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.

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