Professional Learning Communities and Meaningful Student Involvement

“It is not enough to simply listen to student voice. Educators have an ethical imperative to do something with students, and that is why meaningful student involvement is vital to school improvement.” ― Adam Fletcher, Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners

Meaningful Student Involvement positions students as partners with educators to improve education. An excellent avenue to foster meaningfulness is through professional learning communities.

A professional learning community, or PLC, is a team that works together to become better at their jobs. By engaging with students as partners, teachers can improve teaching and learning in schools through co-learning, co-examination and genuine partnerships. Building and district-level PLCs can focus on teaching practices, curriculum, assessment, school climate and many other issues, and through Meaningful Student Involvement can take schools to powerful, positive new places.

Giselle Martin-Kniep of Communities for Learning wrote that learning communities must infuse learners as well as teachers, administrators, parents and other adults, because “students have firsthand experiences that affect their learning and their thinking.” (Martin-Kniep, 2008)

If they are organized by grade level, content area or an entire teaching staff, PLCs can infuse students from the same grade level, multiple grade levels and different learning abilities. Including diverse students is essential to the success of Meaningful Student Involvement in PLCs.


Goals of Meaningful Student Involvement in PLCs

Student Voice in Classrooms: Student-led learning; Student evaluations of lessons, teachers, curriculum, tech, etc; Classroom climate; Restorative justice; Teaching hiring; Curriculum planning; Tech integration; Service/Project-based learning and more!
Student Voice in Classrooms: Student-led learning; Student evaluations of lessons, teachers, curriculum, tech, etc; Classroom climate; Restorative justice; Teaching hiring; Curriculum planning; Tech integration; Service/Project-based learning and more!

By engaging students as partners throughout education teachers can foster learning communities between adults and students, throughout their classrooms and throughout entire schools and districts. Learning communities engage participants in:

  • Caring deeply about learning;
  • Feeling free to take risks;
  • Challenging each other and raising the expectations of everyone;
  • Respecting and valuing perspectives other than their own by seeking and valuing every member’s input;
  • Intentionally seeking to do the work better, and;
  • Aggressively and continually building capacity of each member to work smarter. (Martin-Kniep 2004)

By using these attributes as the basis of learning communities with students and adults, schools can foster Meaningful Student Involvement as well.


Outcomes of Meaningful Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement Learning Process by SoundOut.org.

When they are facilitated effectively, there can be a lot of positive, powerful outcomes to Meaningful Student Involvement in PLCs. Just like every kind of Meaningful Student Involvement, these outcomes aren’t just for students; they are for teachers, administrators, parents and systems, too.

Here are several outcomes:

1. PLCs can engage students and educators as partners who directly improve teaching, learning and leadership in K-12 schools.

PLCs can allow students and educators to form genuine partnerships built on trust, respect, communication and meaningful involvement. Focused on equity, these intentional relationships should foster justice through transparency and humility between students and adults, too.

Trust is the key that opens doors between students and educators working together. It allows for productive, safe space where students can learn about education; contribute as equitable team members with adults; and establish fair and just relationships with adults. Respect is mutual within PLCs, allowing each person understanding, compassion and empathy. Communication is about transparency, and happens by dissolving jargon, promoting transparency and uplifting substance over splash. Meaningful involvement cannot be dictated by adults; instead, it has to be co-created and co-nurtured by students and educators working for each others’ benefits.f

In these ways, PLCs can engage students and educators as partners who directly improve teaching, learning and leadership in K-12 schools.

2. PLCs can foster meaningful involvement for both students and adult partners.

PLCs build shared commitment and consistent focus, allowing students and educators to experience purpose in ways rarely available in the daily school experience. They can build important bonds and create teams of student and educator leaders within K-12 schools, throughout districts or even beyond that can change national and global focus.

Meaningful involvement begins by clearly identifying the shared intentions of the PLC, as well as the specific purpose of each person involved. Clearly defining roles team members allows students and adults to understand their investments, their realities and the outcomes they hope for. Naming the strengths and challenges of each PLC member is essential to this process, and reinforces the first outcome. From that place, the PLC can foster trust-building and transform the relationships that students have with educators. This often involves moving from hierarchal authoritarian interactions into community building. The opinions, perspectives, actions, ideas and wisdom of both students and adults are acknowledged, and every member of the PLC becomes a leader of the group.

3. PLCs can help students gain the knowledge they need to be full partners with adults who can transform education.

Simply listening to student voice is not enough to transform education. Fostering Meaningful Student Involvement through collaborative learning, teaching and leadership is essential for educators who are determined to improve K-12 schools. A PLC can allow educators and students to share and learn from each other daily, and change the environment of a school, district or beyond.

In order to support Meaningful Student Involvement in PLCs, students must learn about learning; learn about the education system; learn about education transformation; learn about student voice; learn about Meaningful Student Involvement; then use all that learning to learn about learning again, and so forth. Its essential that this learning all happens in different ways, especially through student/adult partners taking action to improve schools. This requires ongoing professional development to inform students and teachers as partners; give student/adult partners new tools to use in classrooms, buildings and beyond; and provide them with new perspectives on what other schools, districts, states and nations are doing to foster Meaningful Student Involvement.

4. PLCs can help students and educators reflect and grow meaningful involvement.

Learning from others in a PLC can allow students and educators to reflect and grow ways to transform learning, teaching and leadership throughout the entire education system, from individual classrooms to school hallways; from the principal’s office to the cafeteria; from the district school board room to the state legislature and beyond.

Younger minds and older minds, different races, gender identities, first languages, sexual orientations, soci0-economic classes and much more add value and purpose throughout education. PLCs focusing on fostering Meaningful Student Involvement will create solutions, develop tools and build momentum that leads to school improvement, democratic action and community building.

Ultimately, there can be no higher goal in education.


A SoundOut Example

From 2006-2008, SoundOut supported Meaningful Student Involvement in professional learning communities in more than 25 high schools across New York. Partnering with the New York State Student Support Center, we facilitated training and technical assistance to school-wide teams comprised of students, classroom teachers, teacher leaders and principals.

These teams addressed the most pressing issues in their buildings, including academic achievement, school climate, parent involvement and more. By establishing student-adult partnerships through their PLCS, these teams conducted powerful school-wide forums, examined meaningful data, implemented comprehensive improvement plans and developed ongoing check-ins to ensure their projects stayed intact.

For the next three years afterwards, SoundOut conducted school assessments, provided PLC consultations and supported ongoing Meaningful Student Involvement through this project. Some of the outcomes of this project are described in general above; some more specific outcomes included rises in student achievement, changes in school climate and more.

Meaningful Student Involvement provides learners with concrete opportunities to influence, drive and sustain educational transformation with teachers and leaders as partners. Professional learning communities can give student voice substantial ways to see Meaningful Student Involvement in action.

This is just some of the power and potential of the approach. Do you have thoughts to share about it? Please share in the comments below!

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