Thursday, June 25, 2015

Chapter 2- What to do First: Building a Foundation for Collaboration

       “Your team doesn’t care if you are a superstar.  They care if you are a super teammate.” – Jon Gordon
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make, no matter the profession, it not investing the time it takes up front to build a great team.  The military has “basic training” and most sports team participate in pre-season rituals, each of which is designed to bring teammates together and force the group to work together.  As a result, there are countless stories and examples from these groups in which individuals put their own needs behind what is good for the group and as a result, their feats far outweigh what may have been achieved otherwise.  Unfortunately, the reality is, many organizations do not follow this example.  They collect the most talented people they can find, and then expect them to be able to work together and collaborate. It doesn’t always work out that way.
Our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are built on the concept that all members are active participants willing to speak up and share their talents, but as Daniel Venables shares in Chapter 2 without intentional planning on the part of the leaders on the campus, PLCs focus and effectiveness can be compromised. Several key points Venables makes early in the chapter are the way schools establish their teams and their leaders.  What do the PLCs look like at your school and what are the expected outcomes?  Most secondary PLCs are compartmentalized by subject area which make sense because they are writing common assessments and looking at data, but if schools value the “whole child” and also “cross curricular” discussions Venables encourages intentional time with subject-diverse PLCs whose primary focus is looking at student work.  Teachers can learn a lot from reviewing the types of assignments other subject areas are giving as well as the way students respond.  So is there a need for both? How often?  At the elementary level, most teachers teach more than one subject and PLCs are often by grade level with some vertical discussion by subject.  It would be interesting to hear from teachers which type they find more beneficial to improving their craft.
I was also impressed with the way Venables addressed the elephant in the room that is our “elective” or “specials” teachers.  These teachers are some of the most important in the building.  They know students from a perspective that often gets overlooked and can add valuable insight into campus PLCs if they are intentionally used in this way.  I encourage all the readers (especially those charged with setting up the PLCs on a campus) to review pgs 20-21 for examples about how “related arts” teachers might be used in PLCs.
The next section in Chapter 2 discussed the importance of selecting the right leader/facilitator for the PLC and also the importance of training them.  This is imperative and could easily be modeled on a weekly basis.  Do your instructional leader meetings follow a similar agenda to what the grade level/dept. PLCs are expected to use?  Remember the objectives Venables set forth in Chapter 1 for PLCs: 1. Looking a student and teacher work; 2. Designing quality common assessments; and 3. Reviewing and responding to data.  If the leaders of the building do not spend the majority of their time  balanced between these 3 objectives, how can they expect the rest of the PLCs to do so?  In addition, the constant modeling will help all the PLC facilitators improve their skills and understand the expectations.
The author spends a great deal of time to discussing the importance and process of setting NORMS and Team Building for your PLC. As he shares, often times we set norms with good intentions, but do not follow through or revisit them nearly enough.  I believe sometimes the teams that have been together the longest may be the ones that need norms the most.  The familiarity allows for complacency if we are not careful.  While Venables shares several examples of activities to bring teams together, we will offer more examples at our District’s Leadership Academy in July.  A huge takeaway from this section for me was the intentional design of team building activities.  It is not just about “fun”…was there a purpose or a task the group had to accomplish while “bonding”.  Again, getting along and having everyone be happy is not the same thing as an authentic PLC.  It helps, but it doesn’t guarantee the end goal.
As the chapter closes, the section on pg. 31 entitled “Constructing Community Knowledge” was a perfect reminder for PLC facilitators (and all of us really).  Everyone comes to the table with different background, talents, and experiences.  The most effective PLCs find ways to bring the best out in everyone.  Thus the need for norms, protocols, etc.  A skilled facilitators will capitalize on the talents and wisdom of the group to make everyone more effective.  Building common knowledge of the group is important, but utilizing each member’s strengths is imperative.
Reflective Questions:
·       What are the many different PLCs on your campus? How were they organized?  Is there a place for everyone?
·       What have you done in the past to intentionally set norms or team building strategies? Did they have a specific purpose and were they effective?
·       When you think about the PLC in which you will spend the most time next year, what are the strengths of each member? What can you do to find out?
·       How might some of the ideas in Chapter 2 help your PLC moving forward?

