Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Our Collaborative Learning Community

I'm revisiting last year's February edition of Educational Leadership, How Teachers Learn, because I'm embarrassed to admit, I totally missed it last year! As I skimmed the Table of Contents, the article that first drew my attention was Learning with Blogs and Wikis by Bill Ferriter. Bill is a six grade Science and Social Studies teacher in North Carolina and a Senior Fellow for the Teacher Leader Network.

I was drawn to his article because our learning community has worked in the last two years to collaboratively develop grade level wikis and embark in the world of blogging. In his article, he writes, "Times have changed in two significant ways..." "First, there's a new emphasis on the importance of collaborative learning among members of close-knit teams in schools." Later he writes, "Second, digital tools now help fulfill Elmore's desire for free portals through which new knowledge about teaching and learning can enter schools."

In 1998 when Chets Creek was built, the learning leaders built a guiding vision and mission together. The Chets Creek team believed by establishing high expectations for all stakeholders and creating an environment which fosters meaningful relationships, risk-taking, and academic results, we would increase the chance that we would realize our vision. Just a few years later, we adopted the America's Choice School Design, and started building close-knit teams that had daily common planning time, and that met weekly, by grade level, to collaborate, discuss student work, and build curricular resources together. As we built professional and personal relationships, we began, as Ferriter mentions, "reflecting on instruction, challenging assumptions, questioning policies, offering advice, designing solutions, and learning together." We felt safe to take risks and implement new ideas. Sometimes we relished in their success and sometimes we failed, but each time, we learned and dared together. Over the years, we realized we were fullfilling our vision each day. We had a true gem, a learning community, because we had poured our passion and our dreams into our craft. We had built a school we would want our own children to attend. To say, we had a close-knit team was an understatement; We were a school family.

Not until the 2008-2009 school year did we embark on a successful option to Mr. Ferriter's second mention--digital tools. Sure, years ago, we had tried, although not successfully, to share ideas digitally through our intranet. But, too soon, our shared file became cluttered, hard to navigate, and impossible to categorize. Not to mention that we could only log on to retrieve information at school. What we had managed to create, although primitive, came tumbling down too quickly one day when the whole system hit overload and crashed. We salvaged little. We began reluctantly rebuilding, one file at a time with a definite lack of urgency.

Fast forward many years and you will catch a glimpse at our first real success in digital resources. Our technology coach, Melanie Holtsman introduced us to wikispaces, and inspired us to begin using them as collaborative learning spaces and digital warehouses. The option appealed to primary literacy coach, dayle timmons, who as a looping Kindergarten / First Grade teacher, had grown tired of passing an overstuffed dilapidated three ring binder stuffed with ideas from one teacher to the next, year after year. She jumped into the project and was the driving force behind Chets Creek's First Grade wiki and was ecstatic to find, upon her return to Kindergarten the following year, that the Kindergarten teachers had embraced the idea just as eagerly. To every one's relief, no longer did our K-1 teachers have to keep up with their notebooks, because everything went exquisitely digital! And, no longer was information just passed, but easily revised and polished, and built upon from one year to the next!

It didn't take long for the second grade teachers to follow suit nor for third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers to begin asking questions and showing interest. We haven't yet arrived at our destination, but we are certainly on our way, especially in the grade levels where teachers have wholeheartedly embraced the wiki as a collaborative project and learning tool. As you can see, I am elated that we have this editable website for our own use, but I am equally as delighted, as Ferriter states that, "All of this collective knowledge is readily available and free" to others. Our Chets Creek teachers are incredibly talented and give so unselfishly, I can't imagine students beyond our walls not benefiting from their work.

As we began building wikis, Melanie also introduced us to the world of blogging. Most of our teachers jumped in head first. A few, like Maria Mallon, have done beautifully, and used it as a window into her classroom both for parents and educators globally. But, overall, though we have a webpages, blogs, and wikis page on our school website, the waters of blogging at Chets Creek have cooled. Undeterred, Melanie encouraged our teachers to set up an RSS, Really Simple Syndication, feed. Even if they weren't blogging consistently themselves, she encouraged them to read the blogs of other educators. Ferriter explains, "Teachers rarely get to self-select learning opportunities, pursue professional passions, or engage in meaningful, ongoing conversations about instruction." Melanie knows that the RSS feed will open the door of learning for Chets Creek teachers to do just that. In addition, Melanie set up a professional development blog for CCE teachers so learning they do at conferences is immediately and readily available to everyone in our school. The underlying understanding is that if the school spends valuable dollars sending you to a conference for learning, you will blog the conference for our collectively learning.

I know, in two year's time, we are only scratching the surface of possibilities, and I can't wait to see how much more we learn and grow in the years ahead. I have to believe that we would make Mr. Ferriter proud, because adult learning in our school is not pushed aside as we sprint through the day. Rather, we know we must wrap our arms tightly around adult learning, so we can achieve our truest desire--leaving no rock unturned to meet the needs of every single student in our care.

1 comment:

gabrielle said...

Thanks for sharing your school's story.
The school I went through went through a similar rebuilding. Developing our PLC was one of the most important aspects of student achievement. We realized the importance of a community that shares teaching practice and reflects together. Getting to the point where people felt comfortable to share took work. I wrote about this for ASCD's online magazine. Here's the link.

I also write about it on my blog