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PLCs At Work– Understanding the Big Picture

Last week, I attended the PLC At Work Institute by Solution Tree in St. Charles, MO. Before I fill you in on the conference, I’ll let you know that St. Charles is a historic, unique little place just outside of St. Louis. Our group really enjoyed all of the locally owned and operated shops and restaurants in the area. Though we stayed at the hotel connected to the conference center, it was easy to get the hotel shuttle back and forth to Main Street to enjoy the town’s offerings each evening. We dined at Trailhead Brewing Co., Tony’s steakhouse and Hendricks BBQ and enjoyed them all. 

Now, on to the good stuff! Our district has only just begun our “PLC journey” (as it was called throughout the week) so I came to St. Charles ready to learn. After hearing from a number of PLC “gurus” I feel as though I have wrapped my brain around a few big ideas that weren’t necessarily clear to me from my district’s initial roll-out of this concept–

  • Professional Learning Communities are a structure used by many schools to guide collaboration and ensure student learning.
  • The focus is on student learning. No matter what.
  • The 4 guiding questions used by a PLC are not an agenda but are the driving force of the work.
  • The work of a PLC centers around a growth mindset– students and teachers are always learning more and working towards success.

The presenters throughout the week said many of these points much more eloquently than I did here but these were my basic take aways. Overall, it makes a lot of sense why districts, buildings, and teacher teams would embrace this concept. It is a focus on student learning while working in a collaborative environment. In my mind, if you think about the PLC process as a structure, just like a structure you would use in your classroom to guide group work for instance, it is no longer another “thing” but a strategy. It is a way to guide collaboration of teachers with the sole purpose of helping kids learn. Presenter Anthony Muhammed said, “PLC is just a way of doing business. Think about it as the operating system for your computer– it organizes the work.” That’s it.

It is my understanding that there is a lot of freedom within form that wasn’t necessarily clear at our school last year. I think we all got tied to the 4 questions as more of an agenda and that limited the discussions that were had during our PLC work time. I also think that the connection between our work in our PLCs and RTI was lacking. In my opinion, questions 3 & 4 (what will we do if they don’t know it? If they already do?) were the “nice to knows/do” versus the driving force of our time together. Now that I have attended the Institute, I understand that a PLC structure is a way for teachers to work together to ensure that all students are learning at high levels no matter what skills they come to the table with. Though we need to be very clear on what it is we want our students to learn (which our district is working on right now through curriculum collaboration work) the real focus of our work time together must center around the students in our classrooms and how to get them to succeed at high levels.

It made sense to me that we would start thinking about “our” students as a group instead of comparing class averages that belong to the teacher. The idea is to find students that need extra help and give it to them– no matter who their teacher is. Here’s a taste of a few of the powerful statements that were made throughout the week–

  • “Are we talking about success for all or success for some?” – Tim Brown
  • “If you wait for kids to fail, they will.” – Mike Mattos
  • “They built this school so that students have a place to learn… not so that I can teach.” – Mike Mattos
  • “Are the decisions we are making right here and right now what is best for students or most convenient for us?” – Luis Cruz

As you can see, what really hit home for me was the big picture of committing to PLCs. My hope is that our district will send teacher teams to the conference in the future. More focused ideas from the institute to come. I will be attending a district training on PLCs next week and will try to share info gleaned from it, as well. Want more tidbits from the Institute? Search the hashtag #atPLC on Twitter and check out the resources at for loads of quotes, ideas, reproducibles, and more.



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Motivation vs. Discipline, KWL-H, & Social/Emotional Curriculum

I attended a professional training called High Ability Bootcamp held by my district last week. Here are a few tidbits that I gleaned that could be relevant in any content area or any level, as many of these could be beneficial to all students.

Motivation vs. Discipline– As middle school teachers we often struggle with students that just aren’t doing the work. It can be tough to differentiate between a student that is being a discipline problem and one that struggles with motivation as they often look the same in our eyes. Here are a few descriptors that were shared from Diane Heacox to help you determine which case you are dealing with and what to do to help–

Discipline issue:

  • Disrupts learning of others
  • Disrupts the flow of the lesson
  • Damages property
  • Poses a physical or emotional threat to others

Motivation issue:

  • Low self-confidence (general or academic)
  • Low expectations of success
  • Lack of interest
  • Fear of failure or success

If you are dealing with a student having trouble with discipline be sure to work with your counselors, administrators, parents, and any other stakeholders to create plans to ensure that this student is having his/her needs met and for their academic success. I have loads of information on working with students from trauma that might be helpful– just ask if you’re interested.

