Thursday / April 25

Becoming the Great Teacher You Want To Be: Reinventing PLCs For Cultural Proficiency

In our previous post, 7 Features of Culturally Responsive PLCs, we talked about “transformative teacher learning” as an essential outcome of a Professional Learning Community. Transformative learning involves not only acquiring new strategies, but also examining the values and beliefs that drive one’s practice. Our experience has taught us that such deep insights help teachers to reach those students they’ve struggled to teach in the past.

An Example of Transformative Professional Learning

Let’s return to the case of Nika, the Native American student in our last post who told his friend that Mrs. Baker was a “great teacher.” This was quite a turnabout for a student who earlier in the year believed he was going to flunk out of Mrs. Baker’s history class.

“I was getting failing grades on most of the tests and papers. She (Mrs. Baker) really criticized everything I did. But something changed mid-year when we were studying westward expansion. Mrs. Baker started treating me differently. She was much more patient with me and talked to me more about my interests, family background, and experiences. It was like she wanted to get to know me as a person…I really felt like I belonged in that class. And I was successful. I passed the class with a good grade.”

Little did Nika know how hard Mrs. Baker had worked to be the “great teacher” he thought she was. Earlier in the school year she had decided to inquire into how she might more effectively help Nika become a proficient writer. Although Nika had shown considerable progress in his expository writing, when the second semester began with a unit on the westward expansion, his performance took an unexpected nosedive. Even after Sue (Mrs. Baker) experimented with several new strategies suggested by her colleagues, his writing was still disappointing.

Sue was baffled and frustrated. Part of her wanted to blame Nika for his lack of progress. Fortunately, as a teacher committed to the success of every student, she refused to let Nika fail. What happened next was pivotal and suggests clearly that merely adding new strategies is insufficient for transforming one’s practice into truly responsive teaching.

While analyzing Nika’s most recent work sample, Sue and her colleagues considered multiple explanations for his poor performance. Having developed a high level of trust, Sue’s colleague, Joe, prompted her to consider a novel viewpoint. “Perhaps,” Joe said, “Nika is angry and frustrated because the textbook ignores the sacrifices of his people.” This question made Sue think long and hard about how her own cultural blind spots might have influenced the design of this unit.

As the conversation continued, Sue acknowledged that she had been presenting the westward expansion from a white middle-class perspective. Based on the insights gained in her study group, she decided to have her students read and discuss several primary sources depicting the experiences of Native Americans and slaves during this period. She soon saw an improvement in Nika’s interest and performance.

We attribute Nika’s success, and hence Sue’s, to her participation in the Collaborative Analysis of Student Learning (CASL), a structured and facilitated process in which teacher groups analyze their own students’ work samples and assessments to learn how to effectively support students’ learning of complex academic standards (Colton, Langer & Goff, 2015).

Traditionally, PLCs help teachers develop curriculum or share teaching strategies. CASL groups, however, take on a larger goal. They develop the trust and analytical skills required to delve more deeply into the crux of teaching and learning: the influence of a teacher’s own feelings and beliefs on her instructional approaches with specific students.

The Framework: Teacher as Collaborative Inquirer

How does CASL accomplish this? In our last post, we presented seven essential features of transformative professional learning that positively influence student performance. The Framework: Teacher as Collaborative Inquirer (Colton, Langer and Goff, 2015) is the first of those features. As the theoretical underpinning for the CASL design, the Framework portrays the capacities necessary for responsible and effective teaching. It also shows how those capacities are developed.

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Let’s return to the case of Sue and Nika to illustrate the Framework in action.

Inquiry Cycle

When Sue’s study group analyzed Nika’s latest work sample, they followed the steps portrayed on the left side of the Framework. First they observed that Nika’s writing was careless and that he used negative adjectives when describing the white man’s actions. As they moved on to the analysis of possible explanations for these observations, Sue was stumped and asked for some ideas. This is when her colleague mentioned the idea of Nika’s anger about the book’s limited view of the westward expansion. Building on this understanding, Sue planned instructional approaches that appealed to the multiple cultural backgrounds in her class. Finally, she acted on (implemented) her plan and the brought Nika’s most recent work sample to the group. The group’s analysis of this new sample guided Sue’s next steps with Nika.

Knowledge Base

Now look at the right side of the Framework. When teachers analyze a student’s learning, they draw on their own professional knowledge base to interpret what they see. Clearly Sue’s colleague drew on his knowledge of student cultures, whereas Sue was drawing mostly on her knowledge of pedagogy. As Sue engaged in the inquiry cycle her colleague helped her construct new meanings around cultural proficiency, which enhanced her knowledge base.

Filtering System

The fluid interplay between these two elements of teacher expertise is mediated by the filtering system, made up of beliefs and feelings (in the center of the circle).

This filtering system often drives the degree to which teachers are willing to persist in the face of challenges to help each and every student succeed. For example, Sue’s frustration might have caused her to blame Nika for his poor performance and stop trying to understand his needs. Or, she might have believed that students “ought to work harder” which would lead her to avoid responsibility for Nika’s success.

The real breakthrough came when Sue realized that her cultural filters had interfered with her seeing the world from Nika’s perspective. Once she opened herself up to other ways of interpreting Nika’s performance, she was able to design instructional strategies that were responsive to his (and other students’) specific interests and needs. These experiences helped Sue add to her knowledge of teaching and learning.

People tend not to transform their beliefs or behaviors as long as their existing perspectives work for them (Mezirow, 1995). Teachers need to experience dissonance between the beliefs they hold and what they are experiencing if changes in practice are to happen. Since the kind of dissonance described doesn’t typically occur during the course of a teacher’s day, the CASL professional learning process has been designed to shake up the status quo.

Through CASL, Sue became the “great teacher” she hoped to become—one who is aware of her own culture and the impact it has on her teaching; values the diversity of her students; and is committed to discovering responsive approaches for each and every student. Here’s are Sue’s own words, “CASL helped me focus on all aspects of a student including their personal lives. . . I am more mindful of my own philosophy, theories, and beliefs because I had to verbalize and reflect on them. CASL helped me become a much more reflective and effective teacher.”

Colton, A.,  Langer, G., & Goff, L, (2015). Collaborative analysis of student learning: Professional learning that promotes success for all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Mezirow, J. (1995). Transformation theory of adult learning. In M.R. Welton (Ed.) in defense of the lifeworld (pp. 39-70). New York: SUNY Press.

Written by

As executive director of Learning Forward Michigan and senior consultant for Learning Forward, Amy B. Colton works tirelessly with educators to build their capacity to design, facilitate, and evaluate quality professional learning so that all students are successful in school and in life. Amy’s work is influenced by years as a special education teacher and district professional learning consultant. While serving as a teacher-in-residence of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, she played an active role in coordinating the development of the Board’s first teaching certificate. Dr. Colton is best known for her professional learning designs that create learning communities and tasks that support professional and student learning for excellence with equity. She holds a doctorate in teacher education from the University of Michigan. Her work appears in publications including Journal of Teacher Education, Educational Leadership, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality’s Research and Policy Brief, and The Journal of Staff Development.

Georgea Langer became intrigued with teacher growth and expertise when she taught middle-school foreign language. To pursue this interest, she completed her PhD in Educational Psychology at Stanford University. As a professor of teacher education at Eastern Michigan University, Langer won three teaching awards and published extensively in professional journals. She has co-authored five books for both beginning and experienced teachers. She lives happily in Michigan and Florida with her husband, Peter, and their cat, Murphy.

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