Entry #6: Informal learning professional learning contexts

I belong to several PLC’s at the different high schools with which I work.  The one I will reflect about is an instructional leadership team (ILT) responsible for changing practices to improve teaching and learning throughout the building.  Their overall success has been emergent over the course of the past couple years.  This has to do in large part  with the different skill-will levels among team members and the challenges the low will-low skill members present in particular.  But the more we work together, the more the team as a whole is deepening its understanding about the work.  One dynamic I wish I could change would be the team’s overall perception of me, along with the principal, as the leader of the PLC.  I’ve always preferred working in the PLC context as a group of equals.  The perception of one person as the leader tends to formalize the dynamic more than I think is necessary — or helpful — for such communities.

Our work this year has centered around extending the PLC structure from the ILT into departments in order to do some deep professional reading and learning around Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach.  The practices of this framework will become the research-based powerful practices teachers will use to teach the school’s targeted instructional area.  Each department meets twice a week biweekly to discuss and process each chapter.  Pairs of teachers lead the discussion either by using one or another Critical Friends text-based discussion protocols or by creating their own process to facilitate the team’s dive.  Now that the initial reading is finished, we are moving into the first formal application stage, infusing the framework strategies into teachers’ classroom practices.

In our last department-level PLC, I applied and extended my learning in this course by facilitating an application of concept mapping.  We attempted to create maps as a means of deepening our thinking about using students’ schemas for knowledge-building.  I spent a few minutes activating teachers’ own schemas, asking them to talk briefly about what they know about and how they have used mind maps & thinking webs in their classrooms.  Click here to see the 10-minute overview of concept mapping and the rest of the session activities.

The session was somewhat successful.  What I wanted to happen was for teachers to participate in a relaxed process of exploring the reading by making and sharing concept maps.  Both the learnings from the session and the maps would be steps along the path of changing practice by implementing Reading Apprenticeship strategies.  Each of three groups (roughly corresponding to a department) presented a map at a point along a continuum of understanding.  If I were assessing the maps with a rubric, I might describe them as Did Not Meet, Emerging, & Proficient.  Not surprisingly, each map corresponded to the level of will/amount of buy-in each department exhibits toward the PLC work in general.  That said, I was glad when the engaged members recognized the differences and noted that two of the groups did not produce concept maps and what they did produce were not helpful in deepening the team’s collective understanding about the work.  This made for a delightfully awkward moment for teachers who demonstrated their resistance by not engaging in the activity as suggested.  The group members who were invested in the professional learning rendered their resistant colleagues’ work inert by focusing solely on the map and ideas of the group that embraced the activity.  For a week after the session several teachers talked about how helpful the activity was as a means of expanding their understanding of the text and thus the kinds of instruction we need to spread throughout the building.

In all, I would say it met with limited success in that it showcased a novel method for meaning-making to which  teachers are not usually exposed.  It proved to me that concept mapping can be used as a professional learning tool to spark interest, deepen thinking, and facilitate rich conversations among teachers.  The session also extended the understanding of the text and practices we want to implement, at least among the teachers who were willing to participate.  I would like to try this again, this time more actively intervening with groups to be sure they create concept maps as opposed to the webs with which they are already so used to working.

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