Kristyan D'Aprano, Karly Law, Lucy Dowell, and Tory Earle, teachers •
Strathmore Secondary College • Strathmore, Australia
Working in PLCs: Reflections on Collaboration From Australia
In 2010, Strathmore Secondary College elected to introduce Professional Learning Communities. On a trial basis these were teams of four or five teachers who were given one period a week as part of their allotment. Teams were formed on the basis of a specific focus year level. For English, it was decided to focus on Year 8.
With the trial considered a success, 2011 saw an expansion to new teams with more teachers involved. For the English faculty this meant a new PLC at Year 9 and a shared PLC (with Humanities) at Year 7. The Year 9 PLC was put together so that three Year 9 teachers could collaborate on the teaching of their classes using the critical questions:
What do students need to know and be able to do?
How will we know when they have learned it?
What do we do if students aren’t getting it?
What do we do if students already know it?
These three Year 9 teachers—Kristyan, Lucy and Tory—were all new to working in a PLC. To aid their transition the fourth member of the team was a Year 8 teacher—Karly Thaw. Not teaching Year 9 gave Karly a different insight into the workings of the PLC and Year 9 curriculum.
Kristyan is the English Faculty leader who is in his fifth year of teaching and is new to the school.
As a new arrival to Strathmore, I was also new to PLCs. At my previous school we had begun with Professional Learning Teams, which were compulsory and were a mixed success. Some years the team I was on were very productive, other years debated tedious and trivial matters of administration and curriculum. Ultimately the teams had become too large and unfocused, the decision was made to collaborate as Teaching Partnerships—with a focus on curriculum writing and classroom observation. The meeting schedules were regularly infrequent and, on the whole, the experience was frustrating with occasional glimmers of hope. (I am not totally negative about the experience—a PLT that had a focus on the use of Interactive Whiteboards and other contemporary tools was a brilliant success that I learned a lot from.) But having a fresh slate, I was keen to see how PLCs would work.
Having attended a two-day institute with Richard and Rebecca DuFour, I was excited about the possibilities and encouraged by the commitment of the principal class to the PLC cause. This seemed to be something they were serious about and something that would be given time to work. We had one period a week in our allotment that could not be touched by extras or other meetings. This was a great sign. The allotted time was not without complications. Our period was on a Monday, which meant we went without on public holidays. There was also a run of days when team members were out for illness or other reasons. I didn’t find this to be a dramatic problem though. Lucy, Tory and Karly were committed to the cause and to a large extent; the idea of the PLC meant the cause was clear and identifiable. We were working to improve our teaching and, subsequently, the learning of our Year 9s. When people missed meetings they were quick to catch up.
It worked best when we were organised and had written agendas well in advance. This meant we all knew the path and could work towards a common goal. We didn’t set goals for the year, though I acknowledge this should be part of the process. Rather, we focused on short-term goals based on the first of the critical questions: What do students need to know and be able to do? With little curriculum documented as a faculty, it became our purpose to document what we were doing using the schools recognised format. This was a challenge in itself. Some units had a plethora of activities available on the shared server so we focused on the newer units—such as Advertising.
By having set time to plan and document our teaching we were able to discuss and debate the key points of the unit that existed as a sentence on the semester reports and a folder on the server. Drawing on our shared knowledge of the topic, we were able to spend a number of weeks distilling the big ideas into a cohesive unit that would open students’ eyes to persuasive text. That we were able to then meet as we taught the unit allowed us to move onto the second question: How will we know when they have learned it? Using activities we had all trialed as individuals we were able to create common assessment tasks and rubrics that could be used by all Year 9 teachers (not just those in the PLC).
This aspect of wider collaboration, it would turn out, was a double-edged sword. The tight focus of our PLC enabled us to work quickly on developing the curriculum and refining it as we went. Sharing this meant that more staff were able to benefit from the team’s good work. The success of the advertising unit in classes not affiliated with the PLC is a testament to this. It did however open up the inevitable question of “Will the PLC be providing an assessment this unit?” which became a crutch in their own classes as they waited to see what the PLC would provide. This is something I would guard against in the future, though if all teachers were in a PLC it would hardly matter.
On reflection we spent most of the year on these first two questions, though did get to the other two at regular intervals, especially when it came to designing and evaluating assessments. In my next PLC I would try to quickly move forward with the curriculum planning and onto the individual lessons. Once there is a set of clear documents the first question is a simple unpacking task before moving into the fun stuff – working on strategies and lessons that will help all students learn. The two questions are designed to support and enrich students who need it allowing the PLC to concentrate more on the teaching of our individual students. To this end, the school’s work with Jane Pollock (One Teacher At A Time) will become more important as PLCs are able to focus on their use of the GANAG lesson schema rather than what they need to teach in the first place.
Lucy is a second year of teacher who taught Year 9 last year.
