Thursday, July 2, 2015

Chapter 3- Looking at Student and Teacher Work

If you want to assess how effective your PLC’s have become, one of the most valuable places to start is the level of student work and how it has improved over time.  This is one of the most used activities in a PLC, but often used inefficiently in terms of formatively assessing practice and making improvements.  The reasons it can be ineffective are simple and two major factors contribute greatly to it.  The first is competence and the second is trust.  Our author, Daniel Venables, discusses building trust through norms and protocols in Chapter 2, but extends the discussion through several examples of protocols that could be used to look at student/teacher work during a PLC.  On page 46, the author mentions feedback as “the lifeblood on nearly every aspect of PLC work, most notably, the lifeblood of looking at student and teacher work.”  However, the word of caution remains that the quality of the feedback is dependent on the willingness of the groups to give and receive honest feedback regarding the quality of the work.  At the very bottom of pg. 46, Venables offers reasoning for why teachers do not give critical feedback and quite frankly, it stings a little bit.  It is because the often not thinking deeply enough about the work and going through a series of compliance steps to satisfy administrative requirements and they are not truly invested in the process.  If that is the case we have not done a sufficient enough job of establishing a learning culture in the PLC.   The protocols will help, but teachers must have the trust and the willingness to make them thrive.  The second reason, competence, is not specifically addressed by the author in Chapter 3, but one that must be addressed to reach the end goal of increased teacher and student performance.  If the participants, especially the facilitator, of the PLC are not competent in their knowledge of both curriculum and instruction, the protocols and the activities become a well-intended activity without the desired results.  While it is true that the PLC in itself is embedded professional learning, when examining both teacher and student work there must be a standard of excellence in which the group is striving.  If that is not the case, it makes it difficult for the critical feedback to occur. One of the first things a facilitator of a PLC must assess, are the individuals in the group “willing and able”, “willing but unable”, or in the worse-case scenario “able, but unwilling.” 
Besides the protocols for looking at student work, Chapter 3 also offers several examples of looking at “teacher work”.  Figure 3:10 on pg. 58 is a great list of the various forms of teacher work that can be completed during a PLC.  While it is hopeful that many of the activities listed would not be done in isolation, but rather as a group, the protocols listed in the book do call for some individual  presentations and accountability.  Too often we sit and plan lessons, assessments, rubrics, etc. together but never take the time to put them through any sort of “quality control” check to make sure they are meeting the objectives we want them to.  In our District, we have used some protocols such as “pre-lesson shares” or the “Targeted Planning Process”, however it those are “events” rather than embedded as part of the culture or don’t have the trust and feedback noted above, they will not push the limits of new learning and progress.
The final piece on teacher learning that Venables discusses in Chapter 3 is Peer Observation.  Perhaps nothing has the potential to be more beneficial to teachers than feedback on the implementation of their planning than respected peers observing them teach and offering honest feedback.  There are so many models of this, including the use of video, that are popular right now, that it is hard to imagine a teacher in NISD that hasn’t participated in peer observation in some form or fashion.  Let’s take two of the more established protocols, Instructional Rounds and Focused Walkthroughs.  Both of these provide time for structured observation however they come with very different purposes.  Instructional Rounds are less about individual teachers and more about determining trends of instruction around the campus.  Our focused-walks have several specific protocols that determine the type of feedback the individual teacher is to be given.  Both of these protocols can be very helpful, IF: They are used on a regular basis and not every once in a while, and IF all the participants understand the purpose and are willing to give critical feedback.  Again, the challenge lies in the instructional culture of building.  Other effective examples of peer observation are when the receiving teacher identifies and asks for observers to look for specific areas in which they hope to improve or focus.  This allows the teacher to “own” the learning and can be more beneficial to individual growth.  The worse thing we can do has have teachers “go watch” a great teacher and expect results!  They most observe with a purpose.
Chapter 3 is full of ideas (some old and some new) of ways to improve our PLC culture and the craft of improvement.  However, never is the skill of the facilitator nor the trust of the PLC put more to the challenge then when looking at student and teacher work.  Remember the lessons from the first two chapters…it won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen without intentional planning.
1.     Picture the PLC in which you spend the most time, are the participants both “willing and able” to do the work necessary?  If the answer is no to either “willing” or “able”, what steps will be necessary to build capacity for the team?
2.     When you “plan” as a team in your PLC, could you or would  you use a protocol that allows for some sort of “quality control” before the lesson is ever presented to students? 

3.     When participating in “peer observation” what protocols do you feel are most beneficial and why?


  1. In my previous team PLC's, I don't think it was that we were unwilling to do the work, I think it was that we did not have proper protocol in place for looking at teacher and student work. To introduce the protocol and implement it with fidelity, it is going to take trust and practice. Once we have built trust on our team, we can begin outlining our norms and protocol for looking at student and teacher work. I believe that if teachers understand the protocol and how it will impact student work, they will be willing to take risks and put in the work.

    I am excited to use the Tuning Protocol while examining work this year. It helps put aside egos, gives the presenter a chance to speak without interruptions, and a chance for the participants to ask clarifying questions and give feedback. If we could use this protocol after planning with our team, but before it is taught in class, there we could greatly improve our quality of instruction.

