Fountain Green Elementary finds success with Professional Learning Communities
By James Tilson
FOUNTAIN GREEN—“Professional learning communities” (PLCs), which enable teachers to work as a team, have put Fountain Green Elementary and other North Sanpete School District schools at the leading edge of teaching methods.
The idea is to get teachers, who may teach in different classrooms, to work as a team in identifying student needs and sharing ideas about how to help children progress.
At Fountain Green Elementary, the PLC’s are set up by grade level. Grades K-2, Grades 3-4 and Grades 5-6 are each taught by three teachers. Each specializes within the group and helps others in the team with their lessons. The teachers meet once a week to do a data review, a performance review and a progress review on students. Once a year, the teachers do a behavior review as well.
According to principal (and sixth grade teacher) Robyn Cox, PLC’s help teachers to look at students in-depth, “not just academically, but behaviorally (and) socially, seeing what we can do to help them.”
Cox explains team teaching allows a teacher to specialize and become an expert within her specific field. It also requires team members to work together and compare notes on each student. Team members learn from one another, gaining new viewpoints and experiences.
Teams also observe other classrooms within the district to see what’s working for other teachers. “The only way to get real growth is if you’re part of a community, instead of isolated by yourself,” Cox says.
Fountain Green Elementary began using PLC’s after attending a training session four or five years ago in Las Vegas sponsored by Solution Tree, a company that creates educational materials and provides teacher training.
According to Cox, PLC’s have been used for years in the business world, but Solution Tree was the first to apply those methods to education. North Sanpete decided to use the method district-wide.
At the same time, Utah began an initiative called “Assessment to Achievement” or A2A. A2A also focuses on team-teaching methods, using both PLC’s and collaborative teaching. Today, the teams are found not only at different grade levels within the same school, but there are also school-wide teams and even district teams.
“We’re probably ahead of the game,” Cox says. “It’s empowering. Our teachers can look at their own data and approaches to say ‘Here’s where we need to change.’”
Darcie Stansfield, a third and fourth grade teacher, explains how her PLC uses collaboration to teach students “meta-cognitive lessons,” in other words, teaching students to think about how they think.
“The kids naturally just want the answers, but they won’t learn anything that way. We ask them big questions and make them use their own thoughts to get the answers.”
Stansfield says that not only do the students grow, but so do the teachers. “This has been a huge ‘ah-ha’ learning experience for us.” She says that by watching each other, all the teachers have grown. And at the same time, the students are recognizing their “meta-cognition.” Each piece is building on the others.
Tori Larsen, also a third and fourth grade teacher and one of Stansfield’s team members, specializes in math within her PLC. But “I don’t just worry about their math,” she says. “We [the team members] can see all of their progress, and compare notes and data. The teachers can look over each other’s work, make suggestions from different perspectives, and help each other.”
Nicole Hansen, the third team member with Stansfield and Larsen, emphasizes how the team aspect provides support. “I absolutely love it. In my nine years of teaching, this is the most support I’ve ever had.”
Hansen says that her team helps keep her away from negative feelings. “We build each other up through the week. Also, we help each other with new insights and bounce ideas off each other to come up with even better solutions.”
Stansfield says that getting students to think has proved to be more fun for the students. “The students feel there is more fun, and not as much pressure. They participate, and think, and connect their lessons to things they already know. It helps them with retention, too.”
Hansen points to the a theme her PLC is using this year. Stansfield, Larsen and Hansen always remind their students to keep a “Growth Mindset,” to continue learning even if they don’t know the answer right away. They tell their students “I don’t know the answer…yet!”