Virtual Strategies for the PLC Process

The most important thing I have learned during this pandemic is the power of connections. Although most of us are working remotely, breaking from the silos and collaborating in new, often uncharted, ways can truly transform our educational practice. It is a well-known quote that, “whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.” Therefore, if PLCs model this in the work with each other as we answer the 4 questions, we will make more of an impact than if we stay in isolation. To do this virtually takes creativity and intention, but I have seen it working and am excited by the challenge. Many ideas below were inspired by collaborative conversations that made original ideas even better…that is the power of connecting and what I hope can continue by engaging in continuous PLC practices.

What do we want students to know?

This first question of a PLC is one that I think teachers naturally discuss, but with our restructured time and virtual setting, we need to look at this from a lens of what is essential for our students to know. Mike Mattos and Solution Tree have discussed this a lot, and when teachers define these independently Mattos said, “the unintended outcome is a “self-selected jumble” of standards that vary widely within the same course, same subject, and same grade level.” To serve equitably, we must define these essentials collectively. So, how do we do this, especially virtually? First, I think it is important to use a researched based practice, our district used the REAL criteria as defined by Larry Ainsworth, and we even did it virtually this year with 3 courses using GoogleDocs as a way to collaborate and digitally share resources for REAL. I’m thankful to my teammates who believed in the process and kept motivated that it would work virtually-and it did! Perhaps most importantly, we involved teachers in the process from day 1. Now that we have agreed upon these standards that doesn’t mean we only teach those and completely throw out the rest. Teacher teams must break down the standards to understand them in their own words and be able to deliver the material effectively. One of my favorite ways to break down standards came from my colleague, Karen, who suggested a process of highlighting the skills (verbs), concepts (nouns), and the context within each one. As the need to work virtually heightened, I revised this process to use Jamboard so that teams could collaboratively work together to unpack and discuss what they meant.

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Purple standards are our power standards

From there, Jamboard can also be a useful tool to determine essentials within the standards. Karen suggested creating two columns of sticky notes right on that same unpacked standards board- one column of “need to know” and one of “nice to know.” I love the idea of this collaborative visual.

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Then, after that analysis, teams will be ready to dive into writing their targets and sequencing in a progression. As we have been planning this model, we discussed putting a calendar as an image into Jamboard so that teams can write and move text around as needed (see below for the final product she created). While this process takes time, Mike Mattos ensures that “sometimes you go faster by going slower…if you would take a little more time on question #1 to get to that level, the next steps in the process would be easier.”

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How Will We Know If They Learned it? 

This next step of the PLC process focuses on assessment, both formative and summative. In taking on the challenges of analyzing assessment results, Steve Ventura is someone who has pushed me to think deeply about this and asks a great question: Do teachers and leaders in your school view assessment results as an assessment about their impact?” Furthermore, he shares that “collaborative conversations should be based on two critical mind frames from the Visible Learning research:

1. My fundamental task is to evaluate the effect of my teaching on students’ learning and achievement.

2. All assessments, including formative assessments, are a reflection of my effort more than the students’.”

As a collaborative PLC, it important to write the summative assessment before teaching the unit so that teachers have a clear understanding of where students should end up. And in our recent discussion, my colleague, Karen, and I were reflecting on how powerful the assessment writing process is now that essentials have been determined. In addition, formative assessment is just as important to collaboratively share ideas to ensure students are progressing, and to know if intervention (question #3) or extension (question #4) is needed. Some of my favorite ways to virtually formatively assess are by hearing student voice and seeing student writing.

  • Zoom Chat: The Zoom chat feature is a simple, yet effective, check for understanding. As I was observing one teacher I work closely with, she had students submit their answer through a private chat to her. I thought this was a great way to help students feel safe in responding, especially in a digital space. When she got those answers through the chat, she would celebrate successes and address misconceptions.
  • Pear Deck, Desmos, and Ideaboardz are also great ways to check for understanding and invite students to interact, write to show their understanding, and give feedback to move instruction forward.

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How Will We Respond When Students Do Not Learn

I believe it was Mattos who said, “the best intervention is prevention” (correct me if I cited wrong :)) Therefore, before we plan any interventions for after an assessment, we should create ways to access prior knowledge and build upon pre-requesite skills. In fact, according to Hattie’s research, strategies to integrate prior knowledge have a very high effect size and thus considerably accelerate students’ ability to make connections to new knowledge.

  • Which One Doesn’t Belong:WODB is one of my favorite ways to naturally leverage prior knowledge and build vocabulary (another high yield influence). Students choose one out four images to justify which one does not belong. Every time I have facilitated this strategy in my classroom, students naturally start to use or ask for vocabulary terms they need to explain their reasoning. I saw Allyson Klovekorn post how she transformed this to a digital activity using Jamboard again…such a great idea!Screen Shot 2020-09-02 at 10.56.08 AM
  • Brain Dumps: Another favorite strategy of mine is a brain dump/chalk talk. After sharing this idea with a teacher last year, I saw her adapt the strategy to a virtual setting using (mentimeter is similar). I love this visual as a way to highlight key terms and begin conversations around prior knowledge.

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How Will We Extend the Learning for Students Who are Already Proficient

The last question, how to extend learning goes hand in hand with intervention. Providing intervention and enrichment after an assessment is key to making learning a process and not stagnant.

  • Breakout rooms for Intervention and Extension: As I was thinking about creative ways to virtually intervene, breakout rooms came to mind. Teachers could place students into homogenous breakout rooms – some focused on intervention and others focused on extension. While I think it is important for students to often be heterogeneously mixed, this grouping would allow the teacher to provide a new task or instruction to reengage students who need intervention and allow the other group to explore an enrichment activity. The teacher could jump into the groups to provide support, but it would be a safe space free from judgement of what group you were in.

Beyond the Meeting

Finally, Solution Tree defines PLC’s by a culture of continuous improvement and therefore reframing it beyond just a weekly meeting. In our previous face to face setting, I loved hearing and engaging in hallways conversations with teachers that were naturally focused on these 4 questions. Our virtual world has several roadblocks, but in terms of this belief that PLCs should be ongoing, there are several ways to keep the conversation and collaboration alive.

  • Email: Many teams I work with are simply using email to continue the conversation. Teachers send messages about assessment and new ideas, and while I know our inboxes can get flooded, I think we can never be too connected.
  • Microsoft Teams: Microsoft Teams is new for our district, but has some amazing features that my colleagues and I discovered. Teachers can post in a stream that is automatically saved, upload files, and even use the PLC notebook template to plan (see below). This keeps everyone connected and focused.

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Thank you, Karen, for inspiring this blog post as we ground our work with PLCs in these four questions and experiment with technology for collaboration. It is human connection, conversation, and collaboration that will continue to drive improvement and bring learning to life.

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