Archive for Thursday, May 4, 2006

Collaboration a key to school district

May 4, 2006

In its nearly two years of existence, the collaboration days within the Baldwin School District have brought mixed feelings from the teachers and staff district wide.

On the collaboration days, the district staff is separated into Professional Learning Communities. PLCs are small clusters of educators that are grouped through grade levels or subject matter that they teach.

"I think it's been helpful to increase communication with the teachers in other buildings," said Kit Harris, Baldwin High School English teacher. "We can learn more about what they do and vice versa. I think we are working toward making it more and more productive and beneficial experience."

Baldwin Elementary School Intermediate Center fifth grade teacher Donna Reed said the collaboration days are beneficial, but have a few problems.

"I felt like they were very helpful this year for the state assessments," Reed said. "One problem is at the beginning of the year, we didn't have much to talk about and we really needed that time three weeks later. That time wasn't scheduled though.

"Another problem is that we don't get a chance to talk with the sixth grade teacher, because we have our own fifth grade PLC," Reed said. "We need time to talk to them, since the kids will be going there next year."

Penny Hughs, Baldwin Elementary School technology resource instructor, has enjoyed the collaboration days, but would like to meet with more than other technology personnel.

"It has been extremely beneficial," Hughs said. "The only thing I would like to do more is to break out and meet with some of the grade levels, so that I can integrate technology with them at that time."

What is collaboration?

Once a month, district classes are cancelled for collaboration days. The days consist of many meetings and lots of discussion about ways to improve education in the district.

"It basically is about sharing resources," Curriculum Director Connie Wehmeyer said. "This is about collaboration and how can we impact student achievement together. It's definitely impacted student learning."

Wehmeyer also said the collaboration days have allowed the district to focus on its four goals for education.

"It's given them time embedded in the school day and calendar to meet with other professionals to talk about the four questions philosophical to the district," Wehmeyer said. "Those are what do we want students to know or be able to do, how will we know when they know it, what are we prepared to do when they don't know it and what are we prepared to do for those who already do know it."

Wehmeyer also said collaboration is a very useful tool for providing professional learning to a district.

"One of the powerful ways to provide professional development opportunities in your district is through collaboration time," Wehmeyer said. "Collaboration is one of the strong elements of a professional learning community."

The idea for the PLCs came from the book "Getting started: Reculturing schools to become professional learning communities."

"It came about as a result of the administrative team reading a book focused on teaching and learning," Wehmeyer said of the PLCs. "We wanted to help teachers with professional development without having to send them away."

How are PLCs helpful?

The PLCs allow time for teachers to discuss ways to improve student learning together. Many ideas are thrown around during the meetings to create a better district-wide education.

"I think every department has different issues they want to address," Harris said. "When we have a pretty good set agenda of things to discuss, we tend to get progress a lot. The planning part of it is an extremely important part of it.

"It's really been good for me and our department to learn what they do at their building," Harris added. "It's just sitting down and discussing our goals and methods. If we continue this in an ongoing fashion, it's going to be beneficial as professionals."

Hughs said the technology PLC helps the teachers reinforce their subject matter.

"Since we started, the PLCs have helped the grade levels or different departments at the schools," Hughs said. "We get information from them, so we know what to target as a support tool. We've been able to reinforce what the teachers are teaching. With the change they are going to make next year, by moving me into all grade levels, will help more, because I will have every afternoon to work with the teachers."

Many of the PLCs used their monthly time to discuss the state assessments.

"I felt like they were very helpful this year, because we were able to get the formative assessments online," Reed said. "We worked together as a team, trying to figure out how best to work those into our schedule during the day, as well as which test to use."

Harris said his PLC also talked about assessments and ways to teach toward the tests.

"We are learning more about how they accomplish their formative assessments and what they are doing for instruction modifications," Harris said. "I think both groups can benefit from hearing the others' ideas and strategies."

The elementary PLCs were also used to discuss the next math series, "Everyday Mathematics," which caused some confusion early on in the school year.

"We took some time at the beginning of the school year with that," Reed said. "It helped to have other fifth grade teachers sharing ideas about the series."

Possible PLC problems

Though several teachers enjoy their collaboration time with their PLC, there have been several problems in their creation.

"I haven't always heard good things," Wehmeyer said. "I think all of the different levels of schools have different needs in regard to collaboration. From that, you hear 'we need more time' or 'we don't need as much time'. I think they have different needs, and unfortunately, we don't have the flexibility in our schedule to really accommodate the different needs with the different grade levels."

Wehmeyer continued to say that arranging certain PLCs can be difficult.

"Scheduling is a problem," Wehmeyer said. "With our elementary grade level groups, it's easier to say all third grade teachers are going to come together. It's more difficult to say what are we going to do with the music teachers, art teachers and librarians, because there are fewer of them. They don't have a large enough group to have a PLC."

Another problem revolves around the teachers' knowledge of what to do during their monthly meetings.

"I think another problem is teachers understanding what truly is collaboration," Wehmeyer said. "The district has defined what is collaboration. We've had in-services on what exactly collaboration is."

The district defines collaboration as "the systematic process in which we work together to analyze and impact professional practice in order to improve our individual and collective results as we focus on student learning."

Future collaboration

Wehmeyer is also unsure about the future of collaboration days and how they will work.

"With a new superintendent coming in, we haven't talked about that yet," Wehmeyer said. "I've heard some suggestions for improvement and those are definitely areas that I would like to explore."

According to Wehmeyer, research suggests collaboration much more often than once a month.

"The research is clear that there ought to be time set aside for collaboration on a daily basis," Wehmeyer said. "That's really tough to do. We would need more money and more teachers to accommodate that kind of a schedule, in the ideal world.

"Many of our administrators work hard to manipulate their schedules to allow for collaboration in their buildings more often," Wehmeyer said. "I think that is where we need to continue to move toward. It's very clear from the research, that is the best professional development dollars a district can spend."

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