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Rekindling the Commitment

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I think last year’s World Cafe reminded all of us that collaboration is hard and is often uncomfortable. A number of colleagues pointed out that Professional Learning Communities are as much about who were are as learners as it is about supporting student success. As one colleague admitted, “I’ve learned a lot about myself as a learner. Collaboration is not always easy – it takes time, energy and practice.” Another stated, “I learned collaboration is challenging, but it’s necessary to go through the process in order to create change.”  Snapshots from this Wednesday’s PLC continues to highlight the power of our cross grade level and multidisciplinary teams.  What does some of that work look like?

  • Teachers turned to one another to examine case studies focusing on effective feedback strategies
  • Teachers used a dilemma protocol to get past barriers for using digital tools to nurture metacognition in the classroom
  • Teachers shared shifts in shared language aligning to the integration of key concepts from Theories of Knowledge across the high school
  • Teachers reported out on the impact of peer observations during workshop lessons
  • Teachers highlighted projects that enable more individualized learning
  • Teachers showcased depth of student learning and reflection through revised portfolios

In short, teachers used PLCs not only as a means of accountability to “force us to keep commitments for change” but inspired colleagues to reconsider a practice, an assessment, a day’s plan for supporting students better.


It all started with my PLC…

One of the greatest parts of this position is I still get to dig into my own learning with colleagues – and a whole network of educators. Although I know my primary responsibility is to oversee the structure and support all the PLC’s at Graded, I just need to give a special shout out to my PLC on Digital Tools and Metacognition, as they have inspired some provocative steps of how I can support teachers in a blended environment. I’m focusing on three case studies across divisions to determine how digital tools support teachers’ reflection and leads to deeper practice in the classroom.

Case Study 1 : Kelli and I have been thinking about how to build a culture of thinkers in the first grade classroom. Here’s the journey so far…

  • Kelli and I started imagining what a classroom of thinkers would look like – Turning to Project Zero, we read an article about the practical application of thinking routines in the elementary classroom.
  • We used twitter to capture the most salient points of the article so we could pull a summary through coding using hashtags

Twitter Anchor

  • I went into Kelli’s room for an observation of the learning environment of a common instructional routine, the readers’ workshop. Even though she’ll be instructing toward “thinking” at different times, we’ll use this as our baseline to chart the shift of the student culture.
  • It just so happened that I checked my twitter account at the start of a #PYPchat that was sharing ideas about building a culture of thinking! (You can explore twitter chats and schedules here.) I jumped in and shared Kelli and my thinking – and the strategies in play. In exchange, other educators from around the world were sharing what they are doing in their classrooms.
  • I curated the best ideas of the chat, using our anchor tweets to align strategies and resources through Storify – the central tool that I am investigating as part of my PLC inquiry.

Storify with Kelli


What is emerging is a cohesive narrative that integrates research, classroom practice, Graded’s expectations for Teaching and Learning, and the voices of 30 other educators pursuing how to nurture a culture of thinking within similar environments across the globe. I’ve been reflecting a lot on how this changes my role – and the skill set I need to continue to build to best support teacher’s growth and student success.

It also begs a response to the question, “So what?” What impact will this work have on the success of Kelli’s first graders’ as thinkers? I know from the initial stages, we were able to build a much richer toolbox of strategies than Kelli and I would have been able to accomplish as partners. I hope by organizing our thinking and linking it to the goals we set from the beginning, we’ll be able to determine importance among the chatter of ideas and see deeper transfer to the classroom. The power, however, resides in Kelli’s commitment to creating the best environment for students. In a mere two weeks, Kelli’s claim, “they’re just not thinkers” has changed to “my kids are geniuses”.  I look forward to sharing reflection as the story unfolds – and appreciate the tools that support holding the story, creating an opportunity for our learning to be in service to Graded’s classroom and beyond.  I’m deeply grateful to colleagues like Kelli that inspire and energize me.

The invariable chill…

When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to play this weird game on each other’s backs. For some reason, we found it absolutely hysterical. One would stand behind the other and synchronize a story with hand motions. “X marks the spot with a dash and a dot…” it would begin as we marked each other’s back.  “In goes the fork…” we would say as we pretended to stab, “out comes the blood” we would follow with fingers drooling down. “In goes the knife… out comes the blood.” On it would go, ending with spiders and cool winds blowing – and something made up –  then the invariable chill that always followed.  I bored easily from the predicted rhyme, but loved when they made something up to add to the story.

The plot of Graded’s Professional Learning Communities reminds me of this game. We’ve taken a structure used by schools all over the world  and collaboratively we’ve made something up that adds to the story of learning for educators.  The last round of reflections from this semester not only serves as a celebration of how far we’ve come, but the data maps clear next steps for us to tackle in order to ensure this structure serves teachers, and ultimately students, in powerful ways. (If you click on the charts, they will open a bit bigger).


Observation 1:  Although designed to support the core work of Graded’s school improvement goals, PLC’s are falling short  in terms of supporting all teachers in meeting expectations. 36%  of teachers did not choose into a PLC that aligned with the expectations for unit refinement. Where does the time and support come from to support the 41 teachers who do not use this structure for that purpose?

