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Each All Things PLC blog post author has been personally invited to contribute by the All Things PLC committee. All contributing experts have firsthand experience successfully implementing the PLC at Work™ process.


A Physics PLC: Collaboration at a Distance

This year my school district, like many others, implemented PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) as the driving force behind how we collaborate to help students learn. The directive was that all teachers should meet in a PLC weekly for approximately 30 minutes. This sounds, and can be, great, but I had a problem.

You’re Gonna Need Some Background Info

For 7 years I had been the only physics teacher. This year I took on technology integration half-time, and in addition we have more physics sections, so there are now three of us who teach physics part time. The other two also teach math and chemistry. When the PLC directive came out I was excited to have someone to work with, finally. However, it was not to be. All three of us each teach a different course (I teach a college level course, the math teacher has regular physics, and the chem teacher has ‘applied’ physics, essentially a conceptual class). Since none of us teach the same course and PLC work was important with the other courses those teachers were teaching, they both decided to go with their other courses. Great, I’m a singleton. Again.

Enter Twitter. I’ve been on Twitter almost two years now, and I have learned more on Twitter in these two years than the previous six, which included a masters degree. Among other things I have managed to build a pretty awesome PLN (Personal Learning Network) that includes a couple hundred incredible physics and math teachers from around the country. In particular, the physics Modeling Instruction community is active and extremely helpful on Twitter. So I decided I’d try to find out if there was anyone else in the same boat as I, or anyone else who simply wanted to use student work to inform instruction. I posted a short tweet with a link to a Google doc with this request;

My name is Casey Rutherford. I am entering teaching for the 8th year, my 7th teaching physics, and my first using Modeling Instruction. I have a relatively odd request.
My school is implementing PLCs, certainly a worthy task. The problem is that at this point there is not a logical person with whom I would form a PLC. Thus my request. I am wondering if any of you would like to form an online PLC with me, working together approximately 30 minutes/week to compare student work. My thought is that we can do a lot with formative assessments, using photos of student whiteboards to form the basis for our conversations. I am, however, open to other ideas as well.
I am very interested in Standards Based Grading as well; however, this particular class is articulated through the University of Minnesota (in fact, it is U of MN Physics 1101 and they get a college transcript upon completing the course), and thus I am not able to implement SBG for this course. It is the only class I am teaching this semester due to a new half-time gig as a technology integration specialist. Thus I think I would like to focus on the impact of modeling on student learning.

I was blown away from the response. Initially I had over 10 people who were interested (ok, so it’s not like that’s hundreds, but I didn’t know if anyone would!). We spent a couple of weeks trying to accommodate multiple, mutually exclusive, schedules. I must admit I got a bit caught up in wanting to include the masses; I thought it was fun that so many people thought this was something worthwhile. However, at some point Kelly, who ended up in the core group, said that this really only made sense if it was something one could attend regularly.

Duh. PLC. Norms, relationships, student work.

The Core Group

We ended up with a core group of six of us.

This group is both diverse and similar. All of us use Modeling as our primary mode of instruction. We are all at least open to Standards Based Grading, if not practicing it. We are all already on Twitter and thus relatively connected to the larger physics education community. We all like to learn and to work towards increasing student learning.

On the other hand, we all teach in very different settings. Fran, Matt, and I teach in very different public schools in Minnesota, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. Kelly teaches at a private boarding school in Delaware Leah at a private, girls, Jewish high school in New York City, and Meg at a public charter school in upstate New York. That diversity of perspective has been awesome.

The Hangout

We typically meet on Thursday nights for about an hour, though that time frame is flexible depending on what people bring to look at. When we started we thought that despite teaching in different settings with different classes that we could try doing some common formative assessments. We developed a formative assessment for constant velocity motion, and a number of us assigned it to our students. We then took a week to look at the data for the first teacher who was already ahead of the rest of us. It was pretty fascinating that the students were using a particular reference, ‘the motion detector’, in answering the questions despite the fact that no detector was mentioned in the problem. It turned out they had done much of the development of the concept using motion detectors, thus they thought of detectors as a universal reference point. Turns out looking at student work informs instruction!

