Professional Learning Communities - Steve Barkley

Professional Learning Communities

In the past few weeks, I have worked with several groups examining the structures and skill sets that promote Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) focused on student achievement. Working as a facilitator with the NJ Professional Teaching Standards Board, I have been part of their discussions to have most professional development planning done at the building level with much use of PLCs. A professional development partnership in New Jersey is completing “ A Common Language for Professional Learning Communities.” I will look to share that with you as soon as I can.

An article in ASCD’s Education Update (Aug 2008) Professional Learning Communities: School Leaders’ Perspectives, defines a PLC as “ a collegial group of administrators and staff who are united in their commitment to student learning. Administrators and staff work collaboratively to create shared goals, assess student understanding and learning, and improve their own teaching practices.” The article adds Richard DuFour’s view that a true PLC follows principals that center on student learning, a culture of collaboration, and results.

I designed and facilitated a PLC team activity for Rochester City Schools (NY) Summer Leadership Conference around the application of brain-based research to the design and delivery of school-based professional development. Participants shared existing knowledge and experiences with brain-based research, jigsawed an article by Dr Judith Willis (RAD Teaching-on page 4 of publication), examined existing school practices in light of the article’s suggestions, and applied ideas to the design of upcoming professional development activities at their schools.

As participants debriefed this PLC activity, we examined the following from the NSDC website:

• Staff development that has as its goal high levels of learning for all students, teachers, and administrators requires a form of professional learning that is quite different from the workshop-driven approach. The most powerful forms of staff development occur in ongoing teams that meet on a regular basis, preferably several times a week, for the purposes of learning, joint lesson planning, and problem solving. These teams, often called learning communities or communities of practice, operate with a commitment to the norms of continuous improvement and experimentation and engage their members in improving their daily work to advance the achievement of school district and school goals for student learning.

Due to sharing my experiences with the implementation of vertical teams at Twin Lakes Elementary School in Tampa, FL during the last four years, approximately ten client elementary schools from FL, NY, and AR are experimenting with vertical teams this year. Teachers on vertical teams make a natural PLC that meets DuFour’s elements of student learning, collaboration, and results. Consider these comments from Karen Allen, the principal at James R Tate Elementary in Van Buren, AR:

Just wanted to let you know we have successfully worked out a vertical team schedule for Tate. The teams will be K-2 and 3-4 teams for the first semester and K-1 and 2-4 teams for the second semester. This will allow second grade to understand the urgency to push their kids a little farther.

We shared the schedule with the teachers yesterday and it was very “easy”. I have heard no negative comments yet.
What they did like was the opportunity to go deeper in their team meetings by discussing conceptual knowledge and learning instead of very prescribed “this is what third grade needs to do here, for this long, at this time, yadda, yadda, yadda…” We decided we have moved beyond that as a school.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise with the coaches and me at our training in Van Buren. I am very excited about the changes and I believe it will redefine the coaches’ role in our building. Never before have all our conversations revolved around student learning like they did this week. It is a great time!

Peer coaching is a natural outgrowth of PLCs as members explore teaching and learning directly for new insights. Instructional coaches can often use PLCs as a tool for expanding their impact beyond working with individual teachers. PLC’s can help school leaders communicate the message, “TEACHING IS A TEAM SPORT ”

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