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April 19, 2021

Learning Labs: Take One

This is part of Kristin Gray’s Getting Better Together series, Establishing a Culture of Collaborative Learning. Kristin and all the Teaching Channel Laureates are going public with their practice and seeking support in getting better from colleagues and the Tch community.

This year, our Positive Behavior Support (PBS) committee restructured the way we look at our school-wide behavior system. We moved from having leveled, colored, clip charts to a beautiful new model centered around Growth Mindset. This new model can be seen in every classroom, every hallway, and most importantly, heard in our conversations with students.

When I first saw this model, I knew it fit perfectly with my work on Establishing a Culture of Learning, and it fully supported the introduction of Learning Labs as our new PLC structure. growth diagram
Now, after creating our norms and completing our very first Learning Lab cycle — a process in which teachers and I plan, teach, and reflect upon a lesson together — I don’t think there could be a more perfect framework to reflect on this experience. Throughout every stage of the cycle, my colleagues and I found ourselves in various places around this circle. While the image paints a pretty picture of what learning together looks like, the reality is a messy mix of mistakes, lessons learned, and the opportunity to see ways we can make the learning experience so much better.

The Process

As preparation for our first Learning Lab, Erin, the reading specialist, and I asked each grade level team to choose a content area focus. That focus would be what we then tackled during our 45 minute group time the following week as we collaboratively planned an activity. We asked them to choose something within their current lesson trajectory and to bring any materials they felt would be helpful in our planning. Knowing the area of focus also allowed Erin and I to investigate how our curriculum addresses these areas, read corresponding Common Core State Standards, and brainstorm possible activities to present to the team.

The following week, each team came Ready to Learn. We discussed the area of focus, bounced around ideas, and used this template I had designed to help guide us in being thoughtful about the activity we were choosing to use:

activity sheet

After our planning, we asked one teacher to volunteer to Be Ready To Lead the activity in her classroom the following day. We arranged 15 minutes of coverage for the other teachers in order for everyone to be in the room and participate in the activity we had collectively planned.

The next day, we all gathered in the lead teacher’s room and either I or the lead teacher explained to the students that we were there to learn with one another and from all of their great thinking. As we sat amongst the students, we were Ready to Care about the thinking, learning, and teaching we were about to experience. We were also Ready to Accept Help: each grade level had planned how we would use our Teacher Time Outs — a time for teachers to pause the lesson in the moment and ask questions of each other.

At some grade levels, we had planned specific questions for our Time Outs, while in others we decided to call Time Outs when something struck us in the moment. No matter the approach, it was made as a team, and based on each teacher’s comfort level.

After the activity, everyone visited their grade level Google Doc and reflected on what they noticed and wondered about regarding the activity we had just experienced. Since we weren’t able to meet again as a team for another week, we wanted a place to record our thoughts while they were fresh in our minds. The expectation after the reflection was for each teacher to Be Ready To Try Again, and implement the activity with their own class, using modifications they felt would make it better. It was truly a complete cycle of Growth for everyone!

Lessons Learned

I couldn’t possibly include everything I learned from this experience in one blog post. Trying to arrange my thoughts in any kind of order that makes sense has proven to be difficult as well. There are so many intricate details into the Hows, Whats, and Whys of collaborating, planning, and teaching in this way that it’s overwhelming trying to capture it all. In an attempt to take all of these thoughts and make them helpful in moving forward, I categorized the reflections I found most useful.

The Preparation:

  • Asking teachers beforehand to choose a topic didn’t feel like the best way to create a frame for our planning conversations, because the topic was entirely too broad. It took us too long to narrow our area of focus, and even when we did, there may not have been a question or wonder surrounding it. After reflecting with Elham, a professor and associate dean of professional learning at the University of Washington and the person who introduced me to Math Labs, I’ve changed that piece for the upcoming round. Next time, I’ll ask teachers what they’re hearing and/or seeing from their students, in terms of either an area of need and/or an interesting idea to explore in a different way.
  • As for my preparation, I needed to be much more prepared in terms of grounding our work in research. Whether it’s relevant excerpts from books like Children’s Mathematics: Cognitively Guided Instruction, or Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All, a section of an article from Teaching Children Mathematics, or a few pages of the Learning Progressions, I need to move our work beyond our curriculum to research that supports it. I find due to time, we rely on the way we’ve always done things or follow our interpretation of the curriculum, as opposed to thinking about how students truly learn mathematics, which is so often the focus of professional books and publications. This is an exciting way for me to focus my own reading of professional books now.

The Planning:

  • Probably the most important lesson of all was that 45 minutes is not enough time, especially within the reality of a teacher’s schedule. After the pickup and drop off of students and restroom breaks, we were left with about 35 minutes. Next round, we will use two weeks, 45 minutes per week, to plan. The first 45 minutes will be used to discuss what we’re seeing and hearing from students, looking at research, and choosing an activity. The second 45 minutes will be used to plan the activity based on what we’ve learned.
  • Planning was not as productive as it could have been. Next round, I’ll ask everyone to come to our meeting with the planning sheet sketched out with ideas so we can jump right into the conversation.

The Classroom:

  • I was blown away by how comfortable this experience was for both teachers and students. We were worried that the students would be weirded out with all of us in the room, but they weren’t. They were amazing. Also, teachers who expressed a bit of nervousness beforehand didn’t show any signs of that within the work. Everyone was so respectful of each other’s comfort level, space, and classroom – it was unbelievably wonderful.
  • One thing I need to work on is establishing boundaries for the Time Out work. The team needs to be clear going in whether the lead teacher wants to be first to call the timeout to preserve a sense of leading the activity, or if the lead teacher is comfortable having others do the first pause in instruction. I also want to know if the lead teacher is more comfortable with a silent signal for the timeout, or if they would prefer the team to speak freely. I plan on adding questions during my planning sessions to address this directly.

The Reflection:

  • The teachers and I agreed this needs to happen right after the activity, face to face. Waiting a week to revisit it was too long when so much had happened in the classroom between then and the reflection time. This is the trickiest piece of all due to scheduling. While I’d love to be at every reflection session and classroom lab piece, I’m struggling to figure it out. Luckily, I have Teaching Channel Teams groups set up for every grade level that I can’t wait to try out next round. Teachers will be able to upload activities and reflections that we all can interact with online at more flexible times.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to debrief about the Learning Lab process as a whole staff during a recent professional development day. I was elated at the feedback from the staff. They talked about positives such as: “I learned a lot from being in each other’s classroom.” “The planning session gave me different ideas to try out and think about.” “It felt so natural,” and “It was nice being the principal in a room in a non-evaluative setting.”

It was wonderful to hear the suggested improvements focus on areas such as, “It would be better to have more time in the classroom, 15 minutes was not enough,” and “The reflection needs to be right afterwards.” All of the same things I was thinking! I feel this year for me is one big old Learning Lab, where I’m Ready to LearnLeadCareAccept Help, and Try Again in order to Grow.


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