Data in schools is based around which instructional methods are working and how instruction needs to be changed and improved. We use data every day as teachers to guide and execute our instruction. Administrators use data every day to make decisions about their schools. Data can also feel overwhelming and chaotic. Data, however, can also be a beautiful thing. Those numbers and those groups can be used to foster and cultivate entire school communities.
In my experience as an elementary grade level team leader, data can be used to foster school communities in these ways. We can use it to promote entire grade level achievement and project-based learning. We also can use it to promote cross-grade level community, mentorship, and excitement.
Traditionally it seems like after sectioning, the communities have been set. Communities however are more than just single classrooms even in elementary schools. They are entire grade levels and they transcend grade levels. There are students that are working on, below or above their current grade level. By using the Virtual Whiteboard as a PLC, teachers will be able to group their students not only based on classroom needs but on community needs. Through flexible planning and differentiation, students can be paired up with mentors and groups that will foster a learning experience that transcends their classroom.
We made a data wall as a PLC for our elementary school project. The 5th graders did a wax museum biography project. Our data wall was created based on academic standards and demographics that the county has in their system. We were unable to create our own filters in the data wall. When working as a PLC, we would talk about a group of students and what we thought they needed. The issue is that our discussions were not based on real-time data and were simply observational. The project consists of the 5th graders researching, planning, writing, “becoming” and speaking as the person they are conveying. The project culminates in a presentation for the entire school including parents.
Long term project-based instruction like this requires focused planning. We had to use our spreadsheet-like data to determine which groups would need more time with the ESOL teacher, SPED teacher, the teacher focusing on speeches (me), the teacher focusing on backgrounds for their speeches or the teacher focusing on their essays. To say there were a lot of moving parts that created a successful project is an understatement. We had the students placed into four main groups and rotated them throughout the week in those groups between the teachers. With this method, the students did not have personal autonomy in their learning. They followed the motion from rotation to rotation and worked as a unit. While this allowed the students to complete their projects it did not allow for the students to take control of their own learning. I noticed this through multiple rotations of students saying that they were finished with that element and needed to work on a different element. With our rigid rotation system, however, the students were not in charge of their own learning as much as they could have been.
As I experiment with ClassComposer, I reflect on this project and think about the application of the virtual whiteboard in a setting like this. The virtual whiteboard has the potential to be our running grouping template for this project. We can create our own filters for speech completion, background, and essay completion. There can be filters for ESOL support, SPED support, and parent involvement with all of our students at our planning sessions. The data becomes tangible and we can easily manipulate it by moving students by hand (drag and drop functionality) as well as filtering based on different characteristics.
As a PLC, we missed the opportunity to create our own data points and move students flexibly as opposed to the rotational strategy that we used. The rotations worked but they could have been more efficient and more purposeful to students’ needs. Had we used the virtual whiteboard, our filtering would have us, as a PLC, doing targeted work with the students on what they actually needed as opposed to staying in a rotation that they really did not need. The teachers would have been able to spend more time with students that truly needed their support. The students would have used their time more effectively and purposefully. Finally, the project would have been more individualized for the student as opposed to a one size fits all.
It may read like I am saying that data is used for grouping purposes, and on its surface, it is. As educators, however, we need to take the time to flexibly analyze what it is that we need to accomplish. As a PLC, we need to change our thinking to no longer look at numbers in a spreadsheet but instead, be able to see individuals in a community that has their own specific needs.
My name is Adam Howard and I am an educator in Montgomery County Public Schools Maryland. I am currently working in a middle school as the 6th Grade Team Leader, Alternative Program Teacher and the Restorative Justice Leader. I have been a teacher and team leader for 3rd, 4th and 5th grade at a Title 1 Dual Language Elementary School as well. In my current position I aspire to mentor and help students navigate the transitional time of their life that is middle school. For more on my educational journey follow me on Twitter @teachkindling.