Leading an Annual PD Revolution – Part 3

This blog is part of a #pdrevolution series featured on CraftED’s blog.

Organize yourselves around learning in pursuit of that thing about student learning you want to improve.

“Organize around learning” can sound pretty ambiguous. Here are some practical questions to help you pull it off:

  • Time: In what ways is our master schedule already designed to clear the path for us to prioritize and maintain a deliberate improvement focus? Where are there opportunities for us to adjust? What might we stop doing, so that we can truly commit to a singular focus?
  • Leadership: Who is most logically positioned to design and facilitate this ongoing learning effort (i.e. department chairs, grade level team leaders, curriculum specialists, instructional coaches)? What support and development will those leaders need, and how we can ensure structures are in place for this support as a regular part of this process? (Bonus questions: Will those leaders change over time? How can we articulate this distributed leadership system for future use?)
  • Culture: Do we already have rituals and norms that will lend themselves to the level of discipline and collective capacity building this focus will require of us? In what ways? What rituals and norms are most likely to help us bring this improvement vision to life? Who might need some additional or unique support through what will likely be some periods of “disequilibrium” (Heifetz, 2009)?

In addition to ensuring you consider and plan intentionally for tending to the conditions for learning (questions above), this type of learning pursuit implies a cyclical inquiry process. Whatever framework you choose, it will likely prioritize 4 things – data, analysis of that data, strategizing informed by the analysis, and testing strategies (which then creates your new set of data!). Be sure the team leading this improvement effort carves explicit and regular time to “see things from the balcony” (Heifetz, 2009). Reflect upon where you’ve been, where you are in the process, and determine the most thoughtful next steps to continually strive towards the improvement you want to see – just like a good teacher does!

Here are two visual examples of approaches to cyclical improvement efforts:

Example of 3 data-analysis-strategy cycles in service of improving students’ disciplinary writing knowledge and skill through implementation of New Tech Network’s College Readiness Assessments. Cycle of inquiry is an element of New Tech Network’s Learning Organization Framework, which is heavily informed by the work of Peter Senge.


Example of year-long virtual PLC effort in progress with a cohort of AP Instructors from Michigan Virtual School. Process leverages improvement science principles and practices from Anthony Bryk’s, Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. See my A True PLC series for details.

Frame with intention – over and over again.

The more I interact in the field of education, the more strongly I believe a school or district leader needs to practice the art of framing, which requires both communication skills and a certain level of emotional intelligence. How you communicate must change based on stakeholder, and it can be a great benefit to internalize the communication nuances inherent in working with adults who fall across a broad adult development spectrum (see Drago-Severson or Berger). Committing to a singular focus for improving student learning as a staff will require leadership to communicate strategically in a variety of ways.

  • How is what you’re doing aligned to broader layers of the educational system (i.e. district initiatives/mandates, state policy and accountability measures, federal policy and accountability measures, grant opportunities), and how can you make that connection simple to understand?
  • Who on your team might find your particular focus an adaptive challenge (i.e. it doesn’t naturally feel aligned to their content area), and how can you help them to see the relevance to their work?
  • Who might struggle most with focusing on one thing (i.e. curriculum director who is used to planning a cornucopia of PD), and how can you help them through that struggle?
  • What about this effort is likely to build stakeholder support (i.e. what should parents appreciate about this?), and how can you proactively harness your message about it in ways those stakeholders will value? How will you share bright spots, no matter how small?  

In, “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform,” Michael Fullan asks us to, “Imagine that you would become a better teacher just by virtue of the fact that you are on the staff of a particular school in a particular district in a particular state or country.” Imagine. This is what I believe leading an annual #PDRevolution will accomplish. You are blazing the trail!


Leading an Annual PD Revolution – Part 2

This blog is part of a #pdrevolution series featured on CraftEd’s blog.

Identify something specific about student learning that you want to improve.

