by Jessica Rivera-Mueller with Jamie Ammirati, Jocelyn Bitner, Stephanie Ferguson, Joshua Killpack, Kenzie Randall, Morgan Sanford, and Mackenzie Wilson
For many secondary teachers, Professional Learning Communities provide a context for communicating with fellow teachers about the most pressing issues in their local teaching contexts. In doing so, teachers have an opportunity to advocate for particular pedagogical beliefs and practices. As a former high school English teacher and a teacher educator, I (Jessica) know, however, that PLCs are complex spaces where discourses converge. PLCs are not inherently good or bad; instead, the communities are made by members who perceive the purposes of these conversations. While PLC conversations can provide an opportunity for teachers to discuss ways to support student learning and examine the meaning and significance of that learning, these conversations can also be viewed as just another required meeting. When teachers view participation in PLCs as a technocratic activity they miss an important opportunity to shape their local institution. Educational reform can be made possible, however, when teachers view collaborative inquiry as an opportunity for advocacy. In this piece, I, along with seven of the pre-service teachers I’ve worked with in English Education methods courses, describe and reflect upon a course project that we believe positions future teachers to see PLC conversations as a critical site for (re)shaping local understandings of teaching and learning—and ultimately a site for advocacy.
Possibilities for advocacy emerge when teachers prioritize teacher-learning in the PLC process. Though administrative expectations and PLC structures vary from school to school, the common activities of designing and analyzing student work provide a context for teachers to describe and critically examine their definitions of learning, the conditions that lead to learning, and the consequences of particular pedagogical aims—key intellectual moves in collaborative inquiry (Cochran-Smith and Lytle; Palmisano; Simon). Rather than simply addressing questions about teaching and learning, teachers can view PLCs as places to collaboratively interrogate the aims and nature of their work. Teachers can take time to “understand” the assumptions, values, and consequences embedded in their conversations (Rivera-Mueller). In doing so, the teacher-learning that emerges from such conversations can shift local stories about literacy and questions about teaching and learning.
We believe teacher education is a context where pre-service teachers can learn how to facilitate and advocate for transformative collaborative inquiry in the PLC process. The “PLC Facilitation” is a project designed to support this aim. In the project, a small group of teacher education students (3- 5) facilitate a 40-minute inquiry-based discussion with their colleagues in the class. In these conversations, we practice collaboratively investigating a question and our discussion about that question. These semi-structured discussions are designed to help pre-service teachers view collaborative inquiry as a way to develop and influence local pedagogical beliefs and practices.
The pre-service teachers who have co-authored this blog have completed the PLC Facilitation in one or more courses. Together, we have been studying our experiences of the project. In what follows, we share the pieces of the project and how we’ve seen those design choices cultivate a commitment to collaborative inquiry in the PLC process.
Step 1: Create a Question
The first step of the PLC Facilitation project is creating a question to investigate. Drawing from their personal knowledge and their work in the course, pre-service teachers form small groups around a shared investment in a question about teaching. The questions range in scope, but they all provide an opportunity for learners to collaboratively study a topic that they have self-identified as important for their development as teachers. This past academic year, we used the PLC Facilitation project to explore a range of questions, including questions such as:
- What are the best ways to teach revision?
- What role should “free-writing” play in the English classroom?
- What professional responsibility does a teacher have when students disclose personal information in their writing?
- How do teachers create classroom environments that value diversity?
- How can teachers motivate students to do their best work?
- How can we teach critical literacy?
- How can we teach “classic” literature in meaningful ways?
- Should teachers use “packets” or “worksheets” to teach literature?
- What are the best ways to tailor classroom instruction?
- What is the connection between teaching YA Lit and social activism?
This approach aims to establish question-asking as a platform for proactive teacher development. We believe this particular aspect of the project provides pre-service teachers a place to develop a dependence on questions. This dependence is a recognition that creating good questions is an important part of a teacher’s ongoing learning-to-teach process. The practice of creating questions from teaching “issues” or “problems” also helps pre-service teachers see how most pedagogical issues are more complicated than a single answer can provide; therefore, pedagogical issues benefit from questions that promote further discussion and discovery. In our work, the inquiry-based environment has allowed learners to think creatively and explore alternative perspectives or solutions.
