Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How many ways can we work together?

The nice thing about the concept of professional learning communities is that you can configure them in so many ways. The key idea is that we can't learn everything on our own. We need to think hard and often with others. Last week we experimented with a late intermediate mentorship professional learning team. We sent an invitation through principals to the new-to-grade-6/7 teachers to join us to observe in Twila's classroom, debrief and then have some time for their own questions with Twila.

We arrived at 8:15 and Twila passed them a thick package of her favourite things. Eyes lit up. She spoke of things you don't hear about often enough: how to care for yourself as a teacher and how to make the extraordinarily difficult task of teaching thirty or so unique individuals in multiple courses doable. She shared what she called sustainable frameworks - everything from a hand-in zone to the overhead with tasks for transition to four-quadrant note-taking.

We then got to observe a math lesson. Students warmed up by reviewing their problem-solving strategies. My favourite: problem-solving is like rock climbing. You need to look for the footholds and climb bit by bit to the solution. Yes, chimed in another student, and if you just look at the top, it's overwhelming. Don't look up and say you can't do it. Break it down. Another student added: Do little bits so you can find the footholds. Yes, said another, if you look at a climbing wall, you can't know where you'll find your footholds. You have to start climbing. They then started their lesson as they did each day - with a problem using a four-quadrant strategy and partners, while Twila checked their homework (and checked in with each student). After ten minutes, several students shared their strategies on the overhead. They all had different approaches and the rest of the students listened intently and thought hard with them. This was followed by a math lesson introducing a new concept - using four-quadrant note-taking, of course.

Next the grade three buddies joined us for Power Paragraph writing. The room filled to overflowing with chattering children who quickly settled as their teachers began the lesson. The teams were to write a paragraph that began - We love the Christmas season for many reasons. Once again they reviewed their tools: zoom in, transitions, sentence variety, vocabulary. Debbie and Twila modelled the process, writing their own paragraph for students. And then it was the students turn - leaning in, listening, talking, writing quickly - they worked furiously. The lesson closed with three teams reading their paragraphs. Again, the students listened closely to their peers and learned with them. At the back of the room, we teachers leaned in, too, soaking up everything.

We finished with a chance to think further with Twila. My favourite Twila quote: "If something is not sustainable, you will just stop doing it. You only have a limited amount of energy."

We can't learn alone. It's not sustainable. We can't teach alone. It's not sustainable. We need to find ways to work together.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Movember Meeting at Seaview Elementary

PLC Part II - For PLC Part I see If it's important.

Friday, 10:45. It's time for the bi-weekly intermediate teachers meeting. Their students troop down to the gym where the principal leads them in activities. Today it's preparation for their upcoming Christmas concert. Classroom teachers Mike, Shaun, Steve and Jeff (all sporting their Movember mustaches), Student Support teacher Kori and two student teachers meet in the library. Their focus is peer and self assessment. Shaun launches the conversation with his work using learning intentions, stop lights and student reflections. Steve adds to the conversation with samples of some of his criteria and writing checklists for self assessment. He shares one that gives student space to point out what they've concentrated on, so as a teacher, he can pay attention to what a student is focussed on improving. Mike shares some of his self evaluation sheets and how he has incorporated a work ethic four-point scale that student regularly use to self-assess. Jeff shares a reading response workbook that includes a space for parent, peer, self and/or teacher assessment. He's now going to add a column for "sibling" assessment, since a boy came to school yesterday and said his sister read and assessed his response for him.

If you are a teacher, you're thinking - where can I get copies of all these goodies (including the over 100 graphic organizers in Shaun's "toolbox")? But it's not the same. You would just file it. You know you have too many organizers already. But if you worked at Seaview and took Mike's idea and tried it and it didn't quite work, you could pop in the next day and ask a question or see samples. You could reflect on things you tried at the next intermediate meeting and figure out what worked, what didn't and what you needed for next steps. You could talk to Kori about the student with special needs and how you could adapt the assessment tool for him. You could share what you're working on with your principal, so she could incorporate the strategy within the intermediate-wide activities she develops.

