The Power of Professional Learning Communities

I think there’s a 99% chance that I’m the only one who wants to read this post. And if that’s true, I’m cool with it. I’ve been at a really exciting conference for two days, and I need to sort out everything I’ve learned.

On the other hand, I think there’s at least a 1% chance that you might want to read this post. Perhaps you went to the conference and want to reflect together. Or, maybe you’ll find what’s here interesting enough that you want to learn more. If either is true, please leave a comment! I’d be happy to hear from you.

PLC CoverSo, this week, I attended the Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute.

I did this because my district just hired me as one of the two Elementary Instructional Leaders for third grade.

Once upon a time, professional development in our district was organized top-down, and teachers in different elementary schools often did very different kinds of learning.

Please don’t think I’m criticizing the quality of that learning. I’m not.

But we’ve had some problems with that model. First, teachers didn’t really choose what they wanted to work on, so they didn’t always feel invested in the work. Second, the priorities for learning changed frequently, and teachers sometimes felt the curse of “another new thing” every year. Third, because professional development was different in every school, teachers taught — and their kids learned — different skills and understandings.

Today, there is very little consistency between our elementary schools and even between classrooms within some schools.

What’s the problem with that? Well, every year, kids go on to the next grade level very well prepared (we have excellent teachers, after all), but they’re differently prepared, depending on who their teacher was the previous year.  The students in a fourth grade class, for instance, start the year with different skills and understandings, and their fourth grade teacher has to spend lots of time trying close those gaps while also moving on to new levels of learning.

This has to be especially tough for fifth grade teachers who, at our two middle schools, have to bridge the gaps between 15 or so classrooms in five elementary schools.

So our district is adopting a new approach to professional development.

The new vision is for each district-wide grade level team to become a Professional Learning Community (PLC), led by the Elementary Instructional Leaders. For third grade, that’s me and my partner, the extraordinary Nina, Queen of Social Studies. We and the rest of the third grade teachers have 22 hours set aside over the course of the year to do this work together.

I’m going to attempt to describe a PLC in my own words. (I’m processing, here. You read this blog by choice, remember that!)

A PLC is a team of educators who collaborate to improve student learning. (Notice that the emphasis is not on improving teaching. There is always a laser-like focus on the desired result: learning.)

It’s all about collaboration — “co-laboring” — in service of student achievement. And if you attend the institute or read the book, you will see that these folks have done lots and lots of research. They conclude that if a school wants to boost student achievement, creating PLCs has a bigger potential impact than pretty much anything else you can do.

Once a PLC is formed, four important questions guide its work (and now I’m quoting the authors DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker):

  1. What is it we expect them to learn?
  2. How will we know when they have learned it?
  3. How will we respond when they don’t learn?
  4. How will we respond when they already know it?

So, the vision is that our third grade team will ask and answer these questions together.

1.  What is it we expect them to learn?

We need to choose the area of student learning we most want to improve this year. I gotta say, I am SO EXCITED by that prospect. To get to choose, as a team, exactly what we work on for our professional development. No new programs to follow, no new binder to find room for on the shelf, but a thoughtful discussion about where we want to go together as a team. I can’t wait to hear what my fellow third grade teachers have in mind.

2.  How will we know when they have learned it?

After we are crystal-clear on what we want student to learn, we need to design common assessments (and pre-assessments) as well as timelines and targets for success. One thing I want to remember is the importance of formative assessments. We desperately need to move away from giving just a summative assessment — you learned it or you didn’t — without providing “next chances” for students to succeed. The idea here is that you assess “formatively and frequently” so you and your students understand where they need to go next.

We know formative assessments are essential to good teaching. But the idea here is to do common formative assessments so teachers can compare their data. We can see who’s getting results from their teaching, and then we can share best practices.

Now, I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been handed a graph that shows that my class didn’t succeed as well on a common assessment as my colleagues’ classes did. And it has made me feel horrible. What makes it worse is I have a naturally pink complexion, and when I’m embarrassed or upset, I turn stop sign red so the whole room can see. As teachers, we are so invested in our work (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, we don’t do it for the money), that we want all of our kids to be successful. And it can feel crushing when they’re not.

