As teachers, we all know the cycle. It seems just as our heads stop spinning from the end-of-year craziness and we have some downtime, we just can't seem to help ourselves from reflecting, reading, learning, and planning for the upcoming school year. Not to say this reading, learning and planning isn't mixed with a healthy dose of beach, pool and golf outings, but no matter how hard we try to relax, we just can't seem to shake the teacher in us. Now that my head has finally stopped spinning and I have some relative downtime, I wanted to reflect on what has been such an incredible learning year for me.
This school year began with two major changes. I moved out of the classroom to become the math specialist in my building, in addition to also beginning an incredible journey as a Teaching Channel Laureate. Through both of these changes, I began working primarily with adults as opposed to children and I began implementing some significant changes to our building's, then current, PLC structure, all the while continually connecting and learning with educators around the world. Thanks to Teaching Channel, I was able to share glimpses of my coaching journey, Creating a Collaborative Culture of Learning, with all of you! While I'm sure I could write a summer's worth of blog posts about things I learned along the way, that may not be helpful to you. Instead, I thought I'd spend time answering some of the questions I receive most frequently about moving from our past PLC structure to Learning Labs.
Learning Lab FAQs:
- When and how often do the Learning Labs happen?
Our district requires teachers to have 90 minutes of PLC time each week, 45 facilitated by the principal or specialist and 45 facilitated by the grade level team leader. The reading specialist and I facilitate one Learning Lab cycle per month, consisting of two back-to-back weeks of the scheduled 45-minute PLC time and one classroom visit.
- Who is responsible for the different aspects of a Learning Lab?
To begin planning for the first session of the Learning Lab, the specialists are responsible for contacting each grade level team to identify the current and upcoming units of study and gather any suggestions the team has for our Learning Lab focus. The specialists organize content resources for discussion at the first meeting. For the second meeting, the grade level teachers are responsible for bringing student work as a formative assessment around our area of focus to guide our planning. Throughout the entire process, we're each responsible to one another through our contributions.
- Who covers the classrooms when teachers visit one another's classrooms?
This piece is truly a team effort on the part of our entire staff. We have everyone from a grade-level paraeducator, principal, assistant principal, teacher on their planning time, and social worker covering classes when the teachers are in one another’s classrooms. It's taken a great deal of dedication and creativity on the part of everyone in the school.
- Do the meetings look different at different grade levels?
Absolutely. When grade level teams are departmentalized, it's a bit more challenging trying to meet everyone's needs content-wise, since we don't have a science or social studies specialist to facilitate that learning. This has actually been a really great scenario in pushing us to think more about how topics or big ideas look through different content lenses.
- When does the reflection on the lesson happen?
This is the question I'm still working on as I write this post. We tried a lot of things this year as far as reflecting on the lesson and I have yet to find a system that works for every grade level team. Since finding additional face-to-face time to get together is really difficult, we first tried having everyone "chat" about the lesson on a Google doc that we could revisit later, without having forgotten what we just observed in the classroom. That didn't work. We then tried scheduling a follow-up PLC to discuss the lesson, however it was too far removed from when it took place, and it felt like we were all just trying to remember what happened. So, that didn't work. We now try to have a lot of conversation while the lesson is going on and debrief in the hallway immediately after. This is working better, but obviously not giving us the time we truly need. Some grade level teams really took off with this and debrief over lunch or planning that very same day, which is awesome. I think it may not be about finding one way that works for every team, but more finding what works best for each individual team.
- Do you really spend 1.5 hours planning for a 15-minute piece of a lesson?
Yes. Although it may sound crazy when put that way, it really is so incredibly worth it for so many reasons. Hopefully, during that 1.5 hours, we are learning content that will be relevant beyond that 15-minute section of a lesson and pedagogical structures that extend throughout all of a teacher's planning and teaching. I know for me, in just planning for 1.5 hours of Learning Labs, I learn so much. So, although it may seem like the direct planning time to teaching time ratio is way off, it's my hope that we're all learning things that make us better teachers for our students every day.
All of these questions helped me think and rethink my progress throughout the year. This year was probably best defined by Common Core Standard of Math Practice 1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. Although not in the mathematically-focused context, throughout the year, I identified problems, thought of ways in which to attack these problems within given constraints, tried some things out, monitored and evaluated the progress, adjusted as things weren't working or making sense, and persevered through to the end of the year. It was by no means easy or uncomplicated, but I learned a ton. I learned how important a culture of learning is in a building, how vulnerable we all must be in that learning space, how much teachers want the space to learn together and, most surprising to me, I absolutely fell in love with the mathematics in kindergarten!
I'm so excited to continue my journey as a Teaching Channel Laureate next year, and during my summer cycle of learning and planning, I'll be working on sketching out what our Learning Labs will look like next year based on past experience. As of right now, my tentative focus will be using our Learning Lab cycle of learning, planning, and teaching to improve our current RTI (Response to Intervention) system. I want us, as colleagues, to think more about student mindset in this RTI process. It'll be a tough journey and will take a lot of perseverance on the part of not only myself, but the entire school. I look forward to sharing it with all of you. Thanks for a great year and enjoy your relative downtime.
Kristin Gray is a National Board Certified fifth grade math teacher at Richard A. Shields Elementary School in the Cape Henlopen School District in Lewes, Delaware and a Teaching Channel Laureate. During her 19 years in education, she has taught 5th–8th grade math, and spent two years as a K-5 Math Specialist. She feels fortunate to be involved with Illustrative Mathematics and Teaching Channel on projects developing math tasks, facilitating professional development, and blogging about these experiences. She is always excited to share her love of teaching at conferences such as NCTM, NCSM, ISTE, as well as on her blog. Follow Kristen on Twitter: @MathMinds.