ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: A Deep Approach to Professional Development

Fall 2017

By Chris Starr

In the hit film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a character experiencing what Nietzsche referred to as “eternal recurrence.” Each day he wakes up at exactly the same time, in the same bed, to the same alarm music, and he must relive a single day in his life. Although he endures an endless cycle of February 2nds, he maintains his free will and can alter the course of each day if he chooses. The only certainty he must accept is that the day will end, and he will begin again exactly where he started.
Sadly, some people think teaching follows this pattern. They mistakenly believe that the academic year is cyclical, and while teachers may alter the way they interact with students on a daily basis, they approach their subject matter each year with the same recurring, formulaic units of instruction, exercises, and assessments. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, especially at The Peck School (NJ).
In Groundhog Day, Murray’s character eventually frees himself from his gyre. He chooses to ignore the cyclicality of his life and approach each dawn as an exciting opportunity for growth. Through this focus on his own personal development, he is able to transform his environment, cultivate meaningful relationships, and transcend the rut of repetition.
This same love of learning and a reverence for timely transformation are infused throughout The Peck School’s curriculum, and they are especially ingrained in the school’s faculty growth and reflection process. To be the best teachers they can be, Peck faculty need an evaluation process that serves all members of the community (regardless of years of experience), encouraging conversations about teaching, providing opportunities to reflect, and offering a chance to learn new things.
In addition to the annual observation and reflection on their teaching methods, faculty members at Peck with more than three years of experience are expected to take on what Chris Weaver, director of curriculum and faculty development, calls a “Deep Dive” every four years. The Deep Dive year gives teachers an opportunity to participate in a meaningful, reflective activity or project that will benefit them personally, as well as their students and the school. The Deep Dive is meant to have a lasting and direct impact on the teaching craft and curriculum. 
A review of the Deep Dive project from the 2016-2017 academic year reveals the enormous impact teachers’ professional development can have on their own methods, their department’s efforts, and potentially the future direction of an entire school.

Examples of the Deep Dive in Action

For decades, grade 3 to 8 students at Peck have enthusiastically participated in the school’s traditional woodworking program. With the increasing emphasis on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), woodworking teacher Mark Mortensen has been collaborating with teachers in other disciplines to blend woodworking projects with assignments in other subjects; yet, the tools and techniques used in his woodshop have remained fundamentally the same: band saws, hammers, files, and sandpaper.
This year, Mark decided to spice things up a little—or, more accurately, slice things up a little—by introducing a state-of-the-art laser etcher into his program. The laser system could be used by Upper School students to enhance their projects with engraved designs and/or etched logos, photos, or original artwork. As Mark explained in his rationale for purchasing the laser etcher, “the students and I will need to balance time-honored woodcraft instruction and learning with lessons in state-of-the-art laser cutting and engraving.”
At the beginning of the academic year, thanks to the school’s Parent Association, Peck purchased an Epilog Mini 18 Laser Engraving System. Mark dedicated countless off-school hours to understanding every aspect of the technology. He taught himself the graphic application CorelDRAW, which interfaces with the device. He practiced setting up the laser and adjusting it to execute various projects on a variety of materials. He studied the software that serves as a “printer driver” between the graphics application and the etcher.
Mark’s own growth mindset and his instincts about the transformational nature of this new technology paid off. Stop by the arts wing of The Peck School today and you’ll find a whole new world of expression. Fine arts projects make their way into the digital domain and are burned back into analog life on a plank of wood by the tip of a laser.
Students are now incorporating finely etched patterns into the lids of carefully sanded wooden boxes. They are laser etching favorite family photos onto front pieces for their finely crafted wooden wall clocks. They are making amazingly precise interior cuts into wood panels that before could only be roughly accomplished with a scroll saw.
Mark’s Deep Dive has not only transformed the woodworking and fine arts department at Peck, the use of the laser cutter has rippled into the sciences. Eighth grade physics students were inspired to use the laser cutter to manufacture catapult components for their trebuchet projects. Students who are studying robotics with Upper School Technology Integrator Bruce Schwartz are laser etching scale model replicas of facades of the Morristown Green in order to construct a miniature downtown for a project simulating automated cars.
In addition to Mark, six other faculty members at Peck participated in Deep Dives this year:
  • Lower School music teacher Bronagh Coakley embarked on an instrumental journey, first learning to play the ukulele and then resequencing the curriculum of her fourth grade music class to incorporate the instrument.
  • Third grade teacher Katie Bruno researched the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching, incorporating collaborative learning, positive discipline, and differentiated learning in her classroom.
  • Lower School art teacher Karen Dispenziere asked, “How can I incorporate the elements of science, technology, engineering, and math while maintaining the aesthetic integrity of the arts as well as the notion of art for art’s sake?” Her research and practice led to the creation of a Discovery Zone in her art room.
  • Upper School math teacher Amy Papandreou attended the Anja S. Greer Conference on Math and Technology at Phillips Exeter Academy during the summer and was so impressed with the potential of Problem-Based Learning that she completely retooled her 7th grade Honors Math curriculum to incorporate the method.
  • English teacher Elizabeth Muller delved into close-reading techniques and other methods to improve her students’ reading comprehension and passion for reading.
  • Upper School science teacher Tim Loveday ventured outside his comfort zone to learn EV3 and Lego robotics programming. His students are now using these tools for data collection and analysis with previously unattainable levels of accuracy.
Throughout their Deep Dive year, faculty members meet with the director of curriculum and faculty development or division heads at least once per semester to discuss their progress and experience. At the end of the year, they present their colleagues with a reflection on their Deep Dive experience. They are encouraged to be thoughtful and creative in their reflection, which may take any form that is appropriate to their work. 
The transformations these seven Divers created in their own curricula have rippled outward and fostered excitement and new collaborations with their colleagues. The most exciting aspect of The Peck School’s faculty development process is the lasting benefit it creates for students—and no two academic years will ever look the same.
Chris Starr

Chris Starr is the director of marketing and community outreach at The Peck School in Morristown, New Jersey.