Joyful Learning Together

The hustle and bustle at this time of year can be stressful yet it doesn’t have to be. Recently, I have experienced the heartbreaking news of three unexpected deaths: a former colleague, a well-known educator, and a family member. This news always tugs at the heartstrings because as we continue to grow wiser in our years, we know that one day, too, it will be our turn. I’ve decided that means the hustle and bustle cannot get in the way of the relationships we have, the people we love, and the way we spend our time. We have to find a balance between work and play. We have to make time for those we love. All of a sudden, the stress that typically comes at this time of year has been depleted. What gets done, gets done. What doesn’t, doesn’t. What matters most is treasuring the time we have with others.

This treasured time is with family, with friends, and with colleagues. It is the time we spend in various community of practices – getting to know those well that are within each community we are connected to. I am fortunate to have several CoPs that lift my spirits and bring me joy. Today I want to focus in on a particular community of practice that has brought me joy – actually two communities that have come together as one.

Our K-5 Administrator-Coach CoP grew out of each group expressing interest to learn more, grow more, and communicate more. It only takes an idea of one, in one community of practice, to spark interest in something new and when the idea comes up in multiple communities it means it is time to take action. In January of 2017 our elementary administrators and elementary instructional coaches decided to begin meeting together about once a month after school as an admin-coach CoP. We had the following goals:

  • Establish our community of practice
  • Deepen our current understandings of the reader’s workshop to support and strengthen educators’ methodologies and spirits
  • Reflect and discuss within our individual leadership teams building strengths and areas of opportunity

Ultimately, we wanted to explore and grow in our understandings together so that we could best support those we serve – our teachers and our young learners. Each time we meet, we remind ourselves of these goals – we connect our work to the essentials of reading, we reflect, and we do some new learning together. The process evolves. Last year our focus was on the tenets and structure of reader’s workshop. This semester we have focused on conferring moving into discussions about text band complexity and learning progressions (to happen in January). Next, we will focus our learning on word study – an opportunity for growth for our district. It started with one coach and I meeting to plan, facilitate, and lead our time together. Now every coach has identified an area of focus to assist with facilitation. Next, admins who are interested to help plan will join in. The idea is that we all bring expertise to our CoP for us to learn together. Part of growing a community of practice is that it starts out small and matures over time – as we listen to one another and change based on the needs of the group. I can’t really say what it will look like next year because it might be different, yet I know our group will continue to meet. We will continue to grow. We will continue to seek input, knowledge and action from one another.

After asking for some insights from the members of our community of practice some of the strengths of our work (which is also what we continue to build upon) are the following:

  • Developing a common language and deeper understandings about effective pedagogy. This is vastly important as we consider our vision for our learners and the path we will take.
  • Being vulnerable as an administrator and a coach. Brene Brown discusses the importance of vulnerability in Daring Greatly (2015). She writes, “Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.” When our administrators and coaches decided to be vulnerable by teaching in front of one another and in classrooms, they have shown that they are all in. Doing what we are learning helps others do the same.
  • Collaborating amongst colleagues across the district has allowed for everyone to stretch their thinking, affirm or revise thoughts, and build relationships across buildings. This has promoted systems alignment that helps us all head toward our district mission and vision.

The time we spend together in this community of practice has given me life. It’s given me hope. I see colleagues working together, thinking, together and learning together. I see colleagues who have a passion for learning and want to support one another, teachers, and other staff in this journey. Our community of practice is first and foremost about building relationships that will spread ideas like wildfire. It is through this time together that I hope we continue to outgrow our best leading, our best teaching, our best learning, our best facilitating, and more. I leave this blog post today with quotes from a few of our administrators on how our CoP together has been beneficial. I encourage everyone to think about the partnerships between the administrator and coach and how those partnerships can dance together to continuously enrich the lives of those we serve – our learners (both students and educators).

A few quotes:

“Having the opportunity to share learning with knowledgeable instructional coaches is one of the most important professional development opportunities I have benefited from during the past year. Our Admin-Coach community of practice allows me to study best practices, discuss best practices, and even practice best practices. I have really enjoyed it! And look forward to future learning opportunities.” (Principal)

“Everyone has unique experiences and different lenses that they bring to the table. It makes for interesting and lively conversations as we evolve in our learning and practice.” (Assistant Principal)

“We want to focus on the aspect of the work that leads to positive change and the maximization of teachers’ strengths and potential. We concentrate only on those behaviors directly related to the goal of building teachers’ capacity for success… The relationship between the coach and principal is imperative. Both the coach and principal have to be open and honest about vision, goals, as well as their own strengths and weaknesses. Without this, the goal of growth can become stagnant” (Principal)

“The whole process has been helpful to me as an administrator” (Assistant Principal)

A final thought… 2017 was an amazing year, but 2018 will be better. Happy New Year to all – hope you accomplished much this year, set goals for next year, and that CLC can be a community of practice for you to lean on through 2018.

