Our Secret Weapon


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by carolynhack

Ok, clearly its not meant to be a secret, and its not really a weapon either. I just loved the idea for the title and the picture.

I have been thinking lately about how one decision that was made at our school has had beneficial effects on so many other areas of what we do. It was really reinforced for me when I was out in BC meeting with some fantastic educators doing awesome stuff. In the conversations I had with David Truss, Gallit Zvi, Jess Pelat, Parm Brar and Chris Wejr, we were able to share what we were doing in our schools and how we were able to make positive changes happen. When the conversation turned to the work we are doing at Greystone, the conversation kept ending up back at the one aspect of our school that is key to so much of the work we do.

 

Common Planning Time

 

If any of you reading this are administrators, I am sure you are working on plans for next year’s timetable, staff assignments, and your school schedule. Our building is Grades 5-9 with roughly 550 students, so in the wide world of difficult timetabling, I know ours is pretty tame, but it still can offer some struggles. We have to worry about getting all of our kids into the gym, we have to worry about ensuring French and Music for our younger students, and we have options classes for the older students. Add to that staff on varying contracts, some with part time or half time schedules, and you get quite the Rubik’s Cube to figure out.

What our school decided, long before I got there, was that if we were able to make common planning enough of a priority that it occurred regularly in our timetable, we would see growth in the areas we had made a priority. This past year, we were able to ensure that each teaching team had at least one of their two preps together with their entire grade-level teaching team (we call them learning communities). We saw a real impact on our school in a number of different areas and with a number of initiatives.

 

Learning Coach

This year our division participated in the learning coach initiative that was a push from our provincial government. This meant that we had a teacher with half of her time dedicated to working closely with teachers to help them improve their practice. She is a veteran teacher with a ton to offer, especially in the areas of Inquiry and Critical Thinking. In our planning for the year, we timetabled the learning coach purposely to ensure her attendance at each of the team meetings. This initiative is obviously beneficial in any building, but I believe it is maximized when the learning coach gets to sit in on the common planning times for each grade level team. As the team plans lessons for the coming weeks, they have the advantage of not only utilizing their fellow team members, they can also work with the coach in those meetings. If the team feels they have an area they need to work on collectively, the learning coach is there to offer advice and direction.

 

Assessment

When it comes to assessment, it can be difficult to know if our assessments are effective, if they are assessing what we want them to. As professionals, we review our students’ work on assessments and we try our best to adapt them and make them fit our needs and the needs of our students. This process obviously becomes more effective when we utilize similar assessments across numerous classes and then as a group come together to compare them. Having common planning time gives our teaching teams the opportunity to bring in sample student work and discuss the validity of their assessment practices.

 

Assisting Struggling Students

Getting together on a regular basis, our teaching teams can discuss how to assist struggling students from their learning community. Students often struggle with similar material or tasks, and strategies can be shared amongst team members on how to best help students with those challenges. We are also able to find groups of students and target them for small group activities with a teacher in a pull out or assign Education Assistant support to a group of students from different classrooms.

 

Meaningful Learning Experiences

Our school has been focused on inquiry and critical thinking for some time now, and each year we improve in these areas as we look to bring the most impactful and beneficial learning experiences to our students. Having the opportunity to bring teams together to plan the inquiries on a regular basis, and then to have our learning coach who is very strong in these areas join them, means that our inquiry projects have become more numerous and more effective. If teams have teachers who do not teach all core courses but rather have a couple specialties, as our LC7, LC8 & LC9 teams do, it means we are giving them an opportunity to ensure cross-curricular inquiry projects can happen even at our highest grade levels.

 

Common Planning Time exists at Greystone because our administration and staff agreed that it would be the most effective way to ensure that our school priorities were met. Every building, every division has priorities. So many talk about how they want collaboration, they want rich learning for their students and staff, they want professional reflection and growth. Its really easy to have goals and a vision, but shouldn’t your vision live in the way you plan for your school? Whatever your vision is, whatever your goals are for your school, does your timetable support it? Do you plan meaningfully for a school year that will align with your vision? Everything from classroom spaces/design, room assignments, supervision scheduling, professional development and even the way we communicate with our staff can have an impact, and I believe that we should be mindful of the impact each decision can have to add or take away from our vision or our goals.

What do you do to ensure your school’s goals are realized when you plan for the next school year?

 

2 thoughts on “Our Secret Weapon

  1. Hey Jesse…I think all of these things are great and musts but here is a question for you. How do you know that any of this is working? I am not asking because I hold the answer, but because I am genuinely curious and get asked that a lot about some of the work that we do in the district. I think the struggle with teaching is that there are so many facets of what we do, that when we work on a few initiatives at a time, it is hard to measure one and what the success rate is.

    Are you looking at a measure in some capacity to see the impact of these initiatives? If not, what are you trying to make happen? Great post and great work as always. Just looking for your thoughts on this as it will help many people move forward.

  2. Thanks for the comment George.

    As you may, or may not know, we have been out presenting at various conferences about the work we have been doing at Greystone. Our principal Carolyn Cameron along with a group of teachers has presented in New Zealand, in Portland and most recently in Banff at the Middle Years Council of Alberta’s conference and I have been presenting at a few conferences myself. I know that one thing I noticed in conversations at those conferences and when I went out to BC to meet with the educators I mentioned, that no matter what initiative or project I talked about, people wanted to know how we were able to make them happen. The conversation would always work it’s way back to the collaboration of our staff and the time they are able to spend together.

    At our most recent Student Led Conferences, we decided we wanted to take the opportunity to survey our parent community in some very specific areas for our school. The data we were able to collect was amazing (with a simple google doc BTW) and while it obviously wasn’t question about the effectiveness of Common Planning Time, it was very telling about the work we are doing in our building. We received overwhelming positive feedback in the areas of quality teaching, quality education, skills needed for success beyond school. We received feedback about the types of skills parents believed would be beneficial to their children, and those aligned very closely with what we have been prioritizing in our building.

    To say it would be easy to quantify the effects of Common Planning Time on success at Greystone would be absurd. There are too many factors that would have an impact on that success one of course being the wealth of talent we have on our staff. The data we collected from our parent community along with the feedback from students and staff in our building will always have the largest impact on what shapes our decision making and when it comes to that feedback we are very confident we are on the right track.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

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