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Teachers Attend First Professional Learning Community Day Of 2011-12 School Year



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Teachers Attend First Professional Learning Community Day Of 2011-12 School Year

By Eliza Hallabeck

After school was released early on Friday, October 7, teachers in Newtown’s schools were gathered together for professional learning community meetings for the first official time during the 2011-12 school year.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Linda Gejda and Newtown Middle School Assistant Principal Kathy Boettner walked the halls at NMS during the afternoon to look in on how the teachers were progressing through the work.

For the first time last school year, special early release days were set aside in the school calendar to allow teachers time for professional learning communities. Last year those meetings focused on writing across the district and grade levels, and this year the school district again picked up the topic of writing to further the efforts made last school year, according to both Ms Boettner and Dr Gejda.

The next scheduled early release for the professional learning communities is Friday, December 2.

“Classroom teachers, including special education teachers, from grades prekindergarten to eighth grade, will continue their focus on student writing through the district writing prompts, rubrics, and related skill areas. Special area teachers will revisit the lessons/activities that they proposed to be embedded in their curricula,” a paper outlining the schedule for this year’s professional learning communities reads as provided by Dr Gejda. “Each department-based PLC will submit a plan to Linda Gejda outlining the year’s district [professional learning communities] work for their group.”

Different grade level teachers at the elementary school level met at different schools across the district to work together for the afternoon.

Since last year’s implementation of the professional learning communities, Ms Boettner said, a significant increase in writing could be marked at NMS through student achievement on the Connecticut Mastery Test.

At NMS last year, Ms Boettner said, teachers expanded the writing curricula into every aspect of student learning, including physical education courses and math.

“We’re expanding it this year as well,” said Ms Boettner. “We are continuing our progress through continuous improvement.”

As a new aspect this year, Ms Boettner said language arts teachers at NMS created a list of students they feel can help teachers in other departments build writing into different rubrics.

As students are asked to use reflective writing across the departments, Dr Gejda said, teachers are also reflecting on the implementation of writing within the departments to continually improve.

Both Dr Gejda and Ms Boettner said the District Planning Committee for the professional learning community meetings is hoping to establish a celebration of writing at the end of the school year to highlight student work. Full details for that event are still being worked out, and Dr Gejda said the District Planning Committee is still looking for examples on how to compile student work.

Ms Boettner explained that each professional learning community follows an agenda and writes up a summary of the work completed within the group. Those summaries are then submitted to Ms Boettner, who reviews them and submits them on to Dr Gejda for further review by the District Planning Committee.

According to a handout provided by Dr Gejda, the district focus question for this year is, “How can I adjust my practice to improve student success?”

In one classroom a group of teachers evaluated student work. In another classroom other NMS teachers worked at finding examples of student work to share.

Ms Boettner noted that professional development focusing on writing is also happening outside of the scheduled professional learning community days.

“Our teachers are doing just a fabulous job with it,” she said, reflecting on the progress made so far within the professional learning communities, “and in turn our students benefit tremendously. That is the bottom line. To be able to have this built-in time, so that teachers can collaborate in [professional learning communities], directly benefits our students.”

Dr Gejda said she believes having teachers focus on improving writing across the district will have that achievement spill over into other areas of study.

Before teachers at the middle school broke into their professional writing communities, Ms Boettner also spoke to the assembled teachers in the school’s auditorium. She said she quoted from Focus, a book by Mike Schmoker, saying, “Writing is the most powerful form of thinking, clarifying, and problem solving in any subject.”

Ms Boettner said the quote was shared to lay the foundation for the year of professional learning community work.

Elementary Schools

The elementary school teachers met at the various schools based on grade level. First grade teachers, for example, met at Sandy Hook School, and third grade teachers from around the district met at Hawley Elementary School for the professional learning community day.

Middle Gate Principal Chris Geissler said there were three groups working in professional learning communities at his school on that Friday. Second grade teachers worked with facilitator for the day with Mary Blair, Middle Gate language arts coordinator; prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers met with facilitator and Middle Gate instructor Margaret Kennedy; and elementary school specials instructors — including art, music, physical education, and library/media specialists — met with Mr Geissler.

“I think the day went pretty well,” said Mr Geissler, who explained that teachers focused on reflecting and revising writing into the curriculum in the community meetings. He also said teachers seemed receptive to having writing expanded within the different study areas.

Before heading over to Middle Gate to attend the professional learning community meetings at the school, Dr Gejda reflected on why the school district chose to continue its focus on writing this year. She said the district as a whole needed to finish calibrating rubrics and finish the conversation.

“We’re going to continue to try to bring consistency and have everybody working together, because it is a form of communication that plays out in all areas of life,” said Dr Gejda.

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