Category Archives: PLCs

Three Lessons on Intervention from Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum

One of the real treats of my work with Solution Tree as a Professional Learning Community Associate is being able to learn regularly from REALLY bright people.  Recently, I had the chance to hear Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum — two of the three minds behind the RTI at Work process — talk through some of the most important lessons that schools interested in intervention need to learn.

Here are three takewaways:

Tier 1 Intervention isn’t really an “intervention” at all.  

Instead, it’s ensuring that ALL kids have access to high quality initial instruction around essential grade level standards.  And the key here is that ‘all kids” means ALL KIDS — including those who are several grade levels behind or who are identified by special programs labels or who have limited proficiency with the English language.  If some students don’t have access to essential grade level standards or learning targets because they are in remedial classes that have different priorities, your school has an equity issue that needs to be addressed.

The essential question to ask for students who have fallen several grade levels behind ISN’T “Can kids master essential grade level standards?”

Instead, the essential question to ask is “what can we do to get kids to master essential grade level standards.” That shifts collective attention towards action.  Ensuring high levels of learning for all only starts when (1). we realize that we CAN move every kid forward and when (2). we readily call out the  flawed assumptions about students that define learning — and learners — in traditional schools.  

Notice that attention remains focused on ESSENTIAL grade level standards.

That word “essential” is powerful, y’all.  Our work becomes more targeted and more focused — and WAY more doable — when we identify a small handful of instructional priorities that we want our students to master.  If your learning team is trying to tackle EVERY grade level standard in your collaborative work with one another, you will become overwhelmed before you even begin.  Instead, work together to define the outcomes that matter the most and spend your collective energy assessing that learning and providing multiple opportunities for your students to master that content.

Any of this make sense to you?  More importantly, are these core beliefs a part of the work that YOUR PLC is tackling?  

If not, why not?


Related Radical Reads:

Structuring Tier Two Interventions in a PLC

Interventions are NOT Optional

Grouping Students for Learning in a PLC

Presentation Materials: Solution Tree #atplc Institute

Over the next few days, I’ll be working alongside the super motivated educators at Solution Tree’s PLC Institute in Louisville.  The goal for most of the participants will be to find ways to polish their collaborative practices in order to help kids learn.  Together, teams from individual schools will study everything from the core beliefs that support learning communities to the nuts and bolts of making collaboration more efficient and effective.

I’ll be delivering three different breakout sessions at the Institutes.  Here are the materials for each session.  Hope you find them useful:


How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC

For professional learning teams, collaboration can be nothing short of demanding.  Developing – and then organizing – collections of shared materials, making important decisions, and communicating with colleagues across grade levels and departments often requires additional time that classroom teachers just don’t have.

As a result, many teachers question whether or not the costs of coordination outweigh the benefits of collaboration in Professional Learning Communities.  In this session, full-time classroom teacher and Solution Tree author Bill Ferriter introduces participants to a range of free digital tools that 21st Century learning teams are using to make their collective work more efficient – and therefore, more rewarding.  Participants will also discuss ways that tools that facilitate collaboration can be used to make differentiated instruction doable.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Student Wiki Sample

Zaption Sample

Student VoiceThread Sample

Using Digital Tools Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitating collaboration between teachers.

BYOD Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitiating learning in a BYOD classroom.

Teaching the iGeneration Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitating learning with technology.

#kinderchat and @mattBgomez – Oftentimes, participants in this session want to see examples of digital tools being used in primary classrooms.  The best source for those examples is the #kinderchat hashtag and Texas Educator Matt Gomez.

For more information on using digital tools to facilitate collaboration or classroom instruction, check out Bill’s newest books — How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC and Teaching the iGeneration (2nd Edition).


Small Schools and Singletons:  Structuring Meaningful Professional Learning Teams for Every Teacher

The PLC concept resonates with most educators, but making collaborative learning work in small schools or for singleton teachers can be challenging.

In this session, participants will explore four different models for creating meaningful professional learning teams for singletons and teachers in small schools:  The creation of vertical teams studying skills that cross content areas, designing class loads that allow teachers to teach the same subjects, using electronic tools to pair teachers with peers working in the same subject area, and using student work behaviors as an area of focus for nontraditional learning teams.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Sample of a Student Survey as Common Assessment


Our Students CAN Assess Themselves

In the spring of 2012, Canadian educational change expert Dean Shareski issued a simple challenge on his blog when he wrote, “So I’m wondering if you’re ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reigns over to them?”

Dean’s challenge resonated with Solution Tree author and sixth grade teacher Bill Ferriter, who had always been dissatisfied with the grade-driven work being done in his classroom.  This session will introduce participants to the tangible steps that Bill has taken to integrate opportunities for self-assessment into his classroom as a result of Dean’s challenge.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Download Editable Copies of Materials and Activities

Download REVISED Unit Overview Sheet

Download Student Sample of Unit Overview Sheet


And don’t forget:  You can read all of my PLC related posts on the Radical by clicking on this link.  


