Professing Education

 

Networked Learning as Educator Development

Gerry Crocker, JoAnne Dowd, Jean Haeger, Mary Hastings, Mark Kostin, Alexandra MacPhail, Lynne Miller, John Newlin and David Ruff

Networked learning is gaining recognition as a form of educator development that extends beyond traditional definitions of teacher education and professional development. As Lieberman and Miller (1999) note, networks provide a way for teachers to learn away from their own schools and in collaboration with others. "Networks encourage trust, build support, and provide additional avenues for teacher learning... These groups provide teachers with continual stimulation and ideas and put them in touch with colleagues who are working on similar problems of practice" (p. 71). Over time, the Southern Maine Partnership has helped to develop many networks as venues for educator learning. Each site is distinct in purpose and audience; each is powerful in bringing together people to share ideas and explore thorny issues together. Below, we describe a sampling of Partnership networks.

Curriculum Think Tank

For over fifteen years, the Curriculum Think Tank has been a place for Partnership educators who are charged with overseeing the curriculum work of their districts to gather monthly to discuss common issues and concerns. Group activities vary from seminars based on texts, presentations, open-ended discussions and structured conversations, problem-posing, and problem-solving. Most recently, the attention of the group has focused on the assessment requirements of the state of Maine and the federal government. Group members share ideas and practices and support each other in their efforts to lead the educational agendas of their districts. Since each district has but one curriculum coordinator, the Think Tank is a place for a role group to gather and gain support. Often, as a result of these meetings, members develop smaller regional alliances for curriculum and assessment work.

Dine and Discuss

One of the long-standing networking traditions of the Southern Maine Partnership is the "Dine and Discuss" event. There are usually two or three such events offered each month of the school year. These events can have different purposes, but they all share the attribute of bringing educators together from many schools to learn (and eat) together. Dine and Discuss events typically occur from 4-7 pm. Light refreshments are available beforehand, and dinner usually begins at 6pm, leaving two hours for the program. In many cases, educators approach SMP staff to propose a Dine and Discuss topic that they either are hungry to learn more about or that they want to facilitate a conversation around. In addition, Dine and Discuss topics occasionally arise from a desire on the part of SMP staff to "test the waters" with an idea for a new SMP project or initiative or to respond to concerns they hear emerging from the members. Dine and Discuss events are publicized primarily through the Southern Maine Partnership calendar one or two months in advance; these calendars are distributed in bulk to each SMP school.

Learner Centered Accountability Project

As the Southern Maine Partnership began to develop more grant-funded projects in the 1990's, our networking strategies became more diverse. Three annual large assessment conferences were held in the early 1990's that brought SMP educators together to discuss assessment practices. In the mid-1990 the Learner Centered Accountability Project began, which involved six high schools over a period of three years. Networking meetings that brought together small teams from each of these six schools occurred quarterly. Each summer, the high schools involved in the LCA Project sent a team of faculty members to a retreat location (near a lake or the ocean) for five days of intense learning and planning. When the LCA Project ended, the Retreat continued, albeit with some changes. School participation has steadily increased each year so that in the summer of 2004 thirteen schools and over 80 faculty members were involved.

The Large School Collaborative

In the summer of 2003 the principals of six large high schools (over 1,000 students) in Maine had lunch together at the Great Maine Schools Summer Institute at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The purpose of the gathering was to determine how to collaborate in making changes in their schools that would improve equity, rigor, and personalization for every student. Originally, these schools were funded for a year with the idea that one or two of them would make great strides, "rise to the top", and be awarded a larger grant for continuing their work over the remaining four years. Rather than compete, the six principals agreed to collaborate and learn from one another, staying together over the life of the grant (five years). Since then, the six principals have become a professional and personal support system, hosting lunch every six weeks in one of their schools, with focused discussions on school wide issues such as shared leadership, guidance programs, parent engagement, decision-making policies and processes, and focused professional development. These discussions are facilitated by coaches from the Southern Maine Partnership who work closely with them to implement the goals of the Great Maine Schools Project to make the changes they envision in their schools. Between meetings, cyberspace hums with emails asking for advice and support around topics such as advanced placement courses, teacher assignments, and student engagement. This past year two other principals of large high schools were invited to join the collaboration because the work of their schools resonated with the Great Maine Schools Project. The collaboration doesn't end with the principals.

