Thursday, March 31, 2011

Organizing PLC’s for Student Success

 I like the way my fellow teacher-leaders friends and I planned and implemented sweeping changes to our 9th grade program, transforming that experience from high-school-as-usual into several smaller learning communities. 

Now freshmen at Skyline High School are grouped into cohorts who share the same English, math, social studies, and biology teachers.  We’ve reorganized our master schedule and our budget in such a way to provide each of these sixteen teachers an extra hour each day to collaborate with one another. 

This was really hard to pull off.  First we had to find the money.  Last year, we organized our freshmen teacher teams to have their one preparation period at the same time.  Each teacher taught four sections for their freshmen, and one additional section of sophomores.  Their common prep was intended to allow each team to meet once a week.  The teachers agreed to push an hour of their own classroom planning and grading to after hours so that they could spend an hour each week talking about the kids they taught together.  One hour a week quickly grew to two to three as teachers began to see the power of collaboration. Additionally parents, who in years past rarely thought it was worth taking a whole day off of work to meet with one teacher, saw that they could meet with four of their child’s teachers and scheduled conferences in unprecedented numbers. 

Our district saw the value of teacher collaboration and found nearly $300,000 to take the fifth class away from freshmen teachers, giving then two hours each day to work without kids.  One of those hours is the teacher traditional preparation time, to grade, photocopy, prepare lessons, and the million of other tasks we have to accomplish to run our classrooms.  The other hour is used for collaboration. 

Now, in addition to teacher teams who share students having common time to meet, we even have organized the schedules of our teachers who share curriculum, too.  This was a piece of scheduling magic!  Using one history teacher as an example: she teaches four sections of freshmen, 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th periods.  She has 2nd and 3rd periods without kids.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she meets 2nd period with the English, Math, and Biology teachers with whom she shares students.  Those days, her individual preparation time is 3rd period.  One Tuesdays and Thursdays, she meets with her fellow history teachers 3rd period.  During that hour, they talk about standards, assessments, instruction, and curriculum.  They look at student data and help one another make changes to their instruction to insure that every student succeeds.  On these days, her individual preparation time is 2nd period.

It’s working great, but there are some struggles.  Some of our fellow teachers have expressed their anger at the extra support that freshmen teachers have received.  “We work hard too,” I hear.  “It’s not fair for some teachers to get a second preparation period when every teacher can’t.”  Some of my colleagues are even insulting about it, assuming that we’re wasting the extra time we’ve received, like we’re shopping on line or checking on our fantasy baseball teams.  I wish these teachers would take one hour to visit one of our teams and see them in action, but so far the “haters” prefer to stand outside our “house” and throw rocks at us. 

These teachers are like the peasant from an old Russian folk tale.  The peasant saw that his neighbor was doing a little bit better than he was.  The neighbor was doing so well that he was able to buy a cow.  The peasant was so upset that he fell to his knees and he prayed.  God answered him, asking, “What do you wish me to do?”  “Kill the cow,” he replied.  You see, for some folks, taking the neighbor down a notch can almost feel as good as raising oneself up.

Luckily for us, we haven’t bought into that negative kind of thinking.  Instead, we’ve been exploring ways to find a collaboration period for all teachers.  We know that all of our teachers will be able to do better business for their kids if we support them with extra time to work together and find innovative ways to make their instruction even better than it already is.

The Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that I’ve been calling teacher teams up until now, are a great way to organize teachers.  PLCs that are organized around sharing students can coordinate parent meetings.  They can quickly identify students who are struggling, analyze why, deliver targeted interventions, and monitor the results.  They can coordinate cross-curriculum projects like the collaboration we’re doing right now between English and history.  While our kids are reading Romeo and Juliet, they are studying Medieval Italy and Shakespeare’s England. 

PLCs that are organized around curriculum can analyze the standards.  By “standards” I’m talking about all three: the standards that the high-stakes tests have forced us to deal with, even though we don’t think they reflect good learning; the published state and common core standards they we hold in higher esteem; and our own professional standards they our team has decided are that our kids “Must Know & Be Able to Do” when they leave us in June.  These PLCs can talk about assessments: both the standardized fill-in-the-bubble ones we hate and have to deal with and the formative assessment that we’ve designed and use to guide our instruction.  These PLC’s can plan projects for our kids, share instructional resources, and support one another when one of our lessons seems to have flopped.

We love our PLC’s.  It’s a lot of meetings and a lot of work, but we see the positive benefit for our professional growth and, more importantly, our kids’ learning.  “These are the only meetings I look forward to,” summed up one of my team mates.

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