Related Radical Reads:

The Power of PLCs

Five Resources for School Leaders Starting PLCs from Scratch

These are OUR Kids

More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Dear Principals of Professional Learning Communities,

Can I push your thinking for a minute?

I’d like to suggest that learning teams — NOT school principals — should be the primary source of instructional leadership in PLCs.  I’d also like to suggest that using titles like “the instructional leader” to describe the role of the principal in a PLC is incongruous with the core principles of professional learning communities.

Here’s why:  In the best professional learning communities, teams of teachers relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning.  They design and develop ways to measure the impact of their instructional decisions and then take action based on what they have learned.  Their primary goal is to amplify the best teaching strategies on their hallway in the interest of seeing every student succeed.

On high-functioning teams, questions are asked, new ideas are tried, evidence is gathered, and changes are made over and over again in ongoing cycles of collective inquiry.  Teachers begin to trust each other and to tap into the professional know-how of their peers whenever they are struggling with a genuine problem of practice.  They take a “these are our kids” approach to their work — constantly sharing and reflecting and revising together.

That intellectual symbiosis — the genuine sense that every teacher can benefit from the individual expertise of their collaborative partners — is the pinnacle of PLC work.  Teams who reach that level of collaborative development go beyond merely surviving the school year.  They THRIVE, energized and empowered by the realization that they can tackle anything together.  

Leadership around instruction on high-functioning learning teams happens organically every time that individual teachers step forward to help their colleagues solve a particularly knotty problem.  What’s more, high-functioning teams learn to lean on the right leaders at the right time and to use the power of relationships to influence the practices of their peers in deep and meaningful ways.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I am NOT trying to diminish the role that principals play in the success of schoolhouses.  In fact, I would go as far as to argue that nothing matters MORE to the success of the school than the actions taken by principals.

On top of the never-ending list of managerial tasks that fall on your shoulders — things like garnering support in the broader community, monitoring upgrades to the physical plant, and making sure that the busses run on time — you help to articulate a core mission and vision for your building.  You provide direction by ensuring that every action aligns with that core mission and vision.  You build capacity in teachers — both as individuals and as teams — to tackle the kind of collaborative study of practice that matters.  You serve as an intellectual sounding board when teachers and teams stagnate.  You hold people accountable for doing more and being better than they ever thought possible.

ALL of that work is powerful and important and the key to the development of high-functioning PLCs, but I REALLY DO worry about the consequences of calling it “instructional leadership.”  

Why should teachers believe in the power of collaboration around practice if leadership around instruction — the fundamental task of classroom teachers and learning teams  — is officially given to the principal?  Similarly, why would we believe in the expertise of our colleagues when formal titles suggest that leadership around instruction is the responsibility of the principal instead of practitioners?

In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that the best PLC principals don’t even want to be “THE instructional leader” of their schools.  

Instead, they want to create the conditions that enable teachers and learning teams to provide instructional leadership to one another — and by constantly sending the message that expertise around practice belongs to practitioners instead of principals, they leave their learning teams and teachers empowered to accept responsibility for finding ways to meet the needs of every learner.

Does this make any sense?

I guess what I am trying to say is that if you want teacher teams to truly believe in their power — and their professional obligation — to influence practice, remind them that THEY are the instructional experts.

Whaddya’ think?


Related Radical Reads:

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

What Do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

Three Lessons School Leaders can Learn from Sherpas


When Was the Last Time You Asked Students for Feedback?

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been working hard at developing a system for keeping kids posted on the essential outcomes for the units that I’m required to teach at school.  While I know that’s a pretty basic practice, it is also an essential one.  Most experts — think Hattie, Reeves and Marzano — will tell you that kids are more likely to meet your expectations when they know just what those expectations are.

The tool that stands at the center of my efforts is a unit overview sheet that my kids keep in their notebooks.  Here’s a sample.  I ask the students to pull their unit overview sheets out several times during the course of each unit to reflect on the progress that they are making towards mastering the skills, content and vocabulary that we are wrestling with in class.

Overall, students really dig having the chance to reflect around the progress that they are making.  Need proof?  Then check out this summary of a classroom survey on unit overview sheets that I conducted in 2013.

After a powerful conversation with my principal this week, I decided to check in with my students again to see if they had any thoughts on ways to improve our unit overview sheets.

So I started Thursday’s lesson by asking my students to answer three simple questions: 1). What do you like about our current unit overview sheets?  2). What would you change about our unit overview sheets? and 3). What do you think of the way that we use unit overview sheets in class to reflect on the progress that you are making?

(slide by Greg Pearson, @gpearsonEDU)



 The feedback that I got from my students was AMAZING.

My students reminded me that our unit overview sheets were valuable and pushed me to use them more often in class.  They offered suggestions on how moments of reflection should be structured and caught me by surprise when they argued — almost unanimously — for fewer opportunities to reflect with peers and more opportunities to reflect as individuals.