If the student is struggling with motivation, which can often be seen in high ability students, here are a few areas to address–

  • Autonomy– Choice and time flexibility are sometimes the key for an unmotivated student. Think about utilizing tools like learning menus that allow students to choose their “path” of learning and when they complete activities.
  • Mastery– Some students are reluctant to start if they don’t feel that they will receive a “perfect” score. Think about chunking or working with small successes before moving up to the larger assignment.
  • Purpose– For some students the “why” is essential. Take a look at this clip Michael Jr: Know Your Why.
  • Belonging– It can be difficult to make connections with students that aren’t doing their work but can really pay off in the end. Talk with them about what interests them. Ask their opinion. Ask for their assistance. Compliment them on something other than academics.

Carolyn Chapman has a number of strategies and resources for working with unmotivated students that are also worth taking a look at.

KWL-H– Many of us have used KWL charts in the past. Students begin a lesson by filling the “K” column with words, phrases, opinions, etc. that they already have or know about the given topic. They also fill the “W” with any wonders or want to knows. Ultimately they would then fill the “L” with new knowledge learned during the unit. This tip is to add an “H” column to this organizer indicating how students plan to learn the information or skill that is the focus of the unit. Think about preparing a list of possible activities at the beginning of the year but then allowing students to create their own once routines and expectation have been established. Choices that you could include on a learning menu would be great to list here– online research, books, sketchnotes, organizers, create a video, use a textbook, make a mind map, etc.

Social/Emotional Curriculum– One characteristic of high ability students, and middle school students as a whole, is emotional sensitivity. Think about incorporating some of those “life lessons” that we often learn the hard way into your lesson planning. Check out this feature from Pottermore.comHow Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Tackled Bullying (you thought you were going to get a post without mention of HP!). Also think about having students journal or draw about how they feel as bellwork or a wrap-up for the lesson. Maybe have a discussion about the emotions that were prevalent in a story, historical event or time period, artwork, photograph, etc. that is tied to your lesson/content.

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Reflection– Student Feedback, Video, & Blogging

The end of the school year is often a time of reflection. We think back on the year and all that it brought with mixed emotions. How did this year go? What will I do again next year? What will I definitely refrain from doing again? Though I know the last thing many teachers want to think about is the start of school in August, when all we need is a break, here are a few ideas on reflection to check out for implementation next year.

Feedback From Students– One way to gather some useful feedback, and have students reflect on their experience in your class, is to have students complete a course evaluation at the end of the 9 weeks, semester, or year. Take a look at a few feedback forms from The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt College to get you started. I personally like “B” & “C” because they provide a little more focused information. Think about utilizing your teacher evaluation rubric to guide you in creating your own. I will never forget when receiving feedback from my students early in my career how surprised I was to see that they wanted me to be “more strict.” Or that my favorite units/projects were students’ least favorite. Not only do you get the honest truth from your students but occasionally you get a comment or two that makes all of the tough days worth it.

Think About Video– Please don’t start sweating and shaking your head “no” as you read this. One great way to reflect on your teaching and gain useful feedback is to video record part of a class period. I know you may be getting flashbacks to college courses where you had to check out a camcorder and you may still even have your VHS tapes tucked away on a dusty shelf somewhere. But I think this is a worthy idea to consider. Here’s why–

  • Video allows you to get a true picture of what is actually happening in your classroom. It is difficult to see and hear all that is happening in a busy classroom when you are in the thick of it. Why not see what your evaluator sees when he/she walks into the room?
  • You are able to create a worthwhile goal to improve your practice– not something that is just another box to check off before the end of the year. When you watch your classroom on video you are able to see areas of potential improvement that are relevant and meaningful to you and your students.
  • Use your video to create meaningful dialogue between you and your instructional coach. Instead of using your coach as purely a “resource finder” put them to work for you. When you have identified a need he/she can work with you to select strategies and ideas to implement that are specific to that need. He/she can also model, observe, and provide ongoing feedback to help you reach the goal you have created.

Think about it. Remember that your video is for you and no one else. Watching the first few times can be tough– I now know my voice is weird, I nod my head a lot,  and I play with my earrings when I’m nervous (among other faults). Ugh. But, the gain is totally worth the pain.

Blogging– Check out some of these sites and think about getting started with your own blog. It might sound like just another thing to add to the to-do list but I think it is worth looking into. Not only does a blog give you a chance to share tips, tricks, ideas, etc. with other educators (we learn the most from each other!) but it also gives you a chance to reflect on your current practice. Sitting down weekly, distilling all of the weeks activities, lessons, strategies, and ideas down into a story, step-by-step, or collection of tidbits forces you to look at what you are doing and why you are doing it. Not much of a writer? Don’t worry! Think about what you want from a blog– useful info, great ideas, and  relevance.

Happy summer break to all! Just a quick note– I will be posting throughout the summer though posts may be a little less regular. Thanks for reading!