Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What makes a PLC tick?

For the past two years, I have been coaching a formative assessment team. I've blogged about our work before here and here and here. Today as I was processing the notes from our last meeting, I reflected on what it was that makes working with this group so great. The people are wonderful, but it can't be just that, as the make-up of the team is not the same this year as last. And both years have been successful and fulfilling work. I think there are two really important criteria that have made these groups into true professional learning communities.

One is that participation on the formative assessment team is voluntary. The invitation was extended to the entire staff of approximately 20 teachers. Eight staff members chose to become part of the team. I do not mean to insinuate in any way that the 12 teachers who are not on the team would not be valuable members, or that they have no interest in learning new skills and ideas. There were very legitimate reasons for not volunteering. Coaching responsibilities, child care concerns, and other commitments created situations where people could not give more of their time. Because even though I try very hard to schedule at convenient times, my team is putting in a lot of extra hours to be a part of this group, and they knew that coming in.

The second element that has helped us be so successful is the establishment of norms. I was very intentional in using a protocol that would allow everyone in the group to have a voice in the establishment of our norms. I chose the Fears and Hopes protocol. In this protocol, group members brainstorm what they fear about being a part of the group on one side of a T-chart. On the other side of the T-chart, members brainstorm what they hope to achieve by being a member. After completing the T-chart, the group has a discussion to set norms that will allow their hopes to be realized and their fears to be avoided. Our group's hopes included statements like: 'I hope this work results in increased student achievement' and 'I hope to learn ways to become a better teacher.' We feared things like spending personal time on something that would not lead to significant change and dealing with negativity from other staff members who are not a part of the team.

The final revision of the norms yielded this:

At the beginning of each meeting, the norms are reviewed and discussed. The tent card stays in the middle of the table during meetings and we do use our code word when we stray from the norms, usually by getting off topic. Our code word, Squash, came about from a funny thing that happened at one member's 40th birthday party. Just a word of advice: if you want a funny story to share, bring squash as your dish to pass at a party.
A side note on protocols: there are many sites on the web for protocols. The Fears and Hopes protocol comes from The School Reform Initiative. Another great site, and my personal favorite is the National School Reform Faculty site. The NSRF site organizes protocols in many different ways, making it very easy to find one that will fit whatever need you have. Any of the protocols, while designed for working in Critical Friend Groups (CFGs) and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), also work well for organizing learning in the classroom.


  1. I appreciate the way you assume the best about those who choose not to participate: "There were very legitimate reasons for not volunteering. Coaching responsibilities, child care concerns, and other commitments created situations where people could not give more of their time." Too often my default is to assume those who don't volunteer either don't want to improve our school or just don't care. After engaging them in conversation, I usually find my assumptions are wrong. When will I learn?

    i also want to say thank you for sharing the source of your "Fears and Hopes" exercise. I'll be bookmarking those in my Diigo. (Enjoy your snow day.)

  2. It is a mind-shift that I continually work on, Phil. I'm not sure why it is that our default is to assume the worst of people.

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