PLC Teams Work Hand in Hand with Literacy
There are plenty of good reasons to shape your school’s culture into that of a Professional Learning Community at Work™. However, I want to highlight how these big ideas provide a real punch that empowers literacy instruction in every team they touch.
In virtually every school, literacy instruction (usually reading and writing) is considered a top goal. Reinforced by common sense as well as high-stakes standardized testing, school leaders preach the importance of literacy improvement to a friendly congregation; we all agree that it is a cornerstone to our profession.
Yet too many students fail to acquire these skills, and too many teachers find that trying their hardest yields the same result year after year. It can leave a teacher feeling overwhelmed and mumbling, “I’m not a reading teacher,” to all who will listen as they turn toward the more friendly task: learning the content knowledge.
But the story doesn’t end there, because students aren’t databases or encyclopedias; they need to access and apply knowledge. Their literacy skills become the engine that drives their learning. Fortunately, the PLC at Work model helps collaborative teams discover this truth and spark the professional growth that teachers need to improve, step-by-step over a career, as teachers of literacy. Let me illustrate using the four key questions of a PLC (but especially the first two).
Q1: What do we want students to know?
Knowing that we don’t have time to teach everything in a subject, teams need to prioritize. Clearly, there is also not enough time for deep collaboration around anything except what matters most to kids. We must think big and high-leverage for our kids’ future success.
For example, knowing the causes of the civil war, the process of photosynthesis, or how to prepare a business plan—while something we want every student to learn—it will never measure up to “create an argumentative claim and defend it with evidence.” After considering the full set of standards or targets that might be worthy of team focus on a SMART goal, inevitably, literacy resurfaces.
The teacher and team learning then begins. Using standards and our knowledge about our disciplines, we can come up with the outline of what we need. For instance, the CCSS for social studies, science, and technical subjects ask that seventh grade students, “Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2).
We also should consider how reading is used and performed by experts in our disciplines. In health class for example, a student can read an article about the health benefits of exercise and apply an accurate understanding of them to a plan for a simulated client. These resources help us learn to set a literacy course.
Q2: How will we know if they have learned it?
This is the groundbreaking question for teams when it comes to literacy instruction improvement. Because the process of reading is so hidden, we often jump directly to the end results. Was the question answered correctly? Clearly, when the answer is yes, we can award some points and move on.
Unfortunately, we often react the same way if a student’s answer is wrong: no points, and we move on. Yet, there are many paths for a student to stray off track and provide a wrong answer:
- They misread the text
- They don’t pick out key details from the text
- They overlook reasonable inferences from the key details
- They make unreasonable inferences from the key details
- They misread the question … and the list goes on.
The key here is for each team and team member to develop more awareness of where a student is tripping up. Therefore, we should make assessments that reveal student steps and missteps. Then we at least have a chance to help!
Let me make two big suggestions for your work in Q2. First, look over your assessments and ensure there are opportunities for students to “think aloud.” Thoughtful short answer questions work well, and even on a multiple-choice reading test, attaching “explain how you chose your answer” next to a couple key questions allows a peek inside the process a child used. This provides a road for teacher understanding. When a team collaboratively develops these assessments for this purpose, student literacy growth in a building shifts into high gear.
Second, when teams gather to interpret these responses collaboratively—to choose anchors or samples of each score level or each pattern of errors—everyone also learns. There is no magic in how a teacher evaluates these responses—it is all practice looking for clues. Do not be intimidated by a teacher who seems to know it all; with your team you will grow!
Questions 3 and 4
That leads to the final two questions: “What will we do when students have not learned it?” and “What will we do when students have already learned it?” This is where you get to experiment as a team by reacting to the results your students have provided. With a list of the students who made strange inferences based off of the passage and also the list of kids who were thorough and thoughtful, you can react as they need.
When students’ literacy development stops improving, it is because teachers have stalled in their growth—but in teams within a PLC, the keys to restart the engine of growth are nearby. Once your team begins sharing thoughts, questions, and conclusions about student reading and writing performances together as part of the regular team learning cycle around skills, you are back on the road to success.