In It for the Long Haul: Four Strategies for Beginning a Virtual PLC
By Kenny McKee
For the final week of Connected Educator Month, ASCD is providing discussions and resources for professional learning communities. This week’s featured resources put teachers in charge of their professional learning paths, whether they team up with peers in their own school or through virtual networks. Find all of ASCD’s Connected Educator Month resources on ASCD EDge or visit ASCD.org for Professional Learning Community resources collected for the week.
I’ve never met Mike Flinchbaugh in person, but we are working toward similar goals. Through regular e-mails and monthly Google Hangouts, we give feedback to one another to propel our professional practices. Both of us are somewhat isolated in our roles as instructional coaches in our schools, and, while we gain some expertise from brief interactions with other coaches in our districts or by tapping into the knowledge of our PLNs, we were interested in something more sustained and focused. Thus, we began our own virtual professional learning community (PLC).
Educators across the world are turning to virtual PLCs for many reasons. For example, 6th grade language arts teacher Laura Jacobs works regularly with her school-based PLC, but her passion for finding and teaching high-interest texts to struggling readers lead her to a virtual PLC focused on that goal. Some educators who are “singletons”—that is, the only educators in their role in the school building—turn to virtual PLCs to plan lessons, develop assessments, and discuss student learning within their content areas. Others are looking for a variety of approaches and fresh ideas from educators outside of their own schools. And, although some are involved in school-based PLCs, they may seek out virtual PLCs because they find them more positive and energizing. A virtual PLC is a group of like-minded individuals who commit to work together to achieve similar goals on a sustained basis. So, how do educators initiate this kind of collaboration?
1. Leverage Connections from Professional Learning Activities
Many of the educators I interviewed discussed how they “spontaneously” became part of a virtual PLC from ongoing connections with colleagues in graduate courses and professional development. Wendy Segars and Andrew Wells, both isolated AP world history teachers, met at a district workshop and then used e-mail and Google Docs to plan lessons and provide strategies for improving student learning. I met Mike, who participates in my instructional coaching virtual PLC, through a former graduate school professor with whom I still collaborate. Many of us have connected with educators in similar roles and with similar goals, whether in person or online, who we can approach to form a virtual PLC.
2. Join Established Online Communities
There are several options available for joining established learning communities. For example, current classroom teacher leaders work together in the Collaboratory at the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). Nancy Gardner, a high school English teacher and teacherpreneur for CTQ, enjoys the positive, student-focused culture of the Collaboratory groups. Teachers who lead these virtual PLCs establish norms, and their work is results-oriented. For example, Nancy participated in the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC), where she and teacher leaders created and shared lessons, videos, and student work to serve as resources for integrating college and career literacy skills into content instruction. Another option is ASCD’s Virtual Learning Network (VLN), which allows participants to collaborate with colleagues in the content areas of English language arts, science, social studies, and math. Virtual PLCs are facilitated through the ASCD EDge® social media site, where educators work together to create CCSS-aligned lessons and examine student work.
3. Use a “Matchmaking” Tool
EdConnectr, a professional “matchmaking” tool hosted by Connected Educators, enables you to find colleagues who could become members of a virtual PLC. Once you set up a profile at EdConnectr, you are asked to provide information about your role, expertise, interests, the areas in which you can help others, and any areas in which you would like to find help. Next, EdConnectr compares your information with other members and provides you with top matches. Then, you can either message your matches or join a pre-existing group to get the conversation going.
4. Approach Members of Your PLN
If you are connected to like-minded educators through your PLN, you can approach some of them. For instance, I am a regular participant in the #educoach chat, where instructional coaches meet weekly to discuss ideas. I have been able to shift those connections into two short-term virtual PLC groups. In one case, I met with two educators to discuss blogging, with the ultimate goal of each of us beginning an educator blog to share our work. We connected via Google Hangout and have since helped one another through e-mail and Twitter. In another scenario, I asked a few instructional coaches in my PLN if they would be interested in joining a virtual PLC focused on the goal of using gradual release of responsibility coaching. Many told me that they did not share my goals, but eventually I found another coach who did. We now connect monthly to share strategies and results and give one another feedback.
Whether you are a superintendent feeling isolated in your work or a teacher searching for others who share your passions, a virtual PLC can offer sustained collaborative partnerships that enhance student learning.
Kenneth McKee is a high school literacy coach for Buncombe County Schools in Asheville, N.C. His interests include teacher leadership, disciplinary literacies, and partnership approaches to instructional coaching. He is a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. Connect with him on his blog (kennycmckee.com) or on Twitter (@kennycmckee).