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.
In Part Two, Jennifer Hitchcock, Rosemarye Taylor, Carol Chanter, Keisha Rembert, and Lisa Sibaja offered their suggestions.
Today, Marilyn Chu, Ed.D., Kimberly Sopher-Dunn, M.Ed., Sean McWherter, Ed.D., and Jeremy Hyler provide their responses.
Combating Systematic Racism
Marilyn Chu, Ed.D., is a professor of early-childhood education (ECE) at Western Washington University who works with mentoring, coaching, and relationship-based professional-development systems to support community-based ECE programs.
Kimberly Sopher-Dunn, M.Ed., is a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. Sopher-Dunn is a faith-based leader, scholar, civil rights activist, and systems builder at the New Birth Center for Community Inclusion.
They are co-authors of Relationship-Based Early Childhood Professional Development: A Reflective Approach for Advancing Equity (Routledge).
Educators interested in transforming their professional learning communities (PLCs) into learning spaces for systems reform are being spurred to action in the context of twin pandemics—COVID-19 and a broader awareness of systemic racism influenced by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Across the world, prekindergarten programs, K-12 school systems, and colleges were halted by the global viral pandemic of COVID-19. Just as our nation was trying to get a grip on how to navigate COVID-19, the fears of our blinded-realities of murderous acts of racism were revealed to the world as a phenomenon that many Black children, teenagers, women, and men are faced with in their daily lives.
The silent evil of racism was revealed from the deathly cries of George Floyd. The post-traumatic cries of Black Lives Matter were heard from families, community members, and the souls of others too many to name. The need for a radical transformation of how we think and act when confronted with issues of racism is creating a tipping point for social change.
Many groups of diverse educators are engaging in teaching and learning grounded in principles of equity and social justice for Black Lives. They are also working to educate their students in ways to create conditions for fairer and more inclusive classrooms, schools, and communities. The concept of targeted universalism (Powell, Menendian, & Ake, 2019) centers the promotion of universal social goals (e.g., the right to health care and full and productive life) while also stressing the need for targeted goals addressing how marginalized groups have been treated unfairly.
How might teachers think together about such huge topics? A PLC is a place for teachers to read, dialogue, and pose challenging questions to investigate for age-appropriate curriculum development. A classic social studies project focusing on the differences between equity (getting what we need) and equality (getting the same things, regardless of what we need) is an example of something old, needing to become very new and relevant for students today.
PLCs are structures widely institutionalized in many U.S. schools that could support small groups of trusted colleagues to overcome their isolation and stress by joining together in “critical colleagueship.” Conditions found to be impactful are a clear purpose, use of investigative or “coaching” questions, and a sustained effort to apply theory to teacher practices (Kintz, Lane, Gotwals & Cisterna, 2015).
The use of PLCs is now a global strategy with new relevance due to the twin pandemics. While collaboration in virtual spaces might not happen in exactly the same way as it does in person, connecting with each other, planning around diverse student needs, and figuring out what works are essential now (Hongisfled & Nordmeyer, 2020). Despite the polarization of our political climates, teachers can benefit from sharing common educational dilemmas in critical, reflective conversations in order to rethink parts of their curricula.
Dr. David Stovall of the University of Illinois gets right to the point of how to begin to think about making positive social change though engagement in collaborative community projects centered in creating relevant curriculum. He simply tells us to “think and create and find a community of folks that you can think and create with.”
Now is the time to apply what is known about a well-functioning PLC by committing to ongoing cycles of questions to investigate, sharing understandings, research and data gathering, and engaging in new learning to improve our student’s abilities to do the same. As you take the risk to set new goals, plan, practice, and critically reflect with other teachers, you may find you feel more hopeful about the future because you are working in a collaborative community for positive change.