Best wishes for 2018,

Jen 🙂

matryoShka | a nested Community

My son Alden is fascinated with a set of matryoshka dolls displayed on my school bookshelf. This tiny set of seven wooden dolls are nested inside each other, one-by-one. Alden knows the importance of each individual doll. The matryoshka set is out of proportion if one doll is missing. The dolls are only harmonized when all matryoshka pieces are nested together.


This tiny set of dolls on my bookshelf reflects a community of practice. As Lauren shared in her last post“a community of practice is a group of people who share a common passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, Communities of Practice: 2015). A community of practice builds into each other and strengthens spirits. A community of practice works collaboratively to support the heartbeat of the school building; the students. 

Last year, the staff of Stony Creek committed to learning together. The community participated in lab site experiences to notice and name, apply, and reflect upon our craft. We traveled into a classroom with a common focus and supported each other through application of specific instructional strategies. We reflected together and created goals to support the transference of our new understandings. Most importantly, we cultivated reading instruction across the building.

“The lab sites are helping me tremendously. I am going to take what I learned this week into my classroom and try it out.”

-Stony Creek Colleague

Our community of practice also nested together to create an instructional book of beliefs. Similar to belief statements within a company or organization, the beliefs in our book unify our community. These beliefs reflect our pedagogical understandings and values. These beliefs are our guarantees. These beliefs remind us daily that the heartbeat of Stony Creek is our students.

We value pedagogy.

We will create memorable learning experiences with our kids in mind.

-Samples from Stony Creek’s Instructional Book of Beliefs

Stony Creek has commenced its second year of kneading our community of practice. Through reflection and dialogue, our commitment to grow and even protect our community of practice is stronger. This year all colleagues will have an opportunity to participate in several differentiated lab site experiences. Colleagues will travel through a progression of facilitation and application. The community will collect evidence of student learning during our lab site experiences and create goals to cultivate student achievement across the building as well as reaffirm our instructional book of beliefs.

A community of practice, much like a set of matryoshka dolls, interacts and works together. Each interaction and learning experience builds the community.

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

-Helen Keller-

Holly Gillam, Instructional Coach, Noblesville Schools

It Only Takes One Seed: Growing a Community of Practice

dandelion-2266558_1920Image Via Pixabay

Dandelions.  A homeowner’s nightmare, yet something full of possibility in the eyes of a child. Let me explain.   These yellow and vibrant plants can be found together in groups that eventually evolve into the form of puffy, white balls.  Throughout times in my childhood, my friends and I would scour the neighborhood, local park, or even schoolyard for these plants.  Seeing that ball of puff just beckoning to be blown would stop us in our tracks.  What we didn’t necessarily realize at the time is that each time we blew a dandelion puff, we were creating moments of spreading influence multiple directions. Each seed held the possibility of growing its own group of yellow dandelions and embarking on a cycle of growth.

At Noble Crossing, we are our own group of dandelions.  Each school year, through our collaborative work and actions, we grow new seeds full of purpose and possibility.  We have provided opportunities for continual growth through learning strands, inquiry teams, and most recently, personalized professional learning.  These opportunities have represented seeds of investment and passion from our teachers and staff as we have sought to continuously outgrow our best teaching.  Our dandelions depict the seeds needed to grow a community of practice.
“A community of practice is a group of people who share a common passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, Communities of Practice: 2015). 

Even if we have not necessarily been referencing our work at Noble Crossing as a community of practice, it has already been growing through our actions and collaborative work each school year.  Now that we have planted our seeds, this year our community of practice language has been brought to the forefront, and we are ready to spread our influence.  However, we continue to be mindful of the fact that this is OUR community of practice. Together, we have the opportunity to grow our community of practice at Noble Crossing.  What does it look like, sound like, and feel like? I invite you to continue to follow our Noble Crossing story as year one unfolds as an official community of practice.  We will share our community of practice action steps taken through our entry points, the rallying of others, and the advocation of its success ultimately for the benefit of our students and teachers as we continue to foster a learner-centered culture.

For now, this Noble Crossing community of practice story comes to a pause, yet much like a dandelion spreads its seeds, our CLC posts will continue to share the stories of how communities of practice have already spread their influence.  From spreading the fire with building leaders to the growing and kneading of a second-year community of practice, the synergizing of all of our communities of practice will truly lead to transformational practice.  

Until next time, 
Instructional Coach, Noble Crossing Elementary 

Putting it in Perspective: We Got This!