As the former Director of School Leadership at New Tech Network (NTN), I sometimes had the privilege of co-facilitating with my friend and colleague, Jim May, Chief Schools Officer at NTN. In one of our sessions designed for school leaders, we focused on the concept of identifying a singular focus for student outcomes improvement. To kick off the session, we started with the following warm-up prompt:

Take 5-10 minutes to write down all of the things you and your staff worked on this past school year – all of the professional development. List as many things as you can remember.

After participants vigorously drafted their lists, we followed up with the question: What did you get better at as a result?

We tended to get blank stares.

Jim is notorious for these gotcha moments. He prides himself on creating experiences that have learners bump into insights. He also often uses the simple quote, “You get better specifically, not generally.” This was the point of the warm-up (if that’s not already clear). He recently told me that this quote is his way of synthesizing what he’s found to be the main point made over and over again in literature around improvement. In my own reading, I’d tend to agree with his paraphrase.


Here’s the deal: Picking something specific about student learning you want to improve is actually a pretty foreign concept in the field of education. As educators, we are multi-taskers. We’re used to wearing many hats. We’re used to working 12-hour days. We’re often wrestling with multiple accountability measures and initiatives coming from multiple layers of the complex education system. Agreeing as a team to commit to a singular improvement focus takes courage and an element of risk. It will likely receive push-back. And the path to improvement is not clean. It will be messy, and the focus will likely evolve as you learn. See this case study of New Tech West in Cleveland, OH for a great example of the messy long-term path to improvement led by someone committed to a singular focus.

My advice: Just pick something, and go for it. There is something special about committing to getting better at getting better. And by focusing on one thing, I believe you’ll get better at many things along the way.

Here are a few examples of a singular focus:

  • Improve students’ ability to use evidence to support claims in their written communication
  • Increase from 5% to 50% the number of students who achieve college math credit within one year of continuous enrollment (from Learning to Improve by Anthony Bryk)
  • Increase the quality of final products through evidence of student work revision over multiple drafts

What does the analysis of your current outcomes, in line with what you care about most, tell you you need to get better at specifically?

Read Part 3 to consider what it looks like to organize yourself and your team around learning in pursuit of the specific thing about student learning you want to improve.

Planning an Improvement Cycle

This is part 4 of the “True PLC” blog series designed to articulate the specifics of and to reflect upon an 8-month virtual Professional Learning Community (PLC).

The first PLC meeting was largely about getting connected to one another and to the purpose for the group’s collaboration. The second meeting was about getting specific about the problems we want to solve about student learning. The third meeting, which I will highlight in this piece, focused on planning first improvement cycles in service of our specific improvement aims. This is really where the rubber hits the road!

Where we are in the big picture of this PLC effort.

Meeting Objectives

The objectives for this 3rd meeting were to:

  • Connect with one another
  • Glean insights from an example of an improvement process to inform our own
  • Support one another to ensure change ideas are aligned to key “whys” behind outcomes you want to change
  • Draft the plan for your first improvement cycle, using the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle as a guide

Here’s how we went about it…

Meeting Structure

  • 10min: Get Connected – Round Robin Share-Out (All Together)
  • 15min: Text Analysis – A Case Study of an Improvement Process (On Your Own & Share Key Insights)
  • 5min: Capturing Your Current State – the key “whys” producing the outcomes you want to change and the change ideas you think will result in desired improvements (On Your Own)
  • 20min: Collaborative Planning – Ensure each group member leaves having zeroed in on their first specific change idea and the data they’ll use to measure whether their change leads to an improvement (Small Group Break-Outs)
  • 5min: Next Steps – In next month, carry out change idea and collect relevant data. Be ready to share at next meeting. (All Together)
  • 5min: Reflection – (On Your Own)

Check out the modified (for public consumption) and more granular version of this agenda here, and you should feel free to make a copy of the document and make it your own. You might find it interesting to review the improvement aims this PLC has identified in the Improvement Process Planning Table (Table prompts heavily informed by Bryk’s Learning to Improve).


We’re not necessarily standards-driven in our approach. Over the weekend, my supervisor shared Solution Tree’s Global PD effort with me. It’s the DuFour team’s effort to offer a virtual support system for teams enacting PLCs. The online tool looks to be heavily standards-driven, with an emphasis on learning targets and common assessments. I think there is great potential in this and at the same time it bumps up against some of my beliefs about assessment and data.