We don't need more stuff, more ideas, more resources. We need time to think deeply, to reflect with colleagues, to build a repertoire of what works for the kids we have today; we need a supportive environment, to know we are not alone, to share triumphs and catastrophes, to take risks to change; we need to know that a team will help us, prompt us, join us, plan with us, analyze, figure out.

Is it easy to set up a professional learning community in your school? Not at all! But is there any other way to ensure that teachers are supported, continually learning, sharing and deepening their practice, regularly consulting each other when they have a challenge, and staying current with new research, new curriculum and new tools for learning? I haven't thought of one yet. And until every teacher is supported, I don't know how we can ensure that each child is successful.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

If it's important

Suppose you believe the research that the most significant influence on student learning is the teacher? How do you ensure that teachers are supported, continually learning, sharing and deepening their practice, regularly consulting each other when they have a challenge, and staying current with new research, new curriculum and new tools for learning?

If the answer is - we expect them to find their own learning network, join after school workshops or meetings, and attend relevant professional development during the five allotted days during the year - it's not enough. It's not just-in-time, it's not deeply connected to the students they have in their classroom or to the school they are working in, and it demands that the teacher, rather than focus on their students, use precious time to find people to learn with. And it doesn't take into account the life of the teacher. As a mother of five, I attended a minimum of after school meetings. Instead, I went home, picked up children, took them to after school events, listened to their stories, fed them snacks, made dinner, played games, read to them and then - after the last of them was tucked into bed or quietly engaged in an evening activity - I marked, planned, or if I had any energy left, read professional articles. I have colleagues, bless them, who are busy with other kids after school - drama, football, student council, basketball, volleyball, dance. Do we stop providing these services that connect our students to the school community, foster leadership, citizenship and a sense of belonging?

If our answer to professional learning and collaboration is to organize more after school meetings, we are providing opportunities for some teachers. We need an answer for every teacher if we want success for each child. How? Schools in SD68 are doing it! If it's important, we'll learn together to find a way.

First stop: Seaview Elementary

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Embracing Change

Guest Blogger: Cheryl Lloyd is a primary teacher from SD71. Meet her for five minutes and you are struck by her passion for teaching and learning. Where is she now? On Arabian Adventures. Find out about her experiences on exchange in Saudia Arabia at her blog:

Educating children is no easy task! The whirlwind of current practices changes at a rate similar to our advancing technology. Students and adults alike are on a nonstop continuum of learning and sometimes as educators, admitting our ignorance is a difficult task. Can we remember back to when we first started teaching in our classrooms? It was not only acceptable, but expected we would ask others for assistance and help as we graciously or ungraciously strung together lessons and units of study. What’s changed? Are we supposed to know everything now with all our years of experience? This is an absurd notion, especially when research continues to reveal new and exciting phenomenon about how we learn.

Presently, one ongoing question revolves around assessment. Should we, shouldn’t we, how often, what assessment tool, what’s the purpose, what do we do with the results, and, do I want to share the results to name a few. Of course we should assess children and use the data to assist and support student learning. Assessments can also be a tool to guide unit planning and even school and district goals.

Over the past four years, I have had the opportunity to once again embrace meaningful professional learning. Becoming vulnerable, asking questions, trying on little bits, teaching others, and learning from others has enhanced my capabilities and confidence. Finding a team of other educators who are expanding their knowledge has been an invaluable tool and wealth of information for me. Assessment practices have been a part of our learning and I now embrace formative assessment, peer assessment practices and summative assessment. I match various assessments for specific purposes.

I desire ongoing professional development and am forever grateful to my colleagues for stretching my thinking, encouraging me to try new practices, and believing in me. I think the process of participation verses the perfect product assists me to embrace the shifting practices in our ever-changing vocation!