Using protocols to support online Principals’ Professional Learning Communities (PPLCs)

by Kaethe Perez

One powerful way a Principal Professional Learning Community (PPLC) can function is as a sounding board in which each principal in the group can explore his or her own inquiry question. In this setting, the PPLC supports each principal through individual inquiry projects. … The principals in this PPLC reported how much they learned not only from their own inquiries, but from the inquiries of their colleagues.

Dana, N. F., Thomas, C., & Boynton, S. (2011). Inquiry: A districtwide approach to staff and student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press  (This book is available for purchase via the NSRF website here.)

Since moving to Texas last year, I had to stop facilitating face-to-face PPLCs in Florida, but my former employer asked me to develop a workable model to continue the process online. Cohorts of administrators and teacher leaders across the state continue to meet virtually to engage in the inquiry process. Each administrator develops a “wondering” about their practice and spends time researching, developing a plan of action, collecting data, and reflecting upon their work.

The group meets five times over the school year with catchy session titles and very specific learning targets, such as What’s Keeping You Up? Identifying School Challenges. and  You Are Among Friends: Putting the Data Puzzle Together.

One important complication in converting a PPLC to virtual status is determining how to use protocols effectively onscreen and have everyone follow the group agreements, most importantly equity of voice and the guarantee of confidentiality. We found that a digital platform which allows breakout room capabilities was very helpful to those ends. Chunks of each virtual meeting were conducted with everyone “in the main room” while the protocols were generally led in triads in breakout rooms. Without the breakout rooms it might as well have been a one hour webinar with a chat box. By following our agreements and protocols, three-hour online sessions were both effective and very comfortable – the time really flew!

The importance of setting Agreements

Before groups engage in conversation it helps to have agreements protecting everyone – those who may talk too much as well as those who think long before sharing their valuable insights. (See Agree Now or Pay Later.)  Two things assisted our virtual group: first, we used a confidentiality agreement offered by one of my Step Up For Students colleagues, Paula Nelson: What is said stays, what is learned leaves – the details of anyone’s story are left behind while the tools and strategies that worked to solve the issue are available to keep in your own toolbox!

Graphic organizers keep everyone on the same page

I developed graphic organizers for the protocols we would be using in each meeting so that participants in breakout sessions would all have access. The documents were emailed along with agendas, and members were asked to print them out before the online session. I also made a graphic reminder slide to help the triads in the breakout room maintain their flow and watch their time. As the facilitator, I was able to move in and out of all the rooms, respond to specific room messages, and alert the rooms when the timer was about to ring and they only had a couple minutes left to wrap up.  

Our standard meeting structure

Our agendas followed a common pattern:

  • Opening Moves: reminder of our group’s mission and vision, review of agreements and our learning targets for the session.
  • Who’s In The Room: an icebreaker or warmup that could later be used by the administrators. This was usually done in breakout rooms and debriefed in the large group room.
  • Why Am I Here: group learning about the Inquiry process or an article around the meeting theme.
  • Work Sessions: I would first follow the fishbowl technique to model the work they would do within their triad in the breakout rooms. Then attendees would return to the same breakout room with the same people as in the warmup segment, to continue the demonstrated protocol in triads, giving feedback and offering perspectives to one another.
  • Closing Moves: articulating next steps before our next meeting, and a Plus & Delta (what went well, and what could be improved).

Protocols that worked well for the group:

  • Jigsaw (each room reviewed one portion of the Inquiry Cycle)
  • Speed Consultancy Triads
  • Three Levels of Text
  • Tuning
  • Data Analysis
  • Success Analysis

Tips for facilitators

For a collaborative online PPLC to function well I have a few tips:

  1. Recruit a colleague to monitor the chat box and support you during breakout sessions.
  2. Create consistency in the flow of the meetings. One of the best compliments I received in debriefing the course was the value of having a consistent agenda.
  3. Instruct participants to print the agenda and support documents ahead of the session. Often the participants are using a single screen, which shows their video session, and do not have a second screen to view their agenda or text documents. (As facilitator, I used my laptop for Adobe Connect and my iPad for a timer and to view documents, but I also used printouts of my facilitator agenda and the participant agenda!)
  4. While the participants might want to review the entire NSRF protocol document, when they get into the breakout rooms it is helpful to have a simple, clear graphic reminder of their 15-minute rounds. Because the triads need to be self managed, the graphic organizers are immensely helpful, particularly for the first round within the triads.

I learned so much, never having facilitated an online class before. I want to thank Nina Gregory, Implementation Specialist at Step Up for her support and tutorials on Adobe Connect as I started this journey.  The participating administrators expressed gratitude for the opportunity to listen to their peers, for getting feedback on their plans, and for the comfort level established in the breakout rooms.

My involvement with NSRF as a learner, coach, and national facilitator gave me the confidence and tools to move from an in-person coaching model to an online model that allows for collaboration and collegiality.  I hope this post has been helpful, and I welcome questions.

This post was written by Kaethe Perez, NSRF National Facilitator. Kaethe Perez, M.A. Ed., currently works part time for NWEA, training schools in implementation and interpretation of MAP Growth online assessment. She has recently relocated to Austin Texas after completing her second retirement: as Director of Communications in the Office of Student Learning at the non-profit Step Up For Students, she supported Florida private school administrators as they accept low income and special needs students using the SUFS tax credit scholarship program.  Kaethe’s first retirement came after a 40-year career in public schools in Pennsylvania, Florida, and the UF Lastinger Center for Learning. These experiences provide Kaethe a vast implementation toolbox as a National NSRF Facilitator when supporting groups in their professional learning.

Kaethe has written two previous articles for NSRF Connections:  Combining Tuning Protocol with Feedback Carousel in a non-profit setting   Use These “5 Rs” to Keep your Group Agreements Fresh and Meaningful