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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
Action Research: Classroom Management & School Culture:
From Theory to Practice: Making Networks Happen in Schools

by Sally Roderick
Los Angeles
AUGUST, 1997

THE THEORY
GETTING TO PRACTICE
ONE SCHOOL'S JOURNEY

THE THEORY

Networks are usually born out of a compelling need identified by teachers. For years teachers have sought out each other for growth, validation, and mutual problemsolving. These are networks. Within these networks are relationships that "develop the skills of communication, negotiation and accommodation that members need to translate their ideas into proposal for school [and classroom practice] change outside the network." These relationships grow into structures, formal and informal, organized around "activities in which they learn to work interdependently, reflect on their practice, value their own expertise, play leadership roles and respond flexibly to unanticipated problems and opportunities." A study of sixteen networks across the country found commonalties in "the ways in which they bring people together and make them work:

  • agendas that are more often challenging than prescriptive
  • learning that is more indirect than direct
  • formats for work more collaborative than individualistic
  • attempts at change more integrated than fragmented
  • approaches to leadership more facilitative than directive
  • thinking that is more multi-perspective than uni-perspective
  • valuing both context-specific knowledge and generalized knowledge
  • structurally and philosophically more movement-like than organization-like"
In addition to the network structures, activities, and relationships described above, another element to be considered is the group's knowledge base. In my experience each group has sought knowledge at different levels, according to the preexisting knowledge base of most of its members:
  • Investigating-These groups are looking for more information. It could be related to school reform, classroom practice, or any of a myriad combinations of both. They may bring in outside experts for presentation, they may seek demonstrations of the application of this knowledge, or they may read and discuss research together.
  • Planning-These groups have a presupposed body of knowledge, and they want to try out a new policy or practice. They also may be working at schoolwide and/or classroom levels. They will use their prior knowledge to make action plans and use each other to construct them. The members may be trying something together, or they may have individual plans. The group functions as a support and feedback group as they construct their plans. These groups may also seek outside experts as coaches and mentors, or may peer coach each other.
  • Reflecting-These groups have gained knowledge, made their plans, and have results from their efforts. They now need to know what these results mean in terms of policy and/or practice. They analyze their results together and then refine their action by engaging in the investigation/planning/ reflecting cycle. They may publish their results to other teachers or to policy makers.

GETTING TO PRACTICE

Trust is the first order of business in forming teacher networks. Our schedules isolate us from each other, and we have long traditions of the sovereignty of a teacher's classroom that are rooted in the ideas of privacy and non-interference. Our schools most often emphasize "self-sufficiency, individual accountability, and a prescribed way of doing things." The atmosphere of a network needs to be "welcoming and forgiving. " Teachers need to be able to share openly knowledge, experience, and practice without fear of ridicule or retribution. For this reason, networks formed by teachers for teachers will best foster the trusting relationships that build strong groups even as they become bigger and more formal.

Access seems to be a second important component. Network participants need to decide who will be included and how. McLaughlin (1996) suggests that effective learning communities are "open systems which import new ideas and which embrace professional relationships that span the boundaries of their organization unit." It's important that groups do not think of themselves as members of one particular department or one particular school, but as educators who have different perspectives from which to construct new knowledge about their programs and practice.

Follow-up is another key ingredient to forming networks. The group needs to share leadership duties in order to avoid burnout. Someone needs to publicize the meetings and make sure they are spaced in time according to the group's needs. Someone needs to facilitate the meetings so that all members feel welcome and valued. Someone needs to push the agenda so that the group continues to have a challenging experience. Someone needs to find support within the infrastructure of the school day/system to maximize the network's efforts.

ONE SCHOOL'S JOURNEY

My experience with networks at Sylmar High School began with an English department book club. After attending the California Literature Project in the summer of 1994, I came back to my school with a desire to continue the warm glow gained from being a continuing learner and from collaborating with other teachers. In talking to my department colleagues, I learned that we had once had a book club, but it had gradually died out. I asked around the department and found that several members were willing to try to form a book club again. We decided to start with multicultural novels that could be used in instruction to add to our traditional canon of literature. We would meet after school for two hours in a classroom: one hour to talk as adult learners, and one hour to talk about how to incorporate this book into our classrooms. As an added incentive, I procured staff development funds to pay participants for their time.

