Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities (Part 1)

Part One: Assess Wisely

This is part of an occasional series about Professional Learning Communities— I dubbed it Trade & Teach, a practice of assessing all students in a grade level and creating leveled groups taught by different teachers.  It can work really well in elementary schools, but I have noticed the trend is to reinvent the wheel in the name of teacher buy-in. Rather than that, I offer Best Practices advice from tried and true implementation experience in real third grade classrooms. If you’re not familiar with Professional Learning Communities, read the Wiki here.

Trade & Teach looks at all students in a grade, then creates groups based on students’ levels of learning or achievement in a specific area.  For example, if your Trade & Teach focus is on reading, assess students’ reading levels and form reading groups for intensive instruction.  The highest reading group, for example, should be the largest group because the highest  readers need less formal instruction, while lower readers require intensive individual attention, thus mandating a small student-teacher ratio.  Teacher buy-in results from knowing that the group skill levels are clustered, resulting in fewer strategies for student engagement and greater focus on learning. 

In order to assess wisely, you need a clear goal.  Are you trying to remediate a specific skill such as addition, writing complete sentences or distinguishing cause from effect?  Or are you teaching reading, writing or math in general?  Decide what you wish to accomplish, then design an assessment that lets you differentiate among the students in that one area.

It really helps to use just one measurement to sort students based on their learning achievements.  Minor adjustments can be made based on teacher discretion.  Overall, you’ll be glad you only have one variable to deal with for each assessment and learning objective.

After you assess, I recommend creating a spreadsheet or using an online grade book like JupiterGrades to store data.  Input all student test or assessment scores.  Then sort and print.  Draw lines and voila!  You have your rough estimate of groups.

Part of wise assessing is knowing how often to assess.  I recommend that you leave students in their learning groups for at least a month.  Assess too often and you’ll spend more time evaluating and regrouping than actually teaching.  Besides, student growth is often more apparent if you give children long enough to learn new ideas and cement them into long term memory before you assess again.

How often you assess is determined in part by the goals of your Professional Learning Communities.  If your goals are more specific skill-based, you might assess more often.  For example, you might spend a month on place value and related skills, then reassess before forming groups for a very different skill like geometry.

Overall, I like the general-goals plan for Professional Learning Communities.  If you sort students by overall proficiency in math determined by, say, a Star Math score, then you are better able to adjust instruction for students’ needs.  For example, one group might need to spend a great deal of time on basic facts while another group can focus on problem solving.  More about that in the next entry in this occasional series…

This series on Professional Learning Communities Best Practices is made possible by Valerie, Donina, Bethany and Heather … an amazing third grade team!

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Posted in Professional Learning Communities by Corey Green @ Nov 1, 2011


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