Sometimes I feel like the first grader who years ago looked at me and said, “You’re making my brain hurt! It’s going to explode all over the floor!” I looked at him and said, “Well, we’ll clean it up and put it back in!” I also vividly remember the high school student who said, “Why are you asking me so many questions? My other teachers just ask me to do the work. I don’t get it.” I looked at this sophomore and said, “My job is to teach you to think, not just give you things to do.”

Sometimes, as adults, our heads feel like they might explode and we wonder why others are asking us so many questions. I’m just thinking… I need to focus… I need to concentrate… I need to be able to do X, Y, and Z… But on top of X, Y, and Z, I am planning thoughtfully, swimming in 100+ emails, and trying to ensure that everything I do is precise and complete. With all of these aspects swirling around in my head: I slowly start feeling overwhelmed and experience high anxiety.

With this overwhelming feeling comes much joy with our profession. The joy outweighs how I feel, and I begin to think about the ways we (myself included) might fight off the anxiety and live in the moment – loving every minute of what we do. Here are five ways to help us slow down in this fast-paced world so we can focus on what’s important, opposed to just getting things done.

ONE: Remember: Someone else’s urgency is not always your urgency.
This one is simple. We must prioritize what we choose to take on and what we choose to put on the wait list. You are only ONE person and therefore you can only respond to so many needs at once and those responses need to fit within the vision you and your organization are striving to obtain. To help fend off a sense of urgency we can:
∗ Not respond immediately to texts, emails, phone calls unless it is truly an emergency. Set aside a time of day for those responses and set a timer. Once the timer goes off (depending on how much time you are devoting to it) then move on to your next project.
∗ Ask a question for the person to think about and problem solve on their own
∗ Recommend a few others to connect with that might help
∗ Schedule a time to think about the issue (as long as you are ensuring a balance in your schedule so you can get your work done too)
You being productive in your position and doing what you need to do is what yields gains. If you are constantly taken away from your focus, then the impact you can make lessens.

TWO: Love the grey!
When we accept that life is grey, it becomes much easier to manage. What do I mean by that? Well, learning is messy. Growth is messy. Nothing about building knowledge base and understandings is easy. It’s not black and white. The minute we own that our work will be “messy” and we embrace this messiness we have chosen to love the grey. Our best learning does not happen in comfortable situations. It occurs when we feel most uncomfortable. We have to experience cognitive dissonance and challenge. Ellin Keene often says we must savor the struggle. Well, the struggle is the grey. If we love the grey, the storm we are experiencing will be met with sunshine after!

THREE: Conquer each day with a growth mindset
Carol Dweck’s book about Growth Mindset has been read by many educators, but how do we use this idea of “growth mindset” to approach each and every day? When feeling overwhelmed, I can think I am never going to finish but with a growth mindset, I might say, well I am not going to be able to get to that YET. The power of YET as Dweck states truly encourages us that it will happen one day, just not now and that’s okay. Additionally, when given a task where my knowledge level is not as high as I feel it needs to be, I say I don’t know it yet but can learn. I then study others, read, and begin to develop my understandings in collaboration with others. Having a growth mindset means we can tackle projects in a way that will be successful because we believe that we can learn or lean on others to make it happen.

FOUR: Be present in the moment
This one is hard for me. Researchers and educators such as Jim Knight, Ann Hoffman, and more discuss the importance of being present in the moment. When we are with others, truly show them we are listening. It’s hard for me because I feel like I constantly need to check my email, my phone, and so forth to stay on top of everything. But if I remember that someone’s sense of urgency is not my urgency then my phone gets turned over and my laptop or email closed so I can be fully present and show the person or people I’m working with that I am here with you, 100%. Those emails, texts, and other tasks are not going away. Though this is hard for me, it is the one area I’ve really been working on. I want to show others I care. That I am here for them and willing to listen. I do this best in professional development sessions I lead. I do it least when in meetings and I’m trying to “multi-task” (which truly is not possible like we think it is). So, instead of trying to multi-task, it is more productive to put it away and just be present. Everything else will be waiting after.

FIVE: Every needs grace!
We strive for perfection yet perfection is the enemy. Instead, we should strive for growth. Growth in ourselves, growth in others, and growth in ideas. This means that as humans we will all mess up. We will make mistakes. When this happens to a colleague, always assume positive intent. Try to understand where that person is coming from – their perspective. Be okay with the idea that it wasn’t perfect or it is not done yet (notice, the use of yet)! We all need to give grace as much as we want others to do the same for us. Giving grace means that you put yourself in the person’s shoes and understand the why behind it. Do not dwell on what did not happen – instead, compliment what did happen and come up with a plan of how to move forward. The majority of us approach our work with extreme dedication, passion, and love. Therefore, when we “fall” or make a mistake, we are often hard on ourselves. We need our colleagues to help lift us up and give grace so we can continue to move forward.

These are just 5 ways that I handle this fast-paced world. What do you do? Respond below.

Until then collaborate, lead, and coach,