John Settlage, University of Connecticut; and Adam Johnston, Weber State University
Battling isolation is a continual challenge for science and math educators. As a novice science teacher, the closing of the classroom door effectively cut me off from all support systems. Later, as a university teacher educator, my interests in school-based teacher preparation isolated me from campus-bound traditions. And now, as a PI of an NSF project I realize that running a grant-funded project brings new ways to feel alone. Even with a marvelous team, I am “chief worrier” who has to make sure everybody else is making contributions that are satisfying to them and allow us to hit our project goals.
What I often forget in each of these situations is that I am actually not the only one feeling the pressure. The challenge is identifying compatriots and finding ways to help each other. As a science teacher, attending NSTA meetings was one solution. Another networking endeavor was to development an ongoing conference series called Science Education at the Crossroads. In effect, with Crossroads Adam Johnston and I were able to create a support structure that brings together researchers and teachers to collectively strategize about how to overcome challenges within our various work environments.
Crossroads was an experiment the first time it was held at the University of Connecticut in 2005. It has since become a model we have repeated for several years. During the CADRE meeting in June 2012, Adam and I were invited to incorporate the Crossroads model as a set of sessions for Principal Investigators. Just as with Crossroads, the presenters were asked to compose a 1500 word essay outlining their Vexations and Ventures, i.e., challenges and approaches to a solution. During the actual meeting, each presenter was allowed 10 minutes to provide a verbal explanation of the essay followed by 5 minutes responding to clarifying questions. Then, over the next 15 minutes the presenter had to sit back in silence to allow the group to deliberate over the Vexation and Venture. In the closing 5 minutes, the presenter was allowed to join the discussion and offer any comments to the group.
Six PIs presented their work within the Crossroads format. Topics ranged from the challenge of collaborating with co-PIs at geographically distant sites, developing mechanisms for putting significant findings about teacher induction into the hands of schools and universities, and conceptualizing how a network improvement community model might be applied to science teacher education reform. Unlike Crossroads, attendance at these sessions was open to all. This was a chancy proposition because it removed our ability to screen people in an effort to ensure that the deliberations were productive and honest. However, just as with past Crossroads there was a sense of helpfulness and collaboration among the PIs. The conversations were sometimes pointed but never took an aggressive tone. All participants indicated that they found the format to be productive and invigorating.
Our belief continues to be that a Crossroads format is a promising mechanism for reducing isolation among professional educators. A key component is that the presenters articulate their ideas in advance and in writing. You can see those essays on the tables and laps in the accompany picture. Another essential element is identifying a facilitator who keeps track of time, controls turn taking, and serves as an advocate for presenters during the times when they are silent. In truth, Crossroads sessions alone don’t solve all the problems placed before the group. What this format does provide is a forum for discussing process opportunities and adjacent possibilities. It also obliges participants to re-learn how to listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. Removing the competitive aspect and endorsing the value of vulnerability generates a different tone to professional conversations. In many cases, this style of discourse is rehearsed within Crossroads and can then be carried forward beyond the time of the scheduled sessions.
John Settlage was an advisor for the 2012 DR K-12 PI Meeting and is currently PI on the DR K-12 project School Organization and Science Achievement: Organization and Leadership Influences On Equitable Student Performance.