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Brown Bag It: A Professional Development Activity That Works

Looking for a great staff meeting idea? One that is totally practical and fun? The "Brown Bag It" activity gives all members of your staff an opportunity to play the role of professional developer for an hour. Included: Step-by-step activity instructions.

Are you always on the lookout for a professional development activity you might use at a monthly staff meeting or an in-service session? Why not Brown Bag It?

Brown Bag It is a professional development activity that staff developer Melba Smithwick has used successfully at Paul R. Haas Middle School in Corpus Christi, Texas. In this activity, every participant gets to play the role of professional developer for an hour.

"On the surface, this activity might seem too simple, but believe me, simplicity is the key to its success," said Smithwick. "Perhaps the most profound result was that through this activity we all learned to communicate about our problems in a constructive manner.

"I prefaced the activity by telling them that we all need sound advice from each other and that I see excellent teaching and proactive behavior from many of them. Sharing successes with each other affords all of our students our collective best."


The real beauty of the Brown Bag It activity is the small amount of prep time associated with it.

Materials Needed

  • 9- x 14-inch brown envelopes; one per teacher
  • 4 x 6 index cards; each teacher should have the same number of cards as there are participants in the activity -- for example, for 30 teachers you will need 900 (30 cards for each of 30 teachers) cards
  • a set of markers for each group of teachers
Training Tip

If you have never before done an activity such as this one, or if your teachers are not used to sharing issues they face with one another, you might prepare them ahead of time. That way, they don't come into the activity "cold." Ask teachers to be thinking about a classroom issue they face -- anything from a thorny discipline issue to ideas for improving an area of instruction/curriculum; from a personal organization issue to a parent issue. Tell them they will not need to "go public" with this issue but that it should be an issue with which some of their colleagues might have dealt and might be able to offer some advice.

"I did not give our teachers any advanced notice," said Smithwick, "but I meet with them once a week and we always share strengths and areas of weakness. I had a pretty good idea of the questions and situations that would arise."

The Activity
Model the following steps as you explain them to teachers. You might even write the steps on a chart so teachers will have them to refer to as you explain the activity.

  • Arrange teachers in small groups. An ideal set-up might be to arrange groups of four teachers at individual tables. Provide brown envelopes (one per teacher) and a stack of index cards at each table.
  • Ask teachers, If you could be an animal, what animal would you be? Have them draw a picture of that animal in the front upper-right-hand corner of the envelope. Have them give the animal a name. The teachers' own names will not appear on the envelopes. This animal and its name will be the only identifiers. If another person draws the same animal, the name will further identify the owner of each envelope.
  • Ask each teacher to identify a problem for which they would like to solicit outside suggestions. Have them use markers to write in the middle of the envelope that problem or situation. It might be anything classroom related: it can be a disciplinary issue, an instructional situation, an organization question, a parent-involvement issue There are no restrictions.
    The following are a few among the topics that Smithwick's colleagues wrote:
    --- I would love to do cooperative learning, but how do you keep all of the students on task?
    --- I can't get my students to come in and automatically begin their "bell work." What can I do to make this a routine for them? I always have to remind them to get started on it.
    --- When I try to use manipulatives in math class, all they do is play with them. What can I do to get them to focus more seriously on the activity?
    --- How do I get my students to show up for my detention?
  • Collect all the envelopes. Shuffle them. Then re-distribute them; give one envelope to each teacher. This will maintain confidentiality.
  • Each teacher will read the problem described on the front of the envelope they receive. The teacher will then respond to the problem by writing on one of the index cards a suggestion, a related experience, a quote, or anything else that might help that teacher with the problem. Teachers do not have to sign the cards unless they wish to do so. When they have finished writing their thoughts, they should drop the index card into the envelope.
    If your teachers have never done anything like this, emphasize that they should pen their most constructive and practical responses. "Having set the parameters in my weekly staff development sessions, the teachers I work with already know the norms," said Smithwick. "Once in awhile I restate them, but that is usually not necessary."
  • Next, each teacher will pass the envelope he or she has clockwise to another person seated in the group.
  • Continue passing the envelopes to others in the group until all members of the group have had a chance to respond to each problem. Then pass the group of envelopes to the next group of teachers.
  • Continue doing this until every teacher has had an opportunity to respond to each problem, or until time runs out.
"Perhaps the most profound result was that through this activity we all learned to communicate about our problems in a constructive manner... I have observed that this activity has the power to open up lines of professional communication between colleagues..."

Collect all of the envelopes and spread them out on a table close to the room's exit. As they exit at the end of the session, each teacher will scan the envelopes and pick up the one they personalized with their favorite animal.

At the next faculty meeting, share the results of the activity. "As expected, some suggestions work while others require some adaptation," said Smithwick. "I never force anyone to volunteer because they may not feel comfortable divulging their problems to the rest of the staff."

"I have observed that this activity has the power to open up lines of professional communication between colleagues who might not speak to one another under normal circumstances," added Smithwick.