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Professional Development Opinion

Professional Learning Communities Can ‘Unleash the Learning!’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 25, 2021 15 min read
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(This is second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is a professional learning community and how can educators build one?

In Part One, Angela M. Ward, Valentina Gonzalez, Marci K. Harvey, and Kimiko Shibata share their ideas. All four were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Jennifer Hitchcock, Rosemarye Taylor, Carol Chanter, Keisha Rembert, and Lisa Sibaja offer their suggestions.

Three Elements Of a PLC

Jennifer Hitchcock teaches AP Government and Politics for Virginia’s Fairfax County public schools, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and the district’s Online Campus:

A few years ago, the school I worked at suggested a radical change in how I talked about what I asked to do my students. We reflected on the word “work” in classrooms. Homework, classwork, hard worker… all of this emphasized doing something. Looking busy, being active. We stumbled upon something disturbing. With all of this doing, how do we know what our kids are learning? As a group, we decided to work on this together.

This exploration happened through our professional learning communities, or PLCs. Richard and Rebecca DuFour held huge conferences developing these models. PLCs can be required by school administration or be organic. They come in all shapes and sizes. But there are three things that a PLC is supposed to focus on:

  • Identify core knowledge—content and skills students must learn,
  • Identify a way of measuring when students have learned core knowledge, or benchmarks, and
  • Develop responses to setbacks in learning.

This means that there needs to be regular communication. Best-case scenario: It is built into the school day so there is a time for teachers to meet regularly and discuss these three components. This conversation is perpetual. It is a “loop,” where the PLC agrees that in certain areas of instruction, core knowledge will be taught, measured, and reviewed. It does not mean that teachers loose sovereignty or have to focus on testing.
PLCs can target learning through performance-based assessments and performance-based learning … where student creativity with the content is maximized. Units can be structured to focus on inquiry, research, synthesis of ideas, and presentation via any conceivable creative outlet. Think Action Civics, National History Day, a community dialogue, or local historical research. But to get this to work in these first two bullets, the PLC has to have some norms—agree to know the content before meetings start, agree to be in harmony on core knowledge and measurement of knowledge, agree to complete the learning on time, agree to maximize meeting time.

Why? Because this is about learning. The PLC’s most important function here is to look at the students who failed to learn. It happens. According to the Response-to-Instruction (RTI) Model, 75 percent to 80 percent of students will succeed with what PLCs do in the first two bullet points. The RTI Model calls this Tier I instruction. If the focus is on learning, we need to reach all of students. When the PLC sees setbacks in learning, the PLC responds with what the RTI model calls Tier II and Tier III instruction.

After looking at student mastery in any given unit, PLCs will review successes and failures. Where were there discrepancies in instruction? Did it contribute to the results? Once results are reviewed, Tier II instruction leaps into place. Here, the PLC coordinates instructional practices and offers remediation to students who need an intervention and more targeted support to be successful.

Having a common intervention period like a “study hall” or “homeroom” helps. Any student who has yet to master core knowledge can receive this targeted instruction. Perhaps it means students need more time or access to resources. Maybe there needs to be a review of the content or skill in a small-group or a one-on-one environment. The PLC can identify what is necessary for successful remediation, group like students, and distribute the interventions as necessary so classrooms are focused on one or two types of interventions at a time.

Finally, a small number of students will require interventions like this across multiple courses. These students face additional barriers to success that require a more personal relationship with a trusted mentor. These are Tier III interventions. This relationship and small-group environment can help foster accountability and support to students in need of more than what the traditional classroom environment can provide.

Of course, this model can be difficult in some school environments. “PLCs of one” struggle with some of the shared work and beneficial professional collaboration. Or maybe a PLC needs ideas or support. That is where professional learning networks, or PLNs, can help any PLC.

