Mark Weichel

Mark Weichel, EdD, an assistant superintendent, is a former high school building administrator and junior high school teacher who played a vital leadership role as his school transformed into a successful PLC.

Innovation: The Key to Engagement and Enrichment

Albert Einstein once wrote, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

Yet, a recent Gallup survey shows that nationally, only one-third of teachers in the United States are engaged and committed to the work they do. The engagement data for students is only slightly more promising. In 2013, Gallup reported approximately 55 percent of students nationally are engaged, demonstrating involvement and expressing enthusiasm for school.

How do we increase the engagement score for both students and teachers? I believe school professional learning communities are one way to “awaken joy” for learning in both teachers and students.

The PLC concept is nothing new. The key components of a PLC include collaboration, student learning, and a focus on results, which are clear and well documented. Great PLC teams focus on the following four questions: What is it we expect our students to learn? How we will know when they have learned it? How will we respond when some students do not learn? and How will we respond when some students already know it? When teams are organized around these key areas and focus on the four critical questions, great things happen.

I have seen wonderful examples of model teams who have worked together to make significant changes that have positively impacted student learning. I watched a middle school math team humbled by a set of state math testing results. A year later, this team, focusing on the four critical questions, turned around those results. They focused their attention on understanding indicators, developing common assessments, using information from the assessments to make adjustments to instruction, and creating an intentional intervention plan for struggling students. Their focused commitment was the key to their success.

This brings me back to the beginning of this blog. Increasingly, I have wondered if PLCs serve another purpose. When teachers take the time to discuss classroom instruction, should they also discuss innovation?

In Omaha Westside Community Schools, we have just completed a visioning process with a design team, staff, and the community. As part of this process, we learned that our community is excited about our teachers being innovative and trying new things. As a result, we are flexing our PLC process. Next year, our teams will still be allotted blocks of time to meet for what could be considered traditional PLC meetings. However, Westside is also providing time and support for teams to have intentional conversations about innovation and engagement, qualities that are inherent to our district vision.

We are already seeing the results of these types of conversations in our schools. For example, this year three of our elementary schools have developed a pilot program for schoolwide enrichment. Activities like students building their own video game while learning about math and programming could not be done without time for PLC teams to discuss these innovations. One of the building principals recently shared with me that the student buzz on enrichment days in the hallways is palpable. Students are repeatedly thanking her for the enrichment activities, proclaiming that school is so much fun! Teachers are revitalized and engaged too.

We hope to increase innovations like this one at Westside. By creating this mixed model, we are allowing Westside teachers to continue having conversations about learning while challenging them to develop innovations that will engage both themselves and our students.

Comments

Amber Freeman

Mark, I enjoyed reading your article. I am looking to set up a professional learning community in my school. You have a great idea for a basis of conversation. I can add creating innovation in instruction as one of my bullet points for discussion. I feel like the more diverse instruction is and the more we keep students engaged, the more they will learn. This is important and requires extensive research and constant self-learning without peer-helping techniques. I am excited to start a PLC at my school so that we can better innovate instruction for an increase in learning. Thanks for your ideas.
Amber

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DEBORAH WATSON-SMALL

Mark,

This article is very informative and certainly encourages me to continue to search within and the wider professional learning community to find what work for students, yielding the best possible learning outcomes. The teaching and learning process is dynamic not robotic. Most importantly, it the end result that matters rather than the process. Notwithstanding that process is important, however, successes are more often achieved through unorthodox methods.

“If teachers are to develop as intellectuals, having to engage in what maybe disquieting dialogue is part of the price to be paid. In the end, this kind of dialogue ‘hard talk’ is a prerequisite both for developing the intellectual community that is desperately needed in schools and for imaging different possibilities for teachers and their students” (Cochran-Smith, 1997; Nieto, 2003).

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Christie Spohn

Mark,

Thank you for sharing. Our school also uses the four questions and student work to drive our PLCs and we find them highly effective. One area our teachers constantly want more information about is enrichment. Where have you found strong models or ideas to guide your planning of the enrichment activities you mentioned? Just reading this blog has inspired me to Google search ideas for quality enrichment activities.

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Tammy Hein

Mark,
I enjoyed your article. I have been reading a lot lately about the importance of PLC. Our school is beginning to see the importance of it also and implementing some time in the day for collaboration. I am very excited and hope it is productive time to make a difference in our classrooms.


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SMachart

Mark,
Thanks for sharing! When teachers collaborate powerful things can happen. Teachers see a need and look for ways to help students learn. How can I find out more about these pilot programs?

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David Pettit

Mark,
Excellent post. It is exciting to hear that teachers are collaborating not only on student data and getting students to meet instructional goals, but also on ways to truly engage them in curriculum. I as well believe that the role of the PLC is to constantly by creating and changing the way that instruction takes place to further engage students. Research continually shows that if students are engaged they are learning at a high level. Continue the good work!

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Julie Schmidt

Mark,
Thanks for sharing! What a powerful concept!

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