The ESPRIT Listserv: Thirty Years of Peer-Driven Professional Development in a Vibrant K-16 Community of Practice

JAMES R. EBERT (James.Ebert@oneonta.edu) is a Distinguished Teaching Professor, Emeritus, in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at SUNY Oneonta, Oneonta, NY


The ESPRIT listserv has been a dynamic community of practice providing peer-to-peer professional development of Earth science teachers for over thirty years. Hosted by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at SUNY Oneonta, there are over 2,260 subscribers from 26 states as of this writing (See also Ebert 2016.)

In 1989, the State University of New York, College at Oneonta (SUNY Oneonta) received a Dwight D. Eisenhower Title II, a grant to recruit and train talented high school teachers of Earth science and physics to form mentor networks in anticipation of professional development needs associated with impending standards-based reforms. Listservs were created to facilitate planning and communication within each mentor group. At the same time, "open" or public listservs were created to facilitate interactions between mentors and client teachers from across New York State. Additional listservs later were created for teachers of elementary science, middle school science, chemistry, biology and, most recently, environmental science. These listservs are still active, but the focus of this paper is on the listserv created for teachers of Earth science.

The name ESPRIT originated as an acronym for the Earth science mentor network known as the "Earth Science Program – Resource Innovation Team." After Eisenhower funding for the mentor networks expired in 1999, a grant from the New York state legislature enabled continuation of the networks for an additional two years. When that funding ended, the mentor networks withered, but the open listservs continued to grow. After it expanded beyond New York state and the network of mentor teachers dissolved, the basis for the ESPRIT acronym was changed to "Earth Science Peer Resource for Improved Teaching." It is the largest and most active of the listservs for science teachers sponsored by SUNY Oneonta.

Esprit as a Community of Practice

ESPRIT has been cited (Kastens n.d.; Ebert 2016) as an example of an effective "community of practice" (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner 2015). These authors (2015, p. 1) define a community of practice as "... groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly."

All communities of practice share three common characteristics: the domain, the community, and the practice (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner 2015). For ESPRIT, the domain is clearly and prominently Earth science education. Likewise, the practice is evident; participants are practitioners in Earth science education K-12 and college. With respect to community, Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015, p. 2) state that "In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other; they care about their standing with each other." These characteristics of the ESPRIT community of practice are elucidated below and an additional characteristic is described as well — induction of new members into the community of practice, a feature Lave and Wenger (1991) initially included in their concept of a community of practice but omitted from later publications (Li et al. 2009).

The most frequent contributors to ESPRIT are middle and high school Earth science teachers from a diverse array of schools: rural, suburban, urban, public, and private (Ebert and McGuire 2006). These teachers learn from each other and elevate the teaching abilities of all, one of the hallmarks of a community of practice. They regularly address one another as "Earthies" and look forward to meeting in person at conferences, workshops, and informal gatherings (see photo). Two quotes from "Earthies" illustrate these points:

(ESPRIT is) one of the best resources I have ever come across! ... Thanks to everyone here, I learn new things every day! It keeps me motivated and energized for my students.
I really want to thank the many great educators on this list-serv (sic) who have shared their work and expertise with everyone, including myself over the years. Helpful to say the least as well as awesome and inspiring.

Other contributors include geoscience professors (current and emeritus), science education professors and informal science educators such as Don Haas (Paleontological Research Institution and Museum of the Earth). Mark Francek (Central Michigan University) regularly shares his Earth Science Sites of the Week through ESPRIT. Mike Passow (Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory) shares resources from the Earth2Class collection. Michael Hubenthal (IRIS Education and Outreach) answers numerous questions of a seismic nature. Glenn Dolphin (University of Calgary) and Nicole LaDue (Northern Illinois University) contribute the perspectives from the geoscience education research community. Some of the most thought-provoking posts are from Bryce Hand (emeritus, Syracuse University) who shares decades of experience, simple-to-build models representing Earth processes, and insights on Earth phenomena that too commonly go unnoticed.

