Theory and Practice

Connected Collaboration

Permit yourself the luxury of doing just one thing.

-Lao Tzu

3rd graders read aloud their written descriptions of their totem poles they created in art class.

Using Professional Learning Communities to Bolster Comprehension Instruction by Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl (The Reading Teacher, February 2015)

This associate professor from New York University shares some insights on how to develop collaborative learning experiences around reading instruction. She suggests past “Research into Practice” columns from The Reading Teacher for possible article studies, organized by grade levels/departments and topics. Dougherty also offers specific literacy-related areas of focus within professional learning communities, such as read alouds in the primary grades and emphasizing disciplinary literacy.

Introverts, Extroverts, and the Complexities of Team Dynamics by Francesca Gino (Harvard Business Review, March 16, 2015)

Gino, a professor of business administration at Harvard, found through her own research that different leadership personalities are better suited for certain organizations. Extroverted leaders thrive in situations that are highly structured, with more passive employees looking for someone to tell them what to do. In contrast, introverted leaders find more success with proactive employees and a working environment that demands complex thinking from many within the organization.

As an example, Gino highlights Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. “Every meeting begins in total silence. Before any conversation can occur, everyone must quietly read a six-page memo about the meeting’s agenda for 20 to 30 minutes.” Also important to note is that the agenda is written in narrative style, to provide a familiar and relatable structure to the meeting. This quiet, reflective time allows more introverted employees to gather their thoughts and their courage to make significant contributions to future discussions.

How One Urban District Designed STEM for All by Anne Jolly (MiddleWeb, March 15, 2015)

This education consultant and author poses a question: “So, how do you design a program that allows all students access to STEM, not just the kids who seem obvious choices for a handpicked class?” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses have picked up steam in recent years as schools and districts focus on what the future holds for student employment and job creation. Her role is to guide teacher teams toward a more integrated and authentic curriculum.

Instead of selecting instructional resources to purchase and implement, the school Jolly worked with started by defining their beliefs about STEM instruction.

All students need to know how workers in industry tackle real problems by designing technology-based solutions. They need to recognize the value and power of math and science in those solutions.

After focusing on this curriculum initiative and intervention for seven years, the staff realized a number of benefits from their collective efforts.

  1. Students experienced a seamless integration of math and science.
  2. Math and science teachers increased their content knowledge in joint professional development.
  3. Students developed high interest in and positive attitudes toward STEM.

Achieving schoolwide success in these content areas, along with an increase in engagement among their most disenfranchised students, did not come easily for the staff. It was about more than just the time and effort involved. “This complex intervention is, by design, disruptive to school-as-usual.” Beliefs and practices were altered in the process, seemingly for the better.

I’m Sick of SMART Goals by Dan Callahan (, March 29, 2015)

A former classroom teacher laments about education’s infatuation with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals, connected with new professional evaluation systems. Callahan refers to this yearly process of developing and monitoring educational outcomes as “evaluation theater”. He believes teachers go through the motions in this area. His biggest concern is the arbitrary timeline and less-than-aspiring objectives that SMART goals create. “It (teaching) is the work of years, and I don’t think I’ve figured it all out yet, but I know I’m not very interested in playing it safe.”

Learning Should NEVER Be Lonely by Bill Ferriter (Center for Teaching Quality, March 17, 2015)

Ferriter, a middle school teacher and author, shares his slides from a recent presentation regarding personalized learning. He expresses concern about the overuse of technology to give every student what they appear to need, while potentially removing the essential connection between peers, the teacher, and the world.

In my worst nightmares, I see rows of quiet kids sitting behind computers in quiet classrooms clicking away at keyboards as they work on individual tasks that are “customized to meet their unique sets of strengths and weaknesses.” I see principals reveling in “the responsiveness of their classrooms” and teachers relaxing because there’s nothing to grade.

Time to reflect and connect…

Our school has had a focus on writing, in some form or another, for the past five years. Five years! Here is the kicker: It wasn’t until recently that we started to feel like we have a good handle as a faculty in teaching this discipline at high levels across the curriculum, grades and departments. The integration of art and literacy you see in the above image is a telling artifact.

At the same time, I don’t think anyone on our staff would say that we have it “figured out”. For example, when we collaboratively assessed student writing in the fall, we determined that while their work was technically very good, it often lacked voice and personality. Our leadership team has responded by giving staff time to share lesson plans and subsequently spread creative writing ideas throughout the building.

Organizational learning is all process, with brief yet important points for assessment and celebration. Goals help us stop and take stock, even if they are developed arbitrarily through the SMART framework. Are we too focused on literacy in our PLCs? Should we expand our perspective, and start integrating STEM topics into our literacy instruction with more intention? What we focus on is probably less important than the fact that we are all focusing on one thing.

We find our answers through deep discussions, quiet reflection, and strong decisions regarding next steps. Our schools’ stories are being told by everyone-educators, students, parents-involved in their perpetual outcomes.