Professional learning communities have increased in popularity in schools to bring teachers, staff, administrators and sometimes parents and community members together to learn from each other.  The major purpose is to increase an individual’s knowledge and skills to impact student positive development.

I recently had an opportunity to experience a professional learning community of fifth grade students at Swan River School in Bigfork, Montana. Yes, students can create, integrate and sustain a professional learning community when given support, focus, opportunity and reflection activities to assess the impact on their learning.  You may think that this only occurs in graduate school where study groups are common or in freshmen college offerings that brings students together in “interest groups” to socialize them to the collegiate environment, but these fifth grade students demonstrate that at any age, high-quality collaborations impact student learning.

Here are a few examples of fifth-grade students at Swan River School engaging in professional learning communities.

Science: Each student independently, using their Chromebooks, explored the water cycle process and then in small groups examined each of the student’s initial notes and collectively created a set of responses to specific questions from the teacher.  Each student created a response to the assignment individually and then as a member of a small group sharing their initial work, receiving feedback from their peers and then collectively combining their work to complete the assignment.

Language Arts: Each student identified up to three possible themes for a five-paragraph writing assignment.  The teacher, using prompts, provided an opportunity for all students to coach her in her response to the writing assignment (modeling the process).  Then using poster-sized paper each student identified up to three possible themes and then three topics within each theme in their response to the assignment.  The teacher allowed students to leave one or more of the themes or topics blank so that other students could contribute to their final choice for topic and theme.  As each student completed their first draft identifying themes and topics they then conducted a gallery walk allowing each student, on a sticky note, to respond to the draft.  Student responses included positive reactions, suggested enhancements and in some cases new themes and topics.  Then students in pairs completed their assignment reacting to the feedback they received from their peers.

Genius Hour: On the classroom wall titled Genius Hour there is a five-stage matrix for students to use to share their progress in completing projects.  Beginning with “I Need Idea Help,” to “Fine Tune,” to “Working On My Project,” to “I Am Almost Done With My Project” to “I Need To Share” students place their name so that individual and class progress can be monitored and appropriate responses can be provided.  Adults as well as students place their name on the Genius Hour template demonstrating that everyone is progressing.

There are other collaborative strategies from Swan River School including peer sharing in an art class and Tech Tutors in which fifth grade students orient kindergarten students to technology.  I will leave it to your imagination given the three examples above as to the creative and reflective activities that occur in those classrooms.

So, the next time you hear about professional learning communities and their many benefits, consider co-designing similar processes with students so that they become reflective learners, competent collaborators, effective communicators, good team members and critical thinkers.

Terry Pickeral
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Terry Pickeral

Terry Pickeral, has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations, evaluation and civic development. His commitment is to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens.
Terry Pickeral
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