PLC at Work Institute Reflection

Over this past week, over 150 teachers from my district attended Solution Tree's Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute in Minneapolis. Each school was allotted a number of teachers to bring or the three day workshop. Three of us from our Vertical PLC attended as well as many teachers, counselors, and administrators from districts across the country. The Institute is designed to help schools and districts implement professional learning communities effectively. I will explain a little more before delving in to the sessions I attended. A professional learning community (PLC) is defined as

An ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010)

In my district, I am a member of a few different PLCs:

  • 6-12 Instrumental Music (North) - my Vertical PLC I frequently mention

  • High School Music (North) - 2 10-12 Band Directors and 2 10-12 Choral Directors

  • 5-12 Instrumental Music - district wide, includes 14 teachers

  • K-12 Music - includes all General Music, Instrumental Music, and Vocal Music teachers in our district.

The two where we focus the most of our attention are the top two. Each meet at least once a week to discuss a variety of topics that I will elaborate on later in my reflection.

Overview of the Institute Days were well-scripted. Breakfast and lunch were included as part of the conference. Breakfast was served from 7-8 each morning, and the day would begin with a 90 minute keynote. Following a 30 minute break, there would be a 90 minute breakout session. There were 14 different presenters, so there was a wide variety of choices for breakout sessions. We got an hour for lunch, then headed back for another 90 minute breakout session. Rooms were provided afterwards for us to meet as our schools to discuss what we learned throughout the day. Days were typically over by 4:30pm, leaving us plenty of time for the evening.

Wednesday Keynote - First Things First: Building the Solid Foundation of a Professional Learning Community at Work with Rebecca DuFour

Because this past school year was my first in this district and in PLCs, I was glad to get some of the background knowledge as to the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Rebecca DuFour laid out the big ideas of a PLC:

  • We accept learning as the fundamental purpose of our school and therefore are willing to examine all practices in light of their impact on learning.

  • We are committed to working together to achieve our collective purpose. We cultivate a collaborative culture through the development of high-performing teams.

  • We assess our effectiveness on the basis of results rather than intentions. Individuals, teams, and schools seek relevant data and information and use that information to promote continuous improvement.

A PLC is structured around four pillars:

  1. Mission: shared purpose of ensuring high levels of learning for all students

  2. Vision: clear concept of where the organization is headed

  3. Values: clarifying how each individual contributes to achieving the vision

  4. Goals: identifying indicators to monitor progress

Personally, I do not enjoy the process of a group creating a mission/vision/goals/etc. After Rebecca DuFours in depth explanation of the four different pillars, I see the value in spending this time. It is not something we did specifically as our Vertical PLC, and I see the benefit of us spending the time this next school year to begin laying these four pillars out.

Wednesday Breakouts - Building the Collaborative Culture of a Professional Learning Community at Work with Rebecca & Richard DuFour

The two breakouts I attended were two parts of a broader whole. The focus of the breakouts were how to make teams into true PLCs. The big idea is that PLCs collaborate (co-labor was the emphasis from the presenters) around the right work. What is the right work? Answering the following questions:

  1. What do we expect students to learn?

  2. How will we know when they have learned it?

  3. How will we respond when they don't learn?

  4. How will we respond when they do?

Our Vertical PLC has already begun this process of answering Questions 1 and 2. I imagine over the course of the summer, we will begin answering Questions 3 and 4.

The first step in the process of answering Question 1 is to clarify essential learnings (skills, knowledge, concepts, dispositions) for each course/subject to ensure students have access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum, unit by unit. How do we determine what is essential? They must meet three criteria:

  1. Endurance: Students are expected to retain the skills/knowledge long after the test is completed.

  2. Leverage: The skill or knowledge is applicable to many academic disciplines.

  3. Readiness for the next level of learning: The skill/knowledge is preparing students for success in the next grade or course.

We then set SMART goals for students demonstrating these essential learnings. My big questions was: what do units look like for us? Concerts? Grading periods? A discussion to be had as a Vertical PLC.

The DuFours highlighted a cardinal rule: "Professional learning communities always attempt to answer critical questions by first building shared knowledge - engaging in collective inquiry - and learning together." We as a Vertical PLC need to focus on this learning together aspect. Especially now that there are new Core Arts Standards.

The DuFours also used Robert Marzano's Levels of Curricula at Work in Your School:

  1. Intended: what we want students to learn

  2. Implemented: what actually gets taught

  3. Attained: what students actually learn

Marzano says: "To impact the attained curriculum in the most powerful way, make certain the implemented curriculum is guaranteed and viable." Our most effective practice will be to establish this guaranteed and viable curriculum, unit by unit, to ensure all students have access to the same knowledge and skills, regardless of the teacher to whom they are assigned.