Working in a PLC this year gave me a much clearer focus for my teaching of Year 9. Having taught the same subject last year, I was already familiar with the topics we were working with, which was a great help to me. Viewing the PLC’s concerns through the lens of my prior experience teaching each unit helped me to make decisions, as I was able to look back on my previous teaching of the curriculum and think about what worked and what needed to be changed in order to improve my students’ learning.
Having only started teaching in 2010, I found the structured approach to collaboration with my colleagues that a PLC offers to be not only convenient but also very supportive. Knowing that we had a regular and specific time set aside each week to plan and discuss the curriculum gave a sense of stability that working alone or only sporadically with others does not offer. The documentation of the work our PLC completed was crucial to its effectiveness as it allowed us not only to keep a record of what we had done, but also share our work with others in the faculty. The work we completed is open to be reevaluated and/or built upon by future PLCs, which is testament to its collaborative nature.
Some of the most helpful work—for me—that Kristyan, Karly, Tory and I completed as part of our PLC was the revision of the ‘Advertising’ unit. My teaching of this unit in 2010 was of mixed success and, looking back, I could see that I had not had a clear enough goal in mind. Making this unit more problematic was the fact that there was no common assessment: my 2010 colleagues and I had administered wildly different tasks, ranging from print ad analysis to TV ad creation. Our PLC managed to narrow the focus of this unit to one Big Idea, accompanied by specific lists of key concepts, skills and vocabulary. The result of this was a unit plan that provided all teachers of Year 9 with a specific set of information and activities to cover each week.
Having access to this plan allowed me to spend more of my own time focusing on how best to teach the content, rather than what content to teach. I think it was also a big help to teachers outside the PLC who had not taught the unit before. The implementation of a common assessment task that was tailored to the Big Idea was a huge step forward in making the ‘Advertising’ unit more successful. We decided on a task that required students to compare and contrast two McDonald’s ads from different eras that promoted different products. Students analysed each ad’s respective elements—e.g. visuals, copy, and target audience—and wrote a comparison of the two. Using two very different ads from the same company allowed us to emphasise how advertising changes over time (along with societal values), and to show the varied ways in which advertisers manipulate their audiences to sell different products. This final assessment task was scaffolded throughout the unit with modeled examples and practice analyses on a variety of print ads, so the students were well prepared.
Creating a common assessment task was important to our PLC as we wanted to ensure all students across Year 9 were learning and applying the same knowledge and skills in order that they approach all future units from a similar base of knowledge. It also gave us the opportunity to compare our respective classes’ assessment tasks upon completion, which was not possible last year due to the broad range of assessments. Working towards a more consistent approach was a key objective of our PLC and this was definitely demonstrated by our work on the advertising unit. One (minor) negative of working in a PLC was that on occasion, our focus for the session was not established until the session had begun. This meant that unless there was something specific to continue on from the previous week, we wasted time at the beginning of the session thinking of what to do; the resultant lack of momentum made it more difficult to work productively. Although this was an infrequent issue, in future, it may be beneficial to make a habit of spending the last few minutes of each PLC setting a clear goal or task for the next. I think this would have helped me as I often found myself not taking initiative or making suggestions unless a goal had already been set. In this regard, it was vital to the PLC’s success that others in the group were assertive and good at making quick decisions. I imagine it would be harder for groups whose members are less proactive to “get going” without already having planned a clear goal for the session.
On the whole, I found working in a PLC to be a very positive experience and something that helped me to organise my teaching more effectively. The work that we did this year will be put to good use next year, as I will continue to use it to guide my teaching.
Tory is a second year teacher who taught Year 9 last year.
Having allocated time in a PLC to collaborate with my peers allowed me to reflect on the what, why and how we are teaching English. This encouraged me to reflect on my own teaching practice as well as the curriculum as a whole. The work we have done has focused on narrowing our teaching focus, identifying specific knowledge and skills that students need to know and developing clear learning goals. Mostly, we have been successful in doing this and it has not only helped students to understand the purpose of the lesson but has definitely helped me to be more focused on the objective too.
We were particularly successful in refining the Poetry unit, identifying the key skills that we wanted students to acquire throughout the unit. As we wanted to consolidate students’ knowledge of how to closely analyse texts we decided to use the ‘Creative Hunt’ strategy which we had used successfully to teach critical literacy in the advertising unit. Having this structural model enabled me to teach deeper analysis of Poetry, looking in particular at the message, audience and purpose. Being in the PLC taught me how to take slower steps in my teaching process in order to ensure all (or more) students understood how to analyse texts. After hearing my peers discuss the importance of breaking down a task like an analysis of a text I realised that this was something that I could improve on through more explicit teaching of the skill. After viewing student samples of following this guided process in the form of the ‘Creative Hunt’ it was clearly evident that more thorough scaffolding had improved the standard of my students’ work significantly. Using the model structure also meant that students could work at their own speed and I could see what progress they were making at each step.