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Observation 2:  We’re making progress in two key, significant areas. 34% of teachers embrace one of the primary reasons our PLCs are designed specifically to cross divisions and find the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other divisions the most powerful aspect of this semester’s PLC work. This represents an increase of 10% from last year’s data. Additionally, PLC work is  applicable to classrooms in various ways. The greatest percentage, 22%, believe that their instruction has been impacted as a result of the work with colleagues. The next greatest category, 20%, explicitly aligns to our school-wide goals.

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Observation 3:  Graded School reflects a community of voracious learners, yet we still struggle with taking that learning to a classroom level in a way that impacts student success. 56% believes that their work with PLCs will impact student success within the next semester.  This data point, along with the feedback that teachers provided last year, serves as a clear rationale for year-long PLC groups.

Observation 4: Graded School reflects a community of voracious learners who know how to advocate for their needs.  The greatest need for support falls into three key categories: additional research, models and structures to track impact.  How can leaders best provide these resources so they are valuable, timely and are easily transferable to the craft in your classrooms?

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Observation 5: This last piece of data is a text analysis that identifies the 28 most important words that emerged in your responses focused on highlights. You can judge where its importance resides based on the size of the word. Assessment, Colleagues, Discussion, Sharing, Learning. Students/Teachers, and Tools are all elements of success for this semester.  The good news is that all of these concepts related directly to our school-wide goals on nurturing the conditions for collaboration, assessment and the integration of technology.

It takes time for a structure to grow deep roots in an organization. A mere eighteen months later, Graded’s multi-divisional and multi-discipline PLC structure is beginning to take shape. I never said it was going to be easy, only that it would be worth it. It is with deep gratitude that I read and reflected on the semester’s learning. I look forward to the next round with the same anticipation of predicting how my brother may change the story. Such thoughtful work will forever give me chills.

Big Leaps of Faith

I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why. Because they’re harder. They’re much more stressful emotionally. And you usually go through a period where everybody tells you that you’ve completely failed.

— Steve Jobs

I overheard a conversation between two teachers in the office commenting on how tired they were — “and it’s not even September!” they exclaimed. That brief comment gave me pause and a jolt of panic. Between Accreditation, IB evaluation, the Innovate and Global Issues Network conferences at Graded, and deepening practice around explicit school-wide expectations, have we tackled too much? At first glace, these events and next steps towards improvement are easily within the scope of work we usually investigate. Crafting and implementing the Continuum of Assessment Practices, for example, seemed much more daunting.

But then I started grappling with the difference between improvement and innovation and how we think about the two at Graded School. In brief, I think we can agree that innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better. Where I get stuck is I see improvements across campus that are resulting in doing things differently. And this is why that what I think appears to be next steps are actually big leaps of faith.

For example, the implementation of the Descriptors of Achievement is the result of improving our assessment practices based on what we’ve learned as a community and tighter alignment to IBO assessment philosophy. In practice, however, teachers are turning to one another to get feedback on assessment design and strategies for grading and reporting deep learning that reflects critical thinking and creativity. It’s time consuming. It takes revision. And we’re not even sure it’s always going to work. This would make anyone tired.

But it’s important. Maybe more important than the usual scope of work we’ve done in the past. Because this isn’t only about changing practice, it’s about changing the culture of our learning environment, both for kids and for us. It’s about taking risks because we’ve reached a point where it’s a greater risk not to change.

And it’s about being kind and having fun… and giving ourselves permission to take the time to learn. I go back to the faculty-driven opening questions at least once a week. The one that stands out again and again is How can we be model learners – and show it is a process to be enjoyed?

I invite you to take a deep breath… to recognize we need each other to figure this out… and to jump.

We’ve Got a Runner…

The first days of school definitely started for me in April when I began to pull together the thinking of the Professional Learning Advisory Council (PLAC) and calendar out the key learning structures  for 2012-2013 in advance… but when the “official day” dawns,  I can’t help but be pulled towards the lower school. I am dazzled by the pre-school teachers and their ability to shepherd three-year olds into a classroom, much like herding cats. And every now and then, when walking down the hall in those first few days, you can hear the quick steps of an escaped four-year old running down the hallway, and someone closing in to scoop them up and deliver them safely back to the classroom.

As I was typing up the rich list of questions that emerged from our opening faculty meeting, this same image emerged. How does Graded, the organization, shepherd a vast variety of interests and passions into the classroom, both to inspire teachers and to engage students?  In reflecting on the questions, it is clear that we are a community committed deeply to learning (which seems like a no-brainer for a school). But these questions are different. These questions are about returning to the messiness of finding balance in an educational landscape that continues to become more complex, which means a deep reflection on values.

Listening to the opening remarks at our first faculty meeting, I thought I might faint. Three conferences headed our way (GIN, Innovate and AASSA), and an Advanc-Ed Accreditation and IBO programme evaluation anchoring much of the work. If ever there was a time to reflect, then this is it. If every there was a time to set a course for Graded’s future, then this is it. And as overwhelmed as I know I feel on the second day of school, I know that if ever there was a time to ask good questions and run with an idea, then this is it.

Thank you for inspiring me – and making my head hurt (in good ways). I’m ready for 2012-2013.

Graded Staff Digs In:

Critical Friends Probe for Alignment between Expectations and Unit Design