by Jessica Rivera-Mueller, Jamie Ammirati, Stephanie Ferguson, Morgan Graham, Joshua Killpack, Kenzie Randall, and Mackenzie Wilson
When I (Jessica) became a high school English teacher, I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to advocate for the questions I wanted to pursue with members of my professional learning community (PLC). I believed in collaboration and respected my colleagues, yet I found it difficult to slow down our decision-making or propose shifts in our goals. So, I often wondered, “Why is this so difficult? What is missing?”
Over time, I began to understand that I craved an opportunity to question how the situations we discussed had been framed. Further, I wanted to voice my concerns about the framing of student learning in a way that would be heard, constructive, and transformative. Afterall, these conversations shaped the kinds of materials, resources, and assessments we designed, as well as our overall goals for student learning.
When I became a teacher educator, I wanted to help preservice teachers develop these skills and understand PLCs as a context for advocacy. Though administrative expectations and PLC structures vary, the common activities of designing and analyzing student work provide a context for teachers to critically examine their definitions of learning, the conditions that lead to learning, and the consequences of pedagogical aims. Rather than simply addressing questions about teaching and learning, teachers can slow down their decision-making, taking time to “understand” the assumptions, values, and consequences embedded in their PLC conversations (Rivera-Mueller). In doing so, teachers critically examine and (perhaps) revise the frames that operate in their conversations. As Everyday Advocacy explains, paying attention to our frames helps us engage in better communication.
To support these goals in my methods courses, I have designed the “PLC Facilitation.” In this project, a small group of teacher education students (3-5) facilitate a 40-minute inquiry-based discussion with their colleagues in the class. The semi-structured discussions around a shared question help preservice teachers understand professional dialogue as a way to critically examine the frames that influence teachers’ actions.
Below, I share the project and describe how it positions future teachers to conceptualize PLC conversations as a critical site for (re)shaping local understandings of teaching and learning—ultimately reframing the learning community as a site for advocacy. Six former students from my English education methods course—Jamie, Stephanie, Morgan, Joshua, Kenzie, and Mackenzie—join me to explain how the project’s design choices cultivate a commitment to advocacy in PLCs.
Step 1: Create a Question
In the first step of the PLC Facilitation, preservice teachers form small groups to collaboratively study a question they’ve self-identified as important for their development as teachers. In the past, we have explored questions such as:
How do teachers create classroom environments that value diversity?
How can teachers motivate students to do their best work?
How can we teach critical literacy?
How can we teach “classic” literature in meaningful ways?
What is the connection between teaching YA Lit and social activism?
The PLC Facilitation establishes question-asking as an important part of advocacy. As teachers pose questions, they actively frame pedagogical issues. Creating questions from teaching “issues” or “problems” helps preservice teachers understand how most pedagogical issues are more complicated than a single answer can provide. Forming questions that promote further discussion and discovery invites learners to explore alternative perspectives or solutions.
Step 2: Select and Study Scholarship
In the next step of the project, each small group studies scholarship that highlights different ways to consider their shared question. The group prepares a handout that presents key findings from their study of the scholarship and questions to guide discussion during the facilitation. During this phase of the project, preservice teachers are positioned as members of a community centered on learning. Each brings knowledge and experience to the community, and the emphasis on learning from other voices—ones from the group and ones in scholarship—creates a contribution-centered approach to collaborative inquiry. Each member’s voice is needed to fully explore the question. The emphasis on contribution invites honest conversation, allowing for productive disagreement, argument, and debate.
Step 3: Facilitate an Inquiry-Based Discussion
In the final step of the project, small group members facilitate an inquiry-based discussion with the whole class. Drawing from Dewey’s definition of inquiry as a process that involves clarifying a problem and proposing possible solutions, facilitators help the class grapple with the complexity of the question from a variety of perspectives. Facilitators share insights from their study of the scholarship, listen to the comments and questions of their peers, and raise questions to help the class interrogate the frames that shape their understandings of the question. In real time, we consider how we’ve created these frames and how they open and/or foreclose our work. For example, in one of our most stirring facilitations, one about how to handle instances when students disclose personal information in their writing, we examined how our prior experiences shape how we understand our responsibility to report information about and on behalf of students. As the teacher educator, I made teachers’ legal responsibilities clear, and we grappled with the complex emotional labor that surrounds these moments. Each facilitation raises thought-provoking questions without giving simple answers, enabling learners to explore their own frames in an organic way.
PLC Conversations as Advocacy
The key steps in the project—creating a question, selecting and studying scholarship, and facilitating an inquiry-based discussion—orient preservice teachers toward collaborative inquiry in ways that help them imagine PLCs as a powerful tool for advocacy. Practicing inquiry-based discussions with peers in English Education courses can help preservice teachers value and develop their professional voices, an important process for becoming an everyday advocate. As Cathy Fleischer explains, everyday advocates need to “truly understand the what, how, and why of their teaching” and “know how to take that knowledge and articulate it to others” (20). As preservice teachers both facilitate and participate in these discussions, they build foundational advocacy skills that can be applied in a future PLC context. Through the project, Jamie, Stephanie, Morgan, Joshua, Kenzie, and Mackenzie—former students and practicing teachers—gained motivation to become teacher-leaders in their future PLCs by doing their part to create and openly participate in conversations that facilitate critical inquiry and advocacy.
Dewey, John. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Henry Holt and Co.,1949.
Fleischer, Cathy. “Everyday Advocacy: The New Professionalism for Teachers.” Voices from the Middle 24.1 (2016): 19-23.
Rivera-Mueller, Jessica. “Asking and Understanding Questions: An Inquiry-Based Framework for Writing Teacher Development.” Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education 3.2 (2014): 33-48.