    When participating in peer observations, I think we first have to set norms. Our norms should be that both the observer and observed have the mindset that they are here to learn from each other, not evaluate or judge. Once the observations have taken place, it is important to use a protocol in which the teacher can meet with the observers and they can debrief. The Tuning Protocol would work great for this. It offers the teacher a chance to explain student work and the observers a chance to ask the clarifying questions and give good "warm" and "cool" feedback. If the teachers have the right mindset, they will all learn from the experience, and student work will improve.

  2. Without a doubt, the greatest indicator of student academic progress is the work. What are we asking them to do? How are they doing? How are we measuring their progress? Chapter 3 delves deeply into the HOW and WHY of looking at work, both student and teacher. According to the author, there is a direct correlation between focused time spent looking at work and the improvement of such work. So as educators, we must ask ourselves if we are truly as proficient in this area as we could be. For myself, the answer would be no. In my experiences, so much of the time it's been a "show and tell" of sorts. Here's the work we did, have a look, offer a few surface comments, and be done. But that benefits no one, least of all the students.

    As we should have protocols for the running of our PLCs, so should we have protocols for looking at student and teacher work. One such protocol mentioned in chapter 3 is the Tuning Protocol. At first glance, this seems to be a practical, efficient way to examine work. It's not the only one mentioned in the chapter, but it does seem to be a great starting point.

    And now to the "F" word. Feedback, that is. We all know how important feedback is. But I know I'm not alone when I say that giving and receiving truly effective feedback is not as easy as it sounds. It's simple enough to give compliments, but do those compliments address the actual work? And criticisms are so much more difficult to both give and receive. Because let's be honest, we are all so protective of what we do. It's our passion, after all. But if we really want to help students and teachers move forward, it's important to be both respectful and honest. The graphic in figure 3.2 does a great job of comparing effective and ineffective feedback. And the bottom line is, we want our students to give and receive feedback in the same way.

  3. When thinking about the PLCs that I have had on my campuses or the ones I have sat in on lately, I think the majority of the people think they are willing and everyone is able with the proper knowledge and assistance of what should happen or be discussed. Something that stood out to me most in Chapter 3 is something that we have talked about for a long time. Teachers often bring their BEST work to the PLC for fear of getting in trouble, being embarrassed, or just wanting to highlight what they are proud of! This tells me that the teachers equate PLCs with celebrations of work rather than one of growth and learning. This was very evident to me on occasions of sitting in on PLCs or looking at SBBBs and the feedback given was always about how great everything was. We learned that modeling appropriate types of cool and warm feedback was necessary in order for teachers to be successful and providing it themselves (just like our students need modeling of appropriate feedback).

    I often reflect on how we can make teachers feel safe to bring in the work that wasn’t up to the standard, so that we can work as a team to increase the successfulness of the students. The same can be said about quantitative data from CBAs and/or Benchmarks. I believe protocol could help in this area to help teachers stay on track regarding what should come next, regarding types of questions to ask, giving feedback, and allowing time for reflection. Protocols if practiced and all aspects taught, (as he discussed on page 59) can help to make the conversation feel safe, purposeful, and directed toward student growth and achievement. Whatever the protocol used, it will be important to make sure everyone understands what each component means and how it should be done. Sticking to the protocol will be difficult at first, because the protocol and many aspects may be very uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier and hopefully be what is the most comfortable!

    One more thing that really stood out to me in the chapter was on page 43. Venables wrote that the conversations should never focus on oneself. This can be difficult because it is easy to reflect back on a practice that you have seen successful. Even if coming from a good place, it can be misinterpreted. All conversations must be grounded in the facts, and the work of the student and teacher.

  4. During our PLC’s, I don’t think there was an issue of participants being unwilling or unable to do the work. I feel that starting off the year setting the norms for our PLC’s and revisiting them as needed will be highly beneficial and allow us to work more efficiently. I also think that, when we are looking at student work, being aware of the level of work that we are choosing to discuss will help us to grow as a team. I agree, that as teachers we have a natural tendency to choose the best work we have to bring to a PLC. It is comfortable. We will be able to improve more as teachers if we take time to look at work that didn’t give us the result we were expecting. It will give us the opportunity to find the weaknesses and come up with solutions.
    I think the Tuning Protocol sounds like something we could implement during out PLC’s. It allows time for the teacher who is presenting to share the necessary information but then the presenter is silent for the majority of the time after that. Because of this, the presenter gets the opportunity to listen to the feedback and not become defensive. Whether it be the Tuning Protocol or something else, I think that our team would benefit from having some type of structure when looking at lessons before they are delivered to students. Having a first year teacher on our team this year, I feel this would allow her to develop a deeper understanding for the lessons as well.
    With peer observations, I think being able to ask the probing questions is important. It allows the teacher who was being observed to think a little deeper about certain aspects of their lesson. On page 54 it says “…and the presenting teacher comes to expect and appreciate his colleagues’ questions to help improve his work.” We want to become the best educators we can for our students, so that feedback piece is necessary to grow and improve.