A Critical Friends Group at a K-5 school gathers to examine a piece of student work. By following an established protocol for reflection, teachers find safe space for individual and group reflection that has positive implications for their growth and student learning.
On a Wednesday afternoon in March, a mix of ten K-5 teachers gathers around a table for their monthly Critical Friends Group meeting. While a few members are new to the process this year, the core group has been together for five years and relishes this monthly opportunity for confidential feedback and connection. They have come to appreciate this safe, ongoing professional development opportunity as “essential/critical” to their growth as teachers and their ability to foster equitable classrooms. With established roles for each meeting, the members arrive with an obvious sense of purpose – from the trained CFG coach to the designated snack bringer! While some members admit that the roles/protocols felt a bit rigid and artificial at first, they share that it is precisely this structured dialogue that has enabled the group to focus on what is important so that they can gain valuable insights to improve practice and student learning. Aside from the trained coach, the roles shift each month to ensure that all participants have the opportunity to “present” at a meeting. Diane, a veteran third grade teacher, is the “presenter” this month and as such, was able to choose from a wide array of CFG created protocols and activities to figure out how the meeting could best meet her professional needs. While other teachers this year have so far “presented” on a particular student, a proposed unit of study and a conflict with a parent, Diane decided to bring in a piece of student work for the group to examine. She wants to better understand if a student’s differing interpretation of an assignment could mean that he is still meeting the learning goals at hand. As part of their study of the Wampanoag Tribe, Diane asked her third graders to write a story that had been passed down in their families. Prior to the meeting, Diane and the CFG coach chose the following protocol to examine the piece of student writing/drawing: “ATLAS- Learning From Student Work.”*
Although the essential question about meeting a learning goal is what drove Diane to bring Cal’s work to the group, she does not present this as part of the brief statement to introduce the work. Instead, she allows the protocol to take its course – first listening to the group share their non-judgmental observations of the student artifact, before they move on to interpretations. Despite her many years working with students in the classroom, Diane is amazed by what the nine perspectives in her group bring to her vision and understanding of Cal’s thought process. Through their eyes, she is able to see aspects of his work that she realizes had been clouded by her narrow agenda for the assignment. Encouraged by the protocol to reflect on her colleagues’ thinking as well as her own, Diane is able to recognize patterns in her own thinking about why she tends to see many students’ writing in a particular way. Realizing that a sense of order drives the majority of her writing assignments, Diane is grateful for a reflective process with her colleagues that has helped her recognize the merit in students’ finding their own entry points into memoir writing. The CFG process raises questions about student intent, teaching, and assessment that Diane will now consider for all of her students. For the Wampanoag storytelling assignment in particular, Diane decides that she will encourage all of her students to experiment with different “entry points” into writing stories. In addition to providing Diane with the confidence to shift and experiment with an assignment that had been fixed for many years, the discussion further provides the other group members opportunity to consider implications for their own classrooms. The CFG participants conclude the session by sharing what they learned about the student, their colleagues and themselves. Many share excitement and willingness to approach some of their assignments with greater encouragement and flexibility around individualized student approaches.
- ATLAS – Learning From Student Work – Learning from Student Work is a tool to guide groups of teachers discovering what students understand and how they are thinking. It is the written protocol that Diane and her CFG facilitator use for this group meeting
- Critical Friends Groups – Comprehensive information about Critical Friends Groups and Professional Learning Communities.
- Critical Friends – By providing structures for effective feedback and strong support, Critical Friends Groups help teachers improve instruction and student learning. This article describes how examining student work can enhance teaching.
- This short video shows a Critical Friends Group in action; it demonstrates some of the developed connection that is so important in creating a culture of reflective practice.