By Sara DeMartino

IFL ELA Fellow

As part of the Networks for School Improvement (NSI) work, I’ve been working directly with 8th grade coaches and their grade-level professional learning community (PLC) teams in the Dallas Independent School District (ISD) to understand and use two protocols that first work to honor the knowledge and day-to-day lived experiences that teachers bring with them to their PLCs, and then ask teachers to critically reflect on classroom experiences and student work to increase professional knowledge and enhance student learning (Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008). The protocols I’ve asked coaches to use with PLCs were created to mirror the protocols already in use in the district. The goal of creating protocols for the PLCs was to create a seamless integration of the NSI Planning Forward and Looking Back protocols into the already-existing PLC structures for 8th grade teams. The NSI teams also wanted the protocols to be instructive—we want school teams to learn and internalize the work of planning student-facing task sheets for cognitively demanding tasks and texts so that teachers become adept at creating and adapting task sheets for different tasks and different students based on what they learn from studying the student work.

These protocols are also meant to facilitate the integration of small tests of change into PLC work as part of our partnership with Dallas ISD on improvement science. The 8th grade English language arts/reading coaches from our seven partner middle schools have been tasked with facilitating two PLCs per week as part of our NSI partnership—one PLC that asks the 8th grade team to plan forward and create a student-facing task sheet around a high-level comprehension task (the first test of change that teachers are working on; to read more about professional development on high-level tasks, please check out “Empowering teachers to analyze the demand of instructional tasks” in the February 2019 issue of Bridges to Learning), and one that asks PLCs to look back and analyze student work to understand what students learned and could do in response to the task to inform the planning of instructional next steps.

Part of helping coaches learn from the protocols was the creation of a facilitator’s guide for each PLC. Coaching coaches at distance provides its own challenges, so I created the facilitator’s guides to provide insight into how each step of the Planning Forward and Looking Back PLC protocols might unfold during the PLC—I wanted to provide rationales to the coaches leading the PLC so that they could answer questions and support their teachers.

The educative features in each of the facilitator’s guides explain why each step in the protocol is necessary to build teacher capacity to design high-level tasks and sequence student-centered routines that provide students pathways to sharing their thinking about challenging (and gristy) texts, so that students are asked to do the heavy cognitive lifting in class.

These facilitator’s guides have also become my own test of change; in much the same way teachers in the NSI middle schools are trying out and adapting the student-facing tasks sheets based on teachers’ classroom observations and student work, I am trying out and adapting the facilitator’s guides and Planning Forward and Looking Back protocols based on the needs of the coaches and the PLCs.

During monthly meetings with the coaches, we debrief the use of the PLC documents, discuss successes and challenges, and share next steps. This process allows coaches to network across schools and learn from each other; it also provides me with information on how to revise and refine the work coaches are being asked to lead.


Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 80-91. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2007.01.004