Not Just a ‘Team Meeting’
Sean McWherter, Ed.D., is the director of restart programs for the Guilford County schools in North Carolina. He is the author of A Road Map to PLC Success and Unpacking your Learning Targets: Aligning Student Learning to Standards, both published by Routledge Eye on Education:
The term “professional learning community” (PLC) has been circulating around the educational world for decades. Richard Dufour and Robert Eaker brought PLCs to the mainstream with their 1998 publication Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. In subsequent publications, Dufour articulated that the driving force behind PLCs was to shift the focus from what was taught to what was learned. Many teachers and school leaders have since been trying to build PLCs that capitalize on this idea but often end up spending valuable time and resources wrestling with exactly how they are supposed to achieve this goal.
A true PLC is more than just a rebranded team meeting; it is a laser-focused collaborative session that uses timely and relevant student data to drive and improve student learning.
In order to accomplish this, educators need access to constant data touch points to accurately assess student learning. Attempting to improve student achievement using only quarterly or end-of-year benchmarks and assessments doesn’t/won’t yield tangible results that foster continuous growth. Data should be sourced frequently enough so that teachers can provide targeted instruction to the students while the instruction is still relevant to the learning that is taking place in the classroom.
Even though I’ll be the first to tell you that PLCs can look and sound different from school to school or grade level to grade level, there are still characteristics and protocols that PLCs must have in order to actually be a PLC. The first is having common planning times which help give teams the time they need to collaborate during PLC meetings. Members of a PLC generally include the appropriate team teachers, such as all 3rd grade teachers, designated administrator, curriculum facilitator, and other relevant stakeholders such as EC or EL teachers.
Second, teams must have set times built into their schedules to provide targeted instruction to their students. Targeted instruction should be based off their common assessment data. A well-planned master schedule is paramount for providing time for data-driven collaboration and instruction.
Lastly, a successful PLC must function with intentionality. A team cannot complete everything that needs to be done in a single meeting. Because a team cannot complete every task in a single meeting, it is important to understand how to sequence agendas to have successful PLC meetings.
In a typical PLC cycle, the team
- discusses unpacked standard(s) so that everyone understands the learning objectives.
- sets daily learning targets with the team, makes corresponding lesson plans, and sets dates to administer common assessments.
- discusses data-driven student results, makes appropriate changes to lesson plans, and plans remedial core-based lessons for nonproficient students.
A PLC is a collaboration of educators who regularly meet to focus on student learning, best instructional practices to meet learning targets, and using data to evaluate student achievement. When teams begin to shift their view from my students to our students, the natural reaction will be to lift and support each other to be the best that you can be.
Jeremy Hyler is a middle school English and science teacher in Michigan. He has co-authored Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge/Eye on Education), From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age, as well as Ask, Explore, Write. Jeremy blogs at MiddleWeb. He can be found on Twitter @jeremybballer and at his website:
Professional learning communities or oftentimes referred to as professional learning networks (PLN), are groups of like-minded individuals who have common interests and usually are in the same professional field such as education. Individuals who are part of professional learning communities communicate with each other via social media.
In my opinion, the most popular for teachers is Twitter, where educators have practically taken over. It is on Twitter and other social-media sites where educators share thoughts, ideas, lessons, units, etc. One of the greatest aspects about education is the willingness for others to share what they may do in their schools and classrooms. It isn’t unusual for educators to exchange lessons and ideas along with exchanging emails to stay connected.
One particular way educators can build their learning community is by taking part in weekly Twitter chats. Twitter chats take place throughout the week at different times, and there are various topics. There are chats about social studies, middle school, educational technology, etc. These chats take place using a hashtag.
For instance, one of the chats I participate in weekly is #mschat where middle school topics are discussed. It is through this weekly chat I have connected with many middle school teachers and experts in the middle school area. Many of those individuals now follow me, and I follow them. If I ever have a question, I can always post it to the hashtag and get multiple responses to help me with what I need.
This is only one way to quickly build your professional learning community, but it is very effective. If you haven’t signed up for Twitter, I highly recommend getting started and building your professional learning community.
Thanks to Marilyn, Kimberly, Sean, and Jeremy for their contributions!
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