Teams of teachers from each school began monthly cross school visits, observing and learning from school practices such as advisories, teaming structures, early college programs, and assessment strategies. This year, school teams have met every other month to review school data, learn successful strategies, and plan and undertake actions. Additionally, the principals, teachers, parents and students from the collaborative schools have conducted school visits with schools across the New England region and New York City to learn about successful restructuring processes and policies. The outcomes to date of these collaborative efforts include increasing restructuring efforts across the schools and the value of knowing that none of them stands alone as the leader of a large school.

The Triad

During the first Summer Institute of the Great Maine Schools Project, participant schools ended their experience by engaging in triad consultancies to give and receive feedback on their first year action plans. The productive dialogue the groups engaged in at this event prompted three schools to continue collaborating. The two Partnership coaches assigned to the schools helped them organize a series of school visits through a Dine and Discuss event. At that event, the schools created norms that have continued to guide their work together. One unique norm is that students be an integral part of all triad activities. Teams from each of the three schools brainstormed issues they were wrestling with and eventually identified an essential question for the other schools to focus their observations. Each school hosted a team of six to eight teachers and students who toured the school, observed classes and learned about the school. At the end of the day, the teams gathered and participated in a consultancy facilitated by the Partnership coaches.

At the second Summer Institute, the schools requested an opportunity to participate together in shared professional development. The partnership coaches hosted and facilitated a planning meeting with school teams of students and teachers to determine some common goals around increasing equity, rigor, and personalization for students, echoing the goals of the grant. One clear area that emerged as a topic was to make advisories (small communities of students and teachers) more meaningful. All three schools have advisories at different stages of development, from a fledgling program to a school with seasoned advisories. The planning teams decided that they could benefit from a day-long training on best practices in advisory. Partnership coaches contacted an experienced advisory trainer to provide professional development, and organized a day-long event. The schools agreed to cost share and submitted individual goals for the day, which were incorporated by the facilitator. Feedback from the event reflected the added value of having mixed voices of students, teachers and administrators from different schools. The schools hope to continue their collaboration into their future. They have identified a common interest in increasing student voice in their respective schools.

Professional Learning Communities

Over the last ten years, The Southern Maine Partnership has helped schools form Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Professional Learning Communities are based on the assumptions that teachers are learners and that instead of existing and working in isolation, they are a community that can support as well as push each other's practice in a safe environment. The structures of PLC's can be formalized, such as in Critical Friends' Groups, where groups of teachers meet regularly and examine their own practice; they look at student work as a way of increasing student achievement as well as deepening teacher practice. PLC's may also exist more organically as part of a school's professional development strategy or as a part of regularly scheduled gatherings of teachers such as faculty and department meetings, content area discussions, grade level meetings, and new teacher groups. The centerpiece of the work of the PLC is the use of protocols. These are structured conversations that allow for focused and meaningful discussions of a variety of issues in diverse circumstances and settings.

Promoting 21st Century Learning and Teaching

Two years ago, Maine implemented one-to-one laptop computing in middle schools through a statewide initiative. This year, approximately thirty-five Maine high schools have taken the bold step of growing the laptop initiative to the secondary level. The Southern Maine Partnership was invited to assist in the implementation of this ambitious statewide strategy by offering a course that provides professional development and integrates literacy, universal design and technology in a cohesive way to ensure personalization for all learners. The course, called 21st Century Learning and Teaching, offers a model for designing student-centered curriculum for classrooms rich in both digital technology and content areas by using a planning backwards approach. Participants develop a standards-based unit framed around an essential question and outcomes that identify what students should know or be able to do. The unit is designed to integrate a variety of teaching, learning, and literacy strategies that prepare students for a culminating performance assessment. Emphasis is placed on developing a relevant context for students, especially through connecting to the community. During the course, teachers become part of a professional learning community giving and receiving feedback on the unit development. Once the unit is implemented, participants will examine the student work and reflect on ways to improve their practice. An initial offering of the course runs from February 2005 through July 2005 and concludes with a 3-day summer institute. In subsequent years, the course will be available to a larger audience of middle and high school teachers across the state.

 


References

Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (1999). Teachers: Transforming their world and their work. New York: Teaches College press.