Powerful Planning Conversations
by Lisa Wolford, Adams 12 Five Star School
Anyone who has ever worked in a school knows that teaching is an act of learning. Every day in the classroom, we learn about our students, we learn about our content and craft, and we learn about ourselves. So the “new definition” of professional development, one that emphasizes the contextual, job-embedded nature of effective learning, is not revolutionary in many ways. But it is revolutionary in terms of how we as professional developers do our business.
Gone are the days of designing and delivering engaging, purposeful courses and seminars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But according to the report “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession” by Linda Darling-Hammond et al, for the largest effect sizes on student achievement gains, teachers need to engage in 30-100 hours of professional learning on one initiative or focus over a 6 to 12 month period. That has not been our past practice.
As a professional development “trainer,” I now spend most of my week in buildings, with teachers and coaches, doing the work with them. The learning happens through intentionally crafted conversations and planning sessions, through careful and honest feedback, through work that matters right now. Whether collaboratively backwards designing a unit or trying out a new instructional strategy, teachers have the opportunities to learn from each other, set personal learning goals, and reflect on their practice and their learning.
I have worked with Amy Bergner, Pam King and Lucas Grein, a team of sixth grade math teachers at Thornton Middle School, for over a year now. They were a strong team to begin with . . . they liked each other, they valued one another’s ideas, and they liked planning together.
They meet on nearly a daily basis. In the past, they did a lot of scheduling during their time together-when would they teach each lesson? When would they give the test? What materials and copies would they need? They also talked about individual students-what was working and what was not.
Their conversations are very different now. Here’s a portion of a typical planning conversation:
Amy: “So, for this lesson, what do we want the kids to learn? What’s our objective?”
Pam: “Well, the teacher’s guide says we’re supposed to introduce students to rotation and reflection symmetry of figures.”
Amy: “Do you like that how it stands? Or do we want them to be able to identify some of that at the end? This is the only time we really hit symmetry in this unit, so I hope– and my plan is– that they would know more than just be ‘introduced’ to it.”
Lucas: “Yeah, they should know it by the end of the lesson.”
Amy: “So they should be able to draw a line of symmetry and identify the difference between reflection and rotation. How can we write that as a content objective?”
Pam: “Can we do the last question [of the investigation] as an exit slip?”
Amy: “That’s a good idea. Do we want them to report out so we can make sure they’re all on the same page?”
Pam: “Maybe some random examples from the class.”
Lucas: “I like finding different objects in the room, but is it possible to get them to think a little more? Like these objects at the top of the page, can we get them to design their own shape along with . . .”
Amy: “Oh, we can do something like that too. Ask them to find one in the room with the different kinds of symmetry, and then design their own. And that’s a good differentiation, too, because the kids who aren’t going to come up with something on their own can just resort to another shape they find in the room.”
Lucas: “What are we looking to find, though? As we go through and sort the exit slips, how would we separate them?’
Amy: “I think the kids sometimes struggle the most with finding shapes with rotation symmetry. Most of them can identify reflection symmetry.”
Lucas: “So three piles-don’t get it at all, reflection symmetry, and then the advanced group gets rotational symmetry.”
And after the lesson:
Amy: “I’m not surprised by these. My kids really got reflection symmetry. They did a lot of the letters-O, A, and U and showed reflection symmetry. There aren’t a lot of examples of rotation symmetry. I wish I had said do one of both.”
Pam: “One of mine did the light switch and did both rotation and reflection.”
Lucas: “Some kids have reflection symmetry diagonally across a rectangle-most are getting it, but I’m seeing a little of this, where he thinks that’s reflective.”
Amy: “You know, we actually folded the shapes. We would take the rectangle and fold it hot dog and hamburger style first, and then diagonal, and they could see the parts were not the same. That really got it across pretty well.”
Amy: “So yeah, as a whole, we have a lot of reflective, and not a lot of rotation. How will that impact tomorrow’s lesson?”
These kinds of conversations about the why of teaching, along with the what and how, have really taken a group of good teachers to an even higher level. This collaborative conversation is a part of their daily practice, and they say they would never go back to the way they did it before. These teachers arrived at this point by intentionally engaging in the Teaching/Learning Cycle, which includes the phases of Study, Select, Plan, Implement, Analyze, and Adjust. My role was to facilitate the conversations by asking questions that focused on the learning for each student, as well as engaging teachers in reflection on both the process of the Teaching/Learning Cycle and the content of their conversations.
Not all teams in all schools are doing this. There are all sorts of barriers: lack of time, lack of in-depth understanding, lack of buy-in. But slowly we are building a core group of teachers who are collaborative learners in everything they do. The challenge then becomes how to take this learning system-wide, and it is a challenge we are looking forward to meeting.