The daily sharing of resources, intellectual discussions, and collegial banter have been embraced especially by teachers who are the only Earth science teacher in their district and, in some cases, the only science teacher in their school. The sense of community that characterizes ESPRIT has been extremely effective. As one teacher posted,

I do not feel the isolation I felt prior to joining the list. I have found kindred spirits.

ESPRIT has provided high quality, sustained professional development via peer-to-peer interactions that may not be available or affordable in some school districts. The collegial, friendly, and helpful atmosphere built by ESPRIT subscribers has spawned feelings of friendship, even if subscribers have never met in person.

Discussions are frequent and lively. Some are prompted by current geoscience events; some arise from questions posed by participants. Some subscribers post frequently; the majority "lurk" in the background.

The discussions about relevant topics, such as astronomy, evolution, what drives plate tectonics, etc., are informative and interesting. Ideas generated by colleagues throughout the state have enriched my teaching and...made me a much better teacher than I might otherwise have been.

In New York State, Earth science enjoys equal status with the other sciences and includes a high stakes Regents examination at the end of the year. Although ESPRIT began as a resource to support Earth science teachers in New York State, it grew rapidly via word of mouth and chance Internet searches to include educators from across the country and even several foreign countries (Kluge and Ebert 2004). Because a significant number of subscribers teach Earth science in New York state, announcements of new initiatives, changes in policies and standards-based reforms emanating from the New York State Education Department appear with some regularity. Some of the most vigorous discussions occur after administration of the New York State Regents Examination in the Physical Setting: Earth Science. Discussions of acceptable answers and, invariably, critiques of some of the items on the assessment occur each year and some discussions go on for several days. Despite bouts of discussion on topics specific to New York, teachers from many states have stayed with ESPRIT for years. Likewise, robust discussions of how to teach three-dimensional lessons (Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS lead states 2013) and state standards derived from NGSS) are also common topics of discussion.

Kastens and Manduca (2017) described the U.S. geoscience education community of practice and cited examples of co-constructing products that serve the broader community of geoscientists. The most ambitious example of an ESPRIT co-constructed product is a lab that addresses the Great Sumatra Earthquake of 2004. On December 26, 2004, the earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated large segments of the Indian Ocean basin. There was intense discussion and sharing of information on ESPRIT regarding the disaster. Seizing this teachable moment, two New York Earth science teachers, Dave Robison and Steve Kluge, from nearly opposite ends of the state, began collaborating on a lab activity to help students understand the science behind this tragedy. With input from Bryce Hand and Mike Hubenthal, both active ESPRIT members, the lab included calculations of travel time of seismic waves, locating the epicenter of the earthquake, profiling and analyzing the associated plate boundary, predicting the arrival times of tsunami waves, and investigating the human impact of this major seismic event. The lab activity was released on ESPRIT for general use just two days after the disaster.

Many Earth science teachers, both veteran and novice, post questions across a range of Earth and space science on ESPRIT to help them better understand aspects of Earth science content. "What is this?" is a frequently recurring topic of discussion. Teachers post images of fossils, rocks, minerals, antique lab apparatus, etc., many of which had been brought to school by middle or high school students or teachers from other disciplines. Answers to these questions are posted, often by multiple subscribers, in less than an hour from the initial query. Responses are typically quite informative, sometimes humorous and may generate additional discussion on related topics .

Sharing information is an ESPRIT staple. Labs, review activities, various instructional materials created by teachers, field photos, and websites, particularly those that show animations or videos of natural phenomena (e.g., recent volcanic eruptions) are shared on a near daily basis. Over the years, several teachers have remarked that they have learned about major earthquakes through ESPRIT before the news media had the story. Teachers also request information on textbooks, lab manuals, review activities, and other resources. Responses are immediate and abundant when novice teachers ask for ideas for the first week of classes, at which grade levels Earth science courses are taught in other schools, and what are good active learning strategies.