I decided to create an environment where my participants selected the thing about their students’ learning that they’d like to change most (i.e. deepen contextual responses to peer feedback on writing). They are determining the most relevant data to create, collect, and analyze (i.e. evidence of peer feedback) in order to understand the impact their efforts have on that desired change. If an aim ends up being tied to a content standard, and if a common assessment is the data generation approach that feels relevant, great! If not, and the approach still leads to measurable improvements in student outcomes, I think this effort is just as valid. I would be VERY curious to hear thoughts on this, and I look forward to reflecting upon this with my PLC at the end of our effort too – Does an improvement effort have to be standards-driven?

Next Steps

So far we’ve been planning and preparing. Now it’s time to DO. I’ve asked my participants to enact their first prioritized change idea and to gather any relevant data that emerges between now and our next monthly meeting, even if minimal. At the next meeting, I’ll create the conditions for participants to share that data and to make sense of it in a way that helps them to make informed decisions about what to do next to continually strive towards their improvement aim.

In participants’ reflections, they continue to appreciate small group breakout time, the support they receive in this setting, and the space it provides to share plans and discuss ideas. To honor this, I think for the next meeting I will quickly model a protocol for data analysis and then send folks off into small groups to replicate it on their own, using the data they’ve brought with them.



Determining PLC Improvement…Aims?

Determining PLC Improvement…Aims?

This is part three of the “True PLC” blog series designed to articulate the specifics of and to reflect upon an 8-month online Professional Learning Community (PLC).

While the first meeting was largely about getting connected to one another and to the purpose for the group’s collaboration, the second meeting was about getting specific about the problems we want to solve about student learning.


My design work continues to be informed by friends and former colleagues (see quote above), by the book Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Anthony S. Bryk, Louis M. Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul G. LeMahieu, and more broadly by the work of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Meeting Objectives

The plan for this 2nd meeting was to:learning-to-improve-233x350

  • Expand upon personal connections
  • Help one another refine respective aims for student outcomes improvement
  • Practice the act of understanding the system or key drivers producing the outcomes you want to change
  • Build clarity (and share resources) about next steps for identifying change ideas to enact improvement processes
  • Reflect on our progress to inform next steps for our work together

This was a lofty set of objectives! Here’s how we went about it…

Meeting Structure

  • 5min: Objectives & Norms for the Day (All Together)
  • 5min: Articulate the Problem You Want to Solve re: Student Learning (On Own)
  • 5min: Quote Reflection, while facilitator creates break-outs groups (On Own)
  • 20min: Improvement Aim Tuning (Small Group Breakouts)
  • 15min: See the System Producing the Current Outcomes – Simulation & Practice (All Together & On Own)
  • 5min: Next Steps (All Together)
  • 5min: Reflection (On Own)

Lots of bite-sized pieces in this one! Check out the modified (for public consumption) and more granular version of this agenda here, and you should feel free to make a copy of the document and make it your own.

Progress & Improvement…Aims?

One participant aims to close gaps in student performance across multiple sections of the same course. Another seeks to identify support structures showing the most promising impact on student writing in STEM courses. Others want to increase the number of students meeting critical course deadlines. And that’s just a taste.

You’ll notice there are multiple improvement aims. This was an intentional choice as a facilitator. Some PLCs might choose to focus on one common aim. I decided to go the route of each individual identifying the improvement aim they find most personally relevant and for this PLC to serve as a collaborative holding space (see Drago-Severson) to support these individualized endeavors. I’ll let you know how I feel about this move in June…for now, it feels right.


we-learn-by-doing-if-weI good about the flow of this agenda. If I had to do anything over again, I would keep break-out groups to no more than 3 people to ensure a healthy amount of time for each group member to receive tuning feedback within our 1-hour time constraint.