Leave your comments here or on twitter #impactNISD

“If we all simply nod our heads in agreement and never ask questions or disagree, then we are wasting the wonderful ability to think.” – Justin Tarte


  1. As a grade level we have not set norms in the past. I like the activity Peeves and Traits which leads in to the norm setting process. The key point to remember in the PLC is that everyone is a "norm enforcer" not just the PLC coach. Love the quote on page 37, "Being a team is not the same thing as forming a team." It is the same thing as our classrooms; it is so crucial to set that foundation of norms, procedures and trust in order for our students to feel safe enough to share their learning and experiences throughout the year.

  2. This chapter resonated with me on so many levels. PLCs have been a "thing" in our district for many years now. And many of those PLC meetings have gone very well. But based on Venerables' assertions in chapter 2, I can see that we still have much work to do.

    There is true benefit to having PLCs work on two levels at my campus. Content area, of course, is vitally important as we look at standards and student work. But just as importantly, especially at the elementary level, is working as part of a grade level PLC. So much of what we do in the lower levels is based on developmental achievements & milestones. Thus the need for all teachers on the same grade level to take a look at what's going on with the whole child.

    As a member of PLCs, norm setting has been standard operating procedure for the last few years. The norms have been pretty basic and cover things like being on time and coming prepared. However, I don't believe I'm alone in saying that these norms are rarely revisited and revised. Sure, it's done during the first couple of PLCs. But then a certain comfort level sets in and it's just not seen as necessary. Definitely something to change in the future!

    I have to say, this chapter leaves me very excited for what the coming year is going to bring. Stronger PLCs are going to lead to deeper, more meaningful conversations about student work and increasing student achievement.

    1. Love your thoughts Shawna. Thanks for sharing....I agree...the two PLCs are a must. Takes time and focus!!! But it will be worth it.

  3. In the past, I don't recall that the grade level PLCs that I have been apart of have really sat down and set norms as a group. Although my team has worked well together in the past, I believe that the activity "Peeves and Traits Protocol" will be a useful activity for us as we begin the next year.

    Looking forward to next year, I would like to have more opportunities for "common readings." As a first time PLC coach, I have the least amount of teaching experience on my team. Although I do know that my team respects me as a teacher and our PLC coach, I feel that having more "common readings" will provide us opportunities to learn together regardless of our years of experience. We can then use our background and experience to engage in meaningful conversations that will impact student learning.

    1. Thanks so much. I appreciate what you are saying. I agree, I never put in enough time upfront with my PLC's....Kicking myself now! But always time to get it right!

  4. In the past, I don't recall that my team has established our PLC norms. I think that as a district, NISD typically begins PLCs with norms and we have become aware that all PLCs should have the same norms. My team has always worked well together and we respect each other's opinions. The activity "Peeves and Traits Protocol" will be a great exercise to help us establish norms for our grade level PLCs at the beginning of the school year.

    Looking forward to next year, I would like to have more opportunities for "common readings." As a first time PLC coach, I also have the least amount of teaching experience on my team. Although I know that my team respects me as a teacher and a PLC coach, I think that "common readings" will provide us with the opportunity to learn together. We can then have meaningful conversations which will tap into our background and years of experience if it is relevant to the reading.

  5. I enjoyed how this chapter focused on building the collaborative culture of the team rather than just saying this is what you will do! What I liked better was the examples of the activities that served two purposes. You were setting norms while building the collaborative culture! I loved team building as a campus principal and did it every year at the beginning of the year and several times throughout the year. I think the thing that can sometimes happen though is the team building becomes about the fun and not the underlying need of establishing trust as a group and getting to know each other on a professional level. (My team building was guilty of this)
    As I read about the setting norm protocols I thought about how often setting norms became a checklist item for me. I know we are supposed to set norms, so I will be a good role model and set norms with my group. It really was a contrived activity that ended with a pretty Norms Anchor Chart on the wall. Every once in a while I would review them…again very much a going through the motion type of thing. I thought the activities referenced for setting norms is very helpful and will be a great way of showing the importance of norms without just going through the motions! Finding ways to review norms in a purposeful and specific way will be important to continuously show their importance. The hard part and thing that probably gets missed the most is what to do when a norm is broken! What protocols are in place to address this? Who handles it? When norms are “broken” or no longer followed they are no longer norms. I am curious as to how campuses will work on building the collaborative culture prior to school starting, so that PLCs can be in full swing when school starts!
    A couple of things that really stood out to me in the section regarding constructing community knowledge were the focus on learning as a huge part of the pLc!  I think having a focus acquiring the same knowledge as a team is huge just as ensuring that you PLCs all have a common understanding of district, campus, content and grade level goals. Venables also suggests that the best learning comes from short articles. I agree…we need to get the point across quickly or risk our PLCs missing the point or holding on to the wrong one!

