The Dream It Project: Phase 1 - Building a professional learning community
This year my responsibilities have shifted from mathematics and science teacher to coordinator of an International Baccalaureate program at Madero Middle School in Chicago. At first, working with all teachers from four major content areas, plus arts and physical education, seemed overwhelming in the context of this project. Since then, several possibilities have become apparent. With the use of common prep periods and occasional professional development time, teachers in the building can become a community of professional learners with the goal of improving student learning.
My goal is to build this professional learning community, within the building, not only comprised of teachers but also administrators and support staff. I envision an environment where all stakeholders contribute to create a mission and vision for the school that puts the focus on student learning. With this in place, “learning community” will not only refer to students, but everyone who has a stake in the success of the students.
While forming this idea the i-image assignment helped to focus on the core ideas of what it means to build a learning community. My first image was that of a bicycle with three seats. This brought to mind the idea that the learning community has a common goal. We are all ultimately evaluated by the success of the students and depend on this success as a measure of our own success as educators. The i-images also stressed the focus on student learning along with the idea that in a professional learning community teachers must examine their own practice to improve student learning. Creating a video to represent this concept also helped me to realize that this process can happen in a number of ways but must have some key features – a focus on student learning, teachers driving the process, and a teacher learning component for improved teaching practice.
Imagine a school where teachers collaborate to assess their performance and effectiveness then discuss how they can correct or improve their practice. What if this practice were continuous – a built in part of the school culture? What if teachers, administrators, and other support personnel formed a shared vision and acted on it to form a learning community where the focus would shift from teaching to learning as the primary purpose of the school? According to research (Hughes & Kritsonis, 2007; Strahan 2003) this would result in improved student achievement. The evidence that this is occurring would be in the conversations going on during team meetings and professional development sessions. Teachers will determine where they must build their own capacity and reflect on their learning through planning and teaching performance.
Building a learning community is a process that begins with buy-in. One way to get teachers to buy-in is to start with one of the important elements of a professional learning community – a common vision (DuFour, 2004). Teachers will come together with other stakeholders to create a mission and vision for the school that will serve as the foundation for educational philosophy. Another important logistical component has to be common meeting time. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, either through programming or special events. The content of these meetings must connect back to the mission and vision with the additional focus on student learning.
The purpose of teacher meetings should be established from the beginning. Teachers are focused on student achievement and will search for learning of their own that can address any issues that surface from an analysis of student learning. There must be a commitment to improvement if the process is to be successful. That means motivation is a critical element to the success of building a professional learning community.
Communication and collaboration drive the process but this is often difficult in a school setting. To enhance these elements the use of technology becomes important. We use the google family of applications and communication platforms in Chicago Public Schools but there are those, myself included, who feel that there is much more to learn. Professional development in this area can blossom into an improved system of communicating and sharing ideas about the learning process. Technology also can provide the showcase for student and teacher learning through websites that feature teacher units and lessons as well as student performance of understanding. Eventually the process will be sustained through the resources that are available only through the internet and the ease of communicating with colleagues through systems that are at our fingertips.