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Learning together about (and for) Students

Learning together about (and for) students

Third Grade Teacher Aaron Jones held up a progress chart to show the other teachers in a classroom in E. W. Luther Elementary.

Even though the school year just recently started, he said his students are eager to show him how much they’ve filled it in.

The charts track how much progress they’ve made in an immersive online reading program. Jones said he celebrates each student who fills theirs in completely. 


“For how long it takes, I make it a big celebration,” he said. 


Fourth Grade Teacher Julianna Bauhs lights up. 

“Oh, that’s great. Last year the fifth graders weren’t that into it. Maybe since you got them excited last year, my fourth graders will be excited to do it.” 

Also in the room were new Fourth Grade teacher Lorin Rienzi, Fifth Grade Teacher Lisa Gokey, Special Education Teacher Natalie Eiting, and Principal Eric Wightman. Leading the meeting was Instructional Coach Jennifer Fischer.

That’s a lot of names and titles, but that’s the point. 

The meeting is an example of a Professional Learning Community or PLC. PLCs bring multiple voices and expertise together to review student successes and struggles. 


That might not sound like a new idea, but it is. 

Schools typically work like a ladder. Finish first grade and take that knowledge up a rung to second grade where you build on the knowledge you have and grow it. So on and so forth until graduation. In that old system, there was no dedicated time for school staff to focus holistically on students. 


“Teachers assess students all day long and make adjustments as they learn,” Christie Gajewski, Director of Instruction, said.
“However, what's different with strategic collaboration is that teachers look at specific data sets to identify strengths and areas for growth.
They work together to set specific goals and then monitor those goals and student growth towards those goals by collaboratively reviewing the data three times a year. They then pass that data on to the next year's teacher so that the new teacher and students can start off strong.”

Each teacher and each PLC should examine four main questions: 

- What do we want students to know/learn?
- How will we know if they learned it?
- What will we do if they didn't learn it?
- What will we do for the students who already know it?

“They’ll sit down and look at that information and see who’s on track, who’s struggling and then they bring all those pieces together to meet student needs,” Gajewski said. 


It’s not just classroom teachers that are members of a PLC, either. Special Education teachers and staff have input, as do social workers, therapists, instructional specialists, and school counselors. 

“It’s strategic collaboration around student learning – not just ‘what are we going to teach,’” Gajewski said. 


From an administrative standpoint, it requires coordination and guidance to make the most out of collaborative time.
For the 2022-23 school year, eight early-release days have been planned where teachers are meant to get together and support each other and students regardless of whose room they’re sitting in. 

“We want them to have really good conversations about the whole child,” Gajewski said. 


At the middle and high school levels, with more teachers and more-staff student interactions, it gets more complicated. 

“The time needed to pull all those educators together gets tricky. So we've started small and our Collaborative Teacher Teams in grades 6-12 start by looking at their curriculum and courses first to make sure they're aligned to standards and have common assessments,” Gajewski said.

The goal is to move away from the top-down approach that has dominated education for 200 years. 

“Our vision is the org itself moves towards a system where we’re all learning from each other and growing together,” Gajewski said. 

E. W. Luther Principal Eric Wightman said he understands families might be frustrated when an early-release day comes around. No one wants students in school more than the teachers, but he promises it will pay off.

“There aren’t enough hours in the day to do this kind of work. We just need a little bit of time to make instruction more personalized for their kids,” he said.

Gesturing around the room and noting the focus of the teachers and their discussions, he said: “We know we’re making good use of that time.”