Adapting the PLC Framework for Small Schools
The professional learning communities approach (a collaborative focus on learning with the yardstick for success being the results obtained) resonates with so many educators right off the bat. Sometimes, however, making it happen in your school can seem overwhelming. This is especially true when your school, at first glance, appears significantly different from other schools.
The White Pine High School team that attended a PLC conference during the summer of 2004 felt this way. While the philosophies, strategies, and suggestions made at the conference resonated with all who attended, we quickly ran into some problems. Most of these problems stemmed from the fact that being a small school (420 students), we found it difficult to adopt the common assessment framework so important to PLCs because there was only one teacher of English 9, one teacher of Biology 1, one teacher of Geometry, and so on. Since the “focus on learning” questions are centered on common assessments (What do we want our students to learn? How will we know when they’ve learned? What will we do when students do not learn?), we struggled to understand how to adapt this framework with limited numbers of job-alike teachers to collaborate.
However, we felt strongly enough about the benefits associated with collaboratively focusing on learning that we decided to learn by doing. We formed content teams as most schools do—English, math, social studies, science, career and technical education, fine arts, and foreign language. Even though the teachers on these teams taught multiple singleton courses, the teachers developed common essential outcomes for their classes. Rather than being content driven, the essential outcomes focused on the common skills that students were expected to learn while in the classes taught by the teachers on the team. For example, the social studies team developed essential outcomes like “Students will read and interpret historical text by inferring, predicting, drawing conclusions, and formulating questions” and “Students will relate situations in the past to situations today.” The fine arts team developed essential outcomes like “Students will communicate to their audience using expression.” The career and technical education team developed essential outcomes like “Students will demonstrate employability skills through effective communication, work habits, and problem solving.”
These common skills based on essential outcomes allowed teachers to then craft common assessments that addressed students’ levels of proficiency and progression. In English classes, for example, the common assessment focused on persuasive writing, a skill that all members of the English team felt was important. Rather than being a content-based assessment that gauged students’ progress in a specific course, the common assessment measured all students’ persuasive writing progress. This allowed the English team to engage in the dialogue that occurs as a result of the common assessment approach—asking questions like “What are we going to do with our struggling writers? Why did the students in this class outperform all of the others? What strategies did my colleagues use to promote student success on the assessment? How can we stretch the students who have already demonstrated proficiency?”
An analogy that helped us understand how to focus on what we did have in common stemmed from the math team. When math students try to add fractions, they must find the least common denominator. With such a small staff, it was not possible to have true collaboration among all of the world history teachers (there’s only one!). So we had to find the least common denominator among world history, U.S. history, government, and other social studies courses. Once this least common denominator was found and we understood what we had in common, we could collaborate about learning in meaningful ways. It has also allowed teachers, who sometimes felt their content was sacred, to focus on skills that are in alignment with our school-improvement plan and our mission of helping students prepare for life in the real world.