Professional Learning

Making Space for Students in PLCs

Professional learning communities can be very effective when they include feedback from students on their experiences in school.

September 16, 2022
SolStock / iStock

Giving space for student voice and feedback to inform relationships and teaching practices is a critical component of responsive teaching and can be a vital component of professional learning communities (PLCs).

At my school, grade-level PLCs engage in cycles of inquiry, and last year we layered on a focus student inquiry for student feedback. We adapted our PLC inquiry cycle from resources in Cornelius Minor’s We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be. Our work was a group effort, with fellow coaches, our teams, and my school principal. The impact on student learning has been powerful.

Setting the Stage for Effective Collaboration With Student Participation

Laying the groundwork for creative, collaborative PLCs begins by establishing working agreements that support relationship building, growth and innovation, and a willingness to engage in courageous conversations and examine biases. Coaches who reflect weekly on team feedback develop clear agendas, which include:

  • Connection—A quick activity to spark learning and build relationships.
  • Data protocols—Processes to analyze data with a student-centered lens and our equity vision.
  • Process observer feedback—Trained facilitators give objective feedback to the group, centered on a team’s focus (based on Elena Aguilar’s list of roles and responsibilities).
  • Next steps

We develop data protocols for teams to utilize with students to uncover biases and ensure that we focus on what’s in our sphere of influence. Questions we’ve found useful include:

  •  What are some predictions, assumptions, and questions we have before we look at the data?
  • As we look at the data, what patterns do we notice? Does anything surprise us or pop out?
  • What other ways can we explore this data? What other data can we use to gain a fuller picture?
  • What inferences might we draw looking at the data? What story does it tell?
  • What action steps can we explore, and how will we measure the impact of the action steps?
  • What can we learn from each other’s successes?

Our process observers focus in large part on asset-based language because we know that language informs belief, which then influences future language choices and actions. This is an equity practice we’ve incorporated to honor the strengths and talents of our students, their families, ourselves, and our colleagues.

Inquiry Cycle Tools

Our leadership team selected two tools from We Got This to incorporate into the inquiry cycle and then added the student focus. The cycle includes the following:

1. Thinking about the students in my class (one to two weeks): We adapted Minor’s worksheet Thinking About the Kids in My Classroom by changing the language of “children that I worry about” to “students I want to think about based on the data.” After using a data protocol to analyze student data, every teacher selected three groups of students (with similar needs) to explore, asking these questions:

  • What do students need to be successful?
  • What might be a barrier that I need to address?
  • What can I do differently based on this?

2. Quick impact plan (two weeks): We modified the worksheet A Guide for Planning Change Quickly to use reflective language focused on changes to pedagogy. Every teacher zeroed in more closely with one small group of students and asked these questions:

  • Which kids most need me to think about changes to my teaching?
  • What change will I focus on?
  • What evidence will I collect to inform my next steps?
  • How can I empower students as we learn from each other?

3. Focus student inquiry (four weeks): We started by facilitating a professional development session to build understanding of a warm demander learning partnership. Every teacher selected a focus student as a partner.

Student Partnership

Learning partnerships are relationships that teachers intentionally build with students to learn about and from them. Teachers learn students’ strengths, identities, mindsets, and skills to adjust instruction and improve their pedagogy.

We defined learning partnerships using the work of Zaretta Hammond and National Equity Project. Warm demander leaders are those who expect a great deal from themselves and their colleagues, convince them of their capacity to grow as antiracist educators, and use data to shift mindsets and practices—as in Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, by Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan.

Warm demanders build authentic trust and a safe environment in order to form learning partnerships to

  • learn from and with students to codesign learning opportunities and environments;
  • balance giving both care and push to ensure empowerment, success, positive mindset, self-efficacy, and hope;
  • reduce microaggressions and ensure belonging;
  • give achievers the language to talk about their learning moves.

Our process lasted four weeks and included the following:

  • Start with the student: What are their strengths, interests, and culture, and what do they bring to the classroom? Interview the student: What is going well, what is challenging, what would you like to change? Do you feel cared about and like you belong?
  • Observe the student closely for a week and reflect: How do I communicate with them, how do they communicate with others? What is my relationship like, and what are my beliefs about them?
  • Videotape, reflection, and action: Videotape one 5- to 10-minute lesson. Watch your video and note positive, negative, and neutral exchanges to analyze impact. Make an action plan for the next week.
  • Final reflection: What were the results of my action plan? What might I try next? What did I learn from my focus student? What will I carry with me into my future teaching?

In order to promote learning partnerships, teachers partnered with resource staff for many of the steps of the inquiry cycle to reflect and discuss. Every teacher, however, completed the video reflection individually. Since this was our first time using video as a reflection tool, we wanted to build trust by having teachers self-reflect individually.

When we asked teachers, “What is the most impactful thing we have done in our PLCs this year?” the most common response was the learning we did with our focus students (the reflection, the videotaping, learning about their engagement). We learned so much from our focus students, and they were empowered through the process.

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