When designing professional development projects, we’re constantly examining how our promising practices can be solidified as we support educators. Through this examination, we’ve come to identify five principles of practice: Communities of practice, Contextualized practice, Critical reflection, Cultivating strengths, and Cycles of inquiry. As part of our series investigating each of these principles, let’s dig deeper into communities of practice. (You can see previous entries in this series here.)
Identifying members of your community with an interest in professional development can be a first step in building an internal coaching structure within your school, and if you’re already humming along with a teacher coaching practice, looping back to some basics can help you identify additional teachers to invite into a growing community of practice.
“Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”
We often become so familiar with our own school and colleagues that we miss a new or forming interest — especially when it’s late in the school year and we’re sure we know everyone well enough to ascertain who is interested in receiving or leading PD and who isn’t. However, if we step back, we may see something new. At the next grade level team meeting, take a breath and look around as if it were the beginning of the school year. During your next staff meeting, imagine the people around you have changed over the school year (they probably have) and look and listen for new evidence of the desire to grow professionally.
Take a look over a list of your staff and identify which teachers have tried something new in their classroom. What might happen if you invite them to share with one other teacher, in their department, or with the larger community? Where do you see teachers gathering in pairs or small groups? Do they share a common interest that could translate into professional learning? For instance, back when the first Harry Potter book came out, teachers reading the book decided to gather together to form a book club that spent the first half hour talking about their own experience of the book and the second half talking about how they could spark their own student’s imagination through creative writing prompts. Look around. Where might professional learning groups be a logical next step to what is already happening?
Perhaps it’s more likely in your situation that teachers aren’t forming their own learning groups naturally. Take a moment instead to listen for the needs you hear being voiced. Do you hear struggles in the form of complaints? There’s not enough time. / How am I supposed to fit [this] in? / I’ve tried everything with [this kid]!
What teacher do you know who has struggled through this same problem in the past? Consider asking the teacher who overcame the struggle to invite the teacher in the midst of the struggle to problem-solve together. Listen to the whole staff: do you have results from any recent survey you can dip back into for a sense of the needs across your team? Identify several needs and offer a problem of practice protocol in your next email to staff or invite teachers to form small groups that engage with a protocol to address their concerns.
Maybe it’s time for a new survey focused on asking questions directly about PD needs and especially about the interest of teachers to collaborate and learn from one another. It’s a great time to listen for needs that you want to meet over the summer and going into 2019-20.
The reality is that communities of practice are everywhere. Sometimes we can see them clearly and other times we need to step back, look, and listen to see where they may be forming or where we can invite them to form between folks who don’t realize that just across the hall is someone else with the same interest or struggle. Wagner describes it like this:
[Communities of practice] are a familiar experience, so familiar perhaps that it often escapes our attention. Yet when it is given a name and brought into focus, it becomes a perspective that can help us understand our world better. In particular, it allows us to see past more obvious formal structures such as organizations, classrooms, or nations, and perceive the structures defined by engagement in practice and the informal learning that comes with it.
By G. FAITH LITTLE
Being aware of 21st century skills as a common phrase and focus in our schools is a first step many of us have taken toward planning and teaching for our students. We are integrating the language. We may have even tried a project as an assessment for one or our units. Yet, making the shift into full integration of real-world projects that set the stage for our students to practice these skills regularly eludes us.
Uchenna Ogu and Suzie Reynard Schmidt, in their article The Natural Playscape Project: A Real-World Study With Kindergarteners beautifully articulate a design that can be applied across grade levels and content areas. Students are the authors of their own playscape, with teachers as their guide and support. In this case, playscape refers to the natural playscape created by kindergarteners — a “playground with as few human-made components as possible”. The process brings together research, exploration, and the hard work of thinking and taking action, both individually and collaboratively, where the playscape is not a final project for the purpose of assessing learning. The playscape is the unit.
Lesson: The playscape is “designed to bring children back to nature and offer a wide range of open-ended play possibilities that allow children to be creative and use their imaginations.”
Application prompt: What is the playscape for your classroom? Consider the landscape students could create and navigate in math, social studies, foreign language, physical education, literature, or science. What world could they build that would engage their senses and invite them to learn in order to create?
Lesson: “To begin the project, teachers shared their own knowledge from studies about play and sustainable schoolyards with the children.” Teachers went on to share a text the children read together and articulated some boundaries for their building: "You may build houses small and hidden for the fairies, but please do not use living or artificial materials."
“With inspiration and wonder, we set off to imagine, play, and invent small worlds for fairies and other fantastical and real woodland creatures at a nearby park and on an empty back lot on the school campus that eventually became our natural playscape.”
Application prompt: What knowledge from your own field of study do students need in order to begin to plan or build their playscape? What texts will open new possibilities for them or serve as foundations for their invention? Consider what knowledge students truly need to begin and what knowledge it makes sense for them to discover on their own. Invite them to discover for themselves, serving as a mentor or guide rather than an expert giving out all the answers.
Lesson: Plan and prepare for meaningful collaboration: “…teachers offered each pair of children a tray of sand. Teachers provided glass beads, twigs, seashells, and other natural materials, as well as time to play, experience, create, imagine, and explore. Children used these materials to create small worlds, miniature playgrounds, or fairy houses. Teachers then asked the children to draw on all of their previous experiences, both indoors and out, to generate a comprehensive list of materials that they might want or need when designing their miniature playscapes. Pebbles, seeds, dirt, grass, leaves, and flowers all made their way onto the list and eventually into their work…Next, teachers invited the children to collaborate in small groups to create miniature playgrounds for the fairies and small woodland creatures.”
In the third year, the second-graders, who were the originators of the project while in kindergarten, rejoined the process as collaborators and consultants.
Application prompt: What mini-scape could students create as a model for their larger playscape? Instead of listing the materials they may need, support students in generating their own lists of materials. As a mentor, you may do the advanced work of obtaining possible materials, but have them waiting in the wings. Let students take ownership by asking for what they need. When grouping students to collaborate, give each student a specific role that requires an outcome, so that each person’s contribution can be seen.
Lesson: Committees were formed to investigate a specific aspect of the playscape in depth. After learning more deeply about their subject, children shared what they learned. “For example, since it was important to the current kindergartners to invite birds to the playscape, those involved with the Birdhouse Committee researched native Missouri birds and built birdhouses.” The committee members expressed their love for birds through letter writing, addressing their notes to the birds themselves and including important details from their learning, “We are bird experts. We can tell you apart. You are really cute. We hope you like to splash in the birdbaths. We made them look like flowers, because we thought you might like that.”
Application prompt: What are some buckets of information or concepts all of your students will need to understand in order to create a useful playscape? Consider grouping them and naming the groups as it makes most sense in your field. Are they architects? Technical writers? Applied mathematicians? Statisticians? Commentators? In what genres do people in these roles write?
Lesson: “Being on the committees engaged the children by allowing them to research and pursue one aspect of the playscape with depth.” At one stage in the process, kindergarteners were matched with second graders to explore their design process further. “The two age groups facilitated and scaffolded each other's learning as they talked about, represented, reflected on, and began to evaluate aspects of their own and their partners' design ideas.”
Application prompt: Whether it’s pairing students in different grade levels or perhaps pairing students with complementary skills, how can you support students to listen to their partner, communicate clearly, and come to an agreement on next steps? What skills do you need to teach? What practices should students engage in to get the most out of their collaboration in order to sharpen their own critical thinking skills?
Lesson: Ongoing reflection is key. During: “Throughout the natural playscape project, teachers encouraged children to frequently reflect on their experiences.” After: “At the end of the study, as a way to help children reflect on their growth and learning, teachers asked them questions about their experiences.”
Application prompt: What structure will you support, or put in place, so that students reflect after each step of their process? This reflection will allow them to quickly make use of their learning, going back to foundations or taking a risk, based on their findings. What will the final reflection look like? How can you support student to design their own reflection?
Consider responding to each application prompt as you plan for next year. Whatever grade level you teach, incorporating space and time for creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and reflection for your students will boost their 21st Century skill set!
By G. FAITH LITTLE
Teacher training and education often does not shine a light on the importance of social-emotional growth for student academic achievement. We know our content. We have solid classroom management. Isn’t that enough? How do you find time for more? What if you feel nervous about connecting to students on a level outside of your field of study?
In their recent publication, the Utah Department of Health issued a status update on the impact of social-emotional development on health:
“Historically, building success in children has meant an emphasis on academia; good math and reading skills yields good grades, which increases the likelihood of obtaining a college degree and securing more earning power. It goes without saying that core reading and math skills are important, but research shows it’s time to focus on another set of skills to build lifelong success—those within the social and emotional realm.”
Zero to Three, an organization dedicated to the well-being of infants and toddlers, further emphasizes the importance of social-emotional connections:
“Infant-early childhood mental health, sometimes referred to as social and emotional health, is the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years of age to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture.”
We probably don’t need much convincing that children need connections with each other and with caring adults. It seems clear that the earlier their connections begin, the better the opportunity for a strong foundation upon which they can develop the necessary social-emotional skills needed to thrive.
What we do need are practical ways to connect with our students within a limited amount of time. From grade school to middle school to high school, there are effective and efficient ways to integrate these connections into our practice.
Each of your students is an original, and so are you. Express yourself in the style and manner that feels most real to you. You may connect with your students in quiet ways while your colleague across the hall conducts spotlight celebrations to connect with theirs. There is not only room for different styles, but there’s a need for them.
When students are able to experience a variety of relationships and ways of connecting with adults, it gives them more opportunities to feel seen and find a sense of belonging. That quiet student in the back may connect best with a teacher who encourages in quiet ways. The student seeking attention may feel their needs being addressed when the teacher calls out their encouragement more publicly. And, let’s face it, students are pros at recognizing when an adult is faking interest, so choose something you’re genuinely interested in as a means of connecting.
What are some interests of your own that you can share as a way of opening up a conversation? What would happen if everyone wrote down one thing they do or are curious to learn about (inside or outside of school)? These could be shared or kept between you and each student. The class could create a found poem or an original periodic table to represent the elements in your classroom community. What else comes to mind?
Grow your practice
Whether you’re simply starting out or are already a social-emotional skill-growing pro, reach for your next steps in connecting with your students. Read an article about prioritizing social-emotional competencies on your way home on the train. Or watch a TED Talk on the role of vulnerability in human connection, especially if you’re nervous about stepping outside of the comfort zone of your content area. Find a PD focused on social-emotional growth and sign yourself up!
While you’re growing your knowledge, keep pushing your experience. Write down all the ways you already connect — which would you like to see more of in your own practice? Which need to be revived, like something you did when you first began teaching but has been on the back burner for the past few years? Find new ways to connect! Here are few suggestions that may spark new ideas:
Share the intention of your plan with your students as it makes sense to you, and ask them to hold you accountable by saying something like, “If I haven’t given you a sticky note by the end of the week, remind me that I owe you one, because I intend to notice contributions each of you are making to our classroom community.”
Enjoy the experience
As you’re making connections with your students, you are nurturing the growth of a child’s sense of well-being and belonging. Take a few moments from time to time and recognize the ways this is transforming you and your students. You’re creating community, together. You’re modeling and taking the lead in finding ways to connect.
As you model ways of connecting, your students are watching. They are learning from you, and you will likely not know which acknowledgement, email, phone call, sticky note, or shout out they hold onto as they move through their days and weeks, in class and out. Connection shows them that someone cares. That someone is you. What an opportunity! What hard work and how valuable! Enjoy this process of planting seeds, trusting they will grow and bloom in gardens beyond your own.
The importance of social-emotional connections
The light is shining brighter, spotlighting the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) for students. In The Importance of Social Emotional Learning for All Students Across All Grades, the National Education Association says:
Research shows that SEL can have a positive impact on school climate and promote a host of academic, social, and emotional benefits for students. Durlak, Weissberg et al.’s recent meta-analysis of 213 rigorous studies of SEL in schools indicates that students receiving quality SEL instruction demonstrated:
Whether you’re nervous to step into the SEL world or already comfortable, continue to develop promising practices that support students as whole human beings and look for the positive results in yourself and in your students!