The norms approach was positively received. Informed by PLC-member reflections at the end of the first meeting, I introduced norms for us to “try on” for the day and to reflect upon at the end. Over my years as an educator and school development coach, it’s taken time for me to find ways to leverage norms that feel natural and useful, rather than forced and punitive. This approach felt like it honored the members of the group, and it garnered positive reflections at the end of the meeting.

I am wrestling a bit with how to build meaningful personal connections in a virtual space. I didn’t know these virtual PLC participants before we started meeting. Some of them only knew each other by association. I worry about the potential for “playing nice” to get in the way of collective capacity building (see Fullan) or for miscommunications to occur due to us not yet having built relational trust or having the conditions for deep, personal connection. So far, I do think we’re on a trajectory that exudes disciplined, collegial inquiry (in fact, this group is pretty darn stellar), but that foundational connection and mutual understanding can be elusive. I will continue testing ways to tend to the affective in an online space.

Next Steps

Participants left this meeting having received feedback on their improvement aims to ensure they are reasonable in scope and able to be measured for understanding if changes they put in place lead to desired improvements. They also observed me coaching one group member’s unpacking of the systemic whys likely leading to the outcomes she’s wanting to change.

These experiences were designed to prepare participants to:

  • Engage in their own system analysis
  • Identify promising change ideas within that system that they believe will lead to the improvements in student outcomes they want to see.

Understanding the system that surrounds a challenge is no simple task, and I’m hopeful that the resources I provided to support participants’ next steps will be useful. I’ve asked them to show up to our 3rd meeting with concrete change ideas they intend to try. It feels important for me to prompt this crew to ensure they’ve zeroed in on pre-data before enacting their change ideas, so they can really gauge whether their changes lead to improvements.

Stay tuned!


Kicking Off a Virtual PLC

Kicking Off a Virtual PLC

This is part two of a blog series designed to reflect upon and articulate the specifics of an 8-month online Professional Learning Community (PLC) effort. My goal by the end of this series is to offer a concrete, practical example of what it takes to make a true PLC happen. (It turns out this can be hard to come by!)

We wrapped our first of 8 scheduled virtual PLC meetings last week, and here’s how it went down…

Who showed up?

  • Eight of the 9 online instructors who voluntarily signed up, one of which is serving as my thought partner to continually advance the design and facilitation of the process across the year. (The absent participant had to take on bus duty after school.)
  • My 2 researcher colleagues, who will serve as resident experts and additional support across the year

Meeting Objectives

The plan was for us to…

  • Begin to connect with one another
  • Set the stage for the purpose for the group’s collaboration
  • Build clarity (and capacity) about next steps for either identifying a singular group aim or individual research questions
  • Identify some norms likely to support the group in realizing its purpose

You’ll notice that the meeting’s objectives are pretty affective in nature…


When I began facilitating adult learning experiences over six years ago, I lacked a certain level of awareness of the essential nature of the affective elements of a learning environment. In fact, I may have even chalked them up as too “touchy feely” for me. Six years later, I know that adults have to feel connected to one another and valued in order to engage deeply and vulnerably as professionals and to open themselves up to the critique necessary to improve. I thank my friends and former colleagues from New Tech Network for helping me to internalize and experience this for myself, as well as protocols and resources from National School Reform Faculty and The National Equity Project that have continually advanced my own capacity to craft holistic adult learning experiences.

Meeting Structure

The first meeting flowed like this:

  • 15min: Connecting & Framing the Year (All Together)
  • 10min: Hopes & Fears (On Your Own)
  • 20min: Text Protocol (Small Group Breakouts)
  • 10min: Wrap Up & Next Steps (All Together)
  • 5min: Reflection (On Your Own)

You can see a modified (for public consumption) and more granular version of the first meeting’s agenda here, and you should feel free to make a copy of the document and make it your own.