Having the PLC meant that we had more time to create meaningful lesson plans based on the key learning objectives that we had identified at the beginning of the unit. We were then able to discuss how and to what extent the goals were met. After the students had completed their poetry analyses we were able to compare our classes’ outcomes and identify which areas needed improvement. In my class’ results it was clear that I needed to emphasise the role of poetic devices in enhancing the meaning of the poem as for many students this was the area in which they were lacking. I will keep this in mind for next year.
On reflection we also discussed that this gap could also be due to the holidays occurring within our teaching of the topic. The other thing I feel we could improve on for next year was the inclusion of more Aboriginal poetry and better pre-teaching of the background information for the final assessment. With the National Curriculum in mind this has been another focus of discussion in terms of how we can integrate the three new strands into our curriculum successfully. In future PLCs this could be a stronger focus, in terms of working backwards from the benchmarks rather than trying to fit them into pre-existing curriculum, although I suppose for practicality it needs to be a combination of both. In future PLCs it would be good to have more time to work on developing lesson plans using the GANAG schema and on varying the way and order in which we present the different parts.
I still have difficulty differentiating between goals that relate to declarative and procedural knowledge and in working out how often the goal should be skills based, such as learning how to summarise or to structure a paragraph. Once we are clearer about the curriculum that is being taught the PLCs would also be a great opportunity to discuss teaching pedagogy and even to incorporate some peer observation, particularly for graduate and younger teachers. Overall the PLC has been a practical and extremely valuable process in which useful curriculum changes, lesson planning and reflection took place. I always felt that my peers valued my opinion. The process has improved my teaching practices and the planning process for my own lessons significantly.
Karly’s Reflection - An outsider’s perspective
Karly is the Assistant English Coordinator and a fifth year teacher who has been in a PLC before.
I was a little apprehensive joining this PLC, as I wasn’t teaching Year Nine English. Being part of a PLC before, I was already sold on how valuable they are and understood that they reduce your workload and significantly improve your practice. I wasn’t so sure it would work like this, as I was the ‘outsider’. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.
Although it didn’t help me as much with my every day lesson planning, many of the ideas we discussed in the PLC translated directly to other classes I was teaching. This was particularly the case when we were both trying to engage students with Shakespearian texts. Having conversations about what we wanted students to take from the text definitely coloured the way I taught Macbeth. I tried to share the resources and ideas amongst the Year 10 team as much as I could. This will be beneficial to the Year Nines going into Year Ten next year, as some of the skills and ideas we covered will be built on.
While I agree with Kristyan that we focused mainly on the first two questions:
What do students need to know and be able to do?, and How will we know when they have learned it?
I feel that being clear about this is vital before you can move into
What do we do when students aren’t learning?, and What do we do with students that already know?
I have a great deal of admiration and respect for all the teachers I work with. I think all teachers have the best intentions and teach our students with passion and enthusiasm. The disadvantage of being such a large school and faculty is that we are all teaching great stuff, but not necessarily sequentially or in a way that allows students to consolidate information. I can see what a big impact the PLC has had on this issue in only one year. What was particularly pleasing was to see how others, who weren’t officially involved in the PLC, embraced the resources we produced and worked in a more collaborative way. Although this did put pressure on the PLC at times, to produce work for all, it was a positive and pleasing change in the culture of the group. When we are having conversations about how to help those who aren’t learning and extend those who already know, it’s so important to be clear about what it is that we expect. I don’t think you can develop clear ideas about this by simply reading curriculum documents. The discussions we have in PLC help you to be confident about what it is that you are looking for. As everyone develops clear ideas about what it is they are trying to make students understand, I feel the conversation will flow naturally towards were we need to go, as long as we are mindful of this. Once again, being involved in a PLC has been a wholly positive experience. I am very grateful that the school has made this a priority and will continue to support it in whatever way I can.
Note from Rick DuFour:
Congratulations to these teachers who have been the pioneers of working collaboratively in their school in Australia. It is important to note, however, that this school is not yet functioning as a PLC. Collaboration is not an expectation, but remains optional in their school. Some teachers are working to clarify outcomes and create common assessments and others merely utilize the products of their work. Even if the essential outcomes, lesson planning, and common assessments created by this group of volunteers are all excellent, it is the process of working together to create the products and not merely the products themselves that contribute to the ongoing professional learning of educators.
These four teachers have led the way in demonstrating the benefits of collaboration in their school. If, however, participation remains optional and the school does nothing to create the structures to support collaboration for all teachers and systems of intervention and enrichment for all students, the school will never become a PLC. I hope the example they have set in their very effective pilot will convince the faculty that the PLC process should become the norm for all educators in their school.