Despite that, I think this idea of sharing our data can really work. The big difference for me between this model and what I’ve experienced before is that the work of the PLC is entirely teacher-driven. When I was handed that graph, it wasn’t for an assessment I designed or even a learning standard I thought was particularly important. Now, let’s switch it around. If if I was part of the team that identified the learning standard, and I was part of the team that designed the assessment, and — because of the tone set by my colleagues — I felt like I was in a safe, non-judgmental environment, I think I could let go of feelings of anger, guilt, and inadequacy and instead focus on how I could change. And I could do that because I’m committed to this work, to my students, to all of our students.

One teacher in a video used a phrase I liked. She said that when students aren’t learning, you have to do a “mirror check.” The first place you look for reasons is in the mirror. I think it will be hard work and it will take practice. But if the result is that students learn, then we have to be willing to do it.

3.  How will we respond when they don’t learn? AND

4.  How will we respond when they already know it?

As a team, we’ll come up with interventions for the kids who haven’t yet succeeded and enrichment activities for the kids who have.

Behind all of this is an important message — maybe the most important message — we send to students: “I know you will succeed. If you don’t succeed at first, we will work together, we will find new ways to learn, and you will have another chance to show that you can do it.” (For me, this connects right to the reattribution training described by The Skillful Teacher. Kids — and teachers — need to attribute success to effective effort, not to intrinsic ability, the difficulty of the task, or luck. Effective effort + time = success.)

Another big concept here is the idea of carving time out of the school day for intervention and enrichment when no new content is being taught. That means kids could get small group instruction or tutoring not before school or after school (when parents may or may not be able to arrange transportation), but during school without missing anything.

I had a hallelujah! moment this morning when the presenter, Rebecca DuFour, showed us a third grade schedule with 30 minutes of Intervention/Enrichment time carved out before lunch. The whole third grade within a school would have this time on their schedule. It is a “walk-to” time when kids walk to another third grade teacher’s room. One teacher might be re-teaching subtraction strategies, a second teacher might be reviewing r-controlled vowels, and a third might be making a dictionary of Greek and Latin roots with high fliers.

Or maybe they’re all doing math, but at three different levels.

The idea is that they’re working as a team to provide intervention for the kids who are struggling with an essential learning standard. And, they’re providing enrichment for the kids who have already learned it.  The third graders are no longer “my” students or “your” students, they’re “our” students, and we are working together to ensure their success.

My favorite part is that everyone gets what they need, and no one misses the awesome engineering project we’re doing later that day in science. Because it’s the awesome engineering project (or, in Nina’s case, the awesome social studies experience) that makes some kids excited to come to school everyday. Despite how much harder they might have to work on math or reading compared to their peers.

Once we’ve provided intervention, we re-assess students’ learning. If the instructional strategies from our collective wisdom aren’t enough to reach success, then we call in outside experts so we can learn more as teachers.

If our strategies worked, we document our best practices, the source of our success. And we celebrate!

It’s all about learning: ours and theirs.

Those are the big ideas. And here’s a list of a few other thoughts and questions:

  • When we choose the essential learning for focus, will we create a common SMART goal for the whole third grade? If so, would that be one of the SMART goals on our goal sheets as individual teachers? It makes sense that we should, but this decision should be consistent across all the grades.
  • Remember that the A in SMART stands for Attainable, not Ambitious, Aggressive, Aspirational, or Assuming you’re superhuman…
  • “Data Do Not Always Inform… Data can become a catalyst for improvement only when we have a basis of comparison.” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker 2008)
  • Can we implement these practices as a smaller third grade team within my school? Can we use some/most/almost all of our common planning time for this?
  • Formative assessment : summative assessment :: physical exam : autopsy
  • It’s important to celebrate success. Like the school shown in the video, can we have the younger kids participate in a pep rally for our 3rd and 4th graders before they take the state test? Turn the sense of foreboding younger kids feel into excitement and anticipation?
  • How can we add to our human resources (especially during the intervention/enrichment time)? Can we recruit volunteers district-wide as the model suggests? Can we enlist parents to volunteer, provided they’re not allowed to work in their child’s grade (for confidentiality reasons)?
  • I want to involve kids more in reflecting on their formative assessments. I want to remember the questions: “Where am I going? Where am I now? What can I do to close the gap?”
  • I want to use the Sticky Note Assessment: ask the kids to respond to an assessment question on sticky notes. Then they put their sticky notes inside a folder as they leave the room, which I can easily sort and compare with my third grade colleagues.
  • What norms will we create for our meetings? It’s important to ask the team what to do when someone violates a norm. Ideas: “Norm” from Cheers on a stick, the “Norm Police.”
  • Should “no complaining/griping/gossiping” be a norm? Or should doing this for five minutes (and five minutes only) at the start of a meeting be a norm?  What’s the right approach for our team?
  • Remember the strategies for opening and closing a meeting. Clarity and consistency are key.