To answer Question 2, we need to develop multiple common formative assessments to assess each essential learning for each course or content area. We discussed this on our way home on what this step looks like for us. Do we need CFAs for our Vertical PLC? Our Horizontal PLC?

There were other breakout sessions later to help answer Questions 3 and 4.

DuFours also provided Seven Keys to Effective Teams:

  1. Embed collaboration in routine practices of the school with a focus on learning.

  2. Schedule time for collaboration into the school day and school calendar.

  3. Focus teams on critical questions.

  4. Make products of collaboration explicit.

  5. Establish team norms to guide collaboration.

  6. Pursue specific and measurable team performance goals.

  7. Provide teams with evidence of student learning to improve professional practice.

They also provided us with a wealth of resources to help determine where we were in the process. Many of these resources are available from Solution Tree for free.

Thursday Keynote - Leaders Wanted: Keys to Effective Leadership in Professional Learning Communities at Work with Richard DuFour

Rick defines leadership as:

  • Working with others to established a shared sense of purpose, goals, and direction.

  • Persuading people to move in that direction.

  • Clarifying the specific steps to be taken to begin moving in the right direction.

  • Providing the resources and support that enable people to succeed at what they are being asked to do.

The big take-away is that their need to be leaders (teachers and administrators) throughout the school in order for the PLC process to be effective. Rick says that PLC Leaders at all levels are most effective when they:

  • Work collaboratively with others and take collective responsibility for achieving shared goals for which they are mutually accountable.

  • Provide clarity regarding the work to be done.

  • Monitor and support others to help them succeed at what they are being asked to do.

  • Sustain their focus on a limited number of goals and initiatives.

  • Acknowledge and celebrate small wins.

The more I process the concepts and philosophies behind PLCs, the more I see the immense benefit of working in collaborative teams of teachers. It helps that I am already part of a great vertical team, but I can definitely see the benefit of doing this in every content area.

Rick went on to clarify the right work referenced in the 2nd bullet point above: "PLC leaders promote clarity by creating a culture that is simultaneously loose and tight." This is very evident in my district. Frequently we are discussing the tight (required) and loose (freedom) of the different concepts we are implementing. Rick's concept of right work is:

  • Educators work in collaborative teams and take collective responsibility for student learning rather than working in isolation.

  • Collaborative teams implement a guaranteed and viable curriculum, unit by unit.

  • Collaborative teams monitor student learning through an ongoing assessment process that includes frequent, team-developed common formative assessments.

  • Educators use the results of common assessments to:

    • Improve individual practice.

    • Build the team's capacity to achieve its goals.

    • Intervene/enrich on behalf of students.

  • The school provides a systematic process for intervention and enrichment.

Rick then went on to cite research from Amabile and Kramer on motivation. They found that there are three keys to feeling motivated at work (The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, 2011):

  • A sense of progress in meaningful work is by far the most powerful force for promoting a positive feeling about work.

  • Catalysts - events that directly support progress in meaningful work

  • Nourishers - interpersonal events that uplift the people doing the work

Rick says: "By far the best way to motivate people to sustain their effort in the face of challenges is to facilitate progress by removing obstacles and providing ongoing support. The negative impact of a day of frustration because of obstacles is three times more powerful than the positive impact of a day of progress." He then went on to share the different obstacles his staff at Adlai Stevenson High School while he was principal. Obstacles like time, clarity regarding the nature of the work, and differing expectations regarding collaboration and kids completing work. As a staff, they came up with solutions to these obstacles. The critical point is that the staff (teachers AND administrators) came up with solutions to make themselves more effective. Stevenson has great examples, but their solutions aren't necessarily THE solutions for our schools.

Thursday Breakout #1 - Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap: Whatever It Takes in High Schools with Richard DuFour

This breakout session provided a lot of practical information about what the process looks like in a high school with Rich drawing quite a bit on his time at Adlai Stevenson High School. He gave us three focus questions that guided the rest of the session:

  • What is the school's response when it becomes apparent that the student is not being successful?

  • If you are the student, what message does the school seem to be sending you?

  • Given the school's practices and procedures, what conclusions can you draw regarding its assumptions about the school's purpose?

Rick asserts that the school's response needs to be increased levels of time and support when a student is not being successful. This response needs to be timely, systematic, and increasingly directive, not an invitation. We need to strive for learning to be the constant. Students will achieve the same amount of learning. Time is the variable. So truly, how will we respond collective and systematically when kids don't learn or behave?

