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Get the Most Out of your Next Professional Development Conference


As a teacher, I feel like I technically have a lot of opportunities for professional development, but it is just so hard to make the time to research, plan, attend, and appreciate most of the options out there!  When I actually do get all of that together and attend a conference, there are 2 main risks: 1. The conference or presenter may not be all that it was cracked up to be, or sometimes more likely 2. I may not take full advantage of all of the benefits and resources available.  After attending a wildly successful conference recently, I wanted to write about my tips for taking full advantage of professional development conferences:

1. Mix and mingle.  It is comfortable for all of us to talk with co-workers or to look down at our phones, but if we really want to get the most out of the day, we should meet new people and get new ideas.  We can hear all about our co-workers’ ideas any day, let’s use a conference as a push to add to our tool boxes with ideas from other teachers around us. Bonus: even if there are blasé speakers, we can still gain value from our colleagues.  Pro tip: Bring simple business cards.  You can print a page at home or upload and print at most drug stores ( etc).  Having a card makes it so easy to exchange information so you can follow up on that great new handout or procedure they mentioned during the break.

2. Don’t grade. I will confess, this is the hardest advice to me to take.  With a million papers to grade at all times, it is so easy to slip a few into the conference bag and start multi-tasking.  Here’s the thing: it’s rude to the presenter and to the people sitting around you who want to engage.  If the conference is that bad, politely excuse yourself to go grade at the coffee shop across the street.  That is just my opinion, do you agree?  I saw a lot of red pens openly out at my last PD so maybe I am in the minority here.

3. Take notes in a way that you will actually use later.  I’ve written so many notes in notebooks and agendas that I will never look at again.  My suggestion would be to have one professional development notebook where you keep only great ideas. If you start taking notes for something that turns out to be a bust, take that paper out so you have one place to look back full of inspiration and void of randomness.  One notebook can last a long time if you play this right.  I also like to use post-it notes on the actual materials given out so that I don’t have to match up the notes in my notebook to the materials.

4. Make the rounds.  At many large conferences, there is an area full of vendor booths; be sure to walk around!  In addition to the free teacher swag often available, you can learn valuable insights from the business owners and consultants manning the booths.  If you see a Secondary Solutions booth, be sure to stop in for a chat with our very own Kristen Bowers! Her next stop will be the IRA conference in New Orleans in May! Also, click to read Kristen’s tips on what to pack and more! 

5. Pick conferences and sessions that support your goals. At the beginning of each school year, set goals for improving in your craft, then select PD that will support those goals.  Want to learn more about common core question stems?  Writing instruction?  Differentiation techniques?  Chances are there multiple professional development opportunities to support your unique goals, you just have to look for them.  We can see huge progress if we focus our attention on one or two goals instead of trying to get a little of everything.

What are your tips for getting the most from your conference experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!



Teacher Tips: Writing Letters of Recommendation (Free Form Download!)

Letters of Rec

I teach primarily juniors and seniors this year and so I have three main waves of recommendation writing: junior enrichment opportunities, senior college apps, and senior scholarship apps.  Many of these opportunities ask students to obtain a letter of recommendation from an English teacher who can give insight into student reading and communication skills.  Whether you are sitting down to write one letter or fifty letters, here are some tips to get you through:

1. Be authentic.  Sometimes you have to be honest with students and decline to write a letter of recommendation when you feel that you don’t have the time to complete the task, you don’t know the student well enough, or you don’t think that you can write a positive letter.  Allow yourself to make the professional call either way so that you can avoid writing an untruthful ode to the student constantly cheating and disrupting class or a boring form letter about that extraordinary student in dire need of a scholarship.

2. Consider starting with a few general form letters. Every student is exceptional, but letters of recommendation may come in batches.  I have general templates for categories like: the student athlete, the most improved, the extra-curricular star, the service oriented, and the consistent hard worker.  I then fill in the general template with the specifics of the student so that I can quickly, but accurately get the letter done.  In my 10 years writing letters, I’ve had a few every year that break all molds and require me to break out all of my rhetoric skills from scratch.

3. Ask for a brag sheet and the details of the opportunity. Even if you know your students well, give them an opportunity to fill out the whole picture.  The form below is a tremendous help to me and it helps to keep students accountable.

4. Quote students. I like to include quotes from student essay writing or brag sheets in order to show and not just tell the student’s strengths.

5. Put on the finishing touches.  After you have spent time writing this letter, be sure to proofread it, print it on letterhead, and sign it.  These letters are important and you want to honor them.


What recommendations do you have?  Is my form helpful?  I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!


Tough Questions in Teaching

tough questions

When I was a first year teacher, I tried so hard to anticipate student questions, think them through, and prepare myself.  Of course I totally failed, which is not surprising to anyone who has ever been a first year teacher.  I pretty much always thought I was in over my head and I felt the rolling eyes of my skeptical students. The surprising bit for me came recently when I realized that I still struggle with anticipating questions in order to think them out before I am in front of 30+ pairs of teenage eyes.  Here are three truths I have discovered:

  1. I will not always know the right answer or even the right way to approach a tough question.
  2. Most of the time, it is okay to admit to students that I don’t know the answer in order to buy the time to think about it.
  3. It is almost always okay to admit I was wrong and correct myself later.

No matter what grade or subject you teach, I think these truths hold up. Below are some of the toughies I’ve encountered over the last few weeks in my high school English classroom.  I’d love to hear your answers as well as your difficult questions!  Leave a comment below so we can continue the conversation.

1. Is this a reliable source?

  • I’ve written in the past about teaching students to determine reliable online sources, but most of the time it comes to a judgment call. Every once in a while, students come for my expert opinion on sites like and I have to walk through my process and reasoning with them.  This is an extremely interesting and useful thing to do with students, but on the spot, it can be super stressful for me because it is far from an exact science.

2. Can I use this image and do I need to cite it?

  • One of my classes is working on an infographic project about The Great Depression in conjunction with The Grapes of Wrath and I require a works cited page with only reliable sources for the information, but when it comes to adding images the water gets muddy.  Giving image credit is essential to the new age of digital citizenship, but using images for aesthetic purposes can sometimes get tricky when the images don’t have a clear original source or are found on blogs or wikis that do not pass the reliable source limits we talk about. I’m still working on my policy for this one.

3. Why did a character say, “insert quote here”?

  • Most of the time I have this one handled.  I’ve been teaching many of the same books for years and I’ve practically memorized several of them. And then comes the curveball.  I’m standing in front a class of 30+ thinking about the agenda for the period, looking for extra scantrons, keeping up with accommodations and modifications and obligations for specific students.  Then comes the question, “In chapter 9, why did Nick say he lost his Midwestern squeamishness?” And I answer quickly, waiting to talk instead of listening. Then after class, I realize I didn’t answer with the precision required.  I do hate that feeling, but in full humility I try to rectify the situation when possible.  I find that students respond well to my honest mistakes.

Do you ever feel this way? What questions trip you up?  Do you have a good answer for my questions?  Comment below.

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