I am psyched that this will be a big part of my year. No doubt, I’ll have more to say about it in the future. I think PLCs have so much power to change how we do our work and to put the focus where it belongs: on student achievement.

— a. fox

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8 thoughts on “The Power of Professional Learning Communities

  1. Abbie: Thank you so much for this post. I was very curious about this conference (and the PLC concept in general) because you were all so pumped about it during our first meeting on opening day. I’ve felt a bit PD starved and professionally isolated in this library media assistant role and just reading this post was a nice shot of inspiration, and information, delivered with enthusiasm and curiosity (and an armful of great links and resource thrown in for good measure!!) So keep posting and I will be reading. I’ve subscribed via home email and look forward to your continued posts. –Becky

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Becky! Thanks for the comment! When we were at the PLC institute, we wished all of our colleagues could be there with us. It will be a challenge to convey the vision of PLCs to our grade level teams. And the greater challenge will be changing the way we all work. But we can do it!

  2. I hope your PLC goes well. I am a third year teacher and my school implemented PLC’s my first year. I could not imagine why anyone would not desire this type of environment to work in! We worked with Paul Farmer to learn to incorporate the PLC system. This is also very helpful for first year teachers as a support. We also had our technology coach as part of our PLC which helped to develop technology lessons based on what we covered.

    • Thanks for the comment, Freda! It sounds like your district did a really excellent job of implementing PLCs. How cool that you actually got to work with Paul Farmer. I definitely think our district is taking a risk by having the Elementary Instructional Leaders do all the facilitating, but I also think that the ideas are so powerful that we’ll be able to get people excited. I like how you have a technology coach; our district wants us to incorporate more technology into our lessons, but has not yet developed a long-term, consistent approach to providing teachers with ideas, training, and support.

      • The technology coach at our school was once an ELA teacher in our district, so she also knows the content(subject). Also, we have a grant E2T2 that pays for each student to have a laptop and her position. Through this grant we were able to attend technology conferences that taught us skills with using the Smart board and creating and engaging lessons. Have you ever seen the digital photo frames? One teacher loads a powerpoint that introduces new books and the students love to watch it!

  3. Freda: A technology coach sounds exactly like what our district needs. Right now, we have a “Technology Trainer” in the IT department who teaches everyone in the district some basics like setting up our mobile labs and using our new email system. But he doesn’t know curriculum, and there’s no one a position right now to help teachers see the intersections between curriculum and technology. Or how technology can often be a more effective tool for reaching our learning goals than the ones we currently use.

    I am WISHING and HOPING that we will get a digital whiteboard at our school this year. And yes, I’ve heard of the digital photo frames, but I never thought of loading up book recommendations in them. What a cool idea!

  4. Abbie, it sound like you are well on your way. As someone who has coached PLC for the past two years at my site, I can tell you it is never as easy as it sounds. Culture is a tricky thing to change. But the rewards are worth it. We had tremendous growth last year. I credit our PLCs. Best of luck on your work with your teams and peers.

  5. Abbie, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog entry about Professional Learning Communities. I am currently studying this very thing in my graduate class. As this will be my first year teaching, I am very intrigued by this model. I love the four important questions that you use to guide your PLC. Your enthusiasm is contagious. I would love to see an update of how this model is currently working in your school system. Thank so much!

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