They also gave me really practical suggestions for improving the structure of our overview sheets.  Specifically, they wanted more room to record learnings over time so that they could turn their unit overview sheets into study guides, some kind of answer key so that they could check to see that their written reflections were accurate, and a simpler self-rating system that was easier to visualize over time.

I immediately revised our unit overview sheet, working to incorporate their suggestions.

Here’s what I came up with:


It’s a THOUSAND times better, isn’t it?  I love that there is more open space on the paper, which will make it less intimidating to struggling students.  I also love the new rating system, the fact that there are more places for students to record more grades from classroom assignments, and that there is now room to break learning objectives into several smaller sentences instead of one large paragraph.

But here’s what I REALLY learned this week:  The kids in my classroom are MORE than capable of giving me feedback if I am willing to listen.  

They were thoughtful and reflective and thorough in their comments to me.  They were kind and supportive, but also pointed about what they thought needed to change about the way that we were using our unit overview sheets.  What’s more, they were incredibly proud of the fact that I made changes to both the structure of our documents and to the process for using those documents based on their ideas.  In a way, I think they felt a sense of ownership and agency over our classroom.  They also had the chance to see me reflect and revise and accept feedback and criticism — life skills that we give a lot of lip service to in schools without ever modeling in action.

That stuff matters, y’all — and I guarantee you that it will happen more frequently in MY classroom.  How about yours?


Related Radical Reads:

Is YOUR Team Identifying Essential Learning Targets Together?

Writing Student Friendly Learning Targets

My Middle Schoolers LOVE Our Unit Overview Sheets

Read This: In Praise of American Educators

Let’s start with a simple truth:  As a full-time classroom teacher, I have spent the better part of the past fifteen years wrestling with failed policies, frustrated by the suggestion that practitioners are to blame for everything that is wrong with American schools, and paralyzed, waiting for meaningful change that never seems to come.

In many ways, I’ve lost all hope for education in America.

It’s just plain hard to believe that our public schools can survive in the face of coordinated efforts on the part of politicians intent on “bending public education to their awe or breaking it all to pieces” or on the part of businesses intent on discrediting public schools so that they can step in, offer “solutions,” and pocket huge sums of cold hard cash in the process.  For the former, our schools are nothing more than ideological battlegrounds.  For the latter, our schools are nothing more than continuing revenue streams.

That’s why one of the highlights of the last few months for me was receiving an advance copy of In Praise of American Educators, Rick DuFour’s newest book.


In Praise of American Educators opens with a careful study of the common myths being advanced by critics of public schooling in America.

Convinced that the United States fails when compared to international peers?  In Praise readers learn that when controlled for factors like poverty that have a direct impact on student and school success, American students and teachers actually outperform every nation on Earth by a wide margin.

Believe that charter schools and vouchers are improving outcomes for struggling students?  In Praise readers learn that fewer than two out of every ten charter schools produce student achievement results that are superior to those produced by public schools.

Certain that testing is the best way to hold teachers and schools accountable?  In Praise readers learn that national exams like the NAEP testing program and value-added models for measuring the impact that individual teachers have on students have been widely criticized as unreliable by national organizations including the National Research Council, the National Center for Education and the Economy and  the American statistical Association.

DuFour’s central argument in Part One of In Praise is that our schools are actually succeeding in spite of our nation’s commitment to #edpolicies and practices that are badly flawed.  “The federal and state policies that dominate the school reform agenda in the United States,” he writes, “are ill conceived, based on faulty assumptions, and have no record of improving student achievement anywhere in the world” (p. 102).

In Part Two of In Praise, Dufour argues that the power to improve our public schools rests in the hearts and minds of classroom teachers who are willing to work together in service of student learning.

He begins by spotlighting the steps that successful nations like Singapore and Finland have taken to make collaborative reflection between teachers the norm rather than the exception to the rule.  Then, he documents the extensive research done both within and beyond education on the positive impact that collaboration has on outcomes in knowledge-driven workplaces.  Finally, he outlines the Professional Learning Community at Work model — a structure for collaborative reflection that he has polished and refined for decades and that has a proven track record of success in schools that cross the demographic and socioeconomic spectrum.

In Praise of American Educators is a “no excuses” book at heart.

DuFour provides clear and convincing evidence that our schools aren’t the failures that vocal critics claim that they are.  But DuFour also provides clear and convincing evidence that educators are more powerful than we give ourselves credit for.  Instead of surrendering in the face of flawed policies, DuFour believes that we should step forward together to accept responsibility for ensuring the success of every child that rolls through our classroom doors regardless of circumstance.

“It is certainly true, DuFour writes, “that part of the problem in American education is that we have taken good people – teachers and principals – and put them in a bad system that was never intended to help all students learn. It is equally certain, however, that those same teachers and principals can and must play a critical role in changing that system” (p. 225).

That’s a message of hope, y’all.  And it’s a message that I badly needed to hear.


Related Radical Reads:

Breaking Public Education to Pieces

A Brave New World for Personalized Learning

The Power of PLCs