Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Grade/Subject Level PLCs Aren't Enough

I'm exceptionally lucky to work with amazing English teachers on a daily basis. I have been shocked at the level of passion that these teachers have, even after 20 years. However, I rarely get the opportunity to discuss lessons and ideas with all of them.

My school requires that we meet with our PLC once per week during our off periods. This time is usually spent sharing and creating, critiquing and praising. It's a time that's always very interesting to me as a new teacher. I usually develop ideas, borrow resources, and, sometimes on really good days, feel a bit better about what I do in the classroom. And as much as I do enjoy meeting with this's just not enough. Luckily, a lot of people agree with that.

When I began working at my school, there was already a group in place that called themselves the Writing Team thanks to our department head Chad Cooley. This team works vertically in order to better develop an expectation at each grade level of where students should be. This team meets completely voluntarily after school about once a month/once every 2 months. We've spent this year laying out a plan that I think will be great for the department that we're going to try next year. We're focusing on creating a "toolkit" that students will become familiar with throughout high school - in academic vocabulary, worksheets, handouts, and assignments - so that things don't need to be constantly retaught due to a misundertanding rather than not understanding the content. It's an exciting process, and it's one of the things that I believe will truly make a difference in shaping our school and building our students' writing skills.

Two of our principals, Jennifer Hogan and Carrie Busby (@jennifer_hogan, @hhsbusby), have begun a new team that will work on literacy in all areas of the school. They have dubbed it the Literacy Team. It's much different from Writing Team, as it incorporates all subject areas. We have science teachers, math teachers, administrators, history, and English teachers all prepared to work together to improve literacy in our school. We are reading The Core Six Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core as the basis of our first year. Split into groups of 3, we will focus on one of the 6 strategies focused on in the book. I can already feel the change that this will make at HHS. It's an exciting endeavor for the students, but also for us.

We, as educators, need to build off of each other. We need to know where our kids are when they come to us and how to prepare them for where they are going. As a teacher working in a large high school, I know that this can be difficult. I know that there isn't always time to sit down with an entire department and discuss what each of us is doing in class. But I think it's important. I think knowing what our students have read, touched, written, felt, experienced, and learned thus far in their education gives us a better idea of how to push them forward instead of running the endless wheel of reteaching.

Let me give you an example of what I mean-
When I began working with the Writing Team, I created a Google Form that I asked the department to fill out. Basically, I wanted to know what we all called different parts of an essay. We had discussed the need for a more common academic vocabulary when teaching and discussing writing, and this was our first step in interpreting where we stand. I turned this form into an infographic using Here are our findings:

I apologize for the bad quality of the image. You can see the results here as well:

Although we would never ask all teachers to use certain vocabulary, it was important for us to know what our students had called a certain part of an essay. If I'm introducing a topic sentence and call it a claim, I can tell students that it's similar, or the same as, a topic sentence. They should then be able to tap into their prior knowledge to better understand the concept, and I won't have to reteach the same concept that they already know.

I'm excited about where my department and my school is headed when dealing with vertical learning communities for educators. I personally believe that it will benefit our students, our faculty, and our administration in the future. I hope that this becomes something bigger than what it is in these beginning stages. We all have a lot to learn from each other. It's time that we start collaborating in a real, noteworthy way.

Until next time,
Ms. Z

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