Main Idea

This past fall my division implemented class time for Professional Learning Teams, known as Learning Improvement Teams (LITs). I love my team. I love the structured time with my team and I love the process. The focus of our team is for all “teachers [to] work collaboratively, [so that] student learning improves as … specific needs of students at our school are addressed” (Read more here)

My graduate writing group includes a superintendent from another division who is writing her dissertation on the three big changes she has been part of during her career. PLCs are one of these changes. A few weeks ago she arrived to group and shared her reflection on this change. She spoke from a superintendent’s perspective and I was awed because I call a few of the leaders in my division friends. I know that many of the leaders who have been responsible for implementing and promoting LITs in our division have faced long days and much negative feedback. However, like my writing team-member, not all LIT feedback in negative. My LIT members appreciate our meetings.

Our small team of five teachers values the time we spend with each other every two weeks. We like that, as a staff, we get to create common assessment for our students; we like that we get to choose literature that best matches the experiences and cultures of our students; we like that we get to come together as a staff every two weeks to discuss what isn’t working with our instruction and to celebrate what is working; we like that we discuss our instructional strategies and our students’ needs and that we no longer discuss Tupperware or fundraising, or relationships. We like that we are singularly focused on improving student learning.

For me and the K-2 teacher, we like that every two weeks we see each other and talk about kids and learning and instruction. We are a very small school but in all school spaces how often do you meaningfully engage in critical and creative reflection about teaching and learning with all members of your staff? It used to be that weeks would go by and I hardly saw the K-2 teacher. I like that my bosses made time for us to talk with each other because communication is, I feel, where everything begins.

Right now, our team is focused on Reading. Specifically our team understands that our students are struggling to understand the difference between a main idea and a topic. This is important work. The middle years’ kids are a bit stronger than the rest of the school. We’ve gone back and talked with the kids. We’ve changed our instruction, again and again. We’ve gone back to our assessment piece. We’ve gone back to our literature. We have returned to the how and to the when, over and over.

What I appreciate with our LITs is that, within a supportive environment, I am encouraged to change my instruction. A supportive trusting environment makes all the difference to my learning. Around our small tables pulled together to make one bigger table and munching on veggies and drinking water we share: what went well, what we hope to change, what we would like to do more, better or differently. We seek feedback. We talk openly about how to change our practice. Most importantly, we come to our LIT table ready to listen.

My LIT encourages me to be creative with students.

I like having a team.

This February was the start of a new term, the beginning of Creative Writing with the grade elevens and twelves. This is my favourite course to teach (yes, I am aware that I say this often). This is a wonderful course in part because my principal allows us a great deal of freedom. Throughout the course the students immerse themselves in the study of place, specifically, the study of how place stories-them, Place Based Education. Once a week, the students and I come together in a structured setting to tell stories. As well, once a week, the students and I leave the building for an afternoon. During this time, we learn in different places, we learn from different places.

Our storytelling sessions haven’t been going well. Our regular class periods haven’t been going well. We are a small group and we have been quarreling. Our time together has been something like: “Well you never”, “This just”, “I hate”, and “Why don’t we” lines of accusations, and if not these, then worse. Spaces filled with loaded silence. No-one is having fun and no-one trusts.

I was about to try my hand at direct instruction with notes on the board.

And I told the students this.

However, I decided to wait until after our first day in the field. I try to begin our PLE experiences with a study connected with food. There is something about food.

We booked into a well-known fast food restaurant in the city. The kids carpooled.

First we met a ‘our’ coffee house where I handed each student a hard covered notebook – pre-ordered by a grade twelve student who said we must have hard covered books if we were to create away from school – I arrived with black leather  journals. We sunk into the soft seats and I asked students to jot down a declarative statement from a moment in their life when they could mark a before and an after memory. For me, mine was a moment in the future, a moment to come, “She’s gone. I’m alone.” Of cause I am referencing the moment when I realise my daughter is away at University and our life living-together will never be the same. Most jumped into story. Most jumped so deeply that they continued to write and I had to pull them away when my Hedge Hog Mocha coffee was ready and it was time for us to we move on to the restaurant for lunch.

Seated, the day’s focus was clarified: to savour every moment, to be aware. Students were encouraged to order items from the menu they had never before tried. A grade twelve student and I shared a chocolate-peanut-butter milkshake, a disgusting sludge that tasted like banana fuzzed dirt. My ordering partner drank the remainder with her hands wrapped around the frosted-metal vat. Another student ordered a strawberry-kiwi milkshake that was like smooth liquid Skittles. Eight milkshakes where soon passed up and down the table (don’t mix the previous two that is just gross). We ordered chicken strips and dozens of different dipping sauces. We tried to out-sauce each other. We wrote. We tasted. We delighted. We smelled. We listened.  

Soon we noted our language. We listened to the statements we used when engaging with our food. With motza sticks in both hands, cheese dangly from her mouth, another grade 12 student sighed, “OH! Ooooh, this is good!”  The lines kept coming. We kept laughing and we kept writing. Deep fried pickles arrived, and grease dribbled down our hands onto our jeans and we shoved in the greasy goodness.

We loaded left-over pickles into takeout boxes along with sweet-potato fries, French fries and seventeen sauces and returned to school to meet the busses home, holding our stomachs and whining from far too many tastes and far too much food. Our sides stretched. Our cheeks hurt.

Before we left the restaurant we had taken those three ideas and combined them into one story. Some asked if the story would be a farcical tale. Others simply listened.  

The next day, sitting around our tight familiar storying table, when I asked what had gone well with our day in the field this is what they shared:

We are more relaxed away from school

We get along better.

We laugh more.

We take writing more seriously.

We focus more.

The waitress will never forgive us.

I heard things I’d never thought I would.

Effortlessly, we then shared our stories. Sometimes we offered feedback sharing what we liked, finding similarities between our writing, jumping off into story again. When we had all shared, we then synthesized our stories down to three sentences. Again, after everyone had shared, we synthesized our stories down to two sentences. A student asked if one sentence would be next, and I replied, “No, one word.”

A few of the kids looked at me. But a few were already rereading their work. We shared again, in the same order.

One word.

A magical thing happened then. One of the grade 11 students said her word twice, then she said, “That’s the main idea of my story. I just found the main idea of my story!”

Another student commented, “I see what you did there.”

“What did I do there? [Long pause] Read your words again.”

As the kids said their words again a look came over them, they were looking at each other. They were listening to each other. They had spent the day together. They had laughed and been silly together even though their beginnings had been different. They had listened to each other. Their main ideas began profoundly differently: the illness of an aunt, the illness of a mother, the night spent in a jail cell… They did not need to read their words, the students knew them. The students had known them when they had lived them years ago and then had jumped into writing about them in the coffee shop. The students are their main ideas; we are our stories.

In one word.

Good.   Twisted.   Shaken.   Differences.   Bond.   Change.   Horrified.   Good.   Quiet.   Stop.

Change the environment.

Learning from a place of trust makes all the difference.

I love having a team.

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