How the Country’s Largest District is Personalizing Learning for Every...

Professional Development

How the Country’s Largest District is Personalizing Learning for Every Teacher

By Juliette 'Cricket' Heinze and Natalie Pennington     May 28, 2017

How the Country’s Largest District is Personalizing Learning for Every Teacher

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

What never ceases to surprise people is the sheer scale of the New York City school system, a district made up of 1,800 schools, 76,000 teachers and over a million students. Over the past five years—as the district has invested more and more in helping teachers identify their own needs—some equally large questions have been raised, namely: How do the city’s thousands of teachers find resources aligned to their unique professional goals—and how does the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) personalize learning for all of them?

In response to these challenges, the NYCDOE launched WeTeachNYC in September 2015, an online professional learning space for teachers and school leaders.WeTeachNYC was designed based on three core understandings:

  1. Educators benefit from having a centralized space where resources and opportunities are easily discoverable
  2. Every teacher needs access to high-quality resources and learning experiences that meet their personal needs
  3. Teachers are professionals who know what they need to support their own development

Keeping this in mind, WeTeachNYC has two main components: a digital library that houses instructional and professional learning resources for NYC teachers, and an online community where NYC educators can engage in professional learning with colleagues and share resources, student work, and common challenges.

As teachers continue to gain a better understanding of where they are in their development and where they need to go, WeTeachNYC has sought to connect them to high-quality professional learning resources and experiences designed to address their needs within their personal professional learning trajectory.

Easy access to high-quality content: The WeTeachNYC Library

When Angela Bedford-Jack moved from her position as a librarian in a NYC middle school to work at the central offices, she brought her passion for granting access to knowledge and resources to developing the WeTeachNYC Library. She aspired to transport the high-quality content that already exists within the system from behind closed doors, out of dusty filing cabinets, and from the pockets of the city to a freely accessible, centralized place that was searchable, so teachers could locate what they need to improve their practice quickly and easily.

That became the WeTeachNYC Library, home to over 2,500 professional learning and instructional resources and collections for teachers and school leaders that are aligned to NYC priorities and initiatives.

In designing the library, Ms. Bedford-Jack also wanted to respect teachers’ time is by reducing any barriers that slowed them down from getting what they need. That’s why the majority of the content is available to anyone who visits the site, even if they aren’t from NYC. While certain content had to be placed behind a log-in due to copyright agreements, educators retain the ability to search everything in the library without logging in. They can use filters customized to reflect the way they think about their work, including grade level, subject area, and/or the teaching competencies, to hone in on exactly what they need.

Most of the content in the library was developed internally by NYCDOE content experts and professional developers. To address certain content gaps, resources are curated from trusted external organizations and vetted by a trained group of current NYC teachers with expertise in different subject areas.

Creating a digital hallway: WeTeachNYC Communities

Like the library, WeTeachNYC Communities was designed with teachers’ needs in mind. The platform provides facilitated learning experiences in which educators receive professional learning and ongoing support, as well as collaborate with colleagues to share knowledge and resources in online and blended communities.

After teaching in NYC for 10 years, former high school special education teacher Viraj Kamdar, who leads the WeTeachNYC Communities work, wanted to address the limitations of one-size-fits-all professional development typically comprised of a set number of in-person sessions during the school year.

Mr. Kamdar remembers his own experiences as a teacher attending PD sessions, after which he was expected to implement what he learned without any further support. However, the professional learning that he values the most from his teaching years happened by simply walking down the hallway to his fellow teachers’ classrooms, reflecting with them on how lessons went that day, and sharing resources he could use the next day with his students.

Mr. Kamdar dreamed of creating a “digital hallway” that could serve to connect teachers all over the city and offer a means for ongoing support during, after, and between in-person professional development sessions.

WeTeachNYC Communities include both blended and online communities associated with in-person professional learning initiatives sponsored by the district. In these communities, participating educators have opportunities to engage with facilitators with content expertise and colleagues with on-the-ground experience. Learning is personalized through participant-driven discussions in which teachers talk about what they’re trying and learning, share resources, and get feedback from facilitators and peers.

Communities’ facilitators receive professional development that is both technical and instructional. BLCReady (Blended Learning Communities Ready) is a yearlong series that supports facilitators to build community and personalize learning for teachers. During in-person and online sessions, facilitators learn about models of what a successful blended learning session looks like, strategies for planning, and have opportunities to learn from one another.

WeTeachNYC as an evolving, personalized space

Recently, WeTeachNYC released additional features to support teachers to personalize their experience. Teachers can log in to create personal profiles where they can save, organize, and share lists of resources with colleagues and set preferences that inform recommendations specific to them.

When personalizing recommendations for teachers, research revealed the need to think deeply about the implications of using implicit data based on a teacher’s behavior and implied preferences versus explicit data that the teacher chooses to share. The NYCDOE’s Division of Teaching and Learning wanted to make sure teachers were in the driver’s seat. WeTeachNYC recommendations are based on the information that teachers explicitly choose to share, be it their preferences, learning objectives, and/or evaluation data. Given the personal nature of professional learning, WeTeachNYC seeks to honor teachers as professionals who are at the helm of their own professional learning journey.

Natalie Pennington joined the New York City Department of Education in 2009 and is the Director of Communications & Strategy for the Knowledge Sharing team. Juliette 'Cricket' Heinze is the Executive Director of Knowledge Sharing at the New York City Department of Education.

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