Step 2: Select and Study Scholarship
In the next step of the project, each small group selects and studies scholarship related to their group’s question. The literature is selected to help the small group members consider a range of perspectives on the question. The groups are encouraged to choose pieces of scholarship that highlight different ways to see and attend to the question under consideration. Outside of class, the small group prepares a text (i.e. handout) that presents the group’s key findings from their study of the scholarship and questions to guide discussion during the facilitation. This part of the project aims to position pre-service teachers as members of a community centered on learning. Pre-service teachers bring varying levels of knowledge and experience to this community, and the emphasis on learning from other voices—ones from the group and ones in scholarship—creates a contribution-centered approach to collaborative inquiry. Each member’s voice is needed to undergo the fullest possible exploration of the question. We believe this emphasis on contribution invites more honest conversation, allowing for productive disagreement, argument, and debate. Collaborative learning, in this sense, encourages greater understanding and awareness of multiple perspectives. In our work, this emphasis on seeking contributions from class members has created greater investment in the project and in collaborative inquiry beyond the project.
Step 3: Facilitate an Inquiry-Based Discussion
In the final step of the project, the small group members facilitate an inquiry-based discussion with the whole class. Drawing from Dewey’s definition of inquiry as a process that involves clarifying a problem and proposing possible solutions, facilitators aim to help the whole class explore the question from a variety of perspectives and grapple with the complexity of the question. The facilitators share insights from their study of the scholarship, listen to the comments and questions of their peers, and raise questions to help the class identify and interrogate the frames that shape their understandings of the question at hand. In real time, we aim to consider how we’ve created these frames and how these frames open and/or foreclose our work. For example, in one of our most stirring facilitations, one about how to handle instances when students disclose personal information in their writing, we examined how our own definitions of and relationships to abuse shape how we see our responsibility to report information about and on behalf of students. While Jessica made teachers’ legal responsibilities clear, we also grappled with the complex emotional labor that surrounds these moments.
In our work, we have found that the collaborative questioning from the facilitations fosters personal questioning beyond the classroom. Each facilitation raises thought-provoking questions without giving simple answers, and this structure enables learners to form and explore their own beliefs in an organic way. As the facilitators thoughtfully engage with the ideas from colleague in the class, class involvement grows and the discussions of scholarship are connected to the class members’ current ways of understanding.
The key steps in the project—creating a question, selecting and studying scholarship, and facilitating an inquiry-based discussion—are designed to help pre-service teachers gain a positive orientation toward collaborative inquiry, an orientation that we believe can help educators view PLCs as a powerful tool. Pre- service teachers can, of course, struggle to engage in this project or choose not to engage in this project. However, we believe the structure of this project provides an opportunity to grow important habits of mind that can be developed in pre-service contexts and applied later in PLC contexts. Practicing inquiry-based discussions with peers in English Education courses can help pre-service teachers value and develop their professional voices, an important process for becoming an everyday advocate. As Cathy Fleischer explains, everyday advocates need to “truly understand the what, how, and why of their teaching” and “know how to take that knowledge and articulate it to others” (20). As both facilitators and participants during these class discussions, pre-service teachers have the opportunity to practice these foundational skills for advocacy.
While we are aware of the range of ways PLCs can be perceived and enacted, the co-authors of this piece are motivated to become teacher-leaders in their future PLCs. Framing collaborative inquiry as a way to develop and influence pedagogical beliefs and practices has highlighted the important work that can happen in PLC conversations. As a result, the co-authors want to foster mutual and transformative learning in these conversations. They’ve come to believe PLCs shouldn’t be spaces where teachers simply push for the practices they find familiar or comfortable. Rather, the co-authors want to use the PLC process to grapple with the questions that arise from paying close attention to students’ experiences and to implement the changes that will be best for students.
Cochran-Smith, Marilyn and Susan L. Lytle. Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation. New York: Teachers College P., 2009.
Dewey, John. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Henry Holt and Co.,1949.
Fleischer, Cathy. “Everyday Advocacy: The New Professionalism for Teachers.” Voices from the Middle 24.1 (2016): 19-23.
Palmisano, Michael. Taking Inquiry to Scale: An Alternative to Traditional Approaches to Education Reform. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2013.
Rivera-Mueller, Jessica. “Asking and Understanding Questions: An Inquiry-Based Framework for Writing Teacher Development.” Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education 3.2 (2014): 33-48.
Simon, Rob. “’I’m Fighting My Fight, and I’m not Alone Anymore’: The Influence of Communities of Inquiry.” English Education 48.1 (2015): 41-71.