At Morton Ranch Jr. High we strive to provide quality first time instruction with a passion for the content we are teaching and our student’s success. This high purpose can be for naught if it is not directed at the right target! In Texas, we have been provided a clear set of learning objectives. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) give guidance to the ‘what’ our students are to learn.
The 2013-2014 school year was the third for our Accomplished Teaching Model. During staff development week we discussed our new on-line lesson planning platform, Eduphoria Forethought. We became familiar with the new district unit plans which are designed to provide the scope and sequence for our content areas. We also revisited the Professional Learning Community (PLC) concept as the team structure we use for planning instruction.
The TEKS are central to our work in the State of Texas. Let me give you an example of an 8th grade science TEK:
“The student is expected to differentiate between speed, velocity, and acceleration.”
I want to focus on this specific target to make a point that many teachers miss. Too often, we focus on the bolded part of this objective, “The student is expected to differentiate between speed, velocity, and acceleration.” This is the content of what we are to teach and students are to learn. Considering ourselves informed, we go in search of activities that allow us to memorize the speed formula, calculate velocity and recognize acceleration. While these are all worthy endeavors, they are not completely on target. The master teacher sees the learning target in this way, “The student is expected to DIFFERENTIATE between speed, velocity, and acceleration. “ The verb is critical to the target! It speaks to the level of thinking and understanding necessary for success. For a student to differentiate these concepts, we are pushing them to higher levels of cognition. The student must analyze and develop an understanding of the relationship between the three. When a teacher is masterful at their craft, they are purposeful in designing engaging learning experiences related to the entire learning target, including the verb. As important as it is to learn about motion concepts, one might argue that it is more important to learn how to think! For my Texas friends, check out the app pictured below as an easy reference to the standards.
In my district, our curriculum experts and select teachers, have organized the TEKS into what we call unit plans. Our unit plans are like a scope and sequence on steroids! They are created in a modified Understanding by Design (UbD) format. I am ever impressed by the work put into designing these documents. My belief is that this resource-rich, high quality curriculum is one of the reasons Katy ISD is a high performing district. I am a fan of the UbD approach because it recognizes and identifies enduring understandings that students should take away from classroom experiences that can sometimes are confused by the trivial. The essential questions are thought provoking and a model for how teachers can create a platform for high level thinking. Our unit plans give order to the content story we tell in our classrooms.
In my opinion, there is no group on a campus that will dictate the success of students more than grade-level content PLCs. This is where the rubber meets the road, instructionally speaking. This is an area that received the most attention for our staff professional development during the 2013-2014 school year. Frankly, it is still a work in progress. The professional learning community (PLC) concept hit my radar in 2005 when I was involved in a book study of the title, “Whatever It Takes” (DuFour, Dufour, Eaker and Karhanek). The PLC concept appealed to me because it shifted the focus from teacher behavior to student learning. The four critical PLC questions are a simple but powerful guide for functional collaborative teams who are passionate about student success.
- What is it we expect our students to learn?
- How will we know when they have learned it?
- How will we respond when some students do not learn?
- How will we respond when some students already know it?
When used by a true PLC, these questions lend clarity to our learning targets, assessment, intervention and differentiation. Unfortunately, many teams have not evolved to become professional learning communities. Let’s look at a fictional non-example to lend clarity to this dilemma.
A 7th grade content team that is comprised of 5 teachers has a common planning time at 4th period. They have committed to meet every Tuesday to plan. Members have agreed to start 5 minutes after the tardy bell so that everyone can take care of their personal needs. The full team is typically not fully gathered until 10 minutes after the bell, with one team member that is usually the last to arrive. The team does not have a clear agenda and begins the conversation for next week’s planning by looking at the activities that they did last year. There is a limited discussion about what activities would be best and most commit to the activities. At this point the conversation shifts to delegating tasks. One team member agrees to make copies. Another team member agrees to input the lesson plans electronically for the group. The team is friendly and has little conflict. On the occasion when the team does not finish planning, there is rarely a plan to meet again during the week until the job gets done. During instruction, some of the members of the team opt out of teaching the agreed upon activities. They use alternates that they have a personal preference for. When common assessments are given, the team’s follow up data conference finds low levels of instructional conversation and personal accountability. Rather than reflect on instruction, the majority of time is spent discussing “bad test questions,” and a lack of student effort on assessment. Comparison of teacher data is low-level or nonexistent. When obvious learning targets have been missed, little attention is given to how the team will address these gaps. Frequently the answer is to spiral the missed content into future instruction as the primary means of remediation. No thought is given to ongoing assessment of the learning target that was missed. The unspoken attitude is, “We are moving on.”
So here lies our great challenge. How do we move dysfunctional teams to instructionally focused PLCs? How can we move from delegation of tasks to collaboration about instruction? Here are areas that I think will move your teams down the continuum:
1) Expect each team to establish norms and hold each other accountable to meeting the shared agreements.
2) Have each team reflect on where they are in the journey and work to provide clarity about what a PLC is and is not. A great resource for this is the workbook, “Learning by Doing” (Dufour, Dufour, Eaker and Many).
3) Help teachers to understand that being vulnerable and transparent is necessary in the PLC and expected. Share Brene Brown’s work the the power of vulnerability. Vulnerability is perhaps the truest form of courage. Her book “Daring Greatly” is a read that will shift the way one sees the world.
4) Model and expect a shift from shift from congeniality to collegiality. Simply being nice to one another without real talk about what needs to shift get us nowhere.
5) Provide administrative or other support to meet with the PLC teams. Instructional coaches or administrators who have experience in the content area can potentially be huge resources for a PLC. Their role is to be present during planning time as a support and a liaison to resources. They should not lead the meeting. Investing in our teams is a critical function for support staff.
6) For especially difficult situations, take the team through a book study of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (Lencioni)
The primary director of content is the state. The primary director of the sequence and supporting resources for the content is the district. We leave the instructional design decisions up to our teachers. Teams and specifically PLCs provide the synergy to ensure that we get more than the sum of the individuals sitting around the table to make those decisions. It is with great faith and hope that I believe our teachers have the will and skill to lead our students to success. My role, as the principal, is to provide the appropriate pressure and support to move our campus forward.