Hopefully you’re taking note of a few things here:

  • Meeting “Medium” Variety: Participants interacted in a variety of ways, from all together, to on their own, to breakouts, to all together, to on their own again. Shifting mediums deepens the ability to stay engaged, maximizes chances of honoring the various ways in which people think/process best, and implicitly expects active participation.
  • Meeting Flow: We connected with one another, then we had a moment for personal open-ended responses, then we unpacked a complex text and considered concrete implications for our work. This flow was intentional and inspired by the National Equity Project’s Experiential Learning Cycle.
  • Meeting Resource Accessibility: I leveraged Google Docs to help execute a smooth, online, synchronous meeting flow. Permissions were set for anyone to be able to edit, and reflection spaces and resources applicable to the meeting were embedded directly into the agenda document for coherence and simplicity.
  • Monthly Meeting Structure: There is a background “skeleton” to the Google Doc agenda structure.  Monthly online meetings will operate through this meeting template. My intention is for this technical, logistical solution to clear the path for focusing on our collaborative work and learning rather than managing accessibility to the meeting itself. (Thanks to my friend, Anna Kinsella, for helping me to refine this structural design!)


Reflections & Next Steps

In closing reflections, participants suggested they liked the structure and are looking forward to connecting with colleagues they might not have otherwise. They expressed some nervousness about being able to contribute deeply to the group, and there was a minor technical issue when trying to transition between virtual meeting spaces.

I look forward to honoring this feedback from participants as well as to keeping this PLC moving forward towards it’s overarching objectives. I, along with my instructor and research thought partners, intend to provide optional asynchronous supports to participants to set them up for greatest success on their concrete next step, which is to zero in on the student outcome issue they want to tackle.

This next meeting feels especially crucial. In fact, it feels like it might be where many PLCs go to die, if not handled with care, targeted scaffolding, and intention, as well as with a healthy level of bias towards action. Bring it on! Stay tuned for further ruminations and concrete breakdowns of how the next iteration of our work together unfolds.

Image used to animate the “core improvement questions” that drive the improvement science work in Learning to Improve by Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LeMahieu (2015).

I will make a true PLC happen

I will make a true PLC happen

I pride myself on intentional design. I simply love thinking about and shaping adult learning experiences that are authentic, focused, that challenge the status quo, and that create a space for educators to be treated as and to embody the professionals that they are.

This year, I have the opportunity to design and facilitate a professional learning community experience for a set of 9 online facilitators of high school courses. I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking through the desired outcomes for the year and a road map intended to get us there.

Anticipated Participant Outcomes:

  • Develop knowledge and skills as disciplined researchers of our own practice
  • Build capacity to collaborate with colleagues as critical friends
  • Have evidence of the impact of instructional experiments on students’ outcomes
  • Earn 24 continuing education credits towards teacher certification renewal

I am determined to pull off a PLC experience that results in participants being able to speak explicitly, and with simplicity, to the specific change or changes they made to their practice and the specific outcomes that resulted. And if we do this well, those outcomes will clearly be improvements in student outcomes, connected to specific challenges my PLC participants wanted to address. This will happen, and here’s a basic picture of how:


If you’re familiar with school improvement literature, some language above is probably already ringing some bells. To inform the design of the improvement process, I’m leveraging improvement science research through the book, Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. I’m looking forward to building upon my own knowledge base around improvement science as a result of using this book, and I aspire for this PLC effort to become a concrete example of improvement science principles and practices applied in a practical way.

We’ll be going about this effort using the following structures:

  • Monthly online, synchronous 60-minute sessions, using Google Hangouts as our online meeting format and Google Docs for dynamic and interactive agendas, running from November 2016 to June 2017.
  • Concrete next steps to be acted upon/executed by individual participants between synchronous sessions, to be prepared for the following synchronous session
  • Asynchronous scaffolding supports that are optional in nature, offered by me and/or by colleagues from my organization’s research team (i.e. graphic organizers, additional literature/resources to support steps in improvement process, 1:1 or small group coaching)
  • An asynchronous, online space using our organization’s Learning Management System (LMS), Brightspace by Desire 2 Learn, for informal interaction, such as comments, discussions, and updates.

I intend to use this blog space to reflect upon the PLC experience as it unfolds. Our 1st meeting was yesterday…stay tuned for the next blog that offers the specifics, reflections on how it went, and initial thoughts on next steps towards realizing this goal of making a true PLC happen.