Word soon got out in the lunchroom that we were reading and discussing books together, and other teachers and staff began to ask if they could come to the meetings too. The group agreed to add members, knowing that perhaps our original multicultural novel focus might change. Gradually we gave up the idea of reading books for the classroom and began reading books for ourselves as adult learners. As a result, we have evolved into an every-six- weeks-or-so Friday afternoon mixed group of teachers and staff that chooses its own books and engages in lively discussions about them. The benefits we gain from this network is the maintenance of a continuous learning cycle. We find the time in our busy schedules to read new books, to share our insights together, and to bring our collective knowledge so that everyone gains.

The trusting and open climate of the book club led us to another informal network of English and math teachers who for one year explored language issues in math. This group began with the case studies method begun by Carne Burnett at WestEd in San Francisco and then moved to its own local issues but continued to use the case studies process. Due to the tragic death of one of its youngest members at the beginning of this year, the group now lies dormant. During our short time together and with very diverse views of how students should be taught and how they learn best, we gained deeper perspective about another subject area and our practice.

The trust built into these two informal networks led to the creation of a staff development day where faculty could construct their own activities based around our theme for the day, authentic assessment, or they could attend informational workshops taught by their own colleagues on using rubrics, portfolios, and project-based instruction. Over half of the staff created work for the day in teams of two or more, submitted the plans for approval to a governance committee, and then carried out their plans. All over the campus that day teachers enthusiastically worked on projects that had context for their own classrooms, and a culture of inquiry was begun.

Toward the end of that year, the school embarked on an accreditation process, Focus On Learning, developed by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Throughout a year of grueling meeting schedules, interdisciplinary groups of faculty, with staff, parents, and students used specific criteria, rubrics, and student evidence to examine the school's program and practice. As a result the stakeholders identified Expected Schoolwide Learning Results for students and five areas of schoolwide program needs with a five-year action plan to address them. A feeling of community and a celebration of excellence ensued. We had created new structures for teachers, and we had again fostered a culture of inquiry.

After the accreditation process, the school's stakeholders settled into making the action plan happen. This was the most difficult year because the staff was used to an accreditation process that previously had required little or no attention in the intervening years, everyone was tired, and we had only four pupil-free days with which to make sense of and to begin our enormous task. The Action Groups had no commitment to the process as yet because it was being imposed from without. However, we had some commitment from the collegial development of the Action Plan. So they worked together and began to be collaborative groups. The Action Groups did coalesce, and they began to make progress. Volunteer members met outside of the four days to do extra work to make the Action Plan move forward. The incentives of staff development money and salary points helped involve more people. Volunteer teachers took on the task of facilitating the Action Groups, with on-site training by the staff development coordinator. The facilitators became a network of their own, meeting together to plan for each meeting and to collectively troubleshoot individual group's problems. Teachers took on new roles in leading colleagues and new tasks in schoolwide analysis. However, the action plan work didn't fully connect to students' daily instruction and to the faculty and staff's daily work. We needed to connect schoolwide context to classroom/school/ community context to maximize impact on students.

But hope prevails. After looking at where we are, we have chosen more autonomy for ourselves by becoming a LEARN school, we have gained more time for investigating/planning/reflecting, and we have built in more collaboration focused around students. Next year we will alternate schoolwide action work with classroom/school/ community work. We will begin with forming questions and strategies for inquiry about students in our respective roles, will try out our ideas in two-month segments, and then will meet to discuss what our results tell us about students' needs. Again we will meet in teams or as individuals to refine our questions and strategies, and we will again investigate for two months. We are connecting context and content with our process, the three fundamentals standards for effective staff development identified by the National Staff Development Collaborative. This dynamic structure will allow for new relationships to build, for context-based activities to enrich our teachers, staff, and all stakeholders. The networks that will form from this collaboration will enhance new "habits of mind" for both teachers and students and will inform other teachers with teacher-produced research.

On alternate days we will connect the schoolwide work of the Action Groups to this data analysis so that we don't implement programs and policies that do not reflect student needs. The larger context will give us a larger perspective from which to operate. The collaborative inquiry in this structure will hopefully foster a "caring community" that has a "shared sense of responsibility, self-direction, experimentation, respect for individual differences, and high expectations.

 

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