ugh. Not what they wanted. Not what I wanted. Not what they deserved.
Now what?
It would be easy for me to blame the size of the group (90+) or the auditorium seating (instead of tables) and its resultant impact on our small group work and my ability to attend to everyone. It would be easy for me to simply say that I had an overly defensive bunch or, as the comments seem to show, that they were a group that had trouble seeing past their lack of access to technological resources back home. It would be easy for me to give myself a break and say that I was just flat that day. It would be easy for me to say, “By the way, Mr. Impossibly High Standards, even though they weren’t in your usual and desired range of 4.5 or higher, your ratings still were much better than simply ‘average’ on the overall scale so don’t be so hard on yourself.”
But that’s not the right response. My credibility and validity stem from my utility to educators in the field. Whether I’m in the role of professor, Area Education Agency Director of Innovation, professional learning provider, or keynote speaker, if what I’m offering isn’t helpful to educators and schools, then what’s the point? The reason that folks invite me in is because they believe that I will do an amazing job for them and their educators. Otherwise they would bring in someone else. They’re giving up precious time (and funds) for an empowering learning experience. It’s not fair to them when I don’t fulfill my end of the bargain.
So now comes the difficult part. Dissecting our day together, figuring out what I said that day that didn’t resonate, restructuring for next time, making sure not to ditch what’s worked in the past, and so on… And, of course, the apology to the group that brought me in:
Thank you for the opportunity to work with your educators a few weeks ago. I always appreciate the chance to learn with and from other teachers and administrators and am grateful that you thought that I had some expertise and experience to lend to the group. Unfortunately, our day together did not meet my usual standards of high quality. I’m guessing that you probably felt the same way too. Can we talk soon about how I might be able to make it up to you?
Name the problem. Own it. Apologize. Try to fix it, both for them and for next time. That’s all I know to do, along with an overall insistence on high-quality work and continual improvement. But, as always, I’ll take any and all suggestions. What do you do when your workshop isn’t awesome?
Image credit: Train car tilt, Alex Cockroach

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