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blossoming tree branchI love spring! It is that time of year when leaves begin to bud and flowers begin to bloom. It is a time of rebirth and fresh starts. The same happens each day in school – each day can be a fresh start, each lesson sparking a new birth of knowledge.

Recently, the middle school principal asked if I would begin working with our middle school Language Arts Professional Learning Community. Attending the PLC conference in Minnesota last summer and being in a book study with our superintendent focused on the book Learning by Doing, I looked forward to applying what I had been learning about the value of PLC work. This was my time to see how the PLC process could bloom.

Our building had tried PLCs several years ago and to me they simply settled into being another meeting. The value of what they could accomplish had not been made clear to me. I did not want to make the same mistake with this group.  

My first meeting with the middle school language arts PLC began with the words, “When we meet, we will not discuss managerial issues. Our entire meeting will be focused on data, instruction, and how to best meet the needs of our students.” I wasn’t even sure how I was going to keep us on that track, but I knew we needed to have that as our vision.

In order to focus on instruction, we had to start with unwrapping our English-language arts standards. Our work began with standard one - citing textual evidence:

  • 6.1 – Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says implicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • 7.1 – Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • 8.1 – Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

We broke the standards down by looking at the verbs and nouns. We asked: How is each grade level different? We began to take apart each standard and compare what the expectations were.

We decided to create our first common formative assessment (CFA) by agreeing on texts to assess the standard with our students. One of the teachers was not happy about the process. He wanted to use the book he was currently using in class to have them cite textual evidence. “Why can’t I just use what I am doing in my class?” he asked. My response was that the key was to see if our students could transfer this ability to other texts besides the one used in our classroom. Begrudgingly, he acquiesced and completed the CFA with his students.

PLC members brought their data to our next meeting. We sorted the responses into groups – who met the standard, who did not, and who exceeded it. I asked if there were any surprises. We discussed the new challenge: What were we going to do with those who did not meet the standard and what were we going to do with those who exceeded the standard? How could we enrich those who were ready to move on? How could we take what we were doing in our classes and move our students to the next level with this standard?

In order to enrich those who exceeded mastery, we examined the grade 9-10 standard to see what would be expected at that level. For those not meeting the standard, we looked at the standard below our grade level. We discussed how we could vary the depth of knowledge by what we were requiring of our students.

When our discussion ended, the teacher who opposed the process whispered to me, “This was a great process. I really got a lot out of it.” I could only smile.

The process of unwrapping standards is occurring across our state as we strive to improve instructional practices. The process of PLC work is valuable as we share common standards, have rich discussions about those standards, and analyze our instruction. When our group leaves our meeting, we have a clear picture of what the standard should look like in the classroom. This brings us one step closer to a guaranteed and viable curriculum.

Bailey & Jakicic (2012) state: “Collaborative conversations about what the standards mean, what proficiency looks like, and how best to assure all students learn” (page 1) leads to real improvement in student achievement. The result of this examination and implementation of common formative assessments provide teachers with a way to develop strategies to help all students learn. We are continuing to unwrap the standards one at a time – using common language, having the same high expectations, and developing a clear picture of what we expect our students to know and be able to do. As we move forward, our discussions will broaden beyond the standards toward sharing specific instructional strategies with data to prove they are effective.

From everything I have read, effective teams have a culture and a structure that helps everyone clarify their curriculum, monitor student learning, and provide differentiation so all students learn. Through PLC work we are on our way. We may be only in the spring of this process, but excitement is taking root as we begin to see the value of our PLC work.


Points to Ponder

  • How are you ensuring a guaranteed and viable curriculum in your classroom?
  • What process do you use to unwrap standards in your area?



Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (2012). Common formative assessment: A toolkit for professional learning communities at WorkTM. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R. (2006). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.


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