Teachers commonly share newly discovered capabilities of various software applications. They share "shopping lists" for stocking new classrooms or classrooms with limited teaching materials. Requests for information regarding the best vendors for rocks, minerals, weather stations, etc., appear episodically and receive multiple responses.

Announcements of meetings, professional development workshops, and conferences, etc. are also shared. As an example, subscribers were introduced to the EGU GIFT program, and some traveled to Austria for the GIFT workshop (Nicole LaDue, written communication). Numerous members have participated in the Datastreme program of the American Meteorological Society after learning of these opportunities through the listserv.

Members have shared inquiry-based and hands-on learning ideas that are effective with low-achieving students and students with special needs. This type of support is a major advantage made possible by a large community of practice:

I wanted to send a huge Thank You to all who responded to my request for ideas/suggestions for teaching ES to blind students. The support/feedback is great. ESPRIT is truly a wonderful resource for all of us and I am very fortunate to be a part of the 'list.'

Open teaching positions for Earth science and sometimes other STEM disciplines are commonly announced, sometimes before the positions are advertised officially. ESPRIT is a useful portal for teachers seeking their first position or seeking to change positions and is an effective recruiting vehicle for many school districts. This comment followed such a job posting:

I would like to take a moment to thank all of the wonderful teachers who responded to my request for a Regents Earth Science teacher. You, and this listserv, are amazing!

ESPRIT has proved as well to be a valuable recruiting vehicle for geoscience education researchers that seek teachers as research participants in a variety of projects, including curriculum development, research, and as participants in thesis and dissertation projects of graduate students.

ESPRIT does not have a formal leadership structure, nor is there a formal code of conduct for participants. All viewpoints are respected. When differing viewpoints are shared, the tone of discussions is professional and respectful. Earthies always thank one another for sharing wisdom and resources. Announcements of professional recognition of an Earthie, such as receiving an Outstanding Earth Science Teacher award from the NAGT, are greeted with resounding choruses of congratulations.

Joining the ESPRIT Community of Practice

One of the most important functions of a community of practice is the inclusion and support of new members (Lave and Wenger 1991). ESPRIT has a wonderful history of veteran teachers helping new teachers or teachers who are new to the discipline. New teachers include the entire spectrum from pre-service teachers, to first- and second-year teachers, to experienced teachers that are charged with teaching Earth science even though the discipline is outside of their training and certification. My own pre-service students have indicated that they have benefited simply by "eavesdropping in the teachers' room."

Pre-service Teachers

It is wonderful to have access to experts in every tiny little niche of the Earth Science realm and beyond. By the tone of most of the more technical posts it appears as if detailed explanation of a topic is done casually yet accurately without relying on outside sources (except perhaps to re-check a detail for accuracy). It is immensely invaluable...

New Teachers

I just want to thank the contributors in this group. I never would have made it through my first year of teaching with out (sic) you guys! You guys rock!
This is _____, the first-year teacher in Harlem.  When I asked for earthquake resources, you guys were so incredibly helpful.

Second Year Teachers

I'm currently in my second-year teaching at a Title 1 HS in Brooklyn. I started up the ES program last year solo (plus help from all the advice given by you all in the listserv!).
Thank you all for the helpful posts — I'm just coming into my second year and this Listserv has been an amazing resource!

Experienced Teachers from Other Disciplines

I am not certified in Earth Science and have never taught it so if anyone has any suggestions for how I could structure and pace an Earth science support class, all suggestions are welcome! (From a biology teacher)
I'm teaching Earth Science for the first time after teaching life sciences for 7 years. I'm at a loss for how to organize my course, and have been faking it all year. I'd like some advice on how to set up the course for next year.  I'd love to see how someone else does a yearly plan.

