Connecting Communities: Learning Together Using PLC’s JOURNEYS

By Julie Duffield / September 20, 2013

networkingpeopleAs I read the first Episode of Amargosa’s journey, I started to reflect on my own experiences. I grew up in a remote rural community, and then I served as a young teacher coaching thirteen rural schools in Aboriginal communities in North Queensland, Australia.

It was during this time that I first began participating in educational communities.  As the traveling literacy coach, I supported teachers working in culturally and linguistically diverse remote communities for the first time. The challenge and opportunity was in connecting educators with each other as they taught the same grade levels in schools hundreds of miles apart.

This was in the early ‘80’s, well before the Internet arrived, using dial-up email and bulletin boards. Initially we got to know each other by sharing our backgrounds, interests, and immediate needs. Setting norms helped us collaborate. We shared resources and discussed student stories as a way to learn with and from each other.  With time, we even created VHS videotapes to share about each other’s classroom practices. I traveled and shared the tapes on school site visits, long before YouTube and the Teacher Channel.

Fast-forwarding to the present, there is a now vast body of literature around social learning. There are theories, research, and practice on learning communities, delivered in face-to-face, online and blended settings. Also, learning communities vary in type, from communities of practice (CoP), to professional learning communities (PLC’s), and more recently personally learning networks (PLN’s).

Professional learning communities (PLC’s) focus specifically on student learning, and are viewed as a collaborative staff development approach to support school improvement. Amargosa will use the PLC approach so their teachers can participate both virtually and in-person with same grade-level teams from other schools in Nye County. One of the goals of these teams is to develop common lessons and formative assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Educators ask common questions about what is needed to make PLCs work effectively. An article I recently read by Joan E. Talbert notes some important factors, including “norms of collaboration, focus on students and their academic performance, access to a wide range of learning resources for individuals and the group, [and] mutual accountability for student growth and success.” (p. 557). Some other interesting points she makes are the challenges of scaling up PLC’s and the distinction between the bureaucratic vs. professional approaches, especially as they relate to changing school culture and using PLC’s for ongoing positive systemic change. This is especially interesting as we think about addressing the sustainability of school turnaround efforts.  Another resource that can be used to build your knowledge about PLC’s is a resource list of articles by scholars and practitioners that we recently compiled.

From my own experience, protecting time to collaborate is difficult especially for small rural schools working together virtually. Also, a collaborative culture can’t be assumed. It requires creating structures to help build trust and joint ownership. Leadership is also required to guide and sustain PLC’s until they become a natural part of the school’s professional learning culture. These lessons learned were confirmed when last year I facilitated SchoolsMovingUp webinar “Accessible Professional Learning–Connecting Our Rural Educators” which included use of PLC’s in rural schools in California.

I appreciate that communities, whether on remote islands, in small rural towns or in other educational environments, depend on many similar principles. These include building trust, having regular contact, identifying common needs and working together. Seeing people with different backgrounds, roles and interests strive for individual improvement as well for the benefit of the entire community is always gratifying. I look forward to following Amargosa’s journey in using blended professional learning communities in their rural school setting. I also would like to hear about your own experiences or suggested resources, so please leave a comment on this post and help us to build community!


Julie Duffield

September 07, 2016 - 3:14 pm

I recntly came across this publicaiton that might be of interest to others, on "Measuring performance of PLCs: New report from REL Mid-Atlantic." This tool compiles 49 instruments for measuring key performance indicators of professional learning communities for teachers. It is intended as a resource for researchers, practitioners, and education professionals who seek solid evidence asthe basis for planning, implementing, and evaluating teacher professional learning communities.

Julie Duffield

June 22, 2016 - 12:57 pm

I recently came across this "Creating Communities of Practice," site that might be of interest to those looking into resources around using a community of practice model to complement other professional learning strategies and shares attributes with both professional learning networks and professional learning communities.

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About the author

Julie Duffield

Julie Duffield is on the leadership team of the Center on School Turnaround and oversees the development of networks and online interactions. She is on the Journeys content team and designs webinars and other virtual interactions to extend conversations about the Journeys work, and is a blog contributor.

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