A "Down-Home" Twist on Book Discussions as an In-Service Option


October 8, 2014


As most folks know, Montana is geographically large. As a result, it’s not always easy to attend conferences across the state. For that reason, many districts provide practical and closer-to-home options for employees to obtain training to fulfill their required in-service hours.

Several years ago Lolo School District, a small district 10 miles outside Missoula, launched the “book discussion” training option for our teachers. While book discussions are nothing new, our particular approach has a unique twist.

Here’s how it works:

Throughout the year we encourage teachers and administrators to provide suggestions for “great professional reads.” From those suggestions, in late spring, the principals and superintendent select a book they think will be of high interest to teachers and relevant to our districtwide goal of continuous improvement. Topics from past years range from effective teaching in high-poverty areas to the use of formative and summative assessments to global perspectives on the importance of education. There never seems to be a shortage of possibilities and great books from which to choose!

We set a deadline for people to sign up — usually two weeks before the end of school. The district then places an order for the books, receiving them in time for summer reading. The district purchases the books for teachers who agree to participate.

While they read, teachers respond to about a dozen questions pertaining to the book’s benefits and usefulness. What one aspect of the book will be most helpful to your instruction? What did you disagree with? After reading the book, if you could wave a magic wand and change something, what would it be? What, if anything, could we apply at the school or district level? Should we continue with another book discussion next year and, if so, what topics?

Here’s the unique and strategic twist:

The book discussion occurs on an evening just prior to when teachers return to school. The session lasts for three hours at one of the administrator’s homes — usually in the backyard given the beautiful August weather. The gathering is a “potluck” dinner, with the district providing a main dish (Costco lasagna or fried chicken are favorites) and participants bringing side dishes, beverages, and lawn chairs. We also invite professors from the University of Montana College of Education to join us, which they do on occasion. Once we’re off and running, the great discussions and debates inevitably carry the session well into the evening, usually past the scheduled time.

The end result is a book discussion that energizes educators, provides an excellent opportunity to meet new colleagues and visit with veteran colleagues before classes begin, and offers a gentle way to start the school year. It undoubtedly increases awareness of new instructional practices and helps lay the groundwork for positive change for the year — at the classroom, school, or district level. Given the effort and participation required, the book discussion counts for two days’ teacher in-service.

This year’s session included both a book and DVD. Almost 100 percent of the district’s teachers participated, as well as a few paraprofessionals and substitute teachers! We had to split into two groups so everyone would have a chance to weigh in on the topic.

Hopefully, this serves as some food for thought about how your district might approach school improvement and creating a positive culture.

From your experience, what are some professional development activities that you found to be useful, engaging, and enjoyable?