Encouragement from Veteran Teachers

Welcome to Earth Science! As I'm sure you are aware, this listserv is an amazing resource for all Earth Science teachers. Do not hesitate to pose questions or ask for help here. Even the simplest questions can spur vigorous debates which help all of us hone our understanding of the topic.
Suuuuper (sic) of you to share what you came up with.  Glad this list has been helpful to you and best wishes as you complete your first year (alone) in the classroom.  You are never alone here!  This listserv is great — and by sharing your results — you have raised the bar even higher.

ESPRIT as Effective Professional Development

U.S. teachers have a plethora of opportunities for professional development. These include summer institutes, individual coaching and mentoring, school-based professional learning communities, research experiences with scientists, and "make-and-take" workshops (Wilson 2013). Many of these "opportunities" are not discipline-specific and may be required by school districts. ESPRIT, in contrast, is discipline-specific and entirely voluntary. That teachers continue to participate, despite the lack of mechanism for providing professional development credits, is a testament to the value that they place on ESPRIT. The fact that it is more practice-driven than theory-driven (Kim Kastens, written communication) is likely another aspect that makes participation in the listserv so useful to Earth science teachers. ESPRIT provides social networks, has the potential to provide "just in time assistance" and is more scalable than local opportunities.

For more than two decades, there has been consensus on the major components of effective professional development. In a recent meta-analysis of 35 studies, Darling-Hammond et al. (2017) have distilled seven elements common to the most effective teacher professional development. These are 1) a focus on content (i.e., subject matter); 2) engaging teachers in active learning; 3) supporting collaboration; 4) using models of effective practice; 5) providing coaching and expert support; 6) providing feedback and reflection; and 7) sustained duration (Darling-Hammond et al. 2017). The ESPRIT listserv addresses all seven criteria of effective professional development (Table 1), along with other factors identified by Loucks-Horsley et al. (1996), Garet (2001), Wilson (2013) and Hubers et al. (2020). Table 1 lists characteristics of effective professional development and presents the aspects of professional development provided by the ESPRIT listserv.

Discussions on ESPRIT focus on content and pedagogical practice and engage teachers in active learning via participation in discussions ("thinking together" of Pyrko et al. 2017). Sustained modeling of effective practice occurs through sharing of lesson and unit plans, other instructional activities and descriptions of classroom-tested teaching strategies that work well (and some that don't!) Experienced teachers, college faculty and informal science educators provide coaching and support, key elements in effective professional development (Loucks-Horsley, et al. 1996). For example, Keller (2006) wrote a moving article that details the trajectory of her professional growth and the role that ESPRIT has played in her professional development.

ESPRIT and Prevention of Teacher Attrition

Teacher attrition is a problem that often surfaces in the media. Citing the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (2003), Dede et al. (2009, p.9) stated that a major cause of teacher attrition is the "lack of day-to-day professional support and mentoring for entry-level teachers – assistance that current approaches to professional development generally fail to provide." ESPRIT helps to alleviate the problem of attrition in at least some instances. The quote below serves as an example of ESPRIT promoting teacher retention.

The listserv has had a very significant (sic) impact on my teaching. A couple of years ago I found myself feeling like maybe I had run my course as far as teaching goes. I wasn't getting the results I used to and I was feeling a little tired of it and out of ideas. When I shared this with my wife (an elementary teacher ...) she went into a little (sic) bit of a research frenzy. For my birthday that year she presented me with a host of resources, organizations, and websites that might help me to get fired up again. The jewel amongst all of them was a link to your listserv. The flow of resources, ideas, methods, and passion that I began to see really revolutionized my teaching. I continue to be excited by the ideas I get from the listserv and a good many of them have been used in my classroom over the last several years. There is no question it is the best source of professional development I have seen to date.

The Earth Science Peer Resource for Improved Teaching (ESPRIT listserv) has provided peer-to-peer professional development for over thirty years. Within this energetic community, effective peer-to-peer professional development occurs through a focus on Earth Science content, active learning, collaboration, providing feedback, sharing models of effective practice, and by providing support by sharing expertise over a sustained period. Subscribers value the quality of the professional development that ESPRIT provides, with some describing their experiences as "the single best professional development I've ever done.