As I am a social studies teacher, I have relied heavily upon the National Council for the Social Studies, the Virginia Council for the Social Studies, professional-development opportunities nationwide, and digital PLNs like private groups on Facebook. Almost every social studies curriculum has a private group of teachers who collaborate and share instructional practices. Twitter offers countless chats of almost every format. If you are looking for a place to start, try searching on Twitter under #sschat or #socialstudies or even #PLN. Ask for recommendations from anyone and unleash the learning!

plcscanbejennifer

“Be Purposeful and Deliberate”

Rosemarye Taylor has been a teacher, counselor, and administrator in public school districts. She also is professor emerita of educational leadership at the University of Central Florida. Her publications include numerous articles and books. Carol Chanter, Ed.D., has more than 35 years of experience in special education, general education, academic coaching, and school and district leadership and is the senior vice president for professional learning services at Scholastic. Together, they co-authored The Coaching Partnership: Collaboration for Systemic Change 2nd Edition, published by Scholastic (2019):

The professional learning community (PLC) emerged in the 1990s as a voluntary collaborative group of two or more educators who would come together to explore common interests or tackle shared challenges. PLCs were flexible and dissolved when collaborative interests waned. New PLCs arose based on shared authentic interests or concerns. Collaborative professionals found that they learned from one another’s expertise and, working together, generated more effective and efficient strategies or approaches to common challenges.

Over time, school leaders recognized that these collaborative efforts supported professional growth and better outcomes, and they expected teachers to participate in PLCs to accomplish grade, school, or school-district-level goals. Once teachers were required to join a PLC, then professional learning on how to implement a successful PLC became essential.

Today, grade level or content-focused PLCs, in which each member has a similar responsibility, often focus on developing common instructional plans and classroom assessments. For continued improvement of student outcomes, they may also analyze common assessment results to determine next steps for assuring each student’s proficiency on learning targets. PLC members are committed to each other’s success and to the success of students.

Think about a time when you voluntarily and purposefully sought a colleague to brainstorm ideas with and to increase student outcomes. Chances are you respected the person’s expertise and appreciated the manner of communication. It’s likely that this colleague also asked you for feedback or clarification and listened intently as you responded. In other words, you both had a voice and you both listened with respect as you took turns sharing and discussing from the perspective of your own specific expertise.

Whether the creation of a PLC is required or voluntary, successful PLCs share common characteristics—and/or ground rules—best developed together and used as a pathway for success. For example, ground rules might include:

  • Be purposeful and deliberate in selecting goals,
  • Use evidence and data to guide discussions and decisions,
  • Value each other’s expertise and contributions,
  • Listen actively,
  • Give voice to each member,
  • Think generatively (thinking that builds on itself leading to new ideas and solutions), and
  • Be mutually supportive and committed to each other’s success.

With the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and emergency remote continuity of learning that ensued, the need for successful PLCs has never been more urgent. We have seen more immediacy in the need for successful PLCs in the 2020 shutdown of face-to-face instruction and with the emergency implementation of remote continuity of learning due to coronavirus. Even in schools in which PLCs had regular common planning for grade levels and content areas, they had to quickly change modes of delivery of instruction. PLCs also had to move from face-to-face sessions to online sessions as teachers worked together to develop remote instruction. These sudden changes impacted students and educators from kindergarten through graduate school.

Let’s examine a successful PLC comprising kindergarten teachers whose experience ranged from novice to veteran. Earlier in the school year, the novice teachers deferred to the more experienced ones and followed their guidance on classroom management, organization, and instruction. However, when the faculty implemented emergency remote continuity of learning, the more experienced teachers relied on the less experienced ones for advice on how to engage, teach, and provide feedback to children remotely in real time, since many of them had experienced this type of distance learning environment firsthand in college. This example demonstrates the value of the diverse expertise often available in a PLC.

Above all, building a PLC should have a stated purpose and established ground rules. A successful PLC will value the collective expertise and voices of all members.

theneedforplcs

“An Incubator of Ideas”

Keisha Rembert is a passionate learner and fierce equity advocate. She was an award-winning middle school ELA and United States history teacher who now instructs preservice teachers. She hopes to change our world one student at a time. Twitter ID: @klrembert:

A PLC is a network you lean on and learn from and with. I believe it is imperative for teacher, as well as, student growth. A good PLC gives teachers the ability to collaborate and coalesce around student learning and progress. It can also serve to challenge our thinking and, directly or indirectly, to improve the craft of teaching.

