Almost 260 teachers, administrators, and students gathered to share their work and strengthen their Critical Friends Group (CFG) coaching skills at the 13th Annual National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) Winter Meeting, held January 15-17 at the InterContinental Hotel in Houston. Co-hosted by NSRF and three Texas-based centers of activity –Houston A+ Challenge, The Urban Forum for Leadership and Learning/HISD, and NSRF San Antonio at Trinity University –, the Winter Meeting drew educators from as far away as Egypt, Israel, and China as well as dozens from across the nation and 107 participants from the Houston area.
A defining feature of this year's Winter Meeting was the involvement of high school students who had completed a CFG New Coach Training Institute last summer. The presence of these 14 student-coaches from Eisenhower High School (Aldine ISD) and Challenge Early College High School (Houston ISD) enriched learning at the conference and encouraged all participants to keep the focus on the theme of student engagement.
In addition to leading the opening and closing whole-group sessions, these student-coaches participated in home groups with other adult coaches. Unlike at most professional educator gatherings where students are just the objects of the conversations, at this Winter Meeting these students were full participants who facilitated protocols, offered feedback, and brought their own work to the table in the spirit of collaborative, reflective learning.
Like any CFG, the home groups that included students had to pay attention to issues concerning confidentiality and equal participation. Overall, the feedback about including student participants in the Winter Meeting home groups was very positive. Here are a few excerpts from the Winter Meeting Reflections written by both students and adults:
- "It was great having the students in our home group, and they got me to thinking about the possibility of working with older students and how COOL it would be."
- "The feature that was engaging to me today was the inclusion of the students as well as the diversity of the group. There is great value to me to hear different perspectives of a group of people who come together for the good of the students."
- "It was significant for me that the adults and students became one same team."
- "I learned that it was OK to facilitate among adults. They listened and respected what I had to say and let me lead my way. Facilitation is easy in a cooperative group."
Ground Rules, or Norms, are important for a group that intends to work together on difficult issues or who will be working together over time. See the "Forming Ground Rules" protocol on the NSRF website for a refresher on how to develop them. Remember that the Ground Rules must be revisited occasionally to make sure that they are still helping the group follow its processes.
Dear Donna: My Professional Learning Community (PLC) has a stated norm of "Silence all electronics" for our after school meetings, but I’ve seen members send text messages under the table and one member even keeps a Bluetooth headset in her ear. I think that this is really disrespectful, but I hate confronting adults. What would you do? –M.P.
Dear M.P.: It’s time to lead a frank discussion with your PLC about your norms. There are many entry points for a conversation like this. I’m wondering if the norms are posted in your meeting room for everybody to see and whether you are reviewing the norms at the beginning of each meeting. Sometimes a simple review is enough to help people realize that they are straying from the shared agreements.
Also, you could ask that members write about how well the group is following the norms in their written reflections and share out some of the comments at the next meeting. That can lead to a conversation where, together, you clarify what each ground rule means.
You should probably just ask the group, "What did we mean when we added the phrase 'Silence all electronics' to our norms?" It may be that people think they are following that norm if they are quietly texting and nothing is ringing, singing, or buzzing! After your group clarifies the meaning, you should change the wording to something that better describes what meeting behaviors are important to you. I especially like the Community Agreements that encourage members to "Show up (or choose to be present)" and "Pay attention (to heart and meaning)."
Finally, practice really listening to each other when you have the discussion. Ask each other clarifying and probing questions. You may surface some important needs of the group that have been submerged. For example, maybe people really do need to check in with friends, family, or babysitters when they stay late at work. Starting the meeting 5-10 minutes later so people can get those conversations out of the way will help them concentrate on the important work of your PLC.