For instructions on subscribing to ESPRIT or any of the listservs for science teachers hosted by SUNY Oneonta, visit the listservs home page. Or you can e-mail the author to be subscribed to ESPRIT.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I thank all the contributors to ESPRIT that have helped me improve my own teaching over the years. Kim Kastens, Nicole LaDue, Glenn Dolphin, Rob Demarco, Bonnie Keller and Madeline Every provided helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Their suggestions are greatly appreciated.

REFERENCES

REFERENCES CITED

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M., 2017. Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Dede, C., Ketelhut, D.J., Whitehouse, P., Breit, L., and McCloskey, E.M., 2009, A Research Agenda for Online Teacher Professional Development: Journal of Teacher Education, v. 60, n.1, pp. 8-19.

Ebert, J.R. and McGuire, T., 2006, Education reform by listserv: NY – ESPRIT: American Geological Institute's GeoSpectrum, v. 5, n. 2, p. 26-27.

Ebert, J.R., 2016, Peer-Driven Professional Development for Earth Science Teachers from ESPRIT: the Largest Geoscience Education "Organization" You've Never Heard Of: Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, v. 48, n. 2, doi: 10.1130/abs/2016NE-272359

ESPRIT and other listservs for science teachers hosted by SUNY Oneonta: https://suny.oneonta.edu/oneonta-mentor-network-initiative/listservs.

Garet, M.S., Porter, A.C., Desimone, L., Birman, B.F., and Yoon, K.S., 2001, What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers: American Educational Research Journal, v. 38, n. 4, pp. 915-945.

Hubers, M. D., Endedijk, M. D., & Van Veen, K., 2020. Effective characteristics of professional development programmes for science and technology education. Professional Development in Education: doi: 10.1080/19415257.2020.1752289

Kastens, K. and Manduca, C., 2017. Leveraging the power of a community of practice to improve teaching and learning about the Earth. Change: The magazine of higher learning, 49(5), 14-22.

Kastens, K., no date, Reinforcing feedback loops power effective communities of practice: https://serc.carleton.edu/earthandmind/posts/commofpract.html; See also A community of practice for GER: https://nagt.org/nagt/geoedresearch/toolbox/basics/CoP.html

Keller, B.J., 2006, Standing on the shoulders of giants (and how to join them): Journal of Virginia Science Education, v. 1, n. 1, pp. 12-14.

Kluge, S. and Ebert, J.R., 2004, OMNI Listserv Provides Peer-Driven Professional Development for New York Earth Science Teachers: Geological Society of America, Abstracts with Programs, v. 36, n.2, p. 123.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1991, Legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice. Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge University Press, 144p.

Li, L.C., Grimshaw, J.M., Nielsen, C., Judd, M., Coyle, P.C., & Graham, I.D., 2009, Evolution of Wenger's concept of community of practice: Implementation Science 4, 11, https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-4-11.

Loucks-Horsley, S., Stiles, K., & Hewson, P., 1996, Principles of Effective Professional Development for Mathematics and Science Education: A Synthesis of Standards: National Institute for Science Education,  v.1, n.1., 8p. Available from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242656472_Principles_of_Effective_Professional_Development_for_Mathematics_and_Science_Education_A_Synthesis_of_Standards

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 2003, No dream denied: A pledge to America's children. Washington, D.C.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; http://www.nextgenscience.org

Pyrko, I., Dörfler, V., and Eden, C., 2017. Thinking together: What makes communities of practice work?: Human Relations, v. 70, n. 4, p. 389-409.

Sumatra Earthquake Lab: http://stevekluge.com/geoscience/regentses/labs/sumatra2004/default.html)

Wenger-Trayner, E. and Wenger-Trayner, B., 2015, Communities of practice: a brief introduction: http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/

Wilson, S.M., 2013. Professional development for science teachers: Science 340 (6130) 310-313. doi: 10.1126.science.1230725




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