Earlier this week I attended the Powerful Learning Conference at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri with several of my colleagues. This conference is presented by the state department of education to participants as part of their Professional Learning Communities (PLC) training. Since I’d learned a lot at last year’s conference, I was eager to return and learn what other schools are doing to improve student learning. I wasn’t disappointed…but I was very much blown away by what I saw happening in other districts.
The conference began with a keynote speaker giving a presentation to all 1500+ participants in an enormous ballroom at the hotel. (I’m always freezing when I go to these things and would normally have worn my coat indoors were it not for the spring-like 70 degree temperatures! Typical of Missouri weather.) Dr. Anthony Muhammad gave a powerful address in which he spoke in part about the difference between a healthy school culture versus a toxic one. Briefly, a healthy school culture is reflective and prescriptive. The teachers reflect regularly on their practice and prescribe a course of instructional action based on their reflection. Of course, I could easily resonate with that concept. The toxic school culture was, as you would imagine, just the opposite – descriptive and deflective. In such a culture, educators describe (some might substitute other words such as complain, gripe or vent) what’s “wrong” and then deflect blame onto others. Dr. Muhammad’s advice was to “stop using your colleagues as trash cans and start using your colleagues as resources.”
Following the morning keynote speaker, I went to several break-out sessions on topics I had chosen when registering to attend. I must have had data on my mind when I signed up because three of my four sessions were about just that – data – and I got it like a smack between the eyes! The schools that presented were outstanding in their level of organization, focus and sophistication when it came to answering the corollary questions of a PLC:
1. What do we want children to learn?
2. How do we know when they have learned it?
3. What do we do when they haven’t learned?
4. What do we do when they have learned?
The Work of a PLC
My mind was spinning after the last session as I tried to grasp the task still ahead for my school as we continued the process of fully implementing a PLC. In truth, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude and scope of beginning data cycles and using that data to guide our instruction. Not that I was opposed to doing it – not at all. It was just that I had seen the finished product, so to speak, and I was reeling a bit from the interesting balance of efficient complexity backed by a well-articulated focus on learning. These schools knew exactly what they wanted their students to learn. Exactly. And they had assessments and systems in place to measure that learning, report it to the data team and then act on it in a timely manner. I was both impressed and slightly intimidated as I pondered where to even begin at my own school.
Rainbows and Storms
During the drive to the conference, I saw a rainbow – vibrant, strong colors in a perfect arc spanning the backdrop of a slate blue sky. I’ve always thought of rainbows as inspiring because they symbolize a future of hope-filled opportunities. On the return trip, however, we were caught in a torrential downpour. One so severe that we considered pulling off the road to wait it out. Both events reflect my current disposition to the future of education. There’s the bright promise of technology to enhance student learning, a strong body of research to guide educators as to the best methods and strategies, and more opportunities than ever to dialogue with other teachers and improve our practice. And yet, a part of me is also concerned that there are many turbulent days ahead as we adjust to the shifting standards and expectations placed upon our students and ourselves.
A Vision Worth Pursuing
It’s been a few days since I’ve returned to my classroom from this conference. I look at it differently now, though. I teach my lessons and feel a twinge of discontent now that I’ve seen in detail how other schools are striving and succeeding at academic excellence. I think I caught a glimpse into the future of teaching and while I knew that data would be an integral part of what we would be doing, seeing the nitty-gritty details was striking in its intensity. But I think that’s what makes it a vision worth pursuing. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as inspiring, and the vastness of the task compels me to further seek the strength of my PLC where I know I am not alone in somehow turning this vision into a reality.