    1. The PLC becomes an entity of its own. There are the individual teachers who comprise the PLC and there is the collective. This organism, so to speak, by the experiences it has, gathers this collection of knowledge. This is what I mean by "Constructing Community Knowledge", and that common knowledge will be tapped again during experiences it has henceforth. The importance of CCK cannot be overstated, in my opinion.

  6. Intentional team building is important in any group, organization, or team. However, not all team building activities are appropriate for every group. I like the intentionality of the team building exercises that Venables outlines on page 28 & 29. They seem very targeted to the PLC. They serve not only to build the team, not only to bring unity and understanding, but to also help set and develop norms. The activities suggested in Chapter 2 would be time well spent in learning about each other’s styles and preferences, norm setting, and constructing community knowledge. Although team building must be laid down as a foundation at the birth of a new group, strong and effective teams continue to participate in team building activities as the group grows and changes. An effective leader watches for changes in dynamics and looks for opportunities to participate in intentional ongoing team building.

  7. I have always been a part of grade level PLC's in which we have set norms, but have not really followed through with sticking to them. I will make it a priority to take the opportunity to set norms with my team this year in a meaningful way.

    The idea of the feeder activities that help build trust, and really let the PLC coach know the strengths, weaknesses, and peeves of the members is a crucial step I will take this year before setting norms. Once my team has learned this valuable information about one another, then we can begin setting our norms. Just like in the classroom, it is not enough to create our norms and only visit them once. We will need to revisit and possibly even discuss them at the beginning of each meeting, making changes if necessary.

    Once our norms are set and revisited, we can begin to really build the culture of our PLC's.

  8. Although our grade level has invited an Essentials' teacher to attend a parent conference, it never occurred to me to invite these teachers to a PLC. This may be a very beneficial way to understand the "whole child."

    For example, earlier this year, I asked our art teacher if she had motivation problems with one particular student who refused to complete work in all subject areas. To my surprise, she had very little problems, because the student became her "helper." During our next grade level, PLC, we discussed how we could incorporate this, and we saw improvements in motivation. Had we not had that brief hallway chat, however, we would have never known. For this reason, I strongly agree with Venables that our Essentials' teachers should be invited as needed. After all, they may know our students better than we do, because they may have had them throughout elementary school.

  9. At the secondary level, it seems to take a little bit more creativity to implement PLCs. However, it can be done. While they may not meet as often as a common PLC, I'm thinking about how much more important it is that pre-planning and norms are set that will help to create the "shared community knowledge". I think the protocols that are mentioned the book could provide a common vocabulary, since the teachers are from different content areas and bring different levels of expertise.

    Recently, English and social studies teachers met for about three days to create a unit during the last six weeks of school. They also invited a science teacher to help contribute by asking questions about terms and other areas she was not certain of while they were writing. I had not thought of this until reading the blog and the chapters that it might be important to recall the team and create a PLC to look at the students' products. Even though it is summer, I'm also considering a best way to possibly conduct the PLC in a digital format. Hmm...maybe a blog like this might work?

  10. This chapter caused me to think about how to intentionally create an effective team of teachers. I have always assumed that good teams just have natural chemistry, that it is not something that is created. I am especially looking forward to trying the Peeves and Traits Protocol, because it not only gets style differences and preferences out in the open, but causes me to reflect on the root of my frustrations and how I work best as well. To have a forum to discuss potential issues that may arise will alleviate stress in the long run.
    Our team meets as a grade level each week. I have also found that some of the most powerful PLCs are when teachers from different schools across the district meet to discuss challenges and celebrations. Our grade level has made changes several times as a result of talking with and sharing ideas with teachers from other schools.
    We set PLC norms as a grade level before the school year begins, but rarely looked back at them as the year progressed. In moving forward with PLCs this year, I would like for our team to repeat them at each meeting, to focus on the importance of the work we are about to do.