What I love most about a high-functioning PLC group is that it becomes an incubator of ideas and aspirations that we have for our students. In schools, PLCs tend to look different from when they are more organic. A school-based PLC should be student-centered and focused on the how, what, and why of student learning. It must also be the place where discussion of barriers to learning occurs while examining all mitigating factors. Often, I have been a part of PLC groups that examine data, talk instructional strategies, but never humanize the students. Without this element of humanization in a PLC, teachers are missing a critical element in ensuring the success of all children.

There are professional learning communities everywhere. I have found my people in the national organization connected to the disciplines I teach (National Council of Teachers of English & Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History) but also on Twitter. Joining chats and following teachers has been a significant part of my development as an educator. I have learned immensely in these spaces, and my students have benefited tremendously.

ihavebeenapartkeisha

‘Endless’ Possibilities

Lisa Sibaja has taught visual art and ESL, as well as Spanish and theater arts. She has worked with students in pre-K through high school for the past 25 years while promoting literacy and cultural awareness in North Carolina, Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Buenos Aires, Argentina:

Professional learning communities (PLCs) foster collaboration to support student achievement. Generally speaking, teachers work together to problem-solve, plan curriculum, divide the workload, and develop a plan for student success. Members contribute their particular skills to help schools function more effectively. From my experiences, groups can take on a variety of formats—each with their own unique character. If you are open to helping students, the possibilities generated through PLCs are endless.

When I started my career as an ESL teacher, I worked in the Washington metro area. My first school had one ESL teacher per grade level, so I found myself collaborating regularly with other ESL teachers. In addition, I had a PLC with my grade-level team of classroom teachers. We met formally and informally to chart our course. The energy was wonderful, and I learned so much from co-teaching and meeting with colleagues. This position made notions of how PLCs are supposed to work clear.

A few years later, my perspective about PLCs changed. My second post near D.C. only had two ESL teachers per school. Since we taught different grade levels through pullout instruction, my PLC shifted to the district level. We were part of a large system with 125 schools and a strong vision. My PLC looked differently here because a large group of ESL teachers met consistently for professional development and collaboration on curriculum, lesson-plan development, technology, and instructional best practices. From this experience, preconceived notions of PLCs expanded substantially.

Then, I moved to a distinctly different situation once again at a rural district in North Carolina with only three ESL teachers in six schools. Although I immediately fell in love with my job, I didn’t know how to connect with other ESL teachers as I had in the past. So I asked myself, how do you create a PLC in this type of setting? I started by collaborating with the teachers at my school to find out what type of ESL instructional supports were needed in the classroom. I realized that they were eager to help our students, but in order to provide extra support, I needed to stay on top of current pedagogy. Thanks to district support and state-sponsored scholarships, I was able to attend conferences at the state and national levels.

After attending the 2018 WIDA conference, I felt encouraged that I could share resources with others. Besides leading workshops at the school level, I started presenting during conferences to share ideas, connect with colleagues, and gain feedback from my peers. After giving a conference presentation at a local university, I learned about the NC EL Teacher Network Leadership Team from one of our state ESL/Title III consultants, Xatli Stox (@teacherxatli). In 2019, a group of approximately 20 educators joined together to lead a statewide PLC to collaborate and help support EL instruction throughout North Carolina.

Through this membership, I have been able to connect with amazing ESL teachers online and in person. We have collaborated on a blog, Twitter chats, and book studies among other projects. We share leadership lessons and have guest speakers to strengthen our effectiveness as educators. Having found this opportunity, I feel more connected to other educators in a meaningful way and I have been able to take resources back to share with co-workers and to increase rigor within my own classroom. The goal is to continue to grow the number of educators in our PLC and have a positive impact on more students.

In our increasingly global society, the concept of professional learning communities continues to change. As educators, we need to take the initiative to find community in unexpected ways. Join a committee to support ELs in your area, present at conferences, open a Twitter account, join a book study group, volunteer to work toward a state initiative, connect with a local university, or simply collaborate with a group of teachers at your school on a special project. The driving force should be our desire to support English-learners no matter the type of school or work environment. If we all are willing to connect and share with a focused goal in mind, students can’t help but benefit in the long run.

inourincreasing

Thanks to Jennifer, Rosemarye, Carol, Keisha, and Lisa for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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