In the next week or two after we then looked at other teachers’ students answers, but there was a problem. The sheer amount of information from the Google Form was pretty overwhelming. We spent a significant amount of time just sifting through it and trying to get the other PLC members to see the same cell. We did some color coding, but didn’t have a very well-defined system.

A Different Way to Analyze Student Work

We fairly organically decided that it would be easier, especially because of very different pacing for our different classes, to simply have volunteers ‘bring’ student work to look at for each meeting. Thus whenever I give a quiz I scan or take a picture of some examples that represent common or interesting mistakes students made on the quiz. Others do the same. Not only do we get the chance to see how each others students are responding to similar questions (it really helps here that we all use, at the core, the Modeling Instruction curriculum), but we can discuss how to best help students avoid pitfalls and misunderstandings. A typical night starts with a check in on how things are going and, often, advice for someone who is struggling with something. Then someone posts a link to a quiz and we take a minute or two to look over it. Someone notices something, and discussion ensues. As discussion slows on one quiz someone posts another. There is no rule or defined procedure here, but it seems to work well.

Often these quizzes lead to discussions on instructional techniques. One week Kelly was sharing her thoughts on having students use vector addition diagrams rather than the traditional use of components, for solving force problems. She then opened a shared Google Drawings window and demonstrated their usefulness. I introduced this diagram to my kids the next day and was blown away by how much they liked it. Collaboration for the win!
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Building Relationships

Since the start of our gatherings I’ve thought a lot about Kelly’s statement that it would make more sense with a regular group. As we’ve been meeting for almost half a year now, I have found that I’ve become very comfortable with the other members. It’s humbling and sometimes embarrassing to share work that your students produced that is not perfect. A great PLC meets those imperfections with empathy and advice rather than with judgement. We’re all in this together, and all students make mistakes. In fact, one thing that I have become more convinced of as a result of our meetings is that the very process of making mistakes is essential to learning. Lots of research in science education, physics in particular, points to the idea that in order to learn and retain scientific reasoning, students must first wrestle with the dissonance between their own thinking and scientific explanations. (citations needed, I know; call me out if you want and I’ll dig some up for you!) Anyway, the point is that as teachers it is hard to open up and be vulnerable, but the so far my experience is that my learning about student learning has been very worth it.

One highlight for me was that when I was in the NYC area over winter break I was able to meet Leah in person for coffee. It is really fun getting a chance to meet someone in person whom you previously only knew in an online environment! I look forward to continue to build relationships with my PLC, and I hope to meet more of them in person eventually.

Why G+ Hangouts

G+ hangouts were a natural choice for us. We all had Google accounts already, and G+ allows us to video chat, share documents, chat on the side (which also helps in posting links to student work stored in Dropbox, Evernote, or Drive), and even to use Google Drawings or screenshare. G+ also allows for recording hangouts, but we have not done that as there was consensus that recording would take away from the ‘safe harbor’ aspect of the meeting. There are certainly other options to G+; the Global Physics Department uses an enterprise version of Blackboard Collaborate and the Global Math Department uses Big Marker. We never even considered anything else, however, as G+ hangouts has performed as well as we need it to.

At the End of the Day…

What’s better about my teaching now? So far this year my PLC meetings have resulted in changes in unit placement, improvements in teaching specific topics, additions of representations to help student visualizations, improvements in my understanding of student misconceptions, and an overall increase in the big picture view of learning physics through a cyclic treatment of the various models (rather than treating topics as isolated units). I can only imagine what further meetings will lead to!


Sherri Torkelson

Hi Casey,

I'm excited to hear about your virtual PLC! I work with 20+ school districts as the CTE coordinator, and almost every one of the teachers I work with is a "one of a kind" in his/her district. Many of their schools implement PLCs and I've started looking at how I can connect them virtually. You've given me some great ideas! If you have any articles, suggestions, etc, to help move this forward that you're willing to share, that would be awesome. Thanks!


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