Next to the statement, “I can make equivalent fractions,” fifth-grader Amaya Davis checked a box that read, “I can do it myself” on a self-evaluation form. She was part of a small math group in the Nickels Intermediate School media center. In a nearby reading group, students worked to identify themes in narratives, also pondering whether they were successful by checking: “I’m still learning this,” “I can do it with help,” or “I can do it by myself.”
At Nickels Intermediate, a fifth- and sixth-grade building, students are keeping track of what they know in reading and math. It’s the latest step in a six-year journey the district has taken in creating Professional Learning Communities. In PLCs, teachers and administrators work together by grade level, subject area and between buildings to streamline efforts, learn from one another and hold themselves and one another accountable.
Now they are adding a component that allows students to “own” their learning by having them reflect on how they are meeting milestones.
“Research says that the more a student is involved in their own learning, and evaluating their learning and setting goals, the more successful they are going to be,” Principal Tom Trout said.
The new approach is one of many ideas that have been pitched, shaped and refined during the PLC process, which staff members credit for helping Byron Center Public Schools climb to among the top districts in Kent County in terms of academic achievement.
To get an idea of how a well-developed PLC works, think of how each individual gear in a whole system makes a complex machine run. In Byron Center, Trout said, every student and teacher is part of a network, a community, a team working together.
The big shifts that have happened through the PLC process include a district-wide common curriculum, with lessons and tests aligned across classrooms and designed to flow seamlessly from grade to grade. Trout said that gives students consistency and allows teachers to better compare results.
More than 60 district educators attended a PLC training in Grand Rapids this summer, returning to their classrooms with a reignited desire to collaborate, Trout said. Teachers have become comfortable turning to one another for guidance and to helping improve instruction.
Trout said teacher-to-teacher conversations unfold like this: “How did your kids do on this? Mine bombed. This teacher’s did really great. What did you do in your classroom that was different? Let’s talk about how we can re-teach in a better way.'”
“I feel like those conversations are richer, deeper and more focused on student learning, versus just ‘What are we teaching?'”
The district’s administrative team, including Trout, started PLC training six years ago. They began implementing it by creating time for teachers to meet weekly, and progressed into focusing on instructional areas that needed improvement.
Since then, all Byron Center schools have created PLCs, small and large with teams within teams, among subject areas and grade levels. They have been created between educators in different buildings, among principals, and even among non-core teachers, like physical education.
“The goal-setting is the most unbelievably powerful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s not me telling them to do something; it’s them challenging themselves to be better and to learn more.” — Deb Balk, fifth-grade teacher, Nickels Intermediate School
Deb Balk, fifth-grade teacher and PLC team leader, started teaching at Nickels when the process was beginning. “It has been a huge evolution into a way that teachers really are able to get the time to collaborate,” she said. “It has really solidified us as a staff. PLC gives us the time to stop for a minute and reflect on why we are here, what we are doing and what’s our focus.”
She said it also has allowed her to grow as a teacher. “I really think the word ‘professional’ takes a different meaning to me than it used to. Having a (PLC) gives us as teachers the credibility we need,” Balk said. “We are professionals, and we need to take the time to work on our profession, and the craft of how we do things. How can we be better? What’s working and not working?”
PLCs = Results
So what happens when the gears are all moving together? All three of the district’s elementary schools — Brown, Marshall and Countryside — have been named National Blue Ribbon Schools in the past three years. Here is the story of Brown Elementary’s high achievement.
“Byron Center has always been good when you look at state assessment scores, but for us, over the last five years, where we used to be at fourth or fifth in most subject areas, now we are first or second in the county,” Trout said.
For PLCs to work, teachers focus on specific questions under the “big idea” categories: Focus on Learning, Collaborative Culture and Results.
Questions are: “What do we expect our students to learn?” “How will we know they are learning?”
But “How will we respond when they don’t learn?” is the question at “the heart of the PLC,” Trout said. Exploring that has led to another huge shift. Over the last five years, Nickels has gone from having paraprofessionals available in classrooms to offering layers of additional support. Flex periods are built into the classroom schedule for teachers to work individually with students; teachers work with small groups; and interventionists work with students who are further behind.
A fourth PLC question is: “How will we respond if they already know it?” For students ready to move forward before others, Nickels has added a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) class. The district used a portion of its enhancement dollars from the Kent County enhancement millage passed in May for the class, which provides hands-on learning across subjects. And despite its being added for advanced students, teachers aim to get all students to the class at least once a month so they can benefit, too.
Empowered Teachers Empower Students
Balk is getting started with having her students lead their own learning by setting reading goals as a way monitor their progress.
“The goal-setting is the most unbelievably powerful thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s not me telling them to do something; it’s them challenging themselves to be better and to learn more.”
Fifth-grader Alyssa Davis filled in her goal chart for how many pages she wants to read in the next six days. “I’m not the best reader; it’s not my best subject, but setting goals helps me be a better reader and helps me want to read more,” she said.
Fifth-grader Quinn Vugteveen said he likes keeping track of his progress. “It makes me want to read, because I want to reach my reading goals. It makes it more fun.”