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?

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“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

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Chapter 1: The Business of PLC’s

"On many teams people are committed to their individual goals but on great teams they're also committed to each other." -Jon Gordon

When I started to select a book for our District’s Leadership Academy this year, it took me quite a while to decide which title would have the most impact.  There are so many wonderful books on teaching and learning that it wasn’t hard to find plenty of relevant topics, but I chose The Practice of Authentic PLCs by Daniel Venables for three very distinct reasons: 1. As we like to say in our District, “we learn best, with and through others!” 2. Last summer at the Leadership Academy and throughout the school year, we focused in on John Hattie’s research and the impact that teachers evaluating each other’s work can have on overall student learning in a school.  3. Finally, this Spring, our School Board adopted our “Profile of an NISD Educator”.  This document sets forth our not only our aspirations, but also our expectations for educators in our District.  Highlighted in the document is the key word “committed” but also throughout, it shares words like collaborate and shared responsibility.  These three reasons and countless others we will find in the book, demand that we all work together in the process of getting better.  It’s the growth mindset, so let’s get started.
Profile of an NISD Educator - Adopted 2015
In Chapter 1, Venables sets the stage by sharing some of the research behind PLCs and their purpose.   The definition on page 10 probably states the purpose of our PLC’s as well as any I have read…. “PLCs exist to improve student learning by making teachers more effective in the work of teaching.”  That is really the bottom line.  If your PLC is not making you and your teammate’s better teachers, then they are a waste of time.  How does that happen?  The author suggests that a narrow focus within a PLC that provides for specific tasks to occur will be the most effective: 
  • Looking at student and teacher work; 
  • Designing common formative assessments; and 
  • Reviewing and responding to data.  
Later this summer, as we continue to work through the book, we will share different ways to do these things together in perhaps more effective ways than we have in the past. 
As you read through Chapter 1 this week, please pay attention the chart on page 13 and reflect on your own PLCs from this past school year.  My guess is you did many of the things the book will advocate, but as we stretch our own thinking and learning, I hope we will all work together to make ourselves a better Professional Learning Community!!!
Reflective Questions:
1.       Who is the lead facilitator in your PLC?
2.       Where did your PLC spend most of its time? What items were on the agenda on a regular basis?
3.       What training or understanding does your team need?

4.       For the good of the group, please share some of the most effective activities you do in your PLC’s?

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