Rick then went on to provide examples from a variety of different schools with a variety of different schedules and systems of intervention. They included:

  • Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois - 8 50-minute periods (6 classes + lunch + study hall/free period)

  • Cinco Ranch High School in Katy, Texas - 7 periods (freshmen are required to enroll in intensive study skills class)

  • Whittier Union High School in Whittier, California - 6 period modified block (Monday: 6 48-minute periods. Tuesday-Friday: 3 100-minute periods. After 5 weeks, remaining school time can be free, long lunch, or intensive tutoring)

  • Lakeridge Junior High School in Orem, Utah - 8 period modified block with FLEX time

  • Robert Frost and Jane Addams Junior High Schools in Schaumburg, Illinois - 9 40-minute periods with 1 period reserved for lunch

Rick cautions that "no system of intervention can compensate for weak and ineffective teaching. At the same time that a school is working to develop time and support for student learning, it must take steps to create the powerful collaborative teams and common assessments that contribute to adult learning."

This session made me very excited for the work being done at our school. We have a scheduling task force looking at how we can adjust our schedule to provide a system of interventions to students who are not learning at the same pace as their classmates. We have a committee looking at implementing PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) to help support positive behavior. All of this work is happening as part of our PLC process.

Thursday Breakout #2 - Feedback: The Breakfast of Champions with Laurie Robinson-Sammons

This session was my least favorite of the conference. I definitely recognize how this session benefited the many elementary teachers in the room with specific, practical strategies for providing feedback in their classrooms. I would find it difficult to implement many of the strategies in a large rehearsal setting with older students.

I did benefit from information she had regarding direct, immediate, and short-cycle descriptive feedback. As part of our professional development in our school, we received similar training on making our feedback more effective. It was good to have a refresher on this information. I apologize I don't have specifics to post here, as her handout did not include definitions for the kind of feedback she described.

Friday Breakout - Raising Questions and Finding Answers in Our Grading Practices with Tim Brown

Friday's schedule was a bit different: beginning with one breakout session and transitioning into a final keynote before sending us off for the day. While not specifically referring to these grading practices as standards-based grading, Tim's session raised many of the same questions SBG is attempting to answer.

Because this session was an affirmation for me regarding SBG, I don't have a lot to contribute to the blog post regarding it. Tim discussed that grades should only represent achievement of a standard (not effort, improvement, compliance, attitude, or participation), working to help students achieve a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset, providing multiple attempts to prove mastery, descriptive feedback is the most effective way in helping students to learn, purpose of homework in our grading practices, our use of grading scales and zeros, and a variety of other topics. It was an excellent affirmation of the work we are already attempting to do with standards-based learning.

Friday Keynote - Kid by Kid, Skill by Skill: Being a Teacher in a Professional Learning Community with Robert Eaker

Dr. Eaker's keynote was an excellent way to wrap up all of the different topics that were discussed over the course of the week. He asserted that: "At their core, great schools for kids have three characteristics:

  • They are safe and secure.

  • They make kids feel special.

  • And they ensure that all students learn at high levels."

He went on to clarify each of these points, asking us to set the standard of: "would this be good enough for my own child?" He says, "the secret to motivating students - and adults - lies in the significant role of perceptions: What do they think another person thinks of them? The power lies in how much they believe you care." He also guided us back to the four essential questions to guide us and provided answers:

  1. What do we expect students to learn?

    • Clarifying and adding meaning to standards

    • What the standard, if met, would look like in student work

    • Common scoring, learning targets, pacing

  2. How will we know if they learn it?

    • Collaborative development and use of common formative assessments

    • Quick checks for understanding

    • Exit passes

  3. How do we respond when students experience difficulty in learning?

    • Differentiated instruction, POI, RTI, and PBIS

  4. How do we respond when students do learn?

    • Differentiated instruction

If a student does not know something, someone is going to have to show them how with practice, feedback, and encouragement. It was an excellent wrap-up to an excellent conference.

Other Sessions

There were a large number of other sessions that I did not attend, but many members of the team from our school and and our district did. I was able to collect many handouts, and I hope to reflect on them later this summer. A few of these sessions include:

  • Healthy and Productive Teams with Cassandra Erkens

  • Scales and Rubrics with ELA Standards with Cassandra Erkens

  • Simplifying Response to Intervention with Mike Mattos

  • A Focus on Learning: What Would It Look Like if We Really Meant It? with Robert Eaker

  • Developing a Stretch Culture with Robert Eaker

  • Stop Overwhelming Your Intervention Structure with Will Remmert

  • Assessing Students Responsively: Differentiating with a Laser Focus with Laurie Robinson-Sammons

  • Common Formative Assessments: The Lynchpin of the PLC Process with Richard DuFour

  • Critical Thinking and Cool Technologies with Regina Stephens Owens

  • Friday Night in America: A Commonsense Approach to Improving Student Achievement with Robert Eaker


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.