A classroom for teachers

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By John Foster

The scene is a new one in Oldham County classrooms this fall – instead of a classroom of students, a room of teachers are gathered together talking about the book they've been reading and what they learned in school this week.

In one such meeting Tuesday at Kenwood Station Elementary, a group of teachers gathered together to discuss "Learning by Doing" by Richard Dufour. The term "collective wisdom" pops up often, as do the terms "check-ups" and "autopsies" in reference to assessing children before they fall too far behind.

It is mentioned that students in one grade tested better when a test was presented in 14-point font instead of 12. They discuss the best way to get students charged up for "Tiger Time" – a scheduled time for students who have fallen behind to catch up and for those who are sharp on the concept to learn more. They applaud the efforts to work together instead of in isolation.

The teachers dismiss after 90 minutes, but each of these teachers will direct a group of teachers at least once a week during school on the concepts they've learned. Principal Phillip Moore also meets with other principals regularly to align curriculum and talk about the best way to enhance student learning.

The term for these groups is professional learning communities. The idea is based largely on the work of author and former Illinois public school principal Dufour.

In 1998, Dufour published a book, "Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement."

In that book, he wrote that when teachers and administrators collaborate to formulate best practices for teaching and assessment, the focus can change from "What it taught?" to "What is learned?"

Oldham County Schools Assistant Superintendent Will Wells is leading the board's efforts on implementing professional learning communities in all the schools. He said the idea is to get teachers to work together on improving their instruction instead of working independently.

For a long time, teachers may have shared ideas on lesson plans, the best way to assess learning or what to do when a student falls behind, but now those questions are being asked in an intentional way.

At Kenwood, the groups go as far as to collaborate so that all teachers give the same tests by grade level.

Wells said there have always been pockets of excellence in schools that everyone in the school knows about, but the idea that each teacher is solely responsible for their classroom has hampered that excellence and those teacher's strategies from spilling into the rest of the school.

"Education kind of has a culture of isolation," Wells said. "Teachers see themselves as independent contractors sometimes."

Kenwood counselor Gayle Shrewsbury said teachers have stayed largely separate partly out of tradition, and partly out of pride.

"As a teacher it's tough to admit when you don't know how to do something well," she said.

On the other hand, Kenwood instructional coordinator Melba Springer said sometimes teachers feel possessive of their methods.

But when teachers address specific issues together, teachers can get better at what they do and students will learn more, Superintendent Paul Upchurch said.

"It is some of the best professional development a teacher can get," he said.

In March, all Oldham County principals attended the Thinking Strategies Institute in Denver to learn the concept and during the summer each school trained five or six teachers to be leaders in implementing the strategies according to information presented to the board of education at last month's meeting.

This school year, Wells said the goal is to have teachers assigned to teams led by the lead teachers and implement interventions for when students haven't learned a concept.

How that is implemented is up to the school.

"It's gonna look different in different places and we're okay with that," Wells said.

There are four issues each professional learning community is charged with addressing: What do we want all children to learn? How do we know if they've learned it? What do we do when children's learning breaks down? And what do we do if the student already knows the material?

Kenwood kindergarten teacher Tamme Clawson said learning has come to the forefront of discussion at her scheduled meetings with other kindergarten teachers since the learning community concept started this fall.

"We used to get together and talk about housekeeping-type things – who was going where and when... Now we talk about the four questions."

E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com.