The Life Journey of a Professional Learning Community

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Several years ago, our school embarked on the PLC journey. In the beginning, we were all unsure of the process but excited about the notion of becoming a community of professionals learning together. During the first few years of our “PLC life” we met may milestones, took some tumbles, and learned a tremendous amount along the way.

 This is the life journey of our Professional Learning Community. At each stage of development, we have learned some lessons that parallel the development of a child. And, as in life, we continue to learn and grow, continuously searching for better ways of doing things so that our students experience powerful learning as they advance through their own stages of life.

 STAGE ONE: INFANCY

“To create a professional learning community, focus on learning rather than teaching, work collaboratively, and hold yourself accountable for results.”–Rick DuFour

 Definitions of a PLC, such as the one above, made it sound so simple, similar to seeing a happy family at the park. To a casual observer, it looked perfect…and easy. But, just like becoming a parent, it was grueling, hard work that often seemed impossible to survive.

Life Lesson #1: Don’t rush too fast to move to the next stage of life. On the surface, it may not seem as though you are learning and developing during the earlies stages of life, but you are. Be patient!

During the beginning stages of our PLC journey, we began to engage in more frequent and honest conversations about teaching and learning. However, our practices and actions didn’t really change. We were akin to a babbling baby first learning to hear our own voice. As we continued, we started changing some of our practices on the surface, such as talking more about individual student achievement across each grade level and monitoring student progress, but we had not experienced any life-changing “ahas.”

 STAGE TWO: TODDLER YEARS

“In [an] all-too-familiar cycle, initial enthusiasm gives way to confusion about the fundamental concepts driving the initiative, followed by inevitable implementation problems.” –Rick DuFour

 As we advanced through the infancy of our PLC journey, we had learned how to talk-the-talk and our next step was to learn how to turn talk into action so that we could walk-the-walk.

Life Lesson #2: If you just stay on all fours and never take the risk to stand up and walk, you will never get anywhere.

 Before we were ready to take our first “steps,” we were similar to a baby who could get up on its hands & knees but we weren’t quite coordinated enough to synchronize all of our parts in a way that would move us forward in a purposeful way. For a while, it was comfortable there. We were content. Although we kept superficial changes in place, (i.e. PLC agendas, meeting notes and action steps), our behaviors were not very different from how they were prior to beginning our development as a Professional Learning Community. Teachers were planning together on a more consistent basis; however, planning typically focused on what to teach with little discussion about how to teach it. As a result, teaching and learning often looked different from classroom to classroom. When teachers graded student work, they typically did so with little or no thought about how other teammates might grade their students’ work. At best, we assumed that an A in one class was the same as an A in another class.

 STAGE THREE: CHILDHOOD YEARS

“Educators who are building a professional learning community recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture.”–Rick DuFour

 As we advanced into the next stage, our staff collectively realized that to move forward we needed to dig deeper into the work of our PLCs. We renewed our focus on the four guiding questions of a PLC:

            1. What should students know and be able to do?

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

            3. What will we do if they haven’t learned it?

            4. What will we do when we know they have learned it?

 To help us stay focused on these guiding questions, we established a Weekly PLC protocol designed to push us to dig deeper by creating common, formative assessments, analyzing student work, and make instructional decisions based on that analysis.

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The protocol brought focus and clarity to the work that happened during grade level PLCs. It also caused teams to engage in deeper discussions about teaching and learning. Each of these elements forced us to examine our individual practices and beliefs in comparison to those of our colleagues. This became one of the biggest challenges and most rewarding learning opportunities for us all.

Life lesson #3: Finding ways to agree on the rules of a game, learning how to give-and-take, and learning how to share are all important lessons that are learned by having frequent opportunities to interact with others.

 Teams experienced ups and downs when discussing expectations of performance, instructional practices, intervention strategies and alignment of grading practices. Norms became a critical component and leadership capacity began to develop in authentic ways as teachers challenged themselves and each other to work differently. Over time, other protocols and structures have also been put into place to help move our PLCs forward. (Yes, hopefully content for another post.)  

 STAGE FOUR: REACHING MATURITY

“The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn….when a school staff takes that statement literally–when teachers view it as a pledge to ensure the success of each student rather than as politically correct hyperbole—profound changes begin to take place.” –Rick DuFour

 The work that now happens in our PLCs and classrooms has transformed the culture of our school. We are a true community of learners working together to meet the needs of all of our students.

Life Lesson #4: Strong relationships energize you and bring meaning and purpose to  the work you are engaged in. At the same time, they challenge assumptions, mental models, and the status quo causing all members of the group to reflect, learn, and grow in a more powerful way than could ever happen in isolation.

STAGE FIVE: LIFE-LONG LEARNERS

“The rise or fall of the professional learning community…depends not on the merits of the concept itself, but on the most important element in the improvement of any school—the commitment and persistence of the educators within it.” –Rick DuFour

As we continue our journey as a Professional Learning Community, we will continue to strive for improvement. We have learned that the work of a PLC is messy and challenging. We are not perfect and realize that we still have room to learn and grow. Challenges and opportunities for improvement continue to be our reality, as they always should. I am confident that we will never stop learning from each other and will never stop pushing ourselves to be better tomorrow than we are today. We are life-long learners!

 

If Siri Knows, Should We?

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As my 12 year-old daughter worked on her homework, she asked me how many pints are in a gallon. As I slowly turned to answer her, trying to frantically conjure up/calculate the answer, I was surprised (and relieved) to hear an all-too-familiar beep, followed by Siri saying, “How can I help you?” My daughter proceeded to ask Siri the number of pints in a gallon and she instantly received the answer. Without hesitation, she proceeded to use the information she had acquired to solve a complex mathematical problem requiring multiple steps and calculations.

As I witnessed this episode, a series of reflections raced through my mind:

The practical side of me was elated that my smartphone & Siri beat me to the answer, unknowingly protecting my pride.

The digital immigrant inside of me was disgruntled that my digital-native daughter instantly knew the best resource to use to find the answer to her question. (Obviously, I was the clear loser.) However, I was amazed at her calm resourcefulness. She didn’t skip a beat to reach for the smartphone and instantly access the needed information in order to focus her efforts on complex thinking and reasoning.

The parent in me was left wondering, shouldn’t she know that basic fact? Shouldn’t I know that basic fact?

Finally, the educator inside of me was ecstatic!!!! At that moment, a realization rushed through me. My 12 year-old daughter is experiencing 21st century learning where memorizing basic facts is insignificant; knowing how to access basic information quickly is the standard; and knowing what to do with basic knowledge in order to solve complex problems is PARAMOUNT!!!!

I then found myself wondering how she would have discovered the needed information if she was solving that problem in the classroom and reflected on the implications this short series of events should have on the learning environment that we provide for children within a school setting:

Inside the school setting, do we honor the use of technology in the same way that we do outside of school?

Inside the school setting, do we create risk-free environments that allow students to access the efficient tools and resources that they are surrounded with outside of school?

Inside the school setting, do we value the ease with which basic knowledge can be accessed so that student thinking can be used in purposeful and productive ways to solve real-world, complex problems across a variety of contexts?

My hope is that all educators would answer each of these questions with a resounding ‘yes!’ My fear is, most of us would be forced to respond with a humble ‘no’ to some or all.

Would I like to say that my 12 year old independently knew how many pints are in a gallon? Yes. But does it really matter if she knows how to find that information and what to do with it once she figures it out? No! That’s why we have Siri!

Twitter Confessions From a New User

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To begin this inaugural blog, I must start with a few confessions.

Confession #1: Until just a few weeks ago, I thought Twitter was something that people glanced at when they didn’t have much to do and were looking for ways to pass the time in mindless ways. Let’s face it, “Twitter” and “tweet” don’t conjure up a mental image of life-changing conversations, engagement, collaboration, or professional learning, until you experience life-changing conversations, engagement, collaboration, and professional learning through Twitter. Then, you get it!!

Confession #2: I did not wake up one morning with an epiphany that I was missing out on an incredible learning opportunity and felt “called” to join Twitter. Nope! Didn’t happen that way. It happened because of one person. A teacher at my school had caught the Twitter bug and did what we would hope all of our teachers and students would do when they are learning something new–she shared her experiences & excitement with me in subtle, but constant, ways. I finally did have an epiphany, but not one that I am proud to admit. I woke up one morning thinking, I DO NOT have time to waste on Twitter, but I am not practicing my mantra of ‘Always Learning!’ if I don’t at least attempt to figure out what the buzz is all about. I planned to join Twitter and proudly announce to her & others that, yes, I too was on Twitter! End of story! Well, clearly that plan “failed” in a profoundly successful way. Which leads me to…

Confession #3: As a recent immigrant to Twitterworld, I have learned a tremendous amount from other educators across the globe in a short amount of time. As I read posts and blogs, I am amazed at the creativity, passion, and love for learning that educators selflessly convey through poignant, powerful, purposeful, and personal ways. Which leads me to this third confession-I feel a sense of guilt and selfishness that I am ‘taking’ much more that I am ‘giving.’ I am also consumed with a sense of nervousness as I question whether or not I will be able to give back to the profession in as articulate and unassuming ways as some of my favorite PLN folks do. But, as a somewhat intimidated risk-taker, comes…

Confession #4: Since joining Twitter, I have experienced an unimaginable yearning to put my thoughts and experiences on (paperless) paper. I use the word unimaginable because I completed my doctorate just a few months ago. Upon final approval of my dissertation, I swore to myself (and my family) that I was NEVER going to write again!! I place the blame (#it’stheAmericanway) on so many amazing educator-Twitterers whom I have never met but I feel like I know! You have ignited a desire within me to share my experiences and insights with others. And, I must confess (#wordoftheday) that I am thrilled with the idea that my blogs will not have to follow APA-6th edition style AND can be more that 140 characters!

Confession #5: I have a newfound obsession with #hashtagphrases #theymakemesmile #probablydriveotherscrazy!

Confession #6: The inspiration, knowledge, insights, and ramblings that will emerge through these upcoming blogs will be a reflection of the dynamic learning opportunities I encounter on a daily basis. I look forward to sharing this journey with others. The blogs will (hopefully) not all be written by me. I will tap on expertise and wisdom of the incredible educators with whom I get to work with every day to help tell our story! Please join us!