Five Years of Islandwood
By: Lucas Ames
As June drew to a close, thirty-three independent school teachers from six countries descended on Bainbridge Island for our fifth annual new teacher conference at Islandwood. This event is the culmination of our new teacher training program, which began with six weeks of online coursework where teachers designed and connected prior to arriving. For GOA staff, it is one of the best weeks of the year. Besides meeting new faculty and sharing best practices, we have meaningful conversations about teaching and learning. Islandwood kicks off with a session from our Executive Director, Michael Nachbar, who shares GOA’s institutional history and growth. From there on, we dive right into our work learning about best practices in online education and developing courses for the year.
The agenda was structured to blend independent time, small group meetings, and whole group sessions. Every teacher was assigned to a cohort based on his or her instructional designer. Instructional designers coach participants on teaching and learning online and will work with them throughout their course. Each day, these small groups met, which allowed for sharing progress, setting goals, and debriefing workshops. In the whole group sessions we focused on key classroom issues through the lens of online learning, including: feedback types, building community, and teacher presence. A highlight for many of our participants was the Q&A panel with current GOA teachers, who helped share best practices and give advice on how to make teaching online manageable. Our veteran teachers talked about the importance of setting aside portions of the day for GOA, planning in advance large assignments that require intensive feedback, and constructing as many modules prior to the school year as possible.
Independent work time was a critical component of the Islandwood experience. GOA carved time for teachers not only to learn, but also to implement these new ideas in their their classes. During independent work time, we ran a series of technology and general interest workshops that teachers can choose to attend. In this way, the experience is individualized for people to hone in on personal growth areas. Additionally, GOA’s five instructional designers used independent time to meet individually with teachers.
Even with our intensive work days, there was plenty of time for socializing and relaxation. I’d be remiss if I did not mention the fantastic food at Islandwood. The food was complemented by long conversations about our personal interests, and of course, teaching and learning. Relaxation and socialization around food and communal activities were important parts of the Islandwood experience. It helped us reenergize after days spent intently thinking about online teaching and learning. As one participant noted, “It was great to have the GOA team organize these. I had so much fun and also got to know some of the people at a more personal level.”
Many of our participants walk away from Islandwood saying it was one of the best professional development experiences that they’ve ever had. We think a big part of this sentiment is driven by the amazing teachers we assemble each year, but through their feedback, we’ve also heard other common refrains about what makes Islandwood so successful. According to one participant, “You guys struck a nice balance between whole group sessions and individual time. Thanks for that.” Another noted how our intentionally planned content-delivery seemed efficient and timely. “The presentations were all very well planned and included helpful information and advice. The sequencing was effective.” Another teacher commented on the format of our workshops as well as the individualized nature of workshop selection. “I only went to two [workshops] but I loved how they were quick, hands on, and optional. I was worried when I saw the schedule before we got here that we had to go to them all.”
Of course, the feedback always provides us with new insights and we’re constantly going back to the feedback to make Islandwood even better. From this focus on feedback and best practices, we have come to learn that there are certain principles that make for good professional development in general.
GOA believes that successful PD
- recognizes where teachers are and where they are headed
- acknowledges the learner experience by
- presenting content in a user-friendly way
- building interactions
- designing experiences that highlight the applicability of concepts
These principles will generate successful PD for teachers. Combining the principles and feedback from Islandwood 